Blazer’s Boys

Blazer Scouts heading out on a patrol.

On February 8, 1864, General George Crook issued General Order No 2. It stated: “The regimental commanders of this division will select one man from each company…to be organized into a body of scouts… One man from each regiment so selected to be a Non-Commissioned Officer… All these scouts then acting together will be under the command of Commissioned Officers… Officers will be particular to select such persons only as are possessed of strong moral courage, personal bravery, and particularly adept for this kind of service. The men selected who are not already mounted will mount themselves in the country by taking animals from disloyal persons in the proper manner… providing however, that sufficient stock is left these people to attend crops with…”

This assemblage of young males would be composed of ”the best men from the 5th, 9th, 13th and 14th WVA Infantries, 2nd West Virginia Cavalry and the 12th, 23rd, 34th and 36th Ohio Infantries. These hand-picked fellows would play important roles in the Dublin Raid on the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad and in Hunter’s Lynchburg Raid, where they made the front pages of many newspapers with their exploits.”

General Crook singled out Richard Blazer to lead what would be termed a “counterinsurgency” effort. “Blazer’s war was one of foraging, bushwhacking, sudden firefights, frequent ‘no quarter’ and always getting horses by any means necessary.” This organization would be labeled as “division Scouts” and would consist of approximately eighty men and would be charged with “suppressing local guerillas as well as gathering vital intelligence about the surrounding terrain and enemy.” Lieutenant Richard R. Blazer would be commander of this unit which would ultimately be known as “Blazer’s Scouts.”

When General Phil Sheridan took command of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley, he would adapt this body of men to his own devices. On August 20, 1864, he sent a message to the war department. He stated: “I have one hundred picked men who will take out the contract to clean out Mosby’s gang. I want one hundred Spencer Rifles for them. Send them to me if they can be found in Wash.”

Captain Richard Blazer

Richard Blazer, himself, seemed an unlikely choice as a leader of a covert band of combatants. Before the war Blazer had been a coal boatman and “at his time of enlistment was driving a ‘hack’ between Gallipolis and Portland, the first station on the Cincinnati, Washington, and Baltimore branch of the B&O.” While some accounts claim Blazer was a “hardened Indian fighter,” Blazer was only 32 years old when the war began. “Hostile Indians had long since been vanquished from the Ohio Valley and there is no record that Richard ever went further west to confront Indians.”

Blazer surely impressed no one with his martial bearing. “He had a far away look in one eye, and a nearly sleepy look in the other. His vest was not always buttoned straight, nor his coat collar always turned down. If his boots were not made to shine as the picture on the blacking box is represented, he made no racket with his servant, for as like as any way he had no servant, or blacking either. If he undertook to drill his company he would give the wrong command, and at dress parade he rarely placed himself in the exact position required by the adjutant.”

Captain Adolphus “Dolly” Richards

When General Philip Sheridan first assumed army command in the Valley, he initially chose to ignore the guerilla problem. Sheridan “refused to operate against these bands believing them to be substantially, a benefit to me, as they prevented straggling and kept my trains well closed up, and discharged such other duties as would have required a provost guard of at least two regiments of cavalry.” It would not take long for Sheridan to change his mind. Eventually Mosby’s Rangers would be his primary concern and he would devote substantial resources to counter the threat.

John Mosby’s background was quite different from Blazer’s. In October of 1850, while he was enrolled at the University of Virginia, he became involved in a dispute with a man named George Turpin. In the process of settling the dispute he ended up shooting the man. The case was brought to trial and Mosby was found guilty. He was sentenced to a year in prison and fined five hundred dollars. On the positive side the governor pardoned Mosby and the legislature would eventually rescind the fine. While in jail, though, he took the time to study study law. It would become a lifelong passion and career.

John Singleton Mosby

When war broke out Mosby first joined the Washington Mounted Rifles under William “Grumble” Jones. He quickly transferred to the cavalry corps under General J.E.B. Stuart. Before long, however, Mosby determined he would like to form his own command. In January 1863, Stuart approved Mosby’s scheme and gave him a handful of men to begin his operations.

Mosby and his partisan rangers would later be integrated into the regular Confederate army. Their primary function consisted of destroying railroad supply lines between Washington and Northern Virginia, as well as intercepting and capturing Union soldiers, horses and supplies. In time Mosby’s numbers rose from a dozen men to a few hundred by the end of the war. Mosby’s rank likewise levitated steadily; his final promotion to colonel came in January 1865.

