A Cavalry Charge

Yesterday I “discovered” a primary source on the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station that I had never seen before.  It is an address by a former officer in a Massachusetts infantry regiment, a regiment that accompanied the Federal cavalry that day and participated in heavy skirmishing.  The address was read at an event in Boston in 1884, and it was given a limited publishing that same year.

The address is fascinating, and is the best description of the Federal column’s march to Beverly Ford that I’ve ever seen.  Most accounts of the battle completely skip that portion of the event.  And the perspective from an infantry officer is quite refreshing, revealing details I’d never known about.

Once I’d read through it, I had to find out if anyone has ever used it before in a book or article.  A search of my library last night turned up only one book that used it, and there’s only a couple references to it.  99% of the fabulous stuff has been untouched all these years.

One paragraph of this source (which is over 20 pages total) is the officers’ wonderful description of Gen. John Buford’s mounted cavalry charge early in the action near St. James’ Church.  (It reminded me a bit of Francis Durivage’s famous poem “The Cavalry Charge.”)  Here it is:

The soft, dewy grass of the morning was now kicked and trampled into dry dust.  The infantry held the enemy in the open space beyond the woods; while Buford hurled his squadrons, with drawn sabres, upon the Rebel cavalry on the right and left.
A sabre charge, with both sides going at top speed, is, perhaps, the most exciting and picturesque combination of force, nerve, and courage that can be imagined.  The commanding officers leading in conspicuous advance; the rush, the thunder of horses’ hoofs; the rattle of arms and equipments, – all mingling with the roar of voices, while the space rapidly lessens between the approaching squadrons.  The commanders who were seen, a moment before, splendidly mounted, dashing on at racing speed, turning in the saddle to look back at the tidal wave which they are leading, disappear in a cloud of sabres, clashing and cutting; but the fight is partially obscured by the rising dust and the mist from the over-heated animals.  Riderless horses come, wounded and trembling, out of the melee; others appear, running in fright, carrying dying troopers still sitting their chargers, the head drooping on the breast, the sword-arm hanging lifeless, the blood-stained sabre dangling from the wrist, tossing, swinging, and cutting the poor animal’s flanks, goading him on in his aimless flight.  In this moment of intense excitement, the Rebels give way on the left.  Our troopers follow in hot pursuit.  On they go, over the dead and dying…

This is without a doubt the best description of an actual cavalry charge I’ve ever seen, and from an infantryman no less.  The rest of the address is just as fabulous in its specifics, and it amazes me that it has virtually not been used at all.  Eric Wittenberg and I, just starting a three-volume history of cavalry operations during the Gettysburg Campaign, will make full use of this rare source for the first time.

I thought I’d share this piece with my readers, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did when I came across it.

Published in: on January 5, 2007 at 11:09 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That description left me with vivid images and my heart pounding.

    I think I have seen too many movies with actors that can barely ride a horse, going in circles swinging rubber sabres above their heads, so that I have forgotten the reality of battle.

    Your description brings that reality into focus.

  2. Bill,

    Ain’t it terrific? The first time I read it, it evoked the same emotions. It’s just very surprising that it’s never been used before.

    I was really happy to have found it, and I look forward to showcasing the piece in our Brandy Station narrative of the campaign cavalry history.


  3. Now I know what my ggg Uncle Henry James Gibbs jr. went through. Wow….. the reality of it all. I’ve done more studies on my Uncle and found that he was employed at the Brooks American Locomotive Co. in Dunkirk, N.Y. and on the board at Brooks Memorial Hospital. He was held in high regard in the town of Dunkirk. And the Study goes on……

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