The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s march north to its date with destiny at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was led by the veteran cavalry brigade of Brigadier General William Edmonson ‘Grumble Jones. Grumble Jones more than earned his nickname — he was generally crabby, short-tempered and prone to complaining. An 1848 graduate of West Point, he served on the Western frontier for nearly a decade, fighting Indians and commanding small detachments of horsemen. He was not always so irascible; fellow dragoon J.E.B. Stuart considered him the best outpost officer in the army. But the death of his young wife in a shipwreck shortly after their marriage soured Jones, and he never recovered from that loss. He resigned from the army in 1857 and lived more or less as a hermit on his Virginia farm.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jones formed a volunteer cavalry company. Elected its captain, Jones served under his old comrade Stuart in the First Manassas campaign. He was initially a colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, then was promoted to brigadier general on September 19, 1862. Jones’ men did exceptionally well at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, where his brigade, badly outnumbered by a division under his West Point classmate, Union Brig. Gen. John Buford, held its own in a day of intense fighting. Jones’ veteran troopers, formerly commanded by the legendary Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby, were some of the best cavalrymen in either army. Ashby, a gifted horseman and leader, was the first commander of the 7th Virginia, which became part of Jones’ brigade, joining the 6th, 11th and 12th regiments and the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. By mid-1863, his troopers were accustomed to hard marching and sharp fighting.
As the Gettysburg campaign began, Jones’ men held the critical gaps in the mountain ranges on either side of the Shenandoah Valley on the march north, and screened the Army of Northern Virginia’s advance toward Pennsylvania. As the three-day-long battle began at Gettysburg, Jones’ brigade crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Md., and camped near Greencastle, Pa. Two units of the brigade, the 12th Virginia, which remained in the valley to watch the Federal troops garrisoned at Harpers Ferry, and the 35th Virginia, temporarily attached to Brig. Gen. W.H.F. Lee’s Confederate cavalry brigade, were left behind as the rest of the brigade advanced north. Jones’ troopers remained well behind the main Confederate lines, guarding the trains, during the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg.
By July 3, Jones’ brigade reached Cashtown, only five miles from the Confederate line along Seminary Ridge, and halted for breakfast. Later that morning, as plans for Pickett’s Charge were made, a note arrived from Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee requesting that a cavalry force be sent at once to the vicinity of Fairfield, to form a line to the right of and rear of our line of battle. Promptly obeying Lee’s order, Jones ordered his men to mount up at 1 p.m., and the column of Confederate troopers fanned out across the Pennsylvania countryside between Cashtown and Fairfield. With Jones in the lead, the 7th Virginia, under Colonel Thomas C. Marshall, and the 6th Virginia, under Major Cabell E. Flournoy, followed. Captain Robert Chew’s battery of horse artillery and Colonel Lunsford L. Lomax’s 11th Virginia brought up the rear.
As the Confederate artillerists scrambled to get ready for the cannonade that preceded the grand infantry assault known as Pickett’s Charge, Jones’ men continued their march toward Fairfield. Along the way, the troopers encountered shaken teamsters from Stuart’s supply train, who reported the presence of Union cavalry in the area.
That morning, Union Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, commander of the reserve brigade of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division, had heard reports of the presence of an unguarded Confederate wagon train near Fairfield. If Merritt’s men could capture the wagon train and hold the town of Fairfield, they could block Confederate access to Fairfield Gap, the shortest escape route for Lee’s army toward Hagerstown, Md.
Merritt had graduated 22nd in West Point’s class of 1860, then served in the Regular Army’s 2nd Dragoons under the watchful eye of his mentor, Buford. He rose quickly to captain, and was promoted to brigadier general on June 28, 1863, after outstanding performances at the Battle of Brandy Station and in the cavalry fights in the Loudoun Valley of Virginia during the pursuit to Pennsylvania. Only 27 years old, Merritt was one of the youngest brigadier generals in either army. Along with George Armstrong Custer and Elon Farnsworth, he was known as the Boy General.
Merritt’s command consisted of the regular cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th U.S. Cavalry regiments, and one volunteer regiment, the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, also known as Rush’s Lancers. The regulars, formerly under Buford’s direct command, were a small but solid group, lending professionalism and steadiness to their volunteer counterparts. The 6th U.S. Cavalry, the only regular cavalry unit formed at the outbreak of the Civil War, was the newest unit, having only been in existence since 1861. Its men were recruited mainly from western Pennsylvania, primarily from the Pittsburgh area. Unlike their brethren in the various volunteer regiments, the men of the 6th U.S. enlisted for five-year terms and were subject to the harsh discipline demanded by officers of the Regular Army. Few if any of them had prior military experience, and most were unfamiliar with the care and attention required to maintain horses. With inexperienced troopers and officers unaccustomed to working together, the 6th was not yet a fully cohesive command.
