16 January 2008 by Published in: Union Cavalry 20 comments

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.

WyndhamCol. 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.

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Comments

  1. Wed 16th Jan 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Years ago, when I attended my first Mont Alto Civil War Conference, I met an Englishman who was doing research on Percy. He was a former Greenjacket with the wonderful last name of Blood (I like to think he was a captain ;_)). I wonder if he ever did anything with that?

  2. Mike Peters
    Wed 16th Jan 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Eric wrote:

    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.

    Eric,

    This surprised me when I read it in Roger Hunt’s Colonels in Blue. It was the first I’d heard of it.

    Great post about this colorful cavalry leader. And man what facial hair!

    Mike

  3. Wed 16th Jan 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Mike,

    Sir Percy is a fun guy.

    And you’re right, the facial hair is absolutely spectacular. :-)

    Eric

  4. Thu 17th Jan 2008 at 11:37 am

    LOL, one of the great wascally wabbits of the cavalry!

    Wonder how much time he’d spend waxing that mustachio.

    Great post, Eric.

    J.D.

  5. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 17th Jan 2008 at 8:07 pm

    The Union Cavalry seemed to have a good many ‘furriners’ in it. But then, come to think of it, there were a good many ‘furriners’ in the whole army!

    I know of a couple in the Confederate cavalry in northern Virginia – J.E.B. Stuart’s friend, the giant Hieros Von Bork, one Baron Von Massow and an English gentleman named Hoskins who refused to use anything but the saber (he believed that it was ‘unsporting’ to use pistols) and died for his eccentricities. Von Massow didn’t fare much better. In a small but hot contest, after accepting the surrender of a Union cavalry officer on the battlefield, Von Massow rode past the fellow without disarming him and was shot in the back for his trouble. Another Confederate, seeing the dastardly deed, shot the shooter.

  6. Steve Basic
    Sat 19th Jan 2008 at 3:30 am

    “Have we no material in New Jersey out of which to manufacture competent colonels without resorting to foreigners to fill up the list?”

    Interesting quote, and shows how weird NJ and the CW was. I should be more informed on this subject, but whenever NJ cavalry is discussed the first name that pops up is Kilpatrick…yeah the one who orderd Farnsworth to attack the Confederates on day 3 in South Dakota as one would like us to believe. :)

    As for NJans and horses…in my lifetime at least, the main question I usually here is “Who are you gonna bet on in the firfth race?” :)

    Great post os Sir Percy Eric, and to all,,there really is a Gettysburg, SD. :)

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve

  7. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 19th Jan 2008 at 9:03 am

    “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.”

    I did not notice this information when I first read the piece. Could you give some background on ‘Historian Hunt’s’ basis for believing that a Union cavalry officer would be involved in any such plot? It seems impossible to think that if Stanton actually BELIEVED such a thing that he would limit himself to keeping Wyndham unemployed. Rather, if in fact this was the case, I should have thought that Wyndham would have been placed under arrest and kept confined. God knows, at the time enough people were simply arrested and kept confined without being charged with ANY crime so I fail to see why Wyndham didn’t join the list.

    If there had been ANY suspicions regarding Wyndham’s loyalty – never mind his being involved in such a plot – why was he not simply arrested? He had no family connections in the US which might have made such an action embarrassing for the government and he had not performed in such a way as to make his ‘heroic status’ problematic in the case of an arrest.

    I am VERY curious as to how Mr. Hunt arrived at his conclusion. I’m sure that there is a book or article out there that covers the matter and I would appreciate that information when you find the time.

  8. Sat 19th Jan 2008 at 5:38 pm

    Val,

    I don’t know how Roger drew his conclusions. His book doesn’t say.

    Sorry.

    Eric

  9. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 19th Jan 2008 at 8:02 pm

    A man in a book on history makes a statement of that nature for which he presents no justification, verification or source material and he’s called an HISTORIAN?!

    I guess the standards are not what they once were in this field as well.

