Cavalry Operations (September 13, 1863)

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton led the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

On September 13 Meade wrote home about sending cavalry head Alfred Pleasonton on an expedition to determine if Robert E. Lee’s army was on the move. He attached Theodore Lyman to Pleasonton’s staff so Lyman could get some experience in the field. Lyman wrote about his adventures on September 17 but I thought I would include that letter here. It demonstrates Lyman’s great value as an observer. He provides a wonderful perspective of a cavalry operation and a particularly vivid portrait of George Armstrong Custer.

A few days ago some scouts I had sent across the river returned and reported that Lee’s army was moving back to Richmond. They asserted positively that that portion near Fredericksburg had actually gone. I did not and do not much rely on their story, though I could not doubt but that a portion of his force had been sent away for some purpose either to re-inforce Beauregard at Charleston or Bragg in the South West.

It was necessary, however, that I should make some effort to ascertain what was going on, so to-day I sent Pleasanton, with all the cavalry, supported by Warren’s Corps (Second), to see what they could find out. Pleasanton crossed the river early, and immediately was engaged with the enemy’s cavalry, and has been fighting them all day. The result is that we have driven them from Culpeper Court House, and three miles beyond, have captured three guns and over fifty prisoners, and Warren is now in Culpeper, some nine miles in front of the Rappahannock. Still the great question as to whether Lee is withdrawing is unsettled, though Pleasanton sends word that all the information that he is able to pick up goes to support the rumor that he is falling back. Should it prove true, I suppose some movement on my part will be necessary; but what, I can’t say, as with my limited force I don’t see how I can advance much farther, and there is no probability of their permitting me to go to the James River, as it uncovers Washington.

Here’s Lyman’s take:

Having again got “home,” I find leisure and paper to write you a rather longer letter than you have got of late. Perhaps you would like to hear about our little cavalry performance. Of course there was not hard fighting, and a hundred or so will cover all the killed and wounded; nevertheless, as the whole was new to me and as the operations covered a good deal of country, they were interesting and instructive both. The whole Cavalry Corps (a good many thousand men) had been massed the day before, and had orders to cross the Rappahannock early next morning. I was to ride down in time to join General Pleasonton. The distance to the river is some eight miles, so I was up at 4.30 — rain pitchforks! dark as a box — thunder and lightning — everything but “enter three witches.” However, in my india-rubber coat and much-insulted large boots, much of the water could be kept out, and, by the time we were saddled and had had some tea, behold it stopped raining and away I went, quite thankful, and with a tail of six orderlies and a corporal. The ground was very wet, and we went slipping and sliding, in the red mud, till we drew near the river, when, behold, the whole country alive with train-waggons, columns of infantry, batteries, and ambulances; the latter with the stretchers fastened outside disagreeably suggestive of casualties. The rear of the cavalry had just crossed, when I got there; and General Pleasonton was on the opposite bank, where I presently joined him, crossing by the railroad bridge. He had with him a good many aides, besides orderlies and escort. Just at this point we held the southern, as well as the northern, bank and the pickets were some two miles out. The country is rolling, but not quite hilly; there are very large open fields (now filled mostly with weeds) and again, considerable woods. In these last our cavalry were hidden, so that you would have said there were not 300 of them all together. This I found, presently, was a great point, to conceal men, behind woods and ridges, as much as possible. We all now rode to our extreme picket line and took a view; and there, sure enough, was Mr. Reb with his picket line, about one third of a mile off. We could see a chain of mounted videttes, and, behind these, on a little knoll, a picket reserve, with their horses tied to trees. We waited some time to give a chance to General Gregg who had crossed on our right, and General Kilpatrick on our left, to get into the proper positions. Then General Pleasonton ordered an advance, and, in a few moments, quite as if by magic, the open country was alive with horsemen; first came columns of skirmishers who immediately deployed and went forward, at a brisk trot, or canter, making a connected line, as far as the eye could reach, right and left. Then followed the supports, in close order, and with and behind them came the field batteries, all trooping along as fast as they could scramble. It was now between eight and nine and the sun was bright, so that the whole spectacle was, to a greenhorn like me, one of the most picturesque possible. Not the least remarkable feature was the coolness of Mr. Reb under these trying circumstances. Their videttes stared a few moments, apparently without much curiosity, then turned tail and moved off, first at a walk, then at a trot, and finally disappeared over the ridge at a gallop. We rode on about a mile, keeping a little behind the skirmishers; General Buford and his Staff being just ahead and to the left. To the left we could hear cannon, General Kilpatrick having got into a skirmish there. Presently I saw a puff of smoke, on a ridge in front of us, and then hm-m-why-z-z-z, bang! went the shell, right by General Buford’s Staff, taking the leg off a poor orderly. Much pleased with their good shot, they proceeded to give our Staff a taste; and missiles of various kinds (but all disagreeable) began to skip and buzz round us. It was to me extraordinary to see the precision with which they fired. All the shot flew near us, and, while I had gone forward to the crest of the ridge to get a better view, a shell exploded directly in the midst of the Staff, wounding an orderly and very neatly shaving a patch of hair off the horse of Captain Hutchins. However, two could play at that game, and Captain Graham soon made the obnoxious guns limber up and depart to the next ridge, where they would again open and stay as long as they could. By the time we had got a few miles further, the enemy had brought forward all his cavalry and began firing with rifles, to which our men replied with their carbines.

