Cowardice or Unbridled Ambition? Part 1

Turning his 8th Illinois Cavalry into the fields just east of Upperville and north of the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike on June 21, 1863, Lieut. Col. David Clendenin saw enemy supply wagons, artillery, and cavalry moving along Trappe Road, about 1,000 yards to the west. He could not foresee, however, how the next few moments would impact his life and reputation. Emerging from a narrow strip of land between Panther Skin Creek and a long stone fence, his troopers entered a broad field bordered by a streams, fences, and roads. After ordering the men to maneuver from column into line, Clendenin moved into position near brigade commander (and colonel of the 8th Illinois) William Gamble. Seconds later, the regiment moved forward. With at least 500 yards of open, mucky ground to cover, Gamble and Clendenin slowly increased their speed before finally yelling for their men to charge. Seconds later, Southern cannon fired canister at point-blank range killing Gamble’s horse and wounding Clendenin’s horse.

Four days later, June 25, Gen. Alfred Pleasonton directed Clendenin to Alexandria, “to take charge of the dismounted men of” Gamble’s Brigade. Leaving his regiment, Clendenin missed the remainder of the Gettysburg Campaign, including the honor of commanding his men on the morning of July 1, when one of his officers fired the opening shot of the battle. Pleasonton gave no explanation for the transfer until August 29, when he ordered Clendenin to report “in person to Gen. [John] Buford for trial.”

The trial began on October 9, 1863, with the customary reading of charges and specifications.  Clendenin had been charged with three counts of cowardice, stemming from his actions at Kelly’s Ford on May 8, Brandy Station on June 9, and Upperville on June 21.

Regarding the May 8 incident, Clendenin stood accused of ordering “a party of forty or fifty men to jump into rifle pits and fire upon some twelve or fifteen United States soldiers, distant, about one mile, without using any measures to ascertain their identity, and immediately abandoned his post to go to the rear and did not return again until it was ascertained that the party approaching were United States soldiers,” returning from the Stoneman Raid.

His accusers alleged that at Brandy Station on June 9, he had failed to join his command “until the afternoon,” claiming he had loitered “about Bealton Station, Va from 8 o’clock A.M. until 2 ½ o’clock P.M…. having been informed that his regiment was engaged with the enemy…”

Finally, the charges regarding Upperville stipulated, “that [he] being in the immediate command of his regiment while moving on the enemy to repel a charge, did run to the rear and did remain away from the command of his regiment until the enemy were driven from the field.” The initial court panel had included Colonel Gamble, whose horse had been killed by the artillery fire that knocked down Clendenin’s horse. Had Gamble testified, his account would have been enlightening, but he had been transferred to Chicago and did not return for the trial.

Clendenin’s accusers, who remained anonymous, submitted their list of charges to General Buford. Recognizing the initial paperwork had been filed in an “irregular form,” but “endorsed by the officers of the regiment,” Buford, commanding the division, returned the forms for corrections and, though he did not testify to such, possibly to give the men a last chance to reconsider their actions. If so, the unnamed officers pressed ahead, and Buford signed the paperwork on August 26.

Twenty-four witnesses took the stand, 15 for the prosecution and nine for the defense. Soldiers of every rank from major to private testified. Their statements suggest a case of the gravest nature, but with almost no substance or merit. Only four prosecution witnesses supported the charges with their testimony. Many appeared deliberately evasive in their answers. Most of the testimony related to how Clendenin appeared or how excited he sounded in giving orders. One who believed he had acted cowardly, reached his conclusion solely upon “His manner of speech.” The nine defense witnesses all appear to have supported Clendenin, though no one specifically asked any of them for their opinion of his actions.

Lt. Colonel Clendenin closed his defense with the following summation:

“The charge upon which the accused is arraigned before this court is one of the gravest in the annals of Courts Martial. If proved it consigns the prisoner to everlasting disgrace and his family to endless shame. It works not only a hardship to the party convicted but his prattling babes are pointed at with the fingers of scorn as the children of a coward.

It has been my unhappy lot to be charged with cowardice, a feeling to which I am a stranger. The terrible weight of such a charge almost crushes me to the earth. Had not the conscientiousness of being innocent sustained me I would have prayed the earth to open under me and hide me forever from the sight of men.

Both my grandfathers shed their blood in the sacred cause of liberty during the Revolutionary struggle. My father fought gallantly in the War of 1812 and his son of that noble race proved a [recruit] to the courage and patriotism taught him from the cradle to early manhood.  God forbid.

It pains me to think aught against a brother officer, but the nature of the charge against me and the conflicting testimony show plainly that no act of mine could possibly be construed into cowardice.

The affair at Kelly’s Ford was a trivial matter as it turned out and my short absence from that point shows distinctly that I was getting my command in readiness, should the enemy appear in force, to resist them successfully. Did I do more than duty required? Had the enemy come down in force and I not been in position to repulse them would I not have been severely censured? Are enlisted men to be the judges of the duties and responsibility of the commanding officer?

