William L. Greenleaf,
Of the two hundred and fifty-eight regiments of cavalry in the service of the United States during the War of the Rebellion, but few, if any, performed more arduous service, or took part in more engagements, than did the First Vermont, which during three years at the front participated in seventy-six battles and skirmishes--a brief account of which would far exceed the limits of this sketch--and achieved a reputation as one of the best fighting regiments in the army, standing fifth in the list of cavalry organizations suffering the greatest loss in killed and mortally wounded.
The Regiment was recruited by Lemuel B. Platt, who had been specially commissioned by the Secretary of War for that purpose, and was the first full regiment of cavalry raised in New England. The several companies were enlisted as follows:
A - Chittenden County;
B - Franklin County;
C - Washington County;
D - Orange and Caledonia Counties;
E - Windsor County;
F - Windham County;
G - Bennington County;
H - Rutland County;
I - Lamoille and Orleans Counties;
K - Addison County.
In forty-two days from the time Colonel Platt received his authority the Regiment was in camp at Burlington, uniformed and mounted. The organization was then completed by the appointment of the Field and Staff Officers. The company officers were elected by the several companies and commissioned by the Governor.
The Regiment was mustered into the service of the United States, November 19, 1861, and started for Washington on the 14th of the next month, requiring for the journey one hundred and fifty-three cars, made up into a train of five sections. After passing through the experiences common to all new regiments, besides losing one Colonel by resignation and another by death, it met the enemy for the first time April 16, 1862, in the Valley of the Shenandoah. In this engagement it charged through the little village of Mount Jackson and drove Ashby's cavalry for more than a mile to the North Fork of the Shenandoah, where the enemy set fire to the bridge, hoping to cut off further pursuit. Finding the stream unfordable, part of the Regiment dashed over the burning bridge after the flying Confederates, while the remainder brought water from the river in their feed-bags and extinguished the flames. The loss on this occasion was slight, but the regiment displayed in its maiden effort that dashing valor and fertility of resource so essential to its success as a cavalry organization, and for which it was afterward noted on fields of greater magnitude.
On the 23rd of May the Regiment was joined by its new Colonel, Charles H. Tompkins, of the Regular Army, who had already achieved a reputation as a dashing cavalry officer, and under his leadership, in the retreat down the valley under Banks, the Regiment had its full share of fighting, meeting the enemy at McGaheysville, Middletown, and Winchester. In the campaign under Pope, which culminated in the second battle of Bull Run, the First Vermont was constantly on the move, and was engaged at Luray Court House, Culpeper Court House, Orange Court House, Kelley's Ford, Waterloo Bridge, and Bull Run. At the close of this campaign the Regiment, much reduced in numbers by its arduous service, was assigned to duty in the defenses of Washington. Its headquarters were established near Alexandria, and detachments were stationed at Annandale, Lewinsville, Dranesville, and other points. In September Colonel Tompkins resigned and was succeeded by Edward B. Sawyer, making the fourth Colonel within one year. The Regiment had lost during its six months of active service three hundred and nineteen men by death or discharge, but this loss was made good by the addition of Company L--Captain, H. Chester Parsons; 1st Lieutenant, John W. Newton; 2nd Lieutenant, Alexander G. Watson-- recruited in Franklin and Chittenden Counties; and Company M--Captain, John w. Woodard; 1st Lieutenant, George W. Chase; 2nd Lieutenant, Enoch B. Chase--recruited principally in Chittenden County. These, with the addition of two hundred recruits distributed among the ten original companies, raised the aggregate of the Regiment to ten hundred and thirty- four.
During the winter, portions of the Regiment were frequently engaged with Mosby and other guerrilla leaders. These affairs were comparatively bloodless, but the one of April 1, 1863, when Captain Flint, with a detachment of the Regiment, undertook the capture of Mosby near Broad Run and met with a serious repulse, in which Captain Flint, Lieutenant C. A. Woodbury, and seven men were killed or mortally wounded, twenty-two wounded, and eighty-two men and ninety-five horses captured, was a serious blow to the Regiment. This misfortune was in a measure retrieved on May 30th, when Mosby, who had captured a supply train of ten cars near Catlett's Stations, was attacked by Lieutenant-Colonel Preston with about one hundred and twenty-five of the Vermont Cavalry and pursued to Greenwich, where he attempted to make a stand, but was completely routed by a charge led by Lieutenant Hazelton, of Company H, and his one piece of artillery captured. The loss of the Regiment on this occasion was but one man killed and seven wounded, and this was its last encounter with this famous partisan leader.
