Commitment, Discipline and Leadership

In April I detailed the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s Christmas Day frolic in King George County.  The misfeasance of Lt. Col. Amos E. Griffiths, and several of his officers, may have gone unnoticed but for the timely, or untimely, depending upon your point of view, arrival of Col. William Gamble’s 8th Illinois Cavalry.  Regiments rotated picket responsibility on a regular basis, and the normal rotation day just happened to fall on Christmas.  Still, the lost holiday may have left Gamble’s Illini a bit out of sorts.  Complaints from several of Gamble’s senior officers concerning the lack of vigilance and security in the county led to formal charges being filed against Griffiths.  Both regiments belonged to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s 1st Cavalry Division, and Pleasonton ordered a court-martial convened one month later to examine Griffiths’ conduct.  On January 31, 1863 the panel found Griffiths guilty of two of three specifications and recommended he be officially reprimanded by Pleasonton.

With the third year of the war fast approaching, an overall lack of discipline among the officer corps remained the fatal weakness of the Union cavalry.  As a regular army officer, Pleasonton almost certainly agreed with Brig. Gen. William Averell, who viewed volunteer officers as “the idle and shiftless dependents of influential, social or political connections.”  Far too many volunteer officers, historian Stephen Starr concluded, “had neither the habit of command, nor, with rare exceptions, the willingness to risk the unpopularity that went with the exercise of authority.”  The nation had not gone to war to insure the personal advancement of ambitious young men of privilege, but rather to insure the survival of the country.  As Averell admonished his men in early-March, “The officers and men of this Division must come to the understanding that it is their business to fight and if necessary die wherever they meet the enemy.”  Business as usual would no longer be tolerated.  Officers would be dismissed, some without a hearing, as the army sought to cure the near-fatal lack of commitment, discipline and leadership infecting the cavalry.

Amos Griffiths had sixteen months in grade, having mustered as lieutenant colonel of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry in late-August 1861, and stood to replace David Gregg as colonel.  Considering his rank and experience, Pleasonton saw no excuse for his gross lack of leadership on Christmas, and refused to accept the panel’s recommendation of a mere reprimand.  Citing Griffiths’ lack of action, even after officers from the 8th Illinois had made him aware of the numerous violations they had observed, to include a drunken “row at one of the advanced positions,” Pleasonton sent the panel’s findings back for reconsideration on February 3, 1863.  Later the same evening Colonel Gamble sat down and wrote the following report:

“In compliance with your orders I respectfully enclose herewith a sketch of my picket lines with the roads, creeks & c in the vicinity, (there are no bridges in this part of the country.)  The 8th Illinois Cav. picket the line A, B, C, from the mouth of Machodoc Creek on the Potomac, to B on the Rappahannock River, thence up the bank to C at Port Conway, including the outpost & reserve pickets on both sides of the line.  The three squadrons of the 3rd Indiana Cav. picket the river bank from C at Port Conway up to D connecting with the 1st Maine Cav. under Gen. Gregg on the right, including the reserve pickets in rear of this line, HQ of the Regt at [Col. Tayloe’s].

“The entire line is divided into three sections, under three Majors, one of the 3rd Indiana Cav. under Maj. [William] McClure, two under Majors [John] Beveridge & [William] Medill 8th Ill. Cav. – the sections are again divided and subdivided under squadron commanders, Captains and Lieutenants, each having his appropriate duty assigned him.  The duty is divided into outposts or advance pickets at prominent points in front of the line or roads & c, to gain notice of approaching danger – line pickets along the regular line at convenient intervals crossings & c, and reserve or supporting pickets at suitable points in rear of the line of pickets as a rallying point in case of a sudden attack, and to furnish patrols along the line and to the outpost pickets at regular intervals.

“This duty is regularly changed from one to another, in order to give all, officers and men a correct knowledge of the country, roads & c in the vicinity, on which the safety of the command so much depends in case of a sudden attack by a superior force.

“The officers and men now on picket here, know the country, roads & c nearly as well as the inhabitants who feel it very inconvenient to move about without being discovered.  I think our picket line is now exceedingly difficult to be passed through, without being discovered, and the citizens have a wholesome dread of it.

“The roads are passable for cavalry and artillery and tolerably good for Virginia.  The country is undulating and tolerably open.”

