Despite their 14 months in the war zone, the 1st Maine Cavalry troopers had “never met the enemy’s cavalry in any force” by spring 1863, said 2nd Lt. Charles W. Ford, a 27-year-old shipmaster from Bristol when he enlisted in autumn 1861 as a sergeant.
Until his late January sacking as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Ambrose Burnside had treated his cavalrymen as errand boys, useful as convoy guards, orderlies, and pickets, the last duty wearing out men and horses and exposing them to easy capture by Confederate cavalry fighting on its home turf.
Rather than fighting enemy soldiers, 1st Maine troopers escorted “commanding officers” and acted “as orderlies for every officer of rank sufficient to entitle him to such luxuries,” Ford groused. Fed up with frittering men and horses away on headquarters duty, officers finally told “orderly sergeants to fill such details from the poorest men in the companies.”
Ford believed the 1st Maine lads, as well drilled as any Union cavalry regiment, “were biding their time, confident that some man … would give them their opportunity” to fight. When Joseph Hooker pulled together the diverse regiments “into a cavalry corps,” Ford realized Hooker was “the man.”
Preparatory to outflanking Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia in the campaign that disintegrated at Chancellorsville, Hooker ordered Maj. Gen. George Stoneman to take sufficient cavalry across the Rappahannock River, plunge deep into enemy territory, and create such havoc that Lee must detach large troop contingents to catch the Yankee riders. The Army of the Potomac’s hard-hitting infantry would face fewer Confederate troops and would (or just might) obliterate the Army of Northern Virginia.
Commanded by Col. Calvin S. Douty of Dover in Piscataquis County, the 1st Maine Cavalry rode forth from Camp Bayard on April 13 with the 1st Brigade of Col. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (his first name vanished in wartime usage). An ambitious schmoozer of politicians and a lustful womanizer, Kilpatrick so callously sacrificed his men and horses to win personal glory that Union troopers soon nicknamed him “Kill-Cavalry.”
Many officers detested Kilpatrick, yet his men still adored him that spring. “We think everything of …Kilpatrick, he is as smart a man as there is in the service,” a Co. D, 1st Maine Cavalry trooper informed his father.
Comprising half of the 3rd Division led by Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, the 1st Brigade also fielded the 2nd and 10th New York cavalry regiments. Raised in summer 1861, the 2nd New York took the nickname “Harris Light Cavalry” to honor New York Senator Ira Fish for his crucial role in organizing the regiment; Kilpatrick was its first lieutenant colonel.
British soldier-of-fortune Col. Sir Percy Wyndham commanded the division’s 2nd Brigade.
Slated to cross the Rappahannock River on April 15 “at Beverly Ford and at other fords above and blow,” the Union cavalry collided with nature, according to David Gregg. “During the night the rain began to fall,” substantially raising the river until “it was evident that a crossing was impracticable for the artillery and pack-trains.
“The rain continued to fall during the entire day, converting mere rivulets into torrents, making the roads quite impassable even for cavalry,” Gregg noted.
The devout Lee might have credited God for stalling the cold front that subsequently drew Gulf of Mexico moisture north to Virginia. “Saddled and packed before daylight” on Wednesday, April 16, the 1st Maine boys “remained ready to move at an instant’s warning” until 2 p.m., said Corp. Edward Parsons Tobie Jr. of Co. G. Men and horses endured “about a mile of hard, heavy marching” on “very muddy” roads to “camp in some clean oak wood.”
Barely had Douty deployed some pickets when orders came for the regiment to relocate to “the rockiest place the boys had seen in Virginia away from the mountains,” Tobie spat.
Trying again on Sunday, April 20, Stoneman had the orders read to the dismounted 1st Maine troopers. Unfit horses and men and the regimental baggage must stay behind “as the cavalry was about to show an indulgent government that the money and pains taken to render this arm of the service efficient was not thrown away,” Stoneman crowed.
Expecting “to move at midnight,” the Maine troopers stood to horse through the night, missed their sleep, and finally rode out around noon on Monday, according to Tobie.
“A drizzling rain commenced falling in the morning, which before night was considerably more than a drizzle,” he noticed. Slopping along roads “paved with a deep coating of thick, sticky mud,” horses sprayed the muck high.
“And the rain and the mud made the second hitch in the programme laid out for the cavalry,” he realized.
Next: Stoneman’s Raid: 1st Maine troopers discover their moxie
Sources: Capt. Charles W. Ford, Charge of the First Maine Cavalry at Brandy Station, War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 2; Daily Whig & Courier, June 24, 1863; Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chap. XXXVII, No. 5; Edward Parsons Tobie, Tobie, History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865; Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chap. XXXVII, No. 1
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.