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.

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