Historical Sketch

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.



On July 22, 1861, the day after the Bull Run disaster, a tidal wave of patriotism rolled over the entire North from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, leaving its impress on every loyal heart, and a deep-seated feeling that the Rebellion must be put down and the Union preserved intact, regardless of cost, of treasure, and of precious lives. On that day two members of Company F, Fifty-fourth Regiment, New York State Militia (Rochester City Dragoons) met on the street in Rochester, and, as a matter of course, conversation turned on the subject that was uppermost in all minds. Both expressing the intention of adding their mite by offering their services, and lives if necessary, in the preservation of the Union, one suggested the feasibility of recruiting a regiment of cavalry. They parted to meet the next day, and after a few meetings and discussions the two men went to Albany to interview Governor Morgan. They received authority from him to raise a regiment of cavalry to serve three years, or during the war. They returned to Rochester and immediately opened a recruiting office. They secured the county fair grounds and buildings for barracks and camps.

Ten companies were organized, drilled and mustered into the United States service November 23, 1861. November 28th, the regiment left Rochester for Washington under command of Col. Samuel J. Crooks, where it remained as part of the force in defence of the Capital until March 9, 1862.

During this time rumors were rife that the military authorities thought they were getting more cavalry than was needed, and that a number of regiments which had not been mounted, would be disbanded or reorganized as infantry. Colonel Crooks having resigned, the officers arrived at the conclusion that if some cavalry officer of the regular army, of well-known ability, were appointed to the command of the regiment it would enhance the prospect of their retention and being mounted. They unanimously joined in a request to General Stoneman, then in command of the cavalry, to recommend some tried officer of this description for the colonelcy, setting forth the fact that the regiment was composed of a superior body of men, and if fully equipped and commanded by an officer of well-known skill, it would be a credit to the army and render efficient service to the country. He commended their course and complied with the request. The wisdom of this action on the part of the officers was fully demonstrated afterwards by the glorious career of the regiment.

March 9, 1862, the regiment broke camp at Washington, and was placed on guard along the upper Potomac and canal from Edwards Ferry to Point of Rocks. April 6th, it was ordered to Harper's Ferry and guarded the railroad from that point to Winchester until May 24th, the time of Banks' retreat before Jackson, when it fell back to Harper's Ferry. In anticipation of an attack on this place the men volunteered for this occasion to take muskets and help defend the place. They were furnished with muskets and forty rounds of ammunition, and in this shape marched up to Bolivar Heights and took position on the extreme right of the line of battle there formed, and were the last recalled when the line was withdrawn the same night.

They were then posted on Maryland Heights where they were engaged in picket duty until about the 23d of June, when they were ordered to Relay House, near Baltimore, for the purpose of being mounted and fully equipped. Here they were joined by Capt. B. F. Davis, of the First U. S. Cavalry, who had been commissioned as colonel of the Eighth New York Cavalry at the request of the officers of the regiment, upon the recommendation of General Stoneman. The regiment remained at Relay House, the men drilling assiduously until the fore part of September, when they were ordered to Harper's Ferry, from which point they were daily reconnoitering up to the night of the I4th of September, when they accomplished their ever memorable escape from that place.

Harper's Ferry at this time being completely invested on all sides, and it being a foregone conclusion that the place would surrender, Colonel Davis received the reluctant consent of Colonel Miles, who was in command, to make the attempt at saving the cavalry by withdrawing them and forcing their way through the enemy's lines. Soon after dark on the night of the 14th of September, the Eighth New York Cavalry, the Twelfth Illinois Cavalry and a portion of the First Maryland Cavalry, all under command of Colonel Davis, crossed the pontoon bridge to the Maryland side of the Potomac and commenced their perilous night march. A little before daylight on the morning of the 15th, they captured Longstreet's ammunition train on the Hagerstown Pike, about three miles from Williamsport, which they turned and hurried along at a break-neck speed for Greencastle, Pa., reaching there about the middle of the forenoon. Then, proceeding more leisurely, the train, consisting of some 75 to 80 wagons and some 300 horses and mules, moved on to Chambersburg. The brigade rested at Greencastle that night, and on the next day joined Mc-Clellan on the battlefield of Antietam. Colonel Davis was brevetted major, U. S. A., on the recommendation of General McClellan, for conspicuous conduct in the management of the withdrawal of the cavalry from Harper's Ferry at the surrender of that place.

About the 1st of October, the regiment took the advance along with other cavalry in pursuit of the Rebel army, which was falling back to the Rappahan-nock River, by the way of the Shenandoah Valley, and the turnpike leading south on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After crossing the Potomac River at Berlin, the first engagement in which the regiment participated was at Snickersville, on the 27th day of October, 1862, when it dashed boldly up the Pike leading through the Gap. It had barely covered a quarter of the distance to the Gap when a concealed battery opened on them with canister and compelled them to fall back, which they did in good order.

