“Pony” Ormsby deserted a Union cavalry regiment to fight with Confederate partisan John S. Mosby—or so he was accused. No matter what was really true, his Union comrades shot him to death.
On a chilly February 7 in 1864, the crackle of gunfire shattered the forenoon in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry camp near Vienna in Fairfax County,Virginia. No daring raid by Colonel John S. Mosby’s Rebel rangers was the cause of the shooting. On that particular morning, the troopers of the 2nd gunned down one of their own. As the muzzle blasts echoed away in the rolling countryside,2nd Massachusetts Private “Pony”Ormsby dropped dead. He was not yet 22 years old.
Pony was a small man, only 5 feet 3 inches tall, with blue eyes,light brown hair and a fair complexion.He and his friend Harry Mortimer were called the “little fellows” of their cavalry company.Pony was a popular man,quick to laugh, always at his post, and “as good a soldier as any man need ever hope to be,”according to trooper George Towle.Everyone who knew him testified to his bravery and steadiness in the face of danger.
Warfare in the area in and around Mosby’s Confederacy, as a large chunk of northwestern Virginia was known,was a hit or miss type of war fought among a pro-Confederate population that consisted of mean little actions that claimed the life of a man or two at a time. Being brave and steady wasn’t enough. You had to have nerves of steel and keep your wits about you, and that pressure oftentimes resulted in unusual situations.Rebs deserted to fight with the Yankees.Yankees switched sides and donned the gray.Ormsby got caught up in the mess and reportedly deserted to the Confederates, although in death he left behind a host of questions fully in keeping with the mysteries of his life.
Pony’s full name was William Edward Ormsby, and he was born in Cayuga, Ontario, Canada, in 1842, the eldest son of Irish sailor John Ormsby and his wife, Margaret.He often boasted to his Civil War comrades that he had spent time riding with the Pony Express on the overland mail route between St. Louis and the Pacific Coast, surviving numerous narrow escapes from Indians and other dangers.The nickname “Pony” naturally followed.The payroll records of the Pony Express, however, show no rider named Ormsby at any time in that organization’s brief history.
Before he served in the 2nd Massachusetts,Ormsby had put in a short stint with the 3rd U.S.Artillery,enlisting on October 19,1862.The rookie gunner was assigned to Battery B,then on duty in San Francisco.For some reason he was mustered out on November 24, possibly because his officers discovered he was underage.Undaunted,Ormsby saw an advertisement in the San Francisco newspapers calling for horsemen to serve in a cavalry regiment back east to help make up the quota of men for the state of Massachusetts.
The first group of Californians, known as the “California One Hundred”and destined to become Company A,2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, left San Francisco for Boston on December 11, 1862. Major DeWitt Clinton Thompson remained behind to recruit additional men from the volunteers who had been turned away once the original company rolls were filled. By March,he had enough men to organize four more companies, to be known as the “California Battalion.”
When Thompson and his men left San Francisco, Ormsby went with them, but not yet as a member of the battalion.Although he had enlisted on February 15,he was one of three recruits rejected as being underage. Still, he was allowed to travel east with the battalion because he convinced Captain Charles Eigenbrodt he would come of age shortly after they reached Massachusetts, and could be sworn in then.
The California Battalion reached Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass.,on April 16,1863.There it became companies E,F,L and M of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry.On May 1,four new men were mustered into Company E, including Ormsby.The Californians remained at Camp Meigs until May 11,when they were ordered to Washington.The 2nd Massachusetts spent the rest of 1863 patrolling northern Virginia and western Maryland in a vain attempt to curb the increasing depredations of Ranger Mosby and his men.
Sometime that summer or fall, Ormsby became a disciplinary target for the officers of Company E.According to Private Mortimer, Ormsby soon was “oppressed, goaded, and life made a torment by Wm. C. Manning 1st Lieut of the company,punished and kept in the Guard House a large portion of the time on slight pretexts,he having at one time been orderly to this officer and in several ways incurred his enmity….”
Other members of Company E recorded some of Ormsby’s alleged disciplinary infractions.Thomas H. Merry, writing for the Alta California newspaper in San Francisco, reported that Ormsby “while out on a scout…single-handed captured two rebels, but one of them managed to escape and Ormsby took the other to the command.On reaching camp,he was charged with having been bribed to allow the prisoner to escape, and on this charge,unfounded as we know it to be,he was put under arrest in the Guard House, and was kept there a month without charges being preferred against him and without officially knowing the cause of his arrest.”
In December Ormsby faced a court-martial for trading away a government horse.Like so many accounts of his life in the Army, there are conflicting versions of his offense on record. Erastus Enos wrote:“When the 2d Mass.Cav.Went into camp at Vienna there was a call for a man to volunteer to carry the mail to and from Alexandria every other day, and Ormesby volunteered to do it.He carried it for about six weeks or more,and was chased by Mosby and his men many times. One day the horse was so used up that he was afraid to start out.A citizen there had a horse, and Ormesby traded with him by paying $15 to boot.When the Colonel saw it he ordered Ormesby’s arrest. He lay in the guard house for three weeks and then they tried him….”
