How two small cavalry charges that seemed insignificant–foolish even–helped the Union win the Battle of Gettysburg.
In late June 1863, Major General J.E.B. Stuart and 4,000 Confederate troopers began a fateful ride into Union territory that has been one of the most hotly debated topics of the Civil War ever since. Before the operation was four days old, the Confederates had brushed aside two spirited charges from small bands of Union troopers that earned their admiration—even though they appeared to be little more than foolhardy displays of Yankee courage. None of the participants could anticipate the effect that these seemingly inconsequential encounters in Virginia and Maryland would have on Southern hopes for the Pennsylvania campaign. The far-reaching impact of the brave but ill-advised actions of 82 horsemen of the 11th New York Cavalry and 70 riders of the 1st Delaware Cavalry would not start coming into focus until a few days later at the small crossroads town of Gettysburg.
Stuart was under orders from General Robert E. Lee to take three brigades of his cavalry division and scout the Army of the Potomac. The flamboyant cavalry commander was still stinging from his first defeat by the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, which occurred at Upperville, Va., on June 21. Now Stuart was to determine if the Union army was moving north, following Lee’s army as it marched toward Pennsylvania. If Stuart felt that he could pass around the Army of the Potomac without hindrance, he was to cross the Potomac River east of the South Mountain range. He was to do all the damage he could to the enemy and gather information and provisions while feeling for Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps. Stuart had no idea that some rude surprises awaited him along the way.
The first had come on June 25, the day the Confederates began their ride. After learning that the Army of the Potomac was on the move, Stuart crossed through Glasscock’s Gap in the Bull Run Mountains and ran into Union infantry near Haymarket. After withdrawing he selected a new route that took him south and east, costing his command valuable time.
As the Confederates approached the village of Fairfax Court House, Va., on June 27, an advance guard of about 20 men began firing in the woods not far from the main body. “One after another of the advance guard emerged from the woods, halting occasionally to fire back, at what we could not tell; but it sounded unpleasantly to say the least of it,” recalled Captain Theodore S. Garnett, Stuart’s ordnance officer. This was their second unpleasant surprise in three days.
Stuart and his staff were resting, their horses unbridled, “not dreaming of an enemy nearer than the Court-House, some two miles distant, nothing between us but some fifteen or twenty men, and these retreating toward us,” remembered Garnett. As the bulk of the Confederate column reached the edge of town, “The First North Carolina Cavalry, of [Brig. Gen. Wade] Hampton’s brigade, was seen coming over the hill near the station, and General Stuart sent word to General Hampton to bring it up on a gallop.” The fight was on.
“In a few minutes Hampton came dashing up, and close behind him Major [John H.] Whitaker, leading the First North Carolina Cavalry. Stuart pointed to the woods and told Hampton to push ahead, as his horse was unbridled, and see what the firing meant,” said Garnett. The Tar Heels thundered into the woods at a furious gallop. “Presently a blue-coat was seen galloping off ahead of us and we raised a yell which must have made the retreating vidette shake to his very spurs. On we dashed, more in the spirit of a fox chase than a cavalry charge.” The 1st North Carolina spotted a squadron of the 11th New York, also known as Scott’s Nine Hundred, in a wood lot about 100 yards away, “in beautiful order, sabers flashing and uniforms glittering in the bright sunlight, under the full headway of a gallant and well-ordered charge.”
The New Yorkers, part of the cavalry forces assigned to the defenses of Washington, D.C., were on their way to Centreville on a reconnaissance. The men of the 11th New York did not realize that they had run into Stuart’s main body—they thought that the Southerners in their front were simply guerrillas on a horse rustling expedition.
Lieutenant George A. Dagwell, in advance of the 11th New York, reported to Major S. Pierre Remington, the Federal commander, they would all be gobbled up if they did not get to the rear. Remington, described by one observer as “a brave, dashy soldier,” responded, “What?” Dagwell replied, “Turn back, turn the other way and run, there is a whole rebel brigade under the hill.” Remington countered, “Front into line—march!” “That settled it,” Dagwell remembered. “The gallant old boy had blood in his eye, and was always in for a fight whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself, and say d—n the conditions.”
On they came, looking determined to ride right through the advancing Confederates. Remington foolishly gave the order to draw sabers and charge. “With a mighty yell that had been pent up for five or six minutes, and which seemed an hour, we went for them: down our side and up their side of the ravine, but they did not wait for us,” recalled a New York lieutenant. An Irish private named Malone took off after one of the graybacks. “Surrender, ye divil, or I’ll shoot the top ave the head ave ye,” he hollered as he brandished his saber.
