History of the Second United States Cavalry

Part 5: 1861 to 1865 - The War of the Rebellion

(aka: The Civil War, The War for Southern Independence, The War to Free the Slaves, The War of Northern Aggression, The Second American Revolution, The Late Unpleasantness, etc.)

CONTENTS: 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864-65

Editor's note: The period of the war is our main focus as a living history group.  Sources for this period come not only from the regimental history of 1875, but also from Regimental Returns, Ordnance Returns, and the Muster Rolls of company A, copies of which are in my possession.  My thanks to the staff at National Archives for their assistance and for faithfully executing their mission to preserve our national history.

1861 - Beginnings

The 2nd Dragoons were scattered around the frontier in early 1861 as follows:

Fort Leavenworth KS: Companies C and K.
Fort Kearny, NE: Company A.
Fort Laramie NE: Companies D and F.
Taos, NM: Companies G and I.
Camp Floyd (Ft.  Crittenden), UT: Companies B, E, and H.

Orders in June began necessary troop movements bringing the Army into areas deemed threatened by the coming conflict. Of the two companies at Fort Leavenworth, company K arrived at Washington City in time to participate in the First battle of Bull Run / Manassas in late July. Company C would arrive last of all in early 1863, after serving in the "western theater" for nearly two years including the fights at Wilson's Creek MI (8/10/61), Fort Donelson (2/13-15/62), and Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh), TN (4/6,7/62). But now back to Manassas.

First Manassas

On July 21 1861, company K Second Dragoons, under Capt. Armstrong, fought as part of a cavalry force under Maj. Innis Palmer, Second (now 5th) Cavalry, which included two companies First (now 4th) Cavalry and Four companies Second (now 5th) Cavalry. This force, assigned to Porter's First Brigade of the Second Division saw most of their action on the Union right between Sudley Church and the Warrenton Turnpike.

After supporting the brigade's infantry for some time, "The cavalry were engaged in feeling the left flank of the enemy's position, in doing which some important captures were made -- one by Sergeant Sachs, of the Second Dragoons, of a General George Steuart, of Baltimore. Our cavalry also emptied the saddles of a number of the mounted rebels." This quote comes from Col. Andrew Porter's (16th Inf.) report on his brigade's actions. He further credits this cavalry force, along with some Regular Infantry and Marines as providing valuable rear guard support for the later retreating federal army. His A.A.A.G., Capt. Averell indicates that Capt. Armstrong's Dragoons, along with Arnold's Battery were last of the brigade to leave the field. Capt. Armstrong's own report makes additional mention of his company being used to slow the headlong retreat of some Rhode Island volunteers.

Happily, this first contingent of Second Dragoons into the fray acquitted themselves well in spite of the Army's overall defeat. Of the cavalry battalion's casualties (13 wounded and 5 missing), 2 enlisted Dragoons suffered non-lethal wounds.

Now for some extra credit information:

Maj. Gen'l. George Steuart of the Maryland CS Militia, whom Sergeant Sachs captured, had come looking for his son George, also serving as a Confederate officer, and who had served with the Second Dragoons as Second Lt. from 1848 through early 1855. He resigned his commission with the First (old) Cavalry in April 1861.

Capt. Armstrong, who commanded Company K. Second Dragoons this day, resigned his own commission August 13, 1861 and later rose to Brig. General, C.S.A.

That @#%& Name Change!

OK, now we have math class - sort of.  In the above description of First Manassas you noticed some confusion about regimental numbering. Here's where we get it straight.  For researching U.S. Regular cavalry units during this period, this is must know info!

Orders cut on August 3, 1861 changed the rich fabric of American mounted regiments from a varied group of different unit types to a common, single description force.  The existing Dragoon, Mounted Rifle, and Cavalry regiments were all to be known henceforth as.... CAVALRY!

