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"Sheridan's Raid"; an excerpt from Sabres and Spurs by Frederic Denison (1876)

In this excerpt from Sabres and Spurs: The First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861–1865, published in 1876, Frederic Denison recalls his unit's brief occupation of Charlottesville at the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865).

Transcription from Original



March, 1865.

We return to the front. Although the larger portion of our regiment, on account of the victory of Waynesboro, was sent back as a part of the guard in charge of prisoners, a good number, as orderlies to generals and for special service, with the band at the headquarters of the Regular brigade, went forward with [Philip] Sheridan on his raid. One of our men, Frank Thurber (Troop C), was Sheridan's orderly. A portion also of the First New Hampshire Cavalry—some of the troops formerly a part of our regiment—accompanied the raiding force. We now follow this part of our regiment.

The force with which Sheridan started (February 27th) from Winchester was about ten thousand, as follows: First cavalry division, General T. C. Devin, 5047, and one section of the Fourth United States Artillery, 54; third cavalry division, General G. A. Custer, 4840, and one section of United States Artillery, 46. The Chief of Cavalry was Major-General Wesley Merritt. Each division consisted of three brigades.

In our notes we shall largely follow Sargent's journal

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 and Sheridan's report. Sargent thus describes the general order of marching: "Reveille would blow every morning at four, the head of the column starting about six. At four in the afternoon the head of the column would go into camp, the different brigades getting as near together as possible. Our position in the column would be different every day—our division in the advance every other day. Our brigade would be at the head of the division one day, at the rear the next day, and in the centre the third day. The regiments would also change positions in the brigade, moving up one ahead every day. Take a regiment in the rear of the column: the next day it would be the next to the rear in the brigade—the brigade in the centre of the advance division; next day, the third in the brigade—the brigade in the advance of the rear division; and so on till .finally the regiment came to the van of the column."

March 3d. The advance division (General Custer's), now through Rock Fish Gap, at Brookfield, moved on towards Charlottesville. General [Thomas E.] Devin, leaving [Alfred] Gibbs' brigade to destroy the iron bridge over the Shenandoah and burn and destroy captured wagons and contents, pressed through the mountains after the advance division, which, by Custer's order, on its march, at Greenwood Depot and Ivy Station, destroyed much rebel subsistence and the railroad and large bridge over Mechanic's River, and reached Charlottesville at four o'clock P. M. The city could make no resistance, and its officers surrendered the keys of the public buildings.

As the roads from Waynesboro to this place, from incessant rains and thaws, were terribly cut and deep with mud, we halted here for two days, to rest and allow General Gibbs to come up with our train. Meanwhile, parties were sent out towards Gordonsville and Lynch-

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burg to break the railroad, preventing troops from being massed on us. We also demolished large iron bridges over the north and south forks of the Rivanna River, and left no railroad tracks or Confederate property in our rear.

Let Sargent speak of the march over the mountains through Rock Fish Gap: "It was dark as Egypt, and the rain falling. The road was perfectly awful, full of large rocks and deep gullies, in some places just wide enough for a team to pass, while at our side would be a steep precipice to make one shudder. With the wind strong and cold, I was wet and chilled through, my hands so numb that there was no feeling in them. I. never before suffered so much in one night. About midnight we got to the level country, but it rained like Jehu all night."

At Charlottesville the negroes exclaimed: "Lor' bress ye! I'se neber so glad in all my life. I knowed ye'd cum sum time nudder. I'se prayed an' prayed fur yer, an' now yees got here. Glory ter God!" One colored woman produced some biscuits, "which we ate with some sorghum—going right to the spot."

March 6th. We resumed our march. Negroes accompanied us, old and young, male and female, trudging through mud and water, animated with the thought of freedom. The two divisions took different routes—one towards Lynchburg, going within sixteen miles of the city, and burning several bridges; the other marched to Scott[s]ville, with orders to move along the James River canal and destroy every lock as far as Newmarket.

March 7th. Roads rough, and mountainous. Passed through Lexington Court House.

March 8th. Sent a brigade to Buffalo Creek to burn a bridge; reached Newmarket after dark. Rainy afternoon and night. Both divisions again together.

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The rain and mud still impeded us, and the command—particularly the transportation—was much worn and fatigued. However, by replacing our worn-out mules by those captured from [Confederate general Jubal A.] Early, we reached Columbia on the evening of March 10th. Here we were rejoined by Colonel [Charles L.] Fitzhugh's brigade, which had destroyed the canal for eight miles east of Goochland—a heavy blow to [Confederate general Robert E.] Lee's army.

Our train of negroes now numbered thousands, and was constantly increasing. Moving by the side of the column, they talked, laughed, and asked questions, often travelling with us twenty or twenty-five miles a day, through mud and water, fording streams, and at night huddling around camp fires.