The 6th was commanded by Major Samuel H. Starr, a legendary dragoon with 32 years’ experience in the Regular Army by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg. Something of a martinet, Starr was known for harsh discipline toward both enlisted men and fellow officers. He was generally disliked by those serving under him, and at least one member of his command felt that Starr was too old to command cavalrymen and was better suited to the infantry. An old farmer rode into Merritt’s camp near Little Round Top, on the morning of July 3, and reported the presence of a large Confederate wagon train corralled on his property near the town of Fairfield. The civilian reported that the wagon train camped all night near Fairfield without a guard of any strength. He further reported that the moment offered a right smart chance for you’ns to capture it, the soldiers are all over at the big fight.
Merritt, too, sensed an opportunity for a kill, and quickly ordered the 6th U.S. to capture the train and hold the town of Fairfield, to cut off Lee’s line of retreat. Merritt evidently felt comfortable with the civilian’s report, for he sent only one regiment on this mission. Not all the troopers of the 6th U.S., however, were quite so trusting of the farmer’s intelligence. One member of the 6th U.S. later charged that the old man was in fact a Confederate spy bent on setting a trap for the Federals.
The 6th U.S. made the five-mile ride to Fairfield in good time, with approximately 400 officers and men. Merritt ordered Starr to march eight to 10 miles behind the Confederate lines, and move upon the road between Fairfield and Gettysburg to keep off any supports which might be sent from Gettysburg by the enemy. The troopers anticipated the fun of ransacking an unguarded Confederate supply train. Instead, a rude surprise in the form of an entire brigade of Confederate cavalry awaited them just up the road.
It took the Union horsemen approximately an hour to reach their destination near Fairfield, with the old farmer and Starr leading the way. One trooper recalled that the man seemed to be somewhat excited, emphasizing his conversation by gestures with a rawhide which he held in his right hand. Starr looked as gloomy as usual, not in the least partaking of the stranger’s animation. Along the way, the only Confederates seen were some pickets on the side of a mountain a mile or so from the road. As the troopers approached Fairfield after passing through Fairfield Gap, Starr called a halt approximately two miles from the village.
The 1st Squadron, made up of 60 or so troopers from two companies, was commanded by the regiment’s second-in-command, Captain George C. Cram. Cram, like Starr, was a stiff-necked career Regular who was unpopular with his men. Private Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. recalled: Captain Cram was a curious capricious man, seeming to be most delighted when the men most feared him….Whenever a soldier had occasion to speak of him, his name was invariably coupled with uncomplimentary phrases. The universal desire was often thus briefly expressed, except for the religious: ‘Damn Cram.’ Starr ordered Cram to take his squadron and follow the course of an unfinished railroad that lay at the foot of the mountains on the western side of the valley. Cram set off to reconnoiter, reducing the effective force of the regiment by nearly 20 percent. The rest continued on toward the town.
As the command reached the streets of Fairfield, the men fanned out to search for the wagon train. Lieutenant Tattnall Paulding wrote in his diary, Arriving at Fairfield we found no train, but a few wagons which had been at the neighboring barns had left the town a few moments prior to our entering. Still eager to bag the train, Starr sent Lieutenant Christian Balder’s squadron in pursuit of the wagons. Balder was a Prussian immigrant known for his strict sense of discipline. Balder’s men rode through the town on the road to Cashtown, and were told by villagers that a small train of eight wagons was within a mile or so of the village. Approaching a comfortable-looking farmhouse, Balder spotted a man in the yard of the house and called out to him, Have you seen any Rebels about here lately?
The man did not answer Balder right away, clearly debating the merits of responding and becoming involved. Undeterred, Balder repeated the question. This time, the man responded, Six passed here a few minutes ago.
What direction did they take?
Out that way, and up the road towards Cashtown, said the man, pointing north, up the Fairfield-Orrtanna Road. As the Federals began to ride off, the man stopped Balder, warning, You had better be careful, Captain. There are many of them about here just now.
Balder responded, asking in a harsh tone of voice, Is this Pennsylvania?
