Friday, January 2, 2015

The First Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg, June 17-18, 1863; Part 2

The story continues from the previous blog post...


      Colonel Duffié was fully aware of our desperate situation; he ordered the regiment into column of fours and said to me, “Captain Bliss, you will take the head of the column, no obstacle whatever stop you, we are surrounded here; we must cut our way out.”   

     We took the road towards Hopeville Gap, the same road over which a few minutes before Captain Haynes had charged upon us at the head of Companies G and H of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, and moved on at a walk, the usual marching gait. We had marched less than a mile when I heard shots in the rear, and soon Colonel Duffié came galloping to the head of the column and said, “Cavalry in our rear, boys.  Let us go,” and we went.   

     The horse I brought from Rhode Island, and which had carried me so many miles, had been lost on the 16th of June at Manassas by carelessness and disobedience of orders by my negro servant in letting the animal graze without a picket rope, and I was riding a horse loaned me by Lieutenant Vaughan, and sitting an English instead of a military saddle. The ride was after the style of let the best horse win, and frequently my feet would be thrown out of my light stirrups by crowding horses in the narrow road which caused me to slacken the pace while regaining the stirrups, and so it soon happened that although I started at the head of the procession I found myself rapidly falling back towards the rear.   

     At last I was where I could hear the rebels shouting, “Surrender, its no use, you can’t get away,” and hear their bullets sing as they fired into the column, and could also see our men turning in their saddles and firing back through the dust that covered us all like a heavy fog.  I saw that if I continued in the road I must soon be killed, or taken prisoner, and noticing that on the mountain side of the road there was no fence I reined my horse sharply to the left, but he was determined to follow the column and did not obey the rein.  For a moment I thought I was lost, but, with a desperate effort, I gave him the rein again together with my left spur, and making a slight angle with the road he darted into the woods at a point where there was a tree with limbs so low as to sweep me over the horse’s tail and leave me sitting on the ground with a drawn saber in my right hand, while the horse rapidly disappeared forever from my sight among the thick woods of the mountain side. 

     As I sat there I saw that several of my comrades had followed my lead, and they passed by me into the woods.  Although but a few yards from the road the air was so thick with dust that the whole rebel column thundered by without a man discovering me, and as soon as they had passed I rose and climbed up the mountain a short distance, where I found six men of my regiment in a dense thicket of laurel bushes within a short gun-shot of the road. I sat down among them to rest, and as I always carried with me a pocket inkstand and writing materials, I improved the time by writing to my old college chum, David V. Gerald, the following letter:

June 18, 1863.

     Our regiment has just been cleaned up.  We left Manassas Junction yesterday morning.  We had a skirmish at Thoroughfare Gap, but succeeded in forcing a passage with a loss  of only three horses killed and some wounded.  We reached Middleburg, having had considerable skirmishing along the road.  We found a small party of rebel cavalry in this place, but drove them out and established our pickets, expecting hourly the rest of our brigade to join us, via. Aldie, but it seems General Stuart, with a large force, had already taken Aldie and so we were left out in the cold, or rather shut up in among the mountains, in a regular trap, entirely surrounded by the rebels. 
     Just after sunset last night the rebel cavalry charged upon us with overwhelming numbers. Our men fought stubbornly, and many rebs bit the dust, but it was no use, we were obliged to retreat, which we did in good order, leaving about eighty of our men killed, wounded and prisoners; we fell back about two miles and stopped.  We had no guides and did not know in what direction to go.  At daybreak the enemy attacked us and we retreated.  By this time the men were very much discouraged, knowing our hopeless condition.  We had gone but a short distance when we were attacked, both in front and in rear.  Our plain duty was to charge and cut our way through, but the men would not do it. 
     At this time, while at the head of the column, trying to get the men to charge with me, a bullet struck the blade of my saber and glancing wounded me slightly in the right fore arm, but it is only a scratch, does not interfere, as you see, with writing.  The men went into a field to the left of the road, and ran promiscuously.  At last, by tremendous exertion n the part of the officers, the men were rallied, and we charged the rebels, who ran when they saw we meant fight. We then continued our retreat, but the rebels came down on our rear before we had gone a mile, and routed our men completely.  I was at the head of the column, and had orders to charge and cut my way through all obstructions, and I did not believe anything short of artillery or a barricade would have stopped us, but the attack on the rear was fatal.  Colonel Duffié rode by me saying, “Cavalry in our rear, boys, let us go,” and we did go.  I traveled with the rest about three miles, and the rebels were constantly shooting down men at the rear of the column. I lost my big bay horse several days ago, and found myself gradually dropping to the rear, and saw I must soon be shot or be taken prisoner unless I did something for myself with great swiftness, so I just dashed off sideways into the woods, a tree swept me from the saddle, and I stopped while the horse went on.  Some of the men saw my dodge, and imitated the same, and I have six men and five horses here with me. We have been lying here for an hour listening to the rebels talk.  They are constantly passing by here, but they will have to be smart to catch this crowd.  I intend to pilot this crowd safely out of the woods; but we have got a hard row to hoe among these mountains.

