I Am Proud To Be Associated With Such Brave Men: Wesley Merritt, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and the Brandy Station

Wesley Merritt as a general officer

Introduction to a series

One of the things I enjoy the most as a historian is the process. Searching for the pieces and putting the puzzle together through constant analysis, discussion and refinement. Interpretation can turn on a dime. It can seem like a chase that will never end.

Recently, through the efforts of an ECW colleague on the West Coast, I was able to procure a copy of Capt. Wesley Merritt’s report of the Battle of Brandy Station. At the time, Merritt commanded the 2nd U.S. Cavalry in Maj. Charles Whiting’s Reserve Brigade. It was an incredible surprise to see the file when I opened it in Dropbox.

Merritt’s report was not included in the volumes of the Official Records compiled in the post-bellum years. The document was written one day after the battle, on June 10, 1863, which means that Merritt’s memory was exceptionally fresh. Upon examination, the details in the report are fairly consistent with the Recollections Merritt provided to Theophilus Rodenbaugh for inclusion in From Everglade to Canyon, the Second’s regimental history. Most importantly it provides insight on a pivotal engagement that took place 155 years ago. Using the report, this series will trace Merritt and the 2nd U.S. through the course of the battle. Unless indicated, all quotations from Merritt are from his official report.

The fourth child in the marriage of John Willis Merritt and Julia Anne de Forest, Wesley Merritt was born in New York City on June 16, 1836. A lawyer affected by financial issues, John moved his family to Lebanon, Illinois in 1840 to take up farming. He eventually became a newspaper editor in the village of Salem. Young Wesley initially prepared to follow in his father’s first profession, however in 1855 he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He finished twenty second in a class of forty-one cadets in 1860. Upon graduation, Merritt was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Dragoons in Utah. From July 1, 1861 to January 1, 1862, Merritt served as the regiment’s Adjutant. In February, 1862, he became an aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke. Promoted to Captain on April 5, 1862, Merritt fought in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ battles. That fall Merritt was assigned to the defenses of Washington. On April 1, 1863, Merritt accepted the position of Ordnance Officer on the staff of Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps. When Stoneman took a leave of absence shortly after the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Merritt briefly joined the staff of his successor, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Growing tired of administrative work, Merritt longed to be back in the saddle with his troopers. He returned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on June 1.

Formed in the spring of 1836, the 2nd U.S. Dragoons served in Florida, Mexico and on the Great Plains in the ante-bellum years. During the Mexican War at Resaca de la Palma on May 9, 1846, Capt. Charles May’s squadron assaulted an enemy artillery position. Before the assault, May famously implored his men to “remember your regiment and follow your officers.” The subsequent attack captured several batteries and a Mexican general. On August 3, 1861, Congress reorganized the mounted regiments of the United States Army. The 2nd Dragoons became the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. As the senior officer present, Merritt assumed command. He would not have to wait long until he led his men into action.

Shortly after his victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to consolidate his cavalry in Culpeper County, west of Fredericksburg. This concentration was soon discovered by the Union horsemen. Concerned that Stuart was about to turn his right flank and launch a raid toward Washington, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Pleasonton to launch an expedition to destroy Stuart’s force.

On the evening of June 8, Merritt’s regiment, along with the 1st U.S. Cavalry, 5th U.S. Cavalry, 6th U.S. Cavalry and 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which made up the Reserve Brigade in Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Right Wing, bedded down opposite Beverly Ford on the north bank of the Rappahannock. Pleasonton planned to send Buford over the river early the following morning and head for a nearby stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Brandy Station. There Buford was to rendezvous with Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s division, which was to cross the Rappahannock several miles downstream at Kelly’s Ford. With Col. Alfred Duffié’s division covering their left, Buford and Gregg were to move on to Culpeper and engage Stuart. The next day, Merritt would lead his Regulars into battle.

 

 

“The Finest Cavalry Display Ever Witnessed”: Lincoln Reviews the Mounted Arm

Abraham Lincoln

The spring of 1863 brought about a season of change in the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. On St. Patrick’s Day, Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s division clashed with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade on the south bank of the Rappahannock near Kelly’s Ford.The battle marked the first time the horse soldiers in blue launched an offensive. While the rest of the army  engaged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia around the Chancellorsville crossroads west of Fredericksburg, the bulk of the corps undertook an expedition into central Virginia. Named for its commander, George Stoneman, it was the operational making of the force. “Stoneman’s Raid” taught the officers and enlisted men how to function in the field during a campaign. The making of the corps as a combat force came on June 9, 1863 when the Union horsemen engaged Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry near a rail stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad known as Brandy Station. Seemingly lost amidst these events is an episode that took place 155 years ago today, when President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the cavalry in Stafford County.

