Read an Excerpt
A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865
By Edward G. Longacre
STACKPOLE BOOKS "Look Out for the Damned Virginia Horsemen!"
Copyright © 2002 Stackpole Books.
All rights reserved.
Peering through his field glasses, the long-legged man with the cinnamon-colored beard waited silently for dawn to break. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the mist that hugged the floor of the valley began to dissipate. It released the landscape piece by piecea stand of trees, a barn and some outbuildings, a line of fencing. Shadows lifted; plowed fields and pastureland swam into view. Toward the northeast, on the outskirts of Smithfield, Virginia, a ridgeline became visible; atop it, human shapes were dimly discernible, their blue uniforms indistinguishable in the murk. Some of the shapes were in motionhorses and ridersbut standing figures predominated.
The riders were too few to be cavalry. The bearded man saw that he was facing an outpost manned by Yankee infantry, a few of whose officers were mounted. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. The troops of Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson were standing about, as if they intended to go nowhere any time soonas if their position within hailing distance of Winchester would hold their opponents in place. This, the observer reflected, was wishful thinking of the highest order.
Lt. Col. James Ewell Brown Stuart of the 1stVirginia Cavalry turned to a staff officer, snapped off some instructions, and sent the man pounding southward. After taking additional sightings, Stuart mounted and rode along the length of his perimeter, stopping at several points to confer with his subordinates. At his order, groups of riders trotted forward to make their presence known. In a matter of minutes, pistol and rifle fire was rattling across the valley, as the gray riders struck at the outposts opposite them. As the racket grew with the sunlight, Stuart nodded in approval. Pressure exerted continuously along Patterson's picket line would ensure that his troops remained rooted to their ground. Their immobility would be critical to the strategy that Stuart's superior, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Army of the Shenandoah, hoped to put into effect this day.
The picket skirmishingmost of it conducted at long range and productive of few casualties on either sidecontinued well into the morning. By 9:00 A.M. Stuart was sufficiently convinced of the enemy's intentions to convey his impression to Winchester. The Yankees could be expected to remain and in around Smithfield indefinitely; Johnston need not factor them into any planning he did this day.
Stuart's 9:00 report, combined with earlier communiqués of similar nature from the picket line, persuaded Johnston of the viability of a decision he had tentatively reached hours before: to abandon Winchester and the Valley itself. He would lead his eleven thousand-man command more than seventy miles eastward to link with the larger army of Brig. Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard. That army had gathered around Manassas Junction, Virginia, twenty-two miles below Washington, D.C., where it hugged the banks of a stream known as Bull Run. Patterson's army of the Department of Pennsylvania, fourteen thousand strong, had been sent to the Valley to hold Johnston's troops in place. But the aged, slow-moving Patterson had shown himself too cautious, too fearful of confronting his opponent, to carry out the mission assigned him.
Three days earlierMonday, July 15, 1861the Union leader had appeared on the verge of attacking Winchester. Patterson had moved south from the Martinsburg vicinity as though to force a fight, but almost at the last minute, he veered east to Smithfield. At first Johnston suspected that his opponent was preparing a flank attack aimed at cutting his lines of communication. Stuart's morning report, however, revealed that Patterson had surrendered the initiative, allowing the Army of the Shenandoah to make the next move.
Johnston believed he knew the source of his adversary's timidity. Patterson lacked the mobile reconnaissance forces he needed to determine Rebel numbers and dispositions. While Johnston's army included several companies of Virginians skilled in scouting operations, Patterson's command was supported by a minuscule force of raw and inexperienced troopers. They had proven no match for the seasoned cavaliers under Stuart. Adept at defensive operations, the Confederate horsemen had encircled Winchester with an impenetrable counterreconnaissance screen, ensuring that Patterson knew little about Johnston's movements, and nothing at all of his plans.
Those plans were ambitious and carried risks, but they were the product of dire necessity. On July 16, as Patterson advanced from Martinsburg, thirty-six thousand Federals had left the Washington suburbs heading for Richmond, the newly established capital of the Confederate States of America. The green but enthusiastic army of Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell was on a collision course with the equally untutored defenders of the ManassasBull Run line. Since McDowell's force outnumbered Beauregard's almost two to one, the outcome of the pending clash seemed preordained.
Any hope the Confederacy had of staving off disaster rested on a swift concentration of forces. Should Johnston and Beauregard link before McDowell could strike, the numerical odds would draw even. The tactical situation would then favor the Confederates, for when green troops fought, the defender had the advantage. For days, Johnston had been seeking a way to disengage from his enemy and join Beauregard. Now, thanks to his cavalry's intelligence gathering and screening, he had his opportunity. As Johnston noted, by marking time well to the northeast, the Yankees were "certainly too far from our road, therefore, to be able to prevent or delay our march. His [Stuart's] information left no doubt of the expediency of moving as soon as possible."
