The 35th Battalion was at a reduced size due to losses at the massive cavalry battle at Brandy Station and the fracas at Point of Rocks. The long march north had been hard on the horses, but the men's spirits were high. The 35th was then the only cavalry unit with the army; Jeb Stuart's cavalry was off to the east, riding around the Yankees and keeping the Yankees confused as to where the Confederate army was, and which way it was going. General Early had ordered the 35th out in advance of the army.
Riding in Company A, my cousin John Sloper had mixed feelings. On one hand, the damn Yankees had become invaders in his adopted home state of Virginia, and it was just revenge for White's Rebels to return the favor and invade Pennsylvania. On the other hand, now into Pennsylvania, John imagined himself almost halfway back to where he'd spent his boyhood: Monroe County, New York. Nearly falling asleep in his saddle at one point, John imagined riding into Rochester and proclaiming, "I'm back! This city is now part of the Confederacy!"
John was still riding his Union horse, Billy (short for Billy Yank), captured during the battle of Brandy Station after his own horse had been killed. This combination of man and horse was especially amusing considering that once or twice, some wag would refer to John as "the original Johnny Reb." Johnny Reb riding Billy Yank... Never you mind.
The battalion, only 200 strong at this time in its career, approached a picturesque little Pennsylvania village.
Private William Snoots was riding within earshot of Cousin John. Snoots was a bit of a narrator sometimes. A narrator with a quirky choice of language: "Looky there, will ya. I do believe that is a little band of bluebellies, offering to bar us in our harmless wanderings."
"Well, we will just have to see about that!" John had been hanging around with Snoots too long. Starting to talk like him.
The green Pennsylvania horse militia started peppering shots their way, so Lt. Colonel White ordered a charge. With wild whoops, flags and guidons flying, White's battalion charged. The militia may have outnumbered the rebels almost 4 to 1, but those untrained Pennsylvanians had not been on the receiving end of a terrifying charge of cavalry like that before, especially not rebel cavalry who were to become known to their next division commander as "The Comanches," for their wild war whoops and their bold fighting style. As Captain Frank Myers described the charge in his book, “They came with barbarian yells and smoking pistols.”
The Pennsylvania boys and old men scattered in all directions. Myers wrote, “the blue-coated troopers wheeled their horses and departed ... without firing a shot.... Of course, ‘nobody was hurt,’ if we except one fat militia Captain, who, in his exertion to be first to surrender, managed to get himself run over by one of Company E’s horses, and was bruised somewhat.” Prisoners were captured, and were sent back, to be cared for by General Gordon's troops. One escaping Pennsylvania cavalryman was shot and killed. The rebel who shot him later said the Northern boy "shot at me, but he did not hit me, and I shot at him and blowed him down like nothing, and here I got his horse." Food and materiel was secured from the Yankee camp.
So into town rode the 35th Virginia. Nice little place called Gettysburg. Word passed down from White not to tear the place up. "Southern men are gentlemen." The town was in a panic, having been alerted by the retreating Union cavalrymen.
John and Snoots sauntered over to the livery. "Good day, proprietor," Snoots said.
The proprietor of the livery looked absolutely terrified, but it seemed best to reply in kind. Hands shaking, he gestured around the livery's empty stables. "Greetings. Um... Are you fellows looking to have some work done on your horses? Shoeing, perhaps? I don't do that here. The smithy is right next door."
"Naw," John said. "We're looking for horses. What's become of all your stock?" He knew very well what the answer was. They'd been moved to a hiding place out the other side of town once the Confederate flag had been seen approaching.
"Afraid they've been hard to come by, what with the... um... unpleasantries of late. Oh, I don't mean... I mean... um..." The proprietor kept wiping his hands on his pants and his coat, but they couldn't stay dry for some reason.
"Well, that's downright disappointing," said Snoots.
"Guess we'll just have to look some more. Maybe in those woods yonder," John said.
"Say," the liveryman brightened, sweat now forming profusely on his brow. "Would you fellows be thirsty?" He produced a flask.