Here's how they changed, in order of seniority:

Old Name		New Name
1st Dragoons	(1833)	1st Cavalry
2nd Dragoons	(1836)	2nd Cavalry (that's us)
Mounted Rifles	(1846)	3rd Cavalry
1st Cavalry	(1855)	4th Cavalry
2nd Cavalry	(1855)	5th Cavalry
3rd Cavalry	(1861)	6th Cavalry

Previous to this change each service had it's own distinctive uniform trim color for jackets and NCO trouser stripes. Infantry had light/dark blue, Artillery-red, DRAGOONS-ORANGE, Mounted Rifles-green, and Cavalry-yellow.

Rodenbough, in his own comments says, "By this the "Second Dragoons" became the Second Regiment of Cavalry, under which name it will hereafter be referred to in this book.  Alas! for the cherished "orange", it must give place to the gaudy yellow; "but the troops", so read the order, "will be permitted to wear out the clothing now on hand." The marvelous durability of orange facings, or the prodigious quantity of similar clothing "on hand" in the "Second", enabled that regiment to postpone for more than two years the thorough execution of that order; and when eventually forced to "change their stripes", the depressing effect might have caused an ignorant civilian to look upon yellow cloth as military mourning".

The rest of 1861, and getting everybody together.

As the far flung companies came together with their regiments, the 3rd and 4th regiments would stay almost exclusively in the Western, or Trans-Mississippi theater till the war's end. The 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th regiments would form, in the east along with an occasional volunteer regiment, the "Reserve Brigade", under the 2nd's old commander, Phillip St. George Cooke (also father in-law to J.E.B. Stuart).

As an example, our own Company A reports the following in the muster roll for the period ending December 31, 1861: "The Company commanded by Capt. B[rockholst]. Livingston, 3d Cavalry, marched from Fort Kearny N.T. enroute for Washington Nov 8t, 1861 in compliance with S[pecial].. O[rder]. No. 176 dated H[ea]d. Q[uarte]rs. of the Army Washington D.C. Oct 26t, 1861, and arrived at Fort Leavenworth K. Nov 21s 1861, a distance of 296 miles. Left Ft. Leavenworth Nov 22d, 1861, under command of Capt. J. T. Ray 2d Infty. and arrived this City Nov 29t, 1861". The company Captain was absent with leave for sixty days from Dec 3rd, and the only other officer, 1st Lieutenant Chas. McKee Loesser has been recently assigned to the company but on detached service. The following men were listed present for duty:

James Riley, 1st Sgt.
Joseph D.  O'Brien, Sgt.
Thomas Maloney, Sgt.
Richard H.  Chinn, Sgt.
Charles Prossig, Cpl.
David Lee, Cpl.
James Timmons, Cpl.
Michael Cullen, Bugler
William E.  Stratten, Bugler
James Rhien, Farrier
27 Privates

Not present were 4 privates on extra or daily duty, 2 privates sick, and 6 privates in arrest or confinement. Three privates had deserted with all their equipment in November. Of the men listed above, only James Timmons remained with the company in April 1865, listed as 2nd Sergeant and then just starting his third enlistment.

Three companies took a bit longer in getting to the "seat of war":

Company C

As mentioned above, company C left Fort Leavenworth and fought at Wilson's Creek.  The company transferred to Paducah Ky in the fall and served in escort and scouting duty until February 5, 1862 when operations against Forts Henry and Donelson began.  The company arrived at Fort Henry on the 9th and took part in the actions against Donelson. Afterward, the company moved to Nashville on February 28, and then left there on March 1 to march 300 miles to Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh) by March 16.  They engaged the enemy there in the fighting of April 6th and 7th and followed up in the advances toward Corinth MS through June.  Leaving there on September 25, the company fought Confederate Cavalry at Pocahontas Farm losing 5 men and 18 horses as casualties.

Leaving Corinth on November 5th, the company made it's way to Memphis by January 15th, serving there as General Grant's escort until transferred to the regiment in the east.  Company C arrived at Falmouth VA in early May, 1863, just in time for the Union Cavalry's Big Year.

Company G:

This New Mexico company stayed put for awhile, and fought at Val Verde - as artillery crew alongside Company I of 3rd US Cavalry in a 6 gun battery commanded by Captain Alexander McRae of Company I.  The Union force marched out of Fort Craig to meet the men under Confederate General Sibley (formerly Capt 2nd Dragoons).  Apparently, the Cavalrymen-turned-gunners took to their new job well, and dislodged the enemy guns from their positions, allowing the Union infantry to cross the river. Later in the day, however, the battery found themselves in a poorly supported position very exposed to enemy fire and onslaught.  In the ensuing fighting, including several assaults by enemy infantry, the battery repulsed all but but the last, which evolved into desperate hand-to-hand slaughter. They barely got away at all, leaving 4 of 6 guns behind and losing 9 men killed, 8 wounded, and 2 missing from the Dragoons alone. Capt McRae was killed. Of the temporary artillerists Col. Joseph Bell writes, "...failing in no duty, regardless of themselves, and having in view the honest performance of all that was to be done, they bore themselves as men of courage throughout the day, and the regiments to which they belong can claim with pride a participation in the battle of Val Verde..."

Company I

Located in Taos NM, the company soon found it's officers depleted with Brevet Major HH Sibley of Louisiana and Lt. John Pegram of Virginia "going south". Lt. C.J. Walker of Kentucky stayed on and the company left Fort Union, arriving at Fort Garland CO on October 9. Staying on there, the company left in late September 1862 with Company G for Fort Leavenworth. The squadron then made it's way through St Louis to Washington on November 23, 1862.

1862 - Frustration    Back to Contents

With the exceptions of companies C, G, and I, the regiment had formed together in Washington by the end of 1861.

The regiment's headquarters were known as "Cantonment Holt", and was in reality the Park Hotel in Washington city.  A second lieutenant of the regiment wrote a lengthy piece for Rodenbough's book entitled "...Letters of a subaltern".  In it, he describes life in and around the city early in the war.  From an officer's standpoint, life wasn't so bad as "...and in all respects we are as comfortable as at Carlisle".  The regimental staff and officers of two companies were quartered in the hotel, with all the rest being housed in newly built frame buildings nearby.

This un-named writer, actually 1st Lt. T.F. Rodenbough himself, was given command of company A due to the assigned captain, "L" (Brockholst Livingston) having been on sick call for 6 months.  He indicates that duty for the first few months of 1862 involved patrolling the city (4 regular cavalry companies each day) with these duties:

Supply sentinels for all the "principle crossings"

An officer and 6 men patrol the streets every two hours

Require all mounted officers and men to show their passes

Rodenbough further says that "We are very hardly worked here, but we have good feed, good appetites, and a comandant who is an accomplished soldier and gentleman". I believe he refers to "Major [John W.] D"[avidson], then commanding the 2nd regiment in the field as Colonel Wood, while assigned, was off in the west with other duties. Davidson would later serve extensively in Missouri and Arkansas and achieve Brevet Maj. General (of volunteers) rank. He returned briefly to command the 2nd Cavalry in the fall of 1866, and then assume the Lt. Col. position with the new 10th Cavalry in December 1866 and serve there through 1874.

Major Davidson instructed his younger officers in drill and expected them to excel.  Brig Gen'l Cooke held brigade level drills every two weeks and on some occasions Lt. Rodenbough commanded 2 companies instead of just his own.  The drill occurred a mile from the capitol in very muddy conditions. Rodenbough says that "After marching and counter marching, wheeling in column and then in line, it closed with a magnificent charge in column of squadrons of the whole brigade (in which several men of the 5th and 6th cavalry were thrown by getting into holes, but never a man of ours, although several horses were down). Colonel Sacket, Inspector General of the army, was present and pronounced ours the best regiment on the ground; as he observed to General Cooke, 'The old Second still keeps up it's reputation.' We returned home at four o'clock p.m., tired and muddy, having been six hours in the saddle".

The Peninsula Campaign

During the Peninsula Campaign, the Old Second was still attached to the Provost Martial of the Army of the Potomac, and as such served in Military Police roles, along with some reconnaisance work.  During this period Major Alfred Pleasanton commanded.

When McClellan moved northward to counter Lee's invasion of Maryland in September, the Second went along with the Provost, and served as part the the maligned, "McClellan's personal bodyguard".

Fredericksburg - December

During the battle of Fredericksburg, Sergeant Martin Hagan and a handful of troopers held off a Confederate cavalry brigade belonging to J.E.B. Stuart's corps, allowing the Union Army to withdraw across the river.  Upon arriving at the river themselves they found the pontoon bridges already cut away, leaving them little choice but to swim their horses across the icy Rappahanock river to safety.  Sgt. Hagan accomplished this mission without the loss of a single man, horse, or major item of equipment, and for his gallant action he was awarded the first Medal of Honor of the Second Dragoons.

1863 - The Big Year    Back to Contents

Many historians point to Stoneman's Raid in 1863 as the resurgence of the Union cavalry.  Troopers of the Second Cavalry who were on the raid would no doubt agree.  General George Stoneman, who had been with Colonel Cooke during the “Mormon Expedition,” led this successful raid deep into the rear of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  This action proved ill-timed and a major strategic error for General Joseph Hooker.  The absence of these troops as a cavalry screen at Chancellorsville allowed Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to fall upon the unsuspecting flank of the Union Army with disastrous results.  

A generally better mission was the advance of the Union cavalry under General Alfred Pleasanton to attack the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart at Brandy Station.  In a fight lasting all day, 10,000 federal cavalry moved from three directions to attack the assembled 9,500 Confederate Cavalry around the small rail line stop a few miles north of Culpeper.  Pleasanton, who had been a young lieutenant with Captain May at Resaca de la Palma, and a major in charge of the Regiment at the Battle of Yorktown in 1862, was the newly appointed Chief of Cavalry for the Army of the Potomac.  Having crossed the Rappahanock at Beverly's Ford, the Regiment, commanded by Captain Wesley Merritt, dismounted and pushed back a heavily defended Confederate position behind a stone wall, then led a mounted charge against the Confederate cavalry on Yew Ridge.  This was the first time that the Union cavalry had dared to take on J.E.B. Stuart’s forces head-to-head.  This action gave Stuart a “black eye” in the Southern press and may have influenced his actions over the next three weeks prior to the epic battle of Gettysburg.

The First Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac, led by former Second Dragoon, Major General John Buford, fought a steady recon and counter recon battle with Stuart’s cavalry as Lee’s forces moved from Virginia into Maryland for their invasion of the North that ended at Gettysburg.  General Buford established the battlefield area of operations by deploying his cavalry division as dismounted skirmishers and began to engage Lee’s forces as they moved into the town in search of shoes.  His successful stand against a vastly superior force, until the Union Army could be brought forward, ensured that the Union Army would hold the high ground of Cemetery Ridge. Buford’s action remains the classic example of an advance cover operation.

The Reserve Brigade, including our Second Cavalry, formed a rear guard for the federal army at Mechanicstown (now Thurmont) and Emmitsburg MD before joining the fray on the 3rd day of the battle.  That day the Brigade, now commanded by General Wesley Merritt, dismounted and attacked the Confederate right-rear flank in an inconsequential struggle ended by heavy rain late in the day.

The regiment saw quite a bit of action pursuing Lee's retreating army heading south back into Virginia.


1864 - The Bloody Year    Back to Contents

The regiment marched off smartly as part of US Grant's advance toward Richmond in May 1864, taking part in many skirmishes and battles. 

In June 1864, the Regiment charged the Confederate lines at Louisa Court House (Trevilian's Station) smashing the Confederate cavalry.  Captain T.F. Rodenbough, at the time in command of the Regiment, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his outstanding valor during this brief but violent clash.  Though severely wounded, Rodenbough exhibited leadership that ensured a brilliant victory.  Returning to duty in September 1864, he participated in the Battle of Winchester, where he led a desperate charge against the Confederate artillery at Opequon Creek.  During an immediate follow-on attack by the entire First Cavalry Division, Confederate fire again severely wounded Rodenbough, and he lost his mount and his right arm.  In the midst of the confusion, Sergeant Conrad Schmidt of K Company hauled the badly wounded captain up behind himself on his own horse and, under heavy fire, moved him to the rear.

For bravery in the face of the enemy in saving his captain's life, Schmidt was awarded the Medal of Honor.  The annual Regimental award presented to the most outstanding senior NCO is named in honor of First Sergeant Schmidt. The famous Don Stiver print, "Sergeant's Valor," vividly depicts Schmidt's heroic act and shows two of the Regiment’s Medal of Honor recipients in the same action.

In October 1864, General Sheridan applied the torch to the Shenandoah Valley.  During this campaign, Confederate cavalry continually harassed Sheridan's troops to such an extent that Sheridan ordered General Tolbert of the First Cavalry Division to, “either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.”  On 9 October 1864, the divisions of Generals Wesley Merritt and George A. Custer, along with a reserve brigade including the Second Cavalry, attacked the flanks of the Confederate line.  The Confederates, overwhelmed by superior numbers, broke and fled southward for ten miles past Woodstock, Virginia.  During the charge, Private Edward R. Hanford of Company H captured the battle flag of the 32nd Virginia Cavalry.  For his bravery during the charge and for the capture of an enemy battle flag, Hanford was awarded the Medal of Honor.  In all, the Regiment was awarded 14 battle streamers and five Medals of Honor during the Civil War.

Cedar Creek - Beginning of the end.

In September 1864, the 2nd US Cavalry had just 176 enlisted and 3 officers present for duty. 13 Officers and 96 enlisted were on detached duty, with 153 absent sick. Company A had just 24 enlisted present, and no officers. In October, at the time of Cedar Creek, the regiment reported 2 officers and 185 men present, with 14 officers and 79 men detached, along with 141 absent sick. Company A still had just 24 enlisted and no officers present for duty.

The regimental numbers had steadily declined since the early spring of that year through the hard, long campaigning in Grant's southward push. The numbers of sick had more than doubled during this period, while the number detached went down slightly. Casualties for the period through September totaled 85 wounded, 26 killed, and 15 missing. Trevillian's Station (June 11-12) alone had accounted for 36 wounded, 8 killed and 3 missing.

Captain R.S. Smith had commanded the regiment since Captain T.F. Rodenbough's wounding at Trevillian's Station. On the evening of October 16th, the regiment camped along Cedar Creek. Ordered to stand ready to move at 03:00 on the morning of the 19th, the regiment was treated to the rapidly growing sound of battle in their front, as Joe Early's attack had begun. The whole First division moved to support the Union right flank and the battle mostly developed on the left. Eventually, Confederate forces pressed the cavalrymen who, dismounted, held their skirmish line for two hours. As the Union forces fell back on the left, the Reserve Brigade troopers were ordered to fall back and support the Union left before Middletown. Dismounted again, the regiment held this line through numerous attacks from 09:00 until 16:00. Lieutenant Wells was wounded very early leaving Captain Davis the only officer present with the Second regiment.

As General Wright had reformed his forces, and General Sheridan arriving on the scene, the Union counter-advance began. Sheridan's cavalry rushed forward with the entire army, jarring and jolting the Confederates from line after successive line. Colonel Lowell of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, commanding the Reserve Brigade, fell mortally wounded in the charge. The Second's only officer, Captain Davis, wounded in the advance, lay on the battlefield all night. Four enlisted men suffered wounds.

With the further reduction of the already small regiment, command devolved upon Captain Baker, commanding the 1st US, and the joined units pursued the retreating enemy as far as Woodstock. Returning to Cedar Creek the next morning, the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment was nearly finished with war in the south.

After Cedar Creek in October 1864 the Second US Cavalry was a much-reduced regiment at less than 300 present for duty, including no officers. Other than a brief, ineffective, forward and then rearward movement by Joe Early's confederates on November 11, there was little of consequence happening in the valley.

