Riding Around McClellan’s Army with the Jeff Davis Legion
“We were in the rear of their grand army, or in other words, we had caught McClellan a-napping, got into his stronghold, and were robbing the old man of his goods.”
The Federal army under General George B. McClellan was closing in on Richmond, Virginia when newly appointed General Robert E. Lee pulled aside his daring cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart and asked him to reconnoiter the Federal right to see if it was vulnerable to attack. Gathering up his command, the Virginian set out at daybreak on June 12, 1862, to fulfill the assignment and in the process performed a feat which made Stuart and his command the talk of the South. One Mississippian who rode with Stuart labeled his famous ride around McClellan’s army as more resembling “Old Jarvy’s ride from the devil than anything I can think of.”
Riding within Stuart’s cavalry column was a battalion of cavalrymen from the Deep South known as the Jeff Davis Legion under Lieutenant Colonel William T. Martin. The battalion contained eight companies: Cos. A, B, and C from Mississippi, Cos. D and E from Alabama, and Cos. F, G, and H from Georgia. The troopers had enlisted as individual companies in late 1861 and had been organized as a battalion in Virginia in October. The men had already seen action at the Battle of Williamsburg, and now under their dashing brigadier, eagerly took part in this new adventure.
It was exciting to turn the tables on McClellan’s huge force. “We now began to realize that General Stuart designed to lead us entirely around the enemy’s line as we had got in behind the left wing and our Rebel raid was directed on a course that was leading us fast and far enough in their rear to avoid the whole body of their army,” one trooper wrote. “Only think how McClellan must feel to know that 1,600 men had gone all around his grand army and poked it pretty hardly in many places. It will be a sore subject to him for many a day and for us it will be something glorious to be remembered so long as life lasts.”
The following unsigned letter was likely written by an officer in one of the Mississippi companies of the Jeff Davis Legion, and originally saw publication in the July 23, 1862, edition of the Macon Beacon.
Camp near Richmond, Virginia
June 16, 1862
Through a merciful Providence that rules all things, a glorious success to our cause has been attained and with the loss of but a single man, the most daring exploit ever recorded in history has been accomplished.
On the 12th instant about daybreak, our column (Stuart’s brigade) was moving on the Brook Turnpike toward the enemy’s lines, every one of us of course on the alert to find out what the move was for. A rumor that we were going to the Valley to join Jackson soon became credited, but all who entertained the belief ere the day passed found they were much mistaken. We crossed the Chickahominy River eight miles from Richmond and took the Ashland road. Before the middle of the day, we had ridden near 20 miles and were approaching Hanover Courthouse where it was expected we would “bag” a number of the enemy as it was known by us that the enemy’s cavalry visited the courthouse every day.
When about three miles from Hanover, General Stuart ordered the 4th Virginia, a squadron of the 9th Virginia (who were in front of the Flying Artillery, two pieces: a rocket gun and an English rifled six-pounder [Captain John Pelham]) to cross the country to surround the enemy and take possession of the roads leading out of the town. The Jeff Davis Legion covered the artillery and the 1st Virginia brought up the rear to move on to make the attack. Four hundred of the enemy’s cavalry had been there two hours before and their scouts brought them news of our approach just in time for them to escape us there.
General Stuart immediately determined to give them a chase and as soon as order, 1,600 men, our whole force, went tearing after them like so many bloodhounds after a fear-stricken dear. The 9th Virginia, as in the beginning of the day, was leading the column. One and on we went for nearly two hours just as fast as the line could travel when about 200 of the enemy was overtaken. They were drawn up in line of battle in a field near a little village called Pippin Tree. They met the charge of the first squadron as they dashed up; discharged their pistols and killed one of our men. For five minutes or less they stood and fought with considerable courage, but when we had killed ten and wounded several, they began to scatter. We captured 52 of them, the remainder tried once more the chance of flight and as before, we pressed on after them.
About two miles further, we came upon one of their encampments and in it, caught 23 more men and about 100 horses. We destroyed their tents and commissary supplies, several hundred arms, their baggage wagons, huckster wagons, and everything else that our men did not appropriate as individual booty. The 9th Virginia being in the advance had accomplished all this by the time our Legion came up and we did not individually have a hand in the fray. Many of the enemy still continued to fly before us: General Stuart’s orders were onward. Our locality was rather a dangerous one to tarry long in; we had got around the extreme right of the enemy’s line and were in the rear of their grand army, or in other words, we had caught McClellan a-napping, got into his stronghold, and were robbing the old man of his goods.
