Hardly ever garnering much PR among the regiments in Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division is the little contingent of the 3rd (West) Virginia Cavalry in Col. Thomas C. Devin’s brigade. The visitor to Gettysburg’s Buford Avenue today will notice the plain, simple monument to the two companies present on July 1, and which participated in the opening of the battle.
Over the years I compiled a brief history of the regiment culled from rather elusive and obscure sources, and present it here. This would also be considered a bit of an installment of “Faded Hoofbeats,” due to the information here about David Strother and Seymour B. Conger.
Company A – Recruited primarily from Morgantown, mustered in at Wheeling on December 23, 1861
Company C – Mustered in at Brandonville on October 1, 1861
Regiment mustered out of service June 23, 1865
Lt. Colonel David H. Strother
Major John L. McGee
Adjutant Barna Powell
Major Engagements: Aldie, Bristoe Station, Chester Gap, Brandy Station, Beverly Ford, Upperville, Gettysburg, Boonsboro, Funkstown, Falling Waters, Culpepper Court House, Averell’s Raids, Sheridan’s Raids, Winchester, Five Forks, Appomattox Campaign
Killed and mortally wounded: 6 Officers and 40 Enlisted men
Died of Disease and as Prisoners of War: 136 Enlisted men
TOTAL CASUALTIES: 182
Upon muster, the companies of the regiment (actually there were not enough recruits to form a full regiment) was led by Lt. Colonel David Hunter Strother (pictured), a nationally-known artist and writer. He was among the first in the country to illustrate his own writings, depicting Southern life and events, prior to the war, in Harper’s Magazine. Strother used the pen name “Porte Crayon.” Strother was born in Martinsburg (now in WV) in 1861 into a slave-owning family of farmers (Strother died in 1888 of pneumonia). Major McGee had seen much active service prior to his promotion into the 3rd, and had served as Chief of Staff under General Robert Huston Milroy. McGee began as a Captain in the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, the first such unit raised in the state. On October 2, 1861, McGee became Major of the newly-formed 3rd. Company C was stationed at Clarksburg until January 1862.
The battalion comprising Companies A and C was attached to General John C. Fremont’s command in the Shenandoah Valley when formed in February 1862, with Major McGee in command. Until March of 1862, the regiment was attached to the Railroad District, West Virginia, then to the Railroad District of the Mountain Department until May. Company C was led by Captain Seymour Beach Conger. During the pursuit of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s infantry in his retreat up the Shenandoah Valley, Captain Conger and his company frequently engaged them. During an especially notable assault by the company near a bridge at Mount Jackson VA, the Union position was saved and special mention was made of the company by General Fremont. The troopers of the 3rd would continue to make themselves conspicuous with gallant bravery and determination in numerous skirmishes and battles. In late 1862, the battalion primarily served as scouts in northern Virginia.
When the Army of the Potomac was reorganized in January of 1863, companies A and C were detached for special duties at General Sigel’s “Grand Reserve Division” headquarters. Company H, commanded by Captain W. H. Flesher, was detached to Parkersburg, and company G, under Captain John S. Witcher, was in Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes’ brigade in the Kanawha Valley.
In June 1863, companies A and C, both under Captain Conger (who himself had recruited Company A), were attached to the cavalry brigade of Colonel Thomas C. Devin, in Brigadier General John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division. The unit would see heavy action in the battles at Brandy Station, Beverly Ford, Stevensburg, and Upperville.
As Buford’s two brigades, the 2nd under Devin and the 1st under Colonel William Gamble, made their way north through Maryland and over the Pennsylvania border, the unit would see its most desperate action since Brandy Station. Entering the small town of Gettysburg around noon on June 30, the 59 men of Companies A and C of the 3rd, and the rest of the two small brigades, were met with cheers and shouts by the excited townspeople. In the morning, the two companies of a newly-created Union state found themselves in the midst of very hot work northwest of the town, holding back a Confederate infantry advance until their own infantry could arrive on the field. The 3rd was positioned near the unfinished Railroad Cut, on the left flank of Devin’s brigade, connecting with the right flank of Gamble’s troopers. Their two companies held a narrow front that morning, but the troopers, who were growing accustomed to such hot work, held their line with the rest of the brigade until finally relieved by the Union 1st Corps. Devin’s brigade was positioned northeast of the town to picket the approaches from that direction. As the newly-arrived Union 11th Corps were pushed back in the fields north of Gettysburg in the early afternoon, the 3rd West Virginia and Devin’s brigade slowed the Confederate advance long enough to allow the infantry to rally on Cemetery Hill and Ridge to their rear.
