Thursday, August 9, 2018

An Officer, A Gentleman and an Ornament to His Country: The Life of Benjamin Franklin Davis, Part IV

On August 31, 1862 Colonel Davis would get instructions from Henry M. Binney, Aide-de-Camp to Colonel Dixon S. Miles, commanding the garrison at Harpers Ferry to "take post at Summit Point on the Winchester (and Potomac) Railroad, with your regiment"... protect the railroad and "closely watch the operations of  an active partisan group" the 12th Virginia Cavalry. Norton notes the 8th New York was "sent up the Shenandoah River scouting about every day to Charlestown and Shepherdstown, to ascertain the whereabouts of the rebel cavalry.  He also mentions  "we had not been there (Harpers Ferry) long before we found out we were surrounded by rebels."

When General Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862 he had expected the federal garrisons at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg would evacuate.  When they did not Lee sent Major General Thomas J. Jackson with about two-thirds of his army to either capture the garrisons or force their evacuation.  Jackson left Frederick, Maryland September 10 and by the 13th he had Harpers Ferry surrounded.  Maryland Heights fell on the 13th and confederate artillery began shelling the town on the 14th.  It was inevitable the garrison would have to surrender.

 According to Ezra A. Carmen in The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume I, South Mountain  page 255, "During the afternoon of September 13 Colonel B. F. Davis, 8th New York Cavalry and Lieutenant Colonel  Hasbrouck Davis 12th Illinois Cavalry, waited upon General White...and suggested that as the cavalry was of no use there and forage short, it cut its way out, as if obliged to surrender, the horses and equipment would be a great prize to the enemy, and that an effort to reach McClellan ought to be made.  That evening a conference of all the cavalry commanders was held at Miles' headquarters, and Miles agreed they could consult and propose means of getting out." Purportedly there were sharp words between Grimes Davis and Dixon Miles, at the meeting, before the latter reluctantly gave his permission for the cavalry to attempt the breakout.  

Miles's Aide-de-Camp Lt. Reynolds drafted Special Order #120 on September 14, 1862 which stated:  "The cavalry force at this post, except detached orderlies, will make immediate preparations to leave here at eight o'clock tonight, without baggage wagons, ambulances or led horses, crossing the Potomac over the pontoon bridge, and taking the Sharpsburg Road.  The senior officer, Colonel Voss, will assume command of the whole, which will form the right at the quartermaster's office, the left up Shenandoah Street, without noise or loud command, in the following order: Cole's Cavalry, 12th Illinois Cavalry, 8th New York Cavalry, 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry and the 1st Maryland Cavalry.  No other instructions can be given to the commander than to force his way through the enemy's lines and join our own army."  

Around 8:00 p.m. on the 14th about 1,500 cavalry composed of Companies H & I, 1st Maryland Cavalry, the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry, Cole's 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry, Samuel Means Loudoun Rangers, the 12th Illinois and the 8 New York led by local guide Hanson T. C. Green and scout Thomas Noakes left the ferry via the pontoon bridge that spanned the Potomac to the base of Maryland Heights.  The guide and scout would lead the cavalry men along the existing roads and through various farm fields and pastures to Antietam Iron Works at the confluence of the Potomac River and Antietam Creek, then on to Sharpsburg, where they would rest for a while and regroup before heading northwestward on the Mercerville road.  According to Carmen, "once on the (Mercersville) Road they broke into a brisk trot, went through New Industry and Mercersville, traversing hills and ravines, through cornfields and meadows, over fences and water cources, with an occasional halt to breath the horses.  Before daylight the column came out near St. James College then continued northward entering the woods, "skirting the turnpike from Hagerstown to Williamsport.  About two and one half miles from Williamsport the low, rumbling sound of heavy carriage wheels was heard."  The command decided to surprise and capture the wagon train.  "The 8th New York and 12th Illinois were formed in line near the turnpike, the Maryland and Rhode Island Cavalry in Reserve, while Colonel B. F. Davis with a squadron of the 8th New York quietly advanced and took possession of the turnpike to interrupt the passage of the train to Williamsport."  In so doing a number of the wagons from Major General James Longstreet's ordinance train were captured and taken to Greencastle, Pennsylvania with the Union Cavalry column.  

Colonel Davis and the 8th New York did not have much time to rest at Greencastle, Pennsylvania following the arduous escape from Harpers Ferry.  Late on September 15, Davis was ordered by Major General MacClellan to retrace his steps to Jones' Cross Roads, at the intersection of the Keedysville - Williamsport Road four miles north of Sharpsburg, and join the 15th Pennsylvania cavalry there.  Davis and the 8th New York would stay around the Hagerstown area for much of the time until they crossed the Potomac at Berlin, Maryland on October 26 and joined the rest of the army of the Potomac in Virginia.  Colonel Davis would command the 5th Brigade, consisting on the 8th New York and the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry of Alfred Pleasonton's Division from September thru part of November 1862.

