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. 

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