Units and Leaders
One of the things that makes the cavalry escape such a remarkable exploit is the inexperience of the units and leaders involved. Keep in mind that popular wisdom at the time was that it took a minimum of one to two years to properly train a cavalry regiment and prepare it for combat. None of the units involved had been in existence for more than ten months before the escape.
The most experienced of the units, and the senior organization by one day, was “Cole’s Cavalry”. This was a battalion of the 1st Maryland Cavalry comprised of Companies A, B, C and D under the command of Major Henry A. Cole. Their first fight had been against forces under Stonewall Jackson in January 1862, and they had spent the entire year in western Maryland and northwestern Virginia. Most of the men in Cole’s Cavalry were from western Maryland, with a number of men from Virginia and Pennsylvania as well. Most of these men were farmers and planters, young, unmarried, accustomed to the use of both firearms and riding, and most of them brought their own horses with them. Their extensive knowledge of the area served as a great asset during the escape.
The 8th New York mustered in November 28, 1861, but spent the first seven months fighting as infantry under General Banks in the Shenandoah Valley. They were finally mounted in July 1862, and ordered to Harper’s Ferry on August 29th. Their commander, a Regular officer on his first assignment with volunteers, had been with the regiment for less than a month. Colonel Davis requisitioned carbines for his regiment as soon as they arrived at Harper’s Ferry, but there weren’t any carbines available in the armory to fill his request.
The 12th Illinois’ first fight had been at Darkesville, Virginia on September 7th, only a week before the escape. Only a portion of the regiment participated in the fight, led by regimental executive officer Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis. This regiment did possess several hundred Burnside carbines, which the regimental commander, Colonel Arno Voss had successfully procured in Washington in July 1862.
The 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry was nicknamed the “college cavaliers” because nearly all of them were students from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Norwich University in Vermont. A three month volunteer regiment, they mustered in at Providence on June 24, 1862. They had served in the Military District of Washington until the month before the escape. Their first engagement was on Maryland Heights on September 13th. The regiment mustered out on September 26, 1862 at the expiration of its term, less than two weeks after their exciting ride. Many of the unit’s members later served in the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry.
The leadership wasn’t much more experienced than the units. The senior officer, Colonel Arno Voss of the 12th Illinois, was a politician with no combat experience. His executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis, was a lawyer before the regiment formed, and fought in his first engagement the week before. Major Corliss of the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry was unblooded until the skirmishing on Maryland Heights.
The only two leaders with combat experience were Major Cole and Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis. Cole had been fighting in the area for the previous several months, leading first Company A, then the battalion. A Regular officer from the 1st Dragoons, Davis had fought Indians before the war. He was commended for his leadership of a squadron during the battle of Williamsburg during the Peninsula Campaign, but had never led more than two companies prior to the escape. I don’t include Major Russell of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, known later in the war as “The Fighting Parson,” because he escaped the night before the column did.
This is the force that broke out of the encirclement of Harper’s Ferry and rode over fifty miles through enemy forces at night to join the Army of the Potomac with no losses save stragglers.