In April 1861, the blood of Patriots still coursed through the veins of many young men in Massachusetts. While thousands of men and boys with no military experience rushed to recruiting offices around the state, hundreds of others waited for a call they knew could not be long in coming. Like many of their forebears, these men belonged to local militia cavalry units, with names like the Boston Light Dragoons and Springfield Horse Guards. These men and officers had drilled together for years, and their sessions, held on the local common, often drew hundreds, if not thousands of spectators. In October 1860, the Prince of Wales and Gov. Nathaniel Banks reviewed several local companies on Boston Common. The largest gatherings often included stirring speeches, in which officers recalled the exploits of their ancestors on the hallowed fields of “Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord,” and vowed to stand “ever ready to charge the enemy and discharge [their] duties to the country.” But as the ranks of infantry regiments quickly filled, these cavalrymen, including those in the Boston Lancers and the Waltham Dragoons waited four months for their chance.
In September, after Gov. John Andrew finally received authority to raise the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, he authorized five militia captains to each raise a squadron (two companies) of cavalry. Men from the existing militia units would be accepted, if they weighed less than 175 pounds. Within days, a newspaper editor in Boston reported the ranks would “soon be filled,” but he had reservations. “We trust,” he wrote, that especial pains will be taken in enlisting men for this service, with a recollection that something more than a mere muster-field parade is before them.” Continuing, the editor opined, “It is more than all important, that the new regiment should be well commanded and officered. There must be something more than holiday practice or theoretical knowledge… We know of no reason to doubt that officers of experience in the regular army can be had for this service… We hope that every proper effort will be made to secure the services of such men.”
Governor Andrews, who may have held some of the same concerns, selected Capt. Robert Williams, West Point, Class of 1851. Williams had served in the 1st Dragoons, before returning to West Point as an instructor of cavalry tactics. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Williams took a position as adjutant on the staff of former governor and now major-general Nathaniel Banks. Of Williams, General Winfield Scott declared, “I know of no young cavalry officer in America or Europe who is his superior.” Additional accolades, from officers such as George McClellan and Irvin McDowell, quickly reassured local editors. “There can be no doubt,” one declared, “that our new cavalry regiment will thus be placed under the command of a thoroughly accomplished and experienced officer. The good judgment displayed in the choice should be a subject for general rejoicing, when we remember the peculiar difficulty and importance of this branch of the service, which makes a good colonel of cavalry as difficult to find as half a dozen good brigadiers of infantry.” Another editor spoke of Williams as “the first young cavalry officer of modern times.” But along with the acclaim came a caveat; Williams was a Southerner.
Born and raised in Virginia, Williams received his appointment from the Old Dominion State, but, when war broke out, he honored his oath and stayed with the Union. The war tore his family asunder, as his widowed father remained loyal to the North, while the remainder of the family stayed true to Virginia and the Confederacy. One paper described the break as “beyond all hope of forgiveness.” After meeting Williams in the spring of 1862, Dr. Henry Bowditch, whose son, Nathaniel, served in the regiment, described the colonel as “the personification of that true old Virginia chivalry, of which we have heard so much, but of which we have seen so little, in the Masons, the Wises and the Floyds of the present day.” Possibly detecting a hint of melancholy in Williams, Bowditch observed, “I suppose…that his isolation from his usual friendships has been more complete from the fact that he [has accepted] command of a Massachusetts Regiment. Had he taken any other service than that of Massachusetts it would doubtless have been more agreeable to traitors.” But much had transpired within the regiment in the months prior to Bowditch meeting Williams.
The recruits and former militiamen gathered at a camp of instruction, known as Camp Brigham, in Readville, Massachusetts. On October 8, 1861, George Parks, a 19-year-old private, wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper. “The event of the week has been the arrival of our long-expected Colonel. The moment his tall, straight, though somewhat youthful, form passed down the line, that moment every man felt that a directing head, a presiding spirit, had appeared, and the days of inefficiency and laxity in the management of regimental affairs had passed. First impressions are always lasting, and it is well that Col. Robert Williams has come.”
