“Cavalry should …be…all ears and eyes, spurs and sabers.”

1st Massachusetts Cavalry Part 2

Thirty-three years after the uprising in the camp of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Readville, former officer and regimental historian, Benjamin Crowninshield believed, “the effects [of the mutiny] were never wholly eradicated from the regiment.” Indeed, a simmering tension rippled through the command as the men and officers seemed perpetually combative and eager for a fight, either amongst themselves or with the enemy.

The men were sadly mistaken if they thought the events of November 8 might bring some measure of relief from the severe discipline instilled by Col. Robert Williams and Lieut. Col. Horace Sargent. Rather than relaxing his demands, Williams “tightened the discipline, and the men soon found that their life was not to be an easy one.” Williams drove himself as he drove his men, “and punishment for breach of discipline became common.” Facing pressure from families and the press to relent, Williams instead sought to remove the regiment from the state. He had, in October asked for authority to march the men to the regular army barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, thinking the “march will be of great advantage in disciplining the regiment.” His request denied, Williams waited until December and then marched the men to Boston. The journey from Readville took about two and a half hours. On the outskirts of the city, members of several militia units greeted the troopers and escorted them to where ‘throngs of people” had waited several hours for the soldiers to arrive. Gone, however, were the colorful, glittery uniforms of past gatherings. Instead, the observers saw lean, dusty men in regulation blue. After an assembly on the Common, Williams led his command back to Readville.

Six days later, Christmas Day, the regiment began boarding trains for the journey south, first to New York City and then by ship to South Carolina. After a miserable journey, the men finally settled at Hilton Head and Beaufort. Once in camp, “the most rigid discipline” resumed. “To the men it seemed almost intolerable, and scarcely less so to the officers,” but under the fierce Southern sun the men became soldiers. Shortly before leaving Readville, a trooper had said of Colonel Williams, “We have every confidence in our Colonel, that he is just the man we need to get us ready. He is gaining in the goodwill and respect of the men every day, and there are few of us but feel, as we see him, that we are proud to be under such a noble specimen of a soldier.” But not all agreed.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr., had served in a Boston militia unit prior to the war but he did not accept a proffered commission with the 1st Massachusetts until late-1861 and only after much soul-searching. His father served the Lincoln administration as Minister to Great Britain, while his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and his great-grandfather, John Adams, had both served as President of the United States. Adams struggled every day to measure up to his lineage, and the near unbearable burden left him morose, irritable, condescending and a chronic complainer. His difficult personality meant he had few close friends. Still, his letters and his autobiography, colored though they be by his deep prejudices, his acerbic pen and his jaundiced view of the world, give us a remarkable window into the service of the regiment and the men he served with and served under.

“I propose to deal kindly with” Williams, Adams wrote in his autobiography, “but, in point of fact, he was all-outside! There was no real stuff in him, and – he couldn’t help drinking! Brought up in the regular service, he did not understand our Massachusetts men, and his discipline was severe to brutality. He had a set of us young Harvard fellows for officers, who served him like dogs, who bowed before him in blind, unquestioning obedience. Better material out of which to make officers never existed; but we needed kindly, sympathetic instruction. We didn’t get it!” One wonders what Adams might have said had he elected to deal with Williams less kindly.

Adams, who served as an aide to Williams and observed him daily, in camp and in battle, deemed him “an utter failure;” a man prone to drink and to “quarrel.” Still, Adams claimed to have gotten along “well enough with him; but in no respect was he a man I took to, or who took to me.” Williams resigned following the Maryland Campaign* but if Adams thought the atmosphere within the regiment might relax with new leadership, events soon proved him wrong.

