Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Charge at Dug Springs --- Differing Views

On August 4, 1861, less than a week before the battle of Wilson’s Creek, there was a skirmish at Dug Springs, Missouri between Union forces under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Confederate Missouri State Guard forces under Brigadier General James Rains. At some point during the skirmish, a charge by Captain David S. Stanley’s troop of the 1st Cavalry routed an advancing enemy force of infantry. Exactly what the circumstances of the charge were varying according to the view of the witness.

According to Lyon’s official report, “The rebels’ advance perceived my halt, and being mostly mounted, became bold, and threatened me at various points, though in small force --- though about 1,000 infantry advanced pretty well forward at one time under an advance of cavalry force. My advance guards of infantry opened fire upon them, and without orders from me, by a spontaneous emotion, the advance guard of my cavalry charged and drove back the rebels, but lost 4 killed and 5 wounded. Cavalry again advanced, but were driven back by my artillery, under Captain Totten.” (OR, Ser I, Vol 3, pg 47)

Captain Frederick Steele, 2nd US Infantry, commander of Lyon’s advance guard, had this to say in his report. “We then advanced upon the enemy, driving him rapidly back. Captain Stanley, with his troop, took position on a commanding spur on our left and front, to prevent our flank from being turned. The enemy was now in complete rout, a part of Captain Stanley’s troop having gallantly charged and cut through his line.” (Ibid, pg 49)

We also have two other eyewitness accounts of the charge. Second Lieutenant George B. Sanford of the 1st Dragoons was attached to the column en route to his first unit. This skirmish was his first in uniform, and he describes the charge like this:

“The fighting was quite sharp for some time, but the enemy fell back as we advanced, and at one time a very gallant charge was made by a party of “C” troop 1st Cavalry under Lieut. Kelly. He mistook the trumpet call to halt for the signal to charge and dashed into the enemy’s lines completely routing them at that point, though nearly all his own men were killed or wounded. The rest of “C” troop under Capt. Stanley afterwards Maj. Gen. Stanley and my own troop both under command of Capt. Elliott then moved to the front in support, and the enemy fell back.” (Sanford, Fighting Rebels and Redskins, pg 129)

An unknown correspondent from the Herald is quoted in the Harper’s Weekly article reporting the skirmish as follows:

“Captain Steele was still on the left, and a body of nearly eight hundred infantry, with a few mounted men, came forward on the enemy’s right with the evident intention of engaging and surrounding the Captain’s two companies. Company C, of First cavalry, was in the rear (lately front), near Captain Steele and Lieutenant M.J. Kelly, with twenty men from this company, made a Balaklava charge right in the face of the bullets and bayonets of the whole rebel infantry. Four of the twenty were killed and six were wounded, but they succeeded in breaking the infantry and putting them to flight. Four horses were wounded so badly that it was necessary to kill them --- one receiving nine, and another eleven rifle balls. One of the men – Sergeant Sullivan – received three terrible, though not fatal wounds. As he was falling from his horse he waved his saber, and shouted “Hurrah for the old Stars and Stripes!” When brought to camp he seemed to forget his wounds in his joy at having struck a blow for the Union. One of the enemy’s wounded inquired of Lieutenant Kelly, with great earnestness,
‘Are your cavalry men or devils!’
The lieutenant replied that it was possible they might be a composition of both.
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we can’t stand such a charge as that. You can whip us all out if you’ve got a decent army of such soldiers.’ “

Which of these are correct and which aren’t? It’s impossible to know for sure, but at least parts of all of them. A footnote in the OR describes Stanley’s losses as 4 killed and 6 wounded, of 42 engaged, or a loss of 25%. According to Sanford and the reporter, only 20 made the charge, so the actual loss would be 50%. One of the men under Lieutenant Kelly, a Corporal Elbridge Roys, received a commission in the regiment the following year for his conduct during the charge. He was later killed in action near Selma, Alabama in 1865.

I believe Sanford’s account that the cause of the charge was a misunderstood bugle call. I can’t think of another reason why only part of the company would charge. It’s doubtful that it was reported that way by Captain Stanley in his official report, however, which is likely where the “spontaneous emotion” mentioned in Lyon’s report comes from.

As to the results of the charge, I again tend to favor Sanford’s account. It was late in the day at the time of the charge. While the charge probably stopped the infantry’s advance temporarily, I doubt any 20 men and horses would be enough to rout 800. Receiving such a charge and then seeing more cavalry and infantry advancing through the dusk probably led to their hasty retreat.

