James Wadsworth and William Gamble

I built my last post, Willow Hill, around the following letter written by Col. William Gamble, 8th Illinois Cavalry, to Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth.

I have received your letter of this date informing me of the arrest of Mr. Thompson overseer of Mr. Arnold, sent with an orderly to identify and have returned a wagon, four mules, cart and oxen stolen from Mr. Arnold last night by his Negroes.

Mr. Arnold is a blind man, eighty years old, entirely helpless and his family consists of his wife and a little grandson ten years old.  All his Negroes left him last night taking with them all the teams and wagons he had, leaving him without any means of obtaining food or other supplies for his family, who are now in a suffering condition.  His house is three miles inside my picket line near my headquarters – a reserve picket is near his house and the road in the vicinity patrolled every hour.

His wife called on me this morning, stated the case, and wished to know if our Gov’t authorized or permitted the Negroes within our lines to rob and plunder helpless families like hers of the necessaries of life, without any interference, and if not, she requested to have the wagon, mules etc. returned and that Mr. Thompson would identify them.  Under the circumstances I sent an orderly with Mr. Thompson to identify the property and have it returned.  I have found several citizens here with Gen. Burnside’s written protection, who have his permission to visit his headquarters on business, and from the knowledge I had in this case, did not think Mr. Thompson a dangerous man, especially under the surveillance of my pickets near his house.

I hope this explanation will be satisfactory to Gen. Wadsworth and that the property of Mr. Arnold will be returned to him.

I also hope that orderlies sent by me on official business, with dispatches to Gen. Pleasonton’s headquarters and to my regimental camp near Belle Plain, may not be delayed en route as has sometimes occurred heretofore.  I have faithfully served the United States seventeen years, and trust that my loyalty and efficiency as an officer is not now doubted.

Can we deduce, as Wadsworth’s communication has not been found, the circumstances which sparked the exchange?

James Wadsworth hailed from Geneseo, below Lake Erie in northwestern New York.  A very wealthy man, Wadsworth managed his vast estate prior to the war.  He had also risen to a position of influence in the Democratic Party before switching to the new Republican Party in 1856.  With no prior military background, Wadsworth declined a proffered commission as a major general at the outset of the war.  Instead, he chose to serve Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell as a volunteer aide.  A couple weeks after First Bull Run, Wadsworth accepted a commission as a brigadier.  Though he held several commands over the next sixteen months, both in and out of the Army of the Potomac, Wadsworth had not held a combat command.  He had served, however, as the Military Governor of Washington, D.C.

In the summer of 1862, New York Republicans began courting Wadsworth to run for governor.  He had rebuffed similar efforts in 1860, and still remained hesitant, writing, “I dread” the nomination, “and long to be…rid of public cares.”  Still, he felt obligated, but only if he could not convince Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to give him a command in the army.  Stanton may have resisted doing so for political reasons, hoping to see Wadsworth, a loyal Republican, take the reins in Albany.  Stanton and Wadsworth spent many hours together each day, yet it appears Stanton never conveyed his reasoning to the general.  Exasperated, Wadsworth groused, “As soon as this war is over I shall go through West Point so as to be ready for the next one.”  Nominated on the first ballot, and expected by many to “be elected by an overwhelming majority,” the reluctant candidate did little campaigning, choosing instead to remain in Washington.  The voters dealt Wadsworth, and Lincoln, a stunning loss.  Following Wadsworth’s defeat at the polls, and in the immediate wake of the army’s bloody debacle at Fredericksburg, Stanton finally reassigned the general, giving him command of the 1st Division, I Army Corps.

William Gamble, a native of Ireland, and a civil engineer by training, had entered the Regular Army as a private in the 1st Dragoons and risen through the ranks to serve as sergeant major before leaving the service in 1843 to work in Chicago as a civil engineer.  He had seen combat against Indians in Florida, and as the regiment’s top sergeant he set the tone for the discipline in the ranks, gave other non-commissioned officers and enlisted men their assignments, and insured the accuracy of the regimental paperwork.  In October 1861 the recruits of the 8th Illinois Cavalry elected Gamble to the position of lieutenant colonel.  One of his troopers later termed him the “King of Terrors;” a man with the ability to look through another person, and a man from whom “one good lesson…suffices.”

