Added link to Blog “Draw the Sword and Throw Away the Scabbard”

On Don’s blog Crossed Sabers today, I noticed a link to a nifty blog by Jennifer Goellnitz, who also maintains a well-known website on A.P. Hill.  Sorry I missed your blog until now, Jenny!  I’ve added a link to my blogroll.

Check it out.  And the latest offering is a post on the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s monument at Gettysburg.

Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  

Faded Hoofbeats – Marcellus Jones, 8th Illinois Cavalry

As promised, and as we approach the anniversary of the Gettysburg battle, here’s another profile.  This is of Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the officer in Col. William Gamble’s brigade (Buford’s division) credited with firing the “first shot” of the battle on the morning of July 1, 1863 against massed Confederate troops.  In the July 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine, my feature article “Opening the Ball at Gettysburg: The Shot that Rang for 50 Years” (click to read the online version) featured detail on Jones, his shot, and all known claimants to that distinction.

(Many thanks to Jeff Labuz, a descendant of Marcellus’ younger brother Nelson, for much of the biographical details.)

To nearly any student of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant Marcellus Ephraim Jones of Company E, 8th Illinois Cavalry, is known as the Union trooper who fired the first shot of the battle at advancing Confederate infantry along the Chambersburg Pike.  Jones was commanding an advance vedette post at the intersection of the Pike and Knoxlyn Road, west of town, when he fired a borrowed carbine at a target some 700 yards away, thus opening the great battle that July 1st morning in 1863.

Jones was described in the “Portrait and Biographical Record of DuPage and Cook Counties, Illinois (1894)” as “…one of the valiant defenders of the Old Flag during the late war.”  Jones was born in Poultney, Rutland County, Vermont, on June 5, 1830, a son of Ephraim and Sophia (Page) Jones.  On his father’s side, he appears to be descended from Captain John Stark of Revolutionary War note (and not the “General John Stark” as is the lineage commonly encountered – they were two different soldiers). 

Jones’ father, Ephraim, was a wagon maker by trade.  Spending his entire life in Vermont, the elder Jones was killed during a severe tornado in 1858 when the timbers of a barn, in which he was taking refuge, fell on him.  Ephraim and Sophia had seven children:  Marcellus, Frank, Nelson, Libbie, Lola, Annis, and Henrietta.  Brother Frank, who had been a hospital steward with the 14th Vermont Infantry in the Civil War, died in Dorset from illness in 1864. 

Marcellus, who grew up in Bennington and Rutland counties in Vermont, lived in that state until the age of 17, when he struck out as a traveling jewelry salesman with his horse and buggy.  A year later he went to Niagara County NY, then to Medina County OH, spending a year and a half in those two locations working as a carpenter.  On December 23, 1850, Jones arrived in Chicago IL and worked as a carpenter for four years.  Moving to Weyauwega WS, he married Sarah Reece and worked as a carpenter, and also built a sash and door factory that was later destroyed by fire.  The loss destroyed all his savings, some $4000.  A son was born to Marcellus and Sarah, but the child lived only 13 days and Sarah died at about the same time.

In 1858, Jones moved to DuPage County IL and soon became a prominent contractor and builder with a large workforce.  He made his home in Danby (now Prospect Park), and continued working his trade until the Civil War broke out and a call for volunteers from the state came out.  Jones was among the first to respond from Danby, and enlisted in Company E of the 8th Illinois Cavalry on August 5, 1861.  The comrades in his company wanted Jones to become an officer, but he modestly declined the honor, saying that all things military were new to him and he felt unqualified.  However, he agreed to consider the offer later after gaining some experience and if the others still wished him to be promoted.  Jones had helped to organize his company’s recruitment and, holding to his intention, enlisted as a private.  He was 31 years old, 5’7″ tall, had brown hair and blue eyes, and listed his occupation on the muster roll as “carpenter.”

The newly-organized 8th formed at St. Charles IL and camped at Camp Kane, but received its drill and training at Washington DC, leaving for the city on October 13.  Arriving on the 17th, the regiment camped at Meridian Hill, then went into camp near Alexandria VA on December 17th.  The unit’s Lt. Colonel, William Gamble, was largely responsible for training it.  The regiment would participate in numerous battles and skirmishes throughout 1862, and captured the colors of the 12th Virginia Confederate Cavalry at Poolsville.  Jones was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on December 5, 1862, First Lieutenant July 4, 1864, and Captain on October 10, 1864.  All three commissions were signed by Illinois Governor Richard Yates.