 Although the historical records are considerably muddled regarding who was responsible for coming up with the idea the Union Cavalry should try to escape Harpers Ferry, before the town surrendered, most of the credit has been given to Colonel Benjamin F. Davis for originating the idea and helping ensure the endeavor was a success.  I would suspect however, the idea was on the minds of most if not all of the cavalry officers and troopers present at Harpers Ferry even though they do not get much credit for it.

In the Records of the Harpers Ferry Military Commission which are part of Volume 19, Part I of the Official Records Henry Binney statement under oath supports the contention the idea for the cavalry to attempt an escape from originated with Colonel B. F. Davis.  Binney testified,  "On Sunday night (September 14) Colonel Davis of the Eighth New York Cavalry, came down  and represented that the cavalry was of no use there, and if we were obliged to surrender the place eventually they would be as great a prize as the enemy could get.  Furthermore, that we had no forage for the horses ... and that he desired the privilege of cutting his way out.  Colonel Miles then issued an order, or sent his orderlies  to the commanders of cavalry to meet at his office that evening.  They met at 7:00 or 7:30."  After considerable discussion a route was selected and Colonel Miles issued Special Orders #120.

A telegram George McClellan sent to Henry Halleck on September 23, 1862 adds credence to the supposition the idea to escape and the success of the venture rested squarely on the shoulder of Benjamin F. Davis.  The telegram stated: "The conspicuous conduct of Captain B. F. Davis 1st cavalry in the management of the withdrawal of the cavalry from Harpers Ferry at the surrender of that place merits the special notice of the government.  I recommend him for the brevet of major."

Many army officers who were contemporaries of Davis, also gave him credit for successfully leading the escape and called him the hero of Harpers Ferry. Since there is no evidence Colonel Davis himself ever wrote or spoke about the incident, that we know of, we may never know all the facts.  He certainly deserved some recognition but not all of it in deference to his fellow officers, scouts, guides and cavaliers.

To be continued.

Monday, August 6, 2018

An Officer, A Gentleman and an Ornament to His Country: The Life of Benjamin Franklin Davis, Part III

Captain Benjamin F. Davis would arrive at Camp Sprague near Washington, D.C. and join Company K, 1st U. S. Cavalry on January 18, 1862.  Eight companies of the 1st Cavalry, including K, would remain at Camp Sprague engaging in drilling, camp and garrison duties as well as serving as escorts, couriers and pickets, in the defense of Washington, until March 10, 1862 when they would depart for Alexandria, Virginia to join the Army of the Potomac.  They would be brigaded with the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry and the McClellan Dragoons commanded by Charles Barker to form Colonel George A. H. Blake's 2nd Brigade, Cavalry Reserve.

Blake's command left Alexandria, Virginia March 29, 1862, embarking on schooners in route to Hampton, Virginia, arriving there April 3rd.  On April 4th they were camped on the Kentucky Farm.  The command left the Kentucky Farm April 11 and arrived at a new camp near Ship Point on the Chesapeake Bay the same day.  The Union Army would use Ship Point as a point of debarkation, a hospital and a supply depot during part of the Peninsula Campaign.  Blake's Brigade left their bivouac near Ship Point April 24 heading to Camp Winfield Scott near Yorktown, Virginia.

Camp Winfield Scott was about a mile and a half from Yorktown.  Theophilus Rodenbough notes in From Everglades to Canyon with the Second United States Cavalry: the camp was "in a large open plain, surrounded by trees, the sun has a good chance at us.  The location is a very fine one, far superior to our last one, some eight miles back, where we lived in mud literally fifteen inches deep, and drowned out every other day."  Major General McClellan was attempting to defeat the rebels at Yorktown by siege, however the Confederates thwarted his plans when they evacuated their camp on the night of May 3rd, 1862.

The May returns for the 1st U. S. Cavalry state the regiment left camp on Cheeseman's Creek, about six miles southeast of Yorktown, on Sunday May 4th.  They were engaged, along with the 6th U. S. Cavalry and Captain Horatio Gibson's Light Company C 3rd U. S. Artillery et al, as the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac, against the rebels on both May 4th and 5th near Williamsburg, Virginia.  On May 4th Brigadier General George Stoneman directed his two reserve cavalry brigades to harass the rear of the retreating Confederates.  Emory became engages with Stuart's cavalry while Blake's command, which included the 1st U. S. Cavalry, followed the rebels in the direction of Fort Magruder.  While Blake skirmished  and maneuvered to assault the Confederates they attacked his cavalry and Gibson's battery. Captain Benjamin Davis commanded a squadron of about 60 men who were part of the rear guard as the 1st U. S. Cavalry and Gibson's Battery retired from the field late in the day.  According to Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke's official report while the 1st Cavalry was retiring with it's last squadron (Davis's) at a walk, and carrying off the wounded they were "charged in the narrow road by a superior force of the enemy's cavalry.  Captain Davis, wheeling about by fours, met and with great gallantry (handsomely) repulsed them" driving them back in confusion which protected the artillery battery and the wounded. Davis's command captured a rebel standard and suffered 13 casualties.  Captain Davis would be recommended for a brevet promotion two different times for leading the gallant charge at Williamsburg, the first time by Philip Cooke on June 20, 1862 and the second time by Edwin M. Stanton, February 23, 1863 however, neither would be conferred.

