Stuart's Ride Around McClellan
By W. T. ROBBINS, COLONEL, C.S. A.
THE battle of Seven Pines," or Fair Oaks," had been fought with no result. The temporary success of the Confederates early in the engagement had been more than counterbalanced by the reverses they sustained on the second day, and the two armies lay passively watching each other in front of Richmond. At this time the cavalry of Lee's army was commanded by General J. E. B. Stuart, and this restless officer conceived the idea of flanking the right wing of the Federal army near Ashland, and moving around to the rear, to cross the Chickahominy River at a place called Sycamore Ford, in New Kent County, march over to the James River, and return to the Confederate lines near Deep Bottom, in Henrico County. In carrying out this plan, Stuart would completely encircle the army of General McClellan. At the time of this movement the writer was adjutant of the 9th Virginia cavalry. When the orders were issued from head-quarters directing the several commands destined to form the expedition to prepare three days' rations, and the ordnance officers to issue sixty rounds of ammunition to each man, I remember the surmises and conjectures as to our destination. The officers and men were in high spirits in anticipation of a fight, and when the bugles rang out "Boots and Saddles," every man was ready. The men left behind in camp were bewailing their luck, and those forming the detail for the expedition were elated at the prospect of some excitement. "Good-bye, boys; we are going to help old Jack drive the Yanks into the Potomac," I heard one of them shout to those left behind.
On the afternoon of June 12th we went out to the Brooke turnpike, preparatory to the march. The cavalry column was the 9th Virginia, commanded by Colonel W. H. F. Lee, the 1st Virginia, led by Colonel Fitz Lee, and the Jeff Davis Legion, under Colonel Martin. A section of the Stuart Horse Artillery, commanded by Captain Pelham, accompanied the expedition. The whole numbered twelve hundred men. The first night was passed in bivouac in the vicinity of Ashland, and orders were issued enforcing strict silence and forbidding the use of fires, as the success of the expedition would depend upon secrecy and celerity. On the following morning, at the break of dawn, the troopers were mounted and the march was begun without a bugle blast, and the column headed direct for Hanover Court House, distant about two hours' ride. Here we had the first sight of the enemy. A scouting party of the 5th U. S. Cavalry was in the village, but speedily decamped when our troops were ascertained to be Confederates. One prisoner was taken after a hot chase across country. We now moved rapidly to Hawes's Shop, where a Federal picket was surprised and captured without firing a shot. Hardly had the prisoners been disarmed and turned over to the provost guard when the Confederate advance was driven in upon the main body by a squadron of Federal cavalry, sent out from Old Church to ascertain by reconnoissance whether the report of a Confederate advance was true or false. General Stuart at once ordered Colonel W. H.F. Lee, commanding the regiment leading the column, to throw forward a squadron to meet the enemy. Colonel Lee directed Captain Swann chief of the leading squadron of his regiment, to charge with the saber. Swann moved off at a trot, and, turning a corner of the toad, saw the enemy's squadron about two hundred yards in front of him. The order to charge was given, and the men dashed forward in fine style. The onset was so sudden that the Federal cavalry broke and scattered in confusion. The latter had a start of barely two hundred yards, but the Confederate yell that broke upon the air lent them wings, and only a few fell into our hands. The rest made their escape after a chase of a mile and a half. Now the road became very narrow, and the brush on either side was a place so favorable for an ambuscade that Captain Swann deemed it prudent to draw rein and sound the bugle to recall his men. Stuart, who had been marching steadily onward with the main body of the Confederate column, soon arrived at the front, and the advance guard, which I had all along commanded, was directed to move forward again. I at once dismounted the men, and pushed forward up a hill
in my front. Just beyond the hill, I ran into a force of Federal cavalry drawn up in column of fours, ready to charge. Just as my advance-guard was about to run into him, I heard their commanding officer give the order to charge. I fell back and immediately notified General Stuart of the presence of the enemy. Captain Latan, commanding a squadron of the 9th Virginia, was directed to move forward and clear the road. He moved up the hill at a trot, and when in sight of the enemy in the road gave the command to charge, and with a yell the men rushed forward. At the top of the hill, simultaneously with Latané's order' to charge, a company of Federal cavalry, deployed as skirmishers in the woods on the right of the read, were stampeded, and rushed back into the woods to make good their retreat to their friends. The head of Latané's squadron, then just fairly up the hill, was in the line of their retreat and was separated from the rest of the squadron, cut off by the rush of the Federals, and borne along with them up the road toward the enemy. I was riding at the side of Latan, and just at the time when the Federal company rushed back into the road. Captain Latané fell from his horse, shot dead. The rush of the Federals separated myself and six of the leading files of the squadron from our friends, and we were borne along by the flying Federals. Although the Federal cavalry both in front and rear were in full retreat, our situation was perilous in the extreme. Soon we were pushed by foes in our rear into the ranks of those in our front, and a series of hand-to-hand combats ensued. To shoot or to cut us down was the aim of every Federal as he neared us, but we did what we could to defend ourselves. Every one of my comrades was shot or cut down, and I alone escaped unhurt. After having been borne along by the retreating enemy for perhaps a quarter of a mile, I leaped my horse over the fence into the field and so got away.