     I hear a rebel damning a prisoner.  I don’t know whether you will ever get this letter; if you don’t get it write, and if you do get it write ; but by all means write. I suppose nearly all our regiment are either killed, wounded or prisoners by this time; another sacrifice to poor generalship.  Still, I think our affairs never looked brighter.  If Lee will only go with his army fifty miles into Pennsylvania we shall clean him up.  This letter is private.  I don’t care if Tom Bishop, or any one else you can trust, sees it, but don’t care to have the main facts public.

June 19, 1863.
I have been successful in joining the remnant of our regiment.  I brought off with me
Edward C. Capwell, Hospital Steward.
William J. Bowley, [M] Troop.
Sergt. Alvin S. Eaton, [M] Troop.
George H. Dix, [M] Troop.
E. Carns, [M] Troop.
James H. Collins, [A] Troop.

     Perhaps it may be advisable to publish these names as safe.  From talk with various officers, who have escaped, I am sure the rebels suffered severely; in fact, I think their loss equal to ours. About forty of those in the fight have got in.

Lt.-Col. Thompson,
Capt. Allen,
Lt. Prentiss,
Lt. Brown,
Lt. Ellis,
Capt. Gould,
Capt. Bliss,
St. Shurtleff,

Of those officers who went out, these are all who have returned up to date, but we have good reason to think that there are more in the mountains who will come in sooner or later.

Publish the names of these officers.
      I was obliged to abandon our horses, and make our way over the mountains on foot, but I saved my arms.  The bullet that wounded me, struck the blade of my saber, and glancing scratched my arm.  The bullet would undoubtedly have struck my body if it had not glanced from my saber. I hope to return the compliment with the same saber before the war is over.  Lieutenant Burgess, Captain Rhodes and Lieutenant Vaughan went to Washington sick, June 17th, and were not in the fight.  Tell father, Charles was not in the fight and is all right somewhere.  When you get this please inform father of my safety immediately.  I am obliged to make this one letter answer for all.  Daniel W. Ide, of East Providence, was not in the fight, having been with the dismounted men since April 13th.

     It is too bad to slaughter a regiment needlessly as we were.  I may be egotistical, but I believe that if I had been in command I would have safely extricated the regiment from its perilous condition on the night of June 17th.  I would have gone to a house, taken a man and told him to take me across Bull Run mountains, and that if he brought me among the rebs I would blow out his brains on the spot. We were halted all night when we ought to have been marching.  But it is no use to lament the past; let us profit by our sad experience and do better next time.  While I can knaw hard bread I shall never say die.
Yours truly,
G. N. Bliss.

     After writing the first part of the foregoing letter I assumed command of the party, and we moved towards the summit of the mountain, feeling sure we would find Union troops on the east side, if we could succeed in crossing.  Having my field-glass with me I went in advance, and at every opportunity viewed the country.  I saw the rebel videttes at cross-roads in the distance, and could, therefore, easily avoid them.   

     As we were going along he mountain side we disturbed a partridge with her brood of young, and they ran in front of us for several yards, and nothing I saw in my whole soldier life, awoke in me so strong a longing for home and the pursuits of peaceful life.   

     After traveling some miles we found we were not on the Bull Run Mountain, but on an outlying hill, and must descend into a valley to reach the ridge we wished to cross.  In the valley we found a delightful brook of clear cold water, and determined to rest and refresh our horses here.  We bathed in the brook, and then seeing an approaching thunder-storm, put up our shelter tents and waited for the shower to pass.  Just as the rain was ceasing, two mounted rebels passed near us, and as we saw them it was reasonable to suppose they saw us, and to conjecture that a larger force was near by, from whom we might soon expect an attack. We determined, therefore, to abandon our horses and climb the mountain, at a point where it was too rough for horses to travel.   It was about dark as we pushed on up the mountain side over rocks and among brush and briars, until, about ten o’clock, we found a clearing on the mountain top with a house in its centre.   After careful reconnoitering we found only two persons were there, and then asked admission.   

     The lady of the house was about sixty years old, and was reluctant to admit us, but we insisted, and as we had some silver with us, and paid it for our supper of corn-bread and milk, she became quite sociable.  She had never seen a Yankee before, but had once possessed a Yankee needle and a Yankee pin. We put one man on picket, and the others had a comfortable night lying before the wood-fire burning in the huge stone fire-place. In the morning after a breakfast of corn-bread and milk, we started down the east side of the mountain, and in a few hours caught sight of a cavalry picket, and passing through the lines soon found Major Turner and a small squad of our men, who had not been with the regiment on its unfortunate raid. 

    A few days later those who had escaped from this disaster were assembled at Alexandria.  Colonel Duffié, with four officers and twenty-seven men, escaped though Hopewell Gap and marched to Centreville, where he made so good a report to General Hooker that he was recommended by him to be promoted and receive a commission as Brigadier-General, dated June 17, 1863.  It is reported that General Duffié said, “My goodness, when I do well, they take no notice of me.  When I go make one bad business, make one fool of myself, they promote me, make me General.”

     In all the fighting of the first day we did not have a man wounded; and if the regiment had cut its way out during the night of the 17th, the affair would have been a brilliant feat of arms, as we had penetrated to the centre of Stuarts’s Cavalry, and caused him to change all his plans and order Munford to fall back from the strong position where he was at Aldie, holding our entire cavalry force at bay.  On the second day, the 18th, we had six killed and twenty wounded; the killed were Lieutenant J. A. Chedell (C), Corporal T. Burton (F), S. Wilcox (D), J.H. Elkins (M), Charles Fairbanks (M), and B. G. Lawrence (M).

     We had in the tow days 210 captured, but forty of them succeeded in escaping, and only 170 were taken as prisoners to Richmond.  The Color-Sergeant. G. A. Robinson (Troop I), when he found he would be captured took the colors from the staff and wrapped them around his body under his clothing, and after being a prisoner for several days escaped, and brought the colors safely back to the regiment, for which he was rewarded by promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. 

     During the confusion of our first retreat through the wheat-field in the morning of June 18th, a rebel rode up toe Lawrence Cronan, who carried the guidon of Company C, and demanded the surrender of the flag.  Cronan refused, and the rebel fired, sending a bullet through Cronan’s right arm, his breast, and wounding his left arm, but Cronan rode off with the flag as though nothing had happened.  Soon after, Cronan became faint through loss of blood, gave his flag to a comrade, and was left behind a prisoner.  Cronan was taken to Middleburg, but was recaptured at noon of the 18th, when our cavalry corps entered the town, was sent to the hospital at Washington, recovered from his wounds, and served until the end of the war.  While Cronan was lying wounded and a prisoner, the rebel who shot him came to his side and said, “Why did you not surrender that flag,” to which Cronan replied, “It was not given me for that purpose.”  The rebel said, “Well, you are tough,” and passed on.

      This movement of the First Rhode Island Cavalry on Middleburg, resulting in disaster to the regiment, was of great service to our arms. It at once resulted in an order from General Stuart for the retreat of his troops from Aldie, where they had held a position so strong that our whole cavalry corps had failed to dislodge them. Our cavalry passed the Aldie Gap and for several days pushed Stuart’s troops severely, and it is thought that General Stuart’s desire to retaliate by a brilliant feat of arms led him to make the raid between Washington and the Army of the Potomac, thereby depriving General Lee of the services of Stuart and his veteran cavalrymen for many days, and for want of the information they might have given, causing, as many Confederate officers believe, the crushing defeat at Gettysburg.