THE UNION CAVALRY AT GETTYSBURG
Major General D. McM. Gregg
In considering the importance of the part taken by the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, in the Gettysburg campaign, it will not be amiss to refer briefly to the circumstances under which the volunteer cavalry was organized, and the difficulties and hindrances which were met, and had to be overcome, in bringing it to the high state of efficiency that characterized it at the opening of that campaign. During the fall of 1861, and the winter following, there had been established in camps about Washington, regiments of men with horses, intended for the volunteer cavalry service. These regiments bad been formed hastily by uniting companies of men from different parts of the same State, and after this the organization was completed by the appointment of the field officers by the Governor of the State.. . Naturally enough, very many improper appointments were made, and the result was the failure of many of the regiments to make any progress in preparing themselves for the duties of cavalry in the field. The absence or laxity of discipline, inattention to police and sanitary regulations, ignorance of their duties on the part of officers, and dissensions producing discontent and insubordination (growing out of the claims of rival candidates for appointments), unfortunately obstructed too many of the regiments. In some instances, the colonels were aged men of local influence, whose patriotic zeal, associated with an imagined dash of character, led them to enter an arm of service, the fatigues and hardships of which compelled an early return to their homes; in others, they were men who had been selected for any other reason than even their supposed fitness to command, and these, by their incapacity or unwillingness to learn their duties, fell under the contempt Of their commanders. The enlisted men were the very best material, and these furnished non-commissioned officers of intelligence and peculiar fitness for their offices'. Of the company officers, many had been wisely chosen, and were willing to both learn and practice their duties.
The condition of the horses in many of the camps was as bad as possible. Of these, many when received were totally unfit for cavalry service, having been taken without inspection by competent examiners, from dishonest contractors, or from government corrals, superintended by dishonest examiners. With some exceptions, whatever care was given the horses, was at such times as best suited the convenience of the individual trooper, and as the horses generally stood in mud to their knees, unless their masters were prompted by exceptionally humane feelings, the intervals between feedings and waterings were distressingly long. In many of the regiments, when their condition was the worst possible, the well-intentioned subordinate officers and enlisted men asked the War Department or their State authorities to detail young, but experienced, officers of the regular cavalry, or the appointment of civilians who had served in European armies, to command their regiments. This was done; and the officers so selected, on taking command, were from the first encouraged by the hearty spirit in which officers and enlisted men entered into the work of reform and improvement. Schools for instruction in tactics and in the rules and articles of war were established; officers, as well as enlisted men, were drilled in the school of the squad and upward, the camps were changed, better police and sanitary regulations enforced,,strict discipline maintained, inefficient officers were discharged by the examining board, and their vacancies given deserving non-commissioned officers.
When the Army of the Potomac moved, in the spring of 1862, to the Peninsula, it was accompanied by a cavalry force, the volunteer regiments of which were in a surprising state of serviceability, considering the short time and the unfavorable circumstances under which their real organization had been effected. The regular regiments were in their habitual state of efficiency. During this campaign the cavalry won for itself no particular distinction. The volunteer regiments were distributed among the different corps of the army; the country was very generally heavily wooded, or covered the with dense undergrowth; the armies were in close proximity, and ordinarily entrenched; the space between the lines obstructed by felled timber, and the roads barricaded, and, for the greater part of the time, impassable, because of the almost unfathomable mud. There was no proper field for cavalry operations, and if there had been, nothing could have been done; for, while it was the fashion to sneer at the cavalry, there was a remarkable fondness displayed at corps, division, and brigade headquarters of infantry for the presence of numerous and well-mounted orderlies; details for this ornamental and often menial duty, and those for the most grossly absurd picket and escort duty, absorbed pretty much the entire cavalry.
Returning from the Peninsula, the cavalry disembarked at Alexandria, in condition very unfitted for the hard service that was expected of it in the Maryland campaign of the fall of 1862. But little improvement was made, and, with some noted exceptions, nothing strikingly brilliant was accomplished by it until General Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac. Then it was at last thought that the cavalry, properly organized and taken care of, and employed in legitimate duty, might become an important element of that grand army. The rebel cavalry under Stuart, and his lieutenants, the younger Lees, had from the onset been very efficient. It was composed of the best blood of the South-officers and enlisted men had been accustomed all their lives to the use of fire-arms, and were well practiced in horsemanship. Its strength had not been frittered away in petty details, but preserved for the heavy blows which it, from time to time, inflicted on our lines of communication, and means of transportation.
General Hooker organized his cavalry into a corps, commanded by General Stoneman, the division commanders being Generals Pleasonton, Buford, Averill, and D. McM. Gregg. Soon after this organization was made, the cavalry, save a part detained to take part in the battle of Chancellorsville (where it did distinguished service), left the lines of the army on what is known as the Stoneman raid. Without considering at all the material results of that raid, which, if not so great as expected, were lessened by the adverse issue of the battle in which our army engaged at Chancellorsville, its moral result was to convince the cavalry engaged in it of its ability to do whatever might thereafter be required when employed in its proper sphere., General Pleasonton now succeeded to the command of the corps, and the work of preparation for future campaigns went forward with the greatest enthusiasm and zeal. To this time, for the reasons heretofore given, the prestige of success had steadily remained with the rebel cavalry in its greater and more important undertakings, but the time was now at hand for its transfer to our side, there to remain to the close of the war, not, however, without our enemy making, at all times and places, the most desperate and gallant efforts to win it back.
