Number 281. Report of Colonel Robert M. West, Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanding First Brigade, of operations June 21-30

   

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in Part 1 (Serial Number 80)

Numbers 281. Report of Colonel Robert M. West, Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanding First Brigade, of operations June 21-30.1

HDQRS. FIRST BRIGADE, KAUTZ’S CAVALRY DIVISION.

Near Jones’ Landing, Va., July 1, 1864.

SIR; I have the honor to submit herewith my report of the operations of this brigade during the recent movement:

On the 21st of June I marched from my camp near the breast-works at daylight, crossed the pontoon bridge, and proceeded to the vicinity of Mount Sinai Church, where the division formed a junction with General Wilson.

On the 22nd I moved at 3 a.m., following the Second Brigade, passed Reams’ Station, on the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad, thence, via Dinwiddie Court-House, to the Petersburg and Lynchburg Railroad, which was struck at Sutherland’s Station. That station was destroyed by the Second Brigade. My brigade continued on down the road to Ford’s Station, where we encamped for the night and sent out a strong party to destroy the track, &c.

On the 23rd marched at 2 a.m., still following the Second Brigade past Blacks and Whites Station, and through Nottoway Court-House to Burkeville, where we encamped for the night. Here I was ordered to destroy the Richmond branch of the railroad uniting at this point. I at once sent out a detail of 600 men, who worked vigorously until midnight, when they were relieved by the remainder of my effective force. The latter detail worked until the hour for marching. I destroyed effectually two miles and a half of this road. The work was very hard, owing to the scarcity in some places of fence rails or other dry wood, and also to the great weight of the track, about one mile of which we overturned and burned completely up.

On the 24th I marched at 4 a.m., in advance, along the Richmond and Danville Railroad, halting every few hours and sending out parties to destroy the track, stations, water-tanks, &c. Marching in this manner we reached Keysville. We halted for the night and again sent out heavy working parties to destroy the road.

On the 25th marched at 4 a.m., still in advance, and halting to destroy the road, I detached a squadron to Johnson’s Saw-Mill, about three miles across the railroad, which my men destroyed. This mill and another private mill, with the company mill, three in all, were the only resources the enemy would have from whence to get timber to repair the road. They were all completely destroyed. We continued on, via Drake’s Branch Station to Roanoke Station, where we halted for three hours and worked vigorously, destroying the road and brigade. This done we marched on to the Staunton River, arriving in front of the enemy’s position at the bridge, driving their pickets from the depot as we approached. Here a halt was made, and after the enemy’s position had been reconnoitered by the commanding generals, I was ordered to dismount my brigade and advance on the right upon the bridge; I was also ordered to have a detail provided with light combustible material, to be carried along, with which to fire the bridge. This was done. My advance was, with one squadron of the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, deployed as skirmishers, the remainder of that regiment supporting the skirmishers, while the Third New York was kept to the left and rear in reserve. Our advance was not opposed, except by artillery fire, for some distance nor until we were within musket-range of the bridge, where a sharp fire was opened upon us, both from the bridge and from the opposite side of the stream. As the Second Brigade advanced on the opposite side of the railroad, and as soon as artillerists got the range of the bridge, the enemy at the end of the bridge nearest us grew very unsteady, and I thought a direct and rapid charge down the railroad would frighten them away. This I tried with two companies of the Third New York, but found the fire of artillery and musketry so well directed at the railroad from the end of the bridge, and across the stream on both sides of the road, that I was forced to come down and join the main body on the flat below. We worked our way, skirmishing to within about 200 yards of the main bridge, where we came to a small bridge, underneath which the lines of the two brigades (First and Second) became united. Under cover of this bridge I formed an assaulting party and directed it up the embankment, in the hope that by a quick move we might obtain possession of the main bridge sufficiently long to fire it. The men tried repeatedly to gain a foothold on the railroad, and to advance along the sides of the embankment, but could not. The height of the railroad embankment enabled the enemy from their position down by the water’s edge, across the stream, to sweep the sides and track with a terrible fire, while they were in a position of complete security. We held all the ground we took until the order came to withdraw which was received about 11 p.m., through an aide-de-camp of General Wilson. The loss of the brigade, as will be seen by reports of regimental commanders, was 5 officers and 19 men; of the men 9 are known to have been killed. Our wounded were all brought away from that field.

On the 26th started at sunrise, following General Wilson’s division, the Second Brigade in rear, and marched about ten miles, halted two hours, then continued on until 10 p.m. Of the 27th and 28th I kept no account, excepting that at about dark on the 28th we came to Stony Creek and formed General Wilson’s division engaged with the enemy.

Here I placed one regiment in position (Fifth Pennsylvania) to protect the wagon train, in obedience to orders, from General Kautz, and left the other standing in the road. After halting about two hours I put my brigade en route, following the division artillery, which was preceded by the Second Brigade. On the 29th arrived at Reams’ Station, on the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. Whilst en route an officer came from the rear and reported a party of bushwhackers annoying the train, and no troops of ours following the train sufficiently near to protect it. It at once sent one squadron of the Third New York Cavalry, under Captain Hall, to act as rear guard. Soon after I received an order to send two squadrons to the rear to communicate with General Wilson. I selected the detail from the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and placed Captain Ker in command. The duty was done, the captain reporting to me with his command in the field at Reams’ Station. Afterward I was ordered, while debouching upon the plain near Reams’ to send one company on scouting duty with a captain of General Wilson’s staff. The detail was made. It was not heard from again until we arrived in our present camp. Upon arriving at Reams’ I found the Second Brigade sharply engaged, and I was ordered to dismount my brigade and place it in a designated position, which was at once done. The gallant conduct of the Second Brigade relieved the immediate pressure, however, and my brigade remained in position without becoming engaged. General Wilson’s troops coming up and getting into position on our left flank brought on a very sharp engagement. I was ordered to “prepare to cut loose from everything.” I accordingly gave orders to abandon all carts and vehicles. Then I received an order to move out, following Colonel Spear’s brigade. This I attempted to obey, but the artillery got between my brigade and Spear’s, and I held back my men to let the artillery pass. Coming up to swamp stream, after having passed through a pine timber first, and afterward through a thick growth of young pines, on no road, I found the artillery stopped by the swamp. Up to this time, notwithstanding a severe artillery and at times sharp musketry fire, my brigade held together well. Desperate efforts were made to get the artillery across. The enemy held the stream not 200 yards to our right, and were advancing (not an imaginary enemy, but a real enemy) in force, in line of battle upon our rear. The artillery carriages in their efforts to cross the swamp got down to their axles in mud; fence rails were piled in without stint, but to no purpose; horses and carriages went down, and the whole pack had to be abandoned. At this time the enemy had closed upon our rear and opened fire, creating confusion in my brigade. The men deployed along the swamp to find crossings. I became separated from the bulk of them, and know but little of after occurrences. Not a wheel was saved; mountain howitzers and all fell into the hands of the enemy. I aided in rallying about 1,000 men and officers, fragments of all the regiments in both divisions, and succeeded in bringing them safely within our picket-lines, traveling principally by the compass until I neared the railroad. Some little inconvenience was experienced from small parties of the enemy who were concealed in the woods along the road. Nothing serious, however, occurred to prevent our joining the column under General Kautz a short time before our pickets were reached.

Our loss in officers and men has been most severe. Nineteen commissioned officers and 550 enlisted men are missing. Some of them will yet come, in a few having been heard from. I have no doubt a large proportion have gotten beyond the enemy and will appear either at some point on the James River or at the lines near Portsmouth. I

infer this from the direction the clouds of dust on my right indicated the column to have taken, which was considerable southwest of the route I followed.

I am, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

ROBERT M. WEST,

Colonel Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, Commanding Brigade.

Captain M. J. ASCH,

Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, Cavalry Division.

P. S.- Since the foregoing was written a report has come in of General Wilson having reached the James River with a large portion of the officers and men supposed to have been missing. No report of the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry accompanied this for the reason that that regiment was under my immediate command, and its special operations are specifically referred to herein. The subjoined shows, the loss at Staunton Bridge in each regiment. Third New York Cavalry, 2 enlisted men killed and 2 commissioned officers and 5 enlisted men wounded. Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, 7 enlisted men killed and 3 commissioned officers and 14 men wounded.

ROBERT M. WEST,

Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

Source:

  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 733-736

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