Then came in rapid succession the engagements at Philomont, Unionville, Upperville, Barbee's Cross Roads, Sulphur Springs, Amissville, Corbin's Cross Roads and Jefferson. Those of Philomont, Unionville, Upperville, Amissville and Jefferson were sharp skirmishes in which the regiment lost quite largely in killed and wounded; while that at Barbee's Cross Roads was a savage one while it lasted, and first gave the regiment that confidence in itself which it afterwards maintained to the close of the war. It was the first fair charge of cavalry against cavalry of any magnitude in which it had engaged, and the enemy was completely routed. On this field the writer saw for the first time the corpse of a cavalryman, killed with a sabre.

A part of the regiment was dismounted and sent ahead to skirmish and dislodge a portion of the Rebels who were also fighting dismounted and endeavoring to hold our advance in check. While our dismounted men were skirmishing behind a stone wall, Colonel Davis led the remainder over a small knoll and formed them in a hollow, out of sight of the enemy. They were but just formed when a large regiment of Rebel cavalry came charging down upon them. Before the Rebels had reached the brow of the knoll the command, "Charge!" was given, and in a moment that mounted part of the regiment charged so unexpectedly and so impetuously that the enemy broke and fled in the wildest disorder, leaving many of their number in our hands, dead, wounded, or prisoners. An extract from General McClellan's report of this engagement reads: "A largely superior force charged Colonel Davis' Eighth New York Cavalry, but were gallantly met and repulsed."

At Jefferson the regiment participated in its last engagement for the year 1862. The weather was growing quite cold, and the men were not as yet furnished with shelter tents. They were obliged to lie out all night on the damp ground, and nearly all the time were denied the privilege of fire. Their sufferings were not inconsiderable. But they were made happy by being ordered into regular camp at Belle Plain, from where they were sent at intervals to do picket duty on the Rappahannock River, which formed the dividing line between the two armies.

At an early date in 1863, active operations again began on the part of the regiment, which had been strengthened by the addition of three new companies, recruited at Rochester by Maj. William H. Benjamin during August, Septem-. ber and October, 1862, he having been detailed from the regiment for this duty. Up to June 9, 1863, the day of the cavalry fight at Beverly Ford, the Eighth Cavalry had participated in fourteen different engagements of more or less importance, losing in killed, wounded, and missing, about 50 men, the greater part of the losses occurring at Independence Hill, March 4th, and Freeman's Ford, April 15th. At the time of the battle of Chancellorsville they were engaged several days in operations around the right flank of our own and the left flank of the Rebel army, coming inside of our line over the breastworks on the extreme right a little before sunset May 4th, and that night fell back with the main body of the army.

The great cavalry battle at Beverly Ford, June 9, 1863, deserves special mention. In this battle the regiment took the leading part, and lost more men in killed and wounded than any other regiment engaged. Before it was fairly light they dashed across the Ford and into the very midst of the Rebel camps. During the whole fight the Eighth was in the thickest of it, winning much glory, but at the expense of many gallant officers and men. It was here, and in the first dash, that the gallant Colonel Davis fell mortally wounded at the head of his regiment. His loss was deeply deplored, not by his own regiment alone, but by the entire cavalry corps. Lieut. Col. William L. Markell was promoted to the vacancy, and became colonel of the regiment. From Beverly Ford to Gettysburg the regiment was marching and skirmishing almost daily.

Late in the afternoon of June 30th, the regiment, leading the advance of the First Brigade, First Division, Cavalry Corps, entered Gettysburg, passed through the town, and bivouacked near the Seminary in an open field on the left of the Cashtown Pike, from which one squadron advancing about a mile established a picket line across and on both sides of the Cashtown Road. About 7 o'clock on the next morning, July 1st, the officer commanding the squadron on picket gave notice that the enemy in strong force was advancing on his pickets from the direction of Cashtown. The brigade was formed in.line of battle as soon as possible about a mile in front of the Seminary, and three squadrons deployed as skirmishers were advanced to the support of the picket line now being driven back by the enemy.

The fighting soon became general and sharp along the whole line, our skirmishers stubbornly resisting every inch of the enemy's advance although the Confederates were there in overpowering numbers. In a short time the line was compelled to fall back to the next ridge, less than a quarter of a mile in the rear. The skirmishers fighting stubbornly in the meantime behind fences and trees, and our artillery doing good execution, the advance of the enemy was retarded, and this line was maintained until about 10 o'clock, when the First Corps, the advance of our infantry, came up and relieved the Cavalry Brigade in its unequal contest with the enemy. When we consider that two divisions of Hill's Corps were held in check for three hours by so small a cavalry force, it becomes unnecessary to say anything more about their gallantry and fighting qualities. The regimental monument of the Eighth New York now stands on the spot the regiment occupied when relieved by the First Corps, on what is now known as Reynolds Avenue, and a few rods in rear of the spot where General Reynolds was killed.

