November 1-5, 1864: The 4th Massachusetts Cavalry Probes Charles City County
In early November 1864, 150 years ago this week, a portion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry rode over Charles City County for the better portion of five days, looking for guerillas and their leaders in an attempt to break up the excessive activity there. Charles City County is northeast of City Point, and contains on its southern end Harrison’s Landing, terminus of George McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Malvern Hill is on the northwestern edge of the county, St. Mary’s (or Samaria) Church and Charles City C. H. are located near the center of the county, and Wilson’s Landing is in the southeastern corner of the county. All of these places and more were visited by Major Atherton Stevens, Jr., seventy-five members of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, and fifteen members of the Tenth Corps provost guard. In fact, this is such a specific operation that I’m switching gears here and letting Stevens tell his own story in the form of his report from the Official Records, Vol. XLII, Part 1, pages 683-685:
Lieutenant: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to orders, I left Bermuda Hundred on the evening of Tuesday, the 1st instant, with seventy-five men of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry and fifteen of the corps provost guard, crossing the James River by steamers and disembarking at the place known as the Carter house, a short distance above Bermuda Hundred, on the opposite side of the river. I immediately pushed forward into the country, starting in a northeasterly direction toward Saint Mary’s Church, keeping a short distance from the Chickahominy River and the line of the enemy’s pickets, making a complete circuit of the county and passing through Charles City Court-House to Wilson’s Landing, arriving at the latter place at 6 o’clock on the morning of the 2d instant. On account of a heavy rain, which continued through the day, and desiring to arrive at a certain point at about daybreak, I allowed the men and horses to rest through the whole of the second day. After a consultation with the general commanding at the post, I determined upon a course to pursue, which I deemed to be most expedient, making use of the suggestions from the general, as he had been considerably troubled by the scouts and guerrillas that infest the county (Charles City). Leaving Wilson’s Landing at 2 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, the 3d instant, I moved rapidly in a northwesterly direction toward the central portion of the county, striking the houses of several notorious rebel sympathizers at the dawn of day, and was fortunate enough to secure four of the worst characters early in the morning. In the afternoon I detached a squad of fifteen men from the main body, and placing them under the superintendence of Lieutenant Percy, Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, sent him back toward the northeastern portion of the county, with instructions to meet me at a certain point, or, if too late, to move on to Harrison’s Landing, where I had determined to rest for the night.
With the main body I scouted through the central portion of the county and visited the house of the notorious rebel Gentry. Here I found quite a quantity of powder and leaden bullets. His house, I learned, was used as a headquarters where the notorious Captain Sloan, who seems to be the acknowledged leader of this band of desperadoes in Charles City County, has been accustomed to assemble his followers and mature their plans and schemes against loyal citizens and such small parties of soldiers as may be sent out from any of the posts along the north side the river. By their overbearing acts of cruelty they have kept smothered what Union spirit there may be throughout the county, rendering it no less than quick and certain destruction of his property and expulsion from the neighborhood, or imprisonment, for a person to evince the least spark of love for the old nag. The young man (Gentry) himself I did not find at home, and on the afternoon of the 3d I notified the occupants (two women) to remove all the furniture and such other articles as they required, tendering the services of the men to assist them. At 4 o’clock the torch was set to the buildings and soon they were in one entire blaze. I then moved direct to Harrison’s Landing, arriving there at 6 p. m. Lieutenant Percy arrived with his detachment at about 10 p. m., having been very successful. A free negro by the name of Webb tendered his services as guide and proved to be “true as steel,” and, in fact, I found the colored people almost always to be so. The information gained from them was invariably correct and often of the highest importance. Lieutenant Percy brought considerable information, valuable for any future movement, and brought five worthy representatives of the F. F. V’s., strong sympathizers with the rebellion, valuable informants of the Confederate Government, bitter enemies to the Union, and in a great degree successful opposers to the effectual system now in use by the commanding general of gaining information from the rebel capital and authorities. In fact, I must say I am confident the movement would have been considered a success had nothing else been accomplished than the removal of fourteen of these characters, who have heretofore been in the habit of very materially rendering aid and comfort to the enemy. I forwarded them to headquarters of the department for the disposal of the provost-marshal.
