A Case for a Defining Moment – Part 2

On February 21, three days after Major Chamberlain arrested Lieutenant Cranville, 16th Pennsylvania, and just one day after General Hooker dismissed the young officer, Capt. Richard Lord, 1st U.S. Cavalry, inspected the picket line near Hartwood Church. Approaching one of the outposts, Lord encountered four men from the 16th Pennsylvania. “I approached with my party without being challenged,” Lord explained in his report. “I found the man on post without his saber or cartridge box. The corporal [was] asleep and all the horses of the picket unsaddled and unbridled. They had been on duty at this place for nearly 3 days & had not been visited by the officer in charge. Had received no forage. Had but little ammunition and the only pistol in the party would not revolve.”

At another post, Lord asked the vedettes to recite their orders, explain where their reserve post was, as well as the number of men in reserve, “all of which they answered without knowing who I was. They had no arms but their carbine and no ammunition, but the load in the carbine, their sabres & cartridge boxes being in camp. The reserve of this picket had their horses unbridled and their arms and accoutrements scattered about camp. On approaching the main reserve of these pickets, I was challenged by a vidette, [who] allowed me to go up to him & ask him his orders. He replied he was ordered to halt all persons coming that way. When asked what he would do if they refused to halt, he replied he did not know, he had received no orders concerning that matter.  Many of the men of this picket had but one or two cartridges and some of them no [percussion] caps. In fact, the entire picket of the 16th PA Cavalry showed a most lamentable want of instruction, deficiency of ammunition, and a gross neglect of duty on the part of the officers.”

As Captain Lord notes, these men had been on duty for three days and presumably had no knowledge of Cranville’s arrest. However, had any officers from camp made the effort to check on the men, those officers might have known of Cranville’s arrest and could have taken appropriate action to prevent another occurrence. But no officers had checked on the men during their tour of duty.

Captain Lord closed his report with the following prescient comments: “I am of the opinion from what I saw…that fifty mounted men would have no difficulty in passing from [or] entering right to the HQ of our army.  I passed from the right to the HQ Cavalry Corps without being halted.  The country now occupied by our pickets is an almost unpassable forest cut by roads running in every direction and requiring a much larger force to picket it than is employed for that duty.”

Four days later, Brig. Gen. Fitz Lee led his Southern troopers across the river, overran the pickets, and inflicted another embarrassing defeat on the Federals at Hartwood Church. As Lt. Col. Edward Jones, 3rd Pennsylvania, described, three Southern troopers, wearing Union overcoats, approached a picket post manned by men of the 16th Pennsylvania. Unchallenged, the enemy troopers seized the Yankees and then exploited the gap in the line.

John Irvin Gregg, colonel of the 16th Pennsylvania, had not attended West Point. Rather, he had enlisted and seen service during the Mexican War, rising from private to captain. Leaving the army in 1848, Gregg returned to Pennsylvania and went to work at an iron foundry. On the eve of the Civil War, he re-entered the service and gained a captaincy in the 6th U.S. Cavalry before accepting the colonelcy of the 16th Pennsylvania. Following Gregg’s death, one of his soldiers recalled him as “one of the most unpretentious of men…an admirable combination of mildness and resolution…and…a man oblivious to the sense of fear.” The soldier’s recollections may be accurate in every detail, but in truth we know little about Gregg. His record suggests a man to be counted on in a crisis but not the aggressive officer the cavalry needed.

In a memorandum written five days before Cranville’s arrest, Gregg described how his officers had been selected. “Any person desiring it received from the Adjutant General of the State an order to raise a company and in order to facilitate the recruiting, he would offer to any person who could obtain a certain number of recruits a Lieutenancy, consequently all the line officers of the regiment were appointed without any reference to military ability, notwithstanding the selection of officers for the regiment has been good.” Once organized, company commanders selected the majors and lieutenant colonel. The Governor then appointed Gregg to the colonelcy. Though Gregg appears to have been satisfied with the quality of his officers, he noted, “the defects of this system must be obvious to everyone.” Cranville, however, had gained his commission from the ranks and probably at Gregg’s urging.

Last month, I suggested that the army bore some responsibility for the Cranville incident, as the War Department had rushed an ill-trained regiment to the front lines. Now, considering the events that followed Cranville’s arrest, the question remains – does anyone else bear responsibility for the problems within the 16th Pennsylvania?

My answer is Col. John Irvin Gregg. Once the War Department ordered him to join the army, against his repeated warnings as to his regiment’s state of unreadiness, Gregg appears to have washed his hands of responsibility for what happened afterwards. Surviving records, though scant, suggest Gregg made little effort to train his men or provide any guidance to his officers. Most importantly, he took no responsibility for the actions or inaction of his men. Continued bad weather almost certainly played a role in the lack of time on the drill field, but someone could rightly ask, if they could fight and stand picket in bad weather, why not train in bad weather? And, once the men began taking their turn on the picket line, drill became problematic regardless of the weather. But let us look at what Gregg could control.

On the day Hooker dismissed Cranville, Gregg sent the following complaint to his divisional headquarters. “I…report that the supply of forage to the regiment is entirely inadequate, having received up to this date but little over half of grain and about one fourth of hay. About half of [the] hay being spoiled. Officers commanding picket details, returning from out post last night and this morning reported [they] received for 320 horses, 1950 lbs. of forage or about 1.3 lbs. per horse per day (the prescribed daily ration called for 10-12 pounds of hay and 14 pounds of grain).  No horses died whilst standing post. One horse abandoned being unable to travel, and a number of others so much exhausted by exposure, fatigue and starvation that the riders were obliged to dismount and lead them back to camp. My regiment is rapidly becoming unserviceable and under existing circumstances will continue to do so.” Gregg says nothing, however, of what he or his quartermaster had done to prevent or correct the problems, other than notifying divisional staff.

After Hooker discharged Cranville, Gregg wrote the letter already cited, defending Cranville and blaming Chamberlain. “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, 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.”

I cannot speak to many matters of army protocol, in this case Major Chamberlain’s specific duties that day, but my question remains, what had Gregg done to prepare his men? The most basic responsibilities of picket duty remained the same regardless of when and where the men stood a post; challenging anyone approaching them, being alert, being properly armed and prepared to resist an enemy incursion and being versed in what to do and when to do it. All these concerns strike me as Gregg’s responsibility first and foremost.

On February 23, two days after Captain Lord inspected the picket line, Gregg published the following regimental order: “Commanders of companies will inspect the arms, horse equipments and horses of their several commands and see that the men have the requisite rations and number of cartridges of good quality before they go on picket.”

Publishing a regimental order may seem like an adequate response to some of the complaints enumerated by Chamberlain and Lord, and maybe I am being too harsh, but Gregg knew his officers had no military background. The last line in his February 13 memorandum, regarding his officers, suggests the doubts he had concerning their abilities. So, should he have taken a more active role? Nothing in the historical record suggests he did anything beyond publishing the one sentence directive.

Five days later, and three days after the fight at Hartwood Church, Gregg published another regimental order, calling for an immediate accounting of the men, horses, and equipment lost in the February 25 fight. Gregg then directed his officers to thoroughly inspect their men’s cartridge boxes every evening to “immediately” correct any deficiency. “Commanding officers of companies will take an accurate account of the number of cartridges now in the possession of each man and will charge the number to him, as well as each additional issue.  This account will be taken weekly, and each man will be expected to be able to account for any cartridge that may be missing, and if not satisfactory his Captain or other commanding officer will see that they are charged against his pay on the following muster.”

Gregg’s order, considering what had just occurred, suggests that a lack of ammunition had played a role in the events of February 25, and that his officers and men had ignored his previous order. If so, Gregg now appears to be telling these same young officers to police themselves. Again, should he have taken a more active role in correcting such mistakes? Had he ever called all his officers together and personally addressed such concerns with them, made them aware of their responsibilities as officers, and put them on notice?

On March 10, Gregg published a final order concerning the problem of ammunition. “Any commanding officer of a company sending out a picket detail without being supplied with forty rounds of carbine ammunition, and twenty rounds of pistol ammunition, will be arrested, and tried for disobedience of orders and neglect of duty.”

Exactly what prompted his latest order, and his increased threat level, is unknown. The problem may not have even been in his regiment, but his continuing orders concerning ammunition suggest his previous directives had failed to solve a serious problem. Gregg knew his men had received little training and he knew his officers had no military background, but nothing in the record suggests he made any effort to correct their shortcomings and aid their development as soldiers and officers.

Many regimental commanders held prescribed officer training sessions, where officers discussed and recited tactics and drill evolutions before senior officers. For example, Col. Alfred Duffie´ required his lieutenants to recite “Cavalry tactics at 6 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays” to a senior officer. “On Saturday they will recite to the Comd’g officer the exercises of the week. The Captains will recite once a week on Tuesdays at the same hour, to the Comd’g officer.” No evidence has been found that Gregg held such sessions, though lack of evidence does not prove that he did not do so. But one important event did occur between the February 28 order and the March 10 order.

Enraged by the Hartwood Church fiasco and the rampant lack of leadership throughout the ranks of his mounted arm, Joseph Hooker had exploded at William Averell, Gregg’s division commander. “We ought to be invincible, and by God, sir, we shall be!” Hooker thundered. “You have got to stop these disgraceful cavalry ‘surprises.’  I’ll have no more of them,” Hooker warned Averell. “I’ll give you full power over your officers, to arrest, cashier, shoot – whatever you will – only you must stop these ‘surprises.’  And, sir, if you don’t do it, I give you fair notice, I will relieve the whole of you and take the command of the cavalry myself! (emphasis in original)”

The date of Hooker’s tirade is unknown but two subsequent orders help to fix the date to the first week of March. On March 6, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, commanding the Cavalry Corps published the following directive: “The fact of any party of men in the performance of outpost duty having been surprised and captured manifests a disregard for orders and a criminal neglect of duty for which no punishment can be too severe. Hereafter any commissioned officers or officers in command of a party engaged on scouting, outpost or picket duty who shall be surprised and any of the party under his or their command taken prisoner will be recommended for dismissal, the non-commissioned officers will be reduced to the ranks and together with the other enlisted men of the party surprised will be charged on their next muster roll with all public property with which they have been entrusted and which shall have been captured by the enemy.”

General Averell issued a similar order the same day, stating: “The arms and equipments of those enlisted men and all government property in the possession of the officers who surrendered to the enemy without being wounded in the recent skirmish with the enemy’s cavalry will be charged against them on their next muster role… The spectacle of men with superior arms and equipment enlisted in the just cause yielding themselves prisoners unresistingly, without a struggle to a gang of yelling rebels, with old shotguns and horse pistols, is too revolting to contemplate.” Averell closed by warning his command, “the officers and men of this Division must come to the understanding that it is their business to fight and if necessary die wherever they meet the enemy.”

These orders prompted a captain in the 1st Pennsylvania to warn his wife, “you [need not] be surprised to hear of two or three of us being dismissed.” He termed the orders “stringent but necessary,” to end the rampant “criminal neglect on the part of officers in command.”

One more matter should be addressed here. When Major Chamberlain rode up to the picket post on February 18, Lieutenant Cranville’s men were conversely freely with enemy soldiers. The location of the Southerners is unstated, however. Had they remained across the river, or had they crossed the river and joined Cranville’s men?

The romantic image of enemy soldiers sitting together, talking, and trading newspapers, coffee, and tobacco endures, but commanders seldom sanctioned such truces, and for obvious reasons. Consider what the Southerners probably learned from Cranville’s naive recruits. They would have almost certainly been told or deduced that the Pennsylvanians were untrained and had never been in combat. They would have noticed the disrepair of the weapons, and the Yankees may have told them that they had no ammunition for their weapons. The Confederates certainly saw the saddles undone on the horses and observed as the men did not challenge the officer who approached them.

Now consider what Lieutenant Colonel Jones said of the attack on February 25; Southerners wearing Union overcoats, approached a picket post manned by men of the 16th Pennsylvania who failed to challenge them. So, had the Confederates innocently asked Lieutenant Cranville to agree to a truce for all the harmless reasons we love to imagine, or had they done so as a means of gathering specific intelligence ahead of a planned attack?

In conclusion, let me try and tie several points together. Cavalry historians love to talk about the evolution of the Union cavalry. Some point to a specific event, such as the formation of the Cavalry Corps. Others point to a specific battle, such as Brandy Station. I offer another point in time, the 17 days, and the events that transpired therein, between February 18, when Major Chamberlain arrested Lieutenant Cranville and March 6, when generals Stoneman and Averell issued their orders fixing responsibility upon their officers for their actions and inaction.

Volunteer officers, with no experience leading men, either in the military or in their civilian pursuits needed to learn to be officers. As George Washington had said many years earlier; “It is the actions, and not the commission that makes the Officer.” Then consider what Colonel Gregg had said about his own officers. On February 13, he had recognized their deficiencies but nothing in the record suggests he ever took a firm hand to correct their shortcomings or train them to lead. Rather, Gregg appears to have ignored his responsibilities as a regimental commander. The War Department may have forced him to join the army before his men were ready, but once he had his orders, he still had an obligation to his men and the army.

As cavalry historian Stephen Starr states, volunteer officers “had neither the habit of command, nor, with rare exceptions, the willingness to risk the unpopularity that went with the exercise of authority.” The men had to be taught, shown by example, and made to understand their actions and inaction bore consequences. They needed to accept the need for discipline and learn how and when to discipline their men.

