Turmoil in the 4th New York Volunteer Cavalry – Part 2

As Bob Moran’s fine post last month sparked such interest in the 4th New York and the turmoil within the officer corps of the regiment during the spring of 1863, I thought I would expand upon his account. Bob built his story around a letter from Maj. Anton von Puechelstein (February 17, 1863) to Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, then commanding the Cavalry Corps. Several other letters from Colonel di Cesnola continue the story, and when considered together may explain, at least in part, why the regiment remained out of the June 9 fight at Brandy Station. And, while the 4th New York is not a well-documented regiment, I have interspersed comments from a trooper’s letters to the Kingston Peoples Press.

Louis di Cesnola received his commission as colonel of the 4th New York September 11, 1862. In a letter of December 27, 1862, Henry Delamater told his readers back home, “…our new Colonel is commanding the Brigade… He appears to be a fighting man and a man in whose hands our flag will not be tarnished.” And, speaking of Major von Puechelstein, though not naming him, Delamater said, “…our old Major is “the boy for bewitching ‘em,” referring to the enemy.

Following his arrest for allegedly stealing a shipment of revolvers, the War Department dismissed di Cesnola on February 2, 1863. Five days later, Delamater again spoke of the major without naming him. “Our Major is at present commanding the Regiment, and has certainly distinguished himself as a good soldier, not only having been severely wounded in service, but (if my own account be credited) being singularly instrumental in the battle of Cross Keys. The most strenuous memorials and petitions representing his great services rank him among the ‘gallant officers.’”

In his next letter, from February (the actual date is unreadable), Delamater mentions Hubert Armbruster’s promotion to 2nd Lieutenant. “A man in our Regiment has been here about three months and has been acting Sergeant Major; now he is promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. We don’t think it is a fair shake; a man coming out as a recruit should in three months be promoted to officer at the same time not knowing more than some whole families, where there are eleven or twelve in a family – rather significant we think.” Major von Puechelstein had played a role in Armbruster’s promotion, though Delamater may not have been privy to such information. Though taken aback by Armbruster’s promotion, Delamater appears to remain a staunch supporter of the major, as evidenced by comments in his next letter in which he finally speaks of the major by name.

“I wrote in one of my letters about our worthy Major Baron V. [Puechelstein]…As an efficient officer and thorough gentleman, he is devoid of any of those unnecessary flirtations that constitute an officer a ‘dead beat.’ He was wounded in three places in the battle of Cross Keys, and taken prisoner while attempting to save the [flag]… Now that he is again with the Regiment having proved himself of such good soldierly qualities and amiable disposition as to entitle him to the Lieutenant Colonelcy of our Regiment. He is the best officer we have and is at present … at the head of our Regiment. He is quite an old man and jovial at times, doing his duty on occasion with all the ardor of his soul and love for the ‘Old Flag.’”

After convincing the War Department of his innocence, Colonel di Cesnola had his rank and position restored and returned to the regiment in March. A few days later, Delamater noted, “Col. L. P. Cesnola is again commanding us, and every private soldier would gladly suffer more for him than any other man that ever commanded the Regiment.”

As mentioned above, we cannot know what Delamater, or any other private soldier, knew of the contretemps soon to take place between di Cesnola and Puechelstein. But, if Delamater’s comments are any kind of a measuring stick, the men in the ranks admired and respected both men.

Colonel di Cesnola returned very much aggrieved by his treatment at the hands of the War Department. “I am…going to the Regiment with a broken heart,” he told a friend, “to stay some weeks and then I shall resign as it is incompatible with my character to continue.” He also believed, as he told another friend before rejoining his men, “My Regiment…is now in a state of mutiny.” He did not resign and nothing else confirms his comments about a possible mutiny, but he clearly had some problems to address.

In a letter of March 19, di Cesnola wrote to Brig. Gen. John T. Sprague, New York’s Adjutant General, regarding Armbruster’s commission and other matters instigated by the major in di Cesnola’s absence. The colonel’s letters reflect his fractured English.