"Don't mind if I do!" So John and Snoots both got (it must be said) a snootful.
Feeling a little more pleasant about this little town, the boys explored a little. They didn't find much of interest except a shoe factory. No horses. A little food. Plenty spirits. Some sleep.
The next day Lt. Col. White received orders from General Early to go into Hanover Junction and burn railroad bridges, cut telegraph wires, things to keep the Federals from spoiling the rebels' little Pennsylvania sojourn.
Entering Hanover from two directions, White's Battalion occupied the town. The colonel mounted the steps of the front porch of the hotel to address the townsfolk. All he said was that he and his battalion were gentlemen, fighting for a cause. Not here to hurt any of you or damage any of your property. Stuff like that. But unlike that time the year before when they'd marched into Frederick, White didn't bother with recruiting efforts this time.
John went into a shop and bought some things. He needed some soap and a new shaving razor. He paid in Confederate money, of course. And for some strange reason the shopkeeper's smile lacked any genuine gratitude! Strange folk, these Pennsylvanians.
John caught up with Snoots in the street, in front of the smithy.
Snoots was incensed. "Fellow said he would not shoe my horse! I showed him my revolver, explained that when the trigger is pulled, a lead ball comes rapidly out the mouth of the barrel. Explained further what effect such an event could have on any person standing in front thereof. He came to see things my way in the end."
After Hanover, the regiment split in two. They carried out their mission, burned more bridges, cut more telegraph wires. They were able to get fed somewhat, courtesy of the kind locals. But they still needed horses. All the good riding horses were mysteriously absent. The only horses they found were beasts of burden, plodding plowhorses, completely unsuitable for cavalry purposes.
In camp that night near Nashville (halfway between Hanover and York, in York County - not the other Nashville, up in Indiana County), they received orders to report to General Gordon. On the 28th, per General Gordon's orders, they destroyed some more railroad bridges, then they let the horses have a little rest for a couple days near York, Pennsylvania.
General Gordon ordered the 35th to ride on his flank as he marched his brigade to the support of A.P. Hill's Third Corps, who'd gotten themselves engaged with Union forces back at Gettysburg.
Gordon headed along the Harrisburg road towards Gettysburg, and before long the smoke of battle could be seen ahead.
"Well, looks like we're in for some fun today," said John.
"You have stated the obvious," said Snoots. He checked his revolvers.
A little further along, skirmish fire crackled from along a creek over to the right. No need for bugles or shouted orders: White headed towards the action, the 35th Virginia following his lead. The Virginians rode four abreast in their usual hell-bent-for-leather style, whooping like Indians and riding at a full gallop.
The skirmishers fell back.
Then cannon shells arced in, whistling and moaning so as to make your hair stand up. The Federal fuses were very well made, and the cannoneers had adjusted them right smartly. The shells exploded uncomfortably near.
The Virginians got the hell out of there.
That day was a game for infantry and artillery; no good could be done by sending in a single half-manned battalion of horsemen. A messenger relayed General Gordon's order for the 35th to ride out and watch for any other approaching Yankee army movements, and to cut communication lines.
The battle of Gettysburg had begun.
* * *
I had two other cousins involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, both of them blue-dyed-in-the-wool Yankees. You have probably already heard of 5th cousin 4 times removed, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He was then a colonel, commander of the 20th Maine Infantry. On the 2nd day of the battle, July 2, he earned his lifelong reputation as the Hero of Little Round Top. There's no reason for me to write his story. Go see the 1993 movie "Gettysburg," adapted from Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, or read that book. Both are highly recommended. Jeff Daniels' portrayal of cousin Lawrence is pretty good, if you can ever forget "Dumb and Dumber." Cousin Lawrence also published some personal remembrances (still available from online booksellers), telling his story from his own point of view.
My other cousin at Gettysburg was Charlie Miller, a cavalryman with the 6th U.S. Cavalry. If you want to read his story, click the "another story of Gettysburg" link, below. Or read "the next tale chronologically." Hint: they both go to Cousin Charlie's story.
© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.