Jonathan Prince Cilley received short notice about the Confederate surprise attack that almost “rolled up” the 2nd Division, U.S. Cavalry Corps, about suppertime on Friday, March 31, 1865.
Throughout the afternoon, his 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment had held the division’s far left flank while strung out along the east bank of Chamberlain’s Run, a stream that meandered through the piney woods and fields northwest of Dinwiddie Court House, Va. With the infantry-heavy 2nd and 5th Corps behind him, Phil Sheridan had brought the Cavalry Corps to Dinwiddie two days earlier. From there he planned to swing north, capture the key Five Forks crossroad, and outflank the Army of Northern Virginia.
Heavy rains delayed the cavalry advance on Five Forks; Confederate cavalry and infantry got to it first.
Then they came for the 2nd Division.
“Look out, Yanks! We’re coming!” a Confederate officer yelled at Cilley’s men around 5 p.m. on this sunny Friday.
North Carolina cavalrymen commanded by Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer and infantrymen from a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise hurtled through the woods on the west bank of Chamberlain’s Run and plunged into the stream.
“The next minute the dense shrubbery in our front was shaken by the rush of an oncoming line of battle,” recalled Sgt. Jefferson L. Coburn of Co. A, 1st Maine Cavalry.
“The men seized their rifles and swiftly formed” in line, said Coburn, busy himself at that moment as “came crash upon crash of the almost simultaneous volleys by companies, which swelled into one awful, ceaseless, prolonged roar, most terrible of all war’s sounds.”
The enemy cavalry crossed at Fitzgerald Ford, the infantrymen upstream, wading across the cold Chamberlain’s Run while holding their firearms and cartridge boxes above their heads. One Maine officer estimated the Confederates, who absorbed multiple casualties before reaching the east bank, outnumbered the 1st Maine perhaps five-to-one.
Cilley watched as Confederates “in the thick brush and wood … opened a murderous fire.” Maine troopers opened fire; dying and wounded Confederates bobbed in the stream, but despite such losses, the enemy soldiers kept coming.
Running low on rifle ammunition, individual cavalrymen fired their Remington revolvers. Significantly outnumbered, Union troopers edged away from the onslaught. Rushing to rally some troopers, Cilley felt “my hat suddenly carried away from my head” by a bullet — then, somewhere beneath the trees, as bullets whizzed overhead and clipped twigs from the limbs, he suddenly “heard and felt a bullet — whew! It hurt.”
Seeing Cilley dance in pain, Sgt. Maj. Edward Tobie rushed to his side and asked, “Are you wounded, Colonel?”
“Oh! Ough! Confound it!” Cilley blurted.
“Will you go to the rear?” Tobie asked.
“Damn the rear, I am wounded in the rear!” Cilley exclaimed.
The noise was indescribable; Tobie heard “the rattling of the carbines, the roar of the artillery, the screaming and bursting of shells, the commands of officers and the shouts of men” and, above all else, “the shrieking, whining, rebel charge-yell.”
The hard-charging Confederates muscled the Maine troopers away from the stream. As comrades fell wounded, other troopers “formed in their front, and held their position till the wounded had been safely carried to the rear,” Capt. John Myrick said. “Our withdrawal was effected without confusion, or the loss of a single man captured.”
As Co. A fell back, a musket ball shattered the right thigh of 30-year-old 2nd Lt. Leander L. Comins of Eddington. He remained behind as the 1st Maine boys withdrew.
Then Jefferson Coburn asked “for volunteers to go back” and rescue Comins. Sgt. Hiram S. Coburn of Wells (no relation), Pvt. Otis E. Lufkin of Bangor, and Corp. Charles A. North of North Yarmouth all volunteered to go.
The four volunteers entered a “forest made hideous by the groans of the wounded,” Coburn recalled. They found Comins, who “lay moaning on the ground, the pine needles about him besprinkled and splashed by his blood as he had crawled and writhed about in his agony.”