Now came the rush of the Confederate column sweeping the road clear, and capturing many prisoners. At this point my regiment was relieved by the 1st Virginia, and Colonel Lee continued the pursuit. The Federals did not attempt to make a stand until they reached Old Church. Here their officers called a halt, and made an attempt to rally to defend their camp. Fitz Lee soon swept them out, and burned their camp. They made no other attempt to stand, and we heard no more of them as an organized body, but many prisoners were taken as we passed along. We had surprised them, taken them in detail, and far outnumbered them at all points. The Federal forces, as we afterward learned, were commanded by General Philip St. George Cooke, father-in-law to General Stuart, to whom the latter sent a polite message. The casualties in this skirmish were slight-one man killed on each side, and about fifteen or twenty wounded on the Confederate side, mostly saber-cuts.
We halted for a short time at Old Church, and the people of the neighborhood, hearing of our arrival, came flocking out to greet us and wish us God-speed. They did not come empty-handed, but brought whatever they could snatch up on the spur of the moment, rightly spur of the moment, rightly supposing that anything to allay hunger or thirst would be acceptable to us. Some of the ladies brought bouquets, and presented them to the officers as they marched along. One of these was given to General Stuart, who, always gallant, vowed to preserve it and take it into Richmond. He kept his promise.
We were soon far in rear of McClellan's army, which lay directly between us and Richmond. It was thought probable that the Federal cavalry was concentrating in our rear to cut off our retreat. We kept straight on, by Smith's store, through New Kent County to Tunstall's station, on the York River Railroad. I had been in charge of the Confederate advance-guard up to the time when Colonel Fitz Lee came to the front with the 1st Virginia, relieving the 9th of that duty. When well down in New Ken County, General Stuart sent for me again to the front. Hurrying on, I soon reached the head of the column, where I found the general, and was directed by him to take thirty men as an advance-guard, and to precede the column by about half a mile. Further, I was directed to halt at the road running from the mills to the White House long enough to cut the telegraph wire on that road; thence to proceed to Tunstall's station on the York River Railroad, at which place, the prisoners bad informed the general, a company of Federal infantry was posted. At Tunstall's station I was directed to charge the infantry, disperse or capture them, cut the telegraph, and obstruct the railroad. Here was our point of danger. Once across the railroad, we were comparatively safe. But in possession of the railroad, with its rolling-stock the enemy could easily throw troops along its line to any given point. However, no timely information had been furnished to the Federal general. We moved with such celerity that we carried with us the first news of our arrival. Pushing forward at a trot, and picking up straggling prisoners every few hundred yards, the advance-guard at length reached the telegraph road. At this point we overtook an ordnance wagon, heavily loaded with canteens and Colt's revolvers. The horses had stalled in a mud-hole, and the driver, cutting them out from the wagon, made his escape. The sergeant in charge stood his ground and was captured. Here was a prize indeed, as in those days we were poorly armed. In order to save time, a man furnished with an ax was sent to cut the telegraph wire, while the rest of the party was engaged in rifling the wagon. While these operations were in progress a body of Federal cavalry, suddenly turning a bend in the road, made their appearance. As soon as the Federal officer in command saw us he called a halt, and, standing still in the road, seemed at a less to know what to do. His men drew their sabers, as if about to charge, but they did not come on. By this time the telegraph had been cut and the wagon disposed of. Our men were hastily mounted and formed into column of fours, with drawn sabers, ready for any emergency. There we stood, eyeing each other, about two hundred yards apart, until the head of the main Confederate column came in sight, when the Federals retreated down the road leading to the White House. One man of the Federal party was sent back along the road to Tunstall's station, now only about half a mile off. I supposed, of course, that this messenger was sent to warn the Federal troops at Tunstall's of our approach. I was, however, afterward informed that he galloped through Tunstall's but never stopped, and when some one called to him, "What's to pay?" He dashed along, calling out, at the top of his voice, ''Hell's to pay!"