Once Blazer’s scouts had secured their mounts, his troopers were ready to begin hunting guerillas. By August of 1864 Lieutenant Blazer and his men had gained a great deal of experience in the science of countering the threat posed by groups such as the ones led by John Mosby and John McNeill. Equipped with Spencer repeating rifles, they challenged Mosby’s bands and defeated them in several pitched battles.

Marker for the Battle of Kabletown

On the evening of November 16, 1864, one of Mosby’s rangers, Richard Montjoy, reported to their leader the results of a raid they had made into the Shenandoah Valley. On his return he had sent half of his raiding force off toward their dwellings in Loudon County. Montjoy had himself continued on with about thirty of his scouts and twenty prisoners. A couple miles shy of the Shenandoah River Montjoy decided to rest his men and were suddenly attacked by some of Blazer’s scouts. Mosby’s men fled eastward and attempted to make a stand at a farm known as the Vineyard. In short order, though, Blazer “recaptured the prisoners and horses, killed two of our men, wounded five others, and galloped away…”

When Mosby got news of the skirmish at the Vineyard he was “furious.” He quickly determined he and Captain Blazer “could not inhabit opposite sides of the Blue Ridge Mountain.” Mosby quickly dispatched one of his most trusted officers, Major Adolphus (Dolly) Richards, to “wipe Blazer out! Go through him!” He warned them if you “let the Yankees whip you? I’ll get hoop skirts for you! I’ll send you into the first Yankee regiment we come across!”

One of the interesting oddities of the operation currently taking place was the comparative uniforms of the two opponents. Mosby and his men would have been at great risk wearing Confederate uniforms since they operated behind Union lines. Most of his men would have dressed in Union Blue. Many of Blazer’s men were said to have worn Confederate Uniforms. Henry Pancake, one of Blazer’s operatives, noted: “We were organized to fight Mosby’s guerillas, and we had to fight them as they fought us, wearing each others uniform was part of the game.”

Early on the morning of November 17, Dolly Richards rode out with two companies of his men in search of Blazer’s scouts. Estimates on the size of Richard’s force vary from 115 to 319 riders. Richard’s rode through, and beyond, Snicker’s Gap, searching in vain for any sign of Blazer’s men. Coming up empty handed, Dolly halted his troopers for the night in Castleman’s Woods, not far from the town of Berryville.

The elements quickly turned against Mosby’s Rangers. The skies opened up and it rained hard all night. Misery was rampant among the men, who were without shelter, and were not even allowed to set campfires for fear of warning the enemy of their presence. During the night, though, Richard’s received notification that Blazer’s men had been spotted in camp in the nearby hamlet of Kabletown.

Richard’s had his men up and moving early the next morning, arriving at the enemy camp well before dawn. Though the fires were still smoldering, the enemy was nowhere to be seen. Two of Richard’s men, Charles McDonough and John Puryear, were selected to try to locate Blazer. The two of them rode into Kabletown and where they were approached “by a small party of horsemen dressed in Grey uniforms.” They were Brazer’s men. They drew their weapons and immediately opened fire on them. McDonough was able to escape but Puryear was captured.

McDonough rode to find Richards, followed by Blazer and a couple of his scouts. McDonough related the earlier incident to Dolly who decided he would set an ambush to try and knab Blazer’s whole crew. Richard’s rode to the home of George Harris about a mile south of town. Here he shifted his cavalrymen into “a hollow of the field on the south side of the road. Richard’s warned everyone not to fire a shot or raise a yell until you hear shooting in the front. Don’t shoot until you get close to them; among them.”

Henry Pancake, one of Blazer’s men, related the story of the hours that led up to the fight at Kabletown. Henry was described as “an affable grocer from Ironton, Ohio when he was interviewed for a series of articles called ‘Close Escapes’ for the Ironton Register in 1886.” Henry’s story is the only known complete account of the final fight between Mosby and Blazer at Kabletown. At the time he was being interviewed for a local audience it was noted that “the only exaggeration may be Henry’s own involvement in the action.”

In Henry Pancake’s account, he recalled: “We had gone down on a scout from the neighborhood of Winchester into Luray valley. We had ridden two days and nights and were returning toward Winchester again. We had crossed the Shenandoah river, at Jackson’s ford, about daylight, and rode into Cabletown [sic], about a mile from the ford, and back on the Harper’s Ferry road a short distance, where we stopped to cook a little breakfast. I was standing near Capt. Blazer and Lieutenant [Thomas K.] Coles, boiling some coffee, when a colored boy came up and said about 300 of Mosby’s Guerillas had crossed the ford and taken position in the woods, half way between the ford and Cabletown, and were watching us. That was only a half mile or so from where we were. The Captain ordered Lieutenant Coles and myself to go to a little hill or mound, about halfway between us and them, and see how many there were and all about them.”

