Remounts – The Life Blood of the Cavalry – Caught in Traffic

General Robert E. Lee began moving his army out of the lines near the Rappahannock River on June 3.  His counterpart, General Joseph Hooker, must have considered the necessity of moving his army shortly thereafter, though exactly when he did so remains a bit of a mystery.  Rather than going after Lee and bringing him to battle, Hooker sought President Lincoln’s permission to move against Richmond.  Astonished that Hooker had even considered such an option, Lincoln promptly reminded his general, “Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your…objective.”  Counseling Hooker to hold his army between the enemy and Washington, Lincoln urged the general to “Fight” Lee “when opportunity offers,” and to “fret him and fret him.”

General Hooker longed to break free of the shackle chaining him to the capital, and Lincoln had just dashed his dream.  Now, without an alternative plan, Hooker became a general adrift, lapsing into bouts of sullen petulance, broken only by short flashes of his old combative bluster and arrogance.  Forced into a race against a foe already several days ahead of him, Hooker reluctantly determined in the early evening hours of June 12 to abandon his lines near Falmouth, as well as his sprawling supply base at Aquia Landing, and head north to pursue Lee.  According to Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick, Hooker’s grizzled provost marshal, the move would commence at three o’clock on the morning of June 13.  “[Shut] up to the defence of Washington,” as Patrick observed, Hooker elected to move his army in two columns; the I, III, V and XI Corps, along with the Cavalry Corps, would follow the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, while the II, VI and XII Corps, along with the Reserve Artillery, would move up through Dumfries and across the Occoquan River, into Fairfax County.

By June 1863, picking up and moving had become a matter of routine for soldiers in either army and could be accomplished in minutes; evacuating the massive Union supply bases scattered around Aquia Landing, Falmouth and Dumfries quickly and efficiently proved more of a challenge.  General Patrick had Union malcontents and other prisoners in his guard house to release or transfer to other facilities.  Lieut. Colonel Charles Sawtelle, placed in charge of the evacuation by Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls, counted 10,000 sick and wounded men who needed to be moved.  Lt. Col. Albert Austin, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Chief Commissary, looked to distribute as many rations as possible from the smaller depots, including the depot at Bealton, before he had to load them onto wagons or trains headed north.  Train cars and locomotives needed to be loaded upon barges and shipped north, while tons of forage, grain and all manner of other supplies for men and animals alike had to be loaded onto wagons or other conveyances or destroyed.

Engineers needed to erect at least three pontoon bridges to carry the troops and wagons in Hooker’s eastern column across the Occoquan River.  On the morning of June 14 those pontoons remained at Aquia, as Ingalls anxiously looked for the transports needed to carry them up the Potomac River to the crossing point.  Not until nine o’clock in the morning did steamers carrying the equipment finally head north.  Once the engineers completed the first span across the Occoquan, the soldiers and teamsters found what General Patrick first termed “a very bad hill,” but upon reflection called a “Mountain,” confronting them on the far side of the river.  The steep climb created a natural choke-point, as men and animals, already exhausted by the blazing sun, struggled to gain the crest.

The narrow roads, especially at stream and river crossings, allowed for only one line of traffic rather than two, and quartermasters and officers of all ranks stepped in to keep the men and supply trains moving.  The ford at Wolf Run Shoals, just upstream from the pontoon bridge, especially teemed with activity, forcing several senior officers, including Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s Chief of Staff, and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, to lend a hand to keep the traffic flowing north and to re-route any southbound traffic.  Thirty miles to the west, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, commanding the western column, sought to alleviate his own traffic nightmare by sending some of his wagon trains across to Wolf Run Shoals, only to have Butterfield countermand his orders.

General Hooker’s decision to move his army might appear to have happened quickly, and almost haphazardly.  In fact, plans seem to have been in the works since at least June 11, and the evacuation was a rather amazing logistical accomplishment.  By June 16, Falmouth lay deserted, and most, if not all, of the invalids had already reached Washington hospitals.  Lieut. Colonel Sawtelle reported that all property had been removed from Aquia, except for some railroad stock.  Rail lines and bridges had been dismantled and only a small security force, supported by several gunboats, remained behind to insure the safety of the quartermasters seeing to last minute details.  But troopers from the 15th Virginia Cavalry, soon began harassing the Yankees and forced them to evacuate before they had completed their work.  On June 22, the Southerners moved in.  Disappointed to find only “a vast quantity of Yankee soap,” the troopers put every building as well as the “magnificent wharf” to the torch.

