Thursday, February 26, 2009
The Gallant Charge of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry At Chancellorsville
The Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry
Gallant Charge At Chancellorsville
May 2, 1863
The Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry was raised mainly in the Philadelphia area, although over 45 men served in the ranks from the Schuylkill county area during the war. During the Chancellorsville campaign under General Hooker in early May of 1863 the Eighth played a pivotal part in stopping General Stonewall Jackson's command. While riding down a very narrow dirt road, the Eighth charged the on coming confederate troops thus delaying their advance. This charge is known as one the most gallant charges of the Civil War, and wouldn't you know it a few Schuylkill County boys took part.
George W. Burton, from Schuylkill Haven, and a member of company K wrote to the Miners Journal about their engagement at Chancellorsville.
Camp of the 8th Pa. Cavalry.
Editors Miners Journal: - I see in your paper letters from a number of Pennsylvania Regiments but none from ours. The 8th Pa. Cavalry. As there are quite a number of the regiment from Schuylkill County. I have no doubt it will be gratifying to their friends to know what they are doing for their country. I will commence with the battle of Chancellorsville, and if you think the incidents of sufficient interest to publish, they are at your service.
On the morning of the 29th of April our regiment crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford to take the advance of the 5th Army Corps, which had already crossed, and started, for Ely's Ford on the Rapidan with the intention of forming a junction with the 12th Corps. Which would cross the Rapidan at Germania Ford at Chancellorsville. Nothing of importance occurred on the march until we arrived at Richardville, when the gallant Major Keenan took a battalion to Richard's Ford on the Rappahannock, and succeeded in surprising and capturing the entire post, consisting of one Captain, two Lieutenants and 35 men. In the meantime the rest of the regiment, under the command of Major Huey, proceeded to Ely's Ford, where they found the enemy on the other side. They formed their skirmishers on the hills above the ford and challenged us to come over. Captain Goddard's squadron was ordered to deploy as skirmishers and cross. The moment our men obtained a footing on the opposite shore the enemy took to their heels. We pursued them about two miles, when we stopped for the night as it was then almost dark. General Griffith’s Division of General Meade’s Corps (5th) crossed immediately after us to hold the ford against any force the enemy might bring down in the night. The men were wet to their waists in crossing the river, but the fences being in good condition furnished an amble supply of fuel with which to dry themselves. At day light next morning (30th) we started again and soon came upon the enemy pickets, who opened fire upon us. Our advanced guard with Capt. Arrowsmith and Lieutenant Carpenter at the head, charged them capturing the entire party, consisting of three commissioned officers and twenty seven privates. We then pushed on and soon found ourselves in front of two brigades of infantry, who were drawn up in line of battle to relieve us. After a sharp skirmish of about two hours they were driven from position and fell back some two miles beyond Chancellorville . The position they had just left was a line of earth works at the junction of the roads leading from United States Ford on the Rappahannock and the road we were on. Our infantry moved up and occupied Chancellorville, while we followed up the enemy’s rear. At a point about two miles beyond Chancellorville we found the enemy in strong force and strongly entrenched. After reconnoitering the position to our satisfaction we fell back near Chancellorsville, leaving pickets on the road. The enemy were busy all night. We could distinctly hear them felling trees and moving artillery. About 8 o’clock the next morning, May 1st the enemy were discovered approaching our lines in apparently strong force and soon our pickets, consisting of Co’s K and H commanded by Captain Wickersham, were attacked by the enemy’s skirmishers. We, however, held our ground against greatly superior numbers until the balance of the regiment came to our support, and finally, until General Sykes had sent out his skirmishers and formed them into line of battle, when the fight became general, the artillery on both sides having commenced their work of death. The enemy followed up their attack with vigor, but were promptly met and driven back by our troops. The fighting continued all day, ceasing when it became dark.
