Chasing Stonewall: A Connecticut Cavalryman Campaigns with Fremont
It was June 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The war was only a year old but the idyllic beauty of the region already had begun to be destroyed by the passage of the armies.
"I think that the Shenandoah Valley as splendid a place as men need set eyes on in this world," one Connecticut trooper wrote. "Large fruit trees heavily laden with green fruit, broad acres of green wheat that stands as high as a man’s shoulders already yellowing for the harvest. But what has the war done? The fields are stripped of fences to boil the soldiers’ coffee; cattle and horses are roving over the wheat and cornfields while some officer’s horse may be hitched to a favorite peach or pear tree gnawing the bark entirely off. These things look bad, but all pity is lost when we look to the right and see large trains of cars with engines burned to ashes or to the left towards Woodstock where two or three long railroad bridges lie entirely destroyed by fire. I think the government is far too easy with the traitors."
Frustration was common sentiment expressed by the soldiers of John Fremont's Mountain Department in the aftermath of the less than satisfactory denouement of the Shenandoah Valley campaign. After more than a week's hard marching following his victory at Winchester in late May, Stonewall Jackson had bested a portion of Fremont's force at Cross Keys on June 8th then waged a successful fight against two brigades of General James Shields' division at Port Republic the following day before scooting safely out of a Federal trap. To borrow George McClellan's phrase, the Federal armies in the Valley had not been defeated, they had simply failed to win, and had been made to look foolish in the process.
The following account written by an unknown trooper serving in Blakesee's Battalion of Connecticut Cavalry originally saw publication in the July 25, 1862, edition of the Southbridge Journal.
|This heart-shaped brass martingale mounted on a leather harness was used by Federal cavalrymen during the war as decoration for the center part of the breast strap. Martingales are relatively rare and command healthy prices in the collecting market.|
Mount Jackson, Virginia
June 14, 1862
Since I last wrote, we have been on the march nearly all the time and the men and horses have got entirely worn out. Four weeks ago this morning, General Fremont with his little army started to the relief of General Banks who was being driven down the Shenandoah Valley toward Winchester. Our route for the Shenandoah lay through a very mountainous region part of the way while the rest was naught but deep mud and rivers difficult to be forded and, as if to add to our difficulty, it rained nearly all the time. We had no transportation for our tents, therefore our soldiers were obliged to lay on the cold, wet ground, often in the water, with nothing but heaven’s canopy to cover us. But these trials are light to the weary soldier for he can sleep sweetly if the rain pours down in torrents and thunders roll heavily across the sky. Our men had to wade deep streams and often live on short rations, but still you could not hear a murmur. It was enough to know that General Fremont was our leader and he was doing all he could for us and hastening us on to meet the Rebel Jackson. I have heard more complaining in camp in Connecticut by our men over a good supper than can be heard by a whole brigade over their single hard cracker apiece and a cup of cold water. The less troops have to do and they more they have to eat, the more they will complain.
On Sunday morning, eight days from the time we left Franklin, we had our first encounter with the enemy near Strasburg. Sharp cannonading was kept up for two or three hours when Jackson withdrew his forces, when Jackson withdrew his forces, his wagons already being on the retreat. We followed him up as fast as we could, now and then having an occasional skirmish with his rearguard, but Stonewall had somewhat of the advantage of us for he could burn all the bridges over which we must cross and ford wild and rocky streams which the heavy rains were continually raising. We arrived at Mount Jackson just in time to see his men passing over the burning bridges. Our men set to work at once laying down a pontoon bridge which we carry with us, but the terrible rain which had been passing for the last twelve hours, did not cease for twelve hours more and so raised the stream that we nearly lost our bridge and were obliged to wait until the river went down which was nearly two days.
Major General John C. Fremont
This difficulty at last over, we then followed on to Harrisonburg. We found that the Rebels had from there taken a byroad to the east towards Port Republic and had made a stand. We again followed them up and Sabbath morning June 8th we had our most severe fight. The Rebels had advantage of the ground for they had picked their position and had a superior force. But sharp fighting was kept up till evening. One great difficulty which our brave commander labors under us that of the five brigades which he has, only two of them can he place any confidence. Three of his brigades are all Germans; they can stand long marches well and can plunder every house they see and abuse the women, but close fighting they don’t like and will run every chance they can get. General Schenk’s and Milroy’s brigades are true Yankees and will stand fight any time.
At the time of the battle, I was obliged to keep in the rear a mile or so for I had charge of our company wagons and must stay with them but I had a chance of doing a little good by carrying water in my hat and bathing the wounds of the soldiers that were brought back in the ambulances. Five men out of the Connecticut Battalion were taken prisoners. We moved on the next morning for Jackson had withdrawn his forces in the night and as we passed over the battlefield, what a sight was presented. There friend and foe sleep together quietly and the horse and his rider lie still as death. In one part of the field there were about 20 dead horses, nearly all in a pile. I saw three farm wagon loads of dead Union soldiers, piled in just as you would pack in wood. It looked sad, but what is a chance game, boys, and weeping in vain. So we thought and passed them by. I went into one church that the Secesh had used for a hospital the day before and there were legs and arms and pieces of flesh lying around as common as billets of wood and the floor was completely covered with blood.
That day there was heavy cannonading on the east of us which proved to be Shields against Jackson. We spent the next night near the river near Port Republic. The next morning we were ordered back to this place which took us two-and-a-half days. We arrived here last Thursday, and our quarters are on a hill that overlooks the valley below to great advantage. There is a beautiful grove in the rear in which our company is encamped which gives us both shade and shelter. I think that the Shenandoah Valley as splendid a place as men need set eyes on in this world. Large fruit trees heavily laden with green fruit, broad acres of green wheat that stands as high as a man’s shoulders already yellowing for the harvest. But what has the war done? Why the fields are stripped of fences to boil the soldiers’ coffee; cattle and horses are roving over the wheat and cornfields while some officer’s horse may be hitched to a favorite peach or pear tree gnawing the bark entirely off. These things look bad, but all pity is lost when we look to the right and see large trains of cars with engines burned to ashes or to the left towards Woodstock where two or three long railroad bridges lie entirely destroyed by fire. I think the government is far too easy with the traitors. One man who professes to be a good Union man lives near here and a sick soldier was sent there for a load of bread and all he asked for it was 50 cents. That is the kind of Union sentiment in this part of Virginia. It is good as long as there is plenty of powder and cold steel around.
Letter from S.N.H., 1st Battalion, Blakesee’s Connecticut Cavalry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), July 25, 1862, pg. 1
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