 The day before Easter, Lincoln, along with a small party left Washington by ship, bound for Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac in their winter encampment. The journey was delayed by snow and the ship did not reach Aquia Landing until the following day. From there, the President traveled by train to Falmouth where he was met by Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and an escort from the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The group then made their way along the White Oak Road (State Route 218) to army headquarters, located near the intersection of Jenny Lind and Myers Roads in the modern Kendallwood Estates subdivision. Lincoln stayed close by. His temporary Executive Mansion was located just a short distance northwest of the junction of modern White Oak, Ringgold and Ferry Roads near the modern White Oak Volunteer Rescue Squad building.

“The good president had hastened from the White House to visit the army he had helped to create, to see for himself that his soldiers were comfortable, to cheer them by his presence and encourage by kind words,” recalled a member of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Early the next morning, the Union troopers assembled on the farm of James Sthreshley (pronounced Thrashley) to be reviewed by Lincoln. The Streshley farm house no longer exists. It stood near the south end of Scott Drive in the modern Grafton Village subdivision.

The south end of Scott Drive.

Among those in attendance were First Lady Mary Lincoln along with Maj. Gens. Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the corps commander, waited anxiously for the arrival of Hooker and Lincoln.

“After remaining in line a long time, during which the infantry and artillery were being reviewed, the tall, gaunt form of the President came into view, accompanied by General Hooker and a vast retinue,” wrote the historian of the 10th New York Cavalry. “The latter was kept busy plying whip and spur to keep in company. The President’s face was pale, sad, and care-worn in appearance. He sat his small horse with ease, his long legs hanging straight down, the feet nearly reaching to the ground.”

“Mr. Lincoln wore his customary dress-black frock coat with quite long tails which flapped behind him as he passed at a gallop-black trousers and high silk hat…his tall, gaunt figure, and odd costume gave him a singular appearance,” observed George Sanford, an officer in the 1st U.S. Cavalry.

Approaching Stoneman, Hooker formerly introduced him to Lincoln. “President Lincoln and Generals Hooker and Stoneman start off at a gallop,” wrote Henry Moyer of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, “with about three hundred attendants, first to the right of the line, then along the whole front to the left and thence to the reviewing stand. General Stoneman now leaves the President, and with his staff again takes his position in the centre [sic] of the line, facing the corps.”

Stoneman then gave the command: “Pass in review! Column forward! Guide right! March!” “Ten thousand sabres flashed in the sun, forty thousand iron hoofs spurned the sacred soil and as each bold rider settled himself anew in the saddle, grasping the steed that bore him more firmly with hand or knee, ever and anon taking a quick, stealthy glance to right, the magnificent cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac swept steadily and proudly before the Chief Magistrate of the Nation,” officer in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry proudly wrote. It was “the finest cavalry display ever witnessed in the United States,” recalled a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A sketch of Lincoln inspecting the cavalry.

The review took 4 hours to complete. At the very end, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, armed with nine foot long wooden lances with an eleven inch blade was “brought around the house into the field at full gallop, with company fronts at that gait executed most perfectly one of the most difficult cavalry movements, that of wheeling by companies into regimental line, facing the immense company of military authorities there gathered and forming a most perfectly dressed line on the instant, every horse ready and halted just in the right place , the men looking proud that they were able to accomplish so easily this most difficult maneuver.”

At the conclusion of the review, the corps dispersed and returned to their camps.  The moment was not lost on those who participated.“It was an occasion not to be forgotten, the sight being one of the most magnificent many of us ever saw,” recalled Willard Glazer of the 2nd New York Cavalry “It seemed to do us all good to get a glimpse of the solemn, earnest face of the President, who reviewed us with apparent satisfaction.” “That review made a lasting impression,” Moyer wrote. It “was a notable day in the history of the regiment and the men were greatly enthused.” This spirit would sustain the troopers in the weeks and months to come on battlefields scattered across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.