ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
Headquarters First Cavalry Division,
October 12, 1864
SIR. The division moved as ordered at 2 a.m. on the morning of the 19th ultimo, two brigades and the wagons via Summit Point, the First Brigade across the country to Seivers’ Ford. No serious opposition was met with until we arrived at the Opequan. The enemy’s cavalry pickets retreated across the creek. At the fords it was found that the enemy was picketing as usual with infantry, which seemed determined to prevent our crossing. After occupying the fords below I sent the First Brigade to Locke’s Ford, while the Reserve Brigade was ordered to effect a crossing at Seivers’ Ford; this was done in fine style by Colonel Lowell, who threw over dismounted men, closely supported by the 5th U.S. Cavalry and part of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, mounted. In making this lodgement on the left bank of the creek Captain Rodenbough, of the Second U.S. Cavalry, with his gallant regiment, was particularly conspicuous in charging down the hill, across the creek, on up the opposite incline in the face of a galling fire from the enemy’s infantry, who had taken possession of the railroad cut, and were completely covered from our fire.
The Second advanced (a heroic little band) almost without firing a shot, until it had gained the crest of the cut; here a number of prisoners were taken; this was done with but small loss. Simultaneous with the crossing at this ford General Custer, with his brave brigade, forced the passage at the ford three-quarters of a mile below – Locke’s. His men, as usual, fought with the greatest gallantry, rushing recklessly over every opposition, and pressing well forward into the country on the other side, connecting his left with the right of the Reserve Brigade. This was all completed before sunrise. The rich crimson of that fine autumnal morning was fading away into the broad light of day when the booming of guns on the left gave sign that the attack was being made by our infantry. The glorious old First Division was never in better condition. Officers and men, as they saw the sun appear bright and glorious above the horizon, felt a consciousness of renewed strength, a presentiment of fresh glory to be added that day to their already unfading laurels. They felt like men who were willing to do and die; that they were not deceived the history of the days proves.
After the junction of the lines on the other side of the Opequan both brigades were ordered to advance and press the enemy vigorously, keeping him engaged, the object being to prevent Breckinridge, who was known to be in our front, from sending his corps to join the rest of Early’s forces near Winchester, or at least, if he did send it, to follow closely in his rear and get on the enemy’s flank. Every man in the two brigades now engaged (the First and Reserve) fought like a hero. About 11 o’clock a charge was made by part of the First Brigade and the Second (U.S.) Cavalry, Reserve Brigade. Our men rushed upon the infantry, who were protected by a long line of rail barricades, but finding unusual and unexpected obstacles, retired, taking a position more advantageous, from which they made the enemy in his turn retire before them. Here the enemy used his artillery freely. About 1:30 p.m. the order for a general advance was given. The Second Brigade, not hitherto engaged, was thrown across the creek, as also the artillery, which at intervals up to this time had been doing good execution from the fine positions on the right bank. The Second Brigade, with the First U.S. Cavalry (Captain Baker), moved in column on the direct road from Seivers’ Ford to the Winchester pike (the road meeting the pike about four miles from Winchester). The First and Reserve Brigades moved across the country with orders to concentrate at the junction of these two roads. It was soon found that the enemy’s infantry had withdrawn from our front, leaving the protection of their flank to their cavalry. General Devin charged this last about a mile from the pike, and hurled it in confusion up the road and across the country to the pike. It was soon disposed of; although outnumbering the Second Brigade it could not stand before the keen steel and resistless force of the sturdy troopers of the “Old War Horse”. The junction of the three Brigades at the point designated was soon effected and the advance toward Winchester immediately begun – the First Brigade on the right, the Second Brigade in the center, and the Reserve Brigade well to the left, to cover the flank and connect if possible with our infantry. When approaching the field near Winchester the enemy’s cavalry (reenforced) again met our advance, when the Second Brigade charged it, which charge, being closely followed up by the First Brigade (each holding a reserve), drove the Rebel horsemen pell-mell over their infantry and out of sight into the town of Winchester. These men only returned later in the day on the crest of a line of hills well to our right to annoy us with their artillery fire. At this time (3 p.m.) the field was open for cavalry operations such as the war has not seen, such as all good cavalry officers long to engage in; nor was the division slow to take an active part in the grand theater of battle which was being enacted at our feet.
