Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Terrible Night on the Picket Line

I turned up this article not long ago, and was initially somewhat torn about posting it. I eventually decided to put it up, for several reasons. One, it illustrates that cavalry duty wasn’t all charging into battle with sabers extended and carbines blazing. Second, there aren’t too many first person accounts by Regulars of wartime experience. Third, having participated in countless night maneuvers, I can sympathize with Sergeant Ellis while still finding the whole story pretty amusing. The 11th New York Cavalry was unofficially known as “Scott’s 900,” and twenty rods is slightly more than 100 yards. The article is transcribed exactly as Sergeant Ellis wrote it. The entire article is reprinted from The Maine Bugle, Campaign II, Call 3, July 1895, pages 204-207.

“A Terrible Night on the Picket Line

“By Sergeant Hiram Ellis, Second U.S. Cavalry

“In October 1863, after the great flanking march of the Army of the Potomac, the regiment which I belonged, the 2d U.S. Cavalry, was sent into Maryland to get necessary supplies and to relieve our horses from the hardships of the campaign which had rendered them almost useless. We passed through Leesburg, crossed the Potomac at Young’s Island, followed the tow path down to Seneca Locks, under the canal through the culvert and went into camp near the main or river road. We had hardly got settled for the night when the patrol that was always marching up and down on the tow path, reported that an important post of the picket a few miles down the river was without guard. And it was afterwards found that the patrol on its downward march had reported the same to the Scots 900, a regiment stationed a few miles further down. Upon receipt of this report our colonel issued the following order:

“Send a company to that point to guard it for the night, to place one sentinel at the mouth of the culvert and two others at his discretion.”

“At that time I was first sergeant and temporarily in command of the company. The sergeant-major brought the order to me, saying that my company was detailed for that duty, and gave me directions how to find the place. We saddled up and set out, arriving at the place just after dark, and posted the sentinels according to orders. In order to make my story clear I will make this explanation.

“From the main, or river, road to the canal, it was about twenty rods by a small road or by-path, surrounded with sparsely growing shrubs and small pines. This path had a slight rise for about half the distance, then fell off sharply to the bottom of a ravine, this ravine running parallel with the river. The path here made a slight turn to the right, continuing to the bed of a stream that flowed through the culvert, beyond which was a ford of the river. Directly across the ravine, on a slight bluff, stood a block house, or “bomb proof,” and I must describe this, as it has much to do with my story. It was built by setting two rows of timber like a stockade, one outside the other about seven feet apart, and the space between filled with earth, the top covered with heavy timbers and then with earth to a depth of about seven feet. The only entrance to this block house was through a hole so small that only one man could get through at a time, and on hands and knees at that. While the sentinels were being posted, some of the men investigated the hole, got inside and built a small fire so that the inside of the place could be seen. It looked like a good place to spend the night. Our horses were ranged along the bottom of the ravine and fastened to trees and bushes that grew plentifully on one side.

“Upon getting inside the block house it was found that while a good place to spend the night, it would be a bad place in case of attack, because one man with a picked stick would hold us all prisoners or starve us to death. It was therefore ordered that if attacked every man should get out and get to his horse as soon as possible. I will say here, that I had posted sentinels as follows: One at the mouth of the culvert, on a bank of the canal further down the stream, and one at the highest point of the by-path already mentioned. We had hardly got ready to spend the night in the block house when the sentinel posted up the road, challenged, and called out the guard. We got out through that unfortunate hole as quick as we could into line and after a parley allowed one of the party to approach and give the countersign. It was then found to be a company of the “Scots 900” sent there with orders almost identical with mine. It was under command of a lieutenant who at once took command of the whole. He looked at my orders and together we rode around and visited my sentinels, who challenged sharply and required the countersign in good style.

“He approved of what I had done and suggested that as his orders required him to post sentinels he would take two men from his company and for relief he would take three men from my company and two from his and so on till morning. One of these men was posted south of the block house, on high ground, and the others to the north on what would be a continuation of the ravine, or what we supposed was a cropping ledge slightly higher than the surrounding intervale. It was afterward found on a direct line with the culvert. These sentinels were posted without saying anything about it to the others. Then our troubles began. I will say that the night was very dark, the stars could be dimly seen through the haze, and the atmosphere was in condition to transmit sound to a long distance. No wind was perceptible. We had scarcely got inside the block house when a shot was fired, immediately followed by others, and a general uproar outside. We all made a dive for that confounded hole and got out, and there was trouble enough. The sentinels on the low ground were chasing each other, challenging and shooting right and left, and those on the high ground were firing and calling out the guard. And then all made a break for the block house. After much confusion order was restored and as no enemy was found, the sentinels were returned to their posts. Then the lieutenant and myself investigated. We found that the last sentinel posted had fired first and he explained that he had heard something and seen something move, and had challenged and threatened and then fired, but since returning to his rest had seen nothing. I had posted Frank Kelley at the mouth of the culvert, as good a man as I had. He explained that he had heard men talking at the further end of the culvert and after a few pistol shots had been fired, a whole battery of artillery fired, and seeing the flash of a gun up in the field felt sure we were attacked, and made all the noise he could. A further investigation showed that the echo in the culvert would account for all the noise he had heard.

