I recently read Don’s book on the 6th U. S. Cavalry which fought as part of the Army of the Potomac’s Reserve Brigade in the Cavalry Corps. The Regular Army units never get they attention that the state volunteer regiments received. Perhaps it was because they were professional soldiers and many of the soldiers continued in the service long after the war and it was a way of life not just the Civil War experience. Whatever the case, Don has filled a void in the historic literature with his well researched book that helps us delve into the lives of the men of the 6th U. S. Cavalry as they fought through the U.S. Civil War. I have posed a few questions for Don to give him an opportunity to share with readers his insights on the book and his research:
SCP: The Reserve Brigade contained the Regular Army mounted units in the Army of the Potomac, yet the Cavalry Corps becomes dominated by Volunteer Units. Tell us about the importance of the U. S. Cavalry regiments in the development of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry corps that ultimately placed a decisive role in the Shenandoah and Appomattox Campaigns?
DC: The regular regiments played a tremendous role in the development of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry. Initially, they were a model on which to base the training of volunteer units, frequently with the assistance of detailed regular officers or noncommissioned officers. They served as role models for the volunteer units, sometimes to the chagrin of the volunteers. During the peninsula campaign, one rarely sees a volunteer cavalry unit moving without a regular unit either accompanying them or nearby. For most commanders, the regulars were a security blanket used to ensure things went well. An excellent example is the battle of Kelly’s Ford, on March 17, 1863. Parts of both the 1st and 5th U.S. Cavalry, under Marcus Reno, are sent on the expedition even though they’re not even in the same brigade as the other units involved. To some extent, I think this may have actually hindered the cavalry’s development a bit, because it isn’t really until 1863 that we see commanders with enough confidence to employ volunteers by themselves. On Stoneman’s Raid, for example, the rear guard is formed of the best mounted 100 men from each of the regiments in the Reserve Brigade (which in fairness did include the 6th Pennsylvania) as they turned north to escape. At Brandy Station, Buford moved the brigade across the battlefield to wherever the fighting was heaviest. Indeed, had casualties in June not been so high that the brigade was detailed elsewhere, Buford might not have learned how capable his other two brigades were on July 1st at Gettysburg. From that point forward the volunteers were relied on more and more, which is fortunate, because the regular regiments weren’t able to recoup the heavy losses they suffered in these and subsequent battles. And one can’t discount the value of the leadership the Reserve Brigade provided to the rest of the Cavalry Corps. Regiments were led by captains and lieutenants because their higher ranking officers were away commanding larger formations. Buford, Merritt and Pleasonton came from the 2nd U.S. Cavalry leaders such as David McMurtrie Gregg, J. Irvin Gregg, August Kautz, William P. Sanders and Charles Russell Lowell all commanded brigades and divisions before the end of the war, but started as lieutenants and captains in the 6th U.S. when it was formed.
SCP: What motivated you to write the badly needed history of the 6th U. S. Cavalry?
DC: The short answer is that we saw a need and decided to meet it. The longer version is that it was a number of things for both Jimmy and I. I was teaching in the military science department at the College of William & Mary when I started the project. I wanted to research the regular cavalry regiments, particularly the 2nd where I had served a couple of years before. Much to my initial dismay and later delight, I found that there really wasn’t much published about them. There are only parts of a handful of books total on all six of them, so I saw a need for new research. I initially chose the 6th because it had a clear beginning when it was created at the beginning of the war. What I discovered was that there really wasn’t a Civil War history of the regiment. There was an excellent memoir by an enlisted soldier (Sidney Morris Davis’ Common Soldier, Uncommon War), but it was written many years after the war. It had some wonderful details of life in the regiment, but wasn’t necessarily accurate concerning dates and events. It was also biased and presented a very narrow view of the war. The few chapters of William H. Carter’s larger history of the regiment, From Yorktown to Santiago With The Sixth U.S. Cavalry, had the dates and events right, but lacked a lot of detail. I saw an opportunity to make a contribution. Meanwhile, Jimmy was assigned as the adjutant to one of the regiment’s current squadrons in addition to his flying duties, and had become intrigued by its history. He looked at what was out there and reached the same conclusions I had. He had already completed a tremendous amount of research toward compiling the roster. After bumping into one another in the course of our research, we decided we could produce a better history of the regiment by combining our efforts. I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
SCP: As you were researching and writing this book, what were your biggest surprises or findings that deviated from your original conceptions?
