of the 8th 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 COL. WILLIAM L. MARKELL.
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
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
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
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
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New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
March 16, 2006