Human nature tells us that, like Parks, everyman in the regiment began taking the measure of their new commanding officer as soon as they laid eyes on him. Likewise, Williams, who must have appreciated the scrutiny which accompanied the accolades, began assessing the men, especially the officers. The former dragoon must have noted the “inefficiency and laxity” mentioned by Parks. Williams also noted the cliques linked to the old militia units. In particular, he began assessing the militia officers, including their fitness for command, their knowledge, their drive and what, if anything, they had accomplished in his absence. As the regimental historian later explained, Williams “criticized each officer…severely and pitilessly.”
The men expected to be able to elect their officers, and the militia captains had had several weeks to curry favor and votes while neglecting the training of the men. The officers expected, via the ballot box, to, not only retain their positions, but to gain promotion, including, possibly, command of the regiment. Thus, grumbling began, especially amongst the officers, as soon as Williams and his lieutenant colonel, Horace Sargent, arrived on the parade ground.
Within days, Williams dissolved the old militia companies; “the prestige of the valiant Light Dragoons,” the Lancers and the Horse Guards gave way to sterile alphabetical company designations. He also informed the officers that he considered each of them to be on probation, with their commissions hanging in the balance. Grumbling and disaffection spread through the ranks, but, as Parks explained, “The election of officers has not yet taken place…we wait patiently.”
Word eventually reached Governor Andrew of the growing discord within the regiment and he may have queried Williams on the matter. In his measured reply, Williams assessed the potential and knowledge of each of the officers. He then explained, “The duties of a cavalry officer requires, in my opinion, talents and physical capacity of high order, which are of a peculiar nature, and which these gentleman cannot acquire…I would most earnestly recommend that none of the officers be appointed to whom I have referred as being unfit for cavalry duties.” Williams then described his ideal cavalry officer.
“A cavalry officer should be a man of comparatively light, active figure, of quick, active intellect, and, in addition, capable of leading his men, if necessary, into the most desperate encounters with coolness, but at the same time with the greatest rapidity. He should be the first in every charge, the last in every retreat; and, above all, should admit nothing, in the power of man and horse to accomplish, as impossible…I have made cavalry and its duties the study of my life, so that I hope I understand them. These gentlemen to whom I have referred cannot be made to understand them. With these as officers I look forward to anything but honor with the regiment; without them, and with good officers, I hope everything.”
The pre-war militia gatherings had been social events as much as they were military and drill sessions. Under Williams, the men soon learned the meaning of serious drill, hours and hours of drill in all manner of weather. They spent days learning to ride their horses bareback before he ever distributed saddles. The change from pre-war casual social gatherings to wartime regular army discipline and drill brought additional grumbling from some but by mid-October “a radical change” had taken place. “What before seemed a mere collection of private citizens, encamped for no specific purpose, has now assumed the [guise] of a camp…with all the appliances of war,” one trooper wrote.
Still, the matter of elections within the regiment remained open. The officers who felt aggrieved believed the governor had promised elections in return for each of the officers bringing a squadron of men into the ranks. They believed each position would be open to election, including the colonelcy and lieutenant colonelcy. They had not been happy when Colonel Williams and Lieut. Colonel Sargent arrived in camp, but they had not outwardly questioned the decision either. But they firmly believed that Maj. William White, the senior of the militia officers should have been considered for one of the top positions. Thus, when Capt. Greely Curtis, a non-militia officer, received the position as first major over White on October 31, the long-simmering tensions began to flare.
Four days later, the appointment of a young lieutenant, who had not served in one of the militia units, brought the matter to the boiling point. Capt. Jonathan Robinson and Acting Capt. Henry Crane immediately complained to Lieut. Colonel Sargent. Not only did the lieutenant’s appointment violate the agreement, they believed to be in place, but the new man had no knowledge of cavalry tactics and “very little…military knowledge of any kind.” Dissatisfied with Sargent’s response, the two officers told the lieutenant “that he had better return home, as he was not wanted, and the men were not inclined to obey him.”
