Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis at Barbee’s Cross Roads

Col. Benjamin Franklin ‘Grimes’ Davis, 8th New York Cavalry, remains an intriguing figure, largely because he is so elusive.  A Regular Army officer, Davis’s rigid adherence to strict discipline put him at odds with the volunteers who served under him.  One perpetually disgruntled surgeon termed him “a proud tyrannical devil.”  Upon learning that Davis had died of wounds received at Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, the unsympathetic doctor crowed, “General rejoicing among our Brigade…he was such a Tyrant.”

Still, Davis looked after his men and their welfare.  Regimental historian Henry Norton remembered Davis as “a man who wanted his men and horses to have enough to eat.  Horses were looked after first.”  Norton also recalled Davis’s “strict orders that no man should molest anything that belonged to the inhabitants through the country.”  Local farmers received receipts against the government as payment for crops and animals seized by the army, but the needs of the soldiers always trumped the needs of the local populace.  Conflict was a certainty, as farmers sought to protect their families and their income, even when the soldiers adhered to the standing orders.

In mid-October 1862, farmers, near Hagerstown, Maryland, infuriated Davis, when they accused his men of taking hay by force.  The complaint was made to Brig. Gen. John Buford, George McClellan’s Chief of Cavalry.  “Complaints have reached here,” Buford told Davis, “that your men forcibly take possession of hay in their vicinity and abuse the owners when they object.  Such practices must be stopped.  Can’t the quartermaster supply you hay?”

Davis responded to Buford on October 21.  “I have received your telegram in which you say complaints have been made that I have forcibly taken possession of hay belonging to people in this vicinity and also that I abused them when they objected.  The Quartermaster here has not furnished hay to my regiment in the last three weeks and my horses here have had to go without as the hay had to be procured from farmers in the vicinity.

As a general thing they have been unwilling to sell and the Quartermaster has taken what he wanted and given the proper receipts.  I have only heard of but one case in which any serious objection was made.  In that case the man told a falsehood about the quantity of hay in his barn, declaring that he had only five tons…when in fact there was fifteen or twenty.  I directed about half of it to be taken.  In short I have been governed in taking forage strictly by the circular issued…on that subject – the reference to my abusing or countenancing the abuse of any person for refusing to let me have hay or any other property, I have only to add that the informant was guilty of a malignant falsehood.”  As described in an earlier post, Davis and Buford were, I believe, close friends and confidants.  Davis’s anger is directed at the accusing farmers, not Buford.

Five days later, October 26, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, spearheading McClellan’s slow pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Tasked with obstructing the Federals, Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart challenged Pleasonton at Mountsville, Aldie, Union, Upperville and Piedmont.  One of Davis’s troopers noted, “Our Colonel is most prominent in all the movements, and greatly relied on.”

On November 5, the cavalry clashed at Barbee’s Cross Roads (modern-day Hume) in Fauquier County.  Reports of the action at Barbee’s Cross Roads submitted by Pleasonton, Stuart and Lt. Col. James B. Gordon, 1st North Carolina Cavalry, may be found in the Official Records.  The unpublished report submitted by Colonel Davis, may be found below.

Davis, like Buford, enjoyed smoking a pipe.  “He had an old clay pipe,” Henry Norton said of Davis, “and when he got engaged he would keep his pipe in his mouth for an hour after it was smoked out.”  The New Yorkers were certain of battle as they approached Barbee’s Cross Roads for Davis “had his pipe in his mouth bottom side up.”

“Dec. 5, 1862

Captain,

I have the honor to submit herewith in compliance with the 742 Article Army Regulations, the following report of the operations of my regiment at the fight at [Barbee’s] Cross Roads on the 5th of November.

On leaving Piedmont [modern-day Delaplane] in the morning the regiment was placed in rear of the leading section of artillery and followed in this order until we came up with the enemy.  The guns were placed in position and I was directed to support them, but before the regiment was formed I was ordered by Gen. Pleasonton in person to move towards a mill which was on our right and front and operate in that direction.  By taking advantage of hollows and ravines we reached the mill unmolested but on attempting to pass the crest were met by severe fire of spherical case from the enemy’s artillery which was posted on a commanding eminence about 600 yards to our left and front.  The enemy’s cavalry could also be seen in large force in the other end of a field about a quarter of a mile distant.  The regiment was halted momentarily behind the crest and dispositions made to attack.

Capt. [Hobert] Mann’s squadron was dismounted and sent along a stone wall which was somewhat in the direction of their guns, with orders to drive away their skirmishers and if he could get close enough to pick off their gunners.  The other three squadrons were then moved over the hill into the field and placed behind some high ground to screen them from the artillery fire, which was at this time very severe.

The enemy’s cavalry were also hidden from view by high ground at the other extremity of the field.  Capt. [Edmond] Pope’s, a small squadron of fifty men, was then thrown forward as skirmishers toward a piece of woods to the right and front.  The regiment opposite to me proved to be the 1st North Carolina and the commanding officer seeing Capt. Pope’s squadron and supposing it to be alone immediately ordered the charge.  The Captain ordered his men to rally in the corner of the field to my right and rear and the enemy came dashing after him at full speed and with loud cheers.  From an eminence on which I was standing I galloped back to the Reserve Squadrons, brought them up over the hill and charged the enemy somewhat obliquely just as the main body had arrived nearly opposite to our position.  Although less than half their numbers the charge was made with such vigor and intrepidity that he hesitated, pulled up, opened fire with pistol and carbines and finally as the leading files were closing upon him, turned about and fled in the utmost confusion.  The men followed with the greatest eagerness close up to the reserves, sabering and taking prisoners at every step.  Knowing that a regiment was in reserve ready to call on in case the pursuit was followed too far I ordered the men to rally in the woods on our right already referenced to.  This was done but owing to the confusion that necessarily follows a successful charge, not without considerable delay.

I should have mentioned that a part of the enemy’s leading squadron had anticipated the main body and had reached the corner of the field in pursuit of our skirmishers when they were opened upon by a sharp fire from Capt. Mann’s dismounted squadron, and driven back, most of them making their escape through the woods on the right.  Quite a number of prisoners also made their escape in the same manner for want of a reserve to pick them up.  As soon as the command was rallied, Capt. Pope’s squadron was again thrown forward in the woods as skirmishers and was fast gaining a position to their left and rear when the 3rd Indiana reached me as a support.  I ordered it forward to attack the enemy now in full retreat, and informed Major [George] Chapman that I would follow closely and give him support.  Whilst proceeding to execute this order the Major was called by a counter order from Gen. Pleasonton to go to the rear and support guns.  I then recalled Capt. Pope and moved the regiment to the front but by this time the enemy’s columns had safely retreated and taken up a position with their artillery a mile or so in rear.  Understanding no pursuit was to be made I repaired to the rear and reported myself to the general in person.

The result of the charge was five of the enemy left dead on the field, one captain and fifteen non-commissioned officers and privates taken prisoners.  We had one man “Pat [Peter Kelley]” of Co E killed by a blow from a saber and six wounded.  Two of the wounded who were taken prisoner report that the enemy buried that night six of their men who were mortally wounded in the charge.  I cannot conclude this report without claiming for the cavalry service in general and my regiment in particular that this was a complete and thorough repulse of a charge of cavalry by a counter charge, although the enemy outnumbered us at least two to one.  In regard to the conduct of the officers and men I can make no discrimination.  As far as I could see and hear every officer and man behaved in a courageous and soldier like manner.

The charging squadrons were those of Capt. [Benjamin] Foote and [George] Barry.  Capt. Pope also rallied part of his men in time to join in the charge.  The field officers, Lt. Col. [Charles] Babbitt & Major [William] Markell and my Adjt. Lt. [Albert] Ford were in the thickest of it and did good service.

I am Sir, Respectfully, B. F. Davis

Col. 8th New York Cavalry”

A soldier correspondent told the readers of the Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser, Peter Kelley was “buried in an old graveyard near [the battlefield], under a large cherry tree.  He fell from a sabre cut which sank from ear to ear.  He never recovered except to ask for water.”

Sources –

Official Records

Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser

“Letters of a Civil War Surgeon,” Indiana Magazine of History, June 1931

Henry Norton, Deeds of Daring or History of the Eighth N. Y. Volunteer Cavalry

Documents from the National Archives

4 thoughts on “Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis at Barbee’s Cross Roads

  1. Great report, Bob.. Terrific find, as it gives us new insights into the enormous pride Grimes felt for his troopers. And his account is also sufficiently detailed such that we can observe it all playing out in our mind’s eye, as conveyed so dramatically, herein, by Col. Davis. So, in some eyes, he was certainly viewed as a “tyrant,” but this report nevertheless reveals Mississippian Grimes Davis first and foremost to be a proud Yankee soldier, and one who took the battle directly to his enemy–indeed, enemies who once were his Southern neighbors.

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  2. Thanks Bud. Davis is a very useful example of the conflict between Regular Army officers and the independent volunteers they led. The volunteers in my mind resisted discipline well into 1863. The degree to which the soldiers finally accepted the importance of discipline, as well as the degree to which the men and officers resolved the conflict between their needs and desires, is in my mind one of the unexamined issues affecting the performance and improvement of the cavalry.
    And, someone with great knowledge of the ground needs to do a good study of the fight at Barbee’s Cross Roads

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  3. Many years ago, you sent me this gem from the Indianapolis Daily Journal, March 27, 1863: “Col. B.F. Davis…is in command of the 1st Brigade of Pleasonton’s Division. Being of the regular army, and of peculiar disposition, he gives us West Point in a variety of forms. Perhaps he is capable and perhaps he is not; but we are volunteers and scorn style That is saying what we think of our General.”
    You added a cogent observation: “I never associated Davis and style before.”
    Me neither… But John Buford can also never be affiliated with the concept of “style,”

    But they both got the job done, and quietly, at that..

    Alternatively, October 1863, Chaplain Joseph Twitchell, Excelsior Brigade visited Kilpatrick in October 1863 and thereafter opined, “I will do him the justice to say that modesty will never be his drawback.”

    Here is a Custer observation one does not often see from “Four Years in the First New York Light Artillery,” p. 156: Referring to the “famous” General Custer, (April 1864), the author wrote, “…a most dashing officer…has a profusion of yellow, curly hair…Gen. Custer’s Brigade worships him, but it was said today that he was to be relieved and sent to Washington. His staff are feeling sad enough and the troops are greatly dissatisfied.”

    Didn’t happen, of course..

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    • I’d forgotten the Davis mention in the Journal – thanks for reminding me. We need to know more about him. My sense from looking at a lot of regimental paperwork is that he was a very pro-active officer, who issued a lot of orders. This may well have annoyed the volunteers no end, but he addressed potential problems before they were such. On the other hand, J I Gregg strikes me as a very hands off commander, who appears to have ignored potential concerns until it was too late. He was too easy – so his men liked him and I think he cared for them, but he and his men paid the price at Hartwood Church, and a young lieutenant lost his commission. I think Gregg paid the price as well, by remaining a colonel.
      In looking over a forth-coming book of Michigan Brigade letters recently, I read mention, again, of the rumor concerning Custer and how it concerned his men.

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