Turmoil in the 4th New York Volunteer Cavalry

I am pleased to welcome Bob Moran to Small but Important Riots. Bob served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and is now retired from the Boeing Company. He lives with his wife of 49 years in Fairfax County, Virginia, and serves as a docent at Historic Blenheim in Fairfax City. There, he also helps to research the soldiers who signed their names to the walls of the Willcoxon house. Two of his great-grandfathers served in the 4th New York. Bob enjoyed researching the regiment with his late-father, and he continues to do so today. Bob has been a great help to me and very generous in sharing the fruits of his work.

Major Baron Anton von Puechelstein, the acting commander of the 4th New York Cavalry replied to a letter from Brig. Gen. George Stoneman on Feb. 17, 1863, just weeks after Gen. Hooker reorganized the cavalry regiments of the Army of the Potomac (AOP) into a single corps of three divisions with Stoneman the corps commander. The regiment was camped at Potomac Run Bridge in Stafford County, Virginia along with the other regiments of Gen. William Averell’s 2nd Cavalry Division.  Col. Luigi di Cesnola commanded the 4th NY Volunteer Cavalry Regiment with Major Puechelstein as his second in command. Both men were veteran officers who served in various European armies before coming to the United States. Major Puechelstein was a recent arrival from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Colonel Cesnola from Italy.

In early February, Colonel Cesnola was placed under arrest, charged with stealing pistols and sending the weapons to his wife in New York City. Major Puechelstein assumed command of the 4th New York when Cesnola was arrested. He fully expected Cesnola to be found guilty of the charges and he, Puechelstein, to be the regiments’ new commander. The reason for General Stoneman’s letter is unclear but Puechelstein used his reply to demonstrate his fitness to command the 4th New York and to undermine the authority of his superior officer. Cesnola was ultimately cleared of the charges after the authorities discovered the pistols were for a detachment of his soldiers on detail in New York City for recruiting purposes.  Colonel Cesnola was a proud man and was very bitter about his arrest, believing that officers in the 4th New York, possibly Major Puechelstein, were behind the accusations.

 In his letter to Stoneman, Puechelstein was critical of an earlier change of command in the 4th NY when Col. Cesnola replaced its acting commander, Lt. Col. Ferries Nazer in October of 1862. Nazer had successfully led the regiment during the 2nd Manassas campaign. On August 30th, 1862, Nazer and 150 of his men were on a scouting mission for Gen. Franz Sigel when Nazer saw Confederate soldiers in large numbers belonging to General James Longstreet’s command approaching the Union Army’s left flank near Henry Hill on the Manassas battlefield. Nazer warned Sigel of the impending disaster. Sigel in turn warned Gen. John Pope, the overall commander of the Union Army. However, Pope was so focused on Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s forces facing him along the unfinished railroad line that he ignored Nazer’s warning, and other warnings at the time, with disastrous consequences. Shortly thereafter, Nazer alerted Gen. John Buford of the approach of a brigade of enemy cavalry under the command of Gen. Beverly Robertson. The 4th NY joined with the 1st Michigan in two cavalry charges that halted the Rebel cavalry temporarily, allowing the Union supply train sufficient time to retreat to the safety of Centreville.

 Puechelstein in his reply to Stoneman’s letter, wrote that he believed Nazer, not Cesnola, was entitled to become the regiment’s commanding officer. Cesnola, however, had the support of Gen. Franz Sigel, commander of the 11th Corps and Senator Ira Harris, a powerful New York Republican in the U.S. Senate. Major Puechelstein was also critical of other changes that Cesnola made at that time which Puechelstein believed had a negative impact on the morale of the officers and the enlisted men. [1]

 The 4th NY had performed poorly on Feb. 28th, 1863, while under the command of Major Puechelstein.  They and other regiments of Gen. Averill’s Cavalry Division were surprised by Fitz Lee’s Cavalry while on picket duty near Hartwood Church. Fitz Lee’s soldiers broke through the screen of pickets, easily scattering Averell’s mounted pickets and were within four miles of General Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth when they were finally halted by Union infantry.

 When Cesnola returned to his command in early March of 1863, at Potomac Creek Station, Puechelstein challenged Cesnola’ s right to resume command of the 4th New York. Angry words between the two led to Puechelstein being brought up on charges by his superior.  Colonel Cesnola charged Puechelstein with insubordination and being “unable to drill the regiment in the U. S. tactics and is unable to enforce discipline in the Regt. by showing partiality towards Germans to the utmost disadvantage of the service.”[2]

 No records can be found that show that Major Puechelstein was ever formerly court-martialed but Cesnola used his charge to bring the Major and other officers under his command before the dreaded officer examination boards. The examination boards were used to weed out officers deemed incompetent or unfit to command soldiers but were sometimes used as a way to settle old scores. In this case Cesnola may have used the boards to rid himself of officers from the 4th NY that he believed were disloyal to him including his second-in-command, Major Puechelstein. Apparently, General Stoneman thought this was the case because he questioned Cesnola as to why so many officers from his command were brought before the examination boards. Cesnola responded that the officers before the board might someday make good officers but presently “if put before a platoon or of a squadron they most assuredly would prove themselves unable to drill them in the U.S. Cavalry Tactics”.  He describes an unnamed officer, presumably one he sent before the examination boards, attempting to drill his squadron. The officer so confused his men during the drill that his men laughed him off the parade ground.[3]

 One officer resigned after being ordered to appear before the board. Another so impressed Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the 2nd NY, that Kilpatrick had him assigned to his staff.  Four other officers brought before the boards by Cesnola, including Captain Nehemiah Mann, continued to serve with the 4th NY, with three of four becoming company commanders. Mann later died leading Co. M of the 4th NY at Front Royal on August 16, 1864, during the Shenandoah Campaign of 1864. The 4th NY captured the battle-flag of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and a large number of prisoners that day.[4]

Colonel Cesnola used the confrontation with Major Puechelstein and his charge that his second-in-command was unable to drill the regiment in U.S. tactics and enforce discipline within the unit to bring his second in command before the examination board. The board agreed with Cesnola recommending that Puechelstein be discharged from the service citing him as “utterly ignorant of the U.S. Cavalry Tactics.”[5]

 In his letter to Stoneman, Puechelstein gives us a brief history of the origins of the 4th NY. He tells us the regiment was mustered-in during the summer of 1861 in New York City by Col. Christian Dickel, a former Prussian officer who owned a riding academy in the city. Dickel intended to “raise a pure German Regiment with the name mounted rifles,” and to staff the regiment with officers and volunteers of German ethnicity. After finding there was a shortage of German volunteers, Dickel decided to recruit Irish, English, and other immigrant volunteers for the unit.  As a result, four companies composed of German volunteers along with five companies of Irish, English, and other recent immigrants plus American volunteers were all mustered-in August of 1861. They were assigned to Gen. Louis Blenker’s German Division in September of 1861 at Hunter’s Chapel near the present-day intersection of Glebe Rd. and Columbia Pike in Arlington, Va.  and called the New York Mounted Rifles. Blenker, Dickel, and many other officers in the division were former officers in the armies of the German states. When revolution broke out in Europe in 1848 men like Blenker, Carl Schurz and Christian Dickel broke ranks with their German despots and participated in, and, in some cases, led the liberal uprisings against their German masters. When the revolutions failed, many former soldiers including Blenker, and Dickel were forced to flee for their lives to the United States where they settled in large numbers in New York City and Philadelphia and as far west as Wisconsin.

 The ignorance of U.S. Cavalry tactics that Cesnola accused his second-in-command of was actually a deficiency of training provided to officers and enlisted men in the 4th NY and other volunteer cavalry regiments of the Army of the Potomac (AOP) during the first year of the war. Little training was provided to the soldiers of the 4th NY, with most of their time spent on picket duty at Fairfax Toll Gate, Munson’s Hill, Upton’s Hill, and Annandale in Northern Virginia or on detail to regimental and brigade commanders of the division including escort duty for their division commander, General Blenker. Both Puechelstein and William Parnell, who would command the unit in 1864, were critical of Dickel and indirectly Blenker for the lack of training the 4th NY received during the first year of the war. In his fractured English, Puechelstein explained to Stoneman that the “want of experience, and a great many [soldiers] only made it impossible to give them instruction in riding and drill.” Puechelstein further explained that “each Infantry Brigadier wanted orderlies from this regiment [4th NY], at last it was very destroyed, then the abuse which was made, was that orderlies became permanent orderlies, and were used as grooms and drivers by different commanders.” Years after the war Parnell wrote, “Blenker’s division should have been the equal, if not the superior in drill and discipline, of any body of troops then in our army. A good many old soldiers could be found in every regiment; yet it could not be said that discipline, drill, and military training were properly maintained during those six months – from September, 1861, to March, 1862,” while Blenker’s division and the 4th NY were at Hunter’s Chapel.[6] General Blenker and his staff were known for their lavish meals, lager beer and entertainment provided to generals and politicians alike at the division’s headquarters at Arlington Heights. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the (AOP), was their frequent guest.

 From October 1861 to February 1862, the Regimental Books show that numerous officers of the 4th NY were summoned before examination boards while at Hunter’s Chapel with some officers being dismissed for incompetency. Little had been done to train the officers and their men on the fundamentals of horsemanship and formation riding during this time. As mentioned by Major Puechelstein, soldiers were detailed to brigade and division commanders for spurious duties or were away from camp on picket duty, leaving little time for training. The rampant nativism within the Union Army at the time may also explain the enmity by other regiments of the AOP towards Blenker’s Division with its large numbers of Germans and other immigrants from Europe. The early association with General Blenker’s German division resulted in the 4th NY being labeled as “German Cavalry.” Dickel himself left the 4th NY in June of 1862 under a cloud of suspicion after he was accused of trading salted beef for unsalted beef and profiting from the exchange.[7]

  Seven of the original eight company commanders of the 4th NY were former officers in the armies of the German states. Problems often occurred within the 4th NY when company commanders gave commands in German to soldiers who had little or no understanding of the language. Years after the war, the regimental historian of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry gives us an example of the anti-immigrant hostility within the AOP and the mistrust it sowed. The former officer explained that field officers of the 4th NY were “Americans and Germans, while the men included Americans, Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, Spaniards, Hungarians and perhaps men of other countries” and “most of them could speak only their own language.”  Officers from other regiments “gave them a wide berth when coming to their pickets, as they could not understand him, nor he them.”[8]

 Blenker’s Division did little to improve their image with their widespread foraging and outright theft of civilian property during the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862. However, there is compelling evidence that Blenker’s soldiers, including the 4th NY Cavalry, were so poorly supplied and equipped when they left Hunter’s Chapel that upon their arrival at General Fremont’s Headquarters in the mountains of western Virginia many were shoeless with threadbare uniforms and hungry. Many horses of Blenker’s Division, including those of the 4th NY, also arrived in poor condition needing horseshoes, forage, and proper veterinarian care.[9]

  Major Puechelstein tells us he led a column of four companies of the 4th NY Cavalry at the head of the division as the command left Hunter’s Chapel on March 9, 1862. They were on their way to reinforce Fremont in the Shenandoah Valley in his upcoming campaign to challenge Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s army. The New Yorkers first stop was Fairfax Court House where Capt. William Hart and Bugler Jeremiah Abel, along with other members of Company C, signed their names on the walls of a brick farmhouse owned by Albert Willcoxon, a Confederate sympathizer. An unnamed artist from the regiment drew a picture of a keg of lager beer and above it wrote “war cry of Blenker’s Division.” The same soldier drew a series of cartoon like drawings on the plaster walls of the upstairs hallway and complained:

            4th Month

                        No Money

                        No Whiskey

                        No Friends

                        No Rations

                        No Peas

                        No Beans

                        No Pants

            No Patriotism[10]

  The 4th NY, like the other regiments of General Blenker’s Division, had supply problems months before their arrival in the Shenandoah Valley. The lack of materiel eventually impacted the division’s ability to conduct combat operations and forced the men to feed themselves by foraging the farms of the valley.

  Puechelstein’ s confrontation with Colonel Cesnola and the examination board’s recommendation that Puechelstein be discharged signaled the end of his career as an officer in the 4th New York Cavalry and the Union Army. No evidence can be found that Major Puechelstein was ever formally court-martialed but by the summer of 1863 he had left the army, never to serve again. As his letter shows and the evidence concurs, he performed courageously at Harrisonburg on June 6, 1862, during the Shenandoah Valley campaign while leading his men against Turner Ashby’s Cavalry. Major Puechelstein was wounded and taken prisoner, but he “had the satisfaction [of knowing] the hostile enemy Gen’l Ashby was killed” that day. It is unclear whether Puechelstein or the 4th NY had any direct role in the death of Ashby, but Puechelstein did lead the 4th NY in the fighting that day along with other regiments of General Fremont’s command that resulted in Ashby’s death. Puechelstein passed away on August 21, 1870. His wife received a Veteran’s Pension for her husband’s disabilities sustained while he was with the 4th NY Cavalry.

  Colonel Cesnola continued to command the 4th NY until June 17, 1863, when he was wounded and taken prisoner at Aldie, Va. during the Gettysburg campaign. He led numerous charges against Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry near the Furr Farm along the Snickersville Turnpike at Aldie. Years later he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service that day. After being released from Libby Prison in 1863 he returned to command the 4th NY through 1864. Cesnola served with distinction while leading his men against enemy cavalry at Trevilian Station during General Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. After the war he became the first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was warmly received at numerous reunions of the Veterans Association of the 4th New York Volunteer Cavalry.


[1] Puechelstein’s letter to Stoneman was found in the Muster Rolls for 4th NY Cavalry, NARA.

[2] Cesnola’s court martial charges against Puechelstein were found in Puechelstein’s MSR file, NARA.

[3] Robert O’Neill Jr., Examination Boards from Small but Important Riots – an internet blog by Robert O’Neill

https://smallbutimportantriots.com/

[4] OR Vol. LV. 470-474.

[5] Robert O’Neill Jr. Examination Boards from Small but Important Riots.

[6] Parnell, William. “Recollections of 1861,” The United Service, XIII (1885).

[7] NARA – Military Service Record for Col. Christian F. Dickel, 4th NY Cavalry. Letter dated Feb. 21st, 1862 from a writer that does not identify himself but who states that “the name of the party giving the information is Capt. Geo Swarzmann of the same regiment.” Dickel’s pension file includes a letter from Lt. Col. William R. Parnell who later commanded the 4th NY. In Dickel’s request for a pension, he claimed he suffered a saber wound at Cross Keys in June of 1862. Parnell replied to the Pension Bureau’s request for verification by stating “I know personally that Colonel C. F. Dickel was not wounded at Cross Keys or at any other time during his brief service. Nor was the Regiment engaged in sabre fighting at any time during that campaign.” Parnell also wrote that “Dickel left the Regiment about June 26,1862 in company with Gen. Blenker and I think [Dickel] was either ‘dropped,’ dismissed, or had to resign.” Dickel’s pension application was denied by the Pension Bureau.

[8] Benjamin W. Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of the Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers, (Boston,1891). 307-308.

[9] Phil M. Teigen and Leon Z. Saunders, This Sorrowful War: A Veterinary Surgeon in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign (ARGOS – Bulletin Van Het Veterinair Historisch Genootschap #29) 2003, 409.

[10] Historic Blenheim – The City of Fairfax maintains the Willcoxon house and the Civil War graffiti on its walls. The museum and the house are open to visitors Tuesday to Saturday. Please check their website for times and availability:  https://www.fairfaxva.gov/government/historic-resources/historic-blenheim

8 thoughts on “Turmoil in the 4th New York Volunteer Cavalry

  1. Interesting! I did not know all those details about the 4th NY. The volunteer regiments that were assigned regular cavalry officers as colonels were generally well trained and drilled to the 1841 “Poinsett” tactics (and lost quite a few officers who could not master the manuals, when they were sent before the examination boards). Those without regular officers struggled. The 1st ME, training itself in Maine, reportedly gave up on the 1841 tactics and taught itself the simpler new (and quite different) drill written by Philip St. George Cooke and approved in the fall of 1861.
    The 4th NY was joined by a battalion of CT cavalry under Fremont, and Fremont was joined by Bayard’s “flying brigade” of the 1st NJ, 1st PA, and a battalion of the Bucktails at Strasburg. On June 6th they approached Harrisonburg with Bayard’s brigade in skirmish order, and the 4th NY and 1st CT mounted in reserve. As they neared the town the 4th NY and 1st CT were called forward and charged through the town. Ashby’s rear guard then pulled up into the hills on the way to Cross Keys. Col. Wyndham of the 1st NJ obtained permission to scout ahead and was drawn into and ambush, being captured with quite a few of his men. The 1st PA and Bucktails then went forward and engaged Ashby a little east of Harrisonburg, where Ashby died while leading his men through the woods against the Bucktails.
    A lot of trial and error occurred in the first couple of years, with a lot of men and horses sacrificed and incompetent officers finally removed. But the results were impressive by 1864 (or even the spring of 1863).

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  2. Bob: Great content and writing re: 4th NY Cavalry. Reading same feels like being at the moment, something I always find fascinating when I read the blog. Hope someday you can use my Duffie piece, but if it is not up to snuff I will understand. Keep up the great work. Arnold

    >

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  3. Thank you for this. It’s more than I’ve ever seen in one place about this regiment. Now, if someone would figure out for certain just what they were doing at the time of Brandy Station…

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  4. Thank you for your comment. To answer your question about the 4th NY at Brandy Station: they were ordered to picket the river crossing at Kelly’s Ford and spent the day there while the fighting was taking place at Brandy Station and Stevensburg. The 4th NY was part of Col. Duffie’s Division and Cesnola was one of Duffie’s brigade commanders. The 4th NY was under the command of Col. Pruyn and part of Cesnola’s Brigade. My source is Eric Wittenberg’s fine book “The Union Cavalry Comes of Age, Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863” page 278. His source is a NY Times article dated June 16th,1863. I hope this answers your question. Bob Moran

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    • Aha. Wittenberg had said the same thing in in his “The Battle for Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle” (less the mention of Pruyn), but I don’t recall the Times source being mentioned. McKinney’s book had said the regiment was not present, on unspecified service, there was no mention of them in the OR organization table, and DiCesnola got very little press no matter whom you read..
      Once I track that Times article down, it will add more weight to Wittenberg. After all, it’s the Times.

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  5. A fine write-up on this regiment. When looking at several bound regimental record books of a couple of U.S. volunteer regiments at the National Archives (RG 94) I was surprised and amazed that some were written entirely in the German language. One New Mexico outfit kept its records in Spanish. One can easily imagine the confusion that could ensue from linguistic challenges!

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