In the early part of June, 1863, the rebel cavalry corps was assembled about Brandy Station, and in front of that point on the Rappahannock river. There bad been reviews and inspections preparatory to making some great movement; this was suspected to be northward, and not directly against the forces confronting on the river. The strength of Stuart's command at this time was subsequently ascertained to have been about twelve thousand horsemen, divided into five brigades, with sixteen pieces of light artillery. Had this force gotten off undiscovered, and reached Pennsylvania without having fought the battle of Brandy Station, and subsequently been defeated at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, tile fertile valleys, busy towns, and wealthy cities of our beloved State would have been devastated to an extent beyond ordinary estimate. But this was not to be. On Saturday and Sunday, June 6th and 7th, General Pleasonton assembled his corps about Warrenton Junction and Catlett's Station, rations, forage, and ammunition were issued, and every trooper was put in the best possible condition for a ceremonious visit to our neighbors opposite. On Monday evening, General John Buford, with his two brigades and light batteries, and a small supporting column of infantry, -moved to the vicinity of Beverly Ford, and General Gregg, with his own and Colonel Duffie's divisions, and light batteries, moved to Kelly's Ford, six miles below, and here was found another small column of infantry. The strength of these two commands was about nine thousand cavalry.
At daylight, on Tuesday, June 9th, General Buford, with his regular and volunteer brigades crossed the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford and surprised the enemy's pickets, driving them back upon their camps and entrenchments, and maintained for hours a most obstinate fight with a force largely superior to his own. His advance was through a rough, wooded country, which afforded the enemy every defensive advantage, but his regiments, led by such soldiers as Colonel Davis, of the Eighth New York (killed in the action), Major Morris, of the Sixth Pennsylvania, and Captain Merritt, of the Second Regulars, and others of like character, were not to be stopped by ordinary resistance; and by their repeated mounted charges, and advances as dismounted skirmishers, the enemy was driven back to a line strongly held by a large number of field-pieces supported by troops.
General Gregg, with his own and Colonel Dufie's command, crossed at the same time at Kelly's Ford. Agreeably to orders from the coits commander, Colonel Dufie proceeded at once to Stevensburg to take position, while Gregg marched directly upon Brandy Station, which, owing to the number of miles to be marched and obstructions met in the roads, he did not reach until some hours after Buford's attack had been made. Upon an open plain, his brigades, led by Colonels Kilpatrick and Wyndham, fell upon the enemy so furiously that General Stuart's headquarters were captured. There were no reserves, but at once the entire command charged the enemy, and here, at last, were two forces of cavalry, on favorable ground, all mounted, struggling for victory with sabre and pistol. Brigade met brigade, and the blue and the g ray met in hand-to-hand strife, and many gallant horsemen went down that day on a field whose glories have not often been surpassed. Moving on a short interior line, the mass of the rebel mounted force was speedily concentrated at the point of danger, so as to give it largely the preponderance in numbers. Dufie's command, at Stevensburg, having encountered there some of the enemy, could not be gotten on the field in time to take part in the engagement; still the contest was maintained until the arrival of rebel infantry from Culpepper; after this a junction was made by the two divisions, and toward evening, leisurely and unmolested, all recrossed the Rappahannock.
The object of the reconnaissance had been fully accomplished -the numbers, position, and intentions of the enemy fully discovered. On the morrow this cavalry giant was to have marched for Pennsylvania. No further objection was offered to his departure, as we felt sure his stature was somewhat shortened, and his gait would show a limp. Our total loss in killed, wounded, and a small number of prisoners, was about five hundred; the enemy's, from reports published in the Richmond papers, greater. The result of this engagement created the greatest enthusiasm in our regiments the virtues of those who fell were fondly told by their surviving comrades, and acts of conspicuous gallantry and daring were applauded and remembered for imitation on other fields. Even now, when there is a meeting of any of those who fought at Brandy Station, and the talk falls upon the fight, the pulse quickens and the eye brightens as the story is repeated.