“Major Remington charged upon the enemy with drawn sabers, and succeeded in capturing about one-half of the enemy,” reported the regiment’s commander, Colonel James B. Swain, after the flight. “Before, however, he could succeed in rallying his small force, the rebels recovered their presence of mind, and Companies B and C were forced to cut their way through, abandoning prisoners and all.” Chaos reigned as each man tried to slash his way to freedom.
“Our squadron in advance, which was commanded by one of our most gallant officers, had just reached the Court House when they were attacked with drawn sabers by a squadron of Federal cavalry mounted on magnificent gray horses, which chased them from the Court House, driving them pell-mell back upon the main body,” recounted a Southern officer. “The suddenness and impetuosity of this charge was the occasion of serious disorder in the ranks of the leading squadron of the First North Carolina. They were close upon us before the command to draw sabers was given, but seeing our numbers increasing as the column closed up, they halted and delivered a volley, which mortally wounded Major Whitaker, who was trying to rally his men.” The Yankee volley also wounded a few Tar Heels in the ranks.
The loss of their commander briefly demoralized the North Carolinians, prompting Hampton to cry out “stand fast” and order the next squadron to come forward. The New Yorkers veered off course toward the woods, as if they intended to attack Hampton’s rear. Hampton spotted the movement and sent a squadron to pounce from the flank while he pressed on from the front. “This movement virtually surrounded the Federals, and as soon as they saw their predicament, they broke and fled incontinently. The most exciting chase then took place, and when the men were recalled there was not a foe to be seen or heard of, save some thirty or forty prisoners and a few dead and wounded,” said Garnett.
Remington’s horse was shot twice in the breast in the melee. He and 18 of his men escaped. Others straggled in for several days afterward. When he reported to his commanding officer, Remington said, “We found the Rebs, and here are all that are left of us.” The Confederates killed, wounded or captured “the greater portion, among them several officers; also horses, arms, and equipments,” Stuart noted. “The First North Carolina Cavalry lost its major in the first onset—Major Whitaker—an officer of distinction and great value to us.”
“I think that without exception the most gallant charge, and the most desperate resistance that we ever met from the Federal cavalry, was at Fairfax, June  1863, when Stuart made a raid around the Union army just before the battle of Gettysburg,” recalled a Confederate officer. “The Federals, though outnumbered ten to one, fought until every man of them was ridden down, shot down, or cut down; none escaped. We ever afterwards spoke of this affair as the ‘charge of the Gray Devils.’” The New Yorkers realized that they had stirred up a beehive. “Had we known that we were attacking the advance of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s division of cavalry and artillery it is doubtful if even the dashing major would have ordered a charge,” recalled a New Yorker with a shiver.
The New Yorkers suffered frightful losses as none who made the charge escaped their heroic but foolhardy assault. Of the 82 men who spurred forward, four were killed, one officer and 20 men were seriously wounded and captured, and 57 others, including three officers, were captured. All 57 had their horses fall or killed under them, and many were badly injured while being trampled by the charging horsemen. In spite of it all, Colonel Swain praised Remington’s valor. “He went out supposing that he was to go and recover and return Government property, in charge of a guard,” noted Swain. “He found himself and his handful of men precipitated upon a regiment of rebel cavalry. Whatever valor, coolness, and determination could perform was accomplished by Major Remington and his command.” Swain drolly concluded, “I am agreeably surprised to see even the remnant he brings into camp.” Remington’s courage had cost his command dearly, but it had also further delayed Stuart’s advance by half a day.
After shaking free of the New Yorkers, Stuart rested for a while, enjoying the bounties of Fairfax Court House. His command marched again on the 28th, crossing the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford. The Southerners had no way to know that a similar scene would play out the next day, and that it would cost Stuart’s march nearly another full day. After capturing a long wagon train at Rockville, Stuart pressed on.
By June 29, Stuart and his horse soldiers had already been in the saddle for five full days, and they were tired. The combination of the detour at the gap, the fight at Fairfax and the capture of the wagons meant that instead of arriving at Hanover, Pa., by June 28 as Stuart had planned, the Southerners were now well behind schedule. They had only reached Westminster, Md., by the afternoon of the 29th.
Westminster, the seat of Carroll County, was a critical railhead. The Western Maryland Railroad passed through the town, and Westminster would become a major Union logistics center during the coming Battle of Gettysburg. For several weeks, a small detachment of the 150th New York Infantry was doing outpost duty in the area and watching for saboteurs.