Hotchkiss Map Showing Battlefield Site

“They also saw us as we marched and followed on, no doubt thinking that Richards wished to avoid a fight. Turning off from the road near Myerstown through a little skirt of woods, Richards drew up his men in a hollow in the center of an open field facing the woods, which hid them from the view of those in the road. The Federals followed closely after us.”

Private Pancake recalled: “We proceeded to the hill and got a good view of the rebs… In the meantime, Capt. Blazer had formed his command and proceeded across the fields in the direction of the rebs, and we joined him when he had advanced some distance. We told him there were about 300 of them, that they were in a good position and it wouldn’t do to attack them with our little force, amounting to about 65 men all told. But the Captain told us to fall in, and the way we went. Before we got into position to attack the rebs who were across the road, we had to let down two big rail fences. This we did and filed deep into the field which was skirted by the woods where the rebs were and in plain view of them. It was a desperately daring deed, and we hurried up the job, coming around into line like a whip cracker.”

In spite of Richard’s orders, one of Mosby’s men, David Carlisle “drew his revolver and fired a shot at the head of Blazer’s advancing column.” Incensed by the event Blazer’s men continued to file off the road into a tree line some two hundred yards away. Once the maneuver was completed the Yankees dismounted and sent skirmishers forward to the stonewall.

Map illustrating initial troop placements. (Map made by writer)

At this point Richard’s realized that Blazer had a strong position behind the wall and a frontal attack would be costly. “Seeing Blazer’s men taking down the fence and dismounting, Captain Richards thought their intention was to dismount and fight us at long range, which would give them every advantage, with their guns — they being sheltered by the woods and we being exposed to their fire in the open field.”

The situation on the ground was rapidly evolving. Richard’s called out to Lieutenant Hatcher: “Harry, they are dismounting.” He quickly ordered Hatcher with Company A “to break a hole in the fence to their rear and act as if they were withdrawing. If the Yankees fell for the subterfuge, then Hatcher would turn and charge as soon as Company B attacked.”

Blazer, unable to see Company A “ordered his men to horse and then ordered them to charge. Dolly Richards had chosen his field of battle well. Richard’s felt the depression in the field had done a first-rate job of concealing his men. When Blazer’s men attacked, Richards men surged out of the gully and were among Blazer’s before he knew what had happened. “Company B was still in line, but as we wheeled we saw them charge up to the woods. “

Company A, led by Hatcher, “now swept over the intervening space at full speed and dashed with the fury of a tornado on the flank of the Federal column. “Blazer’s men used their carbines at first, until we got fairly among them, when they drew their revolvers. They fought desperately, but our men pressed on, broke them and finally drove them from the field. The road for a distance of several miles bore evidence of the deadly conflict, as well as the discomfiture of the Federals.”

Map showing Dolly Richard’s deception and the counterattack made by his command on Blazers’s men. (Map made by writer)

Pancake remembered the rebel attack vividly. “The rebs do[w]n on us with ai yell. We fired one volley, and then they were on us, blazing away. To get through the gap in the fence and get out of the scrape, and into the road, was the aim of all. But the rebs were right with us, shooting our boys down and hacking our ranks to pieces. Every fellow was for himself, and when those got into the road who could get out flew in all directions, some across the fields, some up toward Cabletown and some toward the ford.”

Pancake went on to say: “Oh, it was a awful nasty fight! We stood no show at all. We had hardly got into line when every fellow was expected to save himself. I got into the road among the last, the rebs all around me and after me. I had on a rebel uniform and that’s what saved my head, just then. Well, I took down toward Cabletown as fast as my horse could carry me… The balls whizzed all around me. Near the crossroads at Cabletown, Lieut. Coles fell from his horse his head resting on his arm as I passed by. After I passed him, I looked back and the foremost reb, whom I recognized as one of the prisoners (John Puryear) we had when we made the attack, stopped right over him, aimed his carbine and shot Lieut. Coles dead.”