When the editors of the Official Records sorted through the thousands of documents related to the Gettysburg Campaign they selected just a few items regarding the evacuation for publication.  Two of these documents appear with little context or resolution, almost as though the editors sought to send future readers on a quest for answers.  Rather than setting out for answers, I confess I stumbled upon the missing parts of the story.

In the first of the two published documents, dated June 20, 1863, Montgomery Meigs tells General Ingalls, “I am informed that on the route of march of the Eleventh Corps a large number of horses and mules were abandoned.  It is said, though I know not on what authority, that some 1,100 were abandoned on the route.  Let this be inquired into, so that if there has been carelessness and unnecessary waste, the guilty may be punished, and, if the report be slanderous, the department may be prepared to answer it.”  Meigs continued, “Quite a large number of horses and mules branded ‘U. S.’…are being seized on this side of the river…It requires great vigilance and severity to protect the public interest during such rapid movements as are now in progress… I have no doubt,” Meigs concluded, “that you will be able to correct, to punish, to prevent, or to procure explanations defending the officers against charges of carelessness, if these charges are unfounded.  It is our duty to be prepared to meet these charges.”  Clearly, Meigs was upset.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Meigs never failed to consider the cost of the war, and, by June 20, 1,100 horses might have cost the government as much as $157,000 or more than five million dollars today.

In the second communication, dated June 23, Ingalls responds, telling Meigs, “Your letters [20th] in reference to loss of loose horses on the recent march from Falmouth are received, and will soon be answered in detail.  Captain Peirce had 2,500 poor, condemned horses at Aquia, which he had not time to remove.  With my consent, and on the order of Colonel Sawtelle, they were started in a herd toward Alexandria, by the Occoquan.  They drove badly; got mixed in with the troops and trains.  All efforts to separate them were nearly fruitless…doubtless many will be finally lost, though we are recovering many daily.  About 1,300 are already recovered.  Many of them were caught by tired officers and men, who are now giving them up.  It can and shall be satisfactorily explained to you.”  Here, Ingalls gives us a sense of what happened, but the editors of the Official Records did not include his follow-up report or the reports from his subordinates.

The quartermaster maintained three corrals near the army; one at Dumfries, in Prince William County, and two in Stafford County.  Cavalrymen, artillerymen and teamsters exchanged tired, sick and wounded animals for fresh remounts at these corrals, though further details concerning the operation of the facilities remain unknown.  Certainly, newly acquired animals or animals needing nothing more than rest would not have been mixed in with sick animals.  Thus, each of the corrals may have served a specific purpose as a means of keeping the horses and mules segregated as necessary.

Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s raid toward Richmond in late April and early May had crippled the Cavalry Corps.  The long trek left the corps in need of 6,000 horses, at a time when other army commanders also clamored for thousands of remounts.  The loss of 6,000 horses hampered Pleasonton’s cavalry throughout May and June.  One month after Stoneman returned and just two weeks after taking command of the Cavalry Corps, Alfred Pleasonton needed to borrow two infantry brigades on the eve of the fight at Brandy Station as a means of trying to match the strength of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry division.  Even with the foot soldiers, Pleasonton fought the battle at a slight numerical disadvantage.  Horse casualties on June 9 only exacerbated the demands for additional animals.  Striving to alleviate the shortage as quickly as possible, quartermasters kept fresh horses headed to the army up until the last possible minute prior to the final abandonment of the depots.  Thus, herds of new remounts heading south from Alexandria fought for space along narrow roads, choked with infantry, artillery and supply wagons headed north.  Drovers also contended with herds of broken down animals being evacuated to corrals in Alexandria and Washington, rather than being abandoned to Southern civilians and soldiers.  One might guess the result.