  10. Jeff Mancini
    Sat 19th Jan 2008 at 10:58 pm

    Val: Press the topic. Supposedly Lincoln was the target in addition to the Wilkes Booth group, of at least five other assasination/murder conspiracies. Now if Hunt can construct and tie Wyndham to one of them I think he should present the facts lest someone call him for speculating or surmising or guessing that Wyndham was involved. I posted previously my distaste for George Meade. I could give you countless reasons why…suffice to say that his conservative style of leadership was just a slice of why I detest this guy. If indeed he was doing Stanton’s dirty work and had Wyndham run off for his alleged involvment, then I would hope that Hunt could give some type of corabborative explanation to that theory. Otherwise Hunt may be just trying to spin history to his own advantage perhaps for nothing more than monetary reasons.

  11. Valerie Protopapas
    Mon 21st Jan 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I have written to Stackpole Books (the publisher of Mr. Hunt’s work) and they are sending my question on to him. There’s nothing more I can do unless he is kind enough to reply.

    However, I did make known to the publisher’s representative that I could not imagine a serious author making such a comment without at least some credible source as a reference. Even if it is Mr. Hunt’s subjective opinion – and that may well be the case – only the terminally paranoid arrive at conclusions absent ANY foundation! Ergo, I hope to ‘pressure’ (however gently) Mr. Hunt into responding. If he does, perhaps we can get a bit more information to go on than a devastating opinion that was simply ‘tossed off’.

  12. Mon 21st Jan 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Val,

    Please let me know if you hear from Roger. I have something totally unrelated to ask him, so any contact information you can pass along will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks.

    Eric

  13. Valerie Protopapaas
    Tue 22nd Jan 2008 at 5:32 am

    Mr. Hunt’s gracious and speedy reply:

    Dear Ms. Protopapas,
    From my book:

    He was relieved from “regimental command, or other military duty, and ordered to proceed to Washington, but not in arrest,” Oct. 2, 1863, in response to the following mysterious order from Secretary of War Stanton to Maj. Gen. Meade, “Information received at this Department indicates that Colonel Percy Wyndham should not be permitted to have a command or come within the lines of your army at present.” The information referred to may have been allegations that Wyndham was connected with a plot to kidnap Lincoln and his Cabinet.

    The speculation as to the reason for Stanton’s order is based on correspondence with the late Lincoln- assassination scholar James O. Hall, citing an article in the July 29, 1867 issue (p. 2) of the Philadelphia Inquirer. This source is listed in the book with my references for the Wyndham sketch.

    Quoting from the newspaper article (of which I only have excerpts), which appeared at the time of the trial of John H. Surratt, “The parties mentioned, proceeding in their accounts, assert that it is very probable Surratt was engaged in the attempt to abduct Lincoln, as that scheme had first been started in 1863, as a legitimate piece of warfare. At that early date, Percy Wyndham, commanding at and around Washington, it is alleged, was to have delivered Mr. Lincoln and Cabinet to General Lee’s headquarters, and would, they say, have done so had he not been removed before the time fixed for carrying out the project.”

    In my opinion the allegations of Wyndham’s involvement in the Lincoln conspiracy, although providing a convenient explanation for his treatment by the War Department, are just speculation and impossible to prove.

    Best Wishes,
    Roger D. Hunt

  14. Robert F. Fuller
    Thu 18th Sep 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Re Stanton’s order that Sir Percy should in effect be drummed out of the Union Army: I agree that at first blush this would seem incredible — except that even worse befell another Engishman at Stanton’s hands. I refer of course to the flamboyant “Col.” George St. L. Grenfell, who resigned his Confederate commission in 1864 and became one of some 150 persons charged with complicity in the so-called “Chicago Conspiracy” — a nebulous Copperhead plot to form a “northwest Confederacy.” Apparently Stanton, who had and retains a reputation for violent temper and holding unreasonable grudges, had it in for Grenfell, who had tried to palm off a string of unlikely stories on the sceptical Stanton during an interview in Washington. Amazingly, Grenfell was sentenced to death, apparently because of “command inflence” exerted by Stanton. At the British government’s request this was commuted to a long term at hard labor in Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas (Grenfell was in his 60′s), where Dr. Mudd was also kept. Mudd was later released, but not Grenfell, who apparently drowned while trying to escape in 1868.

