The Cavalry Fight At Boonsboro' Graphically Described
[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, July 16, 1897 ]
The Ninth Virginia and Eighth Illinois Regiments Cross Sabres--The Former Suffer Severely, but Capture Some Prisoners.
During the campaign in Maryland in 1862, the 9th Virginia Cavalry was attached to the brigade commanded by General Fitz Lee. After nine days spent among the fine hay and rich yellow cornfields of Montgomery and Frederick counties, the regiment crossed the Catoctin mountain at Hamburg, at dawn on the morning of September 14th. Hamburg was a rude and scattering village on the crest of the mountain, where the manufacture of brandy seemed to be the chief employment of the villagers, and at the early hour of our passage through the place, both the men and women gave proof that they were free imbibers of the product of their stills, and it was not easy to find a sober inhabitant of either sex.
To our troopers, descending the western slope of the mountain, the peaceful valley below, dotted over with well-tilled farms, with a bold stream winding down among them, presented a scene of unusual beauty and loveliness. Near a large grist-mill the command was halted, after a march of several hours, and here rested beneath the shade of a large apple orchard until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The distant boom of artillery assured us of the bloody conflict going on at South Mountain, the issue of which we were in suspense to know. The march in the afternoon brought the command to the vicinity of Boonesboro, where a brief halt was made after nightfall to rest and feed the horses. Near midnight the march was resumed in the direction of the mountain pass above Boonesboro. The disaster to our arms in the fight of the previous day was now made manifest, as artillery, ambulances and infantry were met retreating down the mountain. The brigade, having ascended a mile and a half, perhaps, above the town, was held in readiness to charge in column of fours. The nature of the ground was ill-suited to the operation of cavalry, and much relief was felt when, at dawn, we began to fall back towards Boonesboro. Our retreat was none too early, for already the columns of the enemy, with their bright muskets gleaming in the morning light, could be seen as we entered Boonesboro. More than once we were faced about as we retreated, as if to repel a threatened charge by cavalry.
Having been halted in streets of Boonsboro, the men, after being so long in the saddle, were allowed to dismount, and for some time remained in this way, the men standing by their horses or sitting down on the curbstones and holding their bridle reins. Suddenly the order "Mount!" "Mount!" resounded down the street, and simultaneously a rapid fire of pistols and carbines was heard near at hand. Before the men could mount and form ranks, the rear guard, retreating at full speed, dashed into our already confused column, and in an incredibly short time the street became packed with a mass of horses and horsemen, so jammed together as to make motion impossible for most of them. At the same time the upper windows in some of the houses were hoisted and a volley of pistol shots poured down on our heads. The Federal cavalry, quickly discovering our situation, dashed up boldly and discharged their carbines into our struggling and helpless ranks. When the way was opened, and retreat became possible, a general stampede followed, our whole force rushing from the town down the 'pike at a full gallop. This disorderly movement was increased by the discovery that some of the enemy's infantry had almost succeeded in cutting off our retreat, and were firing from a corn field into our flank.
We had scarcely gotten out of the town before our colonel's (W. H. F. Lee) horse was killed, and he, falling heavily on the 'pike, had to take flight, dust-covered and bruised, through the field on the left. Captain Hughlett's horse fell in like manner on the edge of the town, and he, leaping the railing, found concealment in a dense patch of growing corn. In the middle of the turnpike were piles of broken stone, placed there for repairing the roadway. On these, amidst the impenetrable dust, many horses blindly rushed, and falling, piled with their riders one on another. Here and there in the pell-mell race, blinded by the dust, horses and horsemen dashed against telegraph posts and fell to the ground, to be trampled by others behind.
When the open fields were reached and we were beyond the range of the infantry, a considerable force was rallied and the Federal horsemen were charged in turn. In this charge our lieutenant-colonel's horse was killed, and a second charge was led by Captain Thomas Haynes, of Company H, in which a number of prisoners belonging to the 8th Illinois Cavalry were captured and brought out. With this charge, pursuit by the enemy was checked, and two battle-flags, about which some brave men fell into ranks, with Fitz Lee in the centre, served as a rallying point where our regiments were quickly reformed. We then withdrew leisurely in the direction of Sharpsburg, and were not further pressed.
THE KILLED AND WOUNDED.
In this brief and ill-starred encounter the 9th regiment lost two officers and sixteen men killed and mortally wounded, and ten men captured. Among the killed were Lieutenant Fowlkes, of Lunenburg, and Frank Oliver, of Essex--two very gallant men.
Captain Hughlett, who was dismounted early in the action by the falling of his horse, remained in concealment in the corn throughout the day, and was a sad and silent witness of the burial of his dead comrades by the enemy. Under cover of darkness, he sought food at the hands of a woman who was strongly Union in sentiment and had two sons in the Federal army. She relieved his hunger, and being strengthened at her hands, he made his way into our lines and reached the regiment next day, having had during the night several narrow escapes from the enemy's sentries.