On June 18, an unknown individual sent the following note to an officer in Washington:

“On the march from the Occoquan I saw large numbers of horses and mules on the road side and in fields, they were marked US.  Citizens informed me the woods were full of them and that they had wandered from the corral and were not picked up by the drivers.   I saw two citizens catching some of them.  There were also some nice beef cattle.  The army had passed the road I came.  The horses would be in squads of from five to twenty and in one place there were almost fifty…”

The officer then forwarded the note to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  When Stanton demanded an explanation, Meigs queried Ingalls as cited in the Official Records.

Caught up in the rapidly developing campaign, Ingalls did not fully respond to Meigs until July 20, though he had immediately collected statements from his subordinates, Capt. Luther Peirce and Lieut. Colonel Sawtelle.  In his cover letter to Meigs, Ingalls noted, “I was an eyewitness to the stampeding of the horses referred to and know that it was something, which under the circumstances we were placed at the time could not be avoided.  Every effort was made to prevent it and to recover the animals lost… I hope that the officers… may not be charged with carelessness in regard to the animals referred to.”

Captain Peirce explained:

“On the 11th of June there were in [corrals] at Aquia 2205 horses and 32 mules when orders were sent to ship to Washington and into Maryland all the horses possible.

There were shipped and issued from that time to the 14th 2166 horses and 128 mules, but there were received during the same time 2137 horses and 441 mules, of which 1600 came on the afternoon and night of the 13th and included some 300 wounded horses from the cavalry thus leaving 2176 horses and 345 mules on hand, many more than were on hand the 11th when the shipment first commenced.

These animals, 2176 horses and 345 mules were started in two herds on the morning of the 14th in charge of 18 superintendents, 182 herders and one company (70) men of the 6th Ohio Cavalry, Capt. [Delos Northway commanding].

The two herds joined at Dumfries but before they met, one herd of 1100 stampeded into a salt marsh and 185 horses were lost having been drowned or killed by others in their struggles to extricate themselves.  After the herds met the army at Dumfries it was impossible to keep the animals together, the country being destitute of fences, large bodies of troops and immense wagon trains were passing, the animals mixed in with these, officers, soldiers and teamsters seized the animals, and, instead of benefiting rather increased the labor of driving them.  Every exertion that human endurance would permit was employed, the greatest care and diligence in driving the animals was used to the utter prostration of men and animals.

Immediately on arrival of main herd at Alexandria men were sent out in every direction, within limits of the army lines where it was probable the animals had strayed to, and many were thus recovered.  A party was sent to Aquia Creek with boats, but the naval commander refused to allow them to land, the commander reporting that the Confederates had been seen driving off from forty to sixty animals.  I would here state that before Aquia Creek was abandoned parties were sent out on the old herding grounds and recovered many animals that had returned to their accustomed localities.  There are missing some 900 horses and 100 mules, but [strays] are being brought in every day.  A large number of animals have been seized at the Washington Bridges and should be credited to me and many are yet in the army being used by officers to supply deficiencies and will probably appear on their papers.  In reviewing the whole transaction and taking into consideration the great difficulties encountered in driving the animals the surprise should be not at the loss, but that such a large number were brought in safely.  Had not so many animals been received during the last few days I was at Aquia Creek, most of the animals would have been safely shipped away.  I cannot think that want of care or wanton waste of public property can be charged to me when the number of men employed and the means taken for the animal’s preservation are considered.  It is also to be remembered that all the animals lost were unserviceable and in very poor condition.”

Lieut. Colonel Sawtelle then told Ingalls:

“I assumed charge of the depot at Aquia Creek on the morning of the 13th and at once commenced shipping army stores to Alexandria, and sick and wounded soldiers to Washington and Point Lookout.  I found an insufficient number of transports that were adapted to the transportation of sick and wounded of whom there were at that time some ten thousand to be sent from the Army of the Potomac.  Every kind of vessel that could possibly be employed for this purpose was used, and when I was first informed of this large number of unserviceable animals which Capt. Peirce had at Aquia Creek, I had no vessels suitable for ferrying over these animals to the Maryland shore.

I telegraphed to you asking whether the land route was safe, stating that in my opinion they would have to be sent in that way.  When your consent was obtained, I immediately ordered Capt. Peirce to send them that way.

