Maria Smith probably saw her son, Albion, for the last time in October 1861. Albion G. Smith, just 19 years of age, enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry on October 1, and was mustered into Company F, a few days later. On the evening of June 3, 1863, a gunshot split the night air along a lonely road between Sulphur Springs and Warrenton, in Fauquier County, Virginia, and Albion toppled from his horse. He may have been dead when he hit the ground.
Jotham Smith, Jr., married Maria Wakefield (nee Harris) on December 10, 1831, in the town of Thompson, Connecticut. Both had been married previously and each had a child from their previous marriage. The couple had five children of their own; Albion, the youngest, was born in 1841.
Life was not easy, and Jotham moved the family several times, with Albion being born in Philipps, Maine. The family was either living in the Millbury/Sutton, Massachusetts area when Jotham died on November 27, 1850 or moved there following his death. In 1852, Harriett Smith, Jotham’s daughter from his first marriage, died. Susan, Jotham and Maria’s first child, married the same year and presumably moved out of the family home. Seven years later the Smith’s oldest son, George, died of consumption.
Shortly after Jotham’s passing, the youngest daughters, Matilda and Martha, went to live with Maria’s sister-in-law, Louisa. In 1858, Louisa Smith married Asa Hall, the owner of a substantial farm in the Millbury/Sutton area, and Albion went to work on the farm the following spring when he was about 17 years old. Working about seven months of the year, Albion earned $175 between the spring of 1859 and his enlistment in October 1861, all of which went to support his mother and siblings. When not working on the farm, Albion “did chores for his board & attended school.” During his twenty months with the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, Albion sent home another $110. The family doctor later described Maria Smith as “always poor,” and Albion as “a dutiful son,” who provided “such pecuniary aid and assistance as her increasing years and infirmities might require.”
On the morning of June 3, 1863, Lieut. Daniel Gleason commanded a picket force of 34 men from Company B, 1st Massachusetts, at Sulphur Springs, on the upper Rappahannock River. Gleason had assumed the task of guarding the roads from Fox Ford to Warrenton and Bealton the previous day, and he later described his position as “exposed.”
About 11:30 in the morning one of Gleason’s pickets reported “a body of rebels” on the far side of the river. Ordering the men posted along the river “to hold their ground as long as they could,” Gleason then directed Lieut. Lawrence Duchesney to form the remainder of the platoon in a skirmish line covering both roads. Gleason then rode to the top of a nearby hill, where he had “a perfect view…of the rebel forces.” Watching through his field glasses as the Southern column approached the ford, Gleason believed the Confederates numbered about 400 men in two squadrons, accompanied by two wagons. After sending two couriers back to alert his regimental commander, Gleason continued to watch the Southerners as they crossed the river “very deliberately.” Checking his watch, Gleason noted that an hour had passed since the enemy had first been sighted.
Col. Thomas Owen, 3rd Virginia Cavalry, led the Southern column, which numbered closer to 300 men, from several regiments. Owen had been ordered to conduct a reconnaissance toward Waterloo Ford. Seeing Gleason and his two couriers, both carrying guidons, silhouetted atop the hill, Owen ordered Capt. William Feild, Company I, 3rd Virginia, “to charge & capture them, if possible.” Gleason remained on the hill just long enough to watch as his men met the Virginians, retiring “slowly, fighting every step.” Gleason also admired the Confederates who “advanced gallantly, and showed the best drill I ever saw from them.”
With the enemy driving his pickets, and knowing the Virginians outnumbered his small force nearly ten to one, Gleason ordered Lieutenant Duchesney to pull the main body of the men back into the woods near a tight bend in the road. Gleason then called in his eight forward pickets, and instructed them to cover Duchesney, until he and Gleason could organize the remainder of the platoon to meet the Southern onslaught. The rear guard “checked” the Southern advance three times, emptying their carbines into the front of the enemy column, before rejoining the main force.
The Yankees soon heard Captain Feild order his men to attack. Drawing their sabers, re-gripping their reins and raising the Rebel Yell, the Virginians spurred their horses into a charge. Unable to see the Southerners, Gleason and his Bay Staters could, for the moment, only listen to the fearsome noise, which “sounded,” Gleason wrote, like “hell let loose.”
Then, as the Virginians entered the bend in the road and came into view, Gleason ordered his handful of men, formed into a column of threes in the narrow road, to charge. The Yankee counter-charge caught the over-confident Rebels completely by surprise. As the Virginians in the front ranks reined their horses to a sudden and unexpected halt, the Southern column accordioned into a confused mass as the men at the rear continued to urge their horses forward. With the Confederates desperately trying “to get out” of the road, Gleason rode into their midst, “and, for once in my life, I cut, slashed and stabbed to my heart’s content.” Cpl. John Weston made a similar comment, telling his mother, “We sailed in and hacked them up badly.” Capt. Charles Adams, who arrived shortly thereafter with a relief force, thought Gleason showed “more spirit than discretion,” but he also noted proudly, “the rebs found a wolf where they looked for a hare.” With a handful of prisoners in tow, and the road littered with wounded Confederates, Gleason should have retired. “But no, he was there, he seemed to think, to fight,” Adams observed critically.