Actually, Ormsby was arrested on December 2 and held in the guard house for two weeks before his court-martial on December 16.The official charge was “that he…did receive a horse to visit Alexandria for three days for the purpose of visiting his brother and while absent did sell or loose [sic] or otherwise criminally dispose of a valuable Government horse entrusted to his use and care by his company Commander and did ride back in place thereof another animal entirely unfit for service for a reason that he ‘had made a swap’ with a Negro near Falls Church Va.” In his own defense, Ormsby said:
I had a pass for three days to go to Alexandria to visit my brother.The mare I took with me…was sick when I took her away…I was told in Alexandria by a horse doctor she had the horse distemper. Her hip was also hurt very bad and when I started to come back I had come three or four miles she gave out. She could not travel. I met a negro man and some two or three soldiers.I asked them to trade and they gave me the horse I brought in. It was the poorest one they had but I concluded it was a better one than mine because I could get out on him and I could not on my own. When I traded my time was within two hours of being up…which is mostly the reason I traded. I came into Camp and I rode the horse two days on picket at Lewinsville before I was arrested.
Ormsby was found guilty despite evidence that other men in his company had traded their horses without being disciplined, as well as Captain Eigenbrodt’s admission that he had never told the men such trading would be considered an offense.In view of the fact that at least two other men in his company had done the same thing and suffered nothing more than a warning not to do it again, Ormsby had good reason to feel like he was being singled out for harsh treatment when he was sentenced to forfeit half his pay for the next four months.
On the afternoon of January 24,1864,he rode off while on picket duty and did not return.A scouting party of 60 men was sent out to find him,either to free him if he had been taken by a roving band of guerrillas or to capture him if he had deserted. The scouts returned to camp empty-handed after two days of fruitless searching. It was obvious Ormsby had deserted with two good horses and his Colt revolvers.
Aside from Ormsby’s disgust over horse theft accusations, Thomas Merry of the 2nd said Pony also left because “he had contracted an intimacy with a young lady of the rebel persuasion.”Chaplain Charles Humphreys wrote,“he had yielded to the fascinations of a Southern girl and had been induced to desert.” Harry Mortimer said Ormsby “went to the house of one of Mosebys scouts ‘Bush Underwood’by name there being an attachment between himself and the lady of the family.”George Towle wrote,“The reason for his desertion was that on a scouting expedition in the neighborhood he had become acquainted with and very much attached to a young lady there and he deserted and joined Mosebey’s [sic] command so that he might have opportunity for meeting her.”
There is no record of where or how Underwood and Ormsby might have met other than a fanciful story written years after the war by Rev.J.J.Clopton of Warrenton,Va.In it,Clopton told of a young Californian he called Tony Doyle,who was injured on a scouting mission and left at a civilian home near Aldie to recover.According to Clopton,young Doyle fell in love with a 17-year-old girl who nursed him back to health, and later deserted to be with her.Interestingly enough,there was just such a girl,17-year-old Sarah Uppman, living with a Loudoun County family for whom Underwood worked before the war and with whom he boarded between raids with Mosby.
Whether a woman was involved or not,Ormsby and Underwood did know each other and were riding together on February 5 when they and six other men encountered a party of 2nd Massachusetts men in Aldie.Whether he had joined Mosby’s men or was,as he said,simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ormsby found himself in the middle of an exchange of gunfire between the two forces.The skirmish ended quickly when the small group of Union soldiers turned out to be the rear guard of a scouting party of 75 men who quickly went to their comrades’ assistance. AsOrmsby tried to escape,his horse fell while jumping a small creek.As he was fleeing on foot,having fired all the bullets in his two revolvers,his former comrades quickly surrounded him and Sergeant Benjamin Partridge of Company E captured him.
The Federals returned to their camp in Vienna around 4 p.m. the next day and reported Ormsby’s capture to Colonel Charles Russell Lowell. “When brought into camp and up to the Colonels Head Quarters,”wrote Mortimer,“the remark to him by the Colonel (before trial) was ‘Young man,before 12 o’clock tomorrow you die.’”The colonel immediately ordered a drumhead court-martial despite the fact such a court was a violation of the Articles of War.
The court met within an hour of the scouting party’s return, convening at 5 p.m.with Major Charles Forbes of the 2nd Massachusetts presiding.Major Douglas Frazer,13th New York Cavalry, and Captain Zabdiel Adams of the 2nd rounded out the court,with Lieutenant Lewis Dabney,2nd Massachusetts,acting as judge advocate prosecuting the case. Ormsby received permission to have Chaplain Humphreys as his counsel.
The drumhead court-martial ignored many inconsistencies and gaps in the anti-Ormsby testimony.When asked by the judge advocate if he had actually seen Ormsby fire at the Union soldiers,for example,Lieutenant Charles Stone testified:“I saw the man that was separated from the eight who pursued our rear guard yesterday fire at the rear guard of our column, but I couldn’t swear that it was the prisoner.To the best of my belief now I can swear that it was Ormsby for this man was the only one who went off in the direction where the prisoner was captured.”
When asked whether there were any more Rebels where the prisoner was captured, Stone replied,“I don’t know where he was captured,but I know he was the only one who took that direction, we pursued seven others that turned back.”
Captain J.Sewell Reed testified:“The first man that I saw was this man [the prisoner] firing at [us]….As I came around with the command at a corner of the building,I saw the prisoner turn in the saddle and fire in the direction of our party.I noticed particularly that it was the prisoner because it occurred to me that I had seen him before—his face struck me as familiar.Lieut.Stone, who was immediately on my left…fired his pistol at him.I made the remark at the time from a movement he made that that fellow was hit.After he was brought up as a prisoner and pronounced to be Ormsby, I recollected where I had seen him.”
Reed seemed sure the man firing at them had been hit by at least one of Stone’s shots, yet the court did not question the fact that Ormsby was not wounded.Nor did they question the fact that none of the witnesses could give an accurate description of the clothing Ormsby was wearing when he was captured. Captain Reed could not even say with confidence what color hat the prisoner had been wearing. “He had a gray jacket on and I think a light hat,” he said.
The only exculpatory evidence the court heard was the prisoner’s own statement:
I deserted from here to go home and see my parents.My mother was in Boston the last time I heard from her and she wished me to get a furlough and come home to see her.They expected her in New York. I took the horses away from here. I was going to sell them to get money to go home on.When I got out at Aldie there was three of Mosby’s men met me and they took my horses and arms from me….And yesterday morning they come to where I was and a young fellow wished me to go down with him to his house.He lives below Aldie and I was acquainted down there with some ladies.I was going down to see them and before I got to Aldie I met another young man named Davis and he wanted me to go over between the two Pikes with him and get some liquor,and I went over with him and I got drunk….Just before we came to Aldie…I heard somebody coming up behind and I saw five more men.I knew two of them.They were brothers and their names were Underwood and one of them asked a [black man] if he had seen any Yankees around here and he said he had seen nine.And Davis rode up to my side then and he pulled out his revolver and says he there’s the damned Yankees and fired. I drew my revolver then and cocked it and it went off.Then I turned in my saddle and fired off up the hill. I was so drunk that I couldn’t see nothing at all and I turned down and tried to jump a creek but my horse couldn’t jump it and I got off on foot. I could scarcely stand up I was so intoxicated…I know I done wrong and I’m sorry for it and I think I was always counted a sober man when I was here and always done my duty very well until I got into a scrape about a horse trade down here.That’s what caused me to desert more than anything because I had my pay taken away from me.
It took the court less than two hours to hear from four witnesses, none of whom testified for the defense, and to listen to Ormsby’s statement.In even less time than that,Lowell quickly reviewed and approved the court’s findings,sentencing Ormsby to be “shot to death by musketry” at 11:30 the next morning in fulfillment of his own prediction that Ormsby would be dead before noon. The prisoner was kept in close confinement until the execution of his sentence,“guarded by his arch enemy Lieutenant Manning,” said Mortimer.“There were many who would have assisted him to escape had it been possible.”George Buhrer, expressing similar sentiments, wrote,“We all felt bad for Ormsby,it was a hard fate,but it was not in our power to release him,or it would have been done.” With escape out of the question,Ormsby spent his last hours in the company of Chaplain Humphreys.
The next morning,a Sunday,the brigade was ordered to form up in a hollow square formation—facing inward along three sides of a rectangle, with the open end facing a railroad embankment.A short distance from the track, a grave had been dug.A solemn procession marched from the guard house to the execution site:the brigade band playing the death march; followed by four men carrying a rude wooden coffin;Ormsby and the chaplain;and,bringing up the rear, six men of the firing squad. Chaplain Humphreys described what happened next:
The poor victim chose to lean on my arm as he walked to execution behind his own coffin borne by his old messmates, while the band marched beside playing a funeral dirge….Being permitted to speak a few last words to his fellow-soldiers who were drawn up on three sides of a hollow square to witness the execution, he said:
“Comrades! I want to acknowledge that I am guilty and that my punishment is just.But I want also that you should know that I did not desert because I lost faith in our cause. I believe we are on the right side, and I think it will succeed. But take warning from my example, and whatever comes do not desert the old flag for which I am proud to die.”
Everything being now ready,I offered prayer with him and commended him to the mercy of God….The sergeant in command of the shooting-squad gave the order—“Ready! Aim! Fire!” and the deserter in one moment was dead.
William E.Ormsby was the only member of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry executed for desertion during the war.His friend Harry Mortimer wrote,“His fate was sad and unnecessarily severe and without parallel in the history of the regiment.”
Steve Meserve, a previous contributor to America’s Civil War, writes from Sterling,Va., not far from the place where Pony Ormsby died. He is one of the editors of the soon-to-be-published wartime journal of Ida Powell Dulany of Upperville,Va., and he is also presently working on a brief history of Loudoun County,Va., in the Civil War, to be published by The History Press.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.