And you farmers of Pennsylvania allow six Rebels to ride unmolested about your state, and rob you just as they have a mind to? Not waiting for a reply, Balder gave the order for his men to move on.
Spotting the escaping wagons, Balder resolved to capture them and ordered his squadron to form on either side of the road atop a small ridge and charge. His troopers soon encountered Jones’ advance picket line of 40 or 50 dismounted men and drove it back into the column of wagons. Unfortunately, the road, which should have provided a perfect lane for mounted operations in the flat, narrow valley, proved a hindrance. The area was subdivided into farm fields and orchards lined by well-built fences, and the road was edged with high stone walls, creating a natural funnel for Balder’s mounted charge.
Undeterred, Balder’s men pursued the wagons for a mile or so before they pulled up short. A large column of Jones’ Confederate cavalry was approaching on the same road, with the 7th Virginia Cavalry in the lead. Realizing how badly outnumbered his own command was, Balder ordered them to turn about and return to the main body of Union troopers.
The Virginians soon spotted Balder’s small column. One member of the 7th Virginia later recalled, We had gone but a short distance when we met a squad of about thirty mounted Federal cavalrymen, who turned and ran through a lane with post and rail fence on each side. Seizing the opportunity, the Confederates pursued Balder’s retreating men for about two miles, until temporarily outdistanced by the desperate bluecoats.
Balder rejoined Starr’s column and warned the commander that a large body of Confederate cavalry was approaching down the Fairfield-Orrtanna Road. Starr, characteristically, chose to stay and fight. He ordered his outnumbered troopers to deploy into a line of battle at the narrowest point in the valley. Half the men dismounted along a perpendicular ridge line, taking advantage of the protection offered by a large apple orchard atop the rise. The other half remained mounted along the road. The position offered good fields of fire near a place known as the Marshall farm, which sat astride the Fairfield-Orrtanna Road. There, in a 200-yard-long line of battle, the Union troops awaited the arrival of Jones’ brigade.
They did not have long to wait. As Starr’s men finished making their dispositions, the 7th Virginia came into sight near the Marshall house, about 300 yards away. Jones spotted Starr’s line of battle, took a moment to assess the position, and ordered the 7th Virginia to charge. Private Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. later recalled that the Seventh Virginia Cavalry [was] Ashby’s pet regiment, composed of really good and well trained soldiers, charging with drawn sabres. Jones later wrote in his after-action report, No estimate could be made of the opposing force, but knowing a vigorous assault must put even a small force on a perfect equality with a large one until a wider field could be prepared, I at once ordered the Seventh Regiment, which was in front, to charge.
The men of the 7th Virginia gave a Rebel yell, drew their sabers, and charged the Union position. Starr’s troopers, armed with .52-caliber single-shot, breech-loading carbines, opened a severe fire on the charging Rebels and blunted the 7th Virginia’s attack. Hemmed in by the strong Pennsylvania fences, which were too strong to be broken without an ax, the 7th Virginia suffered severely at the hands of Starr’s men. Marshall described the action: Moved up at a charge, and found the enemy strongly posted, a portion of their column in the lane, and their other forces disposed on either flank, protected on one side by an orchard and on the other by a strong post and rail fence in front. They opened a galling fire upon us, driving us back and killing and wounding a good many.
Believing themselves to be in an ambush, the men of the 7th Virginia were forced to fight their way out of the trap created by the strong fences. They dropped out of the fight, and were not a factor in the remainder of the battle. Brigade historian Captain William N. McDonald later recalled, Shattered and broken, the head of the charging column faltered, the men behind it halted, and soon the whole regiment returned in spite of the strenuous efforts of some of the officers to force it forward. One Federal recalled that the clash was not a well-regulated fight, but rather, a cruel, close one, where every shot from determined men told upon their opponents, who were thus jammed up between two fences, and literally harmless.
Jones, who had failed to reconnoiter the enemy position or remove any of the fences, shared in the blame for the 7th Virginia’s ignoble repulse. Angered by the regiment’s rout, Jones wrote in his report that the 7th Virginia’s leading men hesitated; the regiment halted and retreated, losing more than a glorious victory would have cost had the onset been made with vigor and boldness. A failure to rally promptly and renew the fight is a blemish on the bright history of this regiment.