The 8th Illinois Cavalry saw, arguably, more action during the Peninsula and Antietam campaigns than any other mounted regiment in the Army of the Potomac.  Gamble remained with the command through the spring, before being sidelined by illness at the end of June.  He rejoined the regiment in July, and led a charge at Malvern Hill on August 5, 1862, where he was gravely wounded.

Abner Hard, the regimental surgeon and historian, had been home in Illinois when Gamble was wounded, and he relied upon a war date letter from Pvt. Addison Teeple to guide his description of the fight at Malvern Hill.  Teeple, writing to the Woodstock (Illinois) Sentinel, said of Gamble, “The Lieut. Col. passed to the rear looking very pale, and evidently badly wounded, though he still rode his horse.”  The best description of the wound comes from the surgeon who treated him after he returned to Evanston, Illinois, to recover.  “A rifle ball struck the lower part of the right breast, passed forward and around the ribs and through the right scapula, and was extracted from the back part of the shoulder.  The right lung was seriously injured by the concussion.”  The surgeon explained in late-September “the affection of the lung is subsiding and the wound is healing, but it is my opinion that … [he] will not be fit for duty in …less…than thirty days.”  The surgeon’s estimate was optimistic, but a doctor could not recommend a leave exceeding thirty days; an injured officer, recovering away from the army, had to be re-examined every month and another extension had to be requested.

Gamble’s loss was one of several changes in the command structure of the regiment over the next few weeks.  Regimental commander John Farnsworth, who had also been in Illinois when Gamble was wounded, returned but quickly moved up to brigade command; Maj. Daniel Dustin resigned to accept the colonelcy of another regiment and majors William Clendenin and John Beveridge went on sick leave.  With the regiment pursuing Robert E. Lee into Maryland, William Medill, promoted to major on September 10, took command.  Medill was both competent and respected by the men, but inexperienced in high command.  Colonel Farnsworth assisted Medill when possible, but his brigade responsibilities took precedence.  He was also a candidate for Congress, and, though promoted to Brigadier, he soon left the service.  Major Beveridge’s return in mid-October brought further stability, but Gamble felt compelled to return to the regiment before his wound was fully healed.  Looking “remarkably well,” in one trooper’s opinion, Gamble rejoined the command on November 24.

Gamble abandoned his convalescence prematurely, at least in part, for personal reasons.  On December 15, he asked a friend in Chicago to intercede on his behalf with Gov. Richard Yates regarding his promotion to colonel.  Specifically, he complained of the “many strange unaccountable tricks and wise pullings in regard to appointments and promotion in military service nowadays.  I think without vanity or self-conceit, I am honestly and justly entitled to the Colonelcy of the [Regiment] that I have instructed, trained & disciplined from the beginning.”  Concerned he might be “jumped in promotion by misrepresentation or trickery, so frequently practiced nowadays,” Gamble asked to have his case presented “with as little delay as possible.”  If Gamble suspected another officer within the regiment of trying to supersede him, he refused to name him.  Hard, writing after the war, noted “some uneasiness or chafing arose among the officers and men” that summer, but he avoided further specifics.

Gamble may also have believed he would fall victim to fetid army politics in general.  As Major Medill later grumbled, “There is no inducement held out to worthy men.  Promotions are made without any reference to merit.”  Gamble’s promotion came through shortly thereafter, but at what cost to his health?

On March 4, 1863, two months after Gamble’s letter to Wadsworth, a doctor found the colonel “suffering from Rheumatism and Neuralgia with intermittent fever, in consequence of exposure in rain and snow storms.”  Concerned that Gamble risked “permanent disability,” resulting from the “severe wound received at Malvern Hill,” the doctor sent him home.

The degree to which 19th Century doctors understood stress, and the manner in which stress affects the healing process, is unknown.  Gamble was certainly under stress while commanding the picket line in King George County between Christmas and mid-February.  Lingering pain, exacerbated by deteriorating health and constant tension, might have kept Gamble’s notorious temper at a hot simmer for weeks, ready to explode at the slightest spark.  Wadsworth may have provided the spark by questioning Gamble’s judgement.

James Wadsworth was a staunch abolitionist, and a hardline Republican, who probably did not want to see anyone coddling secessionists, especially members of the wealthy planter-class complaining about the loss of their slaves.  He may have miss-interpreted Mr. Thompson’s mission as an example of such behavior on Gamble’s part and over-reacted.

The 8th Illinois relieved the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry on picket duty in King George County on Christmas Day 1862.  The lack of discipline displayed by the Pennsylvanians disgusted the Westerners.  Details of exactly what happened on Christmas will be the subject of a future post, but for now, let me just say the change drastically affected the local populace, especially the plantation owners.

The officers of the 8th Pennsylvania had, in the opinion of the Illini, treated the F.F.Vs – First Family Virginians – of King George with undeserved deference, granting them nearly unfettered permission to come and go through the picket lines as they chose.  More disturbing, Rebel soldiers reportedly crossed the Rappahannock River unchallenged and spent time within the Union lines visiting their families.   Finally, and most alarming to Gamble and his men, the Pennsylvanians appeared to be either ignorant of the security ramifications of such leniency or blissfully unconcerned.

King George had, to late 1862, largely escaped the devastation wrought by the war.  The difference between the barren waste of Stafford County and the well-tended homes and farms of neighboring King George was astonishing to the men of the 8th Illinois as they passed through portions of both counties on Christmas.  Likewise, the residents of King George had yet to feel the true hardships imposed by military occupation.  The officers of the 8th Pennsylvania had, in the view of Gamble and his men, given themselves “body and soul to the Secesh planters” in exchange for food, drink and comfortable accommodations.  “Patriotic officers are found blindly pursuing their old policy of giving aid and comfort to traitors by protecting their property,” even as their men died at the hands of guerrillas, one of Gamble’s men noted sarcastically. The kid-glove treatment ended on Christmas, and aggrieved civilians soon learned they would receive little sympathy from William Gamble.  The “‘King of Terrors’…put an end to their annoyances by telling them their place was at home, but if he caught one of them playing the spy he would hang him to the nearest tree without ceremony,” a trooper explained.

Gamble had the authority to refuse requests from civilians for new passes, but he probably did not have the authority to revoke passes issued previously by a senior officer.  If an angry citizen sought to protest Gamble’s strictures with a higher authority, and held a proper pass, Gamble could not stop them from passing through his lines.  Heading north toward the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac, the first troops these civilians would have encountered would have been those of the I Corps, and thus possibly Wadsworth.  Such appears to be the case described by Gamble; Mr. Arnold held a pass issued by a higher authority, probably Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.  As Mr. Arnold was elderly and blind, Gamble allowed his overseer, Mr. Thompson, to travel in Arnold’s stead, in search of stolen property, accompanied by one of Gamble’s orderlies.

Gamble’s actions appear proper under the circumstances, especially as he sent Thompson north with an armed escort.  Wadsworth may simply have over-reacted to an overseer, even a black overseer (Mr. Thompson may have been black, as mentioned in previous post), searching for Southern property taken by escaped slaves, immediately after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

On July 18, 1863, General Wadsworth’s son, Craig, joined Brig. Gen. John Buford’s staff.  Buford led the 1st Cavalry Division, and Colonel Gamble commanded Buford’s 1st Brigade.  Thus, on a quiet day, Wadsworth may have stopped by Buford’s headquarters to visit with his son, and, in doing so, met Gamble under more pleasant circumstances.


With thanks to William Hupp and Marshall Krolick


Sources –

Documents from the National Archives

William Gamble letter, Illinois State Archives

Aurora, Illinois, Beacon

Chicago Daily Tribune

Indianapolis Daily Journal

Woodstock, Illinois, Sentinel

The Official Records

Henry Boies, History of DeKalb County, Illinois

Will and John Gorenfeld, Kearny’s Dragoons out West

Abner Hard, History of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment Illinois Volunteers

Henry Pearson, James S. Wadsworth of Geneseo

Ezra Warner, Generals in Blue

Welles and Morse, The Diary of Gideon Welles



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