History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, in the War Between the States/Chapter 2
The Regiment Reorganized—Badly Uniformed and Poorly Equipped—On the Massaponax—Falling Back to Richmond—The Raid Around McClellan—Death of Latanè—Complimentary Orders—J. E. B. Stuart—Anticipating a Great Battle.
Near the close of April the regiment reorganized, the privates electing the company officers, and these electing the field officers. These elections were general throughout the army, and were regarded as a great political blunder, amounting almost to a crime, in the legislative department of the Confederate Government. The consequences, doubtless, would have been disastrous in the extreme but for the firmness, energy, and good sense of the military commanders.
In our regiment, Colonel Johnson was displaced, William H. F. Lee becoming colonel, R. L. T. Beale lieutenant-colonel, and Meriwether Lewis major. It was not until after this reorganization that all the companies composing the regiment were brought together. Owing to some coolness between Johnson and Lee, or for some other cause, they had been separated, and whilst some of us under Johnson camped at Massaponax Church, four or five companies under Lee occupied Hick's Hill, near the river road from Port Royal.
The appearance of the regiment at this time was but a slight improvement upon that ascribed to one of the companies the year previous. Three of the companies had been partly armed with inferior carbines and pistols by the counties in which they were raised; most of them were supplied with such sporting guns as could be collected by the officers from the people of the country. The equipment of the horses was of the most inferior kind, and varied with the means of the individual troopers. No regular squad, company, or regimental drill had been generally adopted and the supply of books of tactics was wholly inadequate to the wants of the officers.
Captain John F. Hughlett had succeeded Lewis in Company D; O. M. Knight, Hatchett in Company G; and William Latanè, Cauthorn in Company F. The officers of the previous year commanded the other companies.
We continued guarding the outlets of Fredericksburg and learning something of the trooper's duties in occasional attacks upon picket-posts and night alarms until about the 1st of May. Whilst picketing around Fredericksburg we had seen for many days long trains of forage-wagons escorted by detachments of the enemy moving down the north bank of the Rappahannock, their cavalry horses quietly grazing upon the grass-covered fields of Stafford, and the bitter thought of defenceless homes and helpless families brought more of sorrow than all the hardships of camp life and dangers of the field of battle.
After a short encampment at Hick's Hill, where much sickness prevailed among the men, the regiment marched towards the close of May, in the direction of Richmond, following the infantry, and taking the Telegraph road. On the third day of our march we reached Yellow Tavern, five miles from Richmond, and a day or two afterwards went into camp on Mrs. Mordecai's farm on Brooke turnpike. Our duties here consisting simply in picketing a few points about Ashland and Hugh's Cross-Roads, some attention was paid to drills; guard mountings and dress-parades were held daily, and the horses being well fed, recovered from the effects of the recent hard usage since breaking camp in March. Some few desertions of privates and many elopements of negro servants occurred while we occupied this camp.
On the 12th day of June it was whispered through camp that we would that night march in company with other regiments upon some daring mission. All were enthusiastic for action. The order to prepare rations was received with joy, and executed promptly. In the evening we moved to the junction of the Telegraph road with the Central railroad, and slept on the ground. The next morning seven companies of the Ninth (Companies A, H, and I being on detached service) were formed into three squadrons, the supernumeraries being assigned to an officer commanding a provost-guard, and, with two squadrons from the Fourth Virginia Cavalry to complete a full regiment, placed under command of Colonel W. H. F. Lee. To this force were added detachments under Colonel Fitz. Lee and the Jeff. Davis Legion under Colonel Martin, forming the largest body of cavalry we had seen, and consisting of about twelve hundred troopers, and a section of light artillery. It was quite imposing in appearance, and conmmanded by Brigadier-General J. E. B. Stuart.
