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.