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Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Ride to Almost Certain Death




E[DWARD]. W. WHITAKER, Captain, Co. E, First Connecticut Cavalry. Highest rank attained: Bvt. Brig-Gen. U.S.V. Born at Killingly, Conn., June 15, 1841.

After its raid against the Danville and South-side Railway, the Third Cavalry Division [3/Cav/AotP], commanded by General James H. Wilson, on its return march to join the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg, found a large force of rebel infantry, cavalry and artillery in position, barring its passage at Ream’s Station, Va., within five miles of army headquarters.

Captain E[dward]. W[ashburn]. Whitaker, who was serving on General Wilson’s staff, took in the whole position at a glance. Perceiving that it would be impracticable for this column, jaded and almost worn out by a week’s incessant marching, working and fighting, to force its way farther without assistance, he volunteered to take a squadron and charge through the rebel line and inform General Meade of the division’s perilous straits and that help must be sent at once.

General Wilson accepted Captain Whitaker’s offer and directed him to proceed immediately on his desperate mission. He was entirely ignorant of what had become of the Army of the Potomac, or where he should find it, or what perils he would encounter on the way. It looked as though he were starting on a ride to certain death.

Selecting Lieutenant Ford and forty troopers of the Third New York Cavalry, he explained to them the hazardous character of the undertaking, and instructed them that whoever should survive should make his way as rapidly as possible to army headquarters and describe the position of the cavalry column he had left behind.

Not a man faltered, but the entire detachment dashed forward after their gallant leader, who, bearing to his left and striking the rebel right, broke through their line like a tornado, and galloped on to headquarters, where he arrived at an early hour of morning with only eighteen of his gallant cavalrymen. They had cut through the enemy’s line which one of General Wilson’s officers, after reconnoitering, had reported as “strong as a stone wall.”

Captain Whitaker gave the necessary information and at once volunteered to guide the Sixth Corps to the rescue, but its movements were so dilatory that it did not arrive until long after the cavalry column, despairing of help, had made a great detour by which it eluded the enemy, extricated itself and rejoined the army several days later.

Captain Whitaker was highly commended by General Wilson, immediately promoted to the rank of major, and received the Medal of Honor for his services in this notable charge.


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 359-360
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