After losing precious daylight and time to an upstart cavalry officer from Maine, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson swiftly turned the tables at Middletown, Va. on Saturday, May 24, 1862.
Commanding a cavalry battalion comprising five companies from the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and two companies from the 1st Vermont Cavalry Regiment, Lt. Col. Calvin Douty led his men into Middletown about 2:30 p.m. Jackson could have attacked the village and its defenders, primarily Union cavalry.
Instead, “the enemy, quietly and without being perceived, moved a large force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery to the pike [on rolling high ground north of the village],” said Pvt. Edward Parsons Tobie of Co. H, 1st Maine Cavalry. The Confederate troops now blocked the Union escape route.
Suddenly the cavalrymen spotted their opponents. “We were drawn up on the turnpike,” reported Capt. George M. Brown of Co. M, 1st Maine Cavalry. “It was a trying ordeal to see the cannon approaching and taking position within a thousand yards of us, while their infantry had formed behind a stone wall within three hundred yards of us, with another line across the turnpike half a mile in front.”
Deploying six cannons, two Confederate artillery batteries — Brown counted only one — fired; a few Union cavalrymen noticed two rifled cannons were “throwing shells.” The first salvo struck several Union wagons, plugging the Valley Pike apparently well out of sight of the Union cavalry.
“We were drawn up on the turnpike” as the rifled cannons shelled the horsemen and Confederate infantrymen fired “at [a] safe distance,” Brown wrote.
In the ranks of Co. A, 1st Maine Cavalry, Pvt. Clifford N. Mayo of Hampden noticed that initially most Confederate shells “were passing over our heads. But soon they got better range, and then the shells commenced falling amongst us.”
Capt. Jonathan Prince Cilley was leading Co. B through an orchard when a solid cannonball or a shard from an exploding shell struck his right arm and all but blew it off. Tobie watched the explosion hurl Cilley from his horse “in much the deliberate manner in which a squirrel falls to the ground when shot.
“This was the first shot that had taken effect in the regiment,” Tobie admitted, “and the first sight of a man wounded and apparently dead, caused some confusion in the ranks.”
Carried by his men into a nearby house, Cilley was left behind with two attendants, orderly Isaac Harris and Assistant Surgeon George Haley. Douty rounded up the milling Co. B troopers to join the retreat just under way.
Led by the Union cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. John Porter Hatch, the Union cavalry rode north on the Valley Pike. With Hatch rode his bodyguard; behind him came Co. H of the 1st Maine. In a short distance, Hatch spotted Jackson’s trap “at that point [where the road] was narrow, with a high [stone] wall on each side,” Tobie said.
Hatch steered his entourage west onto a side road and safety. Behind him, riding in columns of four, came the two Vermont companies and, in order, companies E, M, and A of the 1st Maine.
Douty would follow after pulling Co. B together.
The retreating cavalrymen “drew sabers, and put our horses into a gallop,” Mayo said. “The horses raised the dust so that we could not see the men ahead of us; of course, we could not see the enemy, but they could see just where we were.”
“In the dust and smoke we could not see that the head of our column had turned to the left, and broke for the woods,” said Brown. “Companies A, E and M charged straight down the pike under a murderous fire.”
Survivors estimated that they had ridden about 100 yards when, firing at extremely close range, enemy cannons eviscerated the cavalrymen. As Co. A troopers rode along “the narrow road between two stone walls,” Confederate infantrymen stood, slid their rifled muskets across the stone wall, and fired a volley from 20-30 feet away. “They shot down our horses that were in front, and the rest of us … rushed right upon them,” Mayo described the developing horror.
Troopers at “the head of the column” were “instantly stopped,” Tobie said, “and the men next, unable to halt their horses … and in turn pushed forward by the horses” behind them, “rushed on.”
Mayo and his Co. A comrades rode until “our horses lost their foothold, and fell down.” He could not avoid the bloody roadblock caused where, “for a number of rods” along the turnpike, “men and horses were piled up two and three tier deep.”
Screams of pain and fear rose above the gunfire as “men and animals … piled up in a mixed mass of humanity, horse-flesh and cavalry arms and equipments, in the utmost confusion,” according to Tobie. Rearing horses caught bullets or shell fragments and toppled backwards to trap riders; men “were crushed by the horses and unable to extricate themselves.”
Cavalrymen and horses piling up behind Mayo forced his horse “on the jam in front, and for about three minutes myself and horse were wedged in so tight that neither of us could move.” His horse, “being a powerful animal, made two or three tremendous springs, and, jumping over the dead horses around him stood across the road in a clear place.”
Mayo sat “as well mounted as when I started” riding north from Middletown. He hurriedly looked for an escape route; then “a ball struck my horse, and he fell dead under me.”
His horse shot “under me,” Brown “was carried into the chaos of struggling and wounded horses.” Sliding from the saddle, he “jumped from horse to horse,” reached the fence on the western edge of the Valley Pike, and rallied “a few of my men who got out.”
Survivors scrambled to escape the carnage. Mayo “picked myself up, and gained the shelter of the [stone] wall” on the west side of the turnpike. Encountering “two or three of our men firing their pistols at some rebel cavalry in the field,” he cocked his pistol, then “jumped up and fired over the wall.”
Mayo dropped behind the sheltering stones, cocked his pistol again, and “fired two or three [more] times.” His comrades emptied their pistols; hesitant to reload in such close proximity to the enemy, the other cavalrymen “left for the woods.”
Seeing Confederate troops closing on him, Mayo “thought it about time to leave.” He grabbed his saber, vaulted the stone wall, “jumped over the opposite fence [on the far side of the adjoining field], and started for the woods.”
Musket “balls were flying around pretty thick” as Mayo saw cavalrymen “flying about in all directions in the woods.” He joined eight troopers — including four from Co. A — and headed west beneath “tall oak trees” that provided little cover.
Escaping the ambush proved difficult for the survivors. George Brown led his Co. M boys across a field “amid a hail of bullets.” Unscathed, the Maine lads reached the woods “and gained cover,” then encountered 2nd Lt. Ephraim H. Taylor, a Lisbon soldier who had “rallied the few [Co. M troopers] who were mounted, and retreated with them.”
Amidst the sheltering trees, Brown met 1st Lt. John H. Goddard of Co. E and four of his men; the survivors furtively flitted across the Valley, walked 16 miles and, after placing guards, slept “in the woods near Winchester till daybreak.”
Clifford Mayo and his comrades played hide-and-seek with pursuing Confederates “until near sunset, when we took a westerly course and struck for a small mountain about five miles distant.” Their group, along with Brown’s, got away.
Confederate troops captured 2nd Lt. Joseph C. Hill of Co. A and Kennebunk that day. The acting quartermaster of the 1st Maine Cavalry, he watched helplessly as enemy soldiers seized eight wagons under his command.
The Confederates failed to notice a 1st Maine blacksmith hiding in a wagon. When the opportunity arose, the blacksmith slipped Hill a loaded Colt revolver.
Suddenly leaping from the wagon, Hill fired, blew a Confederate trooper off his horse, vaulted into the saddle, and swiftly recaptured seven wagons and the Union prisoners with him.
Hightailing down the Valley, the former prisoners returned the wagons to Union lines.
Stonewall Jackson had just destroyed five Union cavalry companies, including three from Maine. When news reached the Pine Tree State, no one could explain how the “Middletown Disaster” had happened.
Next week: Horsemen in the Valley: Part IV — “Where [in heck] was the Maine cavalry?”
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.