Yesterday marked the anniversary of the 6th Cavalry first combat engagement, and as such I present the following account of the skirmish.
Following the Confederate abandonment of the works at Yorktown, Brigadier General George Stoneman was given a composite force of combined arms and the assignment to pursue and harass the rear of the retreating enemy as the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac. His force consisted of four batteries of flying or horse artillery, four cavalry regiments (1st and 6th U.S., 3rd Pennsylvania and 8th Illinois), and Barker’s squadron of cavalry.
The advance of this advance guard on the Yorktown road was commanded by Brigadier General Phillip St.George Cooke, and consisted of the 1st and 6th U.S. Cavalry regiments and Gibson’s Battery (Company G, 3rd U.S. Artillery). Cooke’s organization was somewhat unusual, in that each of the regiments assigned to him was from a different brigade of the army’s Cavalry Division. Cooke’s advance, consisting of Captain Magruder’s squadron of the 1st U.S., with Captain Savage’s squadron of the 6th U.S. acting as flankers, rode about half a mile in advance of the column.
Cooke’s command departed the works at Yorktown on May 4th, and led Stoneman’s advance down the Yorktown road toward Williamsburg. Six miles from Richmond, according to Stoneman’s report, the force encountered and quickly drove off Confederate pickets. Two miles farther down the road, the column made contact with the Confederate rear guard, “about two companies, at a defile of a mill and dam and a breastwork across the road” (page 427). The battery deployed and fired, and the Confederate cavalry retreated before a charge could be made. After crossing the defile, Brigadier General William Emory was sent across to the Lee’s Mill road with the 3rd Pennsylvania, Benson’s battery and Barker’s squadron to cut off any force on that road retreating before the advance of Smith’s division of infantry. Cooke’s command continued down the Yorktown road. Over the course of the advance, a captain (Captain Connell of the Jeff Davis Legion (page 444)) was captured by Lieutenant Joseph Kerin, of the 6th Cavalry’s flankers, and five rebel privates were captured.
Two miles from Williamsburg, at the junction of the Yorktown and Lee’s Mill roads, the advance of Cooke’s force discovered a strong earthwork flanked by redoubts and manned by several regiments of Confederates about three o’clock in the afternoon. The area was ill-suited to deploy from the march, with thick forest and marshy ground, but General Cooke ordered the deployment of Gibson’s battery and the 1st U.S. Cavalry to attack the position. Captain Savage’s right flank platoon had located a track through the woods which led to the Confederate left flank. The 6th U.S. Cavalry, under Major Lawrence Williams, was ordered to make a demonstration down this road to prevent the enemy flanking Union forces on their right side. The remainder of his force Stoneman deployed in a clearing a half mile to the rear.
Captain Gibson manhandled his battery into position through deep mud and engaged the enemy, and Lieutenant Colonel William Grier placed his 1st Cavalry in position to support it. The earthwork, Fort Magruder, was manned by three regiments of infantry, a regiment of cavalry and a battery of artillery. Firing from Gibson’s battery caused return fire from two batteries within the earthworks and a Confederate sortie to drive them off. After a duel of some 45 minutes, Stoneman ordered his forces to withdraw. Increasing activity from the Confederate regiments to his front and a lack of infantry support caused by delays on the road behind him led him to believe that he could not hold his position. The battery retired by piece, and the 1st U.S. was ordered to cover its withdrawal in the face of the advancing Confederates. Four caissons and one cannon were abandoned due to the marshy ground and a lack of horses due to enemy fire. As the last squadron of the 1st U.S. retired at a walk, the emboldened Confederates charged. The U.S. squadron, Companies I and K, commanded by Captain Benjamin F. Davis and Captain Baker, wheeled by fours and countercharged to repulse them. Although composed of only 60 men, the squadron charged again to drive them off, taking a captain prisoner and capturing a “regimental standard with the coat of arms of Virginia” (page 430). Lieutenant Colonel Grier, accompanying the charge, lost his horse and was slightly wounded. This was most likely the 4th Virginia Cavalry, whose commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wickham was wounded in the side by a saber during the fighting and whose colors were apparently lost (page 444).
The 6th U.S. Cavalry proceeded nearly half a mile at a trot down the forest road, across a ravine, and up to the left flank of the Confederate earthworks. The ravine could only be crossed by file, and as the regiment reformed on its far side, Lieutenant Daniel Madden was dispatched with is platoon to reconnoiter the earthworks. He discovered a redoubt with a ditch and rampart, as well as the advance of more than one enemy regiment. Outnumbered, Major Williams ordered his force to withdraw by platoons across the narrow ravine, harassed the entire way by enemy fire. As the last company, Captains Sanders’ Company A, crossed the ravine, two squadrons of Confederate cavalry charged. Once they reached the far side, Sanders’ men, accompanied by Captain Hays’ Company M and Captain J. Irvin Gregg’s squadron of Companies F and G countercharged. The Confederates, now slowed in the ravine themselves, were driven off with reported heavy losses.
The Confederates occupying the works belonged to Brigadier General Paul A. Semmes’ brigade of McLaws’ division initially, reinforced after Gibson’s battery opened fire by Kershaw’s brigade and another artillery battery. Major General McLaws was present on the field to observe the 6th Cavalry’s exit from the woods on his left flank, and it was he who ordered the charge of Colonel J. Lucius Davis’ Wise Legion into the 6th U.S. Cavalry at the ravine (page 441).
General Stoneman withdrew his forces half a mile to the clearing and awaited the arrival of infantry support. Union losses totaled some 35 killed, wounded and missing, according to his report. The army’s medical director, Charles A. Tripler, reported that Stoneman’s command suffered 3 killed and 28 wounded in the day’s fighting (page 184). How these were divided among the units engaged is unknown. Captain Gibson reported losses in his battery of one officer and 4 men wounded, 17 horses killed, and 5 horses wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Grier’s and Major Williams’ reports don’t address casualties, other than that Lieutenant Curwen McLellan, Company A, 6th Cavalry, was severely wounded in the leg by a shell while crossing the ravine (page 437).
General Stoneman singled out the conduct of several in his official report on the engagement, including Captain Gibson of the 3rd Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Grier, Captain Davis and his company of the 1st Cavalry, and Major Williams, Captain Sanders and his squadron of the 6th Cavalry, as well as generals Cooke and Emory (pg 425).
Sergeant John F. Durboran of Company M, 6th Cavalry, reportedly killed two rebels in the engagement, and was praised in General Cooke’s report (page 428). First Sergeants Joseph Bould of Company A and Michael Cooney of Company M were also singled out for praise by Captain Sanders (page 439). Captain Gregg mentioned Sergeant Andrew F. Swan of Company G, Sergeant Emil Swartz of Company F as “especially deserving of praise for their gallant bearing.” Sergeant Swan and Private Parker Flansburg of Company G were wounded, and three horses lost in Gregg’s squadron (page 440).
Casualties from the 6th Cavalry’s first combat action are difficult to determine. Private Suel Merkle of Company E was the regiment’s first and only trooper killed in this action on May 4th. Lieutenant McLellan’s, Sergeant Swan’s and Private Flansburg’s wounds were mentioned in reports, but the regimental muster rolls make no mention of the wounded for the month, only those killed and desertions. I don’t yet have access to the 1st Cavalry’s muster rolls to know what they say about the engagement.
Other than the regimental muster rolls, the primary source for this entry is the Official records, Volume 11, part I, pages noted in parentheses as appropriate. As well as I have been able to determine, other accounts such as Carter’s in From Yorktown to Santiago simply rely on these reports for their information. Captain August Kautz’ diary contains no information, as he was still sick in the rear, and Captain Savage commanded his squadron in his absence.