The intelligence had not come an hour too soon. At 1:00 on the morning of the eighteenth, an urgent telegram from the Adjutant and Inspector General's Office in Richmond had reached Winchester, warming Johnston that the Federals were advancing on Manasses: "General Beauregard is attacked," it read. "To strike the enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force will be needed. If practicable, make the movement." A half hour later, Johnston received a wire from Beauregard himselfone penned much earlier but whose transmission had been delayedcalling his situation critical and reminding Johnston of his earlier promises of assistance.
Minutes after Johnston received Stuart's morning report, he issued the necessary orders. He detailed two brigades of militia to hold Winchester and its environs, although he thought it unlikely that Patterson would attack even so small a force. Then he mustered the four infantry brigades that composed his main body and started them southeastward toward Ashby's Gap in the Blue Ridge. After debouching from the mountains, the troops would turn south toward the Manassas Gap Railroad. Passenger coaches, flatcars, and boxcars would be waiting near Piedmont Station to carry the foot soldiers eastward. Speed was of the essence. Though the recent attack of the eighteenth had been of limited size, McDowell might strike in force at any moment in hopes of overwhelming Beauregard. Should Johnston's men reach Bull Run even a little late, the result might be the death of their new nation.
While the infantry marched, cannons, limbers, caissons, and battery wagons trundled along parallel roads. The five batteries of light artillery in Johnston's army would march overland all the way to Manassas Junction. The guns' departure left only Stuart's troopers in place outside Winchester. In accordance with his orders, the lieutenant colonel stretched his picket lines as far east as Berryville, directly below Smithfield. All along this perimeter, parties of horsemen advanced across farm fields and meadows, firearms ablaze. Just as Johnston had hoped, the commotion held the attention of Patterson's foot soldiers and, by making them believe that a full-scale attack was imminent, kept them stationary.
Not a single reconnaissance party penetrated the screen erected by Stuart's men. Yankees peering south saw only lines of horsemen; none ventured close enough to observe the clouds of dust advancing toward the mountains. Even the militia Johnston had left behind was blocked from view. The exodus from Winchester went unheeded and unchallenged.
The result was everything that the Confederate high command could have hoped for. By the time Stuart's people ended their demonstration, broke contact, and passed gingerly to the rear, the head of Johnston's column was halfway to Piedmont Station. There, at about 7:00 A.M. on the nineteenth, the advance echelon boarded the cars that would carry them eastward. By midafternoon, soldiers were chugging into Manassas Junction, an easy march from the Bull Run defenses.
They arrived to find that McDowell's army had not followed up the strike it had made near Blackburn's Ford on Bull Run. The action had inflicted little damage but had alerted Beauregard to the vulnerability of his right flank. Throughout the nineteenth, the Yankees remained quiescent, although the inactivity only increased Beauregard's suspicion that a new and heavier blow was soon to fall.
Every hour that McDowell delayed was a gift to his opponent. It became clear that time remained for most, if not all, of Johnston's troops to reach the field in time to meet a new attack. Thus it appeared increasingly likely that the most critical confrontation of this brief war was going to be fought by opponents of approximately equal size. For this, the Confederates could thank not only McDowell's hesitation, but also the screening skills of Stuart's highly mobile, admirably aggressive troopersa critical resource lacking to their enemy.
* * *
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that at war's outset the Confederate troopers outnumbered and outperformed their counterparts in blue. In many respects, the Southern nation enjoyed early advantages in cavalry material. For one thing, it had placed many of its sons in the mounted arm of the prewar U.S. Army. While historians and sociologists debate the existence of a Southern military tradition, there is no doubt that in the 1840s and 1850s, Southerners dominated the dragoon and cavalry regiments of the Regular establishment.
Then, too, though the region could draw upon less than one-third the white population of the states warring against it, it boasted a proportionally larger number of active militia outfits. While it cannot be determined precisely, the proportion of mounted to foot units of militia appears to have been larger in the South. Many of these units sprang up in the year and a half preceding the war's opening shots, delivered by South Carolina batteries against the U.S. Army garrison inside Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, on April 12, 1861. John Brown's October 1859 raid on the government armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, aimed at igniting a slave insurrection, had been a catalyst in recruiting mounted militiamen throughout the South, especially in the state whose soil "Old Osawatomie" had violated. Other units of horsemen evolved from the patrols that had been formed to locate runaway slaves and prevent an uprising by the chattels themselves.