DC: Our biggest find by far were the letters of Louis Henry Carpenter. Carpenter, a Philadelphia blueblood who served as both an enlisted man and an officer in the regiment during the war, was a prodigious correspondent. He averaged better than a letter a week throughout the war home to his family, sometimes with multiple letters to different family members covering the same event. The letters contain such a huge amount of detail that it was a struggle at times to keep them from overpowering the narrative. The second biggest find was the stories tied up in the roster of the regiment’s soldiers. From the entire band from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania enlisted to be the regimental band to the numerous groups of relatives who served together to the wife who enlisted with her husband and continued to serve after he left the army, there are lots of great stories we discovered in the course of our research. The editors at McFarland helped us find a way to include as much information as possible in the book.
I think the biggest surprise was the number of volunteers who flocked to the regular regiments following the battle of Antietam. The 6th received about 500 new soldiers this way, and subsequent research has shown that several thousand made this move. Initial thought was that they were fleeing infantry units for perceived safety in the cavalry and artillery, but a number joined the shorthanded regular infantry units in the Army of the Potomac as well.
SCP: Grumble Jones is one of my favorite Southern cavalrymen. He once reported, “The 6th U. S. Cavalry numbers among the things that were…” Tell us about his run ins with the 6th?
DC: Jones is one of my favorites as well, he was certainly a very colorful fellow. The quote you mentioned came from his report on the Gettysburg campaign. It turned out not to be true, as the regiment served all the way through Appomattox, but was a reasonable assumption at the time. On the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, the regiment was dispatched on a solo mission to Fairfield to intercept a supply train. Instead they encountered Jones’ entire brigade of Confederate cavalry. In a very onesided fight, the outnumbered and understrength regiment lost 232 casualties of 400 men engaged. All five officers commanding squadrons were killed, wounded or captured, and the regimental commander lost an arm and was captured. Yet the regiment was back in the field two days later pursuing Lee’s army, and engaged Jones’ brigade again a week later at Funkstown. That encounter didn’t go well either, but this time the rest of the Reserve Brigade was nearby and the Confederates didn’t win the engagement.
SCP: Did you find any particular details about the time that the remnants of the 6th U. S. served as HQ escorts? Anything that offered insight on personalities and officers?
DC: There were some interesting insights on what they saw happening at headquarters. Letters from this period show a broader observation, though not necessarily understanding, of the corps’ maneuver. An officer is tasked to monitor an intersection to ensure units follow the correct line of march, for example, but isn’t told why. Or an enlisted orderly is given a message to carry to another part of the battle, but has only what he sees or thinks he sees as a frame of reference for what is happening. They offered a much broader look at operations, particularly in early 1864, than one sees in most primary sources. I thought Carpenter’s letter after escorting General Pleasonton to the train to Washington following his relief from command was very interesting, especially given some accounts of his attitude toward subordinates at other times.
SCP: How is the 6th different from other regiments in the Reserve Brigade?
DC: The 6th was different from the other regiments in several ways. They were new, although they had a solid leavening of veterans. This led to some unique experiences for the regiment. For example, rather than operating with the personnel they had in the field and waiting for trained replacements from the cavalry depot at Carlisle Barracks, they trained all their own troopers. I think they’re an interesting bridge between the other regular regiments and the volunteers. Despite their youth, leaders’ expectations of their performance were just as high. Their performance on the peninsula shows that they were relied on as much or more than the other regiments, though I suspect this was partly because of their relative size. I think the biggest difference, however, was the variety of their service during the war. From the point of the spear on the peninsula to a solo expedition at Fairfield to extended duty at Cavalry Corps headquarters, they saw a bit of everything. One of the really fascinating things to me in my research on the regular cavalry regiments in the east is how different the experiences were for four very similar units.
SCP: Tell us about your next project.
DC: I’m currently working on a regimental history of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry during the war. It’s a bit more complicated than the 6th’s service, and I’ve expanded my efforts to find primary sources to back up the narrative. I feel that whenever possible a historian should use the participants’ views to tell the story, and that can be challenging if convenient sources like letters aren’t readily available. I love the challenge of conducting research, and pulling on historical strings to see where they lead. Unfortunately, my blog suffers at times because I become so wrapped up in research that I forget to post. I plan to eventually write the history of the Reserve Brigade, including the regulars and its volunteer regiments like the 6th Pennsylvania and 1st New York Dragoons, but feel I still need a bit more experience and a lot more research before I will be ready to take on something quite that large.
SCP: Thanks Don. The 6th Penn Cav. Isn’t some lawyer in Columbus, Ohio interested in that outfit? Eric somebody…. Mabye you’ve heard of him. LOL.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in Union cavalry operations during the Civil War get their hands on Don’s book. I am eagerly awaiting his history of the 2nd U. S. Cavalry as well, especially given its more involved role in 1864 combat operations.
Here is a link to his book on Amazon: