I should long since have posted on this. I have decided to use Averell’s official report rather than the longer version from his memoirs, as I think it less likely to contain embellishment. Not that this report isn’t told to put himself in the best light, but I considerable it more reliable. While the report itself is interesting reading, what I find more interesting is the subsequent chain of events that led to this relatively obscure lieutenant of Mounted Rifles commanding a volunteer cavalry regiment.
Lieutenant William Woods Averell graduated the U.S. Military Academy in 1851. After a stint teaching cavalry tactics, he proceeded to join the Regiment of Mounted Rifles in New Mexico. In the pursuit of learning his duties as a subaltern, he was involved in several engagements with hostile Indians.
Lieutenant Averell was newly arrived in Washington, D.C. in April 1861. He was just returning to duty from a very serious gunshot wound to the thigh received during a fight with Indians in New Mexico. Not yet ordered to return to his regiment for duty, he was thus eligible for a delicate assignment for General Winfield Scott. Averell’s mission was to carry an evacuation order to Lieutenant Colonel William H. Emory to remove all Federal troops and supplies from the Indian Territory. The order was delivered by Major Fitz John Porter and Captain James B. Fry.
“Washington, D.C., May 31, 1861
Col. L. Thomas, Adjutant-General U.S. Army:
Sir: I have the honor to report that, having returned to duty on the 16th of April from an unexpired sick leave, I received the following order on April 17, viz:
Lieut. William W. Averell, Mounted Riflemen, Washington City:
Sir: You will, by order of the General-in-Chief, proceed at once to Fort Arbuckle and deliver the accompanying letter to Lieut. Col. W.H. Emory, or the senior officer present, receive from him communications for the Government, and return to this city.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Upon the back of the order was the following indorsement, viz:
Headquarters of the Army, Washington, April 17, 1861.
The General-in-Chief directs the quartermaster at Fort Smith to extend every facility to Lieutenant Averell to enable him to execute his orders with promptitude.
F.J. Porter, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Providing myself with a rough travelling suit of citizen’s clothing, I left Washington a 2.45 p.m. on the 17th of April, by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. At Harper’s Ferry, where the train stopped for a few minutes, I saw Capt. Roger Jones, commanding a detachment guarding the arsenal at that point, who informed me of his apprehension of an attack by the Virginians, and that, aware of the insufficiency of his force to defend the public property, he had made arrangements to destroy it and withdraw his small force into Maryland. The towns and villages through which my journey to Saint Louis was made were alive with agitated people turning out volunteers in response to the call of the President. I arrived at Saint Louis on the evening of the 19th, and left on the morning of the 20th by the first train to Rolla, Mo., where I arrived, 115 miles distant, at 5 in the afternoon. Leaving Rolla by the first stage coach at 5 a.m. the 22d, with several prominent Southern gentlemen as fellow passengers, I proceeded, with changing horses, mails, and passengers, toward Fort Smith, through towns wild with secession excitement and rumors of war. He unruly temper of the people and their manifest readiness to embrace any pretext for violence made it necessary for the safety of my dispatches and their successful delivery that my name and character should remain unknown. Having assumed a name and purpose suitable to the emergency, I experienced no great difficulty in passing safely through several inquisitions. I was obliged to drive the stage a greater part of the distance between Cassville and Bentonville, on account of the drunkenness of the driver, there being no other male passenger. At Evansville I met the intelligence, which monumentally astounded me, that Fort Smith had been captured by a force of secessionists 800 strong, which had come under the command of Colonel Borland from Little Rock. Near the foot of Boston Mountain, on the southern side, the rumor was confirmed by passengers of a coach from Fort Smith which we met, happily in a pitch dark night, which prevented my recognition by some of the lady passengers, wives of army officers who might have known me.