“I have retaken command of the regiment and much confusion is existing among the German & American companies. The Germans (tho a foreigner myself) behaved in the late engagement [Kelly’s Ford, March 17, 1863] very badly (so I heard as I was not there). The Major [von Puechelstein] recommended two non-commissioned officers as Lieutenants but there are other non-commissioned officers who are senior to them and more competent than these two Germans. Sergt. Maj. [Hubert Armbruster] has been reduced to the ranks as private by regimental order and the other willingly returned to his duty as Orderly Sergeant knowing that others were senior to him & hoping that when his turn was coming no injustice would be done to him by me.

I would also call your attention to the appointment of Major [Henry] Spaulding & all those persons he recommended as such. He had an agreement with me about raising certain number of men in a certain space of time. He failed to do it and he was no more entitled to any rank whatever, yet I had him put as captain & got an order for his muster which he refused. Now the officers recommended by him & appointed by the Governor who are here came to me & made written statements that each & everyone of them paid for their positions sums of 400, 300 & 200 dollars according to their rank. They will be brought before a Board of Examination by order of Gen’l Hooker and they will probably be dismissed on account of incompetency. I hear Major Spaulding got an order for muster, but if he does not report for duty I must give him as absent without leave.”

The regimental roster, compiled by the Adjutant General for the State of New York does not mention Henry Spaulding or Spalding. An entry does appear, however, in New York in the War of the Rebellion, listing Henry C. Spalding, Captain, Company L., …resigned, February 3, 1863; did not serve with company; not commissioned.”

The following day, March 20, the colonel, seeking to regain authority, issued an order, stating in part:

“Maj. [Augustus] Pruyn having been duly commissioned as Major in the 4th NY Cavalry & having reported for duty will be respected & obeyed as such.

Hubert Armbruster & [name not readable] having been found to be incompetent & – were illegally promoted are hereby ordered to their companys for duty in the ranks their commissions being revoked…”

As described in two previous posts, an examination board found Major von Puechelstein “utterly ignorant of the” cavalry manual and recommended he be discharged.

As Bob Moran mentioned in his post, di Cesnola then charged the major “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.’” And, as Bob mentioned, no records have been located to confirm a formal court-martial. The located documents confuse the matter. Col. John Irvin Gregg released the major from arrest on either April 14 or 19, 1863. But then Gen. David Gregg (the colonel’s cousin) ordered a court of inquiry and named several officers to investigate the conflicts within the regiment, as the major had detailed in a letter to General Hooker. This letter has not been found either.

The court may have heard the matter between April 24 and 28, when Colonel Gregg told von Puechelstein to “report tomorrow morning at 0700 at Brigade Head Quarters prepared to go to the front.” The majors return to duty prompted di Cesnola to write the following to his brigade commander on May 9.

“Major von Puechelstein whom the [examination board] found incompetent and recommended for discharge, and against whom I have presented charges which went up through the proper channels but nothing has been done with, he has been released from arrest and ordered here for duty but he gave himself sick; in some way or another he is trying to get the command of my dismounted camp [at Dumfries] and make there everything going wrong, I therefore most respectfully protest against the placing of [the major] on duty without trial of the charges preferred against him.

Were he returned to duty by General Stoneman [commanding the corps] I would not complain, but he has been returned to duty by the officer in command at Dumfries [probably Colonel Gregg].

Rather than to see my own regiment broken to pieces by a man who has never tried anything else but to create disturbances among the men and officers with his insubordinate conduct I shall most respectfully tender my resignation as colonel of this regiment.”

The brigade commander agreed with di Cesnola, mentioning his own “positive knowledge that [the major] is unfit to command and has been recommended for discharge by a board of officers.”