During the evening of June 30, 1863, as Division Commander Brigadier General John Buford made his picket and vedette dispositions west of Gettysburg to receive the expected enemy the following morning, Jones commanded one of the 8th’s vedette posts along the Chambersburg Pike, a major road between the town and Cashtown, and the route by which the General expected the Confederates to advance.  Shortly after sunrise on July 1, after having visited his posts, Jones purchased some bread and oats from one of the locals.  While at the reserve line east of the advance vedettes, Jones received a message from one of the sergeants along the Pike to come “at once.”  Mounting, Jones rode west along the pike until he reached the post at the intersection of the Pike and Knoxlyn Road, atop Wisler Ridge.  From his vantage point, Jones could see a cloud of dust rising to the west, signaling the advance of the expected Confederates from the area of Cashtown.  Spying Jones’ post, the Confederates deployed skirmishers on both sides of the road and advanced to the stone bridge spanning Marsh Creek, about 700 yards west of Jones’ position.  Sending horses and horse-holders to the rear, Jones borrowed Corporal Levi S. Shafer’s carbine, rested it on a fence rail, and touched off a shot at “an officer on a white or light gray horse” and thereby opened the battle (later, Confederate Colonel W. Marion McCarty would claim to have been at the head of that advance column, but his participation has never been documented).  Jones’ journal entries for the period of June 27th through July 1st are linked below.  After the battle, Jones would participate with his regiment in the actions at Williamsport, Boonsboro, Falling Waters, Chester Gap, Sandy Hook, Culpeper, further actions at Brandy Station, the raid to Falmouth, Raccoon, Ford, Liberty Mills, Mitchell Station, and Ely’s Ford.  After the regiment was mustered out of the service on July 17, 1865, it was ordered to Chicago to receive final pay and discharge.  At the Briggs House in Chicago, now-Captain Jones paid off his men.  While at the house, an officer informed Jones that he was to go to room number 55, and, upon arrival, the Captain was given “an elegant silver set,” as a gift from the men, who “held him in the highest esteem… and thus manifested their love and respect.”

Jones remarried on September 1, 1864.  Naomi E. Mecham, daughter of Mathew and Phoebe, was described as one who “did what the rebels could not do – capture the Captain.”  Mecham’s great-grandfather, who had settled in Massachusetts from England, had served in the Revolution.  He eventually settled in Vermont, to which he had frequently traveled on hunting expeditions.  A son, Seth Benson, served in the War of 1812.  Mecham’s parents eventually settled  in DuPage County in 1854 when Naomi was 12 years old.  Until she married Jones, Mecham was a teacher and had attended Wheaton College.

As soon as the war ended, Jones and his new wife located in Wheaton where he worked at his trade as a builder and house-mover.  In 1872, the Joneses moved to Colorado and worked a ranch for four years.  In 1876, they moved back to Wheaton permanently.  Jones had built a home in 1865 on the southwest corner of Naperville and Indiana Streets in the town (this house still stands, having been moved to a new location a block away by a law firm that purchased and restored it in 1977).  He is related as being one of a group of men who, after the war, had forcibly taken the county records from Naperville and helped to set up Wheaton as the new county seat.  Jones served in various public positions in his post-war career; he served as Township Collector, City Councilman, and in 1882 was elected County Sheriff for four years.  In 1890 he was appointed Postmaster by President Harrison.  Jones was a prominent charter member of E.S. Kelley G.A.R. Post 513, and was its first Commander.  He was a member of the Masons (of the Blue Lodge of Wheaton, Chapter of Naperville), as well as the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows’ Society.  Jones was described as a “stalwart Republican,” and that “his official, army and private life are alike above reproach.”  Always remembered as the man who “fired the first shot at Gettysburg,” Jones remained a prominent member of the community and in Grand Army circles until his death on October 9, 1900.

To memorialize the location of his “first shot” at the Gettysburg battle, Jones traveled to the spot in 1886 and placed a marker shaft made of Naperville Illinois Granite to memorialize his deed.  This “First Shot Marker” sits today on the north side of Rt. 30 (Chambersburg Road) at its intersection with Knoxlyn Road.

Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 11:01 am  Comments (14)  

Flags and guidons!

Also by Mike Nugent (see post on saddles below) this information on Civil War flags and guidons is the most comprehensive ever put together.  Now when you see the mounted arm’s flags, you’ll be able to determine a bit of their history and symbolism.  It’s interesting to note (for those of you who watch historical auctions) Gen. Custer’s personal guidon (pictured below) just came up for sale recently by the private owner.

Throughout history, armies have carried flags.  Flags provide a sense of identity for a unit and build pride and morale.  In combat, flags serve a practical purpose as a means of identifying unit locations and as a rallying point for soldiers in the confusion of battle.  Flags are also used to identify specific individuals, and mark important locations such as unit headquarters and field hospitals.

The U.S. Army Regulations of 1861 called for infantry regiments to carry two flags, the National colors and the regimental colors.  Both were nearly six feet square, made of silk and fringed in yellow silk.  The regulations called for embroidered white stars and embroidered unit designations on the center stripe of the National colors.  In practice, silver and gold paint often substituted for the regulation embroidery.  Since silver paint tended to tarnish, it was abandoned in favor of gold.  No pattern was set for the placement of stars on the flag and they appear in rows, circles, and ovals.  There was little standardization and manufacturers made flags according to their own interpretation of the regulations.  Volunteer units frequently carried National colors embellished with a State motif.  Some added the coat of arms, eagles, mottos, and other designs.

Infantry regimental colors were dark blue with the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center.  Artillery regimental colors were yellow with two gold-colored crossed cannon barrels in the center.  Both infantry and artillery colors had a red scroll noting denoting the unit’s designation below the central design.  Regimental colors showed even greater variations than the National colors and feature a number of different designs of eagles, stars, and scrolls.  Again, volunteer units often adorned their flags with symbols from their home state and region.  In 1862 the Federal Government assumed the responsibility for supplying the State units but the regimental colors made by the depots in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati still showed numerous variations.

