‘Grimes’ Davis, Wesley Merritt, and a couple ‘What ifs’

I have spoken of Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis several times in the past, including here and here.

A Southerner, born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi, Benjamin Franklin Davis had been graduated from West Point in 1854 and received a commission in the 1st United States Dragoons. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Davis, then a 1st Lieutenant, might well have accepted a loftier position in the Southern army. Instead, he remained true to his oath and his nation. He received a promotion to captain in July 1861, in the recently re-designated 1st United States Cavalry. The Regular Army soon began losing officers at a staggering rate, as those young men sought higher rank and position in the volunteer ranks. But Davis stayed with his men and retained his rank of captain.

Joseph H. McArthur, a captain in the 5th United States Cavalry, and several years senior to Davis, resigned his commission in the Regular Army in 1861 and served a short stint as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He returned to the 5th United States Cavalry in February 1862, leaving the lieutenant colonel’s position in the 6th Pennsylvania vacant.

Seeking to replace McArthur, Col. Richard Rush, commander of the 6th Pennsylvania, asked “for the services of Captain Benjamin F. Davis, of the 1st Regiment U.S. Cavalry, as Lieut. Colonel of my regiment, and beg that a leave of absence may be granted him to accept the position.”

Gen. George Stoneman, McClellan’s Chief of Cavalry approved Rush’s request and forwarded the letter to McClellan, who then queried Gen. Philip St. George Cooke. In 1862, Cooke had already served more than 30 years in the mounted service and Regular Army blood coursed through his veins. He had seen firsthand how the ranks of his regiments had been decimated as ambitious young men rushed to the volunteers. Seeking to stop the loss of talented officers, Cooke denied Rush’s request, writing, “[Although] the 1st Cav has not suffered from this system to the alarming extent of the [other regiments], it is a good time to stop, since every appointment leads to equal [requests] from others, and especially an appointment below the rank of Colonel, can never, I believe, be of advantage to outweigh the loss.”

Davis remained with his regiment through the early fighting on the Peninsula. Then, in June, Davis received a letter from the Adjutant General, asking, “Can you be spared to accept command of 8th NY Cavalry?”

Col. Samuel Crooks had raised the 8th New York in 1861, before resigning the following February. New York’s governor, Edwin Morgan, selected Capt. Alfred Gibbs, 3rd U.S. Cavalry, to replace Crooks. But Gibbs had been captured in the early days of the war, and though he had been paroled, he had not been exchanged when Morgan appointed him. With Gibbs unavailable, Morgan turned to Davis, telling Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, that he did so at “the earnest request of the other officers of the regiment.” Morgan’s letter to Stanton prompted the query from the Adjutant General.

Before Davis could respond, Gen. John Davidson, commanding an infantry brigade in the VI Corps, sought permission to give Davis command of the 77th New York Infantry. Davidson had served in the 1st United States Cavalry before the war and would have known Davis well. And, like Davis, Davidson was a Southerner who had remained loyal to the Union. 

“I… ask that Capt. B. F. Davis may be ordered to report to me, to be assigned to the command of the 77th Regiment, NY Vols. The Colonel of the regiment… has gone off sick, the Lt. Colonel has sent in his resignation, and the regiment has no Major. Therefore, as a Captain, Davis can command it. I believe there will be no difficulty in getting him the appointment of Lt. Colonel within a week. The Colonel will back it, so will the regiment, and the regiment is in that peculiar situation that it needs an able and firm hand to command it the day of battle. Such is Captain Davis…For his promotion, the good of the regiment, [and] the efficiency of the brigade I ask this favor…” Davidson’s superior approved his request, stating, “the interests of the service and of the 77th New York in particular would be much enhanced by the appointment of Capt. Davis as Lieut. Colonel.”

General McClellan approved Davidson’s request and ordered Davis to report to him for duty. McClellan’s order may have prompted Davis to accept the earlier offer from Governor Morgan. Seeking permission from his superiors, Davis explained, [My] company is very small, and as the squadron would be commanded by an experienced officer…I…request that I may be permitted to answer [the Adjutant General] in the affirmative.” When his superiors approved, Davis took his leave and headed north to join his new command.

Shortly thereafter, a soldier in the 8th New York expressed his gratitude to Governor Morgan “I thought of you and intrude upon your time…just to express to you our sense of obligation for the commission of Col. Davis, of the regular cavalry, nominated by Gen. Stoneman upon the unanimous petition of our officers – to him, ‘for an experienced and competent cavalry officer to take us and make something of us.’” The soldier continued, telling Morgan, Davis “has no favors to ask for himself. That is both evident and striking. I dare say your Excellency will recognize this is a peculiarity, but it is also the secret of true dignity and freedom.”