“My trouble,” Adams explained, “came from Massachusetts men – men I ought to have known all my life and been as of one family.” He spoke of Lieut. Colonel Horace Sargent and his half-brother Capt. Lucius Sargent. Captain Sargent commanded Company H and Adams served as his senior lieutenant. Years later, Adams wistfully looked back on his service at Beaufort as his “apprenticeship,” a time he should have enjoyed. Instead, in the winter of a full life, Adams reflected upon his four months in South Carolina “with a shudder of disgust.” “[It] was,” he concluded, “the worst experience I ever had.” One of Governor Andrew’s aides, a man who had worked alongside Horace Sargent in 1861, reportedly said, “Put it down that it will always remain an uncertainty whether it was the insane vanity of the elder brother [Horace], or the drunken insanity of the younger [Lucius], which utterly ruined the finest regiment that ever left Massachusetts.” In time, Adams came to refer to Horace as “old chain lightning,” and Lucius as “sheet lightning.”

Forty years old when he received his commission as lieutenant colonel, Horace Sargent, had received an undergraduate degree and a law degree from Harvard, though he never practiced law. He served as an aide to Gov. Nathaniel Banks and later as senior military aide for Gov. John Andrew. At the outbreak of the war, Sargent took his children to Geneva, Switzerland. Upon his return, he resigned his position with the governor and accepted a commission with the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. He retained his post in the wake of the Readville mutiny and replaced Robert Williams as colonel in October 1862.

Captain Adams found the first months of Colonel Sargent’s tenure in command especially “dispiriting.” “[We] learned nothing,” he complained, “unless it were to carry insubordination to a fine art…we had no schools of instruction; regimental quarrels were incessant; the spirit of insubordination was rife and in the air.” In January, Adams, along with Lieut. Col. Greely Curtis and Maj. Henry Higginson filed a complaint with the army commander, “setting forth the Colonel’s utter ignorance and glaring incompetence.” Curtis, then under arrest at Sargent’s order, and Higginson verbally detailed their complaints to their division commander in the presence of Colonel Sargent. Ordered to settle their differences between themselves, the junior officers refused to back down. After “a long discussion,” Sargent released Curtis from arrest, Higginson withdrew his complaint “and peace was restored.”

At some point during his year in command, Sargent wrote out some thoughts regarding the management of cavalry. The undated document covers a range of topics, including what he expected of his men in the presence of the enemy.

Twenty-four of the fleetest horses and best light mounted men will accompany the advance guard for the purpose of capturing videttes, running in pickets & C. The main body of the advance guard will be maintained well in hand to receive them if repulsed or to follow up their discoveries but always looking well to the flanks and to free communication with the main body to which constant and instant report with as precise details as possible will be made.

Upon coming upon the enemy in force the leading brigade will form in line of battle with reserves and flanking squadrons and its batteries well supported. Whenever the ground offers cover, the support may well be placed in advance of the flanks of the battery with a good lookout to the rear.

In coming rapidly into line from column of fours in the face of the enemy if it should be necessary to charge immediately, platoons may be formed upon the gallop and coming into line directly or by inversion make an efficient series of charges in echelon. The order “Draw Saber” must not be omitted.

Sabers are to be sharpened fifteen inches from their point as keenly as possible and every means taken to inspire the trooper with confidence in this peculiar and terrible arm.

In the melee that follows the charge men must at once rally towards each other, charging with the point upon the enemy in their way. Knots of two or three are to rally in like manner upon others and by a succession of sharp charges darting hither and thither collect together for the principle rally of the regiment. In this manner even in the absence of orders a formidable body will be collected, which, riding here and there, can bear down opposition and cut their way out of the throng or act effectively in the confusion to mob and capture some principle officer or the standard or guidons of the enemy.

In practice nothing will be found more effective and [conducive] to safety and success than this method of rallying by twos and threes. After the first shock is over, it forms an instant reserve.

In charging batteries forty or fifty men will be found sufficient to charge the front as foragers with skirmishers advancing, the main attacks being directed on the flanks and the support – the saber to be vigorously used. Cavalry very, very rarely must charge without reserves at hand and the first who rally must be prepared to support the reserves in their turn.

The last well compacted body that charges a disorganized fighting mass will probably turn the fight.

