Buckeye Sabers: At Aldie with the 6th Ohio Cavalry

     The story of the clank of cavalry sabers and the crash of carbines did not often make the pages of Ohio’s newspapers during the Civil War, but Captain Norman A. Barrett of the 6th Ohio Cavalry left this superb account of his regiment’s actions during the middle of June 1863 describing the opening phases of the Gettysburg campaign.

    As Lee’s infantry columns moved north towards Pennsylvania shielded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry divisions nipped along the periphery of Lee’s cavalry screen to discover Lee’s intentions and stymie the march. In the span of about a week and a half, the 6th Ohio clashed with Jeb Stuart’s troopers on four occasions at Stevensburg, Aldie, Middleburg, and finally at Upperville. The engagement at Aldie on June 17th was a particularly hot fight as Captain Barrett recalled a few days later.

    “We were at the foot of a gentle knoll that protected us from the first of the Rebel guns. Strongly posted in a hollow just beyond was a body of Rebel infantry and dismounted cavalry which the Harris Light Cavalry had attempted to dislodge and failed. Major Stedman gave us the order to charge and with a wild hurrah, we went like a whirlwind over the hill. Crack and crash came the Rebel shells, but we heeded them not. Down the slope in the teeth of their fire we went, but at the foot of the hill a gully yawned before us from six to twelve feet wide and in many places more than six feet deep; a line of fire streamed from it as we came on but most of our horses went over it at one brave bound and the Rebels soon felt our steel,” he wrote.

    Captain Barrett wrote extensively during the Civil War with most of his letters seeing publication in the Western Reserve Chronicle from his hometown of Warren, Ohio; this letter was published in the July 8, 1863, edition of the Cleveland Morning Leader.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Norman Austin Barrett led a company of the 19th Ohio Infantry during its 90-days service in the summer of 1861 then raised a company for the 6th Ohio Cavalry. Barrett, a native New Yorker, was successively promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel, mustering out of service on October 12, 1864. He died at the age of 67 at Allegan, Michigan in 1899. 

Aldie, Virginia

June 24, 1863

    As we are the only Ohio cavalry regiment in the Army of the Potomac, our friends at home hear little of us through the Eastern press. New York reporters always take care to mention New York regiments, giving them their share of credit, and we think oftentimes that we are anxious our friends in Ohio should know that we are doing our duty.

    On the 9th of the present month, we left our camp near Bealton on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and crossed the Rappahannock at the same time with General David Gregg; he crossing at Beverly Ford and we at Kelly’s Ford. Soon after we crossed, we heard General Gregg’s cannon booming on our right but we pushed rapidly on to Stevensburg, a small town about ten miles from Culpeper, one squadron under Major Benjamin C. Stanhope and Captain John H. Cryer leading the way at full speed. These last found the enemy in town and after a short, sharp skirmish, drove them out, but were compelled to retire in turn before two regiments who advanced upon them. They retired slowly, disputing every inch till the brigade came up and then the tide turned. 

    After a short skirmish, two squadrons of the 6th Ohio and one of the 1st Massachusetts charged on the enemy’s skirmishers and drove them in confusion before us. Their main line endeavored to check the fugitives and resist our charge, but in vain. No sooner did our sabers appear, gleaming in front, than a panic seemed to strike them and they fled, pell-mell, toward Culpeper. Our boys chased them more than two miles, sabering them without mercy. Captain Joseph Barber with a platoon of his Lawrence County iron miners [Co. H] pressed into their retreating column until he was surrounded by three or four times his number, and even then, it was almost impossible to call his men off and allow the Rebels to escape.

Private Urban Joel Gillett, Co. H, 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
One of the Lawrence County iron miners

    As other regiments of the Rebels were rapidly gathering in our front, we reluctantly desisted from the chase and rallied our scattered squadrons. We then pushed on rapidly to the right to assist General Gregg but the fight there was nearly done. We had made a raid into the main body of General Lee’s army and all that could be done was to recross the river. This we accomplished without loss, bringing off our wounded and many of our dead. Our dash on the left resulted in the capture of 40 Rebels. Their dead we did not count, but they were scattered along the road for three miles and many rode off badly gashed by our sabers. Our own loss was one killed and two or three wounded.

    After remaining on picket and in camp for a few days until our main army changed its based, we started from Manassas Junction on the 17th and moved in the direction of Aldie. We reached this place about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and found the Rebels under Fitzhugh Lee in full possession of the place. After a short skirmish we drove them out of town, but they planted their batteries on a hill just beyond and tried to check our progress. Our regiment was ordered to the front and dashed through the town in column of fours. As we reached its further edge the Rebel batteries poured in a storm of shot and shell vainly hoping to check us. Shots struck and shells burst to the right and left, before and behind us, but none struck our column. We ran the gauntlet of their fire for half a mile then dashed through a gap in a stone fence to our right and formed our line.

The 6th Ohio Cavalry was issued its arms at Wheeling, Virginia in May 1862 and among its weapons were 250 of the breech loading .52 caliber Joslyn carbines. As sidearms, the regiment also received 71 Colt Army pistols and 324 of Joslyn's pistols along with full complement of sabers. The Connecticut-made single-band Joslyn carbine fired a rimfire cartridge although some early models used percussion caps. 

    We were then at the foot of a gentle knoll that protected us from the first of the Rebel guns. Strongly posted in a hollow just beyond was a body of Rebel infantry and dismounted cavalry which the Harris Light Cavalry had attempted to dislodge and failed. Major William Steadman gave us the order to charge and with a wild hurrah, we went like a whirlwind over the hill. Crack and crash came the Rebel shells, but we heeded them not. Down the slope in the teeth of their fire we went, but at the foot of the hill a gully yawned before us from six to twelve feet wide and in many places more than six feet deep; a line of fire streamed from it as we came on but most of our horses went over it at one brave bound and the Rebels soon felt our steel.

    We captured here 60 prisoners including nine commissioned officers. We killed but six or eight, but among them was the colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry. Our own loss was three killed and twelve wounded, among the latter Major Benjamin C. Stanhope, shot through the right arm while gallantly leading us into the thickest of the fray. [Stanhope would die of this wound June 25, 1863] As soon as we had dislodged the enemy from the hollow, we dismounted a portion of our carbineers and deployed on the crest of the next hill within 300 yards of the Rebel battery which we several times silenced with our carbines. At sunset, the contest ceased and the Rebels withdrew from the field.

Captain Delos R. Northway of Co. A led a daring charge at Upperville on June 21, 1863 and received a saber cut on his face. "General Judson Kilpatrick ordered Major William Steadman to charge with one squadron the head of an advancing Rebel column. Captain Northway was ordered to make the charge, which he did although only 7 men returned unhurt out of 30 engaged, nearly everyone being wounded in the hand-to-hand conflict. The captain himself had a severe saber cut on his cheek; that charge was not surpassed in the war," reported Whitelaw Reid.

    The country which we have passed over is entirely unsuited for cavalry operations. A constant succession of hills and hollows, the fields strongly enclosed by stone fence of the most substantial character, which afforded the retreating for most admirable positions for defense at almost every step.

Source:

Captain Norman A. Barrett, Co. D, 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), July 8, 1863, pg. 4


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