The road now being clear, we marched on briskly, and arriving near the station charged down upon it with a yell. We could see the enemy scattered about the building and lounging around before we charged them. The greater part scattered for cover, and were pursued by our people. I pushed straight for the station-house, where I found the captain of the company of infantry, with thirteen of his men, standing in front of the building, but with no arms in their hands. Only one of them seemed disposed to show fight. He ran to the platform where the muskets were stacked, and, seizing one of them, began to load. Before he could ram his cartridge home, a sweep of the saber, in close proximity to his head, made him throw down his gun, and, jumping into a ditch, he dodged under the bridge over the railroad and made his escape. I had no time to pursue him; but, turning to look after the others met the captain, who, sword in hand, advanced and surrendered himself and his company as prisoners of war. I then proceeded to obstruct the railroad. To do this effectually, I caused a tree to be cut down which was standing on the side of the road. It fell across the railroad. In addition to this, I placed across the an oak-sill about a foot square and fourteen feet long. I had barely time to do this before a train from the direction of Richmond came thundering down. At this time General Stuart, with the main body, arrived at the station. The engine driver of the coming train, probably seeing the obstructions on the track and a large force of cavalry there, suspected danger, and, being a plucky fellow, put on all steam, and came rushing down. The engine, striking the obstructions, knocked them out of the way and passed on without accident. General Stuart bad dismounted a number of his men, and posted them on a high bank overlooking a cut in the road, just below the station, through which the train was about to pass. They threw in a close and effective fire upon the passing train, loaded with troops. Many of these were killed and wounded.
It was now the second night since leaving camp, and the well-filled haversacks with which we started from camp had long since been empty. The march had been so rapid that there was little opportunity of foraging for man or beast. Except a little bread and meat, brought out to the column by the country people as we passed along, we had had nothing since daybreak. The men were weary and hungry, and the horses almost exhausted by the long fast and severe exercise. As soon as a proper disposition had been made of the prisoners and of the captured horses and mules, the column moved on. Down through New Kent County, to a place called New Baltimore, we marched as rapidly as our condition would permit. I was still in the command of the advance-guard, marching some distance ahead of the column, and had orders to halt at this point, and await the coming up of the main body. Fortunately, an enterprising Yankee had established a store here, to catch the trade of all persons passing from McClellan's army to his base of supplies at the White House. He had crackers, cheese, canned fruits, sardines, and many other dainties dear to the cavalryman; and in the brief hour spent with him we of the advance were made new men. I fear little was left to cheer and to invigorate those in the rear. The main body arriving, "forward" was the order-straight down through New Kent to Sycamore Ford on the Chickahominy.
A beautiful full moon lighted our way and cast weird shadows across our path. Expecting each moment to meet the enemy, every bush in the distance looked like a sentinel, and every jagged tree bending over the road like a vidette. Marching all night, we arrived at the ford between daybreak and sunrise; and here our real troubles began. To our chagrin, we found the stream swollen by recent rains almost out of its banks, and running like a torrent. No man or horse could get over without swimming, and it happened that the entrance to the ford on our side was below the point at which we had to come out on the other side. Therefore, we had to swim against the current. Owing to the mud and mire, it was not practicable for any number of horses to approach the river at any point except by the road leading to the ford. We therefore tried it there for two long hours. The 9th Cavalry made the trial. After repeated efforts to swim the horses over we gave up, for we had crossed over only seventy-five men and horses in two hours. While we were trying to reach the opposite bank Stuart came up, and, finding crossing at this point impracticable, rode off to find another farther down the river. At a point about one mile below, known as Forge Bridge, he succeeded in throwing across one branch of the river a bridge strong enough to bear the artillery, and upon which the men, having been dismounted, could walk. Here the approach on our side was higher up stream than the point at which we would come out on the other side. So the horses were formed into a column of fours, pushed into the water, and, swimming down stream, they easily lauded on the other side. After a few horses had been crossed in this manner we found no difficulty, the others following on quite readily. The column was now upon an island formed by the two branches of the Chickahominy, and to reach the mainland it was necessary to cross the other branch of that river.
