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Petersburg Medals of Honor: He Paused at the Side of His Dead Captain




Sergeant, Troop M, 11th Pa. Cavalry.
Born at Bellfont, Columbiana County, Ohio, Nov. 20, 1837.

A small force, part of which was the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, was sent, June 25, 1864, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel [George] Stetzel, to destroy the railroad bridge across the Staunton River, half a mile south of Burk’s Junction, Va. The enemy was strongly entrenched on the south side of the river and on both OM sides of the railway bridge. The approach to the bridge and the Confederates’ position was flat meadow land, destitute of cover for the advancing force, excepting perhaps a slight depression caused by the dry bed of a branch of the river. The Pennsylvania Cavalry was ordered to advance on the bridge and entrenchments, led by carbineers selected from each company. A member of Troop M being suddenly stricken ill, the captain called for a volunteer to take the sick man’s place, and Sergeant Nelson W. Ward, though he himself had been on sick report for a day or two, volunteered and took his place in the ranks. The story is continued by Sergeant Ward, as follows:

“Our troops moved forward in an irregular line, and, with the right resting on a small trestle between the railway station and the bridge, took a position in the dry bed of the stream. The fury of the fight was soon on, firing at short range from both artillery and infantry sending death into our ranks with terrific swiftness. With a salute to my captain, I asked : ‘Isn’t the colonel going to form the men in line for a charge on the bridge ?’ at which Captain Gerard Reynolds replied, giving the order: ‘Forward, men, forward!’ They were the brave officer’s last words, for he fell dead, shot as he uttered the last word of his command.

“Just then, too, from under the trestle, we heard the colonel ordering the captain to move his men to the right, toward the railroad. Thus, with our company commander dead, our regimental commander skulking, it was not singular that the men wavered under the shower of shot and shell. One of the men asked me: ‘What are we to do?’ I replied: ‘Follow me, boys,’ and, swinging my carbine over my head, I led in a charge against the bridge until every man but one had been shot down.”



“It was an awful slaughter and a hopeless effort. With but two of us left, we started back for the dry bed depression. On the way I found the dead body of my captain, and stopping, I knelt down to secure his money, watch, revolver and spur. Although repeatedly urged by comrades across the railway and further back on the line, I remained fully twenty minutes at his side, endeavoring to procure assistance to carry the corpse off the field, but I waited and begged in vain, and finally had to retreat to the main force without the body of our brave and beloved captain.”

During this truly heroic effort, a bullet struck the heel of Sergeant Ward’s boot, and another bullet passed through the skirt of his blouse.

The money and other articles from Captain Reynolds were turned over to the proper authorities.


Staunton River Bridge, Va. —While operating in Virginia in June, 1864, General James H. Wilson, commanding the Third Division of Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps, ordered General Kautz’s Division to attack the enemy and destroy the bridge across the Staunton River. The attack was maintained for three hours, but failed. The Federals suffered a loss of sixty in killed and wounded.


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. 370-371
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