At an early hour the next morning the fighting was renewed. At about three o’clock, p.m. it was supposed that the enemy was in retreat and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, consisting of the 6th N.Y., 8th Pa. And the 17th pa. With a battery of horse artillery, were ordered to pursue them. They had scarcely moved to the front, and were about to commence the attack, when sharp firing was heard on our right flank and presently an “Aid” came dashing up to General Sickles to say that General Howard’s line was giving way, and he wanted a regiment of cavalry to support him. Our regiment was ordered to report to him and immediately started to do so, when to our surprise we found the ground on which we expected to find our troops occupied by the rebels, who had driven General Howard’s Corps (11th) nearly a mile and a half. Major Huey immediately ordered a charge, which was done in good style by each battalion, the first lead by Major Keenan, the second by Capt. Wickersham, and the third by Captain Wistar. It was a fearful moment. There was a perfect shower of lead about our ears, while grape and canister were flying all around us. We succeeded however in checking the enemy long enough to allow our troops to form on new lines of battle, and get our artillery in position... We lost three commissioned officers, the brave Major Keenan, Capt. Arrowsmith and Capt. Haddock with some 30 men and 80 horses.
Major Keenan’s loss is severely felt, as he was considered one of the most efficient cavalry officers in the service. The fighting continued until past midnight and was again renewed early the next morning. Shortly after it commenced word was received that Fitzhugh Lee, with a force of cavalry and artillery was coming down on our rear from Warrenton. We were ordered to ascertain if such was the case. The regiment moved across United States Ford to Hartwood Church, when it halted, and a company (K) sent out to reconnaissance. Finding no signs of the enemy we proceeded to bivouac for the night. The next morning we were ordered to Bank’s Ford. Since the above we came to our present position. King Georges’s County, where we are now doing picket duty.
Plenty of Rebs are to be seen on the opposite side of the river. They are very quiet and sometimes very communicative. We frequently ask them about Vicksburg, and they in return as us about Chancellorsville.
G.W.B. George W. Burton
Schuylkill Boys In the 8th during 1863 It is possible most of these boys were in the charge.
EIGHTY-NINTH REGIMENT, P. V. (8th Cavalry
Corporal John J. Payne,
Joseph Nunemacher, ,
Robert C. Payne
Burton, George W.
Moyer, James M.
Here is another story of this charge written by an officer in the 8th Cav.
PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF THE CAVALRY AT CHANCELLORSVILLE.
BY MAJOR CHARLES I. WICKBRSHAM, CAPTAIN 8TH PA. CAVALRY, AND ASS'T ADJT. GENERAL, U. S. V.
Read April 8.1901
THE movement of the Army of the Potomac was begun about the middle of April, 1863. With the exception of three regiments, the entire cavalry force under command of Major General George Stoneman was sent to make a demonstration in the rear of Lee's army, cutting the line of supplies, etc., etc., known as the Stoneman Raid.
On the evening of April 26th orders were issued for the army to move, and at daylight on the morning of the 27th the start was made in two columns, on different roads; one column consisting of the nth and I2th corps, commanded by Major General Slocum, marched on the road to Germania Ford, with the 6th New York Cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel Duncan McVicar, having the advance. The other column, the 5th corps, under Major General George Meade, took the road to Ely's Ford, with the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, under Major Pennock Huey in the advance; the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, under Colonel J. H. Kellogg, acting as a rear guard.
It is not the intention of the writer to attempt a general description of the Chancellorsville campaign, that has already been done by abler pens than mine, but only to describe such incidents connected with the operations of the cavalry as came under the writer's observation, and in some of which he participated.
Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton was nominally in command of the three regiments mentioned, but, as they were detached and operated separately, we saw nothing of him until the evening of May 2d.
