A horse here, a horse there, the 1st thing you know, you’ve got a cavalry regiment

Among the storied Maine outfits deployed against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment. No cavalry history of the Army of the Potomac would be complete without repeated mention of the 1st Maine Cav.

But this hard-fighting regiment did not exist in spring or summer 1861. In fact, the War Department did not want cavalry regiments at all. The “regulars,” those troopers drawn from the frontier forts, could handle J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry, or so the brilliant military minds of Washington believed.

Citing costs in spring 1861, the War Department had not wanted the loyal states to raise cavalry regiments. “I am again obliged, at the solicitation of General [Winfield] Scott, to decline acceptance of cavalry,” Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote to Illinois Gov. Richard Yates in May 1861.

Yates and other governors pleaded with Cameron to accept cavalry regiments, and Winfield Scott should have known their value, based on American cavalry experience during the Mexican War. Young Illinoisans pestered Yates like young Mainers pestered Gov. Israel Washburn: We want to ride to our country’s defense!

“Adjutant-General [Lorenzo] Thomas is clear in his opinion that they (cavalry) cannot be of service adequate to the expense incurred in accepting them,” Cameron told Yates.

Meanwhile, mounted Southern militia coalesced into organized cavalry that would outclass its Union counterpart until summer 1863.

In autumn 1861, Washburn finally received permission to create a Maine cavalry regiment. Robert Dyer, who hailed from Augusta, helped form Co. C, drawn primarily from Kennebec County. As did three infantry regiments and several artillery batteries, the 1st Maine Cavalry and its 12 companies spent that frigid winter encamped in Augusta; disease and bitter cold killed a few men there.

And there the Maine cavalrymen met their horses. On Oct. 3, 1861, Adjutant General John Hodsdon started advertising for horses, which “must be sound in all particulars, from 15 to 16 hands high,” from 5- to 9-years-old, and “color to be Bay, Brown, Black, and Sorrell, good square trotters, bridle-wise … and well shod,” his “Cavalry Horses Wanted” ad indicated. “A small proportion of grey Geldings and dark Mares will be purchased.”

Hodsdon wanted to buy “from 20 to 60 horses” in Brunswick “on Monday, the 7th day of Oct., at ten o’clock A.M., A like Number at Richmond” on Oct. 8, and ad infinitum for the next six week days at various Midcoast and inland locations. The horses were shipped to Augusta to be trained by 1st Maine cavalrymen — and horse breakers they were not.

“Most of the horses had never been before ridden on the back and most of the men knew as little about it as did the horses,” Sgt. Edward P. Tobie later wrote in his “First Maine Cavalry.” “There was kicking and rearing, and running and jumping and lying down and falling down on the part of the horses and swearing and yelling, and getting thrown and being kicked, and getting hurt and sore in various ways by the men.”

“Last February the 26th I was discharged from the 1 Me Calvry Co. G for injuries received by the fall of my horse on the 10 day of December last,” Freeman Gurney of Leeds wrote to Hodsdon on March 17, 1862. Gurney asked Hodsdon to mail him a certified note that he had served with the 1st Maine Cavalry so that he could receive state aid after moving to South Hanson, Mass.

About nine weeks after Gurney wrote Hodsdon, five 1st Maine Cavalry companies endured a blood-letting in the Shenandoah Valley. Inexperienced in the art of mounted warfare, the Maine troopers were competently led by Lt. Col. Calvin Douty, a Dover man (in those days before Dover and Foxcroft merged) who remains an unsung Maine hero.

Of all the regiment’s commanders, Douty’s name dominates. Without his leadership on May 24, 1862, the 1st Maine Cavalry might have suffered worse losses than it did.

And its casualty lists were just starting to fill.

Brian Swartz can be contacted at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.