Sixth New York Cavalry.
[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]
August 17. 
No Raid—Surprising the Rebs—They Fight and Fall Back—Careless Doctor —A New Movement—The Rebs Flowed out Again—Guerrillas—Escape of Paymaster.
My last letter was dated July 26 , and since that time we have passed through a few rather stormy scenes and tough times even for cavalry lads. If you recollect, I then stated that we were preparing for a move, and, as we all supposed a raid was the programme, of course; felt in cheerful spirits, and fully ripe for fun or fight; but the Fates and Father Abraham, or General Grant, interposed, and, instead of a raid, we started for the dominions of Ben Butler, huge bonfires lighting us on out path to glory and victory, or defeat and death—high-sounding titles, but meaning very little at times.1 About midnight [on the evening of July 26-27, 1864] we reached the Appomattox [sic, the James River at Deep Bottom], where a pontoon-bridge was all ready for our crossing—hay and straw laid on the planks to deaden the sound of the horses’ feet, lest the Graybacks might take the alarm and skedaddle before showing fight or giving our “Old War Horse” a chance of winning “that star”2; but it was not to be, for, at daylight [on July 27, 1864], [Union Second Corps commander Winfield Scott] Hancock having marched the brave lads of the Second Corps across in advance of us, succeeded in capturing a battery of twenty pound Parrot-guns, and also drove the enemy some three or four miles toward the (we fondly hope) “doomed city of Richmond”.3
After crossing [the pontoon bridge over the James River], we made a short halt to feed man and horse, and then proceeded on our way through a dense forest—the Reserve, or Regular Brigade [Res/1/Cav/AotP], being in advance. Before striking the Newmarket road, they encountered the pickets of the enemy, where considerable skirmishing took place before they fell back. Reaching an open field, the First United States Cavalry charged them in tiptop style, causing them to travel a little faster than was comfortable, considering the heat of the day. By this charge we gained a very desirable position to rest for night, and also be prepared for the morrow.4 Early in the morning [of July 28, 1864], Generals Hancock, Sheridan, and Torbert rode around our picket-line to assure themselves that all was right, and appeared to be perfectly well satisfied with the situation, and, I think, did not anticipate an early attack. However, they had hardly reached their respective head-quarters ere the enemy made their appearance in regular line of battle, firing rapidly as they came, and the onslaught being so sudden, our line was obliged to give way, particularly that part of it held by the First New York Dragoons [aka 19th New York Cavalry]. The balance of the Regular Brigade [Res/1st/Cav/AotP] held their ground against heavy odds for over half an hour; but they, too, began to yield slowly, and it seemed to me, at this time, that their horses were in great danger of capture. General Torbe[r]t, seeing a splendid chance for taking the enemy on the flank, ordered our brigade [2/1/Cav/AotP] to take advantage of the opening, and nobly they performed the share of the work allotted to them. The regiments were admirably posted by “Tommy” [Colonel Thomas C. Devin] himself, and done such good execution with both carbine and pistol, that the enemy, in turn, began to fall back, slowly at first, and, finally, as fast as their legs could carry them, the Sixth [New York Cavalry] and Ninth New York [Cavalry] following them so closely that two splendid battle-flags fell into our hands, and over a hundred prisoners. The Sixth and Ninth had the honor of the capture of the flags, though to do the Fourth New York [Cavalry] and Seventeenth Pennsylvania [Cavalry] justice, I have no doubt they would have done the same thing, had circumstances permitted. I believe there was a flag captured by a regiment belonging to the Regular Brigade.5. About a dozen of wounded Rebels fell into our hands, and I am sorry to state, that they did not receive that attention from our doctors which they ought to have received. It is customary for our own wounded to be seen to first, but in this case I saw a Reb brought in with his right arm blown off at the shoulder, and two doctors standing within twenty yards of him, and neither of them attempted to do anything for him. The man lay with seven others close to our brigade and division head-quarters, and there is always a doctor at each, who have not so much to do in the dressing-line as regimental doctors, and I think either of them would not be lowering their dignity any by attempting to save a man’s life. Our losses in this affair were slight, though I am sorry to state that the Sixth New York [Cavalry] has lost the services, for a while, of one of its very best officers, in the person of Captain [Philip R.] Wales, of Company F.6 Sergeant Foster, of the same Company, was also wounded, but it is to be hoped that both of these brave men will shortly be restored, and that Sergeant [Alonzo] Foster’s services for the past three years will be acknowledged by raising him a step in his profession, since promotion has become the order of the day in the brigade.7
