They were loosely called ‘Sheridan’s Scouts,’ a collection of more than 120 brave, versatile and intelligent Union soldiers who operated from August 1864 through war’s end. Those risktakers helped their commander, Major General Philip H. Sheridan, lead his Army of the Shenandoah to victory in 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley and then in both the James River expedition and the Appomattox campaign in 1865. Many of the scouts wore Confederate uniforms and used forged passes and furloughs. Others passed back and forth in all manner of civilian attire.
Their activities included buying information, establishing networks of Union sympathizers, intercepting enemy dispatches, conveying friendly dispatches, hunting down notorious guerrillas and engaging in desperate combat. At least 20 of the volunteer scouts became casualties, and seven earned the Medal of Honor. The youngest was 18, the oldest 40.
Before he launched his Shenandoah Valley campaign against Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley in August 1864, Sheridan ordered that several scouts be assigned directly to army headquarters, where they were supervised by Captain B.W. Crowninshield, acting provost marshal-general. Another group of scouts was posted at Maj. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Cavalry Corps headquarters.
The first week of campaigning, August 10 to 17, allowed the scouts to get used to their new theater as the army marched up the valley to Cedar Creek and then moved back to its lines outside of Charlestown. For the next four weeks Sheridan kept his cavalry units and scouting detachments active, gathering useful information on the enemy. By mid-September he was frustrated by conflicting information he was receiving from Unionists in Winchester, Confederate prisoners and some scouts about the reinforcements that Early had received in early August.
Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was prodding Sheridan to act, but Sheridan was unsure what reinforcements had been sent from General Robert E. Lee’s army, and if they had been recalled to Richmond. A pair of scouts helped end the confusion by working with Tom Law, a black produce vendor who sold his vegetables in Winchester, and Rebecca Wright, a young Quaker schoolteacher whose family lived in the town.
Law was brought to Sheridan’s headquarters on September 15 and agreed to take a message written on tissue paper and wrapped in foil to Wright the following day, asking about Early’s numbers. Wright had the information gathered by 3 that afternoon. By 6, Law had turned it over to James Campbell, a scout from the 2nd New York Cavalry, who delivered it to Sheridan’s headquarters an hour later.
According to the message, Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s Army of Northern Virginia division had departed on the 15th. On September 19, Sheridan used the information to launch the Third Battle of Winchester, a significant Union success. After the war, the general sent a gold watch pendant to Wright to thank her. Without scout James Campbell, however, Law and Wright would never have connected with the Union commander.
During the next two months, Sheridan’s scouting contingents carried dispatches, kept an eye on their elusive counterparts and tried to stem the growing pestilence of Southern irregulars. That problem grew after the September 22 Union victory at Fisher’s Hill, 17 miles south of Winchester, when 2,000 or more Confederate stragglers scattered across the midportion of the Shenandoah Valley. Some of those men became bushwhackers, who fell upon Sheridan’s supply line from Harpers Ferry.
Anyone wearing blue was a target. Confederate irregulars were blamed for killing Lieutenant John Meigs on October 3. Meigs was the son of Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs and had served as Sheridan’s topographical engineer.
During the next week, the Federal army moved back down the Shenandoah Valley destroying crops. By October 10 the Federal army was in position on the north bank of Cedar Creek. A few days later, Sheridan was called away to Washington, and was not with his army when Early launched his surprise attack at Cedar Creek on the 19th. The Federals managed to carry the day, but just barely.
Sheridan was disturbed that his scouts had not provided him with better intelligence. Even though the scouts redeemed themselves by the precise information that they gave Sheridan as his army moved back to its winter line near Kernstown, he informally appointed Major Henry H. Young to his staff to serve as chief of scouts and answer directly to him.
Sheridan became concerned by a rise in Confederate partisan activity, most notably by Mosby’s Rangers, led by John S. Mosby, who wiped out their primary Union antagonists, Blazer’s Independent Scouts, on November 18. Captain John Mobberly’s Confederate band was also causing trouble, and Major Harry Gilmor, Lieutenant Jesse McNeill, Captain George Stump and Charles Seibert were leading their irregular bands in West Virginia.
Major Young, Sergeant Joseph McCabe of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry and 40 scouts, guided by a local black man named Bob, surprised Seibert’s bushwhackers near Capon Springs on October 30. A series of running fights during the next few days resulted in the capture of Seibert and 17 of his followers.