Early in June, 1863, the scattered detachments of the Regiment assembled at Fairfax Court House, preparatory to joining the Army of the Potomac, then on the march to Gettysburg. On the 28th of June it was attached to the Cavalry Corps of that army and was afterward associated with it until the close of the war. During the campaign of 1863 the Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the brilliant operations which first brought the cavalry into notice as a valuable arm of the service, and won for itself fresh laurels on the field of Gettysburg, where, under the lead of the gallant Farnsworth, it penetrated within the enemy's lines for nearly a mile, encountering the fire of five regiments of infantry and two batteries, leaving its leader on the field, the only general officer killed within the lines of the enemy. It also participated in the cavalry engagements at Hanover, Hunterstown, Hagerstown, Boonsborough, Falling Waters, Buckland Mills, and many skirmishes of lesser account.
During the ensuing winter the Regiment was stationed at Stevensburg, engaged in picketing the line of the Rapidan. It formed a part of Kilpatrick's force in his famous raid on Richmond, and was selected to make an attempt to enter the city and release the prisoners confined in Libby Prison and on Bell Isle. A portion of the Regiment was with the ill-fated Dahlgren when he made the dash within the fortifications around the city which cost him his life.
In the reorganization of the Cavalry Corps previous to the opening of the Wilderness Campaign, the Regiment was assigned to the Second Brigade of the Third Division, and Colonel Sawyer having resigned, Lieutenant-Colonel Addison W. Preston was commissioned as his successor. The Regiment crossed the Rapidan at Germanna Ford at daylight on the morning of May 4th, and moved forward to Parker's Store. Early on the morning of May 5th the Second Brigade, with the First Vermont Cavalry in front, proceeded to Craig's Meeting House, where, at about eight o'clock, the advance squadron encountered Rosser's brigade of Hampton's cavalry, and the engagement which followed was the opening fight of the battle of the Wilderness. In this action the Union forces were largely outnumbered, and the Regiment suffered a heavy loss in killed and prisoners.
The Regiment was with Sheridan in his expedition to Richmond in May, 1864, and participated in the engagements at Yellow Tavern and Meadow Bridge which resulted in the death of General Stuart, the famous cavalry leader of the Confederates, and the total rout of his forces. Returning to the Army of the Potomac, it took part in the cavalry engagements at Hanover court House, Ashland, Hawe's Shop, Bottoms Bridge, White Oak Swamp, Riddle's Shop, and Malvern Hill. In the action at Hawe's Shop the Regiment met with a severe loss in the death of the gallant Preston, whom General Custer declared to be "the best cavalry colonel in the Army of the Potomac."
The army, having crossed the James River, was followed by the cavalry, and the First Vermont, whit the Third Division and that of General Kautz, was sent to destroy the Weldon, South Side, and other railroads leading south and west from the rebel capital. The expedition, numbering about five thousand men, started from Prince George Court House at one o'clock on the morning of June 22, striking the Weldon Road at Ream's Station, where the buildings and a portion of the track were destroyed. During the following seven days the Regiment was constantly engaged in tearing up railroads and skirmishing with the enemy. At Nottoway Court House, Roanoke Station, Stony Creek, and Ream's Station, these skirmishes were quite severe, and the Regiment, bearing its part in all of them, suffered considerable loss in killed and wounded. At Stony Creek the brigade to which the Regiment belonged was attacked by Hampton's division of cavalry and cut off from the rest of the division. After severe fighting it managed to cut its way through and joined the other brigade at Ream's Station. The whole force then made its way back to the Union lines with the loss of its artillery and wounded. This expedition was the most severe in which the Regiment had as yet been engaged; and, reduced in numbers by the hard service of the last sixty days, it went into camp near Light House Point, on the James, where it remained some three weeks recruiting the men and horses for harder experiences yet to come.