The large flags carried by infantry regiments would have been unmanageable on horseback.  Cavalry regiments therefore carried much smaller flags than the infantry.  Called “standards,” a cavalry regiment’s colors measured roughly 2 by 2 feet.  Regulation cavalry standards were similar in design to infantry regimental colors.  They featured the United States Coat of Arms on a blue field with a red scroll bearing the unit designation.  As with their infantry counterparts, however, there was little standardization and cavalry units often carried a variety of non-regulation flags featuring state and regional designs.

In addition to the regimental standard, individual cavalry companies carried swallow-tailed flags called “guidons.”  At the beginning of the Civil War cavalry guidons featured two horizontal bars, red over white.  In 1862 the regulations changed and cavalry guidons featured red and white stripes with a blue canton in the same design as the National colors.  The canton featured a painted gold star in each corner, with the remaining stars arranged in two concentric rings.  Company letters were painted in the center of the ring of stars and the regimental designation was often painted on the guidon’s center stripe.

Although the regulations did not authorize cavalry regiments to carry the National colors, many did, carrying either a scaled-down version similar in size to their standards, or a swallow-tailed guidon in the pattern of the National colors, but without company or regimental designations painted on.

Cavalry standards and guidons were flown from nine-foot long staffs capped with a brass spear point at the top and a brass butt cap on the bottom.  Color Bearers would attach a small leather cup or “boot” to the stirrup leathers on the off side of their saddle (see post on saddles below) to facilitate carrying the flags while mounted.

During the course of the War, corps, divisions, and brigades adopted non-regulation flags to mark the location of their headquarters.  Several systems to standardize these headquarters flags were attempted.  In 1862 Major General George B. McClellan devised a system of red, white, and blue flags and flags divided into bars of red, white, and blue to designate various higher headquarters.  Numbers added to the flags distinguished the regiments within a brigade.  McClellan’s complex, confusing system was replaced in 1863 by a simpler system that identified commands by the shape of the flag.  Corps headquarters were designated by a swallow-tailed flag, divisions by a rectangular flag, and brigades by a triangular pennant.  Within a corps, divisions were differentiated by use of the distinctive corps badges developed earlier in 1863 by Major General Joseph Hooker.  A red badge on a white field distinguished the 1st division, a white badge on a blue field the 2nd division, and a blue badge on a white field the 3rd.  Within divisions, brigades were designated by the borders of their triangular flags.  A plain pennant with no border denoted the 1st brigade, a stripe along the “hoist” of the pennant denoted the 2nd brigade, and a border on all three sides of the pennant the 3rd brigade.  This model gradually became the standard for armies in the east and was adopted with some variation by the western armies when the 11th and 12th Corps were transferred to Tennessee to reinforce General Ulysses Grant late in 1863.

When these guidons and pennants were adopted and flown, for instance during the Gettysburg
Campaign, the top standards designated General Buford’s division.  Colonel Gamble’sBrigade
would have flown the 1st Brigade pennant at the bottom left, Colonel Devin’s 2nd Brigade the one
in the middle, and General Merritt’s Reserve (3rd) Brigade the one at lower right.

Despite the attempts at establishing a standard system, variations in flag designs persisted and it was not uncommon for units to carry non-standard flags.  General officers often adopted “personal” flags, like General Custer’s below.

Cavalry commands in the Military Division of the Mississippi continued to use red and white, and red and blue swallow-tailed guidons at corps, division, and brigade level.  Cavalry divisions in the Army of the Potomac continued to use a red and white swallow-tailed guidon emblazoned with the division number in both bars.  The crossed-saber insignia was not standardized and differs widely, sometimes even within the same division.

Regimental flags were returned to the states at the end of the War.  Many bore the scars of battle, some riddled with dozens of bullet holes.  Many Civil War flags were proudly displayed in state capitol buildings for years afterwards.  Sadly, the open display of these fragile artifacts hastened their deterioration and today, many of them have literally fallen apart.  Several states have initiated programs to protect and save their treasured colors, carefully preserving and displaying them under controlled, archival conditions to honor the veterans who risked their lives to defend them.

Mike Nugent (as Colonel William Gamble) and J. David Petruzzi (as Colonel Thomas C. Devin)
with their guidons and pennants atop McPherson Ridge in Gettysburg.
Left to right, the flags are:  Devin’s 2nd Brigade pennant, Gamble’s 1st Brigade pennant,
Buford’s Division guidon, and the National colors guidon.
Taken in April 2001, this was likely the first time these flags have flown at McPherson Ridge
again since Buford’s stand here on July 1, 1863.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 11:28 am  Comments (7)  

The McClellan Saddle

Quite often (maybe a half dozen times a year) I get a question or email about the McClellan saddle.  My buddy Mike Nugent, who is a retired Armored Cavalry officer and descendant of 6th US Cavalry trooper Pvt. Joseph Charlton (wounded at Fairfield), wrote a great piece on the saddle for my “Bufords Boys” website.  Since the website isn’t back up and running yet, I thought I’d put up the saddle page here.  Hopefully my readers will be interested in this detail and that it will answer a lot of questions.  Mike also did a great page on cavalry flags and guidons, which I will reproduce here shortly.