On May 6th Captain Davis and the rest of the 1st U. S. Cavalry would be camped near Williamsburg. They left the Williamsburg area on May 11th and camped near West Point, Virginia.  On the 13th the regiment advanced to New Kent Courthouse.  They were at St. Peters Church by the 18th before moving to Tunstall's Station on the Richmond and York River Railroad 18 miles from Richmond by the May 20th.  On May 23rd the regiment would be camped 7 miles from Richmond.  On May 31 they relocated their camp near Walnut Grove, nine miles from Richmond.

The 1st U. S. Cavalry would remain at their camp 9 miles from Richmond for most of the month of June 1862.  On June 13 they left camp in pursuit of Stuart's Cavalry who had been causing depredation at Garlick's Landing on the Pamunkey and Tunstall's Station during his ride around McClellan's Army.  They were back in camp by the 15th.  Later in the month 4 companies of the 1st cavalry were engaged at the Battle of Gaines Mill. 

 It is unclear if Captain Davis was with his regiment during this time.  The June returns indicate Company K might have been on detached service at Fort Monroe.   The returns also indicate Davis was on leave as of June 25, 1862 as per Order #141, Army of the Potomac dated June 15 and a Special Order of the War Department dated June 17.  What is known is that on June 7, 1862 Captain Davis was commissioned Colonel of Volunteers by the governor of New York, to date from June 6, and assigned to command the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry.  He was unable to report to duty with his new command immediately however, as on June 30, 1862 W. K. Barnes of the Surgeon General's Office, Washington D.C., noted Davis was confined to his bed, with a febrile (fever) attack, at Willards Hotel. 

July 1862 would find Colonel B. F. Davis at Relay House, Maryland, near Baltimore, commanding the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry.  He had been mustered in as the units colonel July 11, 1862 to date from June, 25th.  The 8th New York had been organized on November 14, 1861.  They left New York for Washington D.C., November 29.  The regiment, which was not mounted and equipped as cavalry until July 1862, served in the defenses of Washington until March 9, 1862.    Between March 9 and April 6th they were guarding the Potomac River and the C & O Canal between Edwards Ferry and Point of Rocks.  On April 6th they moved to Harpers Ferry where they were assigned to guard the railroad between Harpers Ferry and Winchester, Virginia.  On June 23, 1862 they were ordered to Relay House to meet their new colonel and finally get outfitted as a mounted unit.

Colonel Davis would spend July and most of August drilling the 8th New York Cavalry into an elite fighting unit.  He had been commissioned their colonel at the request of their officers and upon the recommendation of George Stoneman.    Henry Norton described Davis in Deeds of Daring or History of the Eighth New York Cavalry: "He was a military man clear through, the right man in the right place. He was a strict disciplinarian and brought the regiment down under the regular army regulations.  Some of the boys thought he was to severe with them.  They said no man could bring a volunteer under regular army style with success.  Previous to Davis taking command the boys were put in the guard house for punishment.  That suited them too well.  Colonel Davis's mode of punishment was to make the soldier carry a rail on his shoulder and walk a ring until he gave orders for him to stop."  Norton also noted Davis was quite a smoker.  "He had an old clay pipe and when he got engaged he would keep it in his mouth for an hour after it was smoked out."

Another member of the 8th New York described Davis in a July 21, 1862 letter to the governor of New York:  "As I stepped to the door of my quarters...and looked out this moment on the busy scene of work and drill in camp—two acres swept like a floor—all filth and garbage removed; tents open, clean and aired; officers hard at work in drill; the men busy, orderly and cheerful—I thought of you and intrude upon your time... just to express to you our sense of obligation for the commission to Col. Davis.  The bearing of our Colonel among us has given us a lofty example of the hard-working soldier and of the man of honor, at home in his work, quiet, thoughtful, cheerful, of few words, and, like the weight and pendulum of a clock, in ceaseless and noiseless influence on all the wheels. His quarters and their furnishings are as plain as those of any of his officers; that is, as plain as plain can be, and no one rises in the morning and finds him abed. That he means to do his duty is evident, and no one is left in doubt that he expects the rest of us to do ours. He had no favors to ask for himself. That is both evident and striking. I dare say your Excellency will recognize that as a peculiarity; but it is also the secret of true dignity and freedom."
The 8th New York Cavalry would get their horses and accouterments on July 8 and July 20, 1862.  Norton noted the regiment drilled every day until late August.  On August 28, Colonel Davis would be ordered by Major General John Wool to have his "regiment ready to start for Harpers Ferry by Saturday at the latest."  Davis and the 8th New York left Relay House for Harpers Ferry on the 29th by railroad, arriving there on August 30, 1862.  Little did they know that in about 2 weeks time, after arriving at the ferry, they would have a date with destiny on account of their colonel.

To be continued.