Editor’s Note: Henry Fitzgerald Charles of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (dismounted) wrote a short memoir based on his diary from the Siege of Petersburg in 1864/65. A transcription of this memoir was placed online in 2001 as a part of the web site The Civil War Diary of Henry Fitzgerald Charles, by the web site’s owner and Henry F. Charles descendant John Neitz. Mr. Neitz made the appearance of this memoir at The Siege of Petersburg Online possible, and I thank him greatly for his cooperation. The transcription on this page is copyrighted by John Neitz as a part of his web site and may not be reproduced without his express written consent. All rights reserved.
The Fifth Corps and the Stony Creek Raid 21
(BTC Editor’s Note: Here Charles again talks about the Stony Creek Raid. He seems to have had some trouble with dates by the time this manuscript was written.)
We stayed in camp a little while and did some picket duty. Then we started on Bellfield Raid, which took us five days. Had more or less fighting every day. We started with three rations; that is all the cavalry got no matter how long they stayed out. We had to live on what we could capture, or rather steal. Unfortunately, this part of the country had been raided before. We were in the front and the infantry behind, tearing up railroads and burning ties and heating and warping the rails.
The first day we crossed the river and lay there all night. Adam Shelly’s horse stumbled and tossed him into the river. When he came up, he had his mouth full of water and he hissed and blubbered at us when we laughed at him.
We had to ford the river and found a larger force opposing us that we had anticipated. We got all tangled up and had to retreat back across the river. Next morning, we got reinforcements and tried again and made it. We found two of our men on the bank with their throats cut. I suppose they got sick or were too tired to retreat and were caught by the Rebs. We moved out, but the leather straps on our packhorses were rotten, and the provisions they were carrying kept spilling on the ground. We found a fine carriage at a farm and loaded it full of stuff from the horses. Of course we lived on small rations but something helped us on a little. We got some dried corn at a nigger hut and we also caught a goose and carried her a night and a day till we could build a fire to cook her. Stopped at a place to feed and we just put the water on for coffee and the water was merely boiling when the Rebs began shelling us. We had to move fast with no coffee and a raw goose. We were real hungry and ate most of it raw and gave the rest away, so none of it was wasted. We burned lots of things on this trip, as we could not bring it along.
One night we lay where two rivers come together at a point. We got there after night and were not allowed to take anything off our horses, so we laid down beside them with a strap in our hands to hold them so we could mount in a hurry and skedaddle if the Rebs came. It rained and snowed all night and when daylight came we began to fall back. With all the rain, the river got much higher than when we crossed it, so they built a pontoon bridge of wood for us to cross over on. When we got over, they chipped the bridge loose and it went down with the high water. Then we heard the Rebs shooting. They were shooting at about eighty of our men in the woods, and this was unbeknown to us when we cut the bridge loose. They could not cross over and the Rebs got every last one of them.
Later, we dismounted and sent the horses back and scattered along the swamp. There was a high railroad embankment there and me and George Stahl were sent to the other side to watch for Johnnies. We stayed for about two hours and the firing had ceased, so we climbed back over the embankment and we found all our men gone and it was full of Rebs marching up towards the woods. We ran about two Virginia miles till we caught up with some of our dismounted men.
They were cutting down some trees to put across the road to barricade it. We stayed there a while and helped them and then, real tired boys, we made it back to our horses and it was the last we saw of the Rebs on that trip. We were so tired from our long run but were happy the Rebs didn’t have two more prisoners.
That night we stopped at Sussex Court House, the finest we seen in Virginia. There were some men and a lady there that gave us wrong directions but we caught them at it and gave the men a drumhead court martial and hung them and brought the lady along to our side. We burned the courthouse down. Marched to the river where the pontoon bridge had been laid and a group from the 9th Corps came in to relieve us. The roads were regular mortar beds; frequently the horses would stick in it and the only thing you could do was to shoot them and go on. But in the evening it was so cold the horses would break thru the crust and break their legs – then, by midnight, it froze so hard that an artillery piece with six horses could gallop over it.
I was detailed on a burning expedition. We burned a strip five miles by five miles. Just gave the family notice to get out and then set fire to the buildings. They had no time to save anything. Often wondered what ever became of those poor people that cold night. The reason it was done was so the Rebs would have no place to harbor. I was nearly froze that night when we got to camp as our blankets had been wet and were frozen together so hard we could not get them apart. But our quarters kept the wind away from us and we had a little wood that was left. We soon had a fire and laid and rested our tired bodies. This was also called the applejack raid, as most of the planters had applejack or peach brandy or both in their cellars.
The cavalry was in advance so they got to the house first. Sometimes we had a chance to get some and sometimes not, as the provost guard was always close on our heels. They gave orders to destroy all liquor founding the cellars or anywhere else. I suppose over half of the detail was drunk and wonder what would have happened if we would have been attacked. I had several drinks and so did most of the cavalrymen that drank. I had been detailed to scout with Captain Boyd in command and we got into a place toward evening where there was considerable of the stuff. Most of us filled our canteens and there was a keg of brandy there, which I reckon held between five and six gallons. He said we would take this along for the boys back at camp. So they gave it to me and with my poor hand I didn’t get it very far till a yell,” Halt there and drop that keg.” I said I had it under captain’s orders and I didn’t intend to drop it. Then a Provost Marshal rode up and dismounted and with his little George Washington hatchet he gave a heavy rap and soon the brandy that was in the keg was on the ground. The infantry gave us a lot of mischief as they were always too late for the applejack and every time they saw us they would yell “Applejack” and some would crow like roosters.