I believe the series of events, beginning with Cranville’s arrest and dismissal, the fight at Hartwood Church, which should have proven to everyone the consequences of their inaction, Hooker’s tirade putting his officers of every rank on notice, and the explicit orders from generals Stoneman and Averell to be the defining moment in the evolution of the Union cavalry. Finally made to shoulder responsibility and act as officers, the young lieutenants and captains soon saw how training, discipline, and leadership led to success on the battlefield, and how success bred confidence. And, if they needed a final reminder, Hooker’s firing of William Averell following his lackluster performance during the Stoneman Raid, served to reinforce the promise he had made in March.

In my opinion, everything came together for the Cavalry Corps, not at Kelly’s Ford, or during the Stoneman Raid or even at Brandy Station, where the Yankees had eventually surrendered the field. Each event bred confidence, but the payoff came in the Loudoun Valley, specifically at Upperville on June 21. Throughout the fighting on June 17, 19, and 21, it was often lieutenants, captains, majors, and colonels, and almost all of them volunteers, rather than generals, who made the critical decisions, leading their men to victory through their actions and initiative.

Finally, some might wonder, what happened to Lt. Henry Cranville. My unsuccessful efforts to locate him in census records and other sources, suggest he may have assumed an alias to escape the shame of being sent home in disgrace. He may have then gone back into the army, surfacing again as Henry Cranville in 1907, when he successfully petitioned to have his name cleared and his dishonorable discharge removed from his military record.


Unpublished documents from the National Archives

National Tribune, January 28, 1892

St. Albans Daily Messenger, April 9, 1863

Stephen Z. Starr, “The Inner Life of the First Vermont Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865,” Vermont History, Summer 1978

David J. Gerleman, Unchronicled Heroes: A Study of Union Cavalry Horses in the Eastern Theater; Care, Treatment, and Use, 1861-1865, PhD Thesis

Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington, A Military Life

Frank Moore, compiler, Anecdotes, Poetry, and Incidents of the War: North and South, 1860-1865

Regimental Committee. History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry

Dona Bayard Sauerburger and Thomas Lucas Bayard, ed., I Seat Myself to Write You a Few Lines, Civil War and Homestead Letters from Thomas Lucas and Family

8 thoughts on “A Case for a Defining Moment – Part 2

  1. Very nice article and very educational. I had read about Hooker’s tirade, etc., following Hartwood Church, but had never made the connections you so capably did.

    Looking forward to your upcoming edition of the Loudoun Valley fights. I consider the first edition to be the best Civil War cavalry book I have ever read. I have read it three times.

    Tom Bookwalter


  2. Bob,

    Thank you for sending this along. It has caused me to actually think about something where lately everything has been set on cruise. As the rust flakes off I am trying to determine if I agree with you in part or totally. The lack of evidence for something happening doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…but I’ll grant that it is a pretty good indicator. In any case, thank you for waking me from my torpor.


    On Sun, Feb 21, 2021 at 12:53 PM Small But Important Riots wrote:

    > roneillmt posted: ” On February 21, three days after Major Chamberlain > arrested Lieutenant Cranville, 16th Pennsylvania, and just one day after > General Hooker dismissed the young officer, Capt. Richard Lord, 1st U.S. > Cavalry, inspected the picket line near Hartwood Church. ” >


    • Thanks John,

      Regimental records from unit to unit are spotty at best but the orders cited here are all in order in the records. I feel rather certain no other orders are missing and that J I Gregg dropped the ball as a commander of a new untrained unit but am still uncomfortable condemning him completely in this case. I am not a J I Gregg fan, however. He complained bitterly when Custer, Farnsworth, and Merritt got promoted over him. I long thought the taint from the Hartwood Church fight worked against him and it should have. But wording in Pleasonton’s request for the promotions of the three young officers has convinced me otherwise. But that is another story.


  3. “Rank has it’s privileges, but it also has its responsibilities”. As you clearly point out Bob, Col. Gregg obviously has not yet learned that training and discipline were the responsibilities of his position. However, 20 days later at Kelly’s Ford on St. Patrick’s Day the 16th Pa. aggressively advanced the right flank of Averill’s Division to drive Fitz Lee’s cavalrymen from their position at the Wheatley Farm next to the Rappahannock River. Gregg to his credit must have done much to improve the short comings of his command in those 20 days.
    As always, your articles are very informative and an enjoyable read. Thanks, and keep them coming!
    Bob Moran


  4. Thanks Bob. I agree with you. I seldom, if ever, seek to denigrate the soldiers. All they needed were leaders who would lead them. I’m reading Greg Acken’s recent book on Brooke Rawle and he has some nice comments to that point.


Leave a Reply to Bob Moran Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s