Wilson Vanatta (aka Vannatta) was born in Steubenville, Ohio, just across Ohio River from, what is today, West Virginia, and only ten miles from the Pennsylvania line. Vanatta enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry on August 26, 1861. He was a farmer, 22 years of age, five feet, ten inches tall, with a fair complexion and brown eyes and hair. One can wonder if he gave any thought as to how his decision to enlist might possibly change his life.
In May 1862, the 4th Pennsylvania was ordered to join Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s command along the Rappahannock River. The men spent several weeks doing scouting duty, venturing as far south as Hanover Court House, where they made contact with Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s pickets. In mid-June the regiment was ordered to join McClellan’s army on the outskirts of Richmond. The troopers broke camp at Falmouth on June 14, boarded transports at Belle Plain and reached the army in time for the Seven Days Campaign.
In the very early hours of August 1, forty-one Confederate cannon, emplaced at Coggin’s Point, along the south bank of the James River, opened an intense shelling of the Union camps at Harrison’s Landing. One thousand rounds may have been fired before the Southern guns went silent. That afternoon, McClellan sent an expedition, including the 4th Pennsylvania, across the river to cut back the timber along the shoreline and to destroy several homes which may have served the enemy as observation posts. “Our troops have gone over the river and set fire to all the buildings on the bank,” a 4th Pennsylvania trooper noted in his diary. “It was a scene for a painter as the smoke and flames rolled up and reflected on the dark clouds.”
Vanatta was captured in early August, though his records offer conflicting information. Several documents state he was captured at Coggin’s Point, which would suggest he was taken during this expedition. Other records place his capture at Malvern Hill, several days after the expedition to Coggin’s Point. He was paroled in early September and returned to duty November 26, 1862.
For several weeks prior to his capture, Vanatta served as an orderly at regimental headquarters. He resumed these duties in January, and served in this capacity for an additional five months. His length of service in this position suggests he was a young man of character and a good soldier in all regards.
Cavalry commanders may have tried to foist their problem soldiers off on other commands when the call went out for orderlies, but they did not last long, as suggested by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett in April 1863. “I request,” Bartlett wrote to the commanding officer of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, “that Privates James Avery and David Haggerty, Co. L, 1st NJ Cavalry be relieved from duty as orderlies of these Headquarters and better men detailed in their place. Avery and Haggarty are imperfectly equipped, slovenly and wholly unfit for their position.”
At the battle of Upperville, June 21, 1863, the cavalry fought alongside infantry from Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Fifth Corps throughout the morning and early afternoon. However, after driving Jeb Stuart’s cavalry from their positions along Goose Creek, the Union infantry withdrew from the advance, turning the task over to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s troopers. By mid-afternoon the bucolic farms and meadows around Upperville were torn asunder by thousands of charging horses and exploding artillery shells, as the second largest cavalry battle of the war, to that point, reached a bloody climax around the town.
As Stuart’s regiments retired from the low ridge east of Upperville, known as Vineyard Hill, they passed through and around the town. Troopers from the 1st Maine were ordered to clear the town, supported by the 4th Pennsylvania. Emerging from the town the Yankees gazed westward at an unobstructed view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Ashby’s Gap. They also saw Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson’s brigade of North Carolinians drawn up across the road ahead of them.
The Tarheels soon made a desperate charge, meeting the Yankees near the intersection of the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike and the Trappe Road. The 1st Maine yielded, struggling to clear the stone walls bordering the road, and make their way into the fields to either side of the pike. Lt. Col. William Doster then brought his Pennsylvanians forward and delivered a volley into the Confederate ranks which broke the charge. Doster immediately ordered a countercharge which resulted in a bloody melee along the turnpike. Receiving fire from their flanks, some of the Confederates sought cover behind the walls and returned the fire as best they could. Others grappled with the bluecoats in deadly hand-to-hand struggles in the road. The heavy fire, especially from the men of the 1st Maine, into the flanks of the Southern ranks soon forced the Carolinians to retire.
As Colonel Doster later reported, “I then deployed two squadrons in the field on the right of the road as skirmishers, falling back some distance in the field with the principle part of my command. The enemy again charged, my men at the same time wheeling, so as to throw a flank fire into him as he passed along the road.”
This attack was made by Col. Peter Evans and his 5th North Carolina. As Evans sunk in his spurs, he did not hear his orders countermanded by General Robertson. Many of his men did hear Robertson’s orders, however, and did not join their colonel. All of this was observed by the waiting Federals, who were perplexed by what they saw.
“About twenty of my men,” Doster explained, “then dashed into the road in his [Evans] rear, and after a desperate hand-to-hand conflict, utterly routed and discomfited him, thus preventing his escape and causing the capture of the entire party…” This was the final combat action of the battle.
The very confusing nature of the charges and counter-charges, and the swirling melees that resulted, leave historians at a loss to explain these actions in any real detail. Each man, intent on surviving, rather than committing the events to memory, had a rather limited view of the action. Lost in the accounts of the battle is the name of Wilson Vanatta – or at least until August 2, 1863, when Colonel Doster issued a brief but remarkable order.
The commanding officer of this regiment desires to call attention of the officers and enlisted men to the brilliant action of Private Wilson Vanatta, Co D, 4th Penna Cavalry at Upperville, June 2, 1863.
During the desperate charge of this regiment against [Robertson’s] brigade of cavalry he charged one mile in pursuit of the flying enemy, captured three prisoners and several horses, helped to rally a small party of the 1st Maine and 4th PA Cavalry, made an obstinate stand in the road, charged the head of the advancing column, killing their leader and checking their furious assault and continued displaying the most heroic gallantry until carried wounded and helpless from the field.
It is in a great measure owing to his example… that the day was won, that the regiment to which he belongs was left in triumphant possession of the field.
Private Vanatta is now by the fortune of war rendered incapable of again bearing arms, of fighting in the ranks which he has so long honored, but let him be assured that while he has our hearty sympathy in his misfortune he will always be gratefully remembered as the bravest of the brave.
I have rarely seen a document like this, and, as thrilled as I was to find it, I immediately wished Colonel Doster had been more explicit. Still, I understand the colonel had been in the very midst of this desperate action, fighting alongside his men, and for a few moments a prisoner. Colonel Doster’s identification of Wilson Vanatta as the man who, he believed, mortally wounded Col. Peter Evans is especially helpful. Reading this document, I realized I needed to know more about Wilson Vanatta.