In a letter written the previous day, May 8, di Cesnola had vented his frustration with the continuing turmoil, telling the Adjutant General in New York:

“After twenty-five days of march, skirmishes & real fights [during the Stoneman Raid] we are again as we were last winter but only to rest for two or three days as we already have marching orders… I received your letter at Warrenton some week ago but it was then impossible for me to answer as I would have done. In regard to the young Danish officer recommended by the U.S. Minister to his Excellency [New York’s Governor, Horatio Seymour], I would very gladly recommend him for a Lieutenancy if he was worthy of it but believe me, Sir, he does not deserve yet such distinction. A son of a Gentleman like him ought not to have asked and got the place of orderly (which is nothing but a menial or a kind of body servant) and so remain for many months instead of fighting & get promotion in his & with his regiment. General Stahel wrote me some four weeks ago about him and I made him a sergeant but even in that capacity he does not show great fitness. I am a foreigner myself and I am very glad to have truly good officers in my regiment but when I see American non-commissioned officers nobly fighting fully understanding their business entitled by seniority of rank, and fully competent to be [commissioned] officers I would consider myself an unjust Colonel if I went to [install] others in their places. His Excellency Governor Seymour may inquire who I am to three of the most distinguished citizens of your state, namely Hon. Ira Harris, Hon. Erastus Corning, & ex-Governor Morgan who both honor me with their friendship and they will tell him that I am a true soldier, just & honorable, and Governor Seymour may rely that this regiment will continue to do honor to the State of New York. When Governor Morgan gave me the command of the regiment it numbered only 142 men in all; today it is 729 strong

When unhappily I was by gross mistake of the Secretary of War dismissed from the service, I was not in command of my regiment but of a large force of cavalry 7 regiments including the 4 N.Y., besides two infantry regts and the 2nd N.Y. Battery, so I could not give all that personal excellence to my regiment which was necessary and some petty Prussian officers good for nothing were trying to ruin this regiment. When I was restored, I sent them before the Board of Examination and beginning [with] old Major Puechelstein were found inefficient and advised to resign if they did not want to be dismissed. A large number did so save Major Puechelstein who insists on not resigning and his case will be disposed of as soon as Gen’l. Stoneman is here. Capt. [Adolph] Von Dachenhausen, Capt. [Francis] [Schmitt], Capt. [Louis] Ahrens, and 1st Lt. James Lyon have resigned and gone. I will send you the date as soon as I have here the Adjutant’s desk with the regimental papers. I most respectfully request you therefore to have the recommendations I sent in some time ago approved by Gov. Seymour as they are acting in such capacity since sometime and if they were killed in the forth coming fight their families would not be entitled to the pension as commissioned officers though they were acting as such to my full satisfaction and that of the service…”

I have not been able to identify “the young Danish officer” di Cesnola refers to.

Though more than 700 men appeared on the regimental rolls, di Cesnola counted fewer than 71 privates with the regiment, as he explained to his brigade commander on May 17 – less than one month before the fight at Brandy Station.

“I…inform you that I made several applications to get all my mounted men from Dumfries and some of the officers but as yet without effect. The number of privates I have here (71) from which if I deduct the mule drivers, those at the Quartermaster Dept, those at the Commissary Dept, the company officers’ servants, those on stable guard, the orderlies, those for daily fatigue at Brig & Division Head Quarters, the company cooks & those excused from duty I remain with about ten privates here in camp representing the 4th NY Regiment. I have here more than one hundred non-commissioned officers who of course cannot be put on guard or on fatigue duty as privates, for this reason I am even deprived of my little guard at the tent and I cannot put [out] any Camp Guard. I have here but one single Captain while at Dumfries Major [Claude] White, [3rd Pennsylvania] in command there takes Capt. [Edward] O. Burling [Company K] of my Regt as his AA Gen’l; Capt. [Herman von] Schwenke [Company H] whose company is here is also detained there to make drawings etc.; Capt. [Edward Schwartz, Company E] whose company is partly here & partly (36) at General Sickles [headquarters] is kept there also as Provost Marshall. I have besides the above-named Capt. [Nehemiah] Mann [Company M] & Capt. [William] Bragaw [Company L] but their companies are as yet all dismounted, my commissary is kept also there acting as Adjutant & c.

