I spent a lot of time with the 1st U.S. Cavalry this year, so it only seems fitting to highlight their year 160 years ago. They are the only regular regiment of the Reserve Brigade without a published history, so I have been cobbling one together for them.
January found the majority of the regiment finally closing on Camp Sprague in Washington, D.C. Companies A, B, F and K arrived in December. By January 19th, Companies C and E arrived on the steam ship Sonora and Companies H and I on the steamship Light. The regiment’s field and staff was at its full strength of 4 officers and 14 enlisted men. The 8 line companies included 9 officers and 344 enlisted men, an average of 43 per company. Companies D and G remained in New Mexico, with no officers present and 49 ad 54 enlisted men respectively. Unbeknownst to the rest of the regiment, First Sergeants Reuben Bernard of Company D and William Pennock of Company G were appointed acting second lieutenants by Brigadier General George Crook on January 5th. Desperately short of officers, he was forced to appoint his own until they could be approved by the War Department. The two companies served as his escort in January, then functioned as a squadron when active campaigning began the following month.
On February 1st Colonel Benjamin Beall retired. Colonel George A. H. Blake succeeded him, and almost immediately departed to command the 2nd Brigade of the Cavalry Reserve. Lt. Col. William N. Grier assumed command of the regiment. An experienced cavalryman and Mexican War veteran brevetted for gallantry, Grier had served in the regiment since his graduation from West Point in 1831.
In February the majority of the regiment drilled at Camp Sprague when they were not performing provost guard duty.
Companies D and G skirmished near Fort Craig, NM on February 19th and fought in the battle of Valverde on February 21st. The Confederates killed Private William Monroe of Company D and wounded 2 men of Company D and 7 men of Company G . The two companies fought at the battle of Glorietta Pass neat Santa Fe in late March, but suffered no casualties.
The regiment departed Camp Sprague in groups during the month of March, consolidating again in a camp near Alexandria at the end of the month. The companies boarded schooners and arrived at Hampton, Virginia on April 3rd. After a week at Kentucky Farm, they established camp with the rest of the Cavalry Reserve at Ship Point on the York River. On April 24th they moved to Camp Winfield Scott, on Cheeseman’s Creek closer to Yorktown.
At Williamsburg, May 4, 1862, the 1st and 6th U.S. Cavalry fought in a skirmish outside of Williamsburg. The 1st U.S. served as support for Capt. Gibson’s Company C, 3rd U.S. Artillery, positioned in marshy ground. After orders to withdraw, one gun and several caissons mired in the mud. Hoping to capture the materiel, the Confederate cavalry charged. The trail squadron, commanded by Captain Benjamin F. Davis, wheeled about by fours and countercharged. They captured a regimental standard and a captain in the hand to hand fighting. Lt. Col. Grier was slightly wounded, and the regiment lost 13 men. Several weeks of scouting and picket duty followed.
Prior to the battle of Hanover Court House on May 27th, the 1st U.S. Cavalry gathered the following intelligence for the advancing Union infantry:
“My advance guard drove in the enemy’s pickets to within about 3 miles of Hanover Court House. One of the pickets wounded and taken prisoner. All white persons and negroes I found were questioned with regard to the movements of the enemy and their strength at or near Hanover Court House. The results of my examination of them was to the effect there are several regiments stationed at or near Hanover Court House, artillery, cavalry, and infantry. General Branch is said to be in command. I am inclined to think that 5,000 or 6,000 is, as yet, the maximum number of troops stationed there. “
During General Stuart’s ride around the Army of the Potomac in mid June, the regiment participated in the Union forces’ unsuccessful pursuit. The Confederates destroyed the regimental supply train under Lieutenant Joseph Hoyer near Garlick’s Landing, but did not capture any of the escort.
On June 27th, the regiment participated in the battle of Gaines Mill. They were shifted to multiple positions, frequently while under artillery fire. Lt. Col. Grier’s report included the following description of the regiment:
“The whole strength of the regiment on that day consisted of two small squadrons, about 125 enlisted men, Captain Reno, First Cavalry, commanding one squadron, and Lieutenant Kellogg commanding the other. During the day the regiment was kept moving from one point to another until in the afternoon it was placed, together with the Fifth U.S. Cavalry and Rush’s Lancers, on the extreme left, in the support of our artillery.”
Since the Fifth U.S. Cavalry’s charge failed to disrupt the Confederate attack. The regiment “withdrew in good order at a walk in rear of our artillery.” The regiment lost 26 men over the course of the day, including Lieutenant Robert Allen, Jr. He died on July 27th from complications following the amputation of his leg.
After the army shifted operations to the James River, the 1st U.S. Cavalry operated from a camp near Harrison’s Landing. The months of June and July consisted of escort, provost guard and picket duty.
In July, the regiment’s rapidly decreasing manpower prompted Lt. Col. Grier to recommend breaking up some or all of the regiment.
I respectfully desire to call your attention to the accompanying statement of the present strength of the 1st Regiment of U.S. Cavalry and its further reductio in numbers (by reason of discharge for expiration of service)by the 25th of September next. And that the Regiment may be kept up with a reasonable prospect of efficiency (as to numbers) I would respectfully urge, first, that the available privates now serving with the Army of the Potomac be transferred to another regiment (the 5th or 6th) and the officers and non commissioned officers be sent on the recruiting service, or, secondly, that four of the eight companies be broken up and the privates transferred to fill up the other four companies, and the officers and noncommissioned officers of the companies thus broken up be sent on the recruiting service.”
Decision on the recommendation went all the way to General McClellan, who selected the second option. The privates of companies A, E, F and K, were redistributed among the other companies, bringing their average strength to 74. Company F was completely dissolved. The 21 noncommissioned officers of the other three companies travelled to Carlisle Barracks to recruit and reconstitute the companies. Sick with dysentery, Lt. Col. Grier accompanied them. He never returned to the regiment. The remaining two squadrons were assigned to escort duty at Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, command shifting amongst the four officers present for duty. A number of new officers were appointed in late July, many from the regiment’s enlisted ranks, but they had not yet joined.
As the Army of the Potomac withdrew from the peninsula, the 1st U.S. Cavalry comprised part of the screen under the command of Major Alfred Pleasonton to cover the movement. Among the last regiments to depart from Fortress Monroe in August, the regiment missed the battle of Second Manassas. They functioned as the army’s quartermaster guard during the Antietam campaign.
The regiment, like all the regular cavalry regiments, benefitted greatly from Adjutant General Order No. 154, which permitted soldiers to transfer from volunteer regiments to regular units. Hundreds of soldiers from volunteer units, especially those who suffered heavy casualties at Antietam, flocked to recruiting officers from regular cavalry and artillery units. Unfortunately, these men initially served in dismounted camps to learn the cavalry trade and were not available for duty.
In October, the regiment, mustering only 120 sabers, participated in a reconnaissance in force to Charlestown, West Virginia. They skirmished with Col. Thomas Munford’s brigade of Confederate cavalry there on the 16th, suffering no casualties. They remained in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry for the rest of the month. Companies D and G remained in New Mexico.
November saw the regiment establish a camp near Falmouth with the rest of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment played no significant role in the battle of Fredericksburg, and the camp remained their home throughout the winter. Average company strength in the field was 60 men. Recruiting continued at Carlisle Barracks for the four disbanded companies. Company A, now 80 men strong, began its journey to rejoin the regiment in late December.
The 1st U.S. Cavalry ended the year with a two-day reconnaissance under General William W. Averell to Morrisville, checking Richards’ and Ellis’ Fords along the Rappahannock River. They would see much more of those fords over the course of the winter.