On the 13th of September the Cavalry Corps was sent across the Rappahannock to clear the ground for an advance of the Army of the Potomac to the Rapidan. Stuart's cavalry occupied the region between the two rivers, with his headquarters at Culpeper Court House; and, if he had received no warning, it might have been an unpleasant surprise to him. But information of the movement was conveyed to him by a citizen the night before, and he had time to get his trains across the Rapidan and to make arrangements to meet the emergency, and succeeded in withdrawing his division across the Rapidan with a loss of three guns and a number of men.
In this operation the First Vermont cavalry, under Major Wells, Colonel Sawyer being absent in Washington and Lieut. Colonel Preston sick, had a creditable part. The cavalry now numbered some 10,000 sabres. Crossing at Kelly's Ford and the fords above, the three divisions of Kilpatrick, Buford and Gregg united at Brandy Station. The country was open, and the Vermonters found the movement the most imposing one in which they had as yet taken part. A line of carbineers, deployed as skirmishers, led the advance of each brigade, followed, 200 yards back, by a long line of battle, moving at a walk, with drawn sabres. Back of this move the remainder of the brigade and the artillery in column of march. The nine brigades made a column over five miles long. At Brandy Station the enemy, of Lomax's brigade, began to contest the advance, meeting skirmishers with skirmishers and opening with artillery from the slope beyond the Station; but he was heavily out-numbered, and there was no serious fighting till the Union line reached Culpeper Court House. Up to that point the line pressed on, the officers and men of each command eager to keep their own front as well advanced as any other, and pushing forward with the animation of a fox-hunt with a spice of danger added to make it more exciting.
In the advance Custer's brigade, of which the Vermont regiment now formed part, had the extreme left. On approaching Culpeper, a little after noon, a long line of dismounted cavalry, supported by artillery, was seen along a fence across a swollen creek, evidently posted to guard a train of cars about to start for Orange Court House. Kilpatrick ordered Custer to charge the train; but the overflowed creek and the marsh which skirted it could not be passed as that point, and Custer, giving up the attempt on the train, placed himself at the head of the First Vermont and the Second New York and dashed into the town. Here three guns of Thompson's battery were taken, one of which was captured by the Vermonters with all its appurtenances complete, and eight prisoners. The Vermonters next occupied a knoll on the south side of the village in the face of a sharp artillery fire, and then, by order of General Custer, attacked the enemy the enemy along the road leading to Orange Court House. Companies E and I, sent forward to the right, dismounted and engaged the enemy's skirmishers, and the second battalion, companies B, C, H and G, under Captain Adams, charged the enemy. Here the fight was somewhat protracted. The Second New York had already been once repulsed, but rallied and charge with the First Vermont, and the two regiments drove the enemy from the road, into the woods, to the protection of his artillery. General Custer, who led the first charge, was wounded by an exploding shell which killed his horse, and Major Wells received a slight wound in the shoulder from the same shell. The enemy succeeded in holding the line in check till he removed the rest of his artillery. A third charge by the First Vermont forced him to full retreat, and he retired to the Rapidan. Nightfall checked the pursuit. In this engagement the Vermont cavalry was under fire for about four hours and took some 40 prisoners. The infantry followed; and General Meade established his headquarters at Culpeper Court House. The enemy made another stand at the base of Pony Mountain, but were driven off and the First Vermont bivouacked near the foot of the mountain that night. The casualties in the regiment in this action were one killed, four wounded and four missing.*1*
Adjutant Gates charged the enemy's guns with the regiment, and after one gun had been taken, went on with the battalion after the second gun. The cavalry which defended this made a fight for it, and several charges and counter-charges took place in quick succession. After one of the latter, while Adjutant Gates was trying to rally some of the men who had fallen back to the edge of a piece of timber, he found himself surrounded by a flanking party of the enemy which had come in from the left through the woods. Gates's horse was wounded, and the Confederates continued to fire on him after he had surrendered; but fortunately without effect. He was marched nearly twenty miles on foot that night with other prisoners to Orange Court House, and thence taken to Libby Prison, where and on Bell Island he remained for three weeks, when he was sent to a hospital in Richmond. He had concealed the fact that he was a commissioned officer, and passed for only a sergeant major. Being a fine penman, he was taken to assist the Confederate clerk in preparing lists of enlisted men to be paroled and exchanged, and by slyly inserting his own name in the list, was sent with other paroled prisoners a few days later to City Point and exchanged. He rejoined the regiment in front of Richmond in June, 1864. Mason A. Stone of company F was promoted to be first lieutenant of company M and acting adjutant, in his place.
The next morning, the 14th, the whole command moved forward to the Rapidan. Custer's brigade at noon reached Raccoon Ford, where a rebel force was found on the other side prepared to dispute the crossing. The First Vermont cavalry, under Major Wells, was then sent up the river with orders to cross at Somerville Ford and come down on the south side. This proved to be impracticable. The regiment moved rapidly through a field, down a bank, and across a strip of meadow, beyond which was the ford. But the opposite bank was high, and was occupied by the enemy in force, with plenty of artillery, which opened sharply, and the attempt to cross was wisely abandoned. All the other troops fell back but the First Vermont, which had taken shelter from the enemy's artillery behind a small knoll and some old log houses on the bank, where it remained all that night and the next day. One of Stuart's regiments of the Sixth Virginia, crossed the river, but was soon repulsed. At midnight of the 16th the regiment was relieved, having been for thirty hours within forty rods of the enemy's artillery across the river, and withdrew to near Mitchell's Station.
September 17th, in a general order, Kilpatrick expressed his thanks to "Colonel Davies and his command, and to Colonel Sawyer and his command, for the prompt and gallant manner in which they met and repulsed the enemy's attack yesterday." A day or two later the regiment was sent north of the Rappahannock, to do picket duty, where it remained until the 28th. It then rejoined the brigade in camp at Wayland's Mills near Culpeper. Lieut. Colonel Preston was again in command of the regiment, Colonel Sawyer taking the brigade, in the absence of Custer, during these three weeks.
October 8th the regiment left Wayland's Mills at one A. M. and proceeded to James City, a hamlet seven miles southwest of Culpeper, where it remained doing picket duty until the 10th, when it returned to Wayland's Mills, only, however, to be summoned back in haste to James City.
Lee had begun the movement around the right flank of the Army of the Potomac, resulting in the march of both armies to the north, in the Bristoe campaign, which has been described in previous pages. It was Stuart's duty to cover and cloak the movement of the Army of Northern Virginia; and of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac to discover the nature of the movement of its adversary, known to be in progress, and to conceal the counter movements of General Meade. The result was an almost daily clashing of the opposing cavalry, during a period of ten days, in which the First Vermont cavalry took part in five engagements, in one of which almost the entire cavalry arms of both armies were engaged, and several of which were highly exciting. The account which follows is largely condensed from Colonel Sawyer's report.
The recall of the Vermont regiment to James City was in consequence of an advance upon that place by Stuart with Hampton's division. Kilpatrick had posted his division, with Pennington's battery, on a range of hills north of the village, while Stuart occupied a parallel range south of it. When the Vermont cavalry arrived on the scene, it was at once ordered with the Sixth Michigan, both under command of Colonel Sawyer, to support Pennington's battery on a hill, near the Culpeper road. A squadron of the First Vermont, with carbines, was deployed as skirmishers, while the two regiments took position in a hollow in the rear of the battery. No advance was made by either side, and beyond an occasional shot from the artillery, there was little done during the day. In the evening a strong picket line was posted in front, and the men slept on their arms.
General Meade having started for Centreville, Kilpatrick was ordered to follow, and drew out most of his division before daylight next morning. At four o'clock Colonel Sawyer was ordered to report with his regiment to General Davies, in command of the First brigade, which was to be the rear guard. This began to fall back at daylight, but no enemy appeared until it reached Culpeper Court House, where Kilpatrick was making a stand. Here Colonel Sawyer rejoined Custer's brigade. General Custer withdrew his brigade through the town, and was crossing Mountain Run, when Stuart appeared in force, coming in on the left over the Sperryville turnpike. The First Vermont was at once formed in line of battle on the side of a hill, while a sharp artillery duel took place, the shots of both batteries passing over the regiment. This continued for half an hour, when Colonel Sawyer was ordered to report again to General Davies, by whose order the regiment formed in line of battle, a short distance behind its first position, and faced right, left, front or rear according to the necessity of the movement.
1. Killed-John Henry of company B. Wounded-Sergeant A. R. Haswell of company G; Monroe Lyford of company C, and Frank A. Russell of company I. Missing-Adjutant Gates, Sergeant B. Chapman and B. J. Merrill of company B; Sergeant H. P. Aldrich of company C, and A. F. Hackett of company M.
Source George G. Benedict, "Vermont in the Civil War, 1861-5," (Free Press Association, Burlington, 1888), pp. 611-16.