George Armstrong Custer and Alfred Pleasonton, photographed in Warrenton, VA, in October 1863 (Library of Congress).

George Armstrong Custer and Alfred Pleasonton, photographed in Warrenton, VA, in October 1863 (Library of Congress).

We now entered a wooded tract, interspersed with mudholes and springy ground, and here the enemy made quite a hard stand, for the town of Culpeper lay a couple of miles beyond and they wished to gain time to get off their stores by the railroad. The advanced regiments were therefore dismounted and sent into the woods, while the artillery tried to find some place whence the guns could be used. It was at this place that I first heard the yells, for which the Rebels are noted. They were the other side of a high bank, covered with bushes, and they yelled to keep their spirits up as long as possible. But they were soon driven through the woods and then we came on an open country, in full view of Culpeper. This was a very interesting sight. The hills are, hereabout, quite large, and on the one opposite us stood Culpeper, very prettily situated, the railroad running through the lower part of the town. Just in the outskirts the Rebels had planted two batteries, as a last check, and behind were drawn up their supports of cavalry. Our cavalry were coming out of the woods, on all sides, moving on the town in form of a semi-circle, while the guns were pelting those of the enemy with might and main. Suddenly we were aware of a railroad train slowly leaving the depot, and immediately several guns were turned on it; but it went off, despite the shells that burst over it. Then there suddenly appeared a body of our cavalry, quite on the left of the town, who made a rush, at full speed, on three cannon there stationed, and took the whole of them with their caissons. This was a really handsome charge and was led by General Custer, who had his horse shot under him. This officer is one of the funniest looking beings you ever saw, and looks like a circus rider gone mad! He wears a huzzar jacket and tight trousers, of faded black velvet trimmed with tarnished gold lace. His head is decked with a little, gray felt hat; high boots and gilt spurs complete the costume, which is enhanced by the General’s coiffure, consisting in short, dry, flaxen ringlets! His aspect, though highly amusing, is also pleasing, as he has a very merry blue eye, and a devil-may-care style. His first greeting to General Pleasonton, as he rode up, was: “How are you, fifteen-days’-leave-of-absence? They have spoiled my boots but they didn’t gain much there, for I stole ‘em from a Reb.” And certainly, there was one boot torn by a piece of shell and the leg hurt also, so the warlike ringlets got not only fifteen, but twelve [additional] days’ leave of absence, and have retreated to their native Michigan!

George Armstrong Custer (Library of Congress).

George Armstrong Custer (Library of Congress).