Through the open piney woods, Coburn saw Confederate troops forming into line prior to pursuing the retreating Yankees. “It was a trying moment,” he admitted. “No time was to be lost.”
The Maine lads threw two rifles on the ground and lay Comins across them. Each intending to pick up a rifle butt or muzzle to carry Comins on the ad hoc stretcher, the men cast “one swift glance” at the enemy and saw their skirmishers rushing through the woods.
“Shall we try it?” Jefferson Coburn asked.
His men stooped, grabbed the rifles, and “started as best we might upon our forlorn mission.”
“Halt! Halt! Halt!” Confederate skirmishers shouted.
Knowing what would happen next, the rescuers “swerved behind some large trees,” Coburn said. A rifle cracked, then a second and a third.
Then“a spiteful fusillade [went] up and down the skirmish line” — and bullets struck all five Mainers. Shot in his heart, Lufkin fell dead on the prostrate Comins.
On the Confederate skirmish line, 1st Sgt. J.D. Waller of Co. E, 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, had seen “a squad of Federals a few rods in our front, bearing a wounded man from the field.”
Waller commanded the skirmishers; aghast that “some of my men fired” on the stretcher party, he shouted, “For shame, don’t shoot wounded men!
“Take him on, Yanks!” Coburn heard Waller yell. “We all won’t fire!”
All wounded to one degree or another, the two Coburns and North “raised [Comins] … in our arms and reached the road without further interference” from Confederate bullets, Jefferson Coburn said.
There the men ran into Jonathan Prince Cilley, now mounted as he lingered in “close proximity to the enemy” while looking for stragglers from his command. He might not have survived the running gun battle except for the earlier quick thinking of Capt. Andrew Bibber, a 1st Maine officer recently transferred to the brigade staff.
The formidable Cilley had been everywhere that bloody Friday; men recalled his close proximity to the firing line. He was on foot, his horse far to the rear with the horse holders.
Soon after Confederate troops forced Chamberlain’s Run, Cilley suddenly showed “signs of great exhaustion,” Tobie noted without detailing the symptoms. Sent to monitor the 1st Maine’s withdrawal, Bibber dismounted and offered the use of his horse; “with a look of joy and a feeling of relief,” Cilley climbed into the saddle.
Jefferson Coburn estimated that some 250 feet separated the bullet-punctured squad from safety, as represented by “the rear of our retreating regiment.” With the sun setting “and a first-class wild-cat show coming up” through the woods, Cilley spurred his borrowed horse across the road to meet the rescuers.
“Light out of here, Colonel!” Jefferson Coburn exclaimed. “You’re a candidate for Lee’s rear!”
“Rear be damned!” Cilley replied. “Queer advice for you to be giving just now.
“Whom have you there?” he asked. “What! Comins?”
“Yes, Colonel,” Coburn responded. “Lend us your horse, and we’ll save him.”
Cilley abandoned his horse and likely helped lift Comins into the saddle. With their colonel on foot nearby, the Coburns and North guided Comins toward the Union cannons deployed behind a hastily erected barricade on the hill.
A Co. D trooper, Sgt. George P. Andrews, watched as Sgt. Gilbert Harris rode over to Cilley. Assigned to Bibber as an orderly, Harris slid from the saddle, handed the reins to Cilley, and “joined the boys, fighting on foot,” Andrews later told Tobie.
The “horse, bearing the wounded lieutenant (Comins), had pranced up the road” perhaps 200 feet when enemy soldiers emerged onto the road behind them, Jefferson Coburn realized. “As the enemy came out of the forest[,] the skirmish line mingled with the main force.”
He watched while the Confederates pivoted; “as the enemy came sweeping around across the field” rising to the artillery-topped hill, “every man of them must have seen our squad in the road,” Coburn realized.
“Wounded man on the horse!” J.D. Waller shouted, calling the attention of other Confederates to the rescue party struggling along the road. “Don’t shoot him! Don’t shoot! Look out, men!”
“Don’t shoot at the horse!” another Confederate soldier yelled.
“Wounded man!” a third soldier cried.
