Masked batteries drove Capt. Robert F. Dyer and his patrol bonkers on Tuesday, April 15, 1862. For Dyer and his neophyte cavalrymen from various towns in Maine, the experience caused them to “see the elephant,” a Civil War term that referred to soldiers being under enemy fire and participating in combat.
Early that morning, Dyer received orders to take his Co. C, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and conduct “a reconnaissance on the line of the Orange and Alexandria R.R. to the Rappahannock river,” as he noted in his “official report.” The regiment’s adjutant, “Lieut. [Benjamin] F. Tucker,” accompanied the patrol.
In autumn 1861, Dyer had helped form Co. C, drawn primarily from Kennebec County; Dyer hailed from Augusta. After the regiment had shipped south in March 1862, Federal commanders sent five companies to the Shenandoah Valley and seven companies to Warrenton Station, Va.
The inexperienced Maine cavalrymen and their horses needed field experience; the Shenandoah-bound companies would endure a costly shellacking just weeks later, but for today, Bob Dyer and his Co. C troopers could just mosey along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and see what Johnny Reb might be up to.
And Ben Tucker, a bonafide regular Army cavalryman, could ride along to lend his expertise.
“We left camp according to orders at 9½ o’clock A.M. proceeding on the line of the R.R.,” Dyer wrote. His men “met two contrabands [slaves], who informed us that they left the Camp of General [Gustavus] Smith on the opposite side of the river at 9 o’clock last night.”
For Union cavalrymen riding essentially “blind” into Confederate-held territory, slaves could provide rudimentary intelligence, at least to the presence and location of enemy soldiers. Free blacks and slaves knew that the “good guys” wore Union blue and often warned Union soldiers about potential danger.
These two slaves talked profusely. They “also informed us that a part of the Confederate Army were encamped there — supposed to be from 5,000 to 7,000 [men] — that they were constructing a bridge across the river” about two miles from the O&A RR bridge, “with the intention of crossing,” Dyer wrote.
“They were also throwing up earthworks,” the slaves reported.
The 1st Maine boys rode along the railroad until they reached “a house occupied by an Irishman,” Dyer noted. Either ignorant about distances or a Confederate sympathizer intent on sending his enemies on a wild goose chase, the civilian “informed us that the distance to the river was two miles, when it could not have been more than ¾ of a mile. We then proceeded about ½ mile to an unoccupied farmhouse, where my company halted.”
Then Dyer and Tucker, “accompanied by [Augustus] W. Ingersoll of the Regimental Band, advanced about ¼ mile to an old Earthwork to Reconnoiter the opposite shore,” Dyer wrote. They confirmed what the slaves had told them.
“They discovered plainly with the naked eye, a line of Rebel Earthworks at intervals for two miles — could also see the Blacks [slaves] at work upon them, and with the Field Glass could see everything within the line distinctly,” wrote Dyer, who accompanied Ingersoll and Tucker. Ingersoll hailed from Houlton; why Dyer brought a bandsman on this patrol, no one knows.
Estimating “there were from 150 to 200 horses picketed in the rear of a grove” across the Rappahannock, the Maine troopers “could also see a large White House,” probably the Confederates’ headquarters, Dyer conjectured. Seeing no cannons “within the Earthworks” and “judging that the encampment contained 3,000 to 4,000 troops,” he decided to withdraw Co. C.
Suddenly “they opened upon us from a masked battery at the Southern extremity of their encampment.” Actually a well-camouflaged artillery position, the masked battery accurately hurled “Cannister (sic),” with “one shot striking near … Tucker and Ingersoll, and another striking about twenty feet from the centre of the company in the rear,” Dyer reported.
The Confederate gunners had pre-sighted their cannons, and Dyer had led his men to ground zero. Horses screamed, bucked and plunged as the Maine troopers desperately battled their frightened mounts. “Immediately another battery opened upon us from the centre of their encampment, throwing 10 lb. shot striking in the rear of the Company, about 40 feet beyond the first discharge,” Dyer wrote.
“Then a third battery opened from the extreme north of the encampment, throwing about a 12 lb. shell after which they came thick and fast from the three batteries making a cross fire,” he reported. “There were 13 shot struck in the vicinity of us before we were able to get out of range.”
The Co. C troopers finally turned their horses and bolted east. Behind them a few Confederate cannons barked a final time, sending shot and shell to explode amidst the landscape recently vacated by Union blue.
Capt. Bob Dyer militarily matured that day. A vainglorious officer might have pressed the recon; Dyer wisely decided otherwise. “After getting out of range we thought it not prudent for us to make any farther reconnaissance up or down the river, from the fact of their having so large a body of horse within their encampment and being able to cross both by fords and also by a bridge,” Dyer explained.
Smart move: In those heady days of J.E.B. Stuart, Southern cavaliers and inferior Yankee horsemanship, Confederate cavalry habitually ran roughshod over Union riders. In fact, Confederate troopers often mauled their blue-clad counterparts; Dyer was lucky not to encounter mounted foes.
He almost did, however. As the Warrenton-bound Maine troopers approached Beale’s Station on the O&A RR, “two black women having seen us coming some two miles distant, ran half that distance to inform us that they had seen eleven mounted cavalry upon this side of the river this morning, dressed in Grey uniform, some of whom they knew to be rebels,” Dyer reported with his incredibly neat and clear penmanship.
For him, the patrol would end well, despite the riverbank shelling. The black women said that the Confederate cavalry often traveled to “the vicinity of Liberty Church” to meet “a Blacksmith named Robert Willis.” Likely offering the Union cavalry his skills as a farrier, Willis had “the habit of coming into our camp and giving information in relation of our pickets and the position of our encampments which he was known to communicate to the enemy,” Dyer passed along the information provided by the slves.
Whether or not Union soldiers later detained Willis as a spy, Dyer did not say. He brought Co. C into camp without incident and filed his report later that night.
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Brian Swartz can be contacted at email@example.com.