These militia companiesthe pride of their local communities, their men garbed in fanciful uniforms, riding good horses, but toting obsolete weaponryformed the nucleus of the Confederate cavalry in the eastern theater of the war. Their numbers ensured that by some point in 1861, mounted units overflowed with recruits. The first regiment to take the field, the 1st Virginia, organized in early May 1861 at Harpers Ferry, eventually grew to include fourteen companies, in contrast to the ten-company structure that later prevailed in the Confederate cavalry service. All but one of the colorfully named units were converted militia companies: the Newtown Troop, the Berkeley Troop, the 1st Rockbridge Dragoons, the Clarke Cavalry, the Valley Rangers, the Shepherdstown Troop, the Amelia Dragoons (or Amelia Troop), the Loudoun Light Horse, the Harrisonburg Cavalry, the Rockingham Cavalry, the Gloucester Cavalry (also known as the Gloucester Light Dragoons), the Adams Troop, and the Sumter Mounted Guards. In the fall of 1861, the last two companies were transferred to the Jeff Davis Legion, a combination infantry-cavalry-artillery organization whose mounted contingent was also recruited in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
Despite the regiment's large size on paper, it took much time for the 1st Virginia to be recruited to full strength. For the first six weeks of its field service, Stuart could call on only six companies of indifferently armed troopers, no more than 350 officers and men present for duty. Until the regiment consisted of at least ten companies, Stuart would be denied the full colonelcy he desired.
Many, perhaps most, of the militiamen of Virginia and her sister states had joined their units for social or political reasons. Until the spring of 1861, their troops often seemed to be playing at the business of soldiering. Even so, the men had absorbed at least some of the lessons of military life. They had followed superiors' orders; had roughed it in the field; had taken part in musters, reviews and parades; and, it is presumed, had learned some semblance of discipline. Briefly, perhaps, they had even spent time on a drill field under the watchful eye of a tactician. As the war clouds gathered, some felt a heightened sense of urgency to assimilate the basics of the military art and did so energetically and thoroughly. By professional standards, their training was woefully inadequate, but the fact that they had any tutoring at all gave them a leg up in a war fought primarily by amateur soldiers.
Militiamen predominated not only in Stuart's regiment but also in a mounted outfit organized a few days before the 1st Virginia began to assemble at Harpers Ferry. The 30th Regiment, Virginia Volunteers, most of whose ten companies were mustered into service at Lynchburg on May 8, was commanded by Col. Richard C. W. Radford, like Stuart, a West Pointer and an "old army" veteran. Originally the 30th was to have been an infantry outfit, but Radford's prewar service had been as a dragoon, a soldier armed, equipped, and trained to fight mounted and afoot with equal effectiveness, the product of an economy-minded Congress. Through officials in Lynchburg, Radford appealed successfully to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the military forces of Virginia, to allow the 30th to be recruited, instead, as cavalry.
Radford's command boasted two dozen graduates of Virginia's military academy, including its lieutenant colonel and co-organizer, Thomas Taylor Munford. Described early on as "a fine body of men," the 30th was among the first mounted units to join the defenders of the Bull Run line. There, throughout June and for most of July 1861, the regiment performed the same reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance duties that Stuart's men shouldered in the Shenandoah Valley.
Soon after Stuart's and Radford's outfits entered active service, additional organizations of horse soldiersmany of them transformed militia units, others raised in the wake of the Fort Sumter crisismade their services available to the Virginia authorities. Some reported for duty in the Valley; others joined the 30th Virginia inside the fortifications along and north of Bull Run; still others were earmarked for service on the Virginia Peninsula, sixty-some miles below Richmond, where Union troops menaced southeastern Virginia from Fort Monroe.
In the Shenandoah, the 1st Virginia was joined by several independent companies of horsemen. Many eventually formed the 7th Virginia Cavalry, led by an elderly West Pointer with political influence, Col. Angus W. McDonald. One of these companies was commanded by Capt. Turner Ashby, a gentleman farmer and militia officer from Fauquier County who quickly became the heir apparent to the soldier-politician.
Although he lacked a military education, Ashby was a born leader as well as an expert horseman, a dead shot, and an enterprising scout. His courage and daring became the stuff of legend in the Valley, as did his ability to slip undetected inside Yankee lines, gather critical intelligence, and place it in the hands of superiors while still warm. Ashby was dashing and colorful in the manner of J. E. B. Stuart, although he eschewed the gaudier trappings that Stuart affected, including ostrich-plumed hats, golden spurs, and crimson-lined capes.
Excerpted from Lee's Cavalrymen by Edward G. Longacre. Copyright © 2002 by Stackpole Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.