Finding the Rebels had left for parts unknown, we thought it best to imitate a good example, and did so likewise [on July 29, 1864], and after recrossing the Appomattox and James Rivers [the James first followed by the Appomattox], marched completely around our position in front of Petersburg, getting there almost in time for the Barnum explosion [aka the July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater].8 We heard a great deal of noise, and saw considerable smoke, also a few niggers9 disfigured more than usual, and numbers of poor fellows going to the rear in ambulances, stretchers, etc., the victims of incapacity and mismanagement. More than this, we did not see as no halt was made before reaching the left flank of the Fifth Corps. Here we stopped one night [of July 30, 1864?], and the following day [July 31, 1864?] [?]ted once more for the River James, to embark for Washington, which place we reached (I mean our Company) sound in mind and limb, and without any accident [in early August 1864]. Part of the brigade [2/1/Cav/AotP] was saluted with a few shells coming down the James River [on August 3, 1864?]10, fortunately injuring nothing but a few old clams of horses of no use to any one but the owners. I am satisfied if Tommy [again, Colonel Devin] had been there with Battery L, that we should have had a game of ball; as he is willing to match his battery against any in the Rebel service, and give heavy odds on the issue.11
[SOPO Editor’s Note: All discussion below this point no longer refers to the Siege of Petersburg, as the Sixth New York Cavalry was transferred to the Shenandoah Valley to fight under Phil Sheridan for the rest of 1864. I will make no further detailed editorial comments on this letter.]
After getting the brigade together at Giesboro’ Point, nearly opposite Alexandria, we started on our journey, passing through Washington early in the evening. Here your correspondent left the brigade, to remain as orderly for one of the staff-officers, for a few days, to recruit his health; but not liking the inactivity of hotel life, he, in company with Col. Nichols, of the Ninth New York [Cavalry], and Capt. Hanly, of the Ninth, a dashing, good-looking son of Erin, and called by some the “O’Malley” of the brigade, and two other officers, started to rejoin the command.
We passed over most of the scene of Early’s and Breckinridge’s last raids, and were perfectly astonished at the fine and promising appearance of things in general in this part of the country, and at every house we stopped at an excellent meal was forthcoming; and in several instances a little of something strong to nourish the inner man. At one of these houses we were obliged to leave Captain Hanley, on account of his horse giving out; though the regret of the party, I am sure, was lessened when they considered the charming company they left him to while away the dull hours. We reached Harper’s Ferry on the 10th of this month [August 10, 1864], and the same day rejoined the command just in time for a “right smart” little fight, near a place called Newtown. The Rebels were strongly posted behind stone walls, having two small pieces of artillery planted to command the road. The Fourth New York [Cavalry] had been skirmishing with them for over two hours before the arrival of the balance of the brigade. About 10 o’clock, the “old War Horse”, accompanied by General Merrit, arrived at the scene of action, and immediately the Seventeenth Pennsylvania [Cavalry] was dismounted to fight on foot, the Sixth New York [Cavalry] remaining mounted to be prepared to charge—the Ninth New York on the flank. Captain Wright had the posting of the skirmish-line, and placed the men to as good advantage as the nature of the ground would admit. A division staff-officer, at this stage of the proceedings, informed the Colonel that a mounted regiment migh[t], with ease charge the position, and the Colonel relying on this statement, ordered forward the Sixth New York [Cavalry]. The men advanced in columns of fours, and under fire formed squadron as well and correctly as I have ever seen them do, but when the charge was sounded, lo and behold a stone wall and high fence stood in front of them to bar their further progress. By Captain Harmann’s orders they