Captain Feild’s veterans surrendered the field, but only long enough to reform their ranks. Aided by a fresh squadron and determined to erase the memory of their embarrassing retreat, the Virginians headed back toward the exuberant Yankees. With his blood up, Gleason ordered another counter-charge, “and then of course,” as Adams explained wryly, “it was all up with him.”
Without the element of surprise, the outnumbered Yankees simply could not hold their ground. An enemy trooper struck Gleason in the head with his empty carbine. As Gleason reeled from the “fearful blow,” another Confederate sabered him on the right side of his head, laying “open the scalp about four inches, and [knocking] out a few pieces of bone.” Undoubtedly concussed, and with blood streaming down his face, Gleason ordered his men to release their prisoners and fall back. Just then his horse stumbled, and the wounded officer fell from the saddle. After being dragged a short distance, Gleason shook off the stirrup and crawled into the woods. Moments later, Captain Adams arrived with reinforcements. He spoke with Sgt. James Hart, “an old [rough, fighting] man,” who, though out of breath, still showed the will to fight. Taking his cue from Hart, Adams looked to continue the “shindy,” but the Virginians had had enough, and re-crossed the river.
Gleason reported the loss of two men captured during the melee. When Gleason’s superior, Col. Alfred Duffie, commander of the Second Cavalry Division, reported the affair the following day he listed only Gleason as a casualty. Gleason, citing a local doctor, claimed five Southern dead left on the field, while Duffie reported four Virginians killed. An examination of Southern regimental rosters, however, fails to support either of their claims. Lieut. Col. William Carter, 3rd Virginia, identified six men from his regiment wounded, but he mentions no Southern fatalities. Carter confirmed the two Yankee prisoners, but he also claimed that three Bay Staters had been killed.
The published roster for the 1st Massachusetts confirms the loss of two men, Sgt. Thomas Preston and Pvt. Daniel Fitzpatrick, captured. The roster also identifies one man, Albion Smith, as killed, though his name appears nowhere in the narrative of the skirmish. Smith’s Compiled Service Record also lists him as killed at Sulphur Springs on June 3. His death remained a bit of a mystery until I found a brief mention of the skirmish in the Springfield Daily Republican. After a short description of the fight and Lieutenant Gleason’s wounds, the article includes the following: “On the evening of the same day a dispatch party was fired upon, while on the way to Warrenton, and Albion Smith of Company F was killed.” Today, Albion Smith rests in Arlington Cemetery, under a headstone which incorrectly lists his date of death as July 3, rather than June 3.
So why a story about a forgotten soldier named Albion Smith? Well, on June 3 Robert E. Lee ordered two divisions of General Longstreet’s Corps to pull out of the lines near Fredericksburg and begin marching toward Culpeper. In his report of the Gettysburg Campaign, Lee stated, “the movement began on June 3.” Lee meant the movement which culminated at Gettysburg began on June 3, and historians have generally followed his lead. Lieut. Col. Carter, in his brief account of the skirmish at Sulphur Springs (or White Sulphur Springs as it is sometimes listed) mentions that Colonel Owen had been ordered to conduct a scout toward Waterloo. The presence of a couple wagons also suggests a foraging expedition, but neither purpose seems linked to the movement of Southern infantry from near Fredericksburg toward Culpeper. Thus, the skirmish may have been a random affair, but one soldier died during the day and that soldier, Albion Smith, may hold the dubious distinction of being the first soldier on either side killed in the Gettysburg Campaign.
Today, no monument marks the site of Lieutenant Gleason’s charge. Like Albion Smith, the melee at Sulphur Springs is largely forgotten, but the fury and impetuosity of the attack seemed to embolden the men of the 1st Massachusetts, and the Cavalry Corps in general. Gleason and his men simply wanted to fight, and fight they did, thirty-five men against three hundred. Gleason’s impetuosity, as well as his refusal to run in the face of overwhelming odds, infused the men of the regiment with a martial zeal that carried over to Brandy Station six days later and again at Aldie on June 17, where their courage nearly led to their destruction around another tight bend in a narrow road.
In 1856, Jane Wakefield, Maria Smith’s daughter from her previous marriage, married Ira Allen and on July 23, 1864, Jane and Ira had a son. They named him Albion, after the uncle he never knew.
Note – Albion Smith’s exact birthdate could not be determined, beyond the year of 1841. That year does not correspond with statements in his military files that he enlisted at age 18. I have opted to rely upon the Census information, which indicates he was at least 19 when he enlisted. With thanks to my wife for piecing together the threads of his family background.
Documents in the National Archives
Springfield [Massachusetts] Daily Republican
The Official Records
Benjamin Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers
Worthington Ford, A Cycle of Adams Letters
Robert and Nancy Frost, Picket Pins and Sabers
Walbrook D. Swank, Sabres, Saddles and Spurs