Sheridan was so impressed with Young and McCabe’s venture that he had them reorganize the scouts. After the war, McCabe recalled: ‘I was ordered to take charge over the old men and organize as many men as I wanted. I picked out good men from different companies until I had about 60 men.’ Some scouts were left with the Cavalry Corps headquarters to work with that unit while others were assigned to different regiments, brigades and divisions. Confederate uniforms and suitable papers were part of the scouts’ day-to-day gear. Throughout the harsh winter of 1864-65, General Sheridan noted, ‘Not only did they bring me almost everyday intelligence from within Early’s lines but they also operated efficiently against the guerrillas infesting West Virginia.’
Some problems, however, developed among the scouts. When McCabe took a short furlough, Major Young assembled his largest detachment yet, 50 men including 15 scouts, to capture the Rebel picket line strung out from Edinburg, on the Valley Pike, seven miles to the west along Stony Creek to Columbia Furnace.
Without McCabe to assist him, Young made some mistakes–most of the troopers were inexperienced soldiers, and the expedition was launched in bitter cold weather on January 21, 1865. At sunup the next morning, Captain George Granstaff of the 12th Virginia Cavalry watched as Major Young and a few of his men brought forth a soldier’s corpse under a flag of truce, claiming they were bringing the body to a family in New Market. Granstaff accepted the body, gave Young a meal and then watched him leave. Shortly after, the scouts burst upon the line and captured 42 men, but Granstaff and many of his troopers managed to escape.
Young then led his force five miles north to Woodstock, where he unaccountably sat himself down to a leisurely breakfast. Meanwhile, a Woodstock resident saw Granstaff’s band, about 200 strong, approaching the village. The resident alerted scout Archibald Rowand Jr., but Rowand could not budge Young from his meal until shots and Rebel yells were ringing in the air.
Young’s men mounted and tried to flee, but outside the town the Union column was stampeded and a melee ensued. Young’s horse was shot out from under him, and the Rebels swarmed toward the dismounted major.
Scouts Rowand, Henry ‘Pony’ Chrisman and James Campbell rushed back to help. Campbell hoisted Young up behind him, and the four rode all the way to Fisher’s Hill before the Confederate pursuit halted. In a letter home, the shaken Rowand wrote: ‘We lost all of our prisoners. Eight scouts are gone, one known to be killed, three wounded, two mortally, and four captured, only one of the captured being dressed in full gray. Have heard he was shot after being taken.’ One of the captured, John Riley, broke free at Fisher’s Hill. In the 1890s, Rowand helped see that Campbell was awarded a Medal of Honor for saving Young.
Shortly afterward scout James White made his way back after ‘deserting’ from Harry Gilmor’s Southern command, where he had been gathering information on the guerrillas. By this time, Mosby had been seriously wounded and Sheridan was concerned that Gilmor would take his place.
Young’s scouts made intelligence sweeps through the region, turning up information that Gilmor would soon be holding a recruiting meeting in Moorefield, W.Va. Sheridan ordered 20 of Young’s scouts to lead 300 men commanded by Lt. Col. Edward Whitaker to capture the brazen Rebel.
On February 5, the Union soldiers entered Moorefield before daybreak during a snow squall. The scouts, as usual, posed as Rebels and located the Confederate headquarters three miles south of town. After dashing over fields, the Federals came to the home suspected to be the headquarters. Young knocked on the front door, and when it was opened by a black woman who worked there, he asked what soldiers were in the house. She at once replied, ‘Major Gilmor is upstairs.’
Gilmor later recalled that his bedroom door’suddenly opened, and five men entered with drawn pistols, and, although dressed as Confederates, I saw at a glance what they were . . . . My attention was arrested by feeling the muzzle of a pistol against my head . . . . ‘ In a few moments the scouts were hustling their captives northward.
The scouts’ success continued that day when they snared Rebel irregular leader Captain George Stump at his brother’s nearby home. Stump tried to pass himself off as his brother, but he was found out and tersely told he was going to be killed then and there. Instead of a rope or a knife, which Stump had been known to use on helpless prisoners, they would give him a 50-yard lead across the field. A scout recalled: ‘Captain Stump smiled, rode out, and we gave him the word `Go.’ We allowed him about ten rods start, then our pistols cracked, and he fell forward dead.’