immediately broke by fours, turned a short distance to the right, dismounted, and taking possession of a stone fence, annoyed the enemy considerably. But this state of things would not do, as Tommy wanted the enemy’s position, and nothing short of it. So, Captain Wright was ordered to have the skirmish-line advanced, and charge them, Tommy himself coming up with the battery. The men advanced in good style, not one that I could see loitering behind. I could not do justice to all in this letter, so I will mention no names, but will say that officers and men seemed to vie with each other in bravery, and seemed perfectly regardless of danger. After gaining the enemy’s position they opened on us with their two pieces of artillery, causing some of the lads to jump around rather lively. The Colonel, with Lieutenant Heaton, planted a section of our battery [Battery B & L, 2nd US Artillery] to reply, and afterward ordered up the other section under Lieutenant McIntyre, and the way they pitched into the Rebs was a caution, silencing their guns in about ten minutes. I was quite close to the battery, though in a place of comparative safety, and noticed particularly the bravery and coolness of Sergeant Jones and Toole, and, in fact, all the boys of the battery. The shell flew fast and thick around them, covering the boys of one piece all over with dust, but nary a man flinched or took one step to the rear.
This battery is a consolidation of L and B of the Second United States [Artillery], and has been commanded for a long time by Lieutenant [Edward] Heaton, one of the coolest men I ever seen in action. Now it is commanded by Lieutenant Pierce, an officer of nearly seventeen years experience in the Regular Army, and it is to be hoped he will prove as good a man as Heaton. Since I commenced to write this letter, there has been a considerable change in the division. Sheridan commands the Department, Torbert the Cavalry Corps, and Merritt the Division now consisting of four brigades. I have not had a chance to send a letter off for the last four or five days, as the valley is full of guerrillas. Since writing the above, I learn that our train was captured, and burned by Moseby [sic, Mosby], while we were after them. Our Paymaster and his money was with the train, but fortunately for us escaped.
Editor’s Note: This letter to the Sunday Mercury appears here due to Bill Styple’s fantastic book Writing and Fighting the Civil War, which is where I first learned about these amazing soldier letters. You can purchase a copy of Writing and Fighting the Civil War at Belle Grove Publishing.
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- SOPO Editor’s Note: The author of this letter belonged to the 6th New York Cavalry. This regiment was part of Devin’s Second Brigade, Torbert’s First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. AotP Cavalry Corps commander Phil Sheridan took Torbert’s First Division, Gregg’s Second Division, and Kautz’s Cavalry Division from the Army of the James to the Deep Bottom bridgehead, in the “dominions of Ben Butler,” as part of the First Deep Bottom Campaign, which lasted from July 27-29, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This almost certainly refers to brigade commander Colonel Thomas C. Devin. “Winning a star” would mean Devin would get promoted to Brigadier General, trading his Colonel’s eagle insignia for one gold star on his shoulder straps. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I’ve discussed this affair and posted many descriptions of it over the years on this site. Poor placement and handling of the Confederate infantry surrounding Graham’s 1st Rockbridge VA Artillery allowed a Union skirmish line to move up and capture all four of their 20-lb. Parrott Rifles. The Rockbridge Artillery had been using these long-range weapons to shell Union shipping on the James to the south of their position. Hancock’s full scale crossing with his Second Corps and cavalry surprised the Confederates. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This charge occurred southeast of where the Rockbridge artillery was captured, in an area called Strawberry Plains, south of the New Market Road. Sheridan’s cavalry was out covering Hancock’s right flank. The terrain, the Union Navy on the James River, and the Deep Bottom bridgehead covered his left. I have never, to my knowledge, encountered a map which depicts this small fight. Everyone depicts only the infantry fighting on this day, and then the larger cavalry/infantry fight on the next day. To at least get an idea of where Sheridan’s cavalry was located, see Bryce Suderow’s article on First Deep Bottom from the September 2000 (Vol. 3, No. 7) issue of North & South magazine, page 21. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This early portion of a lengthy and descriptive paragraph covers the cavalry/infantry fighting on July 28, 1864 at the First Battle of Deep Bottom between Torbert’s and Gregg’s Union cavalry divisions and three Confederate infantry brigades: Hunt’s (McGowan’s SC Brigade of Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, ANV), Henagan’s (Kershaw’s Old SC Brigade, Kershaw’s Division, First Corps, ANV), and Cowan’s (Lane’s NC Brigade of Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, ANV) I have many reports from Lane’s Brigade of this fight published on my site. Click on any of the July 28 reports for the Confederate perspective of this small but spirited affair. Jimmy Price’s book The Battle of First Deep Bottom has a nice map of the fight on page 93. My own battle summary of the First Battle of Deep Bottom also has a good map of the fighting courtesy the Civil War Preservation Trust (now the American Battlefield Trust). ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: A quick glance through the roster of the 6th New York Cavalry shows this is Captain Philip R. Wales, who was discharged October 8, 1864, I’m guessing for the wound he suffered here, but I’m mostly ignorant of what happens to these regiments once they move to the Shenandoah Valley in August. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Another quick glance through the roster of the 6th New York Cavalry shows this is Sergeant Alonzo Foster, who was discharged February 5, 1865, at Augur General Hospital in Virginia. It looks like he never received the promotion this letter writer thought he deserved. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I had a good chuckle at this characterization of the mine explosion and resulting July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater as the “Barnum explosion.” Clearly this man did not think much of what had happened at the Crater. For those who do not know, Phineas T. Barnum was a great American showman and promoter of oddities and “humbug.” At the time this letter was written, Barnum was known for his museum of oddities rather than his circus, which was not yet in existence. This museum would burn down less than a year after this letter was written, and he suffered a similar fire at a new location in 1868, afterwards going into the circus business, founding what became the world-famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “the Greatest Show on Earth.” I never thought I would be discussing P. T. Barnum on my Siege of Petersburg site, but here we are! ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I will never cross out or censor terms of this nature written in first person accounts. I want people learning about this time to understand that it was acceptable to print the n-word in newspapers of the time. I also want people learning about this time that it was acceptable to write letters containing this term during this time. I will not attempt to erase or whitewash history in pursuit of some modern-day political goal. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: In looking through my list of small skirmishes and actions during the Siege of Petersburg, only one stands out as a possible explanation for these attacks, the August 3, 1864 Action Near Wilcox’s Landing. Consulting the Diary of the First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, you find that “Colonel Carter, with some artillery moves down the (James) river, escorted by two regiments of cavalry, to annoy the enemy’s transports.” Some sources claim that the specific battery in the Action at Wilcox’s Point was Fry’s Orange Virginia Artillery, but I’m not even sure they had any remaining guns during this time period after the disaster at Spotsylvania Court House on May 12, 1864. If anyone knows for sure or can shed more light, please CONTACT US. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I suspect the letter writer is referring to the 2nd US Artillery, Batteries B and L, which were part of the Horse Artillery, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. I further suspect this battery often was attached to Devin’s Second Brigade, First Division, Cavalry Corps. In fact the letter writer seems to confirm my suspicions in the last two paragraphs of this letter when referring to this battery as “our battery.” The writer is recounting the Confederate practice of using light artillery to dash up to the James River and fire suddenly on passing Union shipping. How this battery was supposed to disembark under fire or fire from the deck of a moving ship to challenge the Confederates is a task not discussed. ↩
- “Sixth New York Cavalry.” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). August 28, 1864, p. 7 col. 1 ↩