During the afternoon of the 2nd the writer, commanding the 3d squadron, was ordered to proceed to Ellis Ford, on the Rapi- dan River, to picket the Ford during the night. The river at this point was not very wide and persons on opposite sides could easily converse. Just before dark I was called down to the Ford at the request of the officer commanding the enemy's pickets: he called over to me asking how we intended to picket, i.e., whether we proposed to keep up a continual firing or not. I replied we should fire only in the event of their attempting to cross. He then asked me if I had any Northern papers, saying that he would have some Richmond papers the next morning and would be glad to exchange them for Northern papers. I said I would be glad to do so, and we arranged to meet at the Ford the next morning to make the exchange. About midnight, having completed the rounds of my picket line, I lay down under a tree to get some sleep, when an hour later, at one o'clock, I was awakened by an orderly from headquarters with an order for me to withdraw my forces at once, and as quietly as possible, and rejoin my regiment; and at 3 o'clock a.m. the whole command moved forward to Ely's Ford, reaching there soon after daylight on April 3Oth. The enemy had a force of infantry on the opposite side which immediately opened a lively fire as soon as we came in sight. McCallom's squadron of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry was ordered to cross the river, but on reaching the middle of the stream, was checked by the heavy fire of the enemy. My squadron was ordered to his relief. Upon reaching Mc- Callom I assumed command of the battalion and ordered the whole line to advance. Upon reaching the opposite shore the enemy's fire increased, they being stationed on the high ground above. We pushed on, however, until we reached the ground they occupied, driving them about a mile. General Griffin's Division of the 5th Corps immediately followed, and pushed the enemy beyond the Chancellorsville House. While this was going on Major Keenan, of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, with Arrowsmith's squadron turned to the left, went clown to Ellis' Ford, and captured the entire company of infantry with the three officers whom I had talked with the evening previous. They seemed to be unaware of what had taken place just above them, and when I went to see them they seemed very much surprised to see me. They recognized me at once and remarked with a smile that "You all are out early this morning." Of course I expressed my regret at their having been disturbed so early, and apologized for not being able to furnish them with the papers I had promised them the evening previous.
When the 5th Corps reached the Chancellorsville House, General Meade at once sent out parties of cavalry in different directions, to ascertain whether any rebel troops were in our immediate vicinage. Nothing was found, however, except on the road to United States Ford, where my squadron was sent, some rebel pickets were met and, on forcing them back a half mile or so with carbine fire, several tents were seen and a line of infantry found across the road. Without firing a shot sabres were drawn and we charged them: they delivered one volley and then disappeared in almost every direction except that in which we were coming from. Some twelve or fifteen prisoners were taken and sent to the rear, and we pushed on to United States Ford, where we found one man sound asleep. He seemed very much astonished at seeing Yankees, and told us that their troops had been gone but a short time. As the object we had been sent for, was to ascertain whether the road to United States Ford was clear or not, we returned to the regiment, which had bivouaced in rear of Chancellorsville House. Just before dark a detachment of the 6th New York Cavalry, consisting of no men, under Lieutenant Colonel McVicar, was sent out in our front to make a reconnaisance. On the way back after dark they found a column consisting of four regiments of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, had gotten between them and our army, and that they were completely surrounded. Not attempting to use their carbines they drew sabres and literally cut their way through the enemy, leaving 52 of their small force killed or wounded. Among the former was the gallant and chivalrous McVicar.
Bates' History of Pennsylvania Volunteers says: "Wicker- sham's squadron was left on picket all night. This is not correct. I was ordered on picket on the left of our army at daylight on the morning of May first, General Hooker having established his headquarters at the Chanvellorsville House the evening previous. While establishing my picket line I observed that the enemy was very actively engaged in my front in slashing trees, and throwing up breastworks, and were evidently in large force. At one time my sergeant asked me to dismount and go out in the brush on the right of our line, which I did, and discovered a large force of the enemy's infantry and artillery moving toward the front of the Chancellorsville House. This I reported to a staff officer at General Mead's headquarters at a later hour, but evidently no importance was attached to the information. Doubtless this was the beginning of the movement which resulted in Stonewall Jackson's turning our right flank on the following day, and it was so regarded by General Sickles, with whom I afterward conversed on the subject.
