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.
On the 8th of June, 1863, the cavalry was ordered to be saddled, and ready to move at daybreak on the 9th. It was known to the officers that an attack on the Rebel cavalry on the further side of the Rappahannock was the object. The Confederates afterwards always called that attack “The Surprise”. It was a surprise in more ways than one. The Second, with the Fifth Cavalry leading the Regular Brigade, moved out at early dawn. One small brigade, led by the Eighth New York Cavalry, whose colonel commanded the brigade, had passed over before us. He was a gallant man, an ambitious soldier, a courtly gentleman – was “Grimes” (B. F.) Davis. A Southerner like the idolized chief of the first division, he stood firm by the flag under which he had received his qualification and commission as an officer; like him, he died for that flag – under that flag fell too soon, but oh! so bravely.
It was only the work of a few moments (though minutes seem long under such circumstances) to cross from the peaceful hither side of the Rappahannock to where the over-confident and lately-augmented horse of the Southern army was making hasty preparation to meet us. And while we crossed and ascended the opposite bank, the first news of the battle, borne on the wings of the morning, reached us. The enemy was hotly engaged, and Davis had fallen, mortally wounded. He was dearly beloved throughout the brigade, and many a veteran of the First, Second, and Fifth drew his chin more grimly to his breast and with clenched teeth awaited the shock of battle, anxious to avenge the death of this hero. Nor had we long to wait.
As soon as the Second was fairly in the field, it was directed to move with the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and support it in a charge; but while executing this order the regiment was recalled for an emergency, while two squadrons, one under Canfield and one under Rodenbough, were detached to the front. From this hour (it was about five in the morning) the fighting for the regiment commenced, and was kept up continuously for more than twelve hours; for it was not till after five in the evening of that day that the Second was withdrawn from the hottest part of the fight, and not till seven that we finally left the field.
Soon after being detached, and while fighting bravely at his post, Captain Canfield fell dead, pierced by a bullet. Young and brave, full of hopes for the future, and inspired with a determination to do his duty, he fell early in the action, gloriously, in the front of battle, dying a death which all soldiers, whether young or old, may well covet. His face was composed and calm. There was no trace of suffering, no mark of anguish there. He rests peacefully under the green sod, his memory crowned with laurels; and when the last trumpet shall sound, he can boldly take his place in the front rank of those who died fighting for their country.
Rodenbough’s squadron, which was detached at the same time as Canfield’s, was soon hotly engaged. The enemy advancing in strong force, he slowly withdrew, together with the rest of the line. Presently, under orders, he dismounted his men, and, taking possession of a stone wall, defended it against all attacks by ten times his numbers, until his command was relieved by Leoser’s squadron. During ten minutes in this part of the fight Rodenbough had his horse shot in four places, his lieutenants, Wells and Quirk, each had a horse killed, and ten or more horses in the squadron were killed or disabled.
During this time, and for an hour longer, the regiment, subject to a well-directed artillery fire, remained in support of a battery of artillery, and busied itself in calculating the points at which the next shells, sent each moment by the enemy’s batteries, would strike, and changing its position from time to time to avoid these constant visitors. In this praiseworthy occupation, I am sorry to say, it was interfered with by the corps commander, who, not seeming to appreciate the delicacy of the position as well as those who were in it, sent orders forbidding a change of position. An explanation followed, and the action of the regimental commander was endorsed. At last an order – which we all had hoped and all but asked for, and which General Buford told me he was anxious to give, but had not the authority, but which no doubt he carried – finally came. We were ordered to advance and deal on their ground with the batteries and sharpshooters which had wrought such havoc among our men and horses. Right gallantly did the Second advance to its work. The batteries limbered up and moved off before us, and the sharpshooters were all captured in their defenses. Soon a halt was ordered, while the battery with the Regular Brigade commenced and fought for a time with a Rebel battery an artillery duel, the Second occupying a position in a valley between the batteries, and the shells of each were sent flying in the air over our heads. But this continued only for a short time, when I received orders from General Buford to advance in conjunction with the Sixth Cavalry. Leoser’s squadron was thrown to the front as skirmishers, and the rest of the regiment followed closely to support him. The advance soon drove in the enemies skirmishers, and in turn was charged by the enemy’s cavalry. Not a moment was lost. The Second advanced rapidly in column of platoons, but, coming on a fence, was obliged to break by fours, and finally, before the hot work fairly commenced, had further to reduce its front in order to pass a bad ravine thickly hedged with black-thorn shrubs. Nothing was impossible with the Second. The advance squadron was being charged by a regiment or more of the enemy, and in less time than it takes to tell of it the regiment was over the ravine, and only halting a moment to partially reform, we rode pell mell, with saber in hand, at the astonished enemy. For a moment the regiment which had charged our skirmishers halted. The next moment it had broken and was flying, while the horsemen of the Second, mingling with the enemy, dealt saber-blows and pistol-shots on every side. There was little halting to make prisoners, as friend and foe, mixed inextricably together, rode on in their terrible carnage, each apparently for the same destination. Those who surrendered were told by a motion to go to the rear – the place whence we had ridden – and those who resisted were sabered or shot till they reeled from their saddles, the victor never pausing to see how well his work was done, but rushing madly on to engage a new foe.
The gallant O’Keefe, aide to General Buford, charged by my side at the head of the Regiment. He had been with us from the time we had charged the batteries in the plain below. We rode for a time boot to boot in the early charge, but separated in the melee when the enemy broke and we commenced the use of sabers and pistols. He, noble fellow! was wounded and a prisoner, as the record of the day showed; but his life was spared, to be lost later in his glorious exploits.
Each moment of the fight grew fiercer, the dust and smoke and steam from the heated horses making the air dark and obscuring the vision. Rodenbough, who charged with the leading squadron at the head of the regiment, engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with a stalwart Virginian, who after slightly wounding the gallant leader of the first squadron, was brought to the ground with a well-directed blow of the saber. Leoser, after two gallant charges with his skirmishers, was severely wounded. Dewees and Blanchard, his lieutenants, were wounded, and fell into the enemy’s hands. Spaulding, the adjutant of the regiment, was seen in the thickest of the fight, his horse killed and he wounded and on foot, surrounded by enemies, fighting valiantly, and refusing to surrender. And while the officers all did so well, the non-commissioned officers and men of this glorious regiment were not one whit behind. Each rode at his foe and brought him to terms, and then sought for new work.
The charge, in its impetuosity, carried everything before it. It bore up the hill, across the plateau, and to the crest on the other side. There were discovered in the valley below, fresh regiments of horses moving quietly towards the scene of our combat, anxious to strike us while we were in confusion. The men of the Second, admonished by this new peril, obeyed the summons to return to the rallying-ground and form, to meet anew the fresh enemy who was advancing.
The regiment was soon formed and again ready for action. It had defeated in its charge and hand-to-hand fight more than double its numbers of the enemy, and, though it had suffered terrible losses, from its small numbers, in officers and men, was soon again in condition to continue its gallant work. The fighting was renewed by the enemy firing with carbines from a thick wood, whereupon the men of the command were dismounted, and, under orders, held the line we then had, for the remainder of the battle. Towards the close of the day, the Second was relieved by the Sixth United States Cavalry. During this last affair, three other gallant officers of the Second, Quirk, Wells, and Lennox, fell badly wounded. Poor Quirk received a bad wound in his leg, while Wells, it was feared, was mortally wounded, as he was hit in the abdomen.
At about five in the afternoon the regiment was relieved from the line of battle, and toward seven in the evening it was withdrawn from the field.
Thus ended one of the hardest fights and most laborious day’s work which was participated in by the Second Cavalry during the war. The day was full of glory for all concerned; but no regiment had a greater share than the “Second”, as an evidence of which the captain commanding it was soon promoted to a brigadier-generalcy, while both officers and men received the highest commendation from the gallant Buford, whose slightest praise was more valued by his officers than a brevet from the War Department.
The list of casualties attests the work of day so far as the Second was concerned. It deserves insertion in full:
KILLED. Captain C. W. Canfield.
WOUNDED. First Lieutenant Charles McK. Leoser; First Lieutenant William Blanchard (a prisoner); First Lieutenant T. B. Dewees; First Lieutenant Robert Lennox; Second Lieutenant E. R. Wells; Second Lieutenant Paul Quirk; Second Lieutenant Edward J. Spalding (a prisoner); EIGHT out of FOURTEEN officers; not to mention Captain O’ Keefe, who was seriously wounded in the charge with the regiment, and Captains Merritt and Rodenbough, both of whom were slightly wounded during the day. Of the men of the regiment, about one third of the total were killed or wounded during the battle, and in some squadrons nearly half the horses were killed or wounded. Nor had there been any unnecessary exposure or sacrifice; all the casualties resulted in actual combat, in which the enemy was fully repaid with interest for all that was received by the regiment. While we had lost heavily, we had accomplished much; for from that day forth the prestige of the Confederate cavalry was broken and its preeminence was gone forever.