The system of rally above indicated insures a perpetual supply of such forces.

In the management of cavalry that is not a mounted mob an iron will, a quiet eye and volcanic promptness and impetuousness are more important than the coolest judgment.

Cavalry is a projectile to be carefully used but at last risked. It is to be husbanded until the proper moment which is generally at the end of battle but whenever the enemy is disordered or presents his flanks it is there to be launched with all the weight and velocity of brute force equal to madness to be exploded with its thousand cutting edges and re-collected for a new assault.

It defends only by attacking. The same speed and impulse that plunges it into danger gives it the facility of returning

In every sense it differs from the infantry arm and the officers who attempt to use it on infantry principles will despise its invincible arm the saber, and will report as the result of every reconnaissance that he saw no enemy except a few flying scouts who retired before his well-regulated column. This flying curtain must be pierced and a very different story will generally be reported – an economical reconnaissance makes an extravagant battle.

The method of throwing out skirmishers practiced by the Cossacks and all cavalry nations and frequently used by the best rebel cavalry in Virginia illustrates remarkably the difference between cavalry and infantry. A squadron charges upon the enemy’s front and suddenly opening as foragers disperses to the right and left and envelopes front and flank with a most annoying skirmish fire. A method of gaining the flanks in rear of the enemy when his front is greatly superior and his artillery is not very formidable is suggested by [the French] as follows:

A column of squadrons charges a deployed line or a line about to meet a charging line of the enemy plays on a center squadron and makes a charge in column. It necessarily pierces the center of the opposing line whose wings commence to envelope the column. At this moment the order “Platoons right and left wheel” followed by the order “Charge” strikes both wings of their disordered line at an angle or gains their rear and sweeps them towards a hostile front with the impetus of their own charge in addition.

In such maneuvers it is apparent that a high state of discipline and absence of shouting and outcry in the melee are essential to success.

Until the moment of the charge and after the shock, cavalry should undoubtedly be as mute as possible, all ears and eyes, spurs and sabers.

Whether or not Sargent ever officially published this document as an operational directive is unknown, though, I believe he did. Evidence of such is found in the actions at Sulphur Springs, June 3, Stevensburg, June 9, and Aldie, June 17. Sargent wanted his men to fight and fight they did, at times rashly but they refused to run from a fight. He appears to have recognized the emerging transition to light, mobile infantry, brought about by quick-loading carbines, and he wanted no part of it. He wanted his men to fight as cavalry and he wanted them to fight with the saber. Such combat meant hand-to-hand fighting and looking your opponent in the eye as you tried to kill him. Regardless of the hundreds of prints and paintings showing infantry marching toward the foe with fixed bayonets, even the most battle-hardened foot-soldiers recoiled from hand-to-hand fighting and seldom, if ever, engaged in such action. Sargent pressed his men to overcome their fears of hand-to-hand combat.

Questions remain to be considered: Should historians pay any heed to the claim that Sargent’s “insane vanity” may have “utterly ruined the finest regiment that ever left Massachusetts?” If so, does this window into Colonel Sargent’s thinking provide any proof of such a statement? In the three actions listed above the regiment lost at least 201 men killed, wounded or captured, including at least seven officers. Most of these losses occurred at Aldie where nearly two-thirds of the men engaged became casualties, a staggering toll for a cavalry regiment. Or, should historians look to Captain Sargent’s “drunken insanity,” possibly evidenced by his taunting the enemy at Aldie to continue the fight, as the cause of the regiment’s demise? The men had been “all spurs and sabers” at Aldie but they paid a steep price and the command remained a mere shell of its pre-June strength for months afterwards, and, arguably, never recovered.

