Englishman Percy Wyndham, colonel of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, was excited by the prospects for impending battle in the Shenandoah Valley against the forces of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson early in June 1862. Jackson had at one point been only about 50 miles west of the Federal capital. Alarmed, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Major General Irwin McDowell to dispatch half of his men, including Brigadier General George Bayard’s cavalry brigade — which included Wyndham’s horsemen — from Fredericksburg to the Valley, under the overall command of Major General James Shields. Another column under Major General John C. Fremont was heading into the valley from the west, and the plan was for the two forces to unite at Strasburg, trapping Jackson in the northern Valley. The troopers’ hard march took them to the Front Royal area by June 1, but Jackson had narrowly escaped.
Wyndham was the son of England’s Lord Leconfield, a captain in the Queen’s 5th Light Cavalry, and had exhibited an appetite for adventure at an early age. When he was only 15 he volunteered for the Student Corps in Paris. He subsequently obtained a commission in the French navy, followed by service with England’s Royal Artillery. In 1852 he left England to become an officer in the Austrian Lancers, where he served for two years before joining the hero of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Under Garibaldi he rose rapidly to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was knighted for bravery, thereafter bearing the title Sir Percy Wyndham.
The chance to help end slavery drew Wyndham to the New World when the American Civil War began in 1861, and he offered his services to the Union. Major General George McClellan, desperately short of experienced officers, assigned Wyndham to the colonelcy of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, a woebegone outfit that had been nearly destroyed by the ineptitude of its previous commander.
On March 24, 1862, the regiment was ordered south of Alexandria, Va., where it remained during McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Lack of action resulted in grousing among the drill-weary troopers. After getting their orders to move west, Wyndham and his men were eager to test their mettle. But Jackson slipped through the trap and continued retreating. His Army of the Valley passed through Harrisonburg on June 6 before turning eastward in the direction of Port Republic, a small town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s cavalry was serving as Jackson’s rear guard. As Jackson’s infantry marched on to Port Republic, Ashby positioned his men to intercept an expected attack by the 1st New Jersey. Soon the Federals appeared and rashly attacked. Ashby launched a powerful counterattack that drove them back.
Ashby was killed, but his men captured a battle flag and more than 60 prisoners, including Wyndham. The Englishman had boasted he would “get” Ashby, and the turnabout capture caused quite a stir. Major Roberdeau Wheat of the Louisiana Tigers embraced the embarrassed captive, exclaiming, “Percy, old boy!” They had served together under Garibaldi.
Wyndham’s capture was a matter of pride for Ashby’s troopers, and after the war the incident generated a lot of press, as aging veterans argued over who should get credit for the deed. One fanciful account published in The New Series on May 18, 1880, claimed that Ashby himself had made the capture: “On the retreat Ashby soon got in striking distance of Wyndham, and as he dashed up to him with his sabre drawn one would have expected him to strike his foe to the earth. But he did not and thus they rode, almost side by side for several hundred yards, Ashby holding his sabre high above his head, as if intending every moment to cut down his enemy….He did not strike, however, but sheathed his sabre and putting his hand on the shoulder of Wyndham, turned and led him away a prisoner.”
Another view was offered by E.H. McDonald, a captain in the 12th Virginia Cavalry, the unit generally given credit for Wyndham’s capture. In a letter to the editor of the Winchester Evening Star, McDonald wrote, “When we crossed the road we saw the enemies cavalry formed on a hill 300 yards away, and as we approached them in our charge they began to break away from their line and ran, leaving only Wyndham and a few men to occupy the hill. Dismounting from his horse he came to meet us and when we reached him said: ‘I will not command such cowards!’ I asked Holmes Conrad of Winchester, then a private in my command, to take his sword and carry him to the rear, which he did, and he still has the sword, the finest Damascus blade.”
Toward the end of the 19th century, the controversy over Wyndham’s capture accelerated. In response to an 1896 letter from Major Jed Hotchkiss, Conrad, who later became a major, claimed:
After proceeding about a hundred yards I discovered that the Federal officer [Wyndham] was continuing his advance at a rapid gait but entirely alone; his command remained where I had seen it from the top of the ridge. Then too I discovered for the first time that none of those who had been with me on the summit of the ridge had attended me in my charge. The sun was shining full on the advancing officer whose sabre, which he handled with a master’s hand, shown like a circle of light. We each approached the narrow ravine between our respective ridges….A sunken rail fence about 3 rails high in the bottom of the ravine was between us….When each of us was about 8 or 10 feet from this place….I dropped my sabre from my hand and let it hang from the sword knot on my wrist and drawing my pistol held it down by my side. The officer had reached the fence which he for the first time saw and halted. The fore legs of his horse were over it. His sabre was held with the point down. He was peering over the horses head down at the fence which had impeded him. I gathered rein tightly in my left hand, stuck both spurs into my horse and in a moment had the muzzle of my pistol against the side of the big red nose of the fiercest looking cavalryman I ever confronted. He had an enormous tawny moustache that reached nearly to his ears; large eyes of the deepest blue and these were fastened upon me with a clear, strong gaze without the lease indication of fear.
Unwilling to betray my own nervousness by a faltering voice I was content to return his stare for a minute in silence and then said to him ‘Drop your saber!’ I did not tell him to ‘return’ I was unwilling that the point of that formidable blade should be removed, even for a second from its earthward direction. He did not instantly obey. I said: ‘If you don’t drop it I’ll shoot.’ He dropped it. I told him then to unbuckle his sabre belt and hand it to me. He did so. I buckled it around me with scabbard and pistol that were on it. I ordered him to dismount which he did and to hand me his sabre which I returned to its scabbard. I then took him back up the hill, he holding to my stirrup leather….