The next major actions the scouts participated in were in the James River, Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns between February and April 1865. Grant ordered the James River expedition, wanting Sheridan to sever all major communication and supply links connecting the besieged Confederate army at Richmond and Petersburg with the Shenandoah Valley and points south.
Lynchburg, more than 100 miles west of Richmond and about 150 road miles south of Winchester, was the first strategic point that Grant directed Sheridan to seize. The railroads that intersected there, the James River Canal and regional military depots were to be destroyed. The Union valley commander’s scouts kept him well posted on every aspect of Early’s dispositions in the upper valley all winter long. The Confederate leader had several cantonments scattered in that region, with Staunton serving as a central connecting point.
During this time, Sheridan’s force was reorganized and he was put in overall command of Grant’s cavalry. On February 28, Sheridan’s men broke camp, and the scouts were soon in a fight outside New Market with Maj. Gen. Thomas Rosser’s Confederate cavalry. Years later, Rowand remembered that ‘at New Market we went after General Rosser and his escort, and Campbell was so reckless at that fight I asked him if he thought he could whip the whole Southern Confederacy himself.’ Camp was made at Lacey Spring, just north of Harrisonburg, and the march was resumed in the rainy weather, with small groups of irregulars pestering the Union flanks.
On March 1, the Federals passed through Harrisonburg, following the Valley Turnpike. The Rebels tried to use the swollen condition of the major watercourses to their advantage when Rosser’s few hundred cavalry attempted to obstruct and burn the bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River at Mount Crawford. The scouts aggressively engaged the Confederates and alerted the nearest brigade commander to the blocked bridge. Two Union cavalry regiments swam across the river, outflanked the dismounted opposition and drove them pell-mell toward Staunton, which the Federals occupied on March 2. Then Sheridan decided to change course and momentarily forgo capturing Lynchburg to go after the remnants of Early’s Army of the Valley at Waynesboro, 12 miles to the southeast.
The Battle of Waynesboro was a Federal victory on the scale of Cedar Creek, and four scouts were sent north to Winchester so the news could be wired to Washington and to Grant at City Point, Va. Scout Michael Dunn led the detachment. Outside of Staunton, now reoccupied by the enemy, the scouts were recognized by some of Gilmor’s men, arrested and placed in jail. The intrepid quartet escaped that same night, captured four mounts and managed to reach Winchester in time for their report to reach City Point by March 5.
Over the next few days, while several raids destroyed tracks and bridges leading to Charlottesville, an in-cident half a day’s ride west of Staunton involved the scouts attached to army headquarters.
At Swoope’s Depot on the Virginia Central Railroad, Union Major Robert Douglass of the 1st Division reported he had been preceded by ‘a party of 15 men, clad in Rebel uniform’ known to be Federal scouts. Douglass subsequently heard from a local farmer that he ‘had been bribed…to spare his barn, containing a large amount of stores . . . . ‘ That questionable behavior, along with other similar acts committed by the scouts, led to the March 5 Field Order No. 2: ‘No division, brigade, or regimental commander in this command will be allowed to have men of their commands clothed in gray or Rebel uniform and acting as scouts. All such will be returned to duty with their regiments and must wear the uniforms of the U.S. Army. All scouts at these headquarters will, after today, have passes or papers, signed by the commanding general, to show that they are authorized to act in that capacity.’
Because the army was moving so quickly, however, that order was not immediately put into effect, and by March 10 Sheridan’s forces had reached Columbia, on the James River. The Yankee horsemen were worn and needed resupply, and the general realized he had to reach the supply base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River before his men could press on with the Army of the Potomac.
Sheridan sent four of Major Young’s headquarters scouts to travel in pairs and alert Grant. Rowand and Campbell were chosen to ride around the northern perimeter of Richmond, while James White and Dominick Fannon had the dangerous job of slipping into the enemy works at Petersburg, ‘deserting’ at their first opportunity, then making their way into the Union lines.
Rowand remembered that he and Campbell ‘entered the enemy’s lines and passed within eight miles of Richmond…passing ourselves off for General Rosser’s scouts . . . . ‘ The pair made it close to the Chickahominy River before they were discovered and chased.
Upon reaching the James River, Rowand swam his horse out to a small boat and let the beast swim back to shore while he got in the vessel, picked up Campbell and made for a point north of Harrison’s Landing. They beached their skiff and walked 10 miles through the swampy forests until they came upon the Union picket line. They were then taken to City Point, where their appearance caused a considerable stir. General Grant soon had the message and quickly made arrangements to have the requisite supplies sent to White House Landing. White and Fannon also survived their risky journey, but did not make it to City Point until some days later.