There are 40 or 50 mounted men there whose horses are not much in poorer condition than those I have here. I would therefore respectfully request that the proper authority would order all my mounted men here at once and the following officers –

Captain Schwenke – Comp H, Captain E. O. Burling – Comp K, 1st Lt. [Francis E.] White – Commissary”

On May 18, di Cesnola wrote to Senator Ira Harris, regarding Capt. William Parnell.

“The bearer Capt. Wm Parnell was lately recommended by me to the Governor for a Major’s position vice Maj. Pruyn promoted to Lt. Col. vice poor [Lt. Col. Ferries] Nazer deceased [died April 23, 1863]. I heard that the Adjut. Genl’s clerk would not recognize his appointment. I do not know why. Capt. Parnell is the senior Capt. of the Regt., he is both an officer & a Gentleman & worthy of it. He is Captain since 17 months. My regiment numbers 737 men now and it is perhaps the strongest in the field. I have but one major whose cowardice in the field and insubordination in camp has compelled me to have him brought before a military board which recommended his dismissal; so when the order comes I will be without any major at all.

While I was dismissed a certain Henry Spalding through false representations or political influence got an order to be mustered as major in my regiment but he has never reported and besides his appointment tho unjust (as he is no soldier whatever) would only fill one vacancy, and there are two now and by & by three.

I wish you would be so kind to see the Governor and get the major’s appointment. My regiment …shall be number one in the field [emphasis in original].

Since I came back to the regiment I had a clearing off of bad officers, nine at once. I recommended several good non-commissioned officers in their places but were also not commissioned yet; it is impossible for me to make a good regiment without officers. The law you passed in Congress says that regiments below the minimum shall only be allowed the officers necessary to command the men. Now the minimum is fixed 78 men to a company allowing three commissioned officers. I have 737 men, I must therefore be allowed twenty-nine company officers and I have only [unreadable] altogether, having three full companies without any company officers at all…” di Cesnola listed the strength of the regiment as 737 men in at least three letters he wrote in May, but in one, he claimed that 461 of the men had been without horses for eight months. His claim, if true, strikes me as rather remarkable and suggests a ‘more to the story’ situation.

The following day, May 19, di Cesnola told General Sprague, in New York:

“The 4th N.Y. Cavalry which I have the honor to command is 737 strong and yet it has a large number of vacancies which the service imperiously requires that they should be filled up. The former Colonel of this Regt [Christian Dickel] raised it without authority from Governor Morgan so all the officers were appointed by Col. Dickel or Gen’l [Louis] Blenker and all serve without commission. This is the reason that the regimental record does not agree with the officers’ book at your office and several names in your book at Albany are kept at present, and they are more than a year discharged from the service.

I have twelve companies and only five captains, two of which [are] unfit for duty. There are seven captaincies which it is necessary they should be filled up at once.

I request you therefore to be so kind as to have the Governor approve the recommendations I sent some time ago as the officers are deprived of pay until commissioned and if killed they will not receive the officers pension as by law. Yet they (some of them) are acting Lieutenants and Captains since 9 & 6 months.”

Colonel di Cesnola’s attachment, written two weeks prior to the fight at Brandy Station, follows:

“The enclosed is the true list of the vacancies existing in my Regiment from which you may see yourself how indispensable it is to have some officers appointed & commissioned at once…

Colonel

Lt. Colonel – none

2 majors present, 3rd position vacant

Surgeon – none

1 asst. surgeon present and 1 absent

Chaplain – AWOL

Adjutant – none

Company A

Captain – none; 1st Lieut. – none; 2nd Lieut. – present

Company B

Captain and 1st Lieut. – present; 2nd Lieut. – none

Company C

Captain and 2nd Lieut. present; 1st Lieut. – none

Company D

Captain present but both Lieut. positions vacant

Company E

No captain but both lieutenants present [Captain Schwartz still absent per May 17 letter]

Company F

No officers present – di Cesnola wrote “a full company without officers”

