Guest Blog By Brian Swartz
Troopers assigned to the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment figured they would ride out 12 companies strong after arriving at Washington, D.C. in late winter 1862.
However, rather than keep the unit intact, the War Department assigned companies A, B, E, H, and M to a “Railroad Brigade” guarding the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on Saturday March 29, 1862. The regiment’s seven other companies trotted off to a camp in northern Virginia.
After spending several weeks garrisoning various posts along the B&O in what would become West Virginia, the five companies received orders from Col. Dixon S. Miles (overall commander of Union troops in the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley) on May 9 to “March forthwith via Winchester to New Market” and “wait for nobody, but be in haste.” The company captains must leave “sick men and disabled horses” behind and take “plenty of ammunition.”
Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his army lurked in the Shenandoah. Afraid that Jackson’s men might erupt from the Valley to swoop upon Washington, federal officials assigned Major General Nathaniel Banks and his V Corps to bottle up Jackson in the Valley.
Banks needed more cavalry, hence the May 9 orders hurrying the 1st Maine to Winchester.
Banks moved V Corps up the Valley, and his cavalry regiments picketed and scouted as directed. Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Douty commanded the five 1st Maine companies, skirmishing hither and yon with Confederates out beyond Woodstock.
Calvin Douty 1st Maine Cavalry
Then Jackson slipped his troops undetected through the Luray Valley and attacked and all but annihilated an isolated Union garrison at Front Royal on Friday, May 23. From there Jackson intended to march north, capture Winchester, and trap all Union troops between there and Strasburg.
Learning about the Front Royal debacle, Banks ordered his men to march for Winchester and told Brigadier General John Porter Hatch and his cavalry to guard the army’s rear. In their camp near Tom’s Brook, the 1st Maine Cavalry troopers received orders to march at 2 a.m., Saturday; saddling up, the men rode north in Saturday’s rainy pre-dawn darkness.
Hatch halted his cavalry at Middletown, from where the Crop or Chapel Road ran 7½ miles east to the Front Royal Pike. The road interested the pike at Cedarville.
Brigadier General John Porter Hatch
Uncertain as to their location and strength, Banks told Hatch to find Jackson and his troops. Hatch assigned the mission to Douty, his five companies, and two 1st Vermont Cavalry companies.
Riding east on the Chapel Road, the Union troopers ran into Confederate soldiers about 1½ miles west of the Front Royal Pike. Turner Ashby commanded the Confederate infantry, artillery, and cavalry, sent by Jackson to take Middletown and cut the Valley Pike. Pistols flared, Ashby pushed hard, and Douty executed a slow retreat through the rain, which gradually ended.
Map Showing Route of 1st Maine Cavalry (Wikipedia)
A warm sun quickly dried the roads.
Accompanied by Jackson, Ashby marched west and deployed his men along the east side of the Valley Pike just north of Middletown. Through a Banks miscommunication, Union cavalry stayed too long in the village, suddenly shelled by Confederate artillery.
Douty ordered Major William Collins and his two 1st Vermont companies to form “by fours” on the Valley Pike, just behind John Porter Hatch, his bodyguard troopers, and the 1st Maine Cavalry’s Co. H.
Douty’s Co. E, Co. M, and Co. A formed behind the Vermonters in that order. Douty came last with Co. B. Their horses kicking up dust, Hatch and his caravan trotted north “some distance in advance of … Douty’s battalion,” noticed Maine trooper Edward Parsons Tobie, riding with Co. H.
Just north of Middletown, troopers suddenly spotted Confederate cannons looming near the Valley Pike, “which at that point was narrow, with a high [stone] wall on each side,” Tobie said. Reinforced by Louisiana infantrymen, Turner Ashby had plugged the Yankees’ escape route by shelling and shattering several Union wagons on the pike.
Realizing the danger, Hatch and his entourage “turned off on a road leading to the left” and escaped “along a parallel road,” and the 1st Maine’s Co. A followed, said Tobie.
Lined in column of fours, cavalrymen in the two 1st Vermont Cavalry companies and three 1st Maine Cavalry companies “drew sabers, and put our horses into a gallop,” recalled Pvt. Clifford N. Mayo of Co. A, 1st Maine. “The horses raised the dust so that we could not see the men ahead of us; of course, we could not see the enemy, but they could see just where we were.”
“In the dust and smoke we could not see that the head of our column had turned to the left, and broke for the woods,” said Capt. George M. Brown of Co. M, 1st Maine. “Companies A, E and M charged straight down the pike under a murderous fire.”
Survivors estimated that they had ridden about 100 yards when, firing at extremely close range, enemy cannons eviscerated the cavalrymen. Brown watched horrified as “a section of fours in front of me was destroyed in an instant by a cannon ball.”
As Co. A troopers rode along “the narrow road between two stone walls,” the Louisiana infantrymen stood up behind the stone wall and fired a volley from 20-30 feet away. “They shot down our horses that were in front, and the rest of us … rushed right upon them,” Mayo described the developing horror.
That volley “killed and wounded horses and men” and also devastated the Vermont companies and the 1st Maine’s Co. E. Troopers at “the head of the column” were “instantly stopped,” Tobie said, “and the men next, unable to halt their horses … and in turn pushed forward by the horses” behind them, “rushed on.”
Mayo and his Co. A comrades rode until “our horses lost their foothold, and fell down.” He could not avoid the bloody roadblock caused where, “for a number of rods” along the turnpike, “men and horses were piled up two and three tiers deep.”
From his vantage point, “Stonewall” Jackson observed how “in a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction. The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.
“Among the surviving cavalry the wildest confusion ensued, and they scattered in disorder in various directions,” said Jackson.
The ambush destroyed the two 1st Vermont companies and three 1st Maine companies. Douty brought what was left of his command to Williamsport, and survivors trickled into camp for at least two weeks.
The so-called “Middletown Disaster” generated headlines and copious ink in Maine newspapers, but Nathaniel Banks ultimately insulted his sacrificial cavalrymen by not even acknowledging their epic slaughter at Middletown.
Adapted from Maine at War blogs, available at maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.
Our guest blogger this week is Brian Swartz. Brian lives in Maine and is a Civil War buff, author, and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Brian writes and maintains his own Civil War Blog called Maine at War. I am proud to call him my friend.
Sources: Eve Anderson, A Breach of Privilege: Cilley Family Letters 1820-1867, Seven Coin Press, Spruce Head, Maine, 2002, p. 433; Capt. George M. Brown, letter to wife, Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, June 2, 1862; Pvt. Clifford N. Mayo, Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, June 5, 1862; Edward Parsons Tobie, “History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865,” First Maine Cavalry Association, Emery & Hughes, Boston, 1887; Thomas J. Jackson, Official Records, Series I, Vol. 12, Part I, Chapter XXIV, No. 59, p. 703