In the afternoon the enemy, being strongly reinforced, extended his flanks, and made a desperate attempt to turn our left. They advanced in three strong lines, when our brigade was ordered forward at a trot and deployed. Half of the command was dismounted and placed behind a portion of a stone wall on a ridge of woods, with the Seminary on our right. The enemy being close upon us we opened an effective, rapid fire with our breech-loading carbines, which killed and wounded so many of their first line, that after a short heroic struggle to continue the advance, they could stand it no longer and fell back on the second line. Our men kept up the fire until the enemy, in overwhelming numbers, approached so near that in order to save our men and horses we were obliged to mount and fall back rapidly to the next ridge, carrying our wounded with us. The stand we there made against the enemy prevented our left flank from being turned, and saved a division of our infantry.

After Gettysburg, while Lee was falling back towards Richmond, our experience was a repetition of that after the Antietam battle, except that the engagements were more frequent and severe. Hanging on to Lee's flank, watching every opportunity to harass and punish his retreating troops, we were marching and fighting almost daily. From Gettysburg, until the last of November, when the active campaign was closed and camp established near Cul-peper, the regiment participated in twenty-six different engagements, some of which were mere skirmishes and others were quite severe cavalry fights, losing in killed, wounded, and missing during the time mentioned somewhere over 150 men. On February 27, 1864, Colonel Markell resigned, and Lieut. Col. William H. Benjamin succeeded to the command. In due time he was commissioned colonel.

From the beginning of the year 1864, to the time of the battles of the Wilderness, the regiment took part in only two engagements; but from that time on the predictions of a lively campaign were verified, and a day passed without a fight of more or less severity was the exception; the regiment distinguished itself by many gallant acts. During March, 1864, the regiment which had up to that time been in the First Division, Cavalry Corps, A. P., became a part of the Second Brigade of the Third Division. The regiment accompanied Sheridan on the great raid at Richmond, and took an active part in nearly every engagement. After the raid, it was in three quite severe engagements, in one of which, at Hawes Shop, Colonel Benjamin, while gallantly leading the regiment, was wounded.

The Eighth went to Petersburg, and did picket duty in the vicinity of Prince George Court House until the date of General Wilson's raid. Accompanying the raid the regiment lost heavily,— on June 22d, cutting their way through the Rebel right at Reams' Station, on the 23d, at Black and Whites, to near Nottoway Court House, where the brigade being cut off from the main command had an afternoon and all night's battle, sustaining a loss of 90 men. On the 24th, it succeeded in joining the command at Meherrin Station, on the Dansville Railroad; on the 25th, to Roanoke Creek; and at night, to Staunton River; 27th, to Meherrin River; 28th, to Stony Creek Station, on the Weldon Railroad, in rear of the Rebel lines,, where all the afternoon and night they were trying to cut their way through, but were again headed off by the enemy and forced to make their way back south nearly to the North Carolina line. After enduring untold hardships, they at last found their way into the Union lines, the regiment losing nearly one-third of its number.

August 8th, the regiment was shipped to Washington and proceeded to Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, where they were prominent in all the gallant engagements under Sheridan, in which the Eighth won special mention from both the division and corps commanders.

On October 29th, the expiration of its term of enlistment, those entitled thereto were ordered to Rochester to be discharged and mustered out. Many of the men and officers re-enlisted, and together with those whose term had not expired were consolidated into a battalion of eight companies and retained in the service. April 30, 1865, four new companies were formed of recruits mustered in for one and two years, and the regimental organization was again completed. Lieut. Col. Edmund M. Pope, original captain of Company A, was commissioned colonel, February 14th, and he ably commanded the regiment until the close of the war.

On the 27th of February, 1865, the regiment was on the march southward from Winchester, and on March 2d, encountering the enemy in force at Waynes-borough under General Early, a sharp battle ensued, resulting in a signal victory for our side, leaving in our hands about 1,500 prisoners, 5 pieces of artillery, and 10 battle flags. Major Compson, who commanded the regiment in this engagement, was awarded a Medal of Honor for the capture of a battle flag. The Waynesborough affair over, the march to Petersburg was continued, and the command took a prominent part in the last and effective campaign of the war.

This regiment received the flag of truce sent in by General Lee at Appomat-tox, June 9, 1865. During its term of service it lost in killed, wounded, and missing, 794 men; participated in over 100 engagements; and earned its enviable reputation on many a hard-fought field. But few regiments in the service have furnished as bright a page for history as the Eighth New York Volunteer Cavalry.

The following-named officers were killed while gallantly fighting in the ranks of the regiment:
Col. Benjamin F. Davis, at Beverly Ford, Va.
Capt. Benjamin F. Foote, at Beverly Ford, Va.
Lieut. Henry C. Cutler, at Beverly Ford, Va.
Lieut. Benjamin C. Efner, at Beverly Ford, Va.
Lieut. James E. Reeves, at Beverly Ford, Va.
Capt. Charles D. Follett, at Gettysburg, Pa.
Capt. James McNair, at Nottoway Court House.
Capt. James A. Sayles, at Nottoway Court House.
Capt. Asa L. Goodrich, at Namozine Church.
Lieut. Richard S. Taylor, at Strawberry Hill.
Lieut. Carlos S. Smith, at Broad Run.
Lieut. Benjamin F. Chappell, at Five Forks.

If space would permit, mention should be made also of the many enlisted men and non-commissioned officers who met heroic deaths on the battlefield. Heroes all.