This was, however, accomplished, but with some difficulty. The ford at this crossing was at that time very deep, and the river out of its banks and overflowing the flats to the depth of about two feet for at least a half-mile. At this place the limber to a caisson stuck fast in the mud, and we left it.
On leaving the river, General Stuart directed me to take charge of the rear-guard, and, when all had crossed, to burn the bridge. In accordance with these orders, I directed the men to collect piles of fence rails, heap them on the bridge, and set them afire. By my orders the horses had been led some distance back from the river into the brush, where they were concealed from view. The men were lounging about on the ground when the bridge fell in. I was seated under a tree on the bank of the river, and at the moment that the hissing of the burning timbers of the bridge let me knew that it had fallen into the water, a rifle-shot rang out from the other side, and the whistling bullet cut off a small limb over my head, which fell into my lap. The shot was probably fired by some scout who had been following us, but who was afraid to fire until the bridge was gone. With a thankful heart for his bad aim, I at once withdrew the men, and pushed en after the column When I came to the ford, I found it necessary to swim the horses a short distance, it having been deepened by the crossing of such a 1 large body of horse. Soon the column was in sight, and the march across Charles City County to the James River was made as vigorously as the jaded horses were able to stand. The men, though weary and hungry, were in foe spirits, and jubilant ] over the successful crossing of the Chickahominy. About sunset we neared the James, at the plantation of Colonel Wilcox. Here we rested for about two hours, having marched into a field of clover, where the horses ate their fill. In the twilight, fires were lighted to cook the rations just brought in by our foragers.
We were now twenty-five miles from Richmond, on the "James River Road." Had the enemy been aware of our position, it would have been easy for him to throw a force between us and Richmond, and so cut us off. But the Federal general was not well served by his scouts, nor did his cavalry furnish him with accurate information of our movements. Relying upon the mistakes of a the enemy, Stuart resolved to march straight on into Richmond by the River road on which we now lay. To accomplish this with the greater safety, it was necessary for him to march at once. Accordingly, I was ordered to take the advance guard and move out. As soon as the cravings of hunger were appeased, sleep took possession of us. Although in the saddle and in motion, and aware that the safety of the expedition depended on great vigilance in case the enemy should be encountered, it was hard to keep awake. I was constantly falling asleep, arid awaking with a start when almost off my horse. This was the condition of every man in the column. Not one had closed his eyes in sleep for forty-eight hours.
The full moon lighted us on our way as we passed along the River read, and frequently the windings of the road brought us near to and in sight of the James River, where lay the enemy's fleet. In the gray twilight of the dawn of Sunday, we passed the "Double Gates," "Strawberry Plains," arid " Tighlman's gate" in succession. At "Tighlman's" we could see the masts of the fleet, not far off. Happily for us, the banks were high, and I imagine they had no lookout in the rigging, and we passed by unobserved. The sight of the enemy's fleet had aroused us somewhat, when "Who goes there?" rang out on the stillness of the early morning. The challenger proved to be a vidette of the 10th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel J. Lucius Davis, who was picketing that road. Soon I was shaking hands with Colonel Davis arid receiving his congratulations. Then we crossed the stream by the jug factory, up toward "New Market" heights, by the drill-house, and about a mile beyond we called halt for a little rest and food. From this point the several regiments were dismissed to their respective camps.
We lost one man killed and a few wounded, and no prisoners. The most important result was the confidence the men had gained in themselves and in their leaders. The country rang out with praises of the men who had raided entirely around General McClellan's powerful army, bringing prisoners and plunder from under his very nose. The Southern papers were filled with accounts of the expedition, none accurate, and most of them marvelous.