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1st Vermont Cavalry
Biography

Joe Allen and Old Abe,
Gettysburg and Beyond

Joseph W. Allen, Co. I, First Vermont Cavalry; photo courtesy of George Hughes
"I celebrated my nineteenth birthday," Joe Allen said to the editor of The [Atchinson Kansas Daily] Globe, "by enlisting in the First Vermont cavalry. We were in the Shenandoah valley, under Shields, in the spring of 1862, but Banks was our commander when Stonewall Jackson drove us across the Potomac, and into Maryland. Then Jackson fell back, and we followed him to Port Royal, where we were merged into Pope's army, and suffered defeat with him at the second battle of Bull Run. We were driven back almost to the fortifications of Washington, and saw the awful confusion of a fleeing army. The rear of an army, successful in battle at the front, is a scene of awful confusion, but the mob in the rear of Pope's army at the second Bull Run was worse than a stampede of wild animals.

"When McClellan succeeded to the command, I was on picket duty with my regiment at Drainsville, twenty miles from Washington, where we spent the winter. In the spring we moved to the front, and became part of Burnsides' army at Fredericksburg. After that battle, where Burnsides was badly whipped, Lee moved his army up the Rappahannock valley. We followed, on the other side of the mountains, and when Lee crossed the Potomac at Williamsport and thereabouts, we crossed somewhere below Harper's Ferry, and marched almost night and day trying to head him off.

"Early one morning [June 30, 1863] we made a halt in the streets of Hanover, Pennsylvania, and were sitting on the curbstones eating the bread and meat the citizens brought us, when suddenly a battery of rebel artillery began firing at us. Before we had time to recover from our surprise, Wade Hampton's cavalry dashed in upon us. There was a sharp fight nearly all day, but we held the town, and finally chased Hampton's men off.

"The next day we started to join Meade's army at Gettysburg. My impression is that we marched thirty miles beyond Gettysburg, and then marched back again, following Hampton's cavalry. There was an impression among the men that a big fight was to take place soon, but we had no idea where.

"Our corps approached Gettysburg on three different roads. I was in the middle column, and the first intimation of a fight I had was encountering a field hospital, where there were two or three hundred wounded. It happened that we arrived on the battlefield of Gettysburg in the evening of the second day's fighting, so I never saw the town of Gettysburg at all.

"We were at once moved around to the right wing of Meade's army, and when we arrived there, we struck Lee's left wing. There was a fight lasting until 11 o'clock at night, when the rebels retired. Then we were moved to the extreme left of our army, a distance of twelve miles, arriving there about daybreak, just as the third day's fighting was commencing. We were immediately ordered to charge, and carry a line of hills, which we did, and took a position in advance of our main line. We remained there skirmishing until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when word passed along that there was to be a charge.

"Little RoundTop was almost behind us, and we charged away from it. There was a Texas regiment in front of us, lying behind a stone fence, and we charged toward it, accompanied by three or four regiments of infantry. The firing was terrific, and the infantry wavered, causing a delay of the cavalry. We started at almost the same instant that Pickett charged, and I have an idea that our charge was to draw off as many rebels as possible from the attack on Little Round Top.

"During the delay I have spoken of, the First Vermont cavalry was left almost alone in the exposed position, when Kilpatrick, the division commander, rode up, and had some sharp words with Farnsworth, the brigade commander, who was leading us. I could not hear what was said, but I heard afterward that Farnsworth protested against the hopelessness of the charge, saying that the First Vermont was cut to pieces already, and they were too good men to sacrifice. Farnsworth said he would lead the charge, but Kilpatrick must take the responsibility; and then came the order forward.

"We rode at full gallop toward the stone fence, behind which the Texas regiment was lying. They had ceased firing, and we knew they were waiting to pick us off at closer range. Our men tried to set up a cheer as we rode toward the fence at a furious pace, but we could not do it; we were so wrought up from expecting the volley at close range.

"I saw the first man that fired, a young fellow on the right, and I heard an officer curse him for firing too soon. A second later came the volley, but nearly every bullet went over our heads, as we were charging up the hill. Then there was a cloud of smoke, and rapid musket firing. For a moment we came to a halt, within a few feet of us the stone fence, while some of our men in advance tore it down, and it is a wonder that we were not all killed, but the smoke was to thick that the rebels could not take accurate aim.