The 6th Virginia, next in Jones’ column, arrived on the field in time to watch the rout of the 7th Virginia; Chew’s Battery and the 11th Virginia arrived next. Jones ordered Chew’s guns to deploy in a nearby field, and the guns immediately opened fire on the Union position, several hundred yards away. Gunner George Neese recalled:We immediately put our guns in battery and opened on them, and our cavalry also opened with small arms, and for a while the conflict was fierce and hot…we had our guns in position in a wheat field where the wheat was standing thick, and nearly as high as my head, and dead ripe. It looked like a shame to have war in such a field of wheat. The fire from Chew’s guns was highly effective. Charles F. Miller of the 6th U.S. later recalled that the shot and shell from five pieces of artillery made us think that we would better get out of there, and some of the boys made good time, too.
Instead of holding his strong defensive position, Starr ordered Lieutenant Paulding’s squadron to charge. Paulding recorded in his diary that after my men were posted behind a fence by which they were to act, I saw the enemy in great numbers forming beyond us & very soon received an order from Maj. Starr to withdraw my men as he was about to charge & would be driven back. The men were brought in as rapidly as possible but being much tired could not go fast & before they could reach the horses our men charged. Starr gave this order, despite the fact that his men could hear the Rebel officers across the way ordering their men to draw sabres. The regiment paid dearly for this error.
Jones, still irate about the failure of the 7th Virginia’s charge, exclaimed, Shall one damned regiment of Yankees whip my whole brigade? The men of the 6th Virginia replied, Let us try them! Satisfied with their response, Jones gave Flournoy the order for an immediate charge. Roused by Jones’ challenge, the men of the 6th eagerly spurred ahead.
As the charge of the 6th Virginia gained momentum, some of the routed elements of the 7th Virginia joined them. Even a detachment of the 11th Virginia joined the charge. With sabers flashing in the afternoon sun, the Rebel troopers swarmed toward the thin Union line. The Confederate attack caught them spread out, with their flanks left undefended by Starr’s rash charge. Starr’s charge quickly turned into a retreat as the outnumbered Federals scampered back toward their main line. Nevertheless, the beleaguered Federals continued their resistance, occasionally inflicting damage upon the pursuing Confederates.
Sergeant T.J. Young of the 6th Virginia was one of those badly wounded: Just as we entered the wheat field where the dismounted Federals were a bullet struck me a little below the right corner of my mouth and penetrated deep enough to knock out two of my teeth and break my jawbone. Somehow, Young survived his wound.
The adjutant of the 6th Virginia, Lieutenant John Allan, was shot from the saddle during the charge, dying in the midst of the whirling fight. Private John N. Opie later recalled that Allan, apparently anticipating that the next fight would be his last, wrote a note the night before asking that his body be delivered to his father in Baltimore and promising that anyone who did so would be paid a reward of $500. We delivered his body, together with the note, to a citizen, and afterwards learned that he carried out the request and received the money, said Opie. This is one of the many instances I know of where men had a premonition of death.
When the Confederate charge struck Starr’s line, sabers and pistols took their toll at short range. Opie recalled: The boys rode, sabre in hand, right into the Sixth Regulars, sabering right and left as they went….A great many of the enemy were knocked from their horses with the sabre but succeeded in escaping through the tall wheat. Federal trooper Charles F. Miller remembered: Two comrades and myself, through sheer, reckless excitement, not bravery, not even thinking our lives were in danger, confronted twice our number at no more than 15 yards distance, and exchanged salutations with them with Colts navy revolvers. We were not an easy prey as they had anticipated, as two of their number fell on the spot, and the other four putting spurs to their steeds fled. Looking around, we found ourselves alone, the whole command had vanished and we were being flanked, so we dashed on after the retreating column.
Another Federal, Private Joseph Charlton, was wounded while mounted early in the fight. The Confederate bullet lodged in his right hip, causing Charlton great pain and sending him into shock. Knowing that he was losing strength, and afraid of falling from his horse, Charlton tried to dismount along a fence line. Weakened by the loss of blood, Charlton slipped and fell on the fence, breaking three ribs. In intense pain and weak from his wounds, Charlton was unable to stand, according to one eyewitness account: With head swinging down on one side and feet on the other, and the blood streaming from his wound, poor Joe hung, until a comrade came along, freed Charlton from his trap and carried him down the road to a nearby farmhouse.