The reporter’s account is sufficiently vivid, and my Harper’s Weekly’s circulation large enough, that it’s small wonder that there was a perception that a cavalry charge could rout infantry. Such charges had succeeded in combat against Indians on several occasions in the experience of cavalrymen returning from the frontier. Only time and blood would dispel this perception.


DW@CWBA said...

From what I recall of my reading of Dug Springs, the Union advance met 6 companies of cavalry (not infantry) from Rains's 8th Div MSG. 800 seems very high and is likely very exaggerated. Rains's men probably fought both mounted and dismounted so perhaps that is why the Union sources call them infantry? MSG cavalry suffered from awful arms and next to no discipline, so it doesn't surprise me they would be put to flight by a much, much smaller force!

Don said...

Steele goes on in his report to state that had he not been ordered to retreat he could have captured nearly 200 horses. The reports all say infantry, but I suspect that you're right and they were cavalry or mounted infantry pushed back onto their horse-holders. Poor discipline I expected, but I didn't know about the awful arms.
I'm trying to work my way to Gaines' Mill and see if there were reasons why Cooke thought the charge would work or if it was simply desperation to save the guns. I still have a lot of reading to get through on that one.
Looking through the reports more closely, Lyon lists their strength at 1,000. Steele, however (who wrote a much better report), reports cavalry, 200 on foot and about 200 mounted. I should have caught that the first time. Thanks for the comment.


Allan said...


I came across your website while looking up information on the engagement at Dug Springs and enjoyed reading your commentary and the sources you provided. I've never considered myself to be an authority on this engagement, but was aware of it through various sources which I will quote below. As a result of these sources, I was aware of the significant role played by Rieff's Independent Cavalry Company from Arkansas. I was surprised when I used Google and put in "Dug Springs" and "Rieff" and got zero hits. I was reading various websites that covered this engagement and the impression is that the only Confederate troops involved were those of Rains' Missouri State Guard.

I think the following sources will show rather conclusively that the primary unit that Company C, 1st U.S. Cavalry contended with was the independent cavalry company commanded by Captain A.V. Rieff. His given name was Americus, but was known as Mack or Meck. While I doubt these sources will answer all the questions about this engagement I think they will add understanding- and also provide some very vivid descriptions of the intense fighting. Two of the sources are first-hand accounts by Joseph Young Bates and Joe. M. Scott- both of which are recollections. The other two sources are second-hand, from letters written at the time by James M. Harrison and Ras Stirman who both served in the 3rd Arkansas State Infantry that fought a week later at Wilson's Creek. These two soldiers were friends of those who served in Mack Rieff's company and no doubt received the information first-hand from those who participated in the engagement. Here are the four sources with their citations at the end-

Recollection of Joseph Young Bates (1):

"I enlisted in Captain A.V. Rieff's Independent Scouting Company June 27th, 1861. This Company was called General Ben McCulloch's Escort. Why they were called an Escort, we never knew. The Company was large, consisting of about 120 men. General McCulloch kept a part or all of the Company on the scout all the time. When on the march, if near the enemy, the Company was divided into four squads of 30 men each, one in charge of the Captain, and the other three squads, each in charge of a lieutenant.

Our campaigning through the summer of 1861 was in Southwest Missouri. The first engagement in which the Company participated was at Dug Springs, 25 or 30 miles southwest of Springfield, on August 2nd, 1861. General Rains of the Missouri State Troops was in command. About one-half of Rieff's Company was in the engagement, the other half being out on scouting duty. General Rains ordered Captain Rieff, with what men he had, and one company of the Missouri State Troops, to make a flank movement to the right and locate and ascertain the strength of the enemy. When within about one-half mile of the enemy, we were ordered to dismount and leave one man to hold four horses; the others deployed at five paces and advanced as skirmishers. We soon encountered the enemy, armed with Sharp's rifles. Our men being armed with double-barrelled shotguns, they had the range on us and opened fire on us. The officer in command saw a regiment of cavalry forming to charge us, and knowing we were not strong enough to meet them, ordered a retreat.