At intervals the enemy sent out observation parties who, upon getting sight of my pickets, would at once fall back without firing. This was done at frequent intervals until about ten o'clock, when a woman, who lived in a small two-story house a few yards from where I had located my reserve, came out in a very excited manner, and called to me to go up stairs and look at the rebels. I ran up stairs and looking out of the window saw a line of skirmishers, with short intervals, arms at a trail, coming slowly toward my line, and followed by three solid lines of infantry. Hurrying down stairs I called to Captain McCallom to mount the men and remain there. I rode rapidly out to my picket line, which had just begun exchanging shots with the enemy, and, telling the sergeant in command to stay there as long as he could and then fall back at a gallop, I hurried back to my reserves, thinking there would soon be some sharp work to do in order to maintain our position. I did not follow the tactical method of dismounting Xos. i, 2 and 3, and letting No. 4 hold the horses, but dismounted all my men except five or six, whom I directed to corral the horses, and take them under cover of a piece of woods in our rear. I placed the dismounted men behind a crude brush fence, which formed an excellent cover, with instructions to hold their fire until I gave the order, remaining mounted myself to enable me to observe the enemy's movements more easily. The enemy soon came within easy carbine range when we commenced firing, to which they promptly replied and a lively skirmish was soon in progress. While this skirmish was progressing I had occasion to cross the road on my right frequently, to watch the movements of the enemy, whom I could plainly see from that point, and while there I noticed that bullets came unpleasantly near my head. There was a group of four mounted men under a tree, one of them being on a white horse, who, I noticed, carried a gun and paid special attention to me whenever I came in sight. Calling my orderly up, who was one of the crack shots in the regiment, his attention was directed to the group and he was told to watch them, and, in case they bothered me any more to return their fire. I had hardly finished speaking when a puff of smoke was noticed in front of the man on the white horse, and the whiz of a bullet came close to my ear. Almost at the same moment the orderly fired and the man on the white horse threw up both hands and fell backward off his horse. Kno%ving that a large force was in my front it was a matter of much concern and anxiety to me as to how long we could stay, but in a few minutes, which seemed like hours, I saw a long dark line of infantry move in my direction from the vicinity of the Chancellorsville House. This was the division of the regulars, commanded by Gen. George Sykes, who rode up to me, followed by the remainder of my regiment, which was at once put in action, mounted, on the right of my line. In a moment more I saw the line of infantry skirmishers deploy while advancing in my rear, and soon the batteries of artillery came up at a gollop and went into action one-half mile in our rear, the enemy's batteries having come up about the same time and a fierce artillery battle was soon in progress. About this time our infantry skirmish line, consisting of the i/th U. S. Infantry, reached me. As Captain Wm. J. Temple, who was in command, came up to me he looked up and asked what there was in front of us. I told him what I had seen, the heavy firing then going on showing that I had not been mistaken. Just as he turned away to follow his men, who had taken up my skirmish line, a bullet struck him in the middle of his forehead, killing him instantly, before he had gone ten feet.
Our infantry and artillery now being in full action, General Sykes ordered me to mount my men and go to the rear, thanking us for holding our position so long. It was now about forty- five minutes from the time we fired the first shot, and we had not lost a foot of ground.
After mounting my men, and just as I was about to give the command to move to the rear, I heard the rebel officers order their men to "Charge the d d Yankees." General Sykes evidently heard it also. I looked at him, nodded my head, as he was several yards distant, and he replied in the same manner. In less time than it takes to write it my small force charged into and around their skirmishers, and came back with some seventeen prisoners and hurried them to the rear. When almost out of range one of the prisoners looked up and said, ''Why Charlie Wickersham! What are you doing here?" I recognized an old schoolmate and friend. He informed me that the man on the white horse, whom my orderly had fired at, was the Major of his regiment, the nth Virginia Infantry.