Two days later, the new lieutenant ordered several of the men to fall in for stable duty. Believing the men to be insubordinate by their dilatory response to his command, and with no experience to fall back upon, the officer walked off to report the matter to Sargent. In his absence the men promptly returned to their tents. Crane, meanwhile, reportedly ordered the men back into line and to obey the lieutenant. At which point Sargent arrived and placed Crane under arrest. As Crane walked away, he overheard Sargent berating his men, asking “who were traitors and who were cowards.” Angered, Crane returned, telling Sargent, my men “will obey your orders and mine; but they do not know this lieutenant. He came here…in opposition to the wishes of the men, who are supposed to have some voice in the selection of their officers.” Sargent then, reportedly, shoved Crane and ordered him back to his quarters. Enraged at seeing their officer abused, the men began to rush toward Sargent, but Captain Robinson interceded and ordered the men back to their tents.
When the men from the original detail reached the stables, they found no one to direct them and returned to the company street just as their comrades began returning to their quarters. Sargent immediately ordered them to the guardhouse in irons. Colonel Williams returned to camp during the night and arrested Robinson. Shortly thereafter, Sargent observed men from several companies discussing the events of the day. “Brandishing his sword and commanding them as “sons of —— to disperse,” Sargent stepped toward the angry crowd. In the melee which ensued, the men knocked the weapon from Sargent’s hand. Drawing his revolver, Sargent fired a shot, which grazed a man’s ear. The men then, reportedly, returned to their tents, while Sargent stormed up and down the company street and wounding another man for “looking out of the door of his tent.” Pvt. Samuel Smith received several cuts from Sargent’s saber and Pvt. Chestop Finger may also have been injured by Sargent.
In the morning, Colonel Williams sent for Capt. John Leonard, and, reportedly, questioned him about a mess table which had been left dirty after a meal. Unsatisfied with Leonard’s response, Williams placed him under arrest. Williams then ordered the three militia officers, Robinson, Leonard and Crane, “escorted from the camp and dishonorably dismissed for insubordination.” The three men promptly presented their version of the events to the Boston papers. After reading their account as described above, an editor from Springfield, home of several of the officers, opined, “If half the charges…are true, and we have no reason to doubt their correctness, the men appointed to command of the…regiment are totally unfit for the post, for men who have not learned to command themselves are not fit to command others. There is evidently a pretty big screw loose somewhere, and the powers that be should attend to the matter directly.”
Three days after the above version appeared in print, 28 other officers, including Major White, signed their names to another version of the events. They fully supported the actions of Sargent and Williams and they denied that any agreement had ever existed in which commissions had been promised to officers. “On the contrary, the understanding was clear that all candidates were on probation. Commissions were purposely withheld by the Governor for the purpose of trial and approval…Moreover, Colonel Williams…had assembled the officers and told them they were on probation, and that no officer…would receive a commission unless he proved himself worthy of it.” The signees claimed that Lieutenant Crane had already been put on notice and asked to resign “to avoid disgrace,” but at his request he had been given a second chance. He had then “incited his men to actual mutiny, by a violent harangue, and ordered them to disobey” the new lieutenant. The officers further alleged that Captain Leonard had “encouraged a mutinous sentiment among his men, and circulated seditious papers for signature,” while Captain Robinson had previously “confessed his inability to command his men,” and “that he was unwilling to attempt” to command them. Disavowing the statements of the dismissed officers, the signees fully endorsed the actions of Sargent in “suppressing the mutinous disturbance,” and declared their confidence in Colonel Williams.
The colonel had not been present during the initial disturbance, however, and he had not injured any of the soldiers, but Sargent had injured Samuel Smith. Within a few days Smith charged Sargent with assault in a civilian court. After initially challenging the jurisdiction of a civilian court, Sargent turned himself in and was released on bond. He then offered the following explanation to the War Department.
“On the eighth of November… a mutiny occurred in these companies, and grave disaffection was general. One captain, who had been placed under arrest by Colonel Williams a few days before, circulated seditious papers & used mutinous language. Another said that he could not restrain his men. A third harangued his command and several hundred men to mutiny, so that they rushed around me with threats and violent acts.