Sometime after these animals started, several large steamers arrived unexpectedly at Aquia from Baltimore & Fort Monroe.  By means of those, as soon as all the sick and wounded were shipped, I sent across to the Maryland shore, some two thousand fine horses and mules appertaining to the Engineer’s Department.

As soon as all the property and rolling stock of the rail road was afloat, I abandoned the place by your orders and proceeded to Alexandria. [Previous] to leaving, however, parties were sent out to bring in any stray animals that might have escaped from the army, and quite a number of horses, mules and beef cattle were recovered and crowded on to the boats and brought away.  The horses and mules thus picked up were in wretched condition, hardly worth saving, being the very worst of this large lot of broken down animals.

When I was about leaving Aquia Creek, I was informed that a few animals had been seen across Aquia Creek, and near the place where Capt. Peirce had kept his horses.  I directed Lt. [Jerome] Shedd, the Regimental QM of Col. [Adrian] Root’s Regiment [94th New York Infantry], which was then ordered to remain and protect the buildings and wharfs, to send a detail over the creek and recover the animals if possible.  I also spoke to the officer in charge of the gunboats there, who stated that he would send ashore and recover all he could of them.

I left, subject to the orders of Lt. Shedd, two steamers to bring away his regiment and its means of transportation, should it be ordered away, and to be used in transporting any animals that he might pick up to the Maryland shore.

On my arrival at Alexandria, I learned that Col. Root had been ordered to bring his entire regiment away at once.  Knowing that Lt. Shedd would not have had time to get the animals, I at once dispatched a party of men with a light draught steamer to try and get them.  The enclosed report from Capt. Peirce, AQM, states the result of this expedition.

These animals that were seen were partially the lame and wounded that could not keep up with the herd.  There were no serviceable animals in the lot of 2500 that were started in those herds from Aquia.

As to the occurrences after the herd left Aquia, I had no opportunity of observing them.  They are detailed by Capt. Peirce, in the enclosed report.  I have heard from several sources that Gen’l Hancock’s Corps (the 2nd), which brought up the rear of the army on its march from Falmouth, picked up large numbers of these animals and brought them in.”

Sawtelle concluded by stating, “I am of the opinion that very few animals were entirely lost except the 185 that were drowned or died in the salt marsh… and those that the rebels were seen to lead away from near Aquia, and probably very few of these would have been serviceable or of much value to the government.”

The 2137 fresh remounts which arrived just as the army was abandoning the depots and corrals were still desperately needed by the army, most critically by the cavalry as more than 1,000 troopers were absent from their regiments waiting for the animals.  Exactly what happened to these animals is not entirely clear from the statements given by either Captain Peirce or Lieut. Colonel Sawtelle.

Capt. Samuel McKee, 1st U. S. Cavalry, had taken command of the remount facility at Dumfries on June 3.  On June 12, and possibly with an eye to the pending evacuation, McKee received an order from Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to “forward the men from your camp as fast as they are mounted.”   The following day, and now under pressure to distribute the animals as quickly as possible, Sawtelle told McKee to send a party “to Aquia Creek today for about 300 horses on hand there for you.  It is important that they should be drawn at once.”  But McKee had also received an order that day from General Hooker to patrol the Telegraph Road “between Stafford and Dumfries…until further instructed.”  Hooker’s order took precedence, and McKee found himself in a quandary.  He simply did not have enough men to handle both tasks.  Brig. Gen. John Buford, McKee’s immediate superior, had given McKee ten men from the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry to assist him with his duties at the depot when he sent him to take command on June 3.  Exactly how many other men McKee had, mounted and equipped, to handle either assignment is unknown, but he told Sawtelle he would not be able to send for the 300 horses until June 15.

