Shattered by the Confederate ambush known as the “Middletown Disaster,” surviving Maine and Vermont cavalrymen fled into the descending Shenandoah Valley darkness on Saturday, May 24, 1862. As his soldiers gathered prisoners on the body-plugged Valley Pike, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had greater prey in mind; rather than chase the fleeing cavalrymen, he headed for Winchester, Va. to bag an entire Federal army.
Fighting there on May 25 drove Union Maj. Gen. Nathanial Banks and his army to the Potomac River. Led by Lt. Col. Calvin Douty of Dover, the five 1st Maine Cavalry companies mauled at Middletown on May 2, camped at Williamsport, Md. The Maine horsemen licked their wounds and counted noses.
A whole lot of men and horses were missing.
Meanwhile, Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. sent investigators Col. John Goddard and Archibald G. Spalding to find out what had happened at Middletown. Commissioned the first colonel of the 1st Maine Cavalry, Goddard had resigned on March 1, 1862. Washburn figured that surviving troopers would spill the beans about Middletown and its aftermath to their former commander.
A competent jack-of-all-trades, the civilian Spalding was a courteous gentleman who could pass for anyone’s favorite uncle. He might pick up comments that Goddard missed.
After spending time at Williamsport, both men filed official reports with Washburn in early June. The reports complemented one another with overlapping information, yet delved separately into vital details, especially the losses in men and horses incurred by the 1st Maine Cavalry.
Missing troopers dribbled into the regiment’s camp for at least a week after Middletown. Then the flow slowed a few days before stopping altogether.
Based on having perhaps 350-400 men in the Middletown fight, the 1st Maine Cavalry had taken a beating. “I am satisfied that a large number of the missing are prisoners and that the loss of life was primarily among the horses as they (Confederate infantry) fired low” during the Middletown ambush, Goddard wrote Washburn.
Spalding informed Washburn that “our loss during this two days fight, although severe, is not near as great as, I think, was anticipated.” More men had reached Williamsport; by noon on Sunday, June 1, sixty-six Maine troopers remained missing.
“The number of our killed & wounded cannot at present be definitely ascertained,” Spalding wrote.
Goddard had some good news. “General [John Porter] Hatch, chief of cavalry, tells me that the conduct and coolness of Col Doughty, his officers and men during the entire two days of Banks’ retreat and their steadiness under fire were equal to any veterans in the service,” Goddard wrote.
“And he (Hatch) said all this and more to them last Tuesday (May 27) when he reviewed them,” Goddard told Washburn.
At least Hatch praised his shattered Maine cavalry companies. When Nathanial Banks filed his official report about the recent fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, he committed the type of public-relations faux pas that a politically astute general would avoid.
Banks left out some heroes.
Writing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from the “State of Maine Executive Department” on Wednesday, June 11, Washburn noted that in Banks’ “official report of the march of the troops under his command from Strasburg Va. to Williamsport Md.” on May 24-25, “I find no mention whatever of the five companies of the 1st Maine Cavalry under Lt. Col. C.S. Douty.”
The guv was steaming mad. “From this report I would infer that no portion of the Maine Cavalry were with Genl. Banks or had any part in the fighting on either of those days,” Washburn wrote.
He had received “intelligence … from several sources, supposed to be entirely reliable,” that “left no doubt in my mind” that Maine cavalrymen had “participated actively, displaying remarkable coolness & gallantry” in the fighting at Middletown “and other times & places.”
Washburn enclosed “a copy of the letter” sent him by Spalding. That letter, Washburn told Stanton in case he decided not to read it, mentioned that “Maj. J.P. Cilley … was wounded, probably mortally.”
Spalding’s letter also revealed that during Banks’ retreat from the Shenandoah Valley, the five Maine cavalry companies lost “in killed, wounded & missing, 66” men.
Washburn then began his closing paragraph. “I find it difficult to reconcile this statement of Mr Spalding, which is in substance confirmed by many witnesses, with Genl. Banks Official Report to you, and I am not a little solicitous —”
At this point, with just sentences to go, Washburn went ballistic, his anger flaming across page 4 of his letter as he scratched out words and entire phrases and inserted a few words. He boiled down his fury to two questions:
• “Where [in heck] was the Maine Cavalry” in late May?
• “& if with Genl. Banks command, in what manner did it conduct itself?”
The governor closed his letter with “I have the honor to be Your Obd[ident] Servt (Servant) Israel Washburn Jr.”
Suddenly his anger blew back onto page 4. Between his last sentence and his closing, Washburn squeezed the invitation — not a request, there being no question mark — that Stanton would share “such information on these points as you may have.”
Everyone in Maine who read a newspaper from May 26 to mid-June 1862 knew what had happened to the 1st Maine Cavalry at Middletown, Va. Many papers published multiple articles letters, reports, and updates about the disaster.
Now, no matter what Nathanial Banks had failed to tell him, Edwin M. Stanton knew that five hard-fighting companies of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment had been in the battle, too.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.