Major General Robert Schenck, commanding the Middle Military District headquartered in Baltimore, had a small cavalry force. Schenck realized that the little contingent of New York infantrymen was inadequate to hold the town. He knew that Stuart’s large force was probably headed for Westminster on its way into Pennsylvania. On June 27, Schenck had ordered Major Napoleon Bonaparte Knight, commander of the 1st Delaware Cavalry, to take two companies of his unit, about 95 men, and move toward Westminster.
Knight briefly enlisted in a Confederate regiment at the beginning of the war, but soon deserted and joined the 1st Delaware, organized at Wilmington on January 20, 1863. When the regiment’s colonel, George P. Fisher, resigned after failing to recruit a full regiment, Knight assumed command of the battalion, even though he had little combat experience. The tiny state could only raise seven companies of horse soldiers, which were then consolidated into four active companies. The 1st Delaware had served mostly in the defenses of Baltimore, so this expedition marked its first real foray into the field.
Knight selected Companies C and D, commanded by Captain Charles Corbit and Lieutenant Caleb Churchman respectively, to accompany him to Westminster. They arrived about 11 a.m. on June 28. It was Sunday morning, and the local citizenry was at worship.
As one Northern observer put it: “The entry of the troops occasioned considerable excitement for though but little news was permitted to be furnished, it was known that the Government anticipated a Confederate advance in the direction of Baltimore, and with Longstreet and Hill on the principal thoroughfare 25 miles northwest and Ewell 40 miles east, the sending of a few hundred cavalrymen to Westminster intensified the nervous alarm.” Knight and his troopers camped on high ground on the northern edge of town in an area known as The Commons. This position commanded both the town and the main thoroughfare through it. From there, Knight could see his outpost on the far end of the town without need for field glasses.
Captain Corbit was 25 years old. He stood nearly 6 feet tall, was strong, vigorous, broad-shouldered and deep-chested. “He was in every way an ideal volunteer soldier,” recalled Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson. Corbit organized a company of militia cavalry that became Company C of the 1st Delaware. As he rode into Westminster on June 28, the captain counted four officers and 89 enlisted men in his command. Although Major Knight nominally commanded the contingent of Delaware horsemen, Corbit had tactical command.
Knight picketed all the roads leading into the town, and prepared to hold the crucial railhead. The Delawareans were confident that they had established a sufficient early warning network. The detachment of the 150th New York was guarding the railroad depot. Bowman informed Knight that there was no enemy at either Gettysburg or Hanover. When local citizens confirmed these reports, Knight passed the intelligence on to General Schenck and then settled down for the evening.
Morning came, and there was still no sign of the enemy. Many of the 1st Delaware’s horses had been rendered almost unfit for service by marching over the stony road without shoes, so Knight ordered that the command’s mounts be reshod.
The day grew very hot as the sun climbed in the sky. Major Knight, who had spent a leisurely afternoon in the tavern at the Westminster Hotel on Main Street, was quite intoxicated by the time the Confederates arrived and in no shape to take the field.
Stuart did not know where the main body of Lee’s army was, and it is also clear that he did not appreciate the nature of the dangers that faced him in the Maryland countryside. Unaware that Knight and his intrepid little band of Delawareans blocked their way, the head of Stuart’s long butternut and gray column approached Westminster from the east between 4 and 5 p.m.
Five members of the 1st Delaware Cavalry were having their horses shod in the blacksmith shop of Michael Baumann on the east end of town, a stone’s throw from where Main Street intersected the Washington road, when the advance elements of Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s column pounced on them, captured all five men and appropriated their fine horses. The capture of these men meant that there was no early warning system available to the 1st Delaware, which would soon pay the price for Knight’s lackadaisical deployments.
About 3:30 that afternoon, a young lawyer from Westminster named Isaac E. Pearson had galloped into the town on a lathered horse and reported that the Confederates were advancing in force on the Washington road. Hearing cries that the enemy was approaching, the local merchants quickly locked up their shops and the townsfolk fled to their basements for safety. Corbit immediately called “to horse!” and assembled a formation of about 70 troopers on East Main Street.
The Delawareans headed toward the intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue, the route being taken by Stuart’s horsemen. As Corbit and his command rode through the streets of the town, the Delawareans stood in their stirrups, waved their sabers and cried out, “Clear the street!” prompting anyone who hadn’t taken cover already to scramble to safety. Corbit dispatched Lieutenant D.W.C. Clark, of Company C, to take an advance guard of 12 men to feel out the enemy and determine their position. They soon came flying back, reporting a large force of Confederates in their immediate front. Clark escaped with a hole in his hat and a saber wound to his arm.
