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A California Soldier writes home - May 1998 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1998 
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A California Soldier writes home
A California Soldier writes home

BY E.E. BILLINGS

A group of San Franciscans wrote John A. Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, in 1862 offering to provide a company of 100 cavalrymen to be credited to that state's quota under the draft. The only stipulation was that Massachusetts pay the cost of organizing the company and transporting it to Boston. Governor Andrew agreed to the terms and the company reached Boston early in January, 1863. It became Company A of the 2d Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. News of this company's success in the field led De Witt C. Thompson and a group of San Franciscans to offer Governor Andrew four additional companies on the same terms. The battalion of 387 men and 13 officers was recruited in less than a week and embarked for New York on the steamer Constitution, March 23, 1863. Thompson was given a major's commission and placed in command. Arriving in New York, the unit proceeded to Readville, Massachusetts, where it became Companies E, F, L, and M of the 2d Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment.

George W. Buhrer, 28, a farmer from Germany, enlisted in Company A, California Cavalry Battalion (later Company E, 2d Massachusetts Cavalry), commanded by Capt. Charles S. Eigenbrodt, on Feb. 10, 1863 and served until July 20, 1865, when he was mustered out as a sergeant. Extracts from his diary during 1864 provide and interesting picture of service against John S. Mosby's famous Confederate partisans and in defense of Washington. Sergeant Buhrer's diary has been made available by a granddaughter, Mrs. Julie Colyer of Seattle, Wash. The opening of 1864 found Buhrer's outfit camped at Vienna, Va. Extracts from his diary for that year follow.

Thursday–January 21–General inspection of quarters and equipment. In the afternoon detailed for dismounted camp guard. Last night some of Moseby's men made their way into camp and took three horses of Company B. The guerillas has cut the line in several places, intended to run off all the horses. The stable guard surprised them and gave the alarm. Company A and Company L had to turn out; the guerillas got away with the stolen horses but left their own tied in the woods near our camp, where they were found by some of our men.

Sunday–January 31–Inspection of quarters–one of our best men, Robert Campbell, was tied on hand and feet to a post for not obeying a petty order given by one of our Sergeants, which created great indignation among men in our Company. If he had not been released in time, we would have cut him loose.

On February 22 a scouting party of 125 men from the regiment under Capt. J. Sewell Reed was surprised at Dranesville and lost 10 killed, seven wounded, and 57 prisoners. Among the slain was Captain Reed. Buhrer describes this action:

We left Belmount at 9 a.m.–took the pike towards Drainsville; soon after we started we saw some rebel soldiers but too far away to give chase. We did not think of danger, but when two miles from Drainsville in a very favorable place for an ambush, we were attacked by from three to four hundred rebels. The advance guard of 16 took desperate chances and charged through the guerillas; one of my comrades, Byron Grover, was mortally wounded. Mosiman, Wilcox, Wooster, Paris Crawford, Sergeant Turner and Fisher were taken prisoners. Corp. Wyatt had his leg broken below the knee. Smith, Griffin, Davis, Rodgers and Howe of Company L got safely through the rebel column but were chased by them. I lost my horse, had a narrow escape. I started for Vienna on foot; found Griffin and Smith in the pines, and then Howe. We went most of the way through the woods and arrived at Vienna bout 8 p.m. they had the news of the disaster before we arrived…. It was a heavy loss for our regiment–of men and horses.

Thursday–March 10–Went to Washington to see my old pardner and friend, W. L. McEwan, who had his discharge from the Army due to being deaf.

We went to the theatre together. L.G. [Lieutenant General] Grant was to be there, but we were disappointed. President Lincoln and some of his Cabinet were there.

In April portions of the regiment took part in an expedition to Fauquier and Loudoun counties. At Leesburg on April 28 there was action against Mosby. During May the regiment did patrol duty in the areas near Washington. Buhrer continues:

Wednesday–May 4–Most all the men went out on a scout, dismounted. Major Thompson, Lt. Baldwin, Lt. Stone and Lt. Wilson in command. We went on a canal boat near Edwards Ferry–crossed the river to Youngs Island. Searched the Island then the Virginia shore; then crossed over to two more islands; no sign of any rebels. We returned to camp at night. The country looks good–beginning to get green.

May 24 the regiment moved to Falls Church, Virginia. Buhrer writes:

Wednesday–June 1–We crossed the Potomac at day break; 50 men of the 34d Maryland Infantry joined us; we took two different roads to the town [apparently Leesburg]. A small party of us searched a Mr. Jackson's house. He is a noted blockade runner–we did not find him. We arrived in Leesburg 7 a.m., searched a number of houses, had a skirmish–one of our Company, Edward Straub, was taken prisoner but made his escape. A sergeant had his horse shot from under him, a few of our men were slightly wounded. We took prisoners, one Lieut. and a number of citizens, to be held as hostages fro any depredations commited. We left Leesburg 2 p.m.–arrived in camp after sundown.