Balder’s isolated squadron was inundated by the Confederate charge, and Balder, after refusing the Confederate demand for surrender, pulled his saber and charged toward the Confederates, who allowed him to pass through their lines and swarmed around him, firing their pistols at the lone Yankee. Mortally wounded by a pistol ball, Balder managed to escape and rode into town. Two citizens helped him from his horse and onto their porch, where he sat in a chair, his face pale and his eyes closed. After the battle, a Federal trooper found him there and asked Balder if he was hurt. Balder replied, Corporal, tell the men to save themselves. Balder died several days later.
Starr, riding with Balder, tried to cut his way out of the fight with his saber, but he, too, was felled by the combination of a saber wound to the head and a severe bullet wound to his arm, which ultimately required amputation. Lieutenant R.R. Duncan of Company B, 6th Virginia, whose saber stroke unhorsed Starr, proceeded to saber two more Yankees, running his sword all the way through one and twisting him from his horse.
The rest of the 6th U.S. also suffered greatly in the attack. Lieutenant Paulding ordered his squadron, which had been fighting dismounted, to mount up. His men were in the process of doing so when the Confederate charge struck. Mounted Confederates ran down the dismounted Yankees, using their sabers mercilessly and scattering Paulding’s command through the fields beyond. Numerous Union prisoners soon fell into Confederate hands.
One of the Union officers captured in the orchard was Lieutenant Adna R. Chaffee of Ohio. Chaffee was a career Regular who had come up through the ranks after enlisting as a private in 1861. He was quickly promoted to sergeant, and by the Battle of Fairfield he commanded a company of the 6th U.S. Cavalry. Chaffee and his men fought bravely in the orchard until they were captured in the Confederate onslaught. He was returned in a prisoner exchange shortly after the battle, and later received a promotion to brevet first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious service at Fairfield. He rejoined the regiment for subsequent fighting and was brevetted again for gallantry at the Battle of Dinwiddie Courthouse in 1865. Chaffee went on to a long and distinguished career in the Regular Army, eventually achieving the rank of major general of volunteers during the Spanish-American War, and major general in the Army in 1901.
Union resistance quickly collapsed as the overwhelmed Union troopers were captured in masses. Those lucky enough to escape the saber dashed for safety toward Fairfield. By now, the 6th U.S. was completely routed, its remaining elements fleeing with Confederates in hot pursuit. Paulding attempted to escape on his horse, but encountered difficulties created by the terrain: Finding it impossible to get away with my horse I left him between a ditch and a fence both impassable and climbing the fence took it on foot through the field pursued by half a dozen of the enemy’s mounted men. They were soon on each side of me & being much blown by hard running & seeing no possibility of escape I surrendered to a man who was vociferously demanding my surrender & who at once robbed me of my field glass. Paulding was taken to the rear, where his journey to Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison began. Arriving at the Marshall house, he found a number the the regiment’s officers lying wounded, including Starr.
Meanwhile, Captain Cram’s squadron approached the field after their detour along the railroad bed. Hearing a battle nearby, the Federals rode toward the sound of the guns, where they spotted Starr’s routed troopers fleeing toward Fairfield. Attempting to relieve the pressure on his compatriots, Cram ordered his men to charge into the fray. The movement was futile, and Cram’s command was quickly surrounded by the Confederates. Cram was captured, leaving Lieutenant Nicholas Nolan as the senior Yankee officer on the field.
Quickly overwhelmed by superior numbers, Nolan ordered his men to withdraw. After the regiment was repulsed from [Fairfield], I immediately commenced ‘retreating,’ disputing every inch of ground with the enemy, he reported. Finding the enemy in force, I gradually fell back in the direction of Mechanicstown, where I found the regiment, and ascertained that the commanding officer was wounded and in the hands of the enemy.
The Confederates pursued the routed Yankees for about three miles, through the streets of the town to the entrance to Fairfield Gap, where they gave up the chase. The remnants of the 6th U.S. fled to Emmittsburg, Md., where its exhausted survivors found the rest of the reserve brigade. The fight had been severe. The 6th U.S., numbering about 400 men and officers at the beginning of the battle, suffered more than 50 percent casualties, including six killed, 28 wounded, and 208 captured. Only two officers, Nolan and Lieutenant Henry Carpenter, escaped. Severely wounded, Starr lost his arm, and Balder died of his wounds a few days later. Despite the debacle at Fairfield, Starr was brevetted to colonel for his performance during the Gettysburg campaign. He did not return to duty until November 1863, when he was exchanged by the Confederates. One member of the 1st U.S. Cavalry wrote in his diary on July 3: The 6th U.S. is cut to pieces; there are less than a hundred of them left.