Crossing the Arkansas River on a ferry boat we reached Fort Smith at 9 o’clock on the morning of the 27th. The town was in a political frenzy. The fort had been evacuated by Captain Sturgis, with four companies of the First Cavalry, four or five days before, and the post quartermaster, on whom I had an order for transportation, was a prisoner in the guard-house. Secession troops were having a “general training” and target practice. It was perilous to make inquiries regarding our troops, and the only information obtainable of them was that they had gone westward, that pursuit up the Arkansas and from the direction of Texas was on foot, and that bridges had been burned and the streams were swollen from recent rains. Exchanging my gold watch and a little money for a horse, saddle, and bridle with a man whose principal incentive to the trade was his apprehension of losing his horse by public seizure, I mounted for the remainder of my journey. It was 260 miles to Fort Arbuckle. Having been out of the saddle two years on account of my wound, and having just completed a toilsome, jolting journey of 300 miles in a coach, I was in poor condition for the (end pg 494) struggle before me. The horse was unbroken to the saddle, and after a fierce but unsuccessful effort to throw me ran wildly away through the successive lines of drilling troops, but I managed to guide him in a westerly direction and mastered him before reaching the Poteau River. This stream, 100 yards wide, was bank full and the bridge destroyed. Removing my heavy black overcoat, I swam the horse across, after a fearful struggle, in which I lost my overcoat and also suffered some injury from being struck by the horse. Twenty miles west of Fort Smith the road forks, the right hand going to Fort Arbuckle and the left to Fort Washita, these points being separated by sixty-five miles. Between the two routes the volcanic protrusion called the San Bois Mountains rise in several ranges about 1,500 feet high and gradually sink to the level of the undulating prairie seventy-five miles west of the fork. The deep trail showed that Sturgis had taken the left-hand road to Washita; therefore I went forward on the other the distance of about a mile to establish my own trail in case of pursuit and then crossed over to the other road. The next morning I was overtaken at Holloway’s Overland Station, fifty-four miles west of Fort Smith, by four mounted desperadoes, but my would-be captors, finding me wearing the light blue uniform overcoat of a private soldier, which I had obtained at a station to replace the black one lost in the river, were easily persuaded that they had missed their man and I was not the one they wanted, but a rancorous secessionist like themselves who was going to fetch a sister from the army on account of the prospective troubles. Permitted to pursue y way, and quitting the road a few hours later to graze my horse, the same party, undeceived by a study of trails, passed me in hot pursuit. Resuming the road after them, a friendly wayfarer, who had met them and heard their inquiries, informed me of their wrathful purpose to shoot me on sight. With the intention to reach the trail crossing to the Arbuckle rad at the western end of the mountains, if possible, and to avail myself of the sheltering woods which covered their southern slopes if necessary, I rode cautiously forward. But ere the desired trail was reached the party was descried returning, whereupon I took to the woods and was fired upon and ordered to halt. Realizing that I could make a trail faster than they could find it my course was taken directly across the mountains and my escape made good. The Arbuckle road was found about two hours after midnight, after experiencing considerable trouble in keeping my horse, which I was obliged to lead during the night in the woods through howling packs of wolves. The next day I was headed off by the same party on that road and pursued. After another troublesome night in the woods among wolves and impassable ravines I found a Cherokee cabin, some food for myself and horse, and a guide to the Arbuckle road, ten miles west of Perryville.