On the Fourth of July Buhrer commented:

The 88th Anniversary of this great day. Most of the men out in the country to spend the Fourth. I was in camp all day writing some letters. There is excitement about camp. There is a rebel force about Harpers Ferry. We sent some forage and rations to Monocacy Bridge about 11 o'clock last night. Two men and I were loading up some boats–it took us nearly two hours. Rumors about camp of the rebel General Early and his army. We heard sharp Cannonading near Harpers Ferry. Corporal Cook of Co. B and three men were captured near Harpers Ferry, also the store was robbed of all the goods and $400 cash. This happened about daylight.

On July 6 the regiment suffered another disaster near Aldie, Virginia, when a detachment of 100 men, under Maj. William H. Forbes, was attacked by Mosby's forces and badly routed. Eight men were killed, nine wounded, and 38 captured.

Early's famous raid on Washington called the regiment into more active service. Buhrer writes:

Wednesday–July 13–Part of our regiment and some of the 2nd Michigan and Illinois Cavalry, in all 400 strong, started to reconnoiter. Capt. Eigenbrodt with Co. E had the advance, we commenced skirmishing with the enemy at Rockville. Most of us dismounted and took positions behind trees and logs and held the rebels back for some time, but we were driven back; we rallied three times. The rebels at last held Rockville. We had a number of men killed and wounded and about 40 taken prisoners. I had a narrow escape from the rebels, received scratch on my right arm. We went into camp a short distance from Rockville. All quiet during the night. Weather was very warm.

As Early fled from Washington he was pursued as far as Snicker's Gap, after which the regiment remained at Rockville from July 26 to August 8. ON that date Buhrer renews his account:

Reveille before daylight–in fifteen minutes we were in our saddles, crossed the Potomac on a Pontoon Bridge at Harper's Ferry, passed through the City, went 4 miles farther into Camp at Halltown. A good many troops about here; we are now attached to Sheridan's Cavalry, are the First Brigade in the First Division, commander is General [Wesley] Merritt. A small party went out to reconnoiter and found the enemy in large force about 5 miles from here.

For the remainder of 1864 the regiment took part in Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley Campaign. There was almost constant maneuvering in August and September.

Monday–August 22–Skirmishing commenced early in the morning–we are falling back, had a stubborn and sharp fight in and about Charlestown; held the town as long as possible to give our Infantry time to take a good position near Halltown. About noon we went into position of the left flank of our army. My Company and Co. H were ordered out on the skirmish line, dismounted–we had lively skirmishing, drove the rebels back; took a few prisoners–out all night, but quieting down during the night.

Thursday–August–25 Made another dash on the enemy's line. Lost our Captain; he fell like a hero in a charge we mad eon the enemy's breastworks. Capt. Charles S. Eigenbrodt was truly one of the bravest of the brae. We all lamented the loss; a ball went through his heart and several through his body; we were in a hot place. Robert Campbell, R. Mayers, and I were with our Captain when he fell.

On September 9 the 2d Massachusetts was transferred to the reserve brigade of the 1st Division, largely composed of Regulars and commanded by Col. Charles Russell Lowell. The regiment served with distinction at the Battle of Winchester, September 19.

On the 23d, Buhrer resumes his story:

Returned to Front Royal, had a skirmish with Moseby's Rangers; they attacked our Ambulance Train, shot some of the wounded. We pursued them hotly, took 17 prisoners, their fat was tough, they had to suffer death. Marched all night.

At Waynesboro the regiment was heavily engaged. Buhrer describes the action:

Wednesday–September 28–Early in the morning we were attacked by the enemy; we routed them and drove them some distance back into the mountains. P.M., the enemy heavily reinforced, fighting very desperate. Our General Lowell and a few of us were nearly captured. We took desperate chances but were forced back. We fell back in good order, the enemy intended to cut us off; we marched all night, halted near Springhill for a few hours. Sgt. Butcher of our Company was killed. General Lowell had his horse shot, also Lt. Col. Crowenshield had his favorite horse shot down. One of Company M lost his arm.

Sheridan's famous Battle of Cedar Creek is described by Buhrer:

Wednesday–October 17 [19]–Reveille at 4 a.m. The enemy flanked our left, surprised the 8th Corps in their camp, took 1500 prisoners and 20 cannons and a number of wagons. We were on the extreme right, had a sharp skirmish with the rebel Cavalry. For over two miles we rode in front of the enemy's line. They poured shell and shot into us. In front of Middletown we held our position on the right and left of the pike–200 of the Brigade dismounted, took position behind a stone wall and fence, stubbornly we held our position against the attacks of the rebel infantry. Everything looked favorable for the enemy till 4 p.m. our glorious General Sheridan arrived, he had been away. He gathered the fleeing infantry and soon our whole line made a desperate and furious attack; twice we were repulsed but the third time we broke their line and routed the enemy; we pursued the rebels until about 10 o'clock at night. We captured 63 pieces of artillery, a number of wagons, ambulances, horses and men. We gained a great victory but it was a bloody one–many of our brave comrades fell. Our brace Col. Lowell was mortally wounded, also Capt. [Rufus W.] Smith. In our Company, Corp. Davis was killed, Sgt. Russell lost his leg, died in the hospital the next day. My comrade, H. Wyatt, had his horse shot. We all lament the loss of our commanders and comrades.

The 2d Massachusetts was engaged in guard and scouting duty for the remainder of 1864.


E.E. Billings's compilation of Sergeant Buhrer's letters appeared in the April 1962 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.



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