The regiment of cavalry made the charge, but when they got sight of our horses in the woods, mistook them for a body of infantry, and all halted except 15 or 20, who overtook our Captain and 12 men. The Federals were nearly all killed, Captain Rieff killing four of them in less than one minute; their horses were shot out from under them and we had a general mix-up. One of General Rains' men mistook the subject of this sketch for a Federal, and they had a hand to hand encounter which lasted until the Missourian surrendered to the Arkansas lad. This was the first experience our Company had with Federal bullets and sabers."

Excerpt from letter written by James M. Harrison, August 4th (2):

"The advanced guards of both parties had skirmishes day before yesterday. Meck Rieff and his company was in it. He killed four men. Jim Mitchell killed a man that had his pistol presented at Meck Rieff. Joe Bates had a combat with a missourian, a southerner too. The Missourian fired his pistol at Joe, and Joe told him that he was a southern man. Yes, said the Missourian, I know you, you are one of those damned union men. Then he bursted two caps at Joe. Joe had a cartridge about half down his gun so he could not shoot. He turned the but of his gun and broke it off at the britch over the fellows head, and then beat him down to the ground and then wrenched the pistol out of his hand and took him prisoner. The fellow then found that he was fighting a man on his own side. They all got off safe. They went back afterwards and found ten or eleven of enemy dead."

Recollection of Joe. M. Scott (3):

"I was in the war between the states from May, 1861, until the surrender of the Confederate forces. I first belonged to Captain Mack Rieff's company, which was made up at Fayetteville, Arkansas. The company was composed of about one hundred and fifty well mounted men. We served as advance guard for McCulloch's army during the campaign of 1861, in Missouri. My first experience in battle was at Dug Springs, the 2nd day of August, 1861. While here we came in contact with the first Federals I ever saw and we felt confident we could defeat twice our number in battle. Gen. McCulloch ordered Capt. Rieff to attack their lines and find what their strength was. We moved to the right flank until we were in position desired by our gallant leader, Rieff. We were ordered to dismount, every fourth man holding horses. The word, "forward march," was given. We found the enemy after we had gone about a half mile; the word "charge" was then given and on we went, but soon found we were outnumbered. We made an attack on Lyon's entire force, firing two rounds; we were then ordered to our horses. More than double our number of Federal cavalry were soon upon us with drawn sabers, and a hand to hand fight was the result. I never had a much closer call during the war than at this place. A man by the name of Hunter, a negro who was with us, as cook, the Rev. J.N. Brigance and myself were surrounded by a bunch of cavalry, who made a dash at us. Three of us fired at them but missed our aim; they made their way to us, cutting Hunter on the head and arm as he fell to escape the blow given. I was about ten feet from Hunter trying to shelter behind a sapling. The Federal raised himself in his stirrups and made for me; I stood him off with my bayonet until the negro came to my rescue, shooting him, and he fell before me, the first dead man I ever saw in battle.

Just to my left was Dr. A.M. Bourland, of Van Buren, Ark., and perhaps two or three others. Just to my right was James Mitchell, of the Arkansas Democrat, Frank Smiley, of Benton county, and several others whose names I have forgotten.

A hand to hand contest was going on, the Confederates unsaddling the Federals as fast as they made their appearance. While we were in the heat of this fight and trying to cut our way out, they opened fire on us with a four-gun battery, throwing grape and shell among us. Some of our horses got frightened and broke loose, but while we were in the thickest of the fight, that brave fellow, John Marrs, who lost his life in 1863 in a northern prison, came to us with what horses he had. My horse was gone. Rev. J.N. Brigance was completely exhausted and said he could go no farther. I mounted his horse, the bullets and bomb-shells were falling thick, the negro threw Brigance up behind me and put his young master , Horace Beneux, on his (the negro's) horse and the negro behind him, and we made our escape. We went back about three miles and met Gen. McCulloch who told us to get back out of danger and rest.

The result of this fight cost the Federals thirteen men killed, while we lost only one man, Henry Fulbright, of Bentonville, Ark., and he died from overheat. Hunter, the man mentioned, was the only man wounded, and he was just cut on the head and arm with a saber."

Excerpt from letter written by Ras Stirman, August 4th (4):

"Meck Rieff and a few missourians came in contact with the whole dutch force five miles from us. Meck did not loose but 3 men two were Supposed to have been taken prisoners and one Henry Fulbright died from Suffication. The missourians ran like Scared dogs but our arkansaw boys killed Several and got their Sabers and Pistols."