Up to this time no communication had been opened with our infantry; we knew they were going to fight and about where we might expect them. A six-gun battery of the enemy was playing away rapidly toward our left front. This was ordered to be charged, but before the order could be executed it withdrew, and the charge was directed on the enemy’s infantry, which was attempting to charge front and meet us; they were in confusion; no time was lost; the intrepid Devin, with his gallant brigade, burst like a storm of case-shot in their midst, showering saber blows on their heads and shoulders, trampling them under his horses’ feet, and routing them in droves in every direction. The brigade emerged from the fray with three stands of colors and over 300 prisoners. This blow, struck by General Devin, was at the angle of the line caused by the enemy’s refusing his left to meet our attack. Soon Colonel Lowell (Reserve Brigade), who formed to left of the position from which Devin charged, entered the lists. His heroic brigade, now reduced to about 600 men, rode out fearlessly to within 500 yards of the enemy’s infantry line of battle, on the left of which, resting on an old earth-work, was a two-gun battery. The order was given to charge the line and get the guns. The noble Lowell; with his heroic little brigade, moved boldly forward; a withering fire staggered the head of his column; it was deployed; the enemy’s capacity for harm was gone, their pieces being unloaded. The brigade dashed down, broke through the enemy’s lines, and swept it away in confusion, leaving the guns far behind in the hurly-burly of the melee. It was a noble work well done – a theme for the poet; a scene for the painter. In this charge the gallant Rodenbough, at the head of his regiment, lost an arm. These movements had given us the ground at first occupied by the enemy. The First Brigade moved to a position near the front, and, forming in column of squadrons, made ready to give the final stroke to the work of the day. The sun was fast going down and the enemy making the greatest effort to go away, but the cavalry gave them no rest.
We were at this time under a fearful fire of artillery, which, as hinted at before, had taken its position on the crest of a line of hills to our right flank. The Fourth and Sixth New York Cavalry (Second Brigade) was formed in rear of the First Brigade in column of squadrons, and the fragment of the Reserve Brigade, with the same formation, was posted on the right of this column. A battery of the enemy, which had been doing some execution, posted to the left front about 500 yards, limbered up and ran away. The charge of the left column was ordered; the gallant Custer led it; boot to boot these brave horsemen rode in. The enemy’s line broke into a thousand fragments under the shock. The Reserve Brigade followed the blow, and all was lost to the enemy. Many of them threw down their arms and cried for mercy; others hung tenaciously to their muskets, using them with their muzzles against our soldiers’ breasts; a number took refuge in a house and fought through the doors and windows, but the field was won. Four stands of colors were here taken and over 500 prisoners were swept into our lines, and the miserable remnant of Early’s army fled madly through the streets of Winchester.
Thus it will be seen that six distinct charges were made by parts of the division after the general advance toward Winchester – two by the Second Brigade and one by the First Brigade against the enemy’s cavalry; one by the Second Brigade and one by the Reserve Brigade against the enemy’s infantry and artillery, and one, the final charge, in which all three of the brigades were concerned. Brigade and regimental commanders did their duty handsomely in rallying their commands after each charge, and the commanding officers of the First and Reserve Brigades are particularly worthy of praise for carrying out orders and concentrating their brigades at a given point on the pike in the shortest possible time. Everything was well done during the day, and everything was done in a space of time which seemed short, even where there was the greatest reason for impatience on the field of battle in time of need.
The battle of Opequan was truly a glorious occasion for the First Cavalry Division, and there is not a man nor officer in the command who does not take a just pride in what was done by the division toward winning the victory and trailing the Rebel banners in the dust in the Valley of the Shenandoah, the former valley of humiliation to Union armies.
Our losses were heavy, not in numbers, but many of our best soldiers poured out their life blood on the fields around Winchester. Lieut. Col. Melvin Brewer, Seventh Michigan Cavalry; Maj. C. W. Ayres, Ninth New York Cavalry; and last, but not least, Capt. James F. McQuesten, Second U.S. Cavalry, acting inspector general on my staff, fell in the front of battle heroically fighting for the integrity of the Union, the ascendancy of the old flag. Never did braver men shed their blood, and never in a juster cause. Each one of these gallant officers was actuated by the highest principles that inspire a soldier. Each was a willing sacrifice in the hour of his country’s need.
The names of the enlisted men who fell in this battle are transmitted herewith; they died gloriously in the thickest of the fight, with the simple but proud record of enlisted men of the First Cavalry Division who had always done their duty; they need no more flattering history.
There are many events of personal daring which it would not be possible in the limits of this report to recount. I have taken occasion to mention in a separate paper those who were particularly deserving of praise, but I find that but poor justice can be done to a command in any report of a battle in which those who were not prominently distinguished are among the exceptions. The battle, in addition to its immediate results, has had the effect to establish in the mind of each officer and man in the command the lesson derived from our former experience, that the First Cavalry Division is invincible in a contest with anything like equal numbers of the foe.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Maj. WILLIAM RUSSELL, Jr.,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Cavalry, Middle Military Division.