The 1859 McClellan Military Saddle

During the American Civil War there were a variety of saddles in use by the Federal Cavalry.  The Model 1847 Grimsley saddle remained popular, especially among Dragoon veterans, and the Hope saddle and Model 1861 Artillery Drivers saddle saw cavalry service as well.  The Model 1859 McClellan, however, was by far the most common saddle used by Union horse soldiers.

Figure 1: “Near”  side view

Six years before the Civil War, then Captain George Brinton McClellan served as a member of a military commission to study European military tactics, weapons, and logistics.  While in Europe, McClellan observed battles during the Crimean War, focusing on the organization of Engineer and Cavalry forces.  On his return to the United States, McClellan proposed a cavalry manual adapted from the Russian Cavalry.  He also developed a cavalry saddle which was a modification of a Hungarian model used in the Prussian service and included features found in Mexican and Texan saddles as well as characteristics of the Hope, Campbell, and Grimsley saddles.

Under Secretary of War (and future President of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis, the Army conducted field trials to determine the most practical and efficient equipment for the Cavalry and Dragoons.  In addition to the new saddle developed by McClellan, a number of other styles were considered including the standard service Grimsley, the Hope, Campbell, and a Jones “adjustable tree” saddle.

Serviceability and cost were factors that contributed to the Army’s adoption of the McClellan saddle over its competition.  The “horn” on the Hope saddle was undesirable for a military saddle and construction of the Campbell and Grimsely saddles used large amounts of leather and brass, increasing both cost and weight.  The McClellan saddle was simple, less expensive, lightweight, sturdy, and durable.  Its open-tree design allowed one of three sizes to comfortably fit most horses.  The saddle was adopted by the War Department in 1859 and nearly half a million were produced before the end of the Civil War.

Figure 2:  “Off” side view with saddle bags and side fenders attached

The McClellan saddle features an open, metal-reinforced wooden tree.  Saddle skirts of harness leather are screwed to the sidebars.  The rigging is similar to that found on the Hope saddle.  Stirrups are hickory or oak.  The prototype Model 1857 McClellan saddles had the wooden tree covered with a thin, varnished, black leather cover.  The stirrups were hoodless and also covered with varnished leather.  All hardware on the saddles was made of polished brass.  The Model 1859 (the model selected for adoption) featured a more durable rawhide-covered tree.  Stirrups were of bare wood and stirrup hoods were added.  The 1861 Ordnance Manual called for the brass hardware to be replaced with “blued” iron, although in practice the iron hardware was usually “japanned,” covered in a durable black varnish.

Accessories for the McClellan saddle included small saddle bags, a nose bag for the horse’s grain, a curry comb, picket pin, and lariat.  A thimble or “boot” on the right or “off” side of the saddle held the muzzle of the cavalryman’s carbine.

Figure 3:  Detail of the rawhide-covered, open tree

Three slots in the cantle (reinforced with brass fittings) allowed leather straps to secure a blanket roll.  Similarly, the saddle’s pommel had a slot and two iron fittings where three more straps could secure a blanket roll or overcoat.  Iron rings allowed for the easy attachment of canteens or other accouterments.  Although contrary to regulations, cavalrymen frequently attached their sabers to the left or “near” side of the saddle.  The saddle was generally used with a Model 1859 Dragoon saddle blanket, blue and bordered with an orange stripe (the Dragoon branch of service cover), rather than with the more ornate shrabraques or saddle coverings.

Confederate cavalrymen prized captured McClellan saddles.  By 1862 saddlers in the Confederacy were manufacturing copies with russet leather and even tarred or painted linen rigging.

After the Civil War the McClellan saddle went through a number of modifications.  Budgetary concerns and the huge stockpile of saddles in the Army’s inventory ensured that it remained in service despite several recommendations that it be replaced.  The Model 1904 and Model 1913 McClellan saddles were again produced in large numbers during World War I, and remained in service until the Army disbanded its mounted units at the dawn of World War II.  After serving the Cavalry for more than 80 years, McClellan saddles are still commonplace in mounted police units around the United States.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 11:19 am  Comments (33)  

Faded Hoofbeats – Samuel H. “Old Paddy” Starr (6th US Cavalry)

Here’s another installment of my “Faded Hoofbeats” series – profiles of cavalrymen of the Civil War.  This one is of Samuel Henry “Old Paddy” Starr, and one of the subjects of my most recent article in America’s Civil War magazine on the July 3, 1863 cavalry battle at Fairfield PA.  Sammy is one of my favorite personalities – reading his personal letters reveals a man who was actually very religious and tender, quite a contrast to the vulgar, loud disciplinarian he was with his troopers.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll put up more installments on troopers integral to the Gettysburg Campaign.