On the morning of the 16th of September the regiment was again in motion, after spending a quiet and restful night in a fine grove of oaks, and soon became satisfied that the movements of our army did not mean an immediate retreat across the Potomac, but a preparation for battle in the beautiful, winding valley of the Antietam. Our line of march led us past the position of Hood's Division, the troops of which had already thrown up a slight breastwork of rails, logs, stones, &c., and lay on their arms, in readiness for the enemy's advance. These gallant men, who were destined to meet the first furious onslaught of McClellan's troops, occupied rising ground, partly in the woods, and partly in the open fields, with an open valley winding in front of them. A few hundred yards in advance of Hood's line the cavalry was drawn up in line on a wooded eminence in rear of several pieces of artillery. The position commanded an extended view of open fields and a straight roadway leading towards Antietam river, and in the distance could be seen the heavy column of the advancing Federals. Their march was regular and steady towards our position. Only once, where a road diverged from that on which they moved, was there a halt. After pausing at this point for a few minutes the column was set in motion again up the road on which we were posted. As yet no Federal skirmish line had been deployed, and only a few mounted men were visible. Infantry and artillery composed the heavy blue column. The foremost file of these troops had approached near enough almost to count the buttons on their coats, when our guns opened from the covert a rapid fire, and thus began the bloody battle of Sharpsburg. The Federal batteries were hurried forward rapidly, and our guns were soon withdrawn. In retiring we passed after dark through the valley on the farther side of which Hood's division rested on their arms. The Federals were now discharging a deafening fire of artillery, and a few guns on our side were answering them. As we moved through the valley the shells from two directions were passing over our heads, their burning fuses gleaming like meteors, and the whole making a comparatively harmless but brilliant spectacular performance.
If I learned at the time to what battery the guns belonged that fired these first shots at Sharpsburg, I have quite forgotten now. I hope some reader of the Dispatch, whose eye may fall on this article, may know. The information is earnestly sought by the Antietam Battlefield Board, of the War Department. General E. A. Carman, of that board, writes from Sharpsburg on June 5th:
"For some time I have been endeavoring to ascertain what force opposed Hooker's when he crossed the Antietam, on the afternoon of September 16th, and before he came in contact with Hood's division, but have been unable to get anything satisfactory. He was opposed by artillery, yet I can get no trace of any artillery within a mile of where he was first fired at. I have come to the conclusion that the gun, or guns, opposing him, must have been one or more of Pelham's, but I cannot verify my conclusion, nor can I communicate with any survivors of that battery."
THE NIGHT CANNONADING.
The cannonading at nightfall was of short continuance, and it soon became almost as quiet on the field of Sharpsburg, as though no armies were there confronting each other. The movement of the troops was made as noiselessly as possible. Our brigade was on the march for several hours, and through the mistake of a blundering guide, was led to a position very close to a line of Federal batteries. Here we slept unconscious of danger until nearly dawn. Before daylight, General Fitz Lee ascertained the situation of the command, and endeavored to extricate us as quietly as possible, going around himself arousing and cautioning many of the men. We had got a quarter of a mile away, perhaps, and had nearly reached a position of safety beyond the crest of a hill, when we were discovered, and the enemy's guns opened on us. This discharge began the fray on the memorable and sanguinary 17th of September, 1862. One of the first shells fired, striking the earth near us, exploded, covering some of us with dust, and inflicting on brave Colonel Thornton, of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, a mortal wound. The writer was near him at the moment, and witnessed the shrugging of his shoulders and quiver of the muscles of his face, as he felt the shock of the piece of shell shattering his arm close to the shoulder.
We had been, thus far, on the extreme left of our line of battle, and early in the day were ordered to report to General T. J. Jackson, who commanded on the right. Our men, without a round of ammunition left, were seen leisurely retiring towards the rear, singly and in groups. Some of our batteries, having shot their last round, were leaving the field at a gallop. General Jackson's order was that we should take position in rear of his troops, intercept the stragglers, and direct them to stated points, where they were refurnished with ammunition and marched back to the line of battle. Motioning to our captain to give him his ear, he directed him, in a whisper, not to halt any men of Hood's Division, saying they had liberty to retire. General Jackson's position was in the open field, near a large barn, that was burned during the day by the enemy's shells. He commanded a full view of the contending lines in the valley below, and of the Federal batteries ranged one above another on the hills beyond. The shells of the latter were passing thickly, and bursting near him, while he sat on his steed giving his orders, as serene and undisturbed as his statue in the Capitol Square at Richmond.
G. W. B.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1897, Maryland Campaign.
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