“Look out, men! Don’t hurt the man on the horse!” erupted farther along the advancing Confederate line.
Coburn forever remembered those moments as “almost beyond belief.” As the wounded Yankees steered the horse and Comins up the road, other retreating 1st Maine troopers “were halting in squad and single up in our right front and firing back at the enemy.”
Confederates “in our right rear” returned fire, but enemy soldiers directly behind or to the left rear of the rescuers did not fire upon them, he noticed.
Hiram Coburn and Charles North later agreed that at least 500 pursuing Confederates “seemed to have taken our party under their special protection.”
As retreating troopers reached the hilltop, they crossed a breastwork of rail fences thrown up by reinforcements belonging to the Cavalry Corps’ 3rd Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. George A. Custer.
Below the hilltop, Jefferson Coburn, Hiram Coburn, and Charles North led, prodded, and pushed the horse bearing the wounded Comins toward the shelter of the Union guns. “Close up, boys. Hold on! Hold on!” the delirious Comins barked orders as he lurched in the saddle. Then he went quiet and lay his head on the horse’s mane.
Comins suddenly pushed himself upright. “His eyes blazed with the fire of battle,” the awe-struck Jefferson Coburn said.
“Well, boys, I must say we make a good rear guard,” Comins said. “This won’t do. Lay me down beside the road and go on. Do you hear, Sergeant? Go on, leave me. Go on while you can!”
“No, no, Lieutenant,” Coburn responded. “We shall soon have you all right. We are almost up to our lines.”
Groaning and leaning on the horse’s mane, Comins spoke cryptically, “Thank them, thank them for me.” Coburn believed that he referred to thanking the Confederates for not shooting them.
The Confederates came on fast; Jefferson Coburn remembered “the yelling friends” charging some 350-400 feet “behind us.” The rescuers approached the barricade, where the gunners hollered at them to get out of the way while threatening “to blow us all into ‘eternity come’” for “delaying their fire.”
The Union situation deteriorated by the moment as Confederate infantrymen cut the road running northwest to Five Forks and Confederate cavalrymen pounded toward the Union guns. Suddenly the rescuers reached the barricade — and Coburn saw mounted officers leading “a cavalry column from the direction of Dinwiddie Court House.”
Suddenly Sheridan spurred his horse and “rode up to the side and rear of the gun directly in our front,” said Coburn. “Wearing a slouched hat, a common army blouse, and pants tucked inside his cavalry boots.” Sheridan slapped the cannon with his “short, substantial riding whip.”
Jabbing his whip toward the 1st Maine soldiers, he “spoke sharply to the gunners” and warned them not to fire until Coburn and his men had cleared the barricade.
The two Coburns, North, and Comins reached the Union line, as did Cilley. The sun low to the horizon, Confederate troops charged the Union cavalry atop the hill. “All the batteries of Custer’s division, as well as our own, were now in position, and for the first time in the day had fair opportunity to use their guns,” Cilley approved as Union artillery pounded the approaching Confederates, who soon abandoned their attack.
The long fight at Dinwiddie Court House cost the 1st Maine Cavalry 97 casualties; Sheridan estimated his overall losses at 450 men.
At first light on Saturday, April 1, Jefferson Coburn and several comrades found Lufkin’s body. “We buried him at early dawn” near the road so well defended by the 1st Maine Cavalry, Coburn remembered.
Leander Comins went to a hospital at City Point. He died there on April 14. After Comins died, “his remains were restored to his sorrowing wife and family for burial in the family vault in East Eddington,” Jefferson Coburn later learned.
Meanwhile, the 1st Maine Cavalry headed west on the road to Appomattox Court House.
Next week: Appomattox Road — a bullet finds Joshua Chamberlain
Sources: “History of the First Maine Cavalry 1861-1865” by Edward Parsons Tobie; “A Visit to the Battle-Field of Dinwiddie Court House” by Lt. Jefferson L. Coburn, The Maine Bugle, January 1895, Campaign II
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.