Volume II of Confederate Military History, published in 1899, contained a brief account of the June 6 action, with only a single sentence devoted to the capture of Wyndham: “Sir Percy himself, in a remarkable personal encounter with Captain Conrad of Ashby’s staff, and 63 of his men being taken prisoner.”
Beginning in 1904, the Winchester Evening Star published a series of articles and letters that brought new life to the controversy over who captured Wyndham. On the occasion of a visit to Winchester by Wyndham’s son Percy in May 1904, an article appeared that unequivocally identified Conrad as the colonel’s captor and noted Wyndham’s sword was a prized possession on the wall of Conrad’s Winchester home.
On April 12, 1906, Major Robert W. Hunter, secretary of Military Records in Richmond, Va., wrote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, noting that Wyndham’s capture had been a subject of several recent communications in the Confederate column. He enclosed a letter from Conrad discussing Wyndham’s capture, the details of which where essentially the same as those of the 1896 letter to Hotchkiss.
Early in 1910 the controversy took a new and interesting turn. Jacob Crisman, a Frederick County, Va., farmer and veteran of Ashby’s cavalry, submitted his account of the capture to the Winchester Evening Star in a letter dated January 25, 1910: “On June 6, 1862,…as Colonel Wyndham was forming his men, preparing to whip us, and take Ashby’s crown of laurels….I…suggested making a charge upon the enemy….
Throwing my revolver as far in the air as my right arm would permit I gave a yell and started. The Laurel Brigade, as it was called, followed me….I made for [Wyndham] and before he was aware of his enemy being so near, I was right by his side with my revolver pointing at his head, demanding him to surrender. At the second demand he gave me his equipments….As I returned after the conflict Lieutenant Wood, of Company C, met me in the field where the fight occurred and said to me, ‘Jake, did you take that Colonel?’ My answer was ‘I did.’” Crisman also claimed that Henry Huntsberry and Arch Pittman, comrades in the 12th Virginia Cavalry, remembered his capture of Wyndham.
On February 22, a letter by J.R. Crawford, who noted that he was a witness to the event, was carried by the Evening Star. Crawford noted that “Maj. Holmes Conrad, of Gen. Ashby’s staff, rode swiftly, and demanded his surrender; but Sir Percy at first defiantly twirled his sword as though he were ready for combat. But Major Conrad rode close to him, with his pistol ready to pull the trigger, and Wyndham, seeing that Conrad had the ‘drop’ on him, said, ‘I am your prisoner,’ and handed Conrad his handsome sword which Garibaldi had given him. Major Conrad holds that sword as evidence that he alone captured Col. Wyndham….”
Charles F. Russell, identifying himself as a member of Company G, 7th Virginia Cavalry, submitted a letter to the Shepherdstown, W.Va., Register, on March 3. His account of the events of June 6 also identified Conrad as the trooper who captured Sir Percy.
Meanwhile, an irate Crisman fired off a scathing epistle to the Evening Star accusing J.R. Crawford of fabricating the story and opining that he “must have been a member of that mighty army of ‘Invisibles in the War,’ but who after the dangers of war had passed and the smoke of battle was cleared away, marched forth in all of the splendor of their mighty hosts, armed with goose-quill spear and paper shield, with a fiery banner bearing the inscription ‘Discretion is the better part of Valor,’ and who have since endeavored to deprive certain good men of honors that rightfully belong to them.”
As with so many incidents during wartime, the exact sequence of events that led to Wyndhem’s capture may never be known, but Conrad’s account appears to have the greatest merit. His tale appeared in 1896, significantly earlier than the others, and was substantiated in print by comrades who were present during the action. Following June 6, 1862, Conrad kept Wyndham’s sword throughout the rest of his life, until he died in 1915, the same year as Crisman.
Wyndham was paroled shortly after his capture, but he was not exchanged until mid-August. At that point he rejoined the 1st New Jersey on its way to Manassas and the Second Battle of Bull Run. Over the winter of 1862-63, Wyndham and the 1st New Jersey were stationed at Fairfax Court House, Va., where he publicly referred to Confederate partisan John S. Mosby’s men as “a pack of horse thieves.” Enraged, Mosby entered the heavily guarded town a little after 2 a.m. on March 9 to capture the colonel, but Wyndham had gone into Washington for the evening, so he was spared the humiliation of being captured for a second time. Instead, Mosby bagged the sleeping Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, a number of Stoughton’s men and 58 much-needed horses.
On June 9, Wyndham was boldly leading a charge at the Battle of Brandy Station when he suffered a leg wound. During his recovery, he was reassigned to duty in Washington, D.C., and he never returned to the unit. Late in 1863 he resigned his commission for undisclosed reasons.
Ever on the move, Wyndham took part in a number of ventures after the war. He relocated to Calcutta, India, and later to Rangoon, Burma. On February 3, 1879, his obituary appeared in the London Times. In part it read: “News of a sad accident comes from Rangoon. Colonel Percy Wyndham, a gentleman well known in Calcutta and Rangoon, announced an ascent in a balloon of his own construction. After attaining a height of about 500 feet the balloon burst, and the unfortunate aeronaut fell into the Royal Lake, whence he was extricated quite dead.”
Conrad was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1866. In 1878 he was elected to the Virginia legislature and so distinguished himself that President Grover Cleveland appointed him assistant attorney general and then solicitor general of the United States. Subsequently, Conrad joined the law faculty at Georgetown University in 1901, where he lectured on the history of English law. During the last 20 years of his life, he engaged in numerous legal appeals before the Supreme Court. Throughout his life, Conrad maintained his home in Winchester, where he married twice and fathered seven children. On September 4, 1915, the old trooper died at his residence.
This article was written by W. Cullen Sherwood and Ben Ritter and published in the November 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!