On March 12 at Frederick’s Hall, 35 miles northwest of Richmond, scouts gave Sheridan extremely valuable intelligence about Rebel preparations being made to thwart his eastward advance. Using that knowledge, Sheridan was able to maneuver to miss his opponents and arrive at White House Landing on March 19, where his men remained for 10 days before joining the direct efforts to break Lee’s Petersburg lines.
On March 27, the field order requiring the scouts attached to specified contingents to wear their regulation Federal uniforms was finally implemented, and around the same time some scouts were sent back to their units. Major Young had about 30 headquarters scouts at the time, and his men continued to wear Confederate uniforms in which they posed as men of the 9th Virginia Cavalry in Maj. Gen. W.H.F. ‘Rooney’ Lee’s division. Telegraph key sets were provided to a few select men, and all their genuine Union passes and counterfeit Rebel papers were reissued to suit their new work against Lee’s army.
General Grant’s finishing strategy was for Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to gain Five Forks, then cut the South Side Railroad beyond Lee’s right flank. Grant reasoned that once Lee caved in under the Union offensive, his next move would be west and then south. It was thought he would try to unite with General Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina via the Richmond & Danville Railroad.
Orders were passed to Sheridan to move to Dinwiddie Court House a few miles south of Five Forks on March 29, with strong infantry support to follow. Sergeant McCabe wrote that the scouts were ‘ordered to go to Din-waedy Cot House som 18 mile from Petersburgh. We got thair and it Rained all that Night and the General got up with his troops and the Scouts was kept going all Night in the Rain trying to cut the wires and Locate the Rebel lines. We found a Big force of the Rebels at 5 foks and the Scouts was kept Buesy watching Waid Hampton, Fitsu Lee, and Wm Harry Lee.’
Young’s detachments preceded the mounted thrust westerly across the Weldon Railroad to the courthouse road junction. Things went well for the Union. On April 1, Sheridan routed the Rebels at Five Forks, and the blue-coated infantry had cracked the Petersburg front by the evening of April 2.
Lee’s army was soon retreating westward on the north side of the Appomattox River, with the exception of one wing to the south of it that was hurrying along the Namozine Road. Their collective goal was Amelia Court House, where rations and ammunition would be issued prior to the march down the Richmond & Danville line through Jetersville, eight miles distant, and thence through Burkeville, the same distance, by the night of the 4th.
Notwithstanding their obvious predicament, the Confederate wing south of the river made good time, with W.H.F. Lee’s division serving as the rear guard. On the 3rd, Maj. Gen. George Custer’s cavalry caught up with Lee at Namozine Church, and it took only half an hour for him to defeat a North Carolina brigade. Southern Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer tried to escape through a patch of woods, but later recalled, ‘I found it picketed…I was taken prisoner…Maj. Young and party especially Sgt. McCabe, treated us well. Taken to Sheridan’s H. Qtrs.’
McCabe and his party of five men had presented themselves as being from the 9th Virginia Cavalry. When McCabe saw Barringer, he rode ‘out and Met him and Shook hands with him and We Road Back into the Squad and after geting all the information from them…we asked him to Surrender . . . . They handed over their armes and we tooke them to Head Quats . . . . I got my Medal of Honor for capturing the General.’
On April 4, while one group of Young’s men caught up on their sleep, others fanned out ahead of the Federal cavalry columns. The Federal troopers secured Jetersville in the afternoon, and one staff officer, Lt. Col. Frederic Newhall, witnessed Major Young in a ‘little thicket by the side of the railroad, his horses tied to the trees, and a score of his men with cocked carbines imposing silence on a regiment of prisoners, and bagging unsuspecting game which his mounted decoys were leading in.’
On April 5, some of the scouts from Brig. Gen. Henry Davies’ brigade crashed into Rebel wagon trains that had just crossed over the river at Clementown Bridge. The blue thunderclap drove away a mounted escort and captured a battery of cannons. Scout James Campbell took two flags. As a reward, he was selected to take an urgent dispatch to General Grant that afternoon to urge the Army of the Potomac to move more quickly.
Campbell delivered the message to Grant at his headquarters 10 miles east of Burkeville, and the scouts then led him north that night to meet and deliberate with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Two sets of scouts set out from the meeting a little past 10 p.m., heading for Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s XVIII Corps headquarters to order him to advance across the rail line and cut roads leading southward. One pair was captured, though they were spared execution.
On April 6, Sheridan’s men were to strike at Deatonville to disrupt the enemy wagon trains as Lee’s army marched to Farmville and promised rations. Any scouts not’serving’ with the Confederates accompanied the incessant raids all up and down the extent of the retreat. As fate would have it, scouts captured General Barringer’s replacement, Colonel C.H. Cheek.
April 7 was another day of prolonged marching by both armies. To keep good communications between Sheridan and Grant, at least a third of Young’s scouts were detailed as couriers between the two generals.
In the dark hours before dawn on April 8, while some of the scouts rode with Major Young to seek out the Army of Northern Virginia’s flank, Sergeants McCabe and White led a small detachment to Appomattox Station in advance of the main cavalry column. Within a few miles of the station, the alert scouts learned that at least two trains were already stopped in the station, getting ready for the commissary wagons to take their rations to Lee’s army coming in from the east, and that another train was slowly coming up the tracks from Lynchburg.
White took a group of men along the tracks until they saw two engines, one pulling its cars and the other pushing them. He persuaded the engineer to head on into the station, for no time was to be lost unloading their supplies for the nearing army. White then rode back to meet the advancing Federals and tell them of their ruse. Custer’s division was sent to capture the trains.
The leading regiment in Custer’s division was the 2nd New York Cavalry, led by Colonel Alanson Randall, who recalled, ‘As we neared the station the whistles became more and more distinct, and a scout reported the trains rapidly unloading, and that the advance of the Rebel army was passing through Appomattox Courthouse.’ Four and a half hours of fighting led to the capture of the trains, more than 1,000 prisoners, at least 200 wagons and 28 artillery pieces. Grant received the message and was convinced the next day’s push would end things once and for all.
‘The Scouts was over in the Rebel lines, staid until after midnight,’ remembered McCabe years later, ‘and when we came out we Brote some of thair Pickets with us. Then the Scouts rested until daylight and…went into the Rebel Lines and got all the information we could.’ One daring scout, Private Abram Adkins, had even spent a day very near General Lee’s headquarters.
The next day, Palm Sunday, April 9, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox. General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, however, had not done so. On the night of April 26, the scouts performed their last wartime duty by helping to erect a bridge over the Staunton River. Johnston surrendered before any fighting between his men and any Army of the Potomac units occurred.
In Sheridan’s two final campaign reports, he expressed gratitude for the ‘invaluable information’ Major Young’s scouts brought in and requested that Young be given a brevet to lieutenant colonel. Most of the scouts returned to their original units and marched to Washington to participate in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac on May 23-24. For them the war was over. Such was not the case, however, with Sheridan, due to the touchy situation in Mexico, where hundreds of disgruntled ex-Confederates were involved in the fighting between Mexican nationalists and men under the foreign influence of France and its puppet ruler, Archduke Maximilian of Austria.
Young and several of his men accompanied their general to New Orleans, from where he commanded the U.S. forces along the border. By summer’s end most of the scouts had gone home. Young was mustered out of the Army but stayed in the Southwest. In the winter of 1866-67, his luck ran out while leading his own contingent of scouts fighting against Maximilian’s puppet regime. He was killed under mysterious circumstances along the Rio Grande.
James Campbell also stayed in the Army and served as a scout and guide out West during the Indian wars. He was among the first men to come upon his fallen comrades on the Little Bighorn battlefield in 1876 and helped mark their graves with temporary wooden headboards. His 1904 obituary stated: ‘He served as a volunteer scout with General Sheridan during the Civil War and is said to have furnished the general with information which led to the winning of the battle at Winchester.’
Campbell’s partner, Archibald Rowand Jr., practiced law in Pittsburgh, Pa., and the two kept in touch as they aged. Rowand also communicated with other scouts, such as McCabe, Chrisman and John Riley. In 1909 those four had their own reunion at Henry Chrisman’s home in Middletown, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, taking the time to explore some of the sites of their wartime exploits. Two years later they participated in the commemorative exercises for the unveiling in Providence, R.I., of The Scout, a statue in honor of hometown hero Lt. Col. Henry Young.
This article was written by Allan L. Tischler and originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of America’s Civil War.
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