Corbit paused at the tavern long enough to report the news to Major Knight and ask for orders. Knight promptly ordered Corbit to move at once against the enemy. Apparently afraid of being captured and treated as a deserter due to his brief term with the Confederate Army, Knight declined to leave the tavern, putting Corbit in command by default.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Corbit proved himself equal to the occasion. Taking the trot to the front, the captain and his little band of inexperienced horsemen soon spotted the head of Stuart’s column approaching the town. “Draw sabers!” cried Corbit, and with his bugler sounding the charge, they crashed into Stuart’s astonished men. The Delawareans demonstrated “an almost suicidal bravery,” an eyewitness wrote. To the encouraging cheers of some of the local women, no more than 70 of the Delawareans charged the vanguard of Stuart’s proud horsemen, prompting a member of the regiment to claim that the charge “was more heroic than Cardigan’s Six Hundred at Balaklava.”
The shock of the audacious charge drove back Fitz Lee’s troopers, who had to reform and redeploy. “Gen’l Fitz Lee came galloping to the head of our regiment and led us in a charge,” recorded a trooper of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. The Southerners rallied and countercharged, with Lee’s 4th Virginia Cavalry in the lead. He sent the 3rd Virginia Cavalry on a flanking maneuver, but their route was so long that the skirmish was over before they arrived. Corbit’s stubborn and vastly outnumbered horsemen obstinately repulsed two or three counter – charges in the narrow road. Finally the weight of the Southern numbers drove Corbit and his men back into the town. A pistol shot killed his horse while it was throwing up its head under pressure of the rein, shielding Corbit. Thrown from the dead horse, Corbit arose with pistol in hand. The Confederates swept up the gallant captain while he stood astride his dead charger.
Fitz Lee’s devastating countercharge gobbled up most of Corbit’s Company C. “Our boys were crowded out of the Washington pike by an overwhelming force, some escaping…and some being taken prisoners,” recalled Lieutenant William W. Lobdell, the 1st Delaware’s adjutant. The Confederates forced Lobdell into a barnyard at the intersection of East Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The adjutant only escaped by running and jumping his thoroughbred horse to safety down the Baltimore Pike. Hightailing it across country, Lobdell made it to safety at Reisterstown.
Lieutenant Caleb Churchman’s Company D, deployed on the north end of the town, noticed the plight of their comrades and pitched into the fray. The Delawareans fought desperately and a hand-to-hand melee raged through the streets. Two troopers of the 1st Delaware were killed during this fighting. A member of Company K of the 4th Virginia, which led the Confederate countercharge, recalled that the 1st Delaware Cavalry “fought like Turks, killing a good number of our best men, but strange to say our company, which was in front, lost none. Companies C and D, which came to our relief, lost several good officers and some men.”
Lieutenant St. Pierre Gibson was a member of the Little Fork Rangers of Culpeper County, Va. The Rangers made up Company D of the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Gibson possessed unusual courage and could usually be found at the head of his company when it went into battle. As the Rangers formed to charge, Gibson jokingly said, “Give me some crackers, boys, I’ll do your fighting for you.”
Gibson was shot while leading his company’s charge. “Lieutenant Gibson, too proud and too brave to yield an inch, maintained his position alone,” recounted a citizen who watched the Virginian’s duel in the streets. “In an instant, scores of foes were around and about him, sabers flashed right and left above him, and pistols blazed in his face; but his enemies, awed by his stern and defiant courage, for a few moments dared not approach within striking distance of his terrible sword-arm.” A Delaware sergeant rode straight at Gibson, “a pistol flash, and a bluecoat rolled in the dust dead; another flash, and the gallant Southerner also fell shot through the brain,” the citizen recalled. Ironically, Gibson fell dead in front of an undertaker’s office.
Lieutenant John W. Murray, from Company C of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, also rode at the head of his charging troopers. Company C crashed into the Delawareans, with Murray sabering right and left. “Alas, for the noble brave!” recalled Everett Pearson of Westminster. “Just as the first flush of victory had crowned his gallantry, he too fell.” One of Stuart’s staff officers noted that Gibson and Murray were among the best officers in the 4th Virginia Cavalry and would be sorely missed. “Gallant and meritorious, they were noble sacrifices to the cause,” said Stuart of the two lieutenants.
“The enemy having been so heavily reenforced, drove the two companies back to the main pike, the men of my command fighting all the time with the greatest bravery and determination, and contending hotly for every inch of ground,” reported Major Knight. The 1st Delaware was “driven through the streets, some of them fighting, some fleeing. Many were cut down from their horses and captured. A few escaped through the aid of Union citizens,” recalled a Delawarean years later.
However, Knight soon learned that a flanking column was advancing on his rear, and he determined to fall back via the Reisterstown Road. Knight ordered Churchman and the survivors of his company to cover the retreat. Churchman’s company fought hard, contesting every step. He lost all but seven of his men and was captured, joining Corbit as a prisoner of war.
A single citizen, Francis Shriver, also joined the fighting, later earning himself the sobriquet the “John Burns of Westminster.” Shriver was “one of the most decided loyalists to be found in Maryland.” Described by one local as an “intrepid old man,” Shriver was 50 years old in June 1863, “but as active and vigorous as a man of half that number of years.” When Corbit called “boots and saddles,” Shriver also mounted and fell in with the Delawareans. Armed only with a pistol, Shriver stood and fought with Corbit until the 1st Delaware broke under the weight of Fitz Lee’s assault. Shriver, “being on horseback when the Delaware cavalry passed through the street, dashed in with the front file, fired the first shot, unhorsing a Lieutenant Randalf,” who was taken to the home of a local to recover. Although he was in the midst of the melee, Shriver escaped without injury, save a flash of gunpowder in the eye from a pistol in the hands of an officer. “When retreat was ordered, he got off as fast as his horse ‘John’ would carry him.” Shriver then wheeled and escaped by making good use of his intimate knowledge of the side streets of the town. Shriver survived, reaching the ripe old age of 83.
With only a handful of men remaining, Major Knight and his surviving horse soldiers fell back to Reisterstown, with elements of Lee’s brigade following them. Knight spotted a lieutenant of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry and ordered him to hold the pursuers in check while Knight rallied his little force on the south side of the town. Knight directed Lieutenant William J. Reedy, now in command of the shattered remnant of Company C, to push on and turn back seven or eight fugitives, who were about a mile in advance. Reedy could not rally the panicked greenhorns, who fled to safety in Baltimore with the lieutenant accompanying them.
“The fugitives were pursued a long distance on the Baltimore road, and I afterward heard created great panic in that city, impressing the authorities that we were just on at their heels,” crowed Stuart in his after-action report of the Gettysburg campaign. Major Knight, who now had only Lobdell, another lieutenant and two enlisted men remaining with him, halted about a mile from the town. Knight was determined to return to Reisterstown, which they would then occupy. As the major made his dispositions, a courier spurred up carrying a dispatch from General Schenck directing the 1st Delaware to return to Baltimore. Knight and his tiny command gladly complied, leaving behind 67 men killed, wounded and missing, including Corbit and Churchman. The 1st Delaware also lost a wagon laden with hospital supplies, camp and garrison equipment and all the regimental books and papers.
Stuart had casualties to care for as well. Dead and wounded men lay in the streets of Westminster where they fell in the heat of combat. The two dead Delawareans, Corporal William Vandegrift and Private Daniel Welch, were buried in temporary graves at the Old Union Church, which also served as a hospital. Late that afternoon, local women came to Stuart and asked permission to bury Lieutenants Murray and Gibson. An appreciative Stuart readily agreed, and “the bodies of these young heroes were left in their charge.” They were laid to rest in the graveyard at nearby Ascension Episcopal Church. Two years after the end of the Civil War, Gibson’s body was claimed and removed to Virginia. Murray’s body remains in the church graveyard to this day.
The rookies of the 1st Delaware Cavalry had fought bravely in the face of overwhelming odds, but they suffered mightily in the process. “I cannot close this report without calling your attention to the bravery and intrepidity of the officers and men of my command,” noted Major Knight, “whose efficiency and determination of purpose has saved us from utter annihilation.”
Great credit for the remarkable fight of the 1st Delaware Cavalry belongs to Corbit, whose courage and willingness to assume command under adverse conditions briefly halted Stuart’s advance. “One of the survivors of the affair at Westminster was asked today if Corbit fought well,” recounted General Wilson. “Did he fight well?” was the reply, “Why damn it, he was the fight!” However, Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s able adjutant, noted, “this fight was more gallant than judicious on the part of Major Knight.”
Perhaps it was. But the two gallant charges by fewer than 200 Union cavalrymen cost Stuart and his command an entire day’s marching time. That delay, in turn, meant that the Confederates lost their chance to link up with Ewell’s infantry near York on June 30, and it put Stuart’s horsemen on a collision course with Union cavalry at Hanover, Pa.— which stopped the Rebels 15 critical miles from Gettysburg. By the time Stuart reached Lee, his troopers were too late to provide reconnaissance or fight effectively. The two heroic Union charges, while doomed and probably foolhardy, had far-reaching consequences for Stuart’s progress to Pennsylvania that no one could have foreseen.
Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi are noted experts on Civil War cavalry who have collaborated on several articles and books. This article is adapted from their latest book, Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, published by Savas Beatie.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.