Bates, in his History of the Battle of Chancellorsville, says: "Wickersham was attacked, but gallantly held his ground, the enemy making repeated attempts to drive him from his position, but were driven back and held in check until the infantry came up, the cavalry suffering heavily in men and horses."
General G. K. Warren in his official report as Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, says: "I found the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry picketing the road for three miles, and to within sight of the enemy's breastworks thrown across the road, which was as far as I could go. About 10:30 a.m. I went back, and on gaining the ridge, about one and one-quarter miles from Chancel
lorsville, we found the enemy advancing and driving back our cavalry. This small force resisted handsomely, rushing up and firing almost in the faces of the nth Virginia Infantry, which formed the enemy's advance."
Upon reaching the Chancellorsville House we remained standing "to horse," until some time in the afternoon when we unsaddled and bivouaced for the night. On the following day, May 2d, the regiment was still in the rear while the battle was raging in front and on the left. About noon I obtained permission to ride out to where General Sickles was fighting, to see how things were going, and took several men with me, at the suggestion of Major Huey, commanding the regiment. I reported to General Sickles, remaining with him all the afternoon, or until about four o'clock when he, thinking he had the enemy in retreat, sent to General Hooker for a regiment of cavalry to enable him to capture some of their artillery and ammunition train. The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry was ordered to report to him. When Major Huey rode up to report the arrival of the regiment, and while in conversation with General Sickles, General Pleasonton rode up, the writer being one of the party. In a few moments heavy firing was heard on our right, which up to this time had been quiet, and while we were listening, and wondering what it meant, an officer rode up to General Sickles, announced himself as an aide-de-camp to General Howard, and stated that General Howard's lines were giving way and he wanted a regiment of cavalry. General Sickles turned to General Pleasonton, who at once ordered Major Huey to report to General Howard. The aide was asked where General Howard could be found, and the reply was "about a mile out on the Plank Road." I then started to where the regiment was. Some of the men were asleep, some were talking of the battle in progress, while a knot of officers were playing a game of poker, Major Keenan, Captain Arrow- smith, Captain Daily, and Adjutant Haddock among them.
Major Huey rode up a moment later and ordered the regiment to mount. The sleepers, as well as the talkers, sprang to their saddles, and a regiment of cavalry was seen in place of a lounging crowd. Major Keenan looked up and said: "Well, Major Huey, you have spoiled a d d good game of poker."
The regiment was in good spirits when we left this point: the impression being that the enemy was retreating, and, although the firing was heavy on our left, where we were to find General Howard, we had no thought of what was impending. Sabres were in their scabbards; men were riding listlessly at a walk, in the road which led to the Plank Road, where we were told we would find General Howard. The firing which we heard had by this time increased very much, with some artillery fire added. We had gone not more than half a mile, when a solid mass of gray was seen on our left flank, moving rapidly toward us, firing as they came. In another moment we found ourselves between the enemy's skirmish lines and the line of battle, Major Huey commanding the regiment, Major Keenan commanding the first battalion; Adjutant Haddock, Captain Arrowsmith and Lieutenant Carpenter were riding at the head of the regiment. My position was on the right, or head, of the 2d battalion. We could hear no orders on account of the firing, but we saw the battalion ahead of us draw sabres and take the trot. Spurs pricked the horses' sides and down the road plunged the column, the horses straining every muscle. The men, comprehending the greatness of the moment, lifted their sabres high in the air. Captain McCallom turned in his saddle as we trotted along, and, seeing the mass of the enemy in. front, said to me: ''I think this is the last of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry." I replied, "I think so too, but let us go down with our colors flying." We were close upon the rear of Keenan's battalion, and from the dreadful fire we were receiving I feared the road ahead would be obstructed by Keenan's dead and wounded men and horses, and I raised my sabre to check the men of my battalion for a moment. At this juncture the fight became, if possible, more furious, the entire command using sabres vigorously while pressing forward. At no time did the regiment lose its formation, the only gaps being caused by those who fell.