One of the legendary old dragoons who served in the Civil War was Samuel H. Starr, referred to by troopers as both “Old Paddy” and “Old Nose Bag.”  The Old Celt’s latter moniker was earned due to the often gloomy-faced veteran’s harsh discipline exacted on both officers and enlisted men; one of his favorite methods of rectifying a transgression was to place the offender astride a fence, with the feet tied together below, hands tied behind the back, and the head strapped inside a horse’s nose bag.  The nickname for the no-nonsense commander was unflattering but rather fitting for a seasoned dragoon who expected nothing less than exemplary service from his troopers.  He was often known to give a battlefield tongue-lashing, full of expletives, to anyone who performed unsuitably; his temper was unleashed on his own men as severely as it was upon the enemy.

Starr, born in 1813, had nearly 30 years of service with the army by the time of the Civil War.  Enlisting as a private in 1832, he was assigned to Company G of the 4th US Artillery, rising to sergeant in 1837.  He also served in the engineer and infantry branches before transferring to the newly-formed 2nd US Dragoons in 1848. That year, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant, and served in both the Mexican and Seminole wars and was a veteran of the often-harsh frontier service.  Starr was a captain when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

His first assignment was to serve as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Joseph K.F. Mansfield in April.  Starting in May, he then served as Provost-Marshal of Washington until July.

Upon President Lincoln’s second call for volunteers in July, Starr left the Regulars to organize the newly-raised 5th New Jersey regiment as it arrived for training in Washington DC.  Because his home was in Burlington NJ, Starr had been requested by the state’s governor to help raise the regiment.  Promoted to colonel, Starr took command of the volunteers in August, drilling them with his characteristic discipline.  

Assigned to the Third Brigade of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Division, Starr’s 5th New Jersey performed admirably at the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks in the Peninsula Campaign, winning laud from their commanders.  Hooker called Starr “a tough old bird.”  Starr himself praised his regiment’s performance, saying, “The regiment was brave, and I have reason to congratulate myself in having command of as gallant a regiment as any in the service.” 

Starr’s tough demeanor got him removed from the regiment’s command, however.  After riding up to a camp guard, hitting him over the head with his saber and calling the hapless soldier an “SOB,” Starr was removed on the charge of “abuse of the guard.”  Starr then resigned his commission with the Volunteers and went on recruiting duty in the Capitol after the Campaign.  Starr returned to the Regulars in the spring of 1863, bringing approximately 100 men of the 5th New Jersey with him, and was appointed major of the 6th US Cavalry of the Reserve Brigade on April 25.  Those men accompanying him joined the unit.  The newly-formed 6th was the only unit of Regular horsemen formed at the outbreak of the war.

The most experienced officer in the Reserve Brigade, Starr briefly commanded it during the early phases of the Gettysburg Campaign, replacing Major Charles J. Whiting (his junior) until the promotion of the young Wesley Merritt to brigadier general on June 29.  Believing that he was both too old and too old-fashioned to command the “new” cavalry in the field, many of the troopers felt he should return to the infantry.  However, Starr’s tenacity and experience would prove well-suited to a galling test soon to come on a field just a few miles southwest of the Gettysburg battle ground.

Upon Merritt’s promotion, Starr returned to command of the 6th.  As Brigadier General John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division dogged the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania in late June, Merritt’s Regulars were detailed to Mechanicstown (present-day Thurmont) MD to guard wagon trains and picket the area.  In the early morning hours of July 2, the vedettes were called into town as the brigade set off for Emmitsburg MD, where they made camp and picketed the southern and western roads, watching for elements of Lee’s army.

The distant rumble of cannon in the direction of Gettysburg on the morning of July 3 signaled a continuation of that massive battle.  That morning, an “old farmer,” who claimed to live near Fairfield PA, rode into Merritt’s headquarters and reported that a large train of Confederate wagons, bulging with foodstuffs and booty taken from Pennsylvania farms, was parked in one of his fields and was ripe for the taking.  Assuring the troopers that the train was insufficiently guarded in its place behind Lee’s lines, the citizen proffered that it was “a right smart chance for you’ns to capture it, [as] the soldiers are all over at the big fight.”  Too tempting a target for Merritt to pass up, he quickly made arrangements for its capture.

With his brigade ordered to the main battle ground at Gettysburg, Merritt dispatched Starr’s 6th US to Fairfield to capture the train and hold the town, in order to block a possible line of Lee’s retreat.  Merritt was apparently confident that the one regiment was sufficient for the job.  However, Starr’s unit was under-strength, as one squadron (consisting of Companies D and M) had been attached to Cavalry Corps commander Alfred Pleasonton’s headquarters as escort, leaving Starr with a command of about 400 horsemen.  Although Merritt was confident of the citizen’s information, some troopers were uncomfortable with the story, feeling that perhaps the “patriotic farmer” was instead a Confederate spy or sympathizer who was setting a trap.  Some sources today purport that the man was the infamous spy William Richardson, whom Buford would hang on July 7 in Frederick MD during the southward pursuit of the retreating Lee.

Merritt ordered Starr, who was still fuming over what he considered to be the regiment’s poor performance at Upperville, and his troopers behind Lee’s lines and to “move upon the road between Fairfield and Gettysburg to keep off any supports which might be sent to Gettysburg by the enemy” and snatch up the Rebel wagons.  Anticipating an adventure in taking and ransacking the train, the Federals set off on their mission.  Tattnall Paulding, lieutenant of the 6th’s Company L, wrote later (from the Confederate Libby Prison) that “all was excitement, and you will not wonder when you imagine capturing a hundred wagons laden with spoils for confiscation, and the plundering and destruction of the same.”  

Reaching the vicinity of Fairfield, with Starr and the citizen in the lead, the old veteran halted the regiment in a valley about two miles south of the little village.  Starr detached a squadron to march along the course of a railroad bed and led the remainder of the unit onward to town.  Once in the streets, the troopers fanned out in search of the wagon train prize.  Informed by a citizen that some Rebel wagons had just passed out of town on the Fairfield-Orrtanna (now Carroll’s Tract) Road, a detachment galloped off in pursuit.  Spotting some wagons down the road, the squadron, under command of Lieutenant Christian Balder, formed a line of battle on either side of the stoutly-fenced road atop a ridge and charged them.  The Federals encountered, and drove back, a picket line of several dozen Confederate horsemen of Confederate Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’ “Laurel Brigade.”  Jones’ command had marched earlier that afternoon from the fields south of Cashtown.  Balder’s charge, however, was short-lived and his small command had to halt their pursuit upon spotting a large column of Jones’ men coming at them on the road.  Quickly realizing he was outnumbered, Balder ordered his troopers to turn about and head back toward town to join the rest of Starr’s command.  The Virginia horsemen began a hot pursuit.

Hearing of the presence of the southern horsemen, the stubborn Starr decided to stay and fight.  Although outnumbered, Starr directed and deployed his men into line of battle.  Half of the regiment was dismounted along a slight rise perpendicular to the road, and the other half remained in mounted column in the road itself.  Sizing up Starr’s deployment but not yet fully aware of what faced him, Jones rashly sent in his 7th Virginia, the vanguard of his unit.  With drawn sabers and the Rebel Yell in the air, the 7th charged Starr but were forced to balk at the devastating first fire that Starr’s men let loose with their single-shot carbines.  As the hard-hit southerners fell back to regroup, Jones brought an artillery battery into position and began to fire on the Federals from a quarter mile away.  Small arms fire continued on both sides, but Starr had no artillery with him to counter against Jones’ cannon.

Emboldened by his initial blunt of Jones’ charge, Starr decided to take a risk and ordered a charge of his own while the southerners formed opposite him.  Under cannon and small arms fire, Starr ordered the troopers on the right to charge, wishing to catch the southerners before they could form up for an obviously-impending second assault.  However, Starr’s rash order, carried out without proper cohesion and by a force too small for the task, was bloodily repulsed as Jones carried out a counter-assault.  Captain William H. Carter, the 6th US’s historian, years later wrote of Starr’s order: “It was very unfortunate that the scattered squadrons were not withdrawn instantly from the front of such superior forces for more favorable ground.  The regiment paid dearly for the error…”

The gray troopers quickly formed “with a wild yell” and spurred down the lane at the Federals.  Caught at the worst moment in the 6th US’s history, Starr’s troopers could not oppose the onslaught and were caught in every cavalryman’s nightmare.  As both sides wildly slashed away with sabers and revolvers exploded in a close-up melee, the Federals were caught between the stout farm and road fences as in an ambush.  Blades hacked and whipped through the air as Starr’s command was closed in on three sides.  Starr himself was surrounded by Rebel horsemen, and he tried to beat off his attackers but was knocked from his saddle by a saber wound to the head and a bullet through his right arm.  Lieutenant R. R. Duncan of the 6th Virginia, who had crippled Starr, then went on to saber more Federals, running his blade completely through one and “twisting him from his horse.”

Surrounded and outnumbered, Starr’s troopers were captured in masses as a few remaining elements broke for the town behind them by horse and on foot, many pursued by gray horsemen.  The wounded Starr was taken to the yard of the Benjamin Marshall home (pictured) by his captors and laid on the grass with several other wounded officers and men of both sides.  As the prisoners of his command, comprising over half of the regiment and most of the officers, were marched off toward Cashtown for their date with Confederate prisons, Starr was taken into Fairfield to the Bly home (pictured below) on the main street, across from the Presbyterian Church which had been pressed into service as a hospital for the numerous wounded of both sides.  The severity of his arm wound required immediate amputation.  The heavy losses of the 6th were immediately noted by their companion regiments in Merritt’s brigade.  Private Samuel Crockett of the 1st US Cavalry penned in his diary that “The 6th U.S. is cut to pieces; there are less than a hundred of them left.”

Jones’ loss was minimal; of the 1600 men in his brigade as of July 3, his reported casualties tallied only 58 killed, wounded, and missing.  Starr’s melee at Fairfield had no tactical outcome on the battle at Gettysburg, and instead damaged a hard-fighting unit of Regulars in a painful and seemingly wasteful clash that today is largely unknown.  The responsibility for the debacle rests squarely upon Brigadier General Merritt, who ordered Starr’s small command on a risky foray deep behind enemy lines, without adequate support and intelligence.  The information Merritt received from the “farmer” about the wagon train was hours old by that morning, and couldn’t account for any resistance that Starr might encounter.  Starr, as well, is justifiably faulted for not withdrawing his men upon making contact with Jones’ brigade of superior numbers.  Neither stated objective of the mission was accomplished; not a single Confederate wagon was captured, and the Fairfield Gap remained open to Lee as an unsecured escape route after the Gettysburg battle.  The 6th US, mightily thrashed and forever damaged by Jones’ Laurel Brigade, was bluntly sized up by Jones in his report’s final closing sentence: “The Sixth U.S. Regular Cavalry numbers among the things that were.”

Starr was exchanged by the Confederates and returned to duty in November 1863.  In November 1864, he was assigned to command the Cavalry Remount Camp at Pleasant Valley MD.  From January to August 1865, he was assigned as Special Inspector of Cavalry for the armies of the Potomac and the James.  Despite the heavy loss at Fairfield, he was brevetted to lieutenant colonel in October 1865 for his service in the campaign.  Starr remained with his regiment until he retired on December 15, 1870, with the rank of full colonel.  He died on November 23, 1891, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  

Jones’ statement in his report, in which he writes off any remaining heartbeat in the 6th, is patently untrue; what remained of the regiment would fight on gallantly through to the end of the war.  The 6th United States would go through many changes in the United States military over the ensuing 120 years, and still remains a proud, active unit serving in Korea.

The Bly home in Fairfield, where Starr was cared for after the battle.

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 3:03 pm  Comments (16)  

“Maps of Gettysburg” available next week

In talking with publisher Ted Savas, I was informed that Brad Gottfried’s new book, The Maps of Gettysburg, will be shipping from the printer next week.  I was able to edit the manuscript and maps, and I’m very proud of Brad’s work.  The book will be, in my opinion, the new Gettysburg field guide.  The link above will take you to Savas-Beatie’s website for the book, where you can read about it as well as Brad.

I can say from personal knowledge that the maps dealing with the cavalry actions are very accurate (as are all the maps), and I know folks will enjoy using the maps and text to follow the armies to Gettysburg, around the entire battlefield, and then along the retreat routes to the Potomac River.  I look forward to receiving my copy!

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 2:38 pm  Comments (1)  

This is EXACTLY what I was talking about…

In a previous post about silly theories, I discussed the situation about Gettysburg Park Ranger Troy Harman calling the July 3 cavalry fight at Hunterstown Pa “Custer’s Trap.”  Check the previous post for more detail, but in essence Harman has been touting Custer’s participation in the fight as setting an actual “trap” for Confederate General Wade Hampton’s rear guard, when actually nothing is further from the truth.  Custer led one of his Michigan cavalry companies in an impetuous charge down the Hunterstown-Gettysburg Road, and nearly lost his life doing so.  One of his troopers barely got him out alive, and the survivors of the charge beat feet (or hooves) back to their lines, with some of Hampton’s troopers in hot pursuit.  Harman states as fact that this latter movement was actually a militarily strategical “trap” that he sprung upon his pursuers.  Quite unfortunately, the fine preservation group working at Hunterstown has adopted Harman’s silly assertion.

I said in my previous post that the real danger in these sorts of unsubstantiated (and easily disproven) theories that keep cropping up is that folks will begin to believe them.  Troy’s status as a Park Ranger and popular speaker and tour guide causes folks to take his theories as gospel.  I’ve toured with Troy and he’s both a fine fellow and deep researcher.  But for some reason, many students of the battle and war (both high and low profile) come up with these theories that simply make no sense – and most of them seem to deal with Gettysburg.

Well, today I got my copy of the new (June 2007) issue of The Civil War News.  There is an advertisment by the Gettysburg Reenactment Committee for the 2007 three-day reenactment of the battle.  In the ad (p. 32) is a schedule of events, and on Saturday, July 7 there will be a reenactment of the Battle of Hunterstown.  What is the battle called?

“Custer’s Trap.”

As I said, this is the danger in these types of theories.  Troy has narrated the action, I believe, at previous reenactments, and possibly there is now going to be a telling of how Custer set a “trap” for the Confederates.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of folks are going to go away from the event thinking such a theory has plausibility.  Heck, just calling the thing “Custer’s Trap” can do enough damage, because that title is going to stick in people’s minds.

After that previous post about this theory, I got a stern email from one of the members of the Hunterstown 1863 preservation group, chiding me for daring to contradict Troy’s theory, and also suggesting that I “apologize” to Troy for differing with him.  Needless to say, that won’t happen in my lifetime.  I’ve been researching the fight at Hunterstown for some 30 years, and wrote the chapter on the fight in my and Eric Wittenberg‘s book on Jeb Stuart’s ride into Pennsylvania.  Our research and our book details without a doubt that the action constituted anything but a “trap” set by either side, and the idea of a “trap” never even came up until Troy began proffering it.  You won’t find it in the voluminous evidence, and neither side ever made such a claim.  Not Custer, nor any of his troopers.  Not even any type of implied hint of it.  And all evidence plainly and clearly refutes it anyway. 