Our cavalry was again reorganized in two divisions, commanded respectively by Generals John Buford and D. MeM. Gregg, and to each division were attached two light batteries. Everything necessary was done in preparation for an active campaign. The division formerly commanded by General Averill (who had been transferred to another field) was consolidated with Gregg's, and the new division was named the second; an additional brigade was formed in it, commanded by Colonel I.Irvin Gregg, the other two being commanded respectively by General Kilpatrick and Colonel McIntosh. The two divisions were soon put in motion toward the Potomac, but did not take exactly the same route, and the Army of the Potomac followed their lead. The major part of the rebel army, having moved in advance, entered the Shenandoah Valley by the passes of the Blue Ridge, either for the purpose of masking the movements of the rebel infantry, or else to discover the whereabouts of and to impede the march of our army. The advance of Stuart's command had reached Aldie, and here, on June 17th, began a series of skirmishes, or engagements, between the two cavalry forces, all of which were decided successes for us, and terminated in driving Stuart's cavalry through the gap at Paris.
On June 17th, Kilpatrick's Brigade, moving in the advance of the Second Division, fell upon the enemy at Aldie, and there ensued an engagement of the most obstinate character, in which several brilliant mounted charges were made, terminating in the retreat of the enemy. On June 19th, the division advanced to Middleburg, where a part of Stuart's force was posted, and was attacked by Colonel Irvin Gregg's Brigade. Here, as at Aldie, the fight was very obstinate. The enemy had carefully selected a most defensible position, from which he had to be driven step by step, and this work had to be done by dismounted skirmishers, owing to the unfavorable character of the country for mounted service. On the 19th, Gregg's Division moved on the turnpike from Middleburg in the direction of Upperville, and soon encountered the enemy's cavalry in great force. The attack was promptly made, the enemy offering the most stubborn resistance. The long lines of stone fences which are so common in that region, were so many lines of defense to a force in retreat; these could be held until our advancing skirmishers were almost upon them, but then there would be no escape for those behind-it was either to surrender as prisoners or to attempt to escape across the open fields beyond, to fall before the deadly fire of the carbines of the pursuers. Later in the day, General Buford's Division came in on the right and took the enemy in flank; then our entire force, under General Pleasonton, and supported by a column of infantry, moved forward and dealt the finishing blow. Through Upperville the pursuit was continued at a run, the enemy flying in the greatest confusion; nor were they permitted to reform, until night put a stop to further pursuit at the mouth of the gap.
Our losses in the fighting of these three days amounted to five hundred in killed, wounded, and missing; of the latter, there were but few. The enemy's loss was much greater, particularly in prisoners. Our captures also included light guns, flags, and small-arms.
The Army of the Potomac, moving in pursuit of Lee, was required to protect itself on one side from any possible attack of the enemy, and to extend its protection, on the other side, to Washington. These successful engagements of our cavalry left our infantry free to march, without the loss of an hour, to the field of Gettysburg, where the Army of the Potomac was destined to deliver the blow which, more than any other, was to determine the issue of the rebellion.
The limits of this article will forbid following our divisions of cavalry on their marches to Gettysburg. It must be mentioned that at Frederick, Maryland, the addition of the cavalry formerly commanded by General Stahl, made it necessary to organize a third division, the command of which was given to General Kilpatrick. General Buford, with his division, in advance of our army, on July lst, first encountered the enemy in the vicinity of Gettysburg. How well his brigades of regulars and volunteers resisted the advance of that invading host, yielding only foot by foot, and so slowly as to give ample time for our infantry to go to his support, is well known to every one familiar with the history of the great battle. General Kilpatrick's division marched from Frederick well to the right, at Hanover engaged the enemy's cavalry in a sharp skirmish, and reached Gettysburg on the lst, and on the left of our line, on the 3d, one of his brigades, led by General Farnsworth, gallantly charged the enemy's infantry, even to his line of defenses, and protected that flank from any attack, with the assistance of General Merritt's regular brigade. General Gregg's Division, having crossed the Potomac at Edwards' Ferry, in rear of our army, passed through Frederick, and on the afternoon of July lst, was at Hanover Junction, and reached Gettysburg on the morning of the 2d, taking position on the right of our line. On the 3d, during that terrific fire of artillery, which preceded the gallant but unsuccessful assault of Pickett's Division on our line, it was discovered that Stuart's cavalry was moving to our right, with the evident intention of passing to the rear, to make a simultaneous attack there. What the consequence of the success of this movement would have been, the merest tyro in the art of war will understand. When opposite our right, Stuart was met by General Gregg, with two of his brigades (Colonels McIntosh and Irvin Gregg), and Custer's Brigade of the Third Division, and, on a fair field, there was another trial between two cavalry forces, in which most of the fighting was done in the saddle, and with the trooper's favorite weapon-the sabre. Without entering into the details of the fight, it need only be added, that Stuart advanced not a pace beyond where he was met; but after a severe struggle, which was only terminated by the darkness of night, he withdrew, and on the morrow, with the defeated army of Lee, was in retreat to the Potomac.
Thus has been outlined the services of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, during the Gettysburg campaign. No period of its history is more glorious, nor more fondly dwelt upon by those who were for a long time identified with the cavalry arm. Whatever credit its services deserve, must be fully shared by the light batteries of the regular service, and Martin's New York Volunteer Battery, which were attached to the divisions, and rendered such service as could only result from perfect discipline and the highest professional skill and training.
Source : "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War"
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