By arresting him & the ring leaders I restored order for the time without violence.
At night, a much more serious disturbance occurred …by concerted signal, and with the purpose of tearing down the guardhouse & marching off the field. The men commenced tearing the letters from their caps, to prevent identification by their captains, and resisted the order to go to quarters. Two of my officers, a chief of squadron & the adjutant, were assaulted, and became involved in a mob of soldiers, prominent among which was a man named [Samuel] Smith, a notorious scoundrel.
I was obliged to use my weapon, until I could drive men into their tents. Several men were knocked down for their conduct, and some were wounded slightly.
Order was again restored, & the colonel returning distributed pistols to many of the officers; and ball cartridge was issued to an infantry regiment near us, & which was ordered to be under way at 10 o’clock next day, when the mutinous companies being surrounded by the rest of the regiment in square, the three officers above referred to, and who held only a probationary place in the regiment, were dismissed by executive permission. It was a critical moment, and at the instant that we were congratulating ourselves on restoring discipline, Smith, who is a very large man, commenced marching in & out of the ranks…and after ordering him twice, [I] threatened to run him through, and jumped through the files after him – my sword being sheathed. I struck him in the face with my hand and turned him to the guardhouse. He moved a moment, and then turned upon me with his fists clenched. I drew my sabre upon him and ordered him to the house; and as he would hardly move, I pricked him in the legs; and on his half turning upon me again, made a thrust, which hit him under the right shoulder. This satisfied him, and he moved on. He is now well & was never dangerously wounded. He had publicly threatened the colonel’s life before this act.
For this act and the various assaults of 8 November, I am pursued by the three expelled officers, who make a …shop in Fremont Street, kept by one of them, a school of mutiny, and desertion. I have been arrested on criminal process, and they threatened a vexatious multiplicity of criminal & civil suits. As a commissioned officer, sworn into service & ordered to march, I seek your guidance and if possible, the punishment of my pursuers.”
The saber wounds Sargent inflicted on Private Smith were more severe than Sargent described, and the army eventually released him on a medical discharge. The civilian court quickly dropped the case against Sargent, when a grand jury agreed they had no jurisdiction.
As the matter played out in the press, several unnamed individuals offered opinions. One editorialist presented a long definition of the term mutiny and several examples from history. In concluding, he explained, “Without strict discipline – prompt and implicit obedience – an army is a mob, a many headed monster – a camp a mere conventicle of turbulent spirits.” He then quoted George Washington. “An army cannot be governed without it; and no mistake, in him, who commands, is greater, or more fatal, than lax discipline. Nor is it the right road to true and permanent popularity. Civility is due to, but obedience is required from, all its members. These, accompanied with strict justice, and a proper attention to army rights and wants, will secure love and respect; while one indulgence begets an application for another, and another, until order is lost in disorder, and contempt of the commander brings up the rear.”
Another editor offered the following: “On the general subject of discipline to which our volunteers must be subjected, we believe that experience is fast enlightening all parties. The deceptive notion that volunteers must be governed ‘as citizens and not as soldiers,’ is giving way before the stern lessons of actual war. It is now beginning to be comprehended that the safety of an army depends on the habit of unerring and instant obedience to superior authority…It is not easy perhaps to cultivate this among men who are used to the easy terms of militia service, but its necessity is now recognized, fully enough at least to ensure public support to those charged with the duty of enforcing that discipline…”
As the year came to an end, Colonel Williams offered his final words regarding the Readville mutiny and any lingering questions regarding Lieut. Colonel Sargent’s actions. “As I have been informed that an opinion prevails, that I, as Colonel of the First Mass. Cavalry, have not approved of the course pursued by Colonel Sargent, in the late disturbances… I beg that you will contradict the statement. I not only approve fully of his course, but am confident, that there are few officers, who, under such trying circumstances, would have exhibited the same good judgment, coolness, and bravery.”
To be continued
Documents in the National Archives
Boston Daily Advertiser
Boston Evening Transcript
Lowell Daily Citizen & News
Worcester Massachusetts Spy
Worcester National Aegis
Benjamin Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers