The 6th U.S. Cavalry was out for a bit of glory near Gettysburg, but the Confederate Laurel Brigade had other ideas for the bold Yankees.
The lure of a lightly defended Rebel wagon train carrying booty looted from Pennsylvania farms weighed as a mighty temptation on Brigadier General Wesley Merritt on July 3,1863.The young Union commander listened eagerly as an elderly man purporting to be an area farmer told a seductive tale of wagons ripe for the capture parked in one of his fields near Fairfield,eight miles southwest of Gettysburg and in the rear of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s lines.
No good trooper could turn down such an easy chance for plunder, and Merritt quickly had the 6th U.S.Regulars on the march for the wagon train. Things would not turn out as Merritt planned, however, for after the fight that followed between the 6th U.S.and the Confederate Laurel Brigade,it was the Confederate cavalry commander,Brig.Gen.William E.“Grumble”Jones, who would claim victory and write,“The Sixth U.S. Regular Cavalry numbers among the things that were.”
The 6th U.S.was the only Regular cavalry regiment authorized and raised after the start of the Civil War and had existed just shy of two years by the summer of 1863. Most of its members, who had signed five-year enlistment terms,came from Pittsburgh,while other recruits hailed from other locales in western Pennsylvania,Ohio and upstate New York.Experienced commissioned and noncommissioned officers,transferred from the Army’s five existing mounted regiments,made up the initial officer corps of the 6th.
The 6th drilled and manned the Washington defenses during the first winter of the war.The troopers departed the capital in March 1862 to participate in Maj.Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Their baptism by fire came in early May during the siege of Yorktown,Va.
The 6th was assigned to the Reserve Brigade of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division in February 1863.That brigade of Regulars consisted of the 1st,2nd, 5th and 6th U.S. regiments, plus the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry.The regiment participated in “Stoneman’s Raid”during the Battle of Chancellorsville and saw action against Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station,Middleburg and Upperville in June.
Just a few days before Gettysburg, the 29-year-old Merritt, an 1860 graduate of West Point and most recently a member of Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s staff, was promoted at Pleasonton’s behest from captain to brigadier general and given command of the Reserve Brigade.
Fifty-year-old Major Samuel “Old Paddy”Starr temporarily commanded the brigade until Merritt’s promotion.A 30- year veteran of the service,Starr was placed in command of the 6th Cavalry as major in spring 1863.
As ranking officer in the Reserve Brigade,Starr was briefly in command of it during the early weeks of the Gettysburg campaign.At Merritt’s promotion,Starr returned to command of the 6th Cavalry.
While the rest of Buford’s division fronted the left of the Army of the Potomac’s advance to Pennsylvania in late June,Pleasonton sent Merritt’s Regulars to Mechanics-town (present-day Thurmont), Md., to guard wagon trains and picket the countryside. Early on July 2, as the armies at Gettysburg prepared for a second day of battle, Merritt’s brigade set off for Emmitsburg, Md., where it made camp and picketed to the south and west, watching for any elements of Lee’s army.
The following morning an old farmer, who claimed residence near Fairfield,rode into Merritt’s headquarters and reported that a large train,bulging with booty taken from Keystone State farms, was parked in one of his fields and was ripe for the taking.The stranger assured Merritt that the train,in the rear of Lee’s lines,had few guards, adding that it was “a right smart chance for you’ns to capture it,[as] the soldiers are all over at the big fight.” The carrot thus dangled,Merritt quickly made arrangements for its capture.
When an order from Pleasonton came in for Merritt to bring the brigade up to Gettysburg,the young brigadier dispatched Starr’s 6th Cavalry to Fairfield to capture the Rebel train and hold the town,blocking a likely line for Lee’s possible retreat. Merritt was confident that the regiment could accomplish the mission, but Starr’s command was undersized.One squadron (Companies D and M) was detached to Cavalry Corps headquarters for escort duty, leaving Starr with only about 400 horsemen.Many troopers expressed doubt about the suspicious-looking stranger’s story, wondering whether he was a Confederate spy or sympathizer setting a trap.
Still fuming over what he considered the 6th’s poor performance at the recent battle at Upperville, Starr was eager for a measure of redemption.After readying his troopers, Starr rode off at the head of the column with the “farmer”at his side to act as their guide. Despite the pall of skepticism over the mission,the troopers still relished the adventure of riding behind enemy lines in pursuit of the stolen loot.Lieutenant Tattnall Paulding reminisced shortly after that “all was excitement, and you will not wonder when you imagine capturing a hundred wagons laden with spoils for confiscation,and the plundering and destruction of the same.”
The troopers covered the eight mile march to Fairfield in a little more than an hour.In the valley just south of the hamlet, Starr halted the column at his guide’s urging.To cover his left flank, the old veteran detached a squadron under Captain George Cram to march along a railroad bed that skirted the valley’s edge. Starr then led the rest of the troopers on to town.
Once in the streets,citizens were interrogated while squadrons fanned out in search of the wagon train prey. Informed by a local that some Rebels and wagons had passed out of town on the Fairfield-Orrtanna (now Carroll’s Tract) Road only moments before the Federals’ arrival, one detachment led by Lieutenant Christian Balder galloped off in pursuit. Spotting some wagons in the road ahead, Balder quickly formed a line of battle atop a slight rise on either side of the stoutly fenced road. Balder confidently gave his men the order to charge the wagons and “Open the fight.”
The Federals slammed into and easily scattered a picket line of a few dozen dismounted men of the Laurel Brigade. Balder’s success,however,was short-lived. After dispersing the Rebel pickets,Balder called a halt when he spotted a large column of Jones’ men coming hell-bent toward him up the road. Seeing he was now outnumbered, Balder ordered his men to turn head-for-tail and gallop back to town to reach Starr and the safety of the rest of the regiment.The Virginia horsemen,several hundred yards behind,began a hot pursuit.
Starr was informed of the location of the wagons and the gray cavalry, in larger numbers than expected,but the stubborn major nevertheless determined to stay and fight.The mysterious stranger who had brought the Federals to Fairfield had vanished.Starr dismounted half the regiment and deployed them on a ridge on the left of the road, and the other half he kept mounted in column in the road itself.
Grumble Jones,meanwhile,kept a close eye on the developing situation.His Laurel Brigade normally consisted of the veteran 6th,7th,11th and 12th Virginia regiments, plus Colonel Elijah White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. But the 12th Virginia and White’s Battalion had been detailed to other duties at Gettysburg, leaving Jones with the 6th,7th and 11th cavalry,around 1,500 troopers tasked with guarding the Army of Northern Virginia’s supply trains. As he watched Starr form line of battle, Jones immediately determined to throw the hammer.Jones ordered his 7th Virginia to charge even though he had no idea of the size of the force he faced.
The Virginians raced in column down the road toward Starr’s command,screaming the Rebel yell at the top of their lungs and brandishing their menacing sabers. The Union horsemen stood fast,however, and laid down a devastating fire with their single-shot carbines that quickly extinguished the Rebel momentum. “They opened a galling fire on us,” reported Lt. Col.Thomas Marshall, commanding the 7th Virginia,“driving us back and killing and wounding a good many.” Private Sidney Davis of the 6th U.S. was impressed.“Never before had I so fully realized the glory of battle,” he wrote.
Bottlenecked by the sturdy and unusually tall rail fences on both sides of the road and unable to advance in the teeth of the Federals’ fire, the 7th Virginia troopers yanked hard on their reins to turn their mounts around and fall back.Their bugler sounded the charge a second time, but to no avail.Jones was livid as he watched the repulse.The general wrote in his report that the retreat cost them more men “than a glorious victory would have cost had the onset been made with vigor and boldness.” He spared no mercy on the 7th when he continued, “A failure to rally promptly and renew the fight is a blemish on the bright history of this regiment.”
Jones then ordered Robert Preston Chew’s artillery battery,which had just arrived along with the 6th Virginia Cavalry, to deploy in a wheat field on the left side of the road. Chew’s gunners began blasting away at the Federals from about 600 yards. The 6th Cavalry’s Charles Miller noted that “the shot and shell from five pieces of artillery made us think we would better get out of there, and some of the boys made good time, too.”
Starr had only two options: pull his men out and retreat, or charge and hope the confusion of the 7th Virginia’s repulse would allow him to break Jones’line.Starr determined to follow up his earlier success.
Starr sent aides up and down his little line to prepare them to charge.Lieutenant Tattnall Paulding’s squadron,however,was dismounted on Starr’s right flank. Before the exhausted and sweaty troopers could remount, the rest of the Regulars drew sabers and spurred off.Paulding lamented in his diary,“The men were brought in as rapidly as possible but being much tired could not go fast & before they could reach the horses our men…charged.”
The handful of Balder’s men thrown forward by Starr soon heard Rebel officers shout, “Draw sabers!” The rash charge, without cohesion and with a force too small for the task,was quickly repulsed by an all-out counterassault ordered by Jones. Jones stood in his stirrups and screamed to Major Cabell E.Flournoy and his 6th Virginia,“Shall one damn regiment of Yankees whip my whole brigade?”The troopers of the 6th rapidly formed behind Flournoy and galloped off. Flournoy later noted that his men,“with a wild yell, went forward splendidly.”
Flournoy and his troopers burst down the lane, quickly covering the few hundred yards to the head of Starr’s column and picking up remnants of the repulsed 7th Virginia along the way. Some of the men of the 7th had torn down a few of the fences, allowing squadrons of both regiments to fan out and gallop through adjoining fields.Several dozen of Colonel Lunsford Lomax’s 11th Virginia Cavalry,in reserve to the left and rear of the 6th Virginia, didn’t want to be left out of the action, and they drew their sabers and bolted into the assault.Starr’s 6th U.S.Cavalry was about to meet its doom.
As Starr charged down the road with half of his men, Paulding’s troopers were still mounting up. Seeing the overwhelming Confederate onslaught coming their way, they could only raise their carbines and put a disorganized fire into the Rebel flank.The feeble effort did nothing to stop Jones’men.As the Virginians crashed into Starr’s little column, the Federals found themselves in the midst of every cavalryman’s worst nightmare.“The boys rode, sabre in hand, right into the
Sixth Regulars, sabring [sic] right and left as they went,” recalled a 6th Virginia private “A great many of the enemy were knocked from their horses with the sabre, but succeeded in escaping through the tall wheat,which had not yet been harvested.”
As saber blades flashed and revolvers popped, the Yankees found themselves surrounded and hemmed in by the solid fences.Attacked on three sides, Balder and Starr were commanded to surrender.Balder turned and attempted to blade his way out, but was blasted out of his saddle by a pistol shot. Starr, too, flailed away with his saber but was shot in the arm, and one Virginian, Lieutenant Robert Duncan of the 6th, sliced open Starr’s scalp. Having incapacitated the major,Duncan then looked for more prey, sabering five more Federals—running his blade completely through one and “twisting him from his horse.”
One of Balder’s troopers,Private Joseph Charlton, was a popular member of the regiment with a keen sense of humor.Although usually ready with a quip or joke for his comrades,“The Pittsburgh Boy,”as he was fondly called, found little to smile about as the battle swirled about him.
Charlton had participated in the initial charge on the 7th Virginia Cavalry, and now he found himself fighting for his survival in the road. His hand was cut by a saber slash,and from out of the rising dust came a pistol shot that caught him in his left side and passed through him, lodging in the right side of his chest.The wind knocked out of him, Charlton feared he would be felled and dragged by his skittered horse.Attempting to dismount,he fell hard against a rail fence and cracked three ribs. A comrade rode to Charlton, extricated him from the fence, and took him to a nearby farm, where he avoided capture.
Confederates were also relentlessly sabering Paulding’s men. Union Lieutenant Adna R.Chaffee commanded two dismounted companies posted in an apple orchard on the left side of the road to let loose a volley of carbine fire at the onrushing Rebs. Most of the bullets, however, passed harmlessly over the heads of the Confederates.With their right flank surrounded and their mounted comrades in the road fleeing back toward them,Chaffee’s little band also was soon overrun. Troopers of the 7th and 11th Virginia chased Chaffee’s men as they abandoned their horses and ran between the apple trees. One of Chaffee’s troopers who was fortunate enough to escape wrote in his diary that night that he made it out after he “ran the gauntlet in fine Style.”The following day that same trooper opened his muster roll book and found a Rebel bullet lodged in it—no doubt he further reflected on his good fortune.
Second Lieutenant Joseph Bould,commanding one of the mounted squadrons in the road, saw Chaffee’s plight and ordered a counterattack into the orchard. Rebels quickly targeted the trooper who held the regimental standard of the 6th U.S.The color bearer began to fall from his horse with the flag, but 6th U.S. Sergeant George C. Platt instinctively grabbed the standard. Platt pounded his spurs to his horse and dashed down the road toward Fairfield,saving the regimental colors from certain capture.
Members of the 6th U.S.Cavalry who weren’t killed,badly wounded or captured were streaming away from the maelstrom in all directions by hoof or foot. Most headed for the town,with Confederates in hot pursuit. Paulding galloped south through fields until fences halted his panting horse. He wrote:“Finding it impossible to get away with my horse I left him between a ditch and a fence…climbing the fence took it on foot through the field pursued by half a dozen of the enemy’s mounted men.They were soon on each side of me & being much blown by hard running & seeing no possibility of escape I surrendered.” One of Paulding’s captors relieved him of his prized field glasses, adding insult to injury.
As the Confederates chased the shattered remnants of Starr’s command toward Fairfield,Captain George Cram’s squadron galloped off the railroad bed east toward the fighting a half a mile away. Seeing the rest of the regiment surrounded and scattered amid clouds of dust, Cram gallantly ordered a charge into the Rebel right flank.Cram might as well have been trying to hold back the ocean with his hand.The momentum of the 6th Virginia’s charge quickly consumed the Yankee horsemen, and Cram was taken prisoner.
Command of the squadron fell to 2nd Lt. Nicholas Nolan. Entirely cut off from the rest of the 6th U.S., Nolan yelled at one of his sergeants to cut his way to the road and make contact with the regiment. Sergeant Martin Schwenk turned his mount east and tried to beat a path with his saber but failed. Nolan, while fighting for his life with his squadron, watched as Schwenk instead found one of the 6th’s officers in Rebel hands and scooped him up to safety.
Jones’men kept up a dogged pursuit of the fleeing Federals, chasing them into Fairfield and through yards and back streets as frightened citizens scrambled for cover. The Confederates continued to run down any bluecoats still on their mounts while unhorsed Federals dived into barns,doorways and anywhere else they could hide. The Southerners finally reined in their pursuit about a mile beyond the village.
The victorious Confederates escorted Lieutenant Paulding,along with other prisoners of his companies, to the Benjamin Marshall house behind Jones’ lines. Paulding found the badly wounded Starr at the neatly kept brick home,as well as Chaffee,Balder,several more wounded and the 6th U.S. surgeon, all in the front yard. One trooper saw “wash tubs full of bloody water about the yard,and strips of crimson cloth scattered over the grass.”The Rebels then prodded Paulding farther on down a farm lane to the west to Hugh Culbertson’s home,where he joined more than 150 dejected fellow prisoners.