On the 8th of August the Third Cavalry Division, including the First Vermont, now under Colonel William Wells, who had succeeded to the command after the death of Colonel Preston, embarked for Washington on its way to join General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, arriving at Winchester on the 17th. General Sheridan was at this time retiring down the valley, and the Regiment participated in the engagements which occurred at Winchester, Summit Pint, Charles Town, and Kearneyville, crossing the Potomac with the rear guard at Harpers Ferry on the night of the 25th. On the following day Early began falling back up the valley followed by the Union cavalry, and during the following week the First Vermont took part in several reconnaissances and was in slight skirmishes near Berryville and Paris. In the battle of the Opequon, September 19th, the Regiment bore an active part and was in close pursuit of the retreating enemy when darkness put an end to the engagement. On the 21st the Regiment led the advance in the movement, having for its object he clearing out of the rebel cavalry in the Luray Valley. The First New Hampshire, fighting dismounted, had driven the enemy across the river, but was unable to effect a crossing. The First Vermont was then brought up and charged across the stream, driving the enemy from its position. The division having in the meantime crossed along the pike to the right, the Regiment joined the main column and followed the enemy to Front Royal, a distance of two miles. Here the Regiment was again detached and sent to Gooney Manor, four miles above Front Royal, where it found the enemy's rear guard in a strong position on a hill south of Gooney Run. After skirmishing until after ten o'clock at night the Regiment was relieved, and joined the brigade. The next morning it was again actively engaged near Milford, but, finding the position too strong to be carried, our cavalry retired to Bucks Ford. On the 26th Colonel Wells was assigned the command of the brigade and turned the command of the Regiment over to Lieutenant-Colonel John W. Bennett.
During the first week in October the regiment was in camp near Mount Crawford. On the 7th, as rear guard of the cavalry column, it had a severe engagement with the enemy near Columbia Furnace. General Sheridan was disgusted with these constant attacks on his rear and ordered his cavalry out the next morning with instructions to either whip the enemy or get whipped themselves. The result of this order was the splendid victory at Tom's Brook, in which the First Vermont acquitted itself with much credit, capturing two pieces of artillery, a large number of prisoners, and pursuing the flying enemy for more than ten miles.
On the morning of that memorable 19th of October, when Sheridan rode from Winchester twenty miles away, Colonel Wells' brigade was guarding the fords across Cedar Creek on the extreme right of the army. At the first sound of the firing on the left, Lieut.-Colonel Bennett was ordered to move out with his regiment, select a position covering the camp and feel the enemy. The Rebel cavalry was found to be in force, and arrangements were made to resist its advance in case one should be attempted. About nine o'clock the bulk of the cavalry was ordered to the extreme left to assist the infantry, Colonel Wells with his brigade being left to guard the right and prevent the enemy from turning that flank. Orders were soon received to retire slowly and keep in line with the infantry. After falling back about a mile, a halt was ordered and the cavalry held its position, skirmishing briskly for several hours. General Custer then returned to the right with the First Brigade and a battery and ordered a charge in which the enemy was driven back, and the regiment regained its former position.
In the final advance of our army, leaving the First Brigade to watch the enemy on the right, General Custer took the First Vermont and Fifth New York rapidly across the field to strike the left and rear of Early's infantry which was then trying to hold its position along the north bank of Cedar Creek, but, unable to resist the last furious charge of the Union infantry, the enemy broke and fled. The infantry halted in their old camps, but the cavalry kept on. The First Vermont led the way across the creek at a difficult ford west of the pike, the leading squadron under Captain Watson advancing to a stone wall about a quarter of a mile beyond, where it was brought to a halt by a volley from the enemy's infantry. Waiting until the remainder of the regiment came up, Colonel Wells ordered a charge. In a moment the regiment was over the wall and driving the enemy before it with great slaughter. Pushing on, more than a mile from any support, the Vermonters still in the lead, the two regiments struck the valley pike along which the enemy was retreating. Night was fast settling over that field, both lost and won, but weariness and hunger were forgotten by the men at sight of the rich harvest before them, and they pushed on with renewed energy to gather in the spoils of the great and unparalleled victory. Reaching a point half a mile beyond Strasburg they found the road blockaded for miles with guns and wagons, and ambulances filled with wounded. Whole batteries were captured, with guns, men and horses intact. Captured cannon were sent to the rear in charge of small squads, and wagons and ambulances by the score were ordered back in charge of their rebel drivers. The pursuit was kept up until nearly midnight when the regiment, satiated with victory, returned to the north bank of Cedar Creek, having captured 161 prisoners, among whom were one general, one colonel, and one lieutenant-colonel, 3 battle flags, 23 pieces of artillery, 14 caissons, 17 army wagons, 6 spring wagons and ambulances, 83 sets artillery harnesses, 75 sets wagon harnesses, 98 horses and 69 mules. Eight medals were awarded to the army of the Shenandoah for colors captured in this battle, of which members of the First Vermont received three.