Less than a week later, the 6th U.S. and Jones’ brigade tangled again at Funkstown, Md., where the 6th was bloodied again and the 7th Virginia avenged itself for its poor performance at Fairfield. Jones crowed: The Seventh Virginia… availed itself of the opportunity of settling old scores. Sabres were used freely…and the road of slumbering wrath was marked here and there by cleft skulls and pierced bodies. The day at Fairfield is fully and nobly avenged. The Sixth Regular Cavalry numbers among the things that were. That was untrue — the 6th fought in most of the rest of the major cavalry engagements of the war. Nevertheless, it suffered severely at the hands of Jones’ brigade during the Gettysburg campaign, and its percentage losses rank among the highest of either army.
Jones’ losses were far less severe. Of the 1,000 men in his brigade, Jones reported casualties of 58 killed, wounded and missing. The 6th Virginia lost 28 men, the 7th Virginia lost 30, and neither the 11th Virginia nor Chew’s Battery suffered any casualties. The fight was almost as one-sided as the casualty figures. Jones’ men performed well that day, as they did throughout the entire Gettysburg campaign. Indeed, it may be argued that Jones’ men gave the best performance of all of the Confederate cavalry during the campaign. The Battle of Fairfield was one of the few highlights for the Confederate mounted arm, which was badly battered several times over the course of the campaign. As trooper Opie of the 6th Virginia wrote about the performance of the Federal cavalry during the Gettysburg campaign, The Federal cavalry fought with great gallantry, and they exhibited marked and wonderful improvement in skill, confidence, and tenacity.
Embarrassed by the debacle at Fairfield, Merritt tried to soft-peddle the magnitude of his defeat when he composed his after-action report of the Gettysburg campaign. He wrote: In the meantime, Major Starr and the Sixth U.S. Cavalry, was detached with his regiment toward Fairfield or Millerstown; engaged a superior force of the enemy, not without success. His regiment lost heavily in officers and men, and I regret to say that the Major himself — than whom there is no more gallant soldier in the service — was seriously wounded, losing an arm. Merritt deserves much of the blame for the disaster that befell Starr’s men. It was unforgivable to order a lone regiment to go on a raid far behind enemy lines with no recent intelligence to rely upon. If Merritt was inclined to order such a raid, he should have sent an appropriately large force to accomplish the goal. A single regiment, operating blindly far behind enemy lines, was bound to fail. At the same time, the decision to send Starr’s lone regiment to Fairfield was consistent with the new philosophy displayed by the high command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps during the campaign — a philosophy of hard marching and hard fighting. The 6th U.S. fought as hard at Fairfield as the remainder of the Army of the Potomac did a few miles away at Gettysburg.
Indeed, the Federals squandered a prime opportunity that day. Had Merritt detached a significant force, such as the entire reserve brigade, it could have taken and held Fairfield Gap, cutting off Lee’s line of retreat toward Maryland, and giving the Army of the Potomac an opportunity to destroy the already beaten Army of Northern Virginia on ground chosen by the Union. In order to escape to Virginia, Lee would have had to fight his way through strongly defended Union positions on the high grounds above Fairfield Gap. A long enough delaying action by the dismounted cavalrymen, similar to that conducted by Buford on July 1, could have bought sufficient time for the Army of the Potomac’s infantry to come up, and the decisive battle of the Civil War likely would have occurred near Fairfield Gap.
Instead, Merritt sent an unsupported regiment on a mere raid far behind enemy lines, and his men paid the price for his cavalier attitude. Furthermore, Starr mismanaged the battle and exacerbated the situation. Instead of withdrawing when faced with the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Confederates, Starr chose to stay and fight. The ensuing debacle at Fairfield became inevitable at the moment that Starr held to his decision. Despite this disaster, Merritt was not censured for his actions. Perhaps the magnitude of the Federal victory at Gettysburg allowed him to escape serious criticism. Also, his newness to command may have given Merritt more latitude than he might otherwise have received. Certainly, his status as a favorite of both Buford and Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton probably shielded him from harsh criticism. While Merritt went on to a long and distinguished career in the Regular Army, July 3, 1863, cannot be numbered as one of his brighter days. In many ways, the Battle of Fairfield was notable both for what it was and for what it might have been.
This article was written by Eric J. Wittenberg and originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!