Historical Sketch Of The 2nd Cavalry
Taken from Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902.
By LIEUT. COL. MORTIMER B. BIRDSEYE.
The Second New York Cavalry was organized in July, 1861, at Washington, D. C. Col. J. Mansfield Davies having recruited six full companies in and about New York, was ordered with them to Washington, where he was joined by two companies from each of the following States: New Jersey, Indiana, and Connecticut.
It was at first thought to organize the twelve companies into a regiment for the regular army, but the Secretary of War finally decided that this could not be done, and there being the most men from New York, Colonel Davies was directed to report to Governor Morgan for an assignment of a regimental number, and commissions for the officers. As the First New York Volunteer Cavalry was then organized and mustered into the service, Governor Morgan designated the regiment as the Second New York Cavalry. It was at this time decided to name the organization the" Harris Light Cavalry," in honor of United States Senator Ira Harris, of Albany, N. Y., who had been of great assistance to Colonel Davies in raising the six companies, and, later, through his influence at Washington, in securing the companies from New Jersey, Indiana and Connecticut. In token of the name, Senator Harris presented the regiment with a flag, bearing his likeness and the inscription "Harris Light Cavalry." This flag the regiment proudly carried and gallantly defended on many a hotly contested battlefield for four long years.
Governor Morgan commissioned J. Mansfield Davies as colonel; Judson Kilpatrick, of New Jersey, as lieutenant colonel; Henry E. Davies, Alfred N. Duffie and Otto Harhaus as majors; Julius Lorell as adjutant; William H. Vallance as quartermaster; and Charles E. Hackley as surgeon. A full complement of staff and line officers were commissioned at this time, among which was the afterwards widely known novelist, Edward P. Roe, who was commissioned as chaplain.
Col. J. Mansfield Davies remained in the service but a short time, when Kilpatrick became colonel, and Henry E. Davies lieutenant colonel. Subsequently Davies and Harhaus were promoted to the colonelcy of the regiment. Under these efficient officers the regiment rapidly improved in discipline and drill.
Colonel Kilpatrick, having been promoted to a brigadier general in June, 1863, Colonel Davies was promoted to the same rank the following fall, leaving Colonel Harhaus in command of the regiment. He continued in command until August 29, 1864, when he was mustered out on expiration of his three years' term of service. Maj. Walter C. Hull was then promoted to colonel, and commanded until he was killed in battle at Old Forge, Va., November 12, 1864. Lieut. Col. M. B. Birdseye then commanded the regiment until Capt. Alanson M. Randol, of the regular army, was made colonel of the regiment in January, 1865. He commanded the regiment most of the time until June 23, 1865, when it was mustered out of the service.
The regiment was in the Army of the Potomac during its entire service, except while with General Sheridan in the" Valley," the fall and winter of 1864, returning to Fredericksburg in March, 1865, and taking part in the various battles leading up to Appomattox.
The" Harris Light" was twice recruited to nearly its full complement of enlisted men, there being upwards of 2,800 names carried on its rolls at various times. Many of the officers were promoted in the regiment, and some to several grades. Notwithstanding this, there were, at different times, 185 different commissioned officers in the regiment. Many of these officers came from the ranks. Of its original officers, Kilpatrick and Davies became major generals of volunteers, and Duffie, Whitaker and Randol became brigadier generals. Some 43 officers and about 400 men were carried on the rolls at the time the regiment was mustered out.
The regiment was depleted during service by 9 officers and 112 men killed on various battlefields; 2 officers and 234 men who died of disease or other causes; 20 officers and 226 men wounded; and 14 officers and 545 men captured or missing. Record shows that the regiment was engaged in 177 different battles and skirmishes during its service, and was at different times serving under the following brigade and division commanders,- Generals Bayard, Kilpatrick, Gregg, Wilson, Custer, Davies, McIntosh, and Pennington; and that it was under General Sheridan from the time he came to the Army of the Potomac until Lee's final surrender. Its last year's service was in Custer's famous Third Cavalry Division.
There are many officers and enlisted men of the" Harris Light Cavalry" deserving of special mention for their valorous deeds, as well as many exploits of the entire command. But space will only permit of a brief sketch. One of the sad events and a great loss to the regiment, was the death of that gallant young officer, Col. Walter C. Hull, who was killed at the head of his regiment while leading a charge against Col. Tom Marshall's Virginia Cavalry, at Old Forge, Va., November 12, 1864. Again, in the loss of the dashing Irish officer, Maj. Joseph O'Keefe, who fell riddled with bullets, in the desperate charge on the enemy's breastworks at Five Forks.
Sad, indeed, were the trials of the brave Maj. Edward W. Cook, who, taking 100 picked men from the regiment, officered by Capt. Jno. F. B. Mitchell and Lieut. William R. Mattison, joined Col. Ulric Dahlgren on his famous raid to Richmond for the liberation of the suffering Union prisoners on Belle Island. Dahlgren was killed on this raid and Cook captured, Mitchell and Mattison bringing back into our lines about one-half of the command. Major Cook was held prisoner nearly one year, and suffered all the horrors of death from the enemy's inhuman treatment, and, as a result, died a few years later.
It was the gallant Capt. E. W. Whitaker, at the time serving on General Custer's staff, who, with a detachment of picked men, made a long and forced march in winter time from Winchester, Va., over the mountains into the Moorefield district, and captured the famous Rebel raider, Harry Gilmore. Again it was Capt. Robert A. Landon who captured the dreaded guerrilla chieftain, Mosby, at Beaver Dam Station, Va., in 1863.
This regiment has the honor of being the only Union regiment that passed the outer line of defenses surrounding Richmond during its occupation by Confederate forces. This was on the Kilpatrick raid, in the spring of 1864, when General Kilpatrick, at the head of his first command, the old" Harris Light," accompanied by a section of Ransom's Battery, boldly pushed down the Brook Pike through the outer line of defenses and threw forty odd shells from his three-inch guns into the outskirts of the Confederate Capital.
Again, this regiment is entitled to the credit of opening up the" ball" in the immediate vicinity of Appomattox; for it was the" Harris Light," led by Lieut. Col. M. B. Birdseye, that charged into Appomattox Station (three miles from where Lee's main army was camped) about sunset, April 8th, and captured three railroad trains, loaded with supplies for Lee's almost famished army. The road leading from the Station to Appomattox Court House was at this time filled with the Confederate wagon trains, under escort, coming for the much-needed supplies. The regiment finally succeeded in driving the enemy back along this road and capturing about a half mile of their wagon train, when General Custer came dashing on to the scene with the balance of the Third Cavalry Division. By this time General Lee had sent forward a large force of cavalry and infantry, supported by a couple of horse batteries. It was now about dark, and a struggle commenced for the possession of that wagon train. Later, General Merritt came up with his cavalry division and became hotly engaged. The enemy stubbornly contested every rod of their train until 2 o'clock in the morning, when they retired to and beyond Appomattox Court House, leaving us in possession of three miles of their train. Again, soon after daylight on the morning of the 9th, the regiment was engaged with the enemy, and continued under fire until Lee's final surrender.
On April 6, 1865, at the battle of Harper's Farm, or Sailor's Creek, as the infantry call it, the "Harris Light" made an important capture of prisoners, securing Generals Ewell, Custis Lee, and Bushrod Johnson, with 4,200 officers and men of their commands.
Soon after the close of the war the survivors of the old regiment formed themselves into an association known as "The Harris Light Cavalry Association," and have held their annual reunions since.