General Sheridan's report states, "During this campaign I was at times annoyed by guerilla bands, the most formidable of which was under a partisan chief named Mosby who made his headquarters east of the Blue Ridge, in the section of country about Upperville. I had constantly refused to operate against these bands, believing them to be, substantially, a benefit to me, as they prevented straggling and kept my trains well closed up."

Be that as is may, Sheridan decided to act now that more pressing matters were put aside. He further reported, "In retaliation for the assistance and sympathy given them, however, by the inhabitants of Loudoun Valley, General Merritt, with two brigades of cavalry, was directed to proceed on the 28th of November, 1864, to that valley, under the following instructions:..." Sheridan's order to Merritt said in part, "you will consume and destroy all forage and subsistence, burn all barns and mills and their contents, and drive off all stock...", and "This order must be literally executed, bearing in mind, however, that no dwellings are to be burned, and that no personal violence be offered the citizens."

Of real interest is the report of Lieut Col Casper Crowninshield of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, who commanded our own Reserve Brigade during this period. As his report shows, the brigade left their camp at Stephenson's Depot on the 29th at 3 AM. Upon arriving at Snickersville (now Bluemont) he left the 6th US and a company of 2nd Mass guarding the gap and proceeded south and east to Bloomfield, Union (now Unison), and Philomont before returning to Snickersville where the rest of Merritt's force had arrived.

On the 30th, the 2nd US and 2nd Mass were sent north through Wood Grove (just north of present day Round Hill) and on to Hillsboro. From there the two regiments continued north to Cave Head on the Potomac, "and thence along the river road to Lovettsville, destroying all grain, forage, mills, distilleries, &c., and driving in all stock in that part of the country; at Lovettsville they joined Brevet Brigadier-General Devin's brigade."

Crowninshield included the following table with his report:

List of property. Number Average Value Total Value


Horses         87       $100.00 $8,700.00
Beef-Cattle       474           30.00 14,220.00
Sheep       100              6.00       600.00
         Total 23,520.00


Barns       230           100.00  23,000.00
Mills           8           200.00     1,600.00
Distilleries           1        1,000.00     1,000.00
Hay (tons) 10,000             30.00 300,000.00
Grain (bushels) 25,000               2.50   62,500.00


Total Captured and Destroyed 411,620.00

So the Old Second can rightfully be called "Barn Burners".

On December 19 General Torbert, with Merrit's and Powell's divisions pushed through Chester Gap to strike the Virginia Central Railroad at Charlottesville or Gordonsville. An intended link up with Custer didn't come off and Torbert failed to reach his goal. The weather was dismal. According to Sheridan, "I heard from General Torbert last night; he was then near Sperryville. The weather is so very bad - rain, snow, and sleet - that I feel a great deal of anxiety about the horses." Tobert's report confirms that for 6 of the ten days on this raid, "it rained, hailed, or snowed, and sometimes all three." There was a fight at Liberty Mills in which Torbert pushed back two confederate brigades and captured two guns and some prisoners. Just above Gordonsville, however, he ran into a determined defense and before he could flank it Confederate infantry (Pegram's division) arrived to replace the cavalry he faced. Our troopers were back in camp on the 28th.  Remember that Pegram was a Lieutenant with company I in New Mexico when the war started

On January 20, 1865 our Second Cavalry started from camp near Winchester, arriving in Hagerstown, MD on January 24 and replacing the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry. The regiment, under Captain Norris, left Hagerstown March 22 and arrived at Point of Rocks MD (where US 15 now crosses the Potomac) on March 24. Their orders read "establish your camp of reorganization...and you will be charged with the duty of patrolling and picketing the fords in the vicinity [from there to the Monococy River - about 5 miles downstream]. Staying only until April 4th, they were back in camp near Winchester on the 6th.  It was a quiet end to a long, hard war.

"The war is over and our land is free,

Thus re-baptized to God and Liberty!

Beside the Stars and Stripes of radiant light,

Floats a broad flag of pure, unsullied white.

Bury the past! Let memory's snowy wing,

Brush all the darkness from the days we sing."

Gen'l Van Zandt, for the Society of the AOP.

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