Only two of the regiment’s three battalions had joined the Army of the Potomac in 1862; the third battalion remained in South Carolina and never rejoined the regiment. Throughout the bloody year of 1863, Governor Andrew and several regimental officers repeatedly urged the War Department to unite the three battalions but without success. As an alternative, the officers eventually received permission to raise a new battalion in Massachusetts but that would take time and the patriotic fervor of 1861 had long since waned. The task also meant sending several officers and sergeants home on recruiting duty at a time when the depleted regiment needed every man in the ranks. Like the two battalions in Virginia, the detachment in South Carolina was also short of officers and the governor tried shuffling badly needed lieutenants between the battalions to mitigate the deficiencies but the exercise proved little more than a shell-game.

Capt. Lucius Sargent made a rapid recovery from his Aldie wounds and returned to the regiment in August but others, like Henry Higginson, never returned. In time, the able-bodied enlisted prisoners returned but many of the wounded did not. And, unlike the enlisted men, several officers captured at Aldie spent long terms in Southern prisons. With the officer corps already depleted, Lieut. Colonel Curtis went on sick leave in mid-July and never returned.

Curtis and Higginson were Adams’ two closest friends in the regiment, and maybe his only close friends. He missed them terribly. Adams looked down upon most everyone he encountered, especially his superiors in the army. His accounts and criticisms, pithy and colorful though they are, should, in my opinion, be used only after digging deeper into the context around the event and seeking verification. Henry Higginson helps to corroborate his criticisms of Horace Sargent, as does Theodore Lyman who thought Sargent shared “some of the flightiness of his [Sargent’s]family.”

Captain Adams had been under fire several times but Aldie may have been his first real opportunity to lead men in battle. When I first wrote about the battle, I used his own account written right after the fight and in which he blames everyone but himself for the destruction of his squadron. We’ll probably never know the exact sequence of events or the orders which may have been given or not given but I do not now believe the 4th New York Cavalry was to blame, as Adams claims. Rather, the blame falls on Adams as he elected to receive the Confederate attack flat-footed rather than at a charge. His claim of impossible terrain preventing him from meeting the enemy with the momentum of a charge behind him also falls flat, as the enemy moved over the same ground. One biographer has suggested that he lost his nerve, either during the fight or in the immediate aftermath.

The following spring, and still unhappy with his superiors in the regiment, Adams asked a favor of his friend Lyman, an aide to General Meade. Lyman spoke with the army commander and got Adams assigned to Meade’s headquarters, in time for the Overland Campaign. He later received command of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and a brevet to brigadier in October 1866, in part because of a recommendation from his former commander, Robert Williams.

Not long after his open dispute with Curtis and Higginson in early-1863, Colonel Sargent requested a leave of absence to visit Europe on the pretext of translating European military texts into English. When the War Department denied his request, Sargent waited two months and tried again, asking for a leave of 60 days to visit his family in Europe. Though again unsuccessful, Sargent was not with the regiment at Aldie and in October he received orders to report to New Orleans for duty with his friend Maj. General Nathaniel Banks. Had he been trying to escape the uncomfortable situation within his regiment resulting from his conflict with Curtis and Higginson at the beginning of the year? Or, as Benjamin Crowninshield believed, did tension resulting from the Readville mutiny still ripple through the command? Wounded several months later, Sargent never returned to active duty, though he received a brevet promotion to brigadier in September 1864. After the war he moved to California, became a rather popular speaker and dabbled in politics until his death in 1908.


* Colonel Williams resigned his volunteer commission in October 1862, though the exact date is unclear due to conflicting information in the records. He returned to the regular army and duty at the Adjutant General’s Office in Washington, with the rank of major. He retired in 1893 with the rank of brigadier general.


Sources –

Documents from the National Archives

Boston Evening Transcript

San Francisco Call Bulletin

Waltham Sentinel

Michael DeGruccio, “Manhood, Race, Failure, and Reconciliation: Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and the American Civil War,” The New England Quarterly, December 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/20474682, May 2, 2019

Charles Francis Adams, An Autobiography

Benjamin Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers

Worthington Ford, A Cycle of Adams Letters

David Lowe, Editor, Meade’s Army, The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman

John T. Morse, Memoir of Colonel Henry Lee

Bliss Perry, Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson

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