The Rebels now retreated in all haste, and we rode at once in, and found a good many supplies at the depot with a number of rifles and saddles. As we rode up, the building was beset with grinning dragoons, each munching, with great content, a large apple, whereof they found several barrels which had been intended for the comfort of Mr. Stuart’s dashing knights. I was surprised at the good conduct of the gypsy-looking men. They insulted no one, broke nothing, and only took a few green peaches, which, I fancy, amply revenged themselves. Culpeper is a really decent place, with a brick hotel, and a number of good houses, in front of which were little gardens. I send you a rosebud, which I picked as we rode through the town; there were plenty of them, looking rather out of place there, in the midst of muddy batteries and splattered cavalrymen! A queer thing happened in the taking of the three guns. An officer was made prisoner with them, and, as he was marched to the rear, Lieutenant Counselman of our side cried out, “Hullo, Uncle Harry!” “Hullo!” replied the captain uncle. “Is that you? How are you?” And there these two had been unwittingly shelling each other all the morning!

After resting the horses we pushed on to the south, towards what is called Pong Mountain, for you must know that this region is more hilly, and Pong Mountain is about comparable to the Blue Hills (not quite so high, perhaps). . . . We drove the enemy five miles beyond Culpeper, making fifteen miles, in all, and there a halt was ordered and pickets thrown out. Our Headquarters were a wretched house, of two rooms, inhabited by two old women. We gave them one room and took the other ourselves. And now I loomed out! The Staff had, in the way of creature comforts, nothing but sabres and revolvers. It was dark and raining guns, and the Chief-of-Staff had the stomachache! I took from my saddle-bags a candle and lighted the same, prepared tea from my canteen, and produced a loaf of bread and a Bologna sausage, to the astonishment of the old campaigners, who enquired, “Whether I had a pontoon bridge about me?” Then I rolled myself in my coat and took a good night’s sleep on the floor.

The next morning we started for Raccoon Ford, on the Rapidan, five miles distant. The enemy were mostly across and only opposed us with a few skirmishers. As we got in sight of it, the prospect was not cheering. The opposite bank, partly wooded and partly covered with cultivation, rose in steep, high hills, which completely commanded our side of the river. It was a fine sight to see the column splashing along the wood road, lying between fine oak trees; but the fine sight was presently interrupted by a shell, which exploded about 100 yards ahead of me and right among the horses’ legs, without touching me! The General rode into the open field to reconnoitre the position, and I with him, because he wanted my glass; but Mr. Secesh has a sharp eye for gold cords round hats, and, in a minute, wh-n-n-g, fiwp! wh-z-z-z! a solid shot struck just in front of us, and bounced over our heads. The General ordered us to disperse about the field, so as not to make a mark; but, as I rode off, they sent a shell so near me that a facetious officer called out: “I guess they think you’re somebody pretty distinguished, Kun’l.” However, there may be a good deal of cannon shooting, without many hits; in proof of which I will say that we had a brisk fire of artillery from 10.30 to 2.30, together with a sharp spattering of rifles and carbines, and that our loss was five killed and fifteen wounded! Shells do not sound so badly as I expected; nor did I feel as I expected on the occasion. There is a certain sense of discipline and necessity that bears you up; and the only shell I “ducked” was the first one.

After some difficulty we got some guns in position and drove off those opposed. Then General Kilpatrick’s division went to a better ford below, and tried to get over there; but the Rebels opened on him with fourteen cannon and silenced his guns after a hard fire. So we concluded the fords were not practicable for cavalry, which I think might have been apparent from the outset. Whereupon both parties stopped and stared at each other; and we heroes of the Staff went to a house (much better than that of last night) and partook of mutton which, during the day, we had valiantly made the prey of our bow and our spear. On our right General Gregg had driven the enemy beyond Cedar Mountain and nearly to the river, but was there brought up by a heavy force of artillery in position. All day Tuesday we lay doing nothing. I rode over with the General to Cedar Mountain, passing close to the battlefield, and ascended, thus getting a fine view of the Rapidan valley, which is very beautiful and would, in the hands of good farmers, yield a thousandfold. . . . We have taken on our reconnaissance in force about 150 prisoners, three guns, and five caissons. Yesterday the entire army crossed the Rappahannock, and I got orders to return to Headquarters, which I did.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 148-9. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 14-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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