I won’t be apologizing to Troy, as he shouldn’t be apologizing to me or anyone else.  I’ve spoken with most of his Ranger comrades at the Gettysburg National Military Park (as well as Licensed Battlefield Guides and many others) and without exception NO ONE buys into his “trap” theory.  You won’t find any of them apologizing to Troy.  Whenever we students and scholars differ with one another on interpretations of events, are we to go around apologizing to each other?  Let’s get real.  Troy has an absolute right to his theory, as do all those who disagree with him.  To suggest that one or another apologize (unless the situation involves personal attacks, which is never warranted) belies an utter lack of understanding about how historiography works.

Check out the Gettysburg Reenactment Committee’s website on the event and their schedule.  You’ll see the Hunterstown event titled “Custer’s Trap.”  It’s too late now to undo that damage, but time will tell how the event is portrayed to the spectators of the reenactment.

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 11:01 am  Comments (10)  

Dirt – or Instant Gratification?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the issue of battlefield preservation, and to the larger, broader topic of the preservation of any of our historical sites – be they land, buildings, monuments, etc. connected with any time period of American history.  I’ve been in discussions over the years, and even recently on this and other blogs, about the importance of saving our historical sites.  Opinions are all over the board, ranging from staunch preservationism to those who see no value in saving land such as battlefield property.

I think most of us see the arguments and debates constantly – witness, for example, the recent “Casino” situation at Gettysburg.  Or the threats of development to Chancellorsville and many, many other sites.

As I’ve been thinking about these preservation battles lately, I always go back to what I’ve witnessed with my own senses.  For instance, over the decades I’ve been traveling to historical sites (especially Civil War battlefields) I’m always impressed when families take their young children there.  My goodness, just go to Devil’s Den at Gettysburg on any weekend during the summer and you’re bound to see hundreds of pre-adolescents crawling joyously over the rocks.  Or near Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, there may be families with young children having picnics.  At Stonewall Jackson’s wounding monument near the Visitor Center at Chancellorsville, maybe you’ll see young southern kids with their parents, going through the rite of passage of hearing about Stonewall and where he was mortally wounded, and the impact on the Confederate future of the war.

I emphasize the children when talking about preservation of historical sites, because that’s where the future is, simply put.  Kids today are bombarded constantly with demands for their attention – TV, cell phones, computers, iPods, etc.  And kids today want to be entertained fast and quick.  A minute of downtime and they’re bored, looking for something else.  They want instant gratification.

Battlefields, historical homes, monuments – even the nifty boulders at Devil’s Den are a form of instant gratification for the younger generation.  And it’s always been that way, even before the advent of our new forms of technology.  When that five year-old grows up, he/she may remember his exploits at Devil’s Den, or at the Bloody Pond, or Burnside’s Bridge, or atop Marye’s Heights.  And maybe he’ll want to go back.  Or take his/her kids there one day, and learn about what really happened there in the meantime.

An 8th grade class on the Civil War is hardly instant gratification.  Neither is a book in most cases.  But let them touch and feel their history (regardless of whether they understand the importance of the ground) and maybe one day it’ll touch them back.  Instant gratification.  That’s what Mt. Vernon, the Capitol, Arlington House, and Devil’s Den gives them.

It’s worth saving.  Every time.

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 1:49 pm  Comments (10)  

New Blog – “Fifty-Four”

I received a nice comment from a reader identified as “Gunner54” on a past post I’d made about Lt. John H. Calef of Battery A, 2nd US Artillery.  Gunner54, who appears to be a knowledgable fellow from across the pond (perhaps in or near Twickenham, England?), has a blog called “Fifty-Four.”  At the top of his home page, you can click on his Battery A, 2nd US Artillery blog, wherein he has a well-done piece on Calef’s service at Gettysburg.  Here is Gunner’s comment:

Nice to see John Calef getting the coverage he deserves, well done. I have been reseaching the Civil War service of Company A, 2nd Artillery – the battery Calef was in command of during the Gettysburg compaign – for several years. I have a short history of the battery on my blogsite, plus a chapter length reconstruction of the battery’s part in the Gettysburg campaign.

Thanks, Gunner – I’m impressed with your blog and I put a link to it here.

Published in: on May 17, 2007 at 4:21 pm  Comments (4)  

On the Horizon

Over the past week or so I’ve received several very nice emails regarding my article on the Battle of Fairfield (July 3, 1863 just a few miles from Gettysburg) that appears in the new (July) issue of America’s Civil War magazine.  Folks have been telling me that they never knew the ferocity of the fighting there, and how Confederate Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones’ Laurel Brigade all but decimated the 6th US Cavalry that day.  I appreciate everyone’s comments about the article and I’m glad that so many found it interesting.

The editor of ACW, Dana Shoaf, recently gave me a few projects to work on for the magazine, one of them an article about – drum roll please – Civil War blogging!  I think it’s a great idea.  Just over the past few months, some really terrific new Civil War-related blogs have appeared recently, and along with the several that have been around for years, there’s truly a lot of interest in writing and reading the blogs.  I’ve already done some research into the history of blogging on the internet, and plan to begin the article with that information.  I think such an article will be very timely (Dana tells me it might appear in the November issue) and interesting to a large segment of the online Civil War community.

I’m starting the article this weekend and hope to have it in Dana’s hands soon.

Published in: on May 16, 2007 at 5:02 pm  Comments (9)