(1) Bates, Joseph Young "A Sketch of the Service of Joseph Young Bates as a Confederate Soldier." Washington County Historical Society (Fayetteville, AR.) Flashback (March, 1962, pp. 31-2)

(2) Harrison, James M., Collection of Harrison letters 1861-1865 on microfilm (roll 367), University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Special Collections.

(3) Scott, Joe. M., Four Years Service in the Southern Army. Mulberry, Ark., 1897. (pp. 1-3)

(4) Stirman, Ras (ed. Pat Carr) In Fine Spirits The Civil War Letters of Ras Stirman with Historical Comments by Pat Carr. Washington County Historical Society, Fayettteville, AR 1986. (p. 15)

There's a webpage that gives a list, by name and rank, of casualties at the Dug Springs engagement and lists five killed and six wounded from Company C, 1st U.S. Cavalry. I was going to link to it, but while previewing this post it didn't appear that this site would accept the website link.

Of the two first-hand accounts, I consider Bates' the best as far as giving an accurate description of how the fight unfolded. It seems to match up best with the accounts given on the Union side. He specifically states it was Rieff's company (1/2 of it) and one company from the Missouri State Guard that comprised the Confederate force that engaged the Union troops up close. This proves that the combatants from the Confederate side were not infantry, but dismounted cavalry acting as infantry skirmishers. However, some of them must have been carrying rifles or muskets because Joe Scott mentions using a bayonet to fend off an attack. I also noticed where one of the cavalrymen received a wound from a bayonet. My guess is that these two companies numbered closer to 100 than the 800 mentioned by the Herald reporter. Bates described the charging Union force as "15 or 20" which corroborates the reports by the Herald reporter that twenty took part in the cavalry charge.

Joe Scott's account seems very similar to Bates', though he says a few things that I question. He states that after advancing, the Confederate line "charged" on the Union position and says it was made against "Lyon's entire force". If there was a charge made, it had to be a very weak one that didn't come close to the Union line. And it certainly wasn't made against Lyon's entire force. Bates' describes the Confederate line advancing, but makes no mention of a subsequent charge and instead writes about the Union troops opening fire on the skirmish line with their superior rifles. The Confederates probably fired a couple of rounds, as Scott mentions, before being ordered to fall back. Scott gives the impression that the Confederates were attacked by Union cavalry "more than double our number". That may have been true prior to the Union cavalry pulling up and stopping, but as is well documented by Bates' account and the Federal reports, the actual number that charged into the retreating Confederates was closer to 20.

From the very vivid descriptions given of the fighting, it appears that Captain Rieff and his company were in large part responsible for the casualties inflicted on the Union cavalry. Rieff, Mitchell, and Hunter by direct reference are said to have shot six of the Union troops. It seems very probable that most, if not all, of the remaining five casualties were also inflicted by other members of Rieff's company. The account about Joe Bates hand to hand fight with one of Rains' men, shows that Missouri troops were still in the area while the fighting was in progress. To me, it appears that the brunt of the cavalry charge was met primarily by members of Rieff's company. Stirman was apparently told this by members of Rieff's company, and his remarks are not very kind to the Missourians. There are apparently other sources that talk about the retreat of Rains' Missouri troops in unflattering terms.

Dug Springs was a Union victory that caused Rains' command (including Rieff) to retreat back to the main Confederate army. Yet, as far as casualties go, it appears that the Union troops suffered considerably more. Henry Fulbright was the only man in Rieff's company who died and Scott attributes it to overheat, while Stirman uses the term "suffication." I'm wondering if Fulbright may have had asthma and suffered an attack during all the excitement and exertion. The same website I posted above also mentions two possible Confederate casualties from Rains' Missouri troops (one possibly killed and one captured). The newspaper article tells of Lieutenant Kelly having a conversation with a wounded prisoner, which I would guess belonged to the Missouri company.

As I stated at the top, I was surprised when I noticed that none of the online histories of the engagement at Dug Springs made any mention of the significant part taken by Rieff's Independent Cavalry Company. Hopefully this will give a clearer description of what occurred during the charge by the detachment of Company C, 1st U.S. Cavalry into the Confederate lines.


Don said...


I was just paging back through blog entries and saw your fantastic response. You have some incredible details in here that deserve wider dissemination. With your permission, I'd like to re-post this as an actual blog entry.