My profiles of forgotten cavalrymen usually focus on men whose outstanding contributions to their cause made a difference in the outcome of the war. Every once in a while, though, it’s fun to pay tribute to a scoundrel. Today, we pay tribute to a true rascal.
Col. Sir Percy Wyndham was born on the ship Arab in the English Channel on February 5, 1833, while his parents were en route to Calcutta, India. Capt. Charles Wyndham, his father, served in the British Fifth Light Cavalry. With that pedigree, the boy was destined to be a horse soldier. However, fifteen-year old Percy Wyndham entered the French navy instead, serving as a midshipman during the French Revolution of 1848. He then joined the Austrian army as a sub lieutenant and left eight years later as a first lieutenant in the Austrian Lancers. He resigned his commission on May 1, 1860 to join the Italian army of liberation being formed by the famed guerrilla leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, and received a battlefield promotion to major in the great battle of Milazzo, Sicily on July 20, 1860, where Garibaldi’s army defeated the Neapolitans, consolidating the guerrilla’s hold on the island. A grateful King Victor Emmanuel knighted the dashing cavalryman. With the conquest of Italy complete, the soldier of fortune went hunting for another opportunity, and found one in the United States in 1861.
Sir Percy offered his services to the Union with the coming of war in the spring of 1861. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who quickly rose to command all of the Union armies, was familiar with Wyndham’s reputation as a fighter, and recommended him to be the colonel of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. Although the governor of New Jersey issued the commission in February 1862, the men of the 1st New Jersey did not welcome the Englishman with open arms. A local newspaper wondered, “Have we no material in New Jersey out of which to manufacture competent colonels without resorting to foreigners to fill up the list?” However, when he instituted discipline, improved their food, got regular pay for his men, and moved their camp out of a swamp, the troopers changed their minds about their new commander.
Sir Percy made quite an impression. A Federal horseman recalled, “This officer was an Englishman, an alleged lord. But lord or son of a lord, his capacity as a cavalry officer was not great. He had been entrusted with one or two independent commands and was regarded as a dashing officer…He seemed bent on killing as many horses as possible, not to mention the men. The fact was the newspapers were in the habit of reporting that Colonel or General so-and-so had made a forced march of so many hours, and it is probable that ‘Sir Percy’ was in search of some more of that kind of cheap renown.”
One Confederate trooper noticed that Sir Percy, who wore a spectacular mustache nearly two feet wide, was “a stalwart man…who strode along with the nonchalant air of one who had wooed Dame Fortune too long to be cast down by her frowns.” A Federal officer called Wyndham “a big bag of wind.” Another Northerner, remembering his first encounter with Wyndham, compared him to a bouquet of flowers, noting, “You poor little lillies, you! You haven’t the first the glorious magnificence of his beauty. He’s only been in Camp for two hours, and he now appears in his third suit of clothes!”
During Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, Wyndham impetuously led his regiment in a charge into Turner Ashby’s cavalry, and Wyndham was captured on June 6, 1862. He was paroled on August 17. When he returned to duty, he was assigned to command a brigade in Brig. Gen. George D. Bayard’s cavalry division.
Wyndham’s brigade included his own 1st New Jersey Cavalry, the 12th Illinois Cavalry, the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and the 1st Maryland Cavalry. In early 1863, while his brigade was headquartered at Fairfax Court House, Wyndham was given the task of running down the guerrillas of John S. Mosby. Sir Percy did not approve of Mosby’s unorthodox tactics, and called him a horse-thief. Sir Percy threatened to burn down towns if their inhabitants did not tell what they knew about the whereabouts of Mosby and his men, a policy that did not endear the Englishman to any of the locals.
Offended by being called a horse thief, Mosby decided a personal response was in order. When a deserter from the 5th New York Cavalry disclosed the location of Wyndham’s headquarters, Mosby raided the place on the night of March 9, 1863. Sir Percy had left for Washington the day before, and missed the humiliation of being captured in his bed, as two of his aides and Brig. Gen. Edwin M. Stoughton were. Mosby had to content himself with capturing some of Sir Percy’s uniforms.
Sir Percy’s brigade performed well during the Stoneman Raid of 1863, reaching the outer defenses of Richmond before turning away. His finest moment was at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. He personally led his brigade’s charge up Fleetwood Hill, engaging in hand-to-hand combat until they were driven back by the weight of enemy numbers. Although his troopers were badly outnumbered, he personally rallied a rear guard and forced the pursuing Confederates back with two hell for leather saber charges. Sir Percy received a severe gunshot wound to the leg, but stayed in the saddle until loss of blood finally forced him to retire. “It affords me no small degree of pleasure to be able to say that all of my command that followed me on the field behaved nobly,” he proudly wrote of his brigade’s performance, “standing unmoved under the enemy’s artillery fire and, when ordered to charge, dashing forward with a spirit and determination that swept all before them!”
Sent to Washington to recuperate, he assumed command of the cavalry units assigned to the capital’s defenses. During Stuart’s advance on Washington on his way into Pennsylvania, Sir Percy scraped together a force of 3,000 fully equipped horsemen, but they did not end up facing the enemy.
When he returned from a leave of absence in October 1863, he was charged with “absence without leave”, his leave having expired on September 5. He was relieved from all duty “and ordered to proceed to Washington, but not in arrest.” On October 3, 1863, Sec. of War Edwin M. Stanton issued an unusual order: “Information received at this Department indicates that Colonel Percy Wyndham should not be permitted to have a command or come within the lines of [the Army of the Potomac].” Historian Roger Hunt speculates that this order stemmed from rumors that Wyndham was involved in a plot to kidnap Lincoln and his cabinet. Sir Percy repeatedly applied for reinstatement, but was rebuffed.
Undaunted, he returned to the army in April 1864 in a volunteer capacity, “rendering all the service in my power for the advancement and success of the Union cause.” When Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, learned that Wyndham was with the army again without authority, on June 26, 1864, he ordered that Wyndham “be sent by the Provost Marshal General to Washington, in charge of an officer, and reported to the Adjutant General.” On July 2, Stanton ordered, “Colonel Wyndham will be mustered out of service,” effective July 5, 1864.
Now a civilian, Sir Percy settled in New York, where he established a military school. In 1866 he returned to Italy to serve on Garibaldi’s staff. When the Italian war ended, he and a friend who was a chemist went to New York to start a petroleum refining business. Unfortunately, an explosion destroyed the main refinery and ruined the business. Ever restless, he soon left New York for India. He settled in Calcutta and established a comic newspaper, The Indian Charivari, modeled on London’s Punch. He founded an Italian opera company and married a wealthy widow. A failed business logging teak in Mandalay, Burma, ate up all of the wealth earned from his Indian businesses.
Returning to his mercenary roots, he briefly served as the commander in chief of the Burmese army, but was left penniless by the failure of his many businesses. He was fascinated by huge balloons, and undertook the construction of one. In January 1879, the huge balloon (70 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter) exploded with him aboard at an altitude of 300 feet. The flamboyant English soldier of fortune was dead at the young age of 46. His body was not found.
Here’s to Col. Sir Percy Wyndham, English soldier of fortune, scoundrel, and wearer of some of the most spectacular facial hair ever seen on this continent.Scridb filter