We now began to realize that General Stuart designed to lead us entirely around the enemy’s line as we had got in behind the left wing and our Rebel raid was directed on a course that was leading us fast and far enough in their rear to avoid the whole body of their army. After having sacked the first encampment, we went on and played havoc with another and a larger one. We then went on and about 6 o’clock in the evening reached the Pamunkey River where we burned seven transports heavily laden with a variety of commissary stores, clothing, pistols, and one vessel laden with confectionary such as candies, apples, oranges, figs, and other luxuries, besides a large quantity of brandy, whiskey, and wines. On these vessels we took 45 men, three of whom were officers.
We next in our onward march fell upon McClellan’s wagon yard and burned all it contained amounting to about a hundred new wagons. The Pamunkey River is used for transporting supplies to the entire army of McClelland as transports can ascend the river as high up as the middle of high line. The landing at White House, where we destroyed these seven vessels, was one of the principal depots of the enemy. As soon as we had accomplished this work of destruction, we began again our march and for miles along the road we continued to burn and destroy wagons filled with forage, salt, coffee, and huckster supplies- the horses and mules were taken with the harness and driven on before us and the teamsters were almost all captured.
About five miles from the York River Railroad we caught 60 more of the flying Yankees- they were making for Dunton’s Station where they would have met a train of cars and thus escaped, but we fortunately overtook them and escorted them ourselves to the depot where we burned the train, killed the conductor and eleven soldiers, and destroyed the depot which was in use as a storehouse and had in it about $100,000 worth of supplies. Considerable damage was done to the railroad; a large bridge over which the track was laid was destroyed and still we went on. It was necessary for us, in order to avoid the enemy, to take a Northern track and steer towards Charles City Courthouse which made our scout some 40 miles longer.
We had now been in the saddle a full 24 hours, but neither the men nor horses seemed fatigued. It was well for us that the men and horses held out as they did for had we delayed even half a night, McClellan with half his army would have been down upon us. We were 1,600 strong, led by a dashing and brave General, and would probably have cut our way through a division. We reached Charles City C.H. about 3 o’clock the following afternoon and rested until 10 that night when we started again homeward bound for the Long Bridge which crosses the Chickahominy near its mouth.
When we were within seven miles of the bridge, our advance scouts brought intelligence that the enemy had burned the bridge and the river was too high to ford there. We had to approach the river in another quarter but everywhere found the stream too deep to ford. A bridge had to be built for the artillery to cross and it was done in about four hours. While the bridge was under construction, the horses and men of the brigade swam over and the artillery, cavalry, and prisoners were ready to start at the same time. We destroyed the bridge after us and went on.
General Dix with 15,000 of the enemy reached the other side of the river as our rear guard was getting out of sight and were unable to follow us further. We were still about 18 miles from our lines but on the Richmond side of the river. The enemy, however, had a fine chance to cut us off and we consequently had to move on as fast as possible. It was wonderful with what rapidity and success we traveled. In coming through Chickahominy Swamp, we had in several places to swim our horses and as an instance of what can be done when a determined mind is operating, the fact that the cannons were brought through by swimming horses is undeniable.
|Major General George Brinton McClellan|
We at last got safely within our lines with 167 captured prisoners, 300 mules, 180 horses, about 400 saddles and bridles, about 100 complete wagon harnesses, besides a great many arms. General Stuart, far more successfully than he would have hoped, carried out this daring expedition and ran great risks but achieved much. Only think how McClellan must feel to know that 1,600 men had gone all around his grand army and poked it pretty hardly in many places. It will be a sore subject to him for many a day and for us it will be something glorious to be remembered so long as life lasts.
I have given you a very imperfect and prosy detail of our trip, but as I have had only four hours sleep in four days, I am completely worn out in mind and body. The second day after we started, a friend and his horse broke down and we had to leave him on the road. Our anxiety was great about him lest he should fall into the enemy’s hands, but we found him safely back in camp when we returned.
The last day of our march, I, too, met with an accident but fortunately got out of it easily. The horse in front of me stumbled and fell while we were going at a sweeping gallop. My mare attempted to jump over horse and rider, but as she made the leap the fallen horse rose, and both fell together, but nobody was hurt. I feared I should never be able to get my mare up again for I tried in vain for five minutes to make her rise. A friend saw my predicament and came to my assistance and finally after drenching her with water, she revied sufficiently to travel. I mounted a captured Yankee horse and leading my mare, galloped after the column, overtaking it in about half an hour. I have much to be thankful for, for had I been left there without a horse, the Yankees would probably have had me before the sun was up an hour higher.
The ride of the column that day was terrific and more resembled Old Jarvy’s ride from the devil than anything I can think of.
Letter from unknown member of Cos. A, B, or C of the Jeff Davis Legion, Macon Beacon (Mississippi), July 23, 1862, pg. 1