By now, readers may be scratching their heads, wondering how a picket report, which appears to be routine, is related to an ongoing court-martial.  The date of Gamble’s report, February 3, strikes me as the key, as Pleasonton rejected the court-martial board’s recommendation the same day.

Pleasonton’s order, requesting the information Gamble provided has not been found, but the intent of general’s order was, almost certainly, not routine.  For the casual reader today, Gamble’s report serves as a good basic primer on picket duty, and the manner in which a commanding officer should distribute his men.  But Pleasonton did not need an introductory lesson in picket duty, rather he sought assurance.

As I detailed here in February, William Gamble was Regular Army to the core, having risen through the enlisted ranks to the respected position of Sergeant Major in the 1st United States Dragoons, before leaving the army for a job as a civil engineer in Chicago.  His men knew him as “the King of Terrors,” a justly earned nom de guerre, but Alfred Pleasonton may not have known Gamble as well as his men knew him.  Gamble had been promoted to colonel of the 8th Illinois in early December, replacing Pleasonton’s close friend John Farnsworth.  With just two months in grade, Gamble now secured the left flank of the entire army.  As Gamble’s division commander, Pleasonton needed assurance he had selected the right man for the vital job.  The colonel’s straight-forward, no nonsense report, combined with his solid reputation, almost certainly put Pleasonton at ease.

Gamble’s report included one further assurance for Pleasonton; three of the very best cavalry regiments in the army, the 8th Illinois, 3rd Indiana and the 1st Maine secured King George County, and the army’s left flank.


Gamble provided the following caption to accompany his map:

“This sketch is not correct as to scale or distance of positions from each other, but the general positions and outlines of roads, creeks, and picket posts are substantially as represented.  There are no bridges.  The officers & men now on picket here are nearly as familiar with the country shown as the inhabitants.”

Though now badly faded, Gamble’s map mirrors his report, clear, concise and uncluttered by unnecessary detail.  PP stands for picket post and RP for reserve post or reserve picket.  In addition to the men stationed along the Rappahannock River, a strong line of sentinels, posted along present-day Route 301, blocks any avenue of approach from Westmoreland County.

In the first paragraph of his report, Gamble refers to the home of either a Mr. Tayloe or Taylor.  William Taylor and his wife, Mary, owned Mount View.  Powhatan, the home of the Tayloe family, still stands not far from Mount View.  Several members of the Tayloe family attained the rank of colonel, including John Tayloe III, whose son Edward Thornton Tayloe built Powhatan.  Three of Edward Tayloe’s sons served the Confederacy, including Edward Poinsett Tayloe, Lt. Colonel of the 22nd Virginia Battalion.  Tayloe’s battalion served in Col. John Brockenbrough’s Brigade at Fredericksburg.  Powhatan appears on most Union maps as ‘Col. Tayloe’s’, though exactly which colonel the mapmakers refer to is unclear, at least to me.  Gamble’s faded narrative leaves the location to which he refers in doubt, but his map confirms that Col. Tayloe’s Powhatan served as the headquarters for the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, rather than Mr. Taylor’s Mount View.

As to Griffiths, Pleasonton wrote a detailed rebuttal to his court-martial board, led by Col. Thomas Devin, 6th New York Cavalry.  Pleasonton concluded by warning Devin, “To sentence an officer to a reprimand, who permits such conduct in his command or who pleads ignorance of it, when it is known by half the Army, is to make a farce of the service.”  His message could not have been clearer, his troopers, enlisted and officers alike could no longer plead ignorance.  Failure to perform and failure to lead would no longer be tolerated.  Commitment, discipline and leadership would see the cavalry to final victory.  Anything less would only lead to continued failure.  After re-considering the evidence, the panel recommended Griffiths be dishonorably dismissed from the service, and though he later had the sentence over-turned he never returned to the army.


All of the emphasis is in the original documents

With Special thanks to Jim McLean, who made me aware of Gamble’s Report, and to Laura Taylor, of King George


Documents from the National Archives

William Averell, Ten Years in the Saddle

Stephen Starr, “The Inner Life of the First Vermont Volunteer Cavalry, Vermont History, Summer 1978

Roberta Love Tayloe, Return to Powhatan, Growing Up in Old Virginia

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