About light on the morning of the 13th a rocket ascended high in the air, and the order to march was immediately given. We moved rapidly along a road leading to Hanover Courthouse. Before reaching that point we were halted, and troops from the column in rear of us made a detour to the right in pursuit of a small party of the enemy. They accomplished nothing. Passing the Courthouse and nearing Hawe's Shop, the advance guard under Lieutenant W. T. Robins, our adjutant, encountered a picket and captured a private. Companies B and C, under Captain Swann charged. The enemy fell back to the Totopotomoi river, and formed in line of battle on the left of the road, with a marshy strip of land in their rear. Our squadron had been moving at full speed for several miles, and as soon as seen, after a momentary halt to pull down the fence, the enemy was charged. In vain the officers tried to lead the enemy out to meet our charge. They broke and retreated at full speed across the bridge, a few hundred yards in their rear. Upon reaching the marshy land some of our horses mired, a number of the troopers were dismounted, and several of the horses without riders followed the flying steeds of the Federals. Companies B and C were now dismounted, and ordered to cross the bridge and advance in skirmish line on both sides of the road. The squadron next in front, composed of Companies E and F, under Captain William Latanè, then crossed the bridge and charged up the road in column of fours. Moving rapidly, Latanè reached the level land beyond the bridge in advance of the dismounted men, and, riding some paces in front of his men, was shot and killed instantly by a party of the enemy in the woods on the right of the road. Nothing daunted by this heavy blow, the squadron moved onward, and, nearing the crest of the hill, found Companies D and E, Fifth Regiment, United States Dragoons, in line of battle a little to the left of the road. Wheeling by fours into line, they charged with the sabre. The charge was soon ended, and the dragoons were routed. Two or three were killed, and a lieutenant and ten privates captured. The casualties with us were Latanè killed and two privates of Company E wounded very slightly with sabre-cuts.
Our whole command then moved rapidly on the road to Old Church, rifling the camp of the picket force of some carbines, pistols, horses, a litle wine, and a few prisoners. Confounded by the suddenness of the blow and panic-stricken, the enemy fled in detached parties along every road leading to their rear. The citizens, assured of the presence of the infant flag, hurried to the road-side; many ladies ran out, and, with waving handkerchiefs and eyes filled with tears, breathed their blessings on us. The excitement became intense; cheer after cheer rent the air as Stuart, at the head of the column, bade all hope of support from our army good-bye, and daringly pursued the road to the White House, on the banks of the Pamunkey, immediately in rear of the Federal army under McClellan.
At Old Church, a guidon, the first trophy of the kind that had fallen into our hands, was captured by one of Company C, and afterwards sent to Governor Letcher. Prisoners were taken at various points; ambulances moving quietly, and as their drivers supposed, securely, were overhauled and sacked, and, with the horses detached, were left standing in or near the road.
On, on, we marched, and reached Tunstall's Station on the York-River railroad before sunset. From column of fours we were now formed into column of platoons, and in this order approached the station, ready to make, or repel, an attack. The country, denuded of fences, offered no obstacle, and our line of march was through the fields bordering the road. Sutlers' wagons loaded with varieties of fruits and confectioneries, and heavier wagons filled with quartermaster and commissary supplies in quantities and variety such as we had not seen before, were standing in the road, deserted by their drivers, and in some cases without the teams. This temptation proved too strong for resistance, and many troopers broke from the ranks to seize and appropriate the rich spoil. In some instances these became laden with more than could be carried.
We reached the station and found our advance guard in quiet possession. The telegraph wires were cut, and orders given for the destruction of the muskets with which the depot was well filled. Quickly the announcement was made of a train of cars coming from the direction of the Federal army. Dismounted men were placed in ambush, and others set to work to put obstructions on the track. Our regiment was concealed from view in a valley. A train of cars soon came down the road, and a hundred yards or so above our ambush began to slow down, and was leisurely approaching the station, when a volley was fired by our men. Like a bird startled by the ineffectual fire of the fowler, the engineer instantly let on full steam. The regiment dashed up the hill, and as the train passed at a fearful rate of speed they sent a shower of buckshot and ball in pursuit with what effect we never learned. The train had escaped.
A number of the enemy who had leaped from the train when it was moving slowly, were pursued. Most of them surrendered; one or two refused to do so, and in endeavoring to escape were shot.