This small group on the battle line that morning was quite different from the other troopers. While they may have had many of the same reasons for being there as their comrades from Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois, on factor set them apart from the others; the men of the 3rd were Southerners, men who, until recently, had called themselves Virginians.
The path that the men of the 3rd took to reach that ridgeline that morning had been a long and complicated one. Like many of the citizens who lived in the mountainous western and northern counties of Virginia, these men had felt “abandoned” when the Old Dominion, Virginia, voted to secede from the Union. They saw no good reason to break up the Republic over the abstract ideas that the politicians were arguing over. And, many of these people felt more of a kinship with their neighbors on the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders, than to the affluent farmers of the Virginia tidewater areas. So, the Virginia counties in the west decided that if their state could decide to secede over their protests, then they themselves would secede from Virginia and form their own new state.
Companies A and C of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry would serve in Devin’s Brigade until November of 1863, when they were ordered back to the Department of West Virginia. Returning to Wheeling, it joined the other companies in the regiment and reorganized under Conger. The following year, through continuous recruitments, the roster of the 3rd would be completed and would constitute a full regiment of cavalry.
Conger would live unscathed through the action at Gettysburg, but was killed on August 7, 1864, as a Major, near Moorefield WV while the regiment was attached to the Army of West Virginia. He is today interred at Arlington National Cemetery. General Averell, lamenting Conger’s death, wrote in his official report, “…with our exultations is mingled a profound grief at the loss of Major Conger, 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, who found death as he had always wished, in the front of battle, with heart and hand intent upon the doing of his duty. Brave, steadfast and modest, when he fell this command lost one of its best soldiers, and his regiment and general a friend. The men who followed him in the charge will never forget his glorious example…”
The 3rd was in the Second Brigade (commanded by Colonel William H. Powell) in General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia. During January and February of 1865 the brigade was commanded by Colonel Henry Capehart. At this time the unit was stationed near Winchester VA, in picket duty and making frequent reconnaissance up the valley. On February 27, the regiment broke camp and moved with Major General Philip M. Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps up the valley to Staunton, and participated in the battle of Waynesboro on March 2, where Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early was defeated. Shortly after, the regiment would continue with Sheridan on his raid through the territory.
On the morning of April 1, the regiment participated in actions against the retreating Confederates, and on the 2nd at Ford’s Station the unit charged and drove a brigade of Confederate cavalry, killing General John Pegram. The 3rd continued in the pressing actions that led to the Appomattox surrender.
The regiment participated in the Grand Review in Washington in May and was mustered out of the service on June 23.
Two companies, A and C, of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry fought under Colonel Thomas C. Devin’s 2nd Brigade. This monument approximates the center of their line on McPherson Ridge that first morning of battle. The monument is located on Buford Avenue, north of the Chambersburg Pike, and was dedicated on September 28, 1898, the same day as the similar monument to the 1st West Virginia Cavalry monument on the Taneytown Road.
The monument’s very simple inscription, “Erected by the state of West Virginia to commemorate the valor and fidelity of the Third West Virginia Cavalry” was legislated by the state in 1897. A total of $2000 was appropriated by the legislature for the four West Virginia monuments (2 cavalry, 1 infantry, and one artillery) to be erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield.Raised in Wheeling (formerly in Virginia), the troopers of Company A were mustered in on December 23, 1861 and Company C on October 1. The companies and squadrons were not combined into an actual full regiment until 1864.The commander of the squadron at Gettysburg was Captain Seymour Beach Conger, born in Plymouth OH on September 25, 1825. He was a farmer near Lexington OH and recruited Company A, becoming its Captain on November 22, 1862. Reaching the rank of Major, Conger was killed on August 7, 1864, near Moorefield WV. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. No photograph of Conger is known to exist or yet been discovered.
Of the unit’s 5 Officers and 59 enlisted men at the battle, one was wounded, 1 was captured, and two were missing. The troopers carried Gallagher and Smith single-shot carbines, and .44 caliber Colt and .36 caliber Remington revolvers.
Gravesite of Seymour Beach Conger at Arlington National Cemetery.