Company G

Captain and 2nd Lieut. vacant; 1st Lieut. present

Company H

Captain and 2nd Lieut. present [Captain Schwenke had returned per May 17 request]

1st Lieut. – vacant

Company I

No officers present – di Cesnola wrote “a full company without officers”

Company K

All three officers present [Captain Burling returned per May 17 request]

Company L

Captain and 2nd Lieut. – vacant; 1st Lieut. present

Company M

All three officers present”

Major von Puechelstein’s letter of February 17, 1863, as well as the several letters cited above from Colonel di Cesnola speak primarily to three concerns – turmoil within the regiment regarding the right and ability of numerous officers to hold a commission, the absence of numerous officers for a variety of reasons, and the large number of men absent from the ranks, most of whom had never been mounted. Taken together, these three concerns may explain why the 4th New York remained behind on June 9, guarding the river crossing at Kelly’s Ford, rather than accompanying the brigade, then led by Colonel di Cesnola. Interestingly, as brigade commander, di Cesnola may have made the decision to leave his regiment behind.

Two days after the Brandy Station fight, Lt. Colonel Pruyn, commanding the regiment, asked di Cesnola, still commanding the brigade, to “recall Captain [Edward] O. Burling and Lt. [Oliver] Wood… who are at present with the dismounted men at Potomac Creek Station, their companies being without officers.” Thus, Captain Burling, who appears to have returned to his company on May 17, had remained behind on June 9, leaving his company without a commander.

At Aldie, June 17, Colonel di Cesnola was wounded and captured, and remained in an enemy prison for ten months. On the June 30 muster rolls, the regiment counted an average of 28 men per company. Seven companies did not have a captain and nine companies had only one officer. Battered in the Loudoun Valley fighting, the 4th New York, along with the other regiments in the brigade, remained in Maryland, guarding the supply point at Westminster.

With thanks to Jim McLean, who located and provided copies of several of the letters cited, and to Larry Gertner, who asked about the regiment at Brandy Station.

Sources:

Documents from the National Archives

Documents from the New York State Library and Archives

The Edwin Morgan Papers, New York Public Library

The Louis di Cesnola Letters at Webster Hall, Rauner Library, Dartmouth University

The Wiley Sword Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle, PA

New York Times

Frederick Phisterer, compiler, New York in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865

2 thoughts on “Turmoil in the 4th New York Volunteer Cavalry – Part 2

  1. Thanks, Bob, for a very informative follow-up to my article about the Cesnola – Puechelstein confrontation and the turmoil within the ranks of the 4th NY. Looking through the company bi-monthly returns for the 4th NY seems to support the theory that the regiment was left guarding Kelly’s Ford at the Battle of Brandy Station because of the shortage of mounted soldiers within its ranks. The May 31st, 1863, return for Co. E shows 23 soldiers and only one officer present for duty. Captain Edward Schwartz the commander of Co. E was with seven of his men at the dismounted camp at Dumfries. The Co. G return for the same period shows just 12 officers and men present for duty with 13 men at the dismounted camp at Dumfries and eleven soldiers detached to Gen. Sickles’ Headquarters where they were used as couriers during the Chancellorsville campaign. There was no return for May for Co. F, but the March return has 22 soldiers and one officer detached to Gen. Sickles with only 5 men available for duty. The other companies of the 4th NY were understaffed but not to the levels shown above. The soldiers from Companies F and G detached to Gen. Sickles in late March were not returned to the 4th NY at the time of Col. Cesnola’s letter of May 18th just three weeks before Brandy Station. Apparently, they were returned at the end of May, but I can find no evidence of this other than some of the soldiers show up on the casualty lists for Aldie on June 17th. Something to consider is that Cesnola probably lost confidence in the soldiers of his command especially the officers and believed the 4th NY had best be left behind guarding Kelly’s Ford during the Battle of Brandy Station. However, eight days later after being demoted from brigade commander to regimental commander of the 4th NY and then put under arrest again and released, he was able to lead his regiment at Aldie.

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