At the command, "Gallop and charge," we rushed upon the astonished Confederates, who suddenly confronted by what they thought was the head of our cavalry corps, stood motionless and irresolute for a moment, the horses trampling them. Sabre blows fell thick and fast: some threw down their guns and raised their hands beseechingly. Soon the lines behind them opened fire, and horses and riders tumbled headlong; for several hundred yards the cavalry column ploughed its way through more than one line of Confederate infantry before it lost its aggressive force. It was the work of but a few minutes, but in that short time three officers and more than eighty men, and twenty-six horses had gone down. We were in the midst of Jackson's corps. Not a shot was fired by our regiment, the sabre being the only weapon used, and with it the regiment literally cut its way through the dense ranks of the enemy, who pressed us so closely that many of the horses were wounded by their bayonets. One squadron, the 6th, was unable to get through and was obliged to take to the right and go through the timber. When the rest of the command reached the Plank Road, where we were to turn to the left to find General Howard, we found it occupied by a large and closely massed force of the enemy, who were firing heavy volleys into the ranks of the retreating and panic stricken nth corps, but, upon seeing our force approach, they turned their fire upon us, General Howard's troops having been driven more than three-quarters of a mile from where they were when we started. At this moment a heavy volley was fired at the head of our column, killing Major Keenan, Captain Arrowsmith and Adjutant Haddock, and also killing and wounding many of our men, and wounding Lieutenant Carpenter's horse. At this time we turned to our right toward the Chancellorsville House, finding some of our infantry and artillery in position ready to meet the enemy, who soon made their appearance, but were checked. During this charge it seemed as though the enemy were firing almost in our faces, so close were their lines to us, and in one instance where our horses were checked a moment by those in our front, a rebel officer caught the bridle of one of our officers,* and pointing a revolver
This was the writer, Captain Charles I. Wickersham.—Eds.
at him, ordered him to surrender. The reply was what is known in the sabre exercise as "left cut against infantry." The rebel officer did not respond to roll call the next morning.
Sometimes during the progress of a battle there occurs one of those crucial moments which is the turning point in the crisis of battle. A sacrifice must be made, and it fell to the fortune of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry to make it. It was assailed by fearful volleys of infantry fire, but dashed into the face of it, and at the head of Jackson's troops, using the sabre only. By this bold maneuver the enemy was startled, and held long enough for our infantry and artillery to form, and check Jackson's rapid and daring attack. General Pleasonton issued a general order in which he said: "The distinguished gallantry of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry in charging the head of the enemy's column advancing on the nth Corps on the evening of the second of May, has excited the highest admiration. The chivalric Keenan with 150 killed and wounded from your small numbers attest the earnestness that animated the midnight conflict of the second of May."
General Doubleday in his account of the Battle of Chancel- lorsville says: "There was but one way to delay Jackson: some force must be sacrificed, and, as the little force* struck the seething mass of infantry, horses and men went down on all sides, but the army was saved from capture. History will record the service rendered on that occasion as worthy to be classed with the sacrifices of Arnold Winkelreid and the Chevalier d'Assas."
Another writer says: "The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 500 strong, was ordered to charge, which was promptly done. Major Keenan and most of his men went down, brave, noble men! They knew they were riding to sure death, but with drawn sabres and a cheer, they rushed at the enemy, and, while the enemy was not less than 10,000 strong at this point, this small force actually checked that overwhelming number."
If Stonewall Jackson's movement had not been checked at this time, by this small force of cavalry it would, in the opinion of military critics, have resulted in cutting our army in two, and the disastrous effects might have been almost irretrievable, possibly resulting in the capture of the capital of the Nation.
Soon after the campaign had ended Major Huey was promoted to Colonel as a recognition of his services.
"The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry.