William Willis Blackford

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William Willis Blackford

Excerpt from War Years with Jeb Stuart
Written in 1862; first published in 1945

A Confederate officer describes a daring cavalry raid

"We were not half across when the bank we had left was swarming with the enemy who opened a galling fire upon us, the bullets splashing the water around us like a shower of rain."

Both the Union and the Confederate militaries organized their armies into three major combat units. The largest and most important of these units was the infantry. The infantry consisted of soldiers who were trained to fight on foot. Most men who fought in the Civil War fit under this category. The Union's larger population and its superior ability to produce rifles, boots, and other gear used by infantry soldiers gave it a big advantage over the Confederate infantry during the war.

A second major arm of the Union and Confederate militaries was artillery. Artillery units consisted of soldiers who were trained to use cannons and other big guns. Since Northern cities had a far greater capacity to manufacture and transport cannons and ammunition than did cities in the South, the Union held a considerable edge in this important area of the war as well.

The third major combat unit of the two armies was cavalry. Cavalry units consisted of soldiers who were trained to scout and perform other duties on horseback. Unlike the other two organizational units, the Union army did not hold an advantage in this area. In fact, the Confederate cavalry was vastly superior to its Union counterpart, especially during the first two years of the Civil War.

Much of the Confederacy's advantage in cavalry could be traced to factors in Southern culture and society. Many Southern boys grew up in rural areas, where they were encouraged to develop their riding skills. After all, Southerners often had to travel great distances on horseback over land that featured rough or nonexistent roads in order to reach neighboring towns and plantations. In addition, many Southern families relied on hunting for food. Boys who grew up in such families learned to shoot rifles and find their way through woods at an early age. This combination of riding ability and marksmanship (the ability to shoot a gun well) made Southern men ideally suited for cavalry duty. Finally, Southern traditions led people to view cavalry soldiers as particularly dashing and romantic. In the South, "the legends of chivalry [having the qualities of honor, courage, and protecting women] were powerful," wrote Bruce Catton in The Civil War, "so that it seemed much more knightly and gallant to go off to war on horseback than in the infantry."

Northerners, on the other hand, were more likely to be raised in cities or on farms where horses were used for plowing fields and other labor rather than for transportation. Since Northern communities did not tend to emphasize the use of horses for riding, boys who grew up in Michigan, Ohio, New York, and other Northern states were less likely to be skilled horsemen. Northerners also did not pay as much attention to breeding horses for riding. In contrast, many Southern horse owners devoted a great deal of energy to developing fast, strong, and healthy mounts (horses). Since the South did not have the resources to provide its army with mounts, Confederate cavalry soldiers used their own horses during the conflict.

All of these factors enabled the South to establish complete cavalry dominance during the first two years of the war. In fact, when the Civil War began, many rebel cavalry units were made up of expert riders who roamed the countryside on high-quality mounts that they had ridden for years. By contrast, Northern cavalry units contained many inexperienced horsemen who were stuck riding inferior horses purchased by the army.

From 1861 to 1863, the Confederate Army took advantage of this superiority. Rebel cavalry units made full use of their ability to move quickly from one area to another. They became known for making swift strikes on Union railroads, supply centers, and other enemy positions. They also did a much better job of scouting enemy troop size and movements and preventing surprise attacks than did the North's cavalry. Finally, the generally superior marksmanship of Confederate cavalry made them more effective than their Union counterparts in battle.

By the midpoint of the war, Union military leaders viewed Confederate cavalry units as irritating pests that were nonetheless capable of delivering painful stings. Their scouting abilities made it much more difficult for Northern armies to surprise Confederate infantry and artillery forces. In addition, their habit of raiding Union supply lines forced Northern generals to use thousands of soldiers to guard railroads and telegraph lines. Union armies spent a great deal of their time and effort chasing Southern cavalry, but their attempts to capture or destroy the rebel riders were rarely successful. The soldiers in the Confederate cavalry "are splendid riders, first-rate shots, and utterly reckless," admitted Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891). "They are the best cavalry in the world."

As the Civil War progressed, the glamorous reputation of cavalry service made it a favorite subject for newspaper coverage in both the South and the North. In fact, several Confederate cavalry officers became famous for their daring raids and dramatic escapes. Notable Confederate cavalry leaders included Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877), John Hunt Morgan (1825–1864), and Joseph Wheeler (1836–1906).

Another famous Southern cavalryman was Major General J. E. B. "Jeb" Stuart (1833 –1864). He commanded the cavalry forces in the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia, which was led by the legendary general Robert E. Lee. A smart and brave leader, Stuart led many successful raids on Union positions. In addition, reports from his cavalry scouts helped Lee make countless strategic decisions. Stuart was assisted on his missions by Lieutenant Colonel William Willis Blackford (1831–1905), who served on his staff from June 1861 to January 1864. In the following excerpt, Blackford tells about a daring cavalry raid Stuart led deep into Northern territory. This raid on Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and other surrounding areas took place in October 1862, when the Confederate cavalry's dominance over the Union cavalry was at its height.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from War Years with Jeb Stuart:

  • • As Blackford mentions, Stuart and other Confederate cavalry leaders made very good use of their troops' geographical knowledge. When they launched raids into enemy territory, they often used rebel soldiers who grew up in the area to guide them. The rebel cavalry also used their knowledge of Southern woodlands to frustrate invading Union troops. "The South was laced with obscure country roads not marked on any map," said James M. McPherson in Ordeal by Fire. "Only local knowledge could guide troops along these roads, many of which ran through thick woods that could shield the movement from the enemy but where a wrong turn could get a division hopelessly lost. . . . Numerous examples could . . . be cited of Union troops getting lost on similar roads because of inaccurate or nonexistent maps."
  • • Confederate cavalry raids were a constant nuisance to the North. The Southern attacks on railroad lines and other strategic Union positions forced Northern military leaders to use many of their men for guard duty. In addition, their successful raids of horses, food, and other supplies hurt the Union war effort and allowed the Confederate Army to send scarce supplies to other needy troops. Blackford estimated that in the raid on Chambersburg alone, Stuart's cavalrymen stole twelve hundred to fifteen hundred horses, freed hundreds of Confederate prisoners, and destroyed $250,000 worth of property belonging to Northerners.

Excerpt from War Years with Jeb Stuart

The force assembled at Darkesville and camped that night above Williamsport [Pennsylvania] to cross [the river] at daylight on the 10th [of October, 1862] at McCoy's ford, and we captured the picket at that place. A large infantry force had just marched by, going westward. . . . The luck of not encountering this force at theoutset was a source of congratulation for it might have caused such delay as to have made the trip impracticable. A signal station was also captured by surprise, and our movement thus concealed the longer. General Stuart had capital guides, soldiers of our army who knew every foot of the country and many of the people. Finding that the enemy had a large force at Hagerstown [Maryland], the General determined to push northward to Chambersburg [Pennsylvania]. At Mercersburg [Pennsylvania] I found that a citizen of the place had a county map and of course called at the house for it, as these maps had every road laid down and would be of the greatest service to us. Only the females of the family appeared, who flatly refused to let me have the map, or to acknowledge that they had one; so I was obliged to dismount and push by the infuriated ladies, rather rough specimens, however, into the sitting room where I found the maphanging on the wall. Angry women do not show to advantage, and the language and looks of these were fearful, as I coolly cut the map out of its rollers and put it in my haversack. . . . General Stuart determined to take nothing but horses, as cattle would have delayed our movements. That part of Pennsylvania was full of great, fat Conestoga horses of the Norman breed, most valuable animals for artillery purposes but wholly unfit for cavalry mounts. Everything was arranged, but no plundering was to take place until we had crossed the Maryland border. The men were wild with enthusiasm, and eagerly watched for the line across which the fun would begin. The middle division was arranged so that parties of half a dozen or a dozen under an officer were to dash out right and left to the farm houses and bring in the horses, which were then tied by their halters three together and led by a soldier riding alongside.

As good luck would have it the day was cloudy with occasional showers, and the thrifty Pennsylvania farmers were assembled in their huge barns threshing wheat. From every direction through the mist our foraging parties were guided to the spot by the droning hum of the threshers with which all these Pennsylvania barns are provided. For the fun of the thing I joined in several charges of this kind and in every case was rewarded by amusing scenes, to say nothing of the raids we made upon the well filled pantries at the houses. . . .

If the day had been fine and the people out in the fields, the news of our coming would no doubt have spread and not nearly so many horses would have been collected. A clean sweep of all on the place was generally made, but I remember that in one case I made an exception in a rather curious manner. . . . We had just taken an unusually nice looking lot of horses out of [a barn in Pennsylvania] when quite a genteel looking old lady came out and asked that we would let her keep her old driving horse, which she assured us was in the thirty-fifth year of his age. She said that she had owned him from a colt and knew him to be that old, and that he had long since done nothing but work in her buggy when she wanted to go anywhere, and that he would be of no use whatever to us. I asked her to point out the animal. . . . The moment I opened [the horse's] mouth I saw the old lady's account was true, his teeth were worn off level with the gums. This was an animal whose age was as seldom reached by his kind as that of a hundred and twenty-five years would be by a human being. Bowing to the old lady I returned her faithful and noble favorite, to her great delight.

During this long day's march everything indicated our coming to be unexpected, and not a shadow of opposition appeared. The truth was that their cavalry were afraid to meet us and gladly availed themselves of the pretext of not being able to find us. Up to this time the cavalry of the enemy had no more confidence in themselves than the country had in them, and whenever we got a chance at them, which was rarely, they came to grief.

[Stuart's army of cavalry then captured the small town of Chambersburg. After raiding the village's shops and farmhouses, Stuart decided to begin the journey back to Virginia. Since Stuart's cavalry was deep in enemy territory, he knew that the trip would be dangerous. But he believed that if his troops moved quickly and returned to Virginia by an unexpected route, he could avoid Union forces in the area.] From a point about forty miles in rear of the enemy we were to march to a crossing of the Potomac [River] ten or fifteen miles below [Union general George McClellan's] position, passing within less than ten miles of his main body, so that for the greater part of the day we were going directly towards their camps. The march was the longest without a halt I have ever experienced. Starting from Chambersburg that morning we marched all that day, all that night and until four o'clock the next day before reaching Leesburg in Virginia; ninety miles with only one halt of half an hour to feed the horses the evening of the first day. It was only by riding captured horses and resting their own that the men could keep up, though I myself rode Magic [Blackford's horse] the whole time without change, fearing to [lose] her in case of a sudden attack. . . .

My place usually was with the advanced guard and I generally rode with the three videttes in front so as to report to the General at once anything we might encounter. Having my powerful glasses, I could see exactly the character of any body of men we came in sight of, and thus could tell whether those we saw at a distance were armed men or only country people and thus saving much delay in approaching them. General Stuart issued orders that no firearms were to be used in attack, nothing but the sabre alone until further orders. This was to prevent as much as possible the noise from giving intelligence of our position. . . . It seemed almost incredible that the enemy should not have discovered our position as the day wore on. Why their cavalry had not hung upon our rear and given intelligence of our route is unaccountable. The truth was, no doubt, that their cavalry was afraid of us, for up to that time our superiority in that arm of the service was unquestioned, and they seldom venturedwithin our reach, and whenever they did they invariably came to grief. But why a small party should not have followed us and given information can be attributed only to bad management, for they could have gotten the information in a friendly country without ever making an attack, by means of the citizens along the roads we passed. But so it was, as appears now from their official dispatches, that up to our reaching the river on our return, they had no exact intelligence of our movements. [At one point,] McClellan inferred we would attempt a crossing below him. He sent all of his cavalry to intercept us and some thirty miles from the river we passed within four miles of [Union general Alfred] Pleasanton and his large body of cavalry, but he knew not of our presence. . . .