  15. Robert F. Fuller
    Thu 18th Sep 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Speaking of Wyndham, one of the brief biographies on the Web closes with the suggestion that he may well have been the inspiration for George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman. For those unfamiliar with this fictional military hero/scoundrel, run don’t walk to the library and begin reading. As a long-time fan I was saddened to learn of Fraser’s death last January, which left unpublished the long-awaited packet of memoirs describing Flashy’s Civil War service (Major in the Union Army (Medal of Honor) AND a Colonel on the staff of R. E. Lee. While sipping my evening Famous Grouse I have periodically found myself listening to whispers from Fraser’s (or perhaps Flashman’s) shade; and after careful research in the existing Flashman canon, in the local library, and on Google, I have almost miraculously been able to track down the unlikely, but fully documentable, story/scenario. The players include Allan Pinkerton, Wyndham, Grenfell, von Borcke, two Scottish divines, Garnet Wolseley, and of course, JEB Stuart, R. E. and Fitz Lee, Grant, Sheridan and Flashy’s old friends Seward and Lincoln — not to mention several of Flashy’s old flames. I have even discovered how Flashy was able to learn Mandarin in the few months between his escape from Harper’s Ferry and his arrival in Hong Kong prior to the Anglo-French expedition of 1860. Civil War buffs like our host are invited to scan my scenario for lapses — but I am convinced that Fraser’s mind has successfully reached across the Great Beyond to mine. Here’s hoping the Estate of G. M. Fraser will be interested.

  16. David Dobson
    Sun 28th Mar 2010 at 11:27 am

    I own the Riverview farm on the Hazel River in Culpeper County which was used by Col. Wyndham to launch his attacks for the battle of Brandy Station. The road to and through my farm is named Wyndham Lane, so he was respected, as this is the land of Mosby where a Union name would have had to have been well-earned to be applied and kept. My adjacent farm was owned by a Captain in Mosby’s Rangers, so the name Wyndham Lane had to have been fairly earned.

  17. Terry Matthews
    Wed 21st Apr 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I am a transplanted Englishman living in Virginia, During a time that I was volunteering with the Brandy Station Foundation, Graffitti House and battlefield, I became fascinated with Percy. I embarked on “research” which, when time permits, continues today. I have a mass of material relating to Percy which includes, among other things, a letter sent to and annotated by President lincoln in which Percy is alleged to be in cahoots with a group of Condederate spies operating in Washington DC. The letter contains references to Percy being paid (or would be paid) by Judah Benjamin a certain sum of US currency to give up the defenses of Washington. Reference to the incident is also made in a book edited by a Mr David Donald “Inside Lincoln’s cabinet -The Civil war Diaries of Salmon P Chase -Longmans 1954. At pge 207 – diary date of Thursday Oct 1st. $3000 from Benjamin according to General de Alna to be used by CHs d Arnaud, formerly of Fremnonts Staff to corrupt Percy wyndham to induce him to betray his command to the enemy. This letter came to a Mrs Van camp, wife of Mr Vab camp, said to have the confidence of the president”. In the RT lincoln collection of Lib of Congress there sits a letter from De Alhna to Lincoln dated January 31 1864 in which he refers to the meeting with Chase and berates him for failing to follow up on the allegation that he, de ahna had been approached by an agent of the rebel government with an offer of $50,ooo to undertake negotioations with Percy and offer $100,000 to percy to allow him to be taken prisoner with the whle of his cav brigade. I have lots more and find percy quite fascinating ……………Best regards

  18. Terry Matthews
    Wed 21st Apr 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I forgot to add – there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Percy, prior to and post Port republic was working both sides of the divide.

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