Another weary day and night brought me near to Cochrane’s ranch, forty miles from Arbuckle. Here it was ascertained that our troops had left Arbuckle and were concentrating at Washita, forty miles to the southward. Obtaining a fresh horse and an Indian guide we set out for Washita, but toward night were overtaken by a blinding storm of wind and rain, in which the Indian lost the way and I lost the Indian. Making my way to the Big Blue River I swam it in the dark and unsaddled, tied my new horse to one stirrup, and running my arm through the other lay down and slept until morning. Upon awaking the Indian, who found me, informed me that we were not far from the road between Washita and Arbuckle and about ten miles west of the former place. When arrived at the road a deep double trail made in the mud of the previous evening disclosed the fact that a heavy body (end pg 495) of mounted troops had moved westward. Following it about six miles we came upon the First U.S. Cavalry and the First U.S. Infantry breaking camp, the infantry already stretched out on the road toward Arbuckle. Riding to Colonel Emory, who was already mounted, I delivered the dispatches. They were soon communicated to his officers. It was made known to me that the enemy was concentrating upon and had taken possession of Fort Washita the previous evening, and that I should have found myself again in his hands but for the storm which had prevented me from reaching that point the previous night. In an ambulance I accompanied Colonel Emory’s command to Fort Arbuckle, where we arrived May 3, and found Major Sacket, Captains Crittenden, Williams, and others who had been left with a small force in charge of the post while the main body went to Washita. The trains were loaded to their utmost capacity, and on the 4th of May the flag was lowered with military honors, Fort Arbuckle was abandoned, and we marched northward, conducted by the Indian guides Possum and Old Beaver. We were pursued by a body of Texans two or three days, but ceased to be annoyed after the capture of their advance guard of about thirty men by Captain Sturgis, in which undertaking I accompanied him by permission of Colonel Emory. I left Colonel Emory’s command on the march for Leavenworth at El Dorado, in Kansas, and reached Washington yesterday and endeavored to report at once to you. Finding you engaged with the Secretary of War, I went to his house, but as you were unable to see me I avail myself of this my first opportunity to report.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Wm. W. Averell
Second Lieutenant, Regiment Mounted Riflemen”
While Averell’s mission had not been successful in warning Emory to move his troops, the rigors of the trip and its accomplishments had brought him to the attention of some very influential people in Washington. Both the Secretary of War and the President were informed of the exploit.
A few days later, Averell was invited to dinner with General Winfield Scott, and a week later assigned to duty mustering volunteer units at Elmira, NY. Less than a month later, he was ordered to “report immediately to General McDowell at Arlington, Virginia.” He arrived to learn that McDowell’s chief of staff was the same James B. Fry who dispatched him on his wild ride. Fry saw him assigned as an Assistant Adjutant General to the brigade of regular troops in McDowell’s army. The brigade commander was Colonel Andrew Porter of the 16th Infantry, who was formerly the captain of Company F, Regiment of Mounted Rifles when Averell was a second lieutenant in the same company.
Lieutenant Averell did well in his new position at the battle of Bull Run. Early in the battle the division commander, Colonel David Hunter, was wounded and Porter succeeded to command of both his brigade and the division. In his official report on the battle, Porter stated:
“Acting Assistant Adjutant General W.W. Averell sustained the high reputation he had before won for himself as a brave and skillful officer, and to him I am greatly indebted for aid and assistance, not only in performing with the greatest promptitude the duties of his position, but by exposing himself most fearlessly in rallying and leading forward the troops, he contributed largely to their general effectiveness against the enemy. I desire to call the attention of the Commanding General particularly to him.”
Averell stayed with Porter when the latter was assigned as Provost Marshal for Washington at the end of July 1861. He was offered the lieutenant colonelcy of an Illinois volunteer cavalry regiment in early August, but declined, preferring to stay near the excitement and influence of the capitol.
Following a disciplinary issue with Young’s Kentucky Cavalry, a regiment newly arrived from Pennsylvania, General Scott reportedly asked if there were anyone who could command the regiment. Averell responded that he could. Very shortly thereafter, on October 7, 1861, the Adjutant General’s Office issued Special Order #272:
“Leave of absence until further notice is granted 1st Lieutenant W.W. Averell, 3d Cavalry, to enable him to take command of the 3d Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry – late Young’s Cavalry.”
In six months William Averell had successfully progressed from a lieutenant to regimental command with powerful supporters.
Cullum, George W. Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1891.
Eckert, Edward K. and Nicholas J. Amato, editors. Ten Years in the Saddle: The Memoir of William Woods Averell, 1851-1862. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1978.
Official Records, Series I, Volume 2, page 386 (Porter’s report on Bull Run)
Official Records, Series I, Volume 53, pages 494-496 (Averell’s report)