The situation remained fluid, however, and Hooker, on June 14, ordered McKee to send his dismounted men to Alexandria “at once.”  Though McKee had drawn horses for some of the men, none of these animals had been shod, so Hooker directed the men to move by “easy marches,” so as not to cripple the unshod animals.  He then re-directed McKee to Fairfax Station, rather than Alexandria.  The following day, Hooker changed his mind again and ordered McKee to Manassas, where Pleasonton was concentrating his Cavalry Corps.  Both orders went to Dumfries, but McKee had already departed and was then caught up in the traffic jam along the clogged northbound roads.  Unaware of the change in plans, McKee continued to Alexandria.  Near the pontoon bridge at Occoquan, McKee and his men had pulled off the road and watched as Hooker and his staff rode past on their way to Fairfax Court House.  When McKee finally reached Alexandria, he finally received the order “to march [to Manassas] at daylight [on June 17, with] sabres ground, horses shod and all in order.”  Hooker explained the confusion to Pleasonton and told him he might expect the reinforcements on the seventeenth.

In the meantime, Ingalls told Pleasonton, his friend from their days at West Point, “Capt. [McKee] is fitting up at Alexandria. Am giving him 500 horses today [June 16]. He will join you tomorrow I suppose. What number of horses do you want & when & where do you want them?” Ingalls closed his note by telling Pleasonton, “I hope you will whip Stuart again.”  At the same time, McKee told Hooker, “Every effort is being made to equip my command and shoe their horses as rapidly as possible. I will have every available man ready to move tomorrow morning. We cannot equip them all. I will telegraph again this eve.”

Pleasonton especially needed McKee’s 1,000 men after the mauling Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade received at Aldie on June 17, but the plans changed again.  Rather than bringing badly needed re-enforcements on fresh horses to Pleasonton, McKee received new orders to move his men, by a “forced march” to the Potomac River at the mouth of the Monocacy River, where Hooker initially planned to erect the pontoon bridges which would carry the army into Maryland.  McKee and his men arrived in Poolesville, Maryland on the evening of June 17, and did not rejoin the Cavalry Corps until after the cavalry crossed the Potomac ten days later.

I am only aware of one account from a trooper in McKee’s command.  The soldier had been at one of the two remount corrals in Stafford when Hooker ordered the evacuation.  He, along with his fellow dismounts in Stafford, marched north and joined McKee in Dumfries.  The soldier makes no mention of the stampede which he might have witnessed, nor does McKee.  Did either the stampede, the delays caused by the congestion along the roads near Dumfries or the orders to McKee which missed him in transit significantly impact the campaign?  We will never know, but 1,000 men on fresh horses might well have led to more decisive results for the Federals during the fighting near Middleburg on June 19, and Upperville on June 21.



Documents from the National Archives

John Dahlgren Papers, Library of Congress

Abingdon Virginian

Cleveland Daily Leader

National Tribune

Fredonia Censor

John Fortier, 15th Virginia Cavalry, Lynchburg, 1993

David Sparks, Inside Lincoln’s Army: The Diary of General Marsena Rudolph Patrick, New York, 1964

3 thoughts on “Remounts – The Life Blood of the Cavalry – Caught in Traffic

  1. What a teriffic post. I had no idea how complicated it was for the Union to supply horses to the cavalry, even with all their resources; it makes you wonder how the Confederacy kept their horsemen in the field with their do-it-yourself system.
    ….and it’s very strange to see the word “stampede” associated with the Army of the Potomac!


    • Thanks for this Larry,
      Whenever I talk with folks about the logistical challenges faced by the Army of the Potomac and especially the Cavalry Corps, I always try and make them aware that the same challenges confronted the Army of Northern Virginia and Stuart’s cavalry, and they generally overcame them with fewer resources. Unfortunately, most of the Southern records were lost and their resourcefulness is generally lost to history.
      BTW – I’ll be giving a presentation on the logistical challenges faced by the cavalry in Chambersburg, PA in July.


  2. Great article Bob. I’m always fascinated by the supply aspects. Ammunition, food and horses have to be the top 3 supply items. I think it would have been the same on each side. I think it is also hard to generalize or fill in the gaps with logical extensions. There is probably some statistical work that could help with some of the gaps.

    More interesting would be a study of commanders and those that had or did not have QM experience. My hypothesis is that those with QM experience made more competent field commanders.

    I have started noticing in some of the sources I am reading that high horse casualty figures are noted. It would be interesting to see if there is any pattern there.


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