[Stuart's cavalry marched all night through Pennsylvania and into Maryland.] When day dawned on the morning of the 12th [of October], we entered Hayattstown, having made sixty-five miles from Chambersburg in twenty hours. It was this great speed which baffled the enemy who had by this time found out in a general mannerthat we were moving southward, and were crowding all their available troops towards our supposed route to intercept us. [Union generals George] Stoneman and [Alfred] Pleasanton with their cavalry were in hot pursuit, infantry was strung along the river at every ford, and a large force was placed on trains of cars at Monocacy crossing ready to move to any point at which they might be needed. The most of these facts were discovered by Stuart from intercepted dispatches, and his sagacity, boldness and quickness were taxed to the utmost to meet the occasion. By changing horses frequently the artillery was enabled to keep up during the tremendous march we had made, but there was still twelve miles between us and the river, within which twelve miles the ruin of all our hopes might lie.

It was now that the services of Captain White as a guide became so valuable. This was where he had lived all his life and every by-road was well known to him. By marching down a road towards a lower ford to deceive the enemy and then suddenly turning down through a cart track in the woods White led the column to a ford that was little used and where we were little expected. While on the main road we overtook a scouting party of the enemy, the first troops we had met in the whole expedition, and charged them, putting them to instant rout . . . .[Stuart's army then reached the river, where they fooled a Union regiment into retreating. Stuart then ordered his soldiers to cross the river as pursuing Yankee troops closed in.] There was nothing to be done now but get the command across as quickly as possible. . . . A force was posted above and below [the river crossing] to oppose and hold in check the enemy who was advancing from both directions, while [Confederate major John Pelham, who commanded Stuart's artillery forces] pounded away with two guns first one side and then the other, with great spirit, on the heads of their columns in full view of us. It was of the utmost importance that the crossing should be effected without delay, and the captured horses were so famished for water that there was great danger of the narrow ford becoming choked with them while drinking; so General Stuart sent me to the ford with orders that no man should stop to water his horse while crossing the river. It was necessary to repeat the order to every company commander as he came by and to see that it was enforced, for sometimes the horses would stop in spite of everything and plunge their heads up to their eyes into the water to take deep draughts of what they so much needed.

Some guns were trotted across first to go into battery on the opposite bank to cover the crossing of the main body and the longline of cavalry, and then the great horses which we had captured came rapidly past, led in couples. . . . The last files of the last division were entering the water when General Stuart rode down the bank to where I was and in a voice choked with emotion, and his eyes filling as he spoke, said, "Blackford, we are going to [lose] our rear guard." "How is that, General?" I asked in surprise. "Why," said he, "I have sent four couriers to [Confederate colonel M. C.] Butler to call him in, and he is not here, and you see the enemy is closing in upon us from above and below."

[Blackford subsequently volunteered to go back and try to find Butler, even though Union troops were closing in quickly.] The place where I expected to find Butler was passed, and on and on I went. One, two, and over three miles, until I gave up all hope of getting to him in time to save his command; but to find him I was determined, and kept on. At last at a sudden turn of the road I dashed right into the rear guard. . . . Going on to where Butler was I called him aside and explained the situation to him. In a moment wewere in motion at a trot, but I leaned over and told Butler we must move faster or we would be cut off, that General Stuart said he must come in at a gallop. [Butler subsequently ordered his command into a full gallop, even though they were hauling a cannon.] He was very reluctant to abandon the gun, and to our surprise and pleasure the horses held out and brought the gun in safely. . . . As we approached the ford Colonel Butler got everything ready for a charge if it should be necessary to cut our way through to the ford, and with drawn sabres we dashed into the field where the entrance to the ford was. There stood Pelham with his piece and