A Case for a Defining Moment – Part 1

Guiding his horse through the deep snow in the nearly impenetrable forest along the Rappahannock River, Maj. Samuel Chamberlain may have reflected on the events of his youth. He had enlisted and seen the elephant during the war with Mexico. Rather than a spit and polish soldier, however, Chamberlain had been a bit of a renegade, eventually deserting before his enlistment expired. If anyone had examined the records thoroughly enough when he re-entered the service in 1861, they might have found the army still considered him a deserter. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and probably still a little rough around the edges, Chamberlain must have cut his own path among the Boston Brahmins in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

On February 18, 1863, Chamberlain had the tiresome task of inspecting the cavalry picket line between Hartwood Church and the Rappahannock River, in Stafford County, Virginia. As he pushed his horse through the woods, the temperature rose, and the snow became rain. Soon the roads and paths turned to mud and mire. Cold, wet, and miserable, Chamberlain’s mood must have grown dark as he approached United States Ford.

Emerging from the trees, Chamberlain saw the Union pickets, men from the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, at ease and talking with the enemy. “I found the men…without arms, their arms being …a distance of twenty yards from them, their horses were feeding from nose bags and their saddle girths unloosened.”  Looking around, he saw all of the horses at the reserve post unsaddled, “in direct violation of my positive orders. When Lt. Henry Cranville identified himself as the officer in charge, Chamberlain placed him under arrest and ordered him to return to camp.

Two days later, Chamberlain wrote a report of the incident and forwarded it to Col. James Kerr, temporarily commanding the division. Disgusted, Kerr asked army commander Joseph Hooker to dismiss Cranville. Shortly thereafter, Hooker published General Order 15, dismissing Cranville pending the approval of President Lincoln. The case could not have been adjudicated more quickly; in one day, Chamberlain’s report passed through the hands of his division commander and the army commander, who summarily discharged the lieutenant.

The following day, Cranville told the Adjutant General of the army, “I am dismissed with disgrace…without an opportunity to defend myself, and without even being informed of the charges against me. I carried out strictly the orders received from the officer whom I relieved, and believed at the time of my arrest, that I was performing my duties properly.” Certain the charges could not be “substantiated,” Cranville asked for a court of inquiry to investigate the allegations. The army saw the matter otherwise and Cranville went home in disgrace.

Little is known of Henry Cranville beyond the minimal information in his military files. Probably 21 years of age (one card shows him as 31), and from western Pennsylvania, Cranville entered service in August 1862 as a private in the 16th Pennsylvania. He received a lieutenant’s commission three months later, and just three months before being arrested and discharged.

On February 21, the day after Hooker dismissed Cranville, Col. John Irvin Gregg, commander of the 16th Pennsylvania, wrote a letter defending the lieutenant, as he believed the charges to “be exceedingly unjust.” The regiment had been “in the field only six weeks,” and Gregg did not think Cranville could “be expected to be well posted in regard to what is required of an officer in command of an outpost as if he had been in the service for a year or more. I have always regarded Lt. Cranville as one of the most promising officers in my regiment, prompt in the performance of his duty, energetic, and scrupulously obedient to orders, and evincing on all occasions a desire to learn his profession.”

Gregg then shifted blame for the incident to Major Chamberlain, claiming, “The officer preferring the charges on which Lieut. Cranville has been dismissed allowed him to be sent to occupy an important outpost without giving him any orders by which he was to be governed (Chamberlain said otherwise), consequently he was obliged to act according to instructions received from the officer whom he relieved, which instructions I had every reason to believe were faithfully carried out.”

So, who might we hold responsible, the 21-year-old lieutenant, seasoned officers like Gregg or Chamberlain, or might the fault lie somewhere else?

Let us start with the army. In the wake of the debacle at Fredericksburg, the army rushed the 16th Pennsylvania into service, as evidenced by a December 16 letter from Colonel Gregg.

“Being under orders to join Gen’l Burnside without delay I will be much obliged if you furnish me with a map of the country through which my route is to be. I have the honor also to enquire if the order to join Gen. Burnside without delay means that I am to march immediately without having my horses shod and the two companies which are without saddles properly equipped.”

Told his orders stood, Gregg sent a follow-up letter the same day. “I shall march… with as little delay as possible. Two thirds of the horses of my regiment are without shoes… I am also without slings for my carbines – two companies are without saddles… I am controlling a mob of undisciplined men without a single officer of experience to aid me. My men were furnished with carbines on the 15th and neither officers or men know how to load their arms. Under such a state of circumstances as the above I can anticipate nothing but disorder and disgrace with every desire to do my duty as a soldier and a man.” In response, the army gave Gregg a two-week reprieve, during which time he drilled the men just twice.

On December 30, and again under orders to join the army along the Rappahannock River, Gregg told his superiors, “I…report my regiment armed, equipped, and shod, but not sufficiently drilled to be of service. I require two hundred pairs of boots to cloth my men, who are absolutely bare-footed.” Four days later, January 3, 1863, the men broke camp in Maryland and headed south.  They reached Stafford County a week later.