"Our men had only revolvers, and it seemed to me that there were twenty musket shots to our one. I fired five times at a bunch of rebel infantry ahead of me, but I did not pick out a particular one, and do not know that I hit any of them. Finally, I saw some of our men urging their horses through an opening in the stone wall, and I followed them. In five minutes we lost sixty-five out of 312 men; every time a man near me was hit, I could hear the 'pat' of the bullet. I saw several of my companions cringe and start when hit, and a frightened look came into their faces. A young fellow I had known all my life was struck, and he was riding so close to me that he fell over on my horse's neck. I straightened him up in his saddle, and told him to hold on as long as he could, but he fell off on the other side. His place in the ranks was on my right, and his horse remained at my side throughout the charge.

"I had a pistol and a sabre; I fired the pistol as fast as I could, but I doubt if we killed a half dozen of the rebels altogether. They stood behind trees and rocks, and fired at us with deliberation and care. I chased one fellow who appeared in front of me, intending to cut him down with my sabre, but he ran, and I hurried on to join my companions. As I did so, I saw the fellow spring out rom the tree where he had taken refuge, and fire at use. There was the greatest confusion, but I heard his shot, and the pat of the bullet; he had fired at me and struck my horse in the neck. The horse was a big bay I had ridden ever since my enlistment, but he kept going, and I supposed the wound was not serious, although it bled freely.

"We were gone an hour on that charge. We had passed through the enemy's lines, and were in their rear, and were compelled to cut through two hostile lines to reach our own. We kept swinging to the right, and once we were between two rebel lines, and I could liken it to nothing but getting into a nest of hornets. It was while we were between the two rebel lines, riding at full gallop, that someone told me that General Farnsworth had fallen off his horse, and we learned afterwards that he had been killed.

"We rode at full gallop while in this perilous situation, and could locate the rebel lines by the puffs of smoke. It was like running the gauntlet. A clump of trees ahead of us would look quiet and peaceful until we came opposite to it, when out would come the puffs of smoke.

"A friend of mine named Marv. Mason, who rode ahead of me, had his horse shot under him. The horse fell dead, with its nose in the ground, but Marv. went on over its head and struck on his feet. He did not stop an instant, and kept up with the regiment on foot until he caught a horse, which he mounted, and rode safely into our lines.

"During the skedaddle, a man rode by me with his leg shot off by a cannon ball. Just above the stump some one had tied the sleeve of a coat, to stop the bleeding. I had never seen the man before, and I never heard what became of him. I have often wondered who tied up his leg, and helped him on another horse, for his own must have been killed.

"At last we reached our old position, when we heard that Pickett's charge had failed. We remained quiet until dark, everything indicating that the battle was over, when we were ordered to move under the hill, where we dismounted in a meadow, and told to get some sleep. The heaviest rain I ever experienced was falling, and the meadow was a sheet of water. I found three rails, which kept me out of the water, and I never slept better in my life. I saw soldiers sleeping soundly that night who were half covered with running water.

"At 4 o'clock in the morning we were routed out, and ordered to saddle at once. Then I discovered that my horse was too badly wounded to go; he was very stiff and could not get up. He was a great favorite in my company, as he was a particularly reliable animal, and there were many expressions of regret when I was compelled to leave old Abe behind. But there were plenty of other horses without riders, as a result of the charge the day before, and we were soon on the move. When we rode away, old Abe was still lying down, and I had no idea he would ever get up again.

I don't know how we heard it, but we knew we were going in pursuit of Longstreet's corps train, and we hurried all day toward Emmitsburg, without catching sight of an enemy. Just before night we halted for a short time, and while I was boiling a cup of coffee, I hear a cheer from some of our men, and who should come staggering into camp, but old Abe! He had followed us all day, and was just getting in. The men gathered around him, and some fed him crackers, while others bathed his wound, and did what they could for it.

"When the bugle sounded to fall in, old Abe tottered to his place in the column, but we soon started on a keen run, and left him behind. I looked back and saw him standing, gazing after us. I looked again, and he was hobbling along the road we had taken.

"In half an hour we struck the rear guard of Longstreet's corps train, just as it was starting up the mountains. The night was dark as pitch, but we fought our way up that mountain, until break of day. Three Michigan regiments dismounted, and crowded along the narrow road. Our regiment was next to charge through and stampede the train as soon as we found an opening.

"I never saw such another display of fireworks as I saw all through that night. Our men toiled up the mountain, firing as fast as they could, and the rebels fell back, firing as fast as they could. Just a break of day we reached a level spot on top of the mountains, probably fifteen acres, where there was a summer hotel. Here we cut our way through the rear guard and took after the wagon train.

"There were two pikes leading down the mountain, and the wagon train divided; we took the Smithburg pike, to head off and capture the wagons. The mules attached to the wagons were running away down the hill, but we had to go by them, which we did, yelling and firing our pistols. The train we were after was two miles long, and I saw twenty wagons go over the bank into the gulch below. The wagons were mostly loaded with wounded, and the scene made the stoutest heart sick. As we tore along, we could hear the cries of the wounded in the wagons; some of them were looking out, and a few of them jumped, knowing that the mules were running away, down the hill. Many of the drivers were killed by our men; others deserted their teams, and the scene was frightful. But we finally got ahead of the train, and stopped it. Then we went to burning the wagons and killing the mules, except a few of the best, which were saved. The wounded were carried to the side of the road, ut we had no time to look after them.

"We halted there possibly three hours, during the time hearing that the other train and 5,000 prisoners had been captured; and just before we started on again, old Abe came walking into camp! How he discovered that we had gone down the Smithburg pike, I cannot image, but there he was, and he at once took his place among the horses of my company. He had probably seen the fighting all through the night before, and followed his command through the woods when it must have seemed to him that every limb on the trees were shooting fire. He was not far away when the charge took place at the top of the mountain, and when he decided to follow the Smithburg pike down the mountain, he must have seen sights and heard sounds that were the most terrible in the history of the war. But he came along, and passed the entire train while the wagons were being burned, the wounded jumped out, and the mules killed, until he found his old friends of the First Vermont. His story now came to be noised about, and dozens of men from other regiments came up to look at him, all of whom had kindly suggestions.

"At the end of four hours we were off again, and that night were at Hagerstown. I heard cheering a half mile away, and knew it was old Abe coming in. I rode over that way, and met him. He followed me to our camp, where I fed and watered him. He seemed to be getting better, but was very stiff in the neck.

"At midnight we hurried on again, leaving old Abe lying down. We were on our way to Williamsport, to burn a lot of pontoon bridges on the Potomac, and there was no long halt for several days, but whenever we stopped to rest, and snatch a bit of sleep or a mouthful of food, old Abe would come in on us. Some times he would strike the pickets a mile from his regiment, but he always found his way to us with unerring certainty.

"The rebel cavalry knew we were heading for Williamsport, and knew what we were up to, and followed us. There was fighting almost every hour of the day, and half the time old Abe must have been among the enemy; he certainly came through their camp every time he found us, for we were traveling the same road, and we were in advance. But old Abe knew which crowd he belonged with, and managed to find us every night.

"Every day he got in a little earlier, and for a while in the morning would travel by my side in the column, but we were making a forced march, and he would soon drop out. He was known as the "First Vermont Straggler," and every day the soldiers of other commands would call out to us to know how old Abe was coming on, to which we replied that he was coming on very well, and would surely be in at the surrender.

"One night we halted at 11 o'clock for four hours, and when I awoke I was worrying because old Abe had not arrived. But when I mentioned the matter, it happened to be to a soldier who had been on picket duty, and he said old Abe came along the road within ten minutes after he took his place and had spent two hours with him eating crackers out of his knapsack. Old Abe was becoming a good deal of a vagrant, and would loaf with any one of our command, although when I went out to saddle, he was among our horses.

"I think he kept with us after that, usually marching by my side, though he would break ranks occasionally and go after water, or nibble the grass. Finally, at the end of the seventh or eighth day, I put my saddle on old Abe's honest back once more, and rode him until I was mustered out as one of Sheridan's cavalry.

"I quit the service at the end of three years, and when I left the camp for good, I saw a recruit riding old Abe, and the recruit was being congratulated on having fallen heir to about the best horse in the service."


Source: Undated newsclipping from the Atchison [Kansas] Daily Globe, circa 1918; used with the kind permission of Bryon Cannon, managing editor. Article and photograph contributed by George Hughes, Annapolis, MD, Joe Allen's great-grandnephew.