We halted here for over an hour, awaiting the return of two squadrons sent under command of Captains Knight and Hammond to Putney's Ferry, on the Pamunkey, where some vessels were landing military supplies. This party, after meeting a slight show of resistance, captured the place, and, having destroyed such things as they could not remove, including two vessels loaded with stores, brought off some prisoners and many mules and wagons. The wagons found near Tunstall's Station generally were without teams, these having been captured by our men in advance of us, or else ridden off by the teamsters upon our approach. These wagons we burned.
After darkness set in our march was resumed in the direction of Forge Bridge on the Chickahominy. Encumbered with our captives, which increased continuously, we moved slowly. About midnight a sutler's storehouse was reached, at Talleysville, and the command halting for some time to close up the column, many troopers helped themselves to such refreshments as the sutler had provided for his customers, without the usual ceremony of giving something in exchange. Continuing our march from this point, by dawn we reached the Chickahominy, and attempted its passage at a blind ford two miles above Forge Bridge. The river, swollen by recent rains, was too full to be forded. Tall trees were felled in the vain hope of their reaching from shore to shore, and a line formed of many halter-reins tied together, was stretched across the stream, and several rafts made of fence-rails lashed together, were put afloat in the many efforts to effect a crossing here. A few men, led in person by Colonel W. H. F. Lee, swam over, and a few succeeded in crossing on the rafts. General Stuart, finding it impossible to cross the command at this point, withdrew, leaving about thirty-five officers and men of our regiment who had crossed to the opposite bank with Lieutenant-Colonel Beale. The command now moved down to Forge Bridge, which they found had been burned. With the timbers of an old barn a bridge was built across the north channel of the river to an island, and men were sent over to collect materials and construct a bridge across the south and main channel, dividing the island and mainland in Charles City county. Lieutenant-Colonel Beale, hearing of this order, moved at once down the south bank to the point indicated, and, finding ample materials, detailed a party under orders of Robinson Taylor who soon built a substantial bridge upon the partly-destroyed foundations of the old one. However, before the intelligence of its completion reached the General, he had, after swimming the horses of his command over the northern stream, commenced to ford the southern one from the upper end of the island. This was successfully accomplished long before sunset, and with the loss only of a caisson and some of the captured mules. To prevent pursuit by the enemy, the bridge was ordered to be burned. We halted for some hours near Charles City Courthouse, and, resuming the march about midnight, took the road leading up the north bank of the James to Richmond, and reached our camp next day.
This bold march entirely around the Federal army elicited warmest praise from the whole country. A complimentary order from General J. E. B. Stuart was read to the troops, and a printed copy given to each officer and man engaged in the expedition. In this order special mention was made of our Colonel and Adjutant, and of one or two privates. A handsome tribute was paid in orders to our gallant Latanè. John R. Thompson, the editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, in a few verses of touching beauty, and the brush of a Richmond artist, canonized his memory, and preserved for after times in lines of life-like truthfulness the scene of his burial.
Lieutenant William Oliver succeeded to the command of Company F, and the youthful brother of Latanè was made third lieutenant.
The captured horses and mules were distributed ratably to the quartermasters of the several regiments of Stuart's command. Some arms, which had been captured, were also distributed. The fact that we would fight was now fixed upon the minds of our commanding officers, and never afterwards doubted. The pride of officers and men was excited, confidence in the leadership of Stuart established, and, though this delicate plant matured so suddenly, in all the after trials of the war, it showed no signs of decay.
A proposal to form a company selected from the best men of the regiment, to be placed under command of our adjutant as captain, met such determined opposition from the officers, that it was abandoned.
The quiet of camp life was unbroken until the close of June, then rumors of a great movement among our troops became rife. The near approach of the enemy's lines to Richmond, and the reported strength of the opposing armies produced a seriousness amongst officers and men that had not been seen before: It indicated no feeling of fear but revealed clearly that the impression was general that we were on the threshold of great dangers.