The term of enlistment of the original members of the regiment having nearly expired, on October 22 twelve officers and two hundred and seventy men were sent home to be mustered out, some four hundred re-enlisted men and recruits remaining under the command of Maj. William G. Cummings. During the next sixty days the regiment was employed in outpost duty and scouting, keeping itself in fighting trim meanwhile, by taking part in the engagement at Middle Road, Middletown, Lacy Springs and Waynesboro. At the close of active operations it went into camp near Winchester.
On the 27th of February, 1865, the cavalry in the Valley started to join the Armies of the Potomac and the James in the operations around Petersburg. After 21 days of marching, the long column of nearly 10,000 mounted men crossed the Appomattox and went into camp near Hancock Station on the military railroad, having made a longer march within the limits of the Confederacy than Sherman's famous march "from Atlanta to the sea." To any other commander than Sheridan, such a march would have been deemed impossible. The rain fell incessantly, and the roads led through streams, swamps, mud and obstacles that would have been insurmountable had not the whole command been stimulated with the belief that they were on their way to lend a helping hand in the final struggle of the war.
On the morning of April 1st the regiment moved to the front with the Division and during the afternoon was actively engaged in the battle of Five Forks, where it captured a large number of prisoners. The following day it had a slight skirmish with the enemy's cavalry at Scott's Corners. On the 3d it had the advance of the cavalry, and struck the enemy behind breastworks of considerable strength, behind a deep muddy creek. A part of the regiment was dismounted, and crossing the creek at some distance from the road, came down on the lank and rear of the works which were immediately abandoned by the enemy. The remainder of the regiment having crossed the stream, the enemy was followed up and found in force on the summit of a hill near Namozine Church. The regiment was formed in column of battalions and charged the enemy driving it back upon its reserves. The First Vermont and Eighth New York then charged together, scattering the enemy in every direction, capturing their only piece of artillery and many prisoners, and continuing the pursuit for eight miles. General Sheridan calls this engagement the battle of Winticomack Creek, and gave General Wells the credit for its successful management.
On the 4th the regiment crossed Deep Creek and proceeded to Jeter's Station on the Richmond and Danville railroad, which was reached the next morning after a tedious all-night march. In the operations of the 6th, the First Vermont was sent to the extreme right of the line and followed the retreating enemy all day. During the evening of the 8th the regiment arrived at Appomattox Station where the enemy's reserve artillery and ammunition trains were found. A portion of Colonel Wells' brigade was at once dismounted and sent through the woods to take the enemy on the flank, while the First Vermont charged them in front. The batteries opened a brisk fire but were soon defeated with the loss of thirty guns and a large wagon train. Eighteen of the guns were taken by Wells' brigade, of which number the First Vermont captured eight. Among the captured guns were those of the famous Washington Artillery of New Orleans, which had long boasted of never having lost a gun.
On the morning of the memorable 9th of April, the regiment had the advance of the Second Brigade, which moved rapidly forward, forcing back the enemy's skirmish line. Moving to the right to uncover the Fifth Corps it passed along nearly the entire front of the enemy's line under the fire of two batteries, and came upon the rebel flank and rear in full view of the supply trains. Lieut.-Colonel Hall was ordered to charge the trains with the First Vermont, and the first battalion had broken into a gallop when word was received that General Lee had sent in a flag of truce, offering to surrender his army, but before the regiment could be halted it had captured the last line between it and the train, which in a few minutes more would have been added to its long list of captures.
Sabers were returned never to be drawn again in the fury of battle, and the surrender having been completed, the regiment went into camp near the scene of its last charge. On the following day the regiment started for Petersburg where it arrived on the 19th. On the 24th it was ordered to North Carolina to join General Sherman, but when near South Boston learned that Johnston had surrendered, and immediately returned to Petersburg, where it remained until the 10th of May, when it started for Washington, there participating in the Grand Review on the 23d. June 9th it left Washington for Vermont and on the 13th arrived at Burlington, where the men whose term of service would expire previous to October 1st were immediately mustered out. The remainder were consolidated into six companies and stationed at St. Albans, Vt., and at different points in Northern New York, until mustered out August 9, 1865.
During its three years of active service in the presence of the enemy, the regiment captured in open field three battle flags, thirty-seven pieces of artillery, and more prisoners than it had men--a record which it is believed, was not excelled by any regiment in the Union service.