Jones’ men were exultant when they galloped north, back up the FairfieldOrrtanna Road to their lines where the fighting had begun. They had inflicted more than 50 percent casualties on Starr’s command—six killed, 28 wounded and 208 taken prisoner,for a total of 242.Most of the 6th U.S. officers were casualties.As for Jones’ command, only about 58 were killed or wounded. Neither the 11th Virginia Cavalry nor Chew’s Battery took any casualties.
Early that evening the victors marched most of the Federal prisoners who were able to walk four miles north to the Confederate cavalry camps at Cashtown.With the road south cleared, Jones ordered his brigade into Fairfield and threw out pickets to scour the roads for more Federals. The grayclad troopers commandeered the Lutheran Church,a tavern and several private homes as hospitals. Starr was taken into the Bly home on the main street, where his badly wounded arm eventually was amputated. Lieutenants Chaffee and Balder were taken into the small nearby home of R.C. Swope. Chaffee’s thigh wound was not serious,but Balder suffered greatly and died a few days later.
Troopers of the 6th U.S. fortunate enough to escape from Fairfield began streaming slowly back south that night, many on borrowed horses, to the headquarters of the Regular Brigade near Emmitsburg.The men of the brigade’s other regiments who had their own taste of bloody battle that day on the fields of Gettysburg, listened with awe to the story of the Fairfield debacle. Private Samuel Crockett of the 1st U.S. Cavalry grimly noted in his diary,“The 6th U.S. is cut to pieces; there are less than a hundred of them left.”
During the armies’ retreat from Gettysburg, the 6th again faced its nemesis at the July 7 fight at Funkstown, Md. By then 200 troopers of the regiment had been cobbled together to serve under Lieutenant Henry Carpenter. But once again they were overwhelmed by Jones’ Brigade in a five-mile-long running fight.The 6th U.S. lost another 85 casualties,most of them captured. Grumble Jones,recalling the 7th Virginia’s initial repulse by Starr at Fairfield,puffed in his report of Funkstown:“The Seventh Virginia Cavalry availed itself of the opportunity of settling old scores.Sabers were freely used, and soon 66 bloody-headed prisoners were marched to the rear….The day at Fairfield is nobly and fully avenged.”
Merritt downplayed the Fairfield fight in his official report of the Gettysburg campaign.“Major Starr, of the Sixth U.S. Cavalry, was detached with his regiment toward Fairfield,” Merritt wrote. “Engaged a superior force of the enemy, not without success.His regiment lost heavily in officers and men, and I regret to say that the major himself—than whom there is no more gallant soldier in the service—was seriously wounded, losing an arm.”
Left behind in Fairfield when the Confederates retreated, Starr healed and returned to the 6th U.S. in November 1863.A year later he was assigned to a cavalry remount camp in Maryland, then as an inspector of horses for the armies of the Potomac and the James until the war’s end. Despite the heavy loss at Fairfield, he was brevetted lieutenant colonel in October 1865, to date from July 3, 1863. Starr remained with the postwar 6th U.S.Cavalry until he retired in December 1870 with the rank of full colonel.He was laid to rest with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery upon his death in 1891.
Lieutenant Adna Chaffee’s thigh wound healed,and he went on to a distinguished postwar career in the army, eventually achieving the rank of major general during the Spanish-American War. His son, Maj. Gen.Adna Chaffee Jr., served as the first commander of the new U.S. Armored Corps during World War II.
German-born Sergeant Martin Schwenk, who upon Lieutenant Nolan’s order had tried to cut his way to the regiment in the midst of the worst fighting at Fairfield,was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1899 for rescuing one of his officers from Rebel clutches. Sergeant George Platt received the Medal of Honor in 1895 for his valiant rescue of the 6th U.S.Cavalry’s flag at Fairfield.
J.D.Petruzzi is a frequent contributor to ACW and the co-author, with Eric Wittenburg, of Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.