Sworn into service on September 18, the recruits had responded to Stuart’s Chambersburg Raid in October and moved camp once from Pennsylvania to Maryland, before departing for the army on January 3. During those several months, the men drilled, never more than two hours a day, just 21 times. (Remember, cavalrymen had a more extensive manual, including both mounted and dismounted drill) Joining the army in the middle of a miserably cold, wet winter, the men spent their first week erecting winter quarters. They went out for their first stint of picket duty on January 29, having participated in just one more drill session and having had their weapons inspected once. Between January 29 and February 18, the men had no further instruction or practice on the drill field. The inexperienced troopers began picket duty around Hartwood Church on February 7.

Hartwood Church may have been ‘Ground Zero’ on the Union picket line. About four miles from the Rappahannock River and surrounded by dense woods, the Union cavalry used the church as a picket reserve post, from where troopers could quickly aid the smaller posts along the river in the event of enemy incursion. Wade Hampton’s Southern cavalry had overrun the outpost on November 28, capturing five officers, including Capt. George Johnson, commander of the post, and 77 men from the 3rd Pennsylvania. In total, the Confederates seized about 92 men, two stands of colors and about 100 horses and weapons.

Writing of the affair the next day, Gen. William Averell explained, “The instructions to the officer commanding the pickets had been, to post his reserve at or near Hartwood, and to keep it entirely screened from observation; to picket all the roads approaching our army, between the Rappahannock River and Poplar road… The greatest vigilance and carefulness were enforced upon him; Patrols were frequently to examine the country in front, and his reserve was to stand to horse from one hour before sunrise, until one hour after, every morning.

On the evening of the 26th inst. an Officer was sent to visit the pickets, who remained with them, until the morning of the 27th. He was directed to warn them of an expected demonstration on the part of an enemy – to direct the officer in command to keep his reserve constantly saddled and ready for action, to increase the vigilance of the patrols and pickets, and guard against the attack which he must soon expect. He was told to expect the attack in the morning (emphasis in original) …

After the most careful and comprehensive instructions,” Averell continued, “and with a timely warning fresh in his memory, Capt. [Johnson] permitted his command to be surprised, and a great portion of it captured; bringing disgrace and shame upon his regiment and the brigade to which it belongs, and our Cavalry service into disrepute.

I have the honor to request that the name of Capt. George Johnson, 3rd Pa. Cavalry, be dropped from the rolls; or if an opportunity shall occur to bring him to trial…”

Captain Johnson may have been an Englishman and a veteran of the Charge of the Light Brigade if a brief mention in the Philadelphia Inquirer is accurate, though his age as given on his muster cards suggests otherwise. Rather than being on full alert, Johnson was reportedly drawing a picture on a wall in the church when the enemy overran his position. Exchanged at City Point on December 12, Johnson reached a parole camp in Maryland two days later. President Lincoln approved his dishonorable discharge on December 17, without Johnson ever having a chance to give his side of the story.

The digression here is important, because the first men from the 16th Pennsylvania (Company F) learned of the November 28 incident as soon as they arrived at the church on February 7. The 3rd and 16th Pennsylvania were both assigned to Averell’s brigade, and the story of Johnson’s capture and dismissal must have rippled through the ranks. Still, we have no proof that Lieutenant Cranville (Company K) knew of the event before he went on picket duty later in the month.

Endorsing General Averell’s request that Johnson be dismissed, then army commander Ambrose Burnside wrote, “The Commanding General hopes and believes that a lack of discipline in the Regiment and Brigade to which this officer belonged did not warrant him in so gross a neglect of duty.” General Averell reviewed the 3rd Pennsylvania two days after the incident and undoubtedly had strong words for this former command. His brigade was attached to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division, and it is important to note here, considering subsequent events, that Hooker not only knew of the incident, but he also called for a court of inquiry to investigate the affair.

One of the men captured at the church later admitted, the incident “was humiliating to us, but it served some good purposes. It called ‘down’ an unreasonable pride. It awoke all cavalrymen to a sense of their great responsibility on outpost duty, and put eyes in the back of their heads.” But had it?

The Cranville incident suggests any lessons learned by the men of the 3rd Pennsylvania did not carry over to the men of the 16th Pennsylvania. But then Colonel Gregg’s men were still in Pennsylvania at the time, so holding them to any similar standard of future conduct would be unfair. But one can ask, what, if anything, happened within the regiment because of the Cranville affair?  In the short term – nothing!

To be continued


Documents in the National Archives

Philadelphia Inquirer

A Diary Kept by Jacob Beidler, published 1994 by the Juniata County Historical Society

Regimental History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry

Franklin McGrath, The History of the 127th New York Volunteers “Monitors” in the War for the Preservation of the Union

One thought on “A Case for a Defining Moment – Part 1

  1. I’ll never cease to be amazed by all the peculiar anecdotes that have been uncovered during the course of Civil War research. The incident involving Capt. Johnson is a fine example. Fantastic work, as always, Bob!


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