Lt. Thomas Coles

“Blazer used every endeavor to rally his flying followers; but seeing the utter destruction of his command, and being well mounted, he endeavored to make his escape. Onward he dashed, steadily increasing the distance between himself and most of his pursuers, but a young man “named Ferguson,” mounted on his fleet mare ‘Fashion,’ followed close on Blazer’s heels. After emptying his pistol without being able to hit or halt the fugitive, he drove spurs into his horse and urging her alongside the Captain, dealt him a blow with his pistol which knocked him from his horse and landed him in a fence corner. “Boys,” said Blazer, when able to speak, “you have whipped us fairly. All I ask is that you treat us well.”

Twenty-four of Blazer’s men were killed or wounded and many prisoners were taken. “Fifty horses, with their equipments, were captured. Richards had one man, Hudgins, from Rappahannock, mortally wounded, and a number of others wounded, — but not seriously — among them Charles McDonough, Richard Farr, William Trammell, C. Maddux, and Frank Sedgwick.”

Pancake recalled: “The surrender of the Captain stopped them a moment and I gained a little, but on came the rebs mighty soon again and chased me for two miles further. The pursuing party was reduced by ten, and then finally gave up the chase by sending a volley that whizzed all around me. When I looked back and saw they were not pursuing me, I never felt so happy in my life. I rode on more leisurely after this, but had not proceeded more than a mile or so when I saw a man leading a horse along a road that lead into the road I was on. I soon observed he was one of our men. He had been wounded and escaped.”

Site of the Battle of Kabletown is actually in Meyerstown, West Virginia.

“We went together until we came to our pickets near Winchester about dusk. There I was captured sure enough, because I had on the rebel uniform, and put in prison. I could not make the pickets or officers believe that I was a union soldier, and wore a rebel uniform because I was ordered to do so, but about 11 o’clock that night, my story was found to be true and I was released.”

Pancake would explain that it was the rebel uniform which made his escape different from that of Captain Blazer. “He could surrender and live; I couldn’t. I had to beat in that horse race or die, and as there were 40 horses on the track after me it looked every minute like dying. There were 16 of us in Blazer’s company who wore rebel uniforms, and I was the only one who got out of that scrape alive.” Federal soldiers dressed in rebel uniforms would, of course, be designated as spies and summarily executed.

A couple of the survivors went down to the battlefield the next day. Twenty-two of Blazer’s men were buried near the road. “The colored people buried them. Lieutenant Coles body was exhumed and sent home and now sleeps in Woodland Cemetery [actually, he rests in Greenlawn Cemetery, in Scioto County, Ohio, near Portsmouth] near Ironton. He was a brave fellow.”

You see, said Henry, “we were organized to fight Mosby’s Guerillas, and as we had to fight them as they fought us, and wearing each others uniform was part of the game. Why, I’ve got in with the rebels and rode for miles without their suspecting I was a union soldier.” That’s the way we had to fight Mosby, and it was part of the regulations that some of us wore gray.

After Blazer’s capture he was sent to Libby Prison where he would spend the next four months until he was exchanged for a Union Colonel. When released Blazer “was presented with his personal effects including his Union cavalry sword” which was arranged by Colonel Mosby. He returned to the 91st Ohio infantry and was mustered out of service on June 24, 1865. He returned home to his wife and five children in Gallipolis, Ohio soon thereafter.

In the summer of 1878, the steamboat, John A. Porter, arrived at Gallipolis. Its passengers and crew had been stricken with yellow fever and had been desperately searching for a port that would take them in. The ships passengers found relief there at the hands of a few volunteers and the acting sheriff, Richard Blazer. Unfortunately, Blazer’s reward for this act of kindness would result in his contracting the disease. He would die from yellow fever on October 28, 1878.

Following the war Blazer and Mosby would become acquainted with one another and broaden their friendship by exchanging letters. Mosby would send his friend the gift of a Mississippi Rifle which it is said he put to good use “hunting squirrels.” It is said what is needed to fight counter-guerilla campaigns is “imagination, daring and ingenuity.” These were qualities both men recognized in each other. Mosby’s respect for his old opponent would extend beyond his untimely death. In a eulogy written for Captain Blazer, Colonel John Mosby would honor his friend, and former adversary, by declaring him his “most formidable foe.” A greater honor could not be written.

Blog written by Pete Dalton

North& South Magazine. Volume 11, No. 2. December 2008. Pg. 54.

One thought on “Blazer’s Boys

  1. Hi Pete –

    Thanks for sending this interesting article. What does your schedule for tours look like for this fall?

    We recently re-visited the Jefferson Davis monument in Hopkinsville, KY. Still in good repair and operation, amidst a protective community. Interesting small museum.

    Best wishes,

    Otis and Lois Fox


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