Like Benjamin Davis in the spring of 1862, Capt. Wesley Merritt, 2nd United States Cavalry, found himself in great demand the following spring. Merritt, West Point, Class of 1860, had been assigned to the 2nd United States Dragoons in Utah but served only a brief stint before war brought the regiment east. He had impressed his commander, Philip St. George Cooke, from the start, and Cooke had selected him as the regiment’s adjutant. Following the Peninsula Campaign, Cooke found himself transferred to recruiting duty. Merritt, at Cooke’s urging, accepted a position on Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman’s staff in September 1862.

Another victim of the failed Peninsula Campaign, Heintzelman had taken command of the Defenses of Washington, and Merritt served with him until April 1863, when he joined Gen. George Stoneman’s staff. After Stoneman took medical leave, Merritt continued to serve on General Pleasonton’s staff. On May 22, and identifying himself as commissary of musters for the Cavalry Corps, Merritt requested leave to return to Washington on “urgent private business.” Two days later, Pleasonton, who now identified Merritt as his ordnance officer, sent him to Washington “on business connected with the Ordnance Dept.”

While in the capital, Merritt may have met with Heintzelman, his old boss, as Heintzelman submitted at least one and possibly two requests in June (one may have been misdated), asking to have Merritt transferred back to his staff. However, rather than seeking a position with Heintzelman, Merritt may have used his time in the capital to dissuade the general from asking for him. He may also have sought the aid of a more powerful individual to prevent his returning to staff duty. Or, had Pleasonton sent Merritt to Washington under the guise of official business, in order that the young officer might plead his case to remain in the field? Whatever the sequence of events, both Henry Halleck and Edwin Stanton denied Heintzelman’s requests. That Halleck and Stanton became involved in such a routine matter suggests the involvement of an influential unnamed person. Halleck denied the transfer in a letter dated June 17, the day the cavalry fought at Aldie. Stanton denied the request two days later, as the cavalry fought at Middleburg.

Now consider the fate of Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis and Wesley Merritt during the Gettysburg Campaign. Davis had, within a very short period, been presented with three opportunities for promotion. He accepted command of the 8th New York Cavalry and died on June 9, 1863, after being shot in the head in the opening minutes of the fight at Brandy Station. What if he had accepted a position with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry or the 77th New York Infantry? Had he selected Rush’s Lancers, he may have only lived a few hours longer before meeting death in the regiment’s own fateful attack at Brandy Station.

Merritt remained with the Cavalry Corps, leading the 2nd United States at Brandy Station, where he survived his own close encounter with death, and throughout the fighting in the Loudoun Valley. After his victory at Upperville, Pleasonton informally asked that Merritt be promoted to command the Reserve Brigade. On June 28, Pleasonton made a successful formal request that Merritt, along with George Custer and Elon Farnsworth, be promoted from captain to brigadier.

Merritt outlived the other ‘Boy Generals’ by many years, retiring, after a distinguished career, on June 16, 1900. But what if Heintzelman’s request 37 years earlier had not been refused? Merritt might have served the remainder of his career in the relative anonymity endured by so many of his comrades.

Or suppose Davis survived Brandy Station, as well as the fighting in the Loudoun Valley. Might Pleasonton have placed Davis in command of the Reserve Brigade. He would have been the logical choice, and he, almost certainly, would have topped Pleasonton’s request for new brigadiers. If so, who would have been the odd man out, Merritt, Custer, or Farnsworth?


Documents in the National Archives

Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser

Don Alberts, Brandy Station to Manilla Bay, A Biography of General Wesley Merritt

4 thoughts on “‘Grimes’ Davis, Wesley Merritt, and a couple ‘What ifs’

  1. When I was a high school freshman, I had to read Bruce Catton’s “Mr. Lincoln’s Army”. I was so taken by his escape from Harper’s Ferry and using his Mississippi accent to trick the Confederate teamsters, that when I got to the part about being killed at Brandy Station, my brain just wouldn’t accept it. I had to go through a few other books before I could accept that it wasn’t all just a horrible mistake on Mr. Catton’s part.


  2. Grimes Davis was nominated for the rank of brigadier general on November 29, 1862 along with John Farnsworth and David Gregg. Both Farnsworth and Gregg’s promotion was approved by Congress. Davis’s was not, probably because he was from the south and there was no one in Congress to speak on his behalf.


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