Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stuart's First Ride Around McClellan - Part One

This eyewitness account of Stuart's first ride around McClellan was printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. The original can be found in Volume II starting on page 271.

By W.T. Robins, Colonel, C.S.A.

THE battle of “Seven Pines,” or “Fair Oaks,” had been fought with no result. The temporary success of the Confederates early in the engagement, had been more than counter balanced by the reverses they sustained on the second day, and the two armies lay passively watching each other in front of Richmond. At this time the cavalry of Lee's army was commanded by General J. E. B. Stuart, and this restless officer conceived the idea of flanking the right wing of the Federal army near Ashland, and moving around to the rear, to cross the Chickahominy River at a place called Sycamore Ford, in New Kent County, march over to the James River, and return to the Confederate lines near Deep Bottom, in Henrico County. In carrying out this plan, Stuart would completely encircle the army of General McClellan. At the time of this movement, the writer was adjutant of the 9th Virginia cavalry.

When the orders were issued from headquarters directing the several commands destined to form the expedition to prepare three days' rations, and the ordnance officers to issue sixty rounds of ammunition to each man, I remember the surmises and conjectures as to our destination. The officers and men were in high spirits in anticipation of a fight, and when the bugles rang out " “Boots and Saddles,” every man was ready. The men left behind in camp were bewailing their luck, and those forming the detail for the expedition were elated at the prospect of some excitement. “Good-bye, boys; we are going to help old Jack drive the Yanks into the Potomac,”[1] I heard one of them shout to those left behind.

On the afternoon of June 12th we went out to the Brooke turnpike, preparatory to the march. The cavalry column was the 9th Virginia, commanded by Colonel W. H. F. Lee, the 1st Virginia, led by Colonel Fitz Lee, and the Jeff Davis Legion, under Colonel W. H. F. Martin. A section of the Stuart Horse Artillery, commanded by Captain Pelham, accompanied the expedition. The whole numbered twelve hundred men. They passed in bivouac in the vicinity of Ashland, and orders were issued enforcing strict silence and forbidding the use of fires, as the success of the expedition would depend upon secrecy and celerity.

On the following morning, at the break of dawn, the troopers were mounted and the march was begun without a bugle blast, and the column headed direct for Hanover Court House, distant about two hours' ride. Here we had the first sight of the enemy. A scouting party of the 5th U.S. Cavalry was in the village, but speedily decamped when our troops were ascertained to be Confederates. One prisoner was taken after a hot chase across country. We now moved rapidly to Hawes's Shop, where a Federal picket was surprised and captured without firing a shot. Hardly had the prisoners been disarmed and turned over to the provost guard when the Confederate advance was driven in upon the main body by a squadron of Federal cavalry, sent out from Old Church to ascertain by reconnaissance whether the report of a Confederate advance was true or false.

General Stuart at once ordered Colonel W. H. F. Lee, commanding the regiment leading the column, to throw forward a squadron to meet the enemy. Colonel Lee directed Captain Swann, chief of the leading squadron of his regiment, to charge with the saber. Swann moved off at a trot, and, turning a corner of the road, saw the enemy's squadron about two hundred yards in front of him. The order to charge was given, and the men dashed forward in fine style. The onset was so sudden that the Federal cavalry broke and scattered in confusion. The latter had a start of barely two hundred yards, but the Confederate yell that broke upon the air lent them wings, and only a few fell into our hands. The rest made their escape after a chase of a mile and a half.
Now the road became very narrow, and the brush on either side was a place so favorable for an ambuscade that Captain Swann deemed it prudent to draw rein and sound the bugle to recall his men. Stuart, who had been marching steadily with main body of the Confederate column, soon arrived at the front, and the advance guard, which I had all along commanded, was directed to move forward again. I at once dismounted the men, and pushed forward up a hill in my front. Just beyond the hill, I ran into a force of Federal cavalry drawn up in column of fours, ready to charge. Just as my advance-guard was about to run into him, I heard their commanding officer give the order to charge. I fell back and immediately noticed General Stuart in the presence of the enemy.

Captain Latane, commanding a squadron of the 9th Virginia, was directed to move forward and clear the road. He moved up the hill at a trot, and when in sight of the enemy in the road gave the command to charge, and with a yell the men rushed forward. At the top of the hill, simultaneously with Latane's order to charge, a company of Federal cavalry, deployed as skirmishers in the woods on the right of the road, were stampeded, and rushed back into the woods to make good their retreat to their friends. The head of Latane's squadron, then just fairly up the hill, was in the line of their retreat and was separated from the rest of the squadron, cut off by the rush of the Federals, and borne along with them up the road toward the enemy.

I was riding at the side of Latane, and just at the time when the Federal company rushed back into the road Captain Latane fell from his horse, shot dead. Though rush of the Federals separated myself and six of the leading files of the squadron from our friends, and we were borne along by the flying Federals. Although the Federal cavalry both in front and rear were in full retreat, our situation was perilous in the extreme. Soon we were pushed by foes in our rear into the ranks of those in our front, and a series of hand-to-hand combats ensued. To shoot or to cut us down was the aim of every Federal as he neared us, but we did what we could to defend ourselves. Every one of my comrades was shot or cut down, and I alone escaped unhurt. `After having been borne along by the retreating enemy for perhaps a quarter of a mile, I leaped my horse over the fence into the field and so got away.

Now came the rush of the Confederate column, sweeping the road clear. At this point my regiment was relieved by the 1st Virginia, and Colonel Lee continued the pursuit. The Federals did not attempt to make a stand until they reached Old Church. Here their officers called a halt, and made an attempt to rally to defend their camp. Fitz Lee soon swept them out, and burned their camp. They made no other attempt to stand, and we heard no more of them as an organized body, but many prisoners were taken as me passed along. We had surprised them, taken them in detail, and far outnumbered them at all points. The Federal forces, as we afterward learned, were commanded by General Philip St. George Cooke, father-in-law to General Stuart, to whom the latter sent a polite message. The casualties in this skirmish were slight-one man killed on each side, and about fifteen or twenty wounded on the Confederate side, mostly saber-cuts.

We halted for a short time at Old Church, and the people of the neighborhood, hearing of our arrival, came out to greet us and wish us Godspeed. They did not come empty-handed, but brought whatever they could snatch up on the spur of the moment, rightly supposing that anything to allay hunger or thirst would be acceptable to us. Some of the ladies brought bouquets, and presented them to the officers as they marched along. One of these was given to General Stuart, who, always gallant, vowed to preserve it and take it into Richmond. He kept his promise.

We were soon far in rear of McClellan's army, which lay directly between us and Richmond. It was thought probable that the Federal cavalry was concentrating in our rear to cut off our retreat. We kept straight on, by Smith's store, through New Kent County to Tunstall's station, on the York River Railroad. I had been in charge of the Confederate advance-guard up to the time when Colonel Fitz Lee came to the front, with the 1st Virginia relieved the 9th of that duty. Well down in New Kent County, General Stuart sent for me again to the front. Hurrying on, I soon reached the head of the column where I found the general, and was directed by him to take thirty men as an advance-guard, and to precede the column by about half a mile. Further, I was directed to halt at the road running from the mills to the White House long enough to cut the telegraph wire on that road; thence to proceed to Tunstall's station on the York River Railroad, at which place, the prisoners had informed the general, a company of Federal infantry was posted. At Tunstall's station I was directed to charge the infantry, disperse or capture them, cut the telegraph, and obstruct the railroad.

Here was our point of danger. Once across the railroad, we were comparatively safe. But in possession of the railroad, with its rolling-stock, the enemy could easily throw troops along its line to any given point. However, no timely information had been furnished to the Federal general. We moved with such celerity that we carried with us the first news of our arrival. Pushing forward at a trot, and picking up straggling prisoners every few hundred yards, the advance-guard at length reached the telegraph road. At this point we overtook an ordnance wagon, heavily loaded with canteens and Colt's revolvers. The horses had stalled in a mud-hole, and the driver, cutting them out from the wagon, made his escape. The sergeant in charge stood his ground and was captured.

Here was a prize indeed, as in those days we ware poorly armed. In order to save time, a man furnished with an ax was sent to cut the telegraph wire, while the rest of the party was engaged in rifling the wagon. While these operations were in progress a body of Federal cavalry, suddenly turning a bend in the road, made their appearance. As soon as the Federal officer in command saw us he called a halt, and, standing still in the road, seemed at a loss to know what to do. His men drew their sabers, as if about to charge, but they did not come on. By this time the telegraph had been out and the wagon disposed of. Our men were hastily mounted and formed into column of fours, with drawn sabers, ready for any emergency. There we stood, eying each other, about two hundred yards apart, until the head of the main Confederate column came in sight. The Federals retreated down the road leading to the White. House. One man of the Federal party was sent back along the road to Tunstall's station, now only about half a mile off. I supposed, of course, that this messenger was sent to warn the Federal troops at Tunstall's of our approach. I was, however, afterward informed that he galloped through Tunstall's but never stopped, and when some one called to him, "What's to pay?" he dashed along, calling out, at the top of his voice, "Hell's to pay!"

[1] Stuart's raiders left camp ostensibly to go to Northern Virginia