Lieut. [Bradley] Chamberlain, an officer of undoubted integrity was sitting on his horse by my side but heard no order given by me to fire. He also testifies that the supposed enemy were within 80 to 100 rods of the ford when the firing occurred. Also, that I was not absent over 5 minutes, that I was at the ford before the character of the party on the opposite side of the river was known, that I sent Lieut. [George] Warner across the river in a boat to ascertain who the men were that raised the white flag.

Did I do anything that could by the most fastidious be construed into cowardice?

In regard to the delay in getting to Beverly Ford in time to take an earlier part in that engagement no one could have regretted it more than I did. It was the first time the regiment ever marched when I was present that I did not accompany it.

I had made three separate reports of the property captured on the Northern Neck, but had been called upon that day to furnish vouchers to show what disposition had been made of it.

I had then to get the Quartermaster’s receipts for horses, mules, carts, wagons, buggies, [sulkies], harness and [such] which I had turned in to him, also the receipts for oxen turned over to the commissary Department. All this took time and as Quartermaster [Lt. James] Berry testified I did not get his receipt until the following afternoon.

I left Brooks Station early on the morning of the 8th of June, expecting to join my regiment at Warrenton Junction. I arrived at that place on the same day, about 10 o’clock at night and could hear nothing of the regiment.

I encamped for the night and was informed in the morning by a party of Gen. [Julius] Stahel’s cavalry that the Cavalry Corps had left the day before, a part going North, part South and a part towards Rappahannock Station. Naturally supposing the 1st Division to have gone to the right I started in the direction of Sulphur Springs. Finding that no large body of cavalry had gone in that direction I changed my course and started for Bealton., where I found Major [John] Beveridge of my regiment and first learned where it had crossed the river and was informed by that officer that it was by that time doubtless near Culpeper, as the firing had become more and more distant. My horses not having had any grain that morning or the night before and expecting to go to Culpeper I ordered forage to be drawn and rations for the men, that drawn on the 6th having expired on the 9th.  I also ordered the men to get some coffee while the horses were feeding.

I was thus detained probably about one hour and a half at Bealton and when I started on halted my squad within ten feet of Major Beveridge & spoke twice to him.  He was asleep and made no answer. How then could he have seen me go off being distant thirty rods as he testified?

He was suffering great pain when I first met him and had been taking morphine to relieve it and took some while I was conversing with him. I have the testimony of three witnesses that he was asleep when I left Bealton and also that we were on the same side of the RR with himself.

I make no doubt that what he testified to he was honest in, but that he was in error my witnesses fully prove.

In the engagement near Upperville I was the first to charge the enemy. With forty men and not a single officer but myself I charged the guns that first opened on us and would have captured two pieces had I been supported. The enemy charged me with Battalion front in two lines, and I could not resist the shock. Part of my men broke, and I ordered the others to take the stone wall on our right. I was the last of that handful of men that turned his back upon the enemy. My horse was badly wounded and staggering under me when I reached a portion of my regiment [I formed] them rapidly and ordered a 2nd charge. Forgetful for a moment of the condition of my horse I started in the charge. My horse fell with me and I was forced unwillingly to remain a spectator to that brilliant charge. In this condition I was seen by Capt. [E. H. Martin, 3rd Indiana] and told him to look to his rear as it was threatened. He was drawn up in line facing the left of our line. He changed position and was immediately ordered to charge, which he did.

During this time I was under a heavy artillery fire. My 2nd horse not coming up I mounted again and rode slowly into the fight my horse staggering under me. I hoped to exchange him if I could find any of my men. I became mixed up in the melee and was in the last charge made.

I saw but three officers of my regiment in the engagement. One was Lt. [Marcellus Jones, 8th Illinois] who testified in the prosecution. The 2nd was Major [William Medill, 8th Illinois] since killed and the 3rd Captain [A Levi Wells, 8th Illinois] now absent wounded. The testimony of Capt. Wells would have been of great benefit to me.

The charge was signed by Gen. Buford not from any knowledge of his own, but, as he testified to put the matter in regular form. None was [manly] enough in the party making the charge to sign it, but for effect a general officer’s signature was procured. The commanding officer of the brigade, my own colonel, refused to sign the charges when presented to him as he wished not to be a party to such subterfuge, and also knowing the groundlessness of the accusation.”

The court exonerated Clendenin of all charges, but questions remain. Can any answers be found?

Sources: Documents from the National Archives

Chicago Tribune

5 thoughts on “Cowardice or Unbridled Ambition? Part 1

  1. Bob, It always amazed me the courage of the Cavalry Troopers and Officers. Charging into heavy fire from Artillery, long guns, side arms and swordsman. I can not for the life of me imagine what it would be to have a horse shot out from me and survive. God bless the soles of these gallant warriors.


  2. Pingback: Casualties – An Explanation to Accompany Appendix B | Small But Important Riots

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