“We then returned to the block house and the lieutenant decided to relieve the guard then and start new so as to avoid any further trouble. The detail was made and we crawled out of that miserable hole and made the rounds systematically, relieving the guard and leaving everything in good order. As the night was chilly, the lieutenant and myself crawled inside once more and had scarcely got in when shots were fired and all hands got outside of that infernal hole and found that the shots we heard were from some party up in the main road, and that a regular battle was going on up there. We felt sure that the enemy was around and made a disposition to give him a warm reception as soon as he came within range. Our whole force was drawn up across the path at the bottom of the ravine. Our carbines were fully charged and every man was instructed just what to do. Soon the firing died out and we could hear a parley going on and after considerable loud talk the whole party seemed to be coming towards us. The lieutenant placed one of his best men at the post on the top of the hill with positive orders to challenge before he fired. True to his instructions, when the party got near enough, he sung out “Who comes there?” fired, and then scampered down the hill to where we stood in line of battle. The forces approaching, then knowing that it was the enemy, opened up on us with everything they could, and we knowing it was the enemy, returned the compliment in kind and together we filled the sky full of bullets for a short time. But our fire soon slackened and the enemy appeared to have retreated. We began to look around to see if any of our men were hurt, when a voice was heard asking what troops we were.

“After a long parley he was allowed to come in, and we found that he belonged to our regiment and that the whole crowd were United States troops sent to our relief. It seems that when we had our first scrimmage the noise we made was heard up to our camp and reported to the colonel that Sergeant Ellis was attacked, and he at once ordered out a company to our relief. The noise was also heard down to the camp of the Scots nine hundred, and a company was ordered out to their relief. These two companies meeting where they had no right to expect any troops, naturally mistook each other for the enemy and pitched into each other, and had a regular fight; but after a while found out their mistake and joined together, but were unable to account for the first firing they had heard. They approached our position, and the reception we gave them led them to believe that the picket was in the hands of the enemy, and had therefore opened on us with all their might. About this time it began to grow light, so the pickets were called in and each party prepared to return to camp and report; but first the ranking officers wanted to find out how the row began.

“The man who fired the first shot was found and taken to the place where he was posted to explain how it was. He insisted that he had seen and heard something that would not answer his challenge; and sure enough on the low ground, right in front of where he stood lay an old cow --- dead, the blood still oozing froma bullet wound. We then started for camp. When we got up in sight of the main road we saw down on the right a line of skirmishers and upon the left a line of skirmishers, all coming towards us, and all wore the blue; and behind each was the rest of their regiment in all the pomp and circumstance of war.

“As soon as we were near enough to understand the case each line involuntarily halted and looked at each other. Then the commander of each regiment, seeming to comprehend, rode to the front between the lines and went at each other, and if you never heard a wordy war you would have heard one then. It did seem as if blood would be spilt then, if not before. But their ammunition was soon expended, and more explanations followed, when it was found that when our second and third fights were going on it was reported to our colonel, “Sergeant Ellis is having another fight down there,” and to the colonel of the Scots 900, “They are at it again up there.” Then each colonel called in all the force he could raise and came to the rescue as I have described. After the investigation had all been gone over again without much satisfaction to any one, each regiment started for its own camp, when a broad smile came over all that had not actually been engaged, but to us who were there, it was a serious affair. We were all badly frightened and much ammunition had been expended but the only thing wounded or killed was that old cow.”

Editor’s afterword: The entire Reserve Brigade was at the Cavalry Depot at Giesboro Point, Washington, D.C. from August 12 to October 11, 1863. The regiment didn’t have a “colonel” serving with it at the time. It was commanded during the Bristoe Run campaign (October 9-22, 1863) by Captain George A. Gordon, and it is reasonable to assume that he was commanding during this incident as well. (Source: OR-Series I, Volume XXIX, Chapter XLI, Pg 212)

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