On the morning of the 4th, at 10 o’clock, 1 left Harrison’s Landing and moved in a northerly direction toward the Chickahominy Swamps. There seems to be an organized band of citizens and furloughed or detailed soldiers scattered over the whole county, numbering about twenty-five, under the leadership, as stated above, of one Captain Sloan. The female sex are also engaged in the work, and are of great assistance. It is a disgraceful fact that the women—wives and children of these rebel scouts, and mothers, bowed down with age—will tell such downright falsehoods, and of so base a nature as to bring the flush of shame to the cheek of any man listening to them. Surely Southern aristocracy has rapidly declined in point of respectability as one of the effects of their rash attempt to establish their Confederacy. The members of this band of scouts, so soon as they learn of a party of Federal cavalry being in the vicinity, immediately establish themselves “in the saddle,” and, if driven too closely, take refuge inside the lines of the army, leaving the women at home to meet the “Yankees,” and tell them that they “have not seen their husbands or their brothers or their sons for three or four months, when the conscripting officer took them away.” When one ventures to visit his home during the presence of a Federal force in the vicinity he always keeps his horse saddled at a short distance from his house, where he can mount and ride into the woods at the first warning of the approach of danger. At such times they never remain at home nights. Under such circumstances it was almost impossible to succeed in taking these men, and but for the excellent guides employed it would have been useless to have attempted anything of the kind. On the 4th I visited such parts of the central portion of the county as I had not previously seen. Secured 2 prisoners, 30 head of cattle, 20 sheep, and 20 horses and mules. These I carried to Harrison’s Lauding, to which place I returned, arriving at 10 p. m.
On the following morning at 9 o’clock I left Harrison’s Landing, moving northwesterly toward Malvern Hill. Passing over this and taking the Charles City road went nearly to the ground upon which the battle of Fussell’s Mill was fought in August last. Branching off the Charles City road I moved up the Darbytown road till I came to pickets of General Kautz’s cavalry division. I arrived at these headquarters at 4 p. m. yesterday, the 5th. While passing through the country I was particular to question the most intelligent negroes in regard to the late call issued by the Confederate authorities for 300,000 colored soldiers. They always gave the same answer, and in case two were together would exchange a knowing look, and smiling “We alls never goin’ to fight, massa.” I ascertained from the man Webb, mentioned above, that any attempt of the rebel authorities to carry this law into effect would be in vain, and in case they resorted to a conscription a well-organized band of determined and courageous colored men would meet them with a firm resistance. They had succeeded in securing a few fire-arms and other weapons, which he assured me would be used with wonderful effect should the attempt be made to force them into the ranks. I place a great deal of reliance upon his story, and if, indeed, it be true, as I have every reason to believe it is, surely the project will be much more advantageous to the cause of freedom than to the rebellion.
Lieut. J. I. Davenport, aide-de camp to Major-General Butler and assistant provost-marshal of the department, accompanied me throughout the movement, and all the prisoners were taken in charge by him. In mentioning the places visited I should have stated that the Tallman house, where was found a large quantity of ammunition, &c, was burned. I ascertained from the commanding officer of Company M, Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, that a few days previous to my arrival at Harrison’s Landing—at which post his company is stationed—two of his men (Privates Darling and Schleicher) had had a very sharp encounter with three rebels at the Tallman house, in which Mr. Tallman himself was engaged, he being at the time on a furlough of a few days from his regiment. The result of the engagement was that 1 of the enemy was killed, 1 (Tallman) wounded, Schleicher killed, and Darling wounded. Darling succeeded in escaping, however, with both his and his comrades’ horses. I had previously learned enough to warrant me in burning the house, but upon ascertaining the above facts I allowed the man Darling to enjoy the pleasure and satisfaction of applying the torch, which he was happy to do.
In mentioning the officers and men who performed the work I have only to say that they all did their duty in a highly satisfactory manner and deserve the thanks of the loyal people of Charles City County, as well as of the commanding general, for the valuable work performed and information obtained.
I have the honor to be, lieutenant, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
ATHERTON H. STEVENS, Jr.,
Major and Provost-Marshal, Tenth Corps.
If you’ll notice, Stevens has much to say about the slaves and former slaves his force encountered along the way, including mention of what might happen if the Confederates tried to form Black regiments similar to the USCT formations so prevalent in the Union army at this point in the war. And this is another reminder that the Civil War was often a brutal war which was fought with little mercy on either side. Regardless, a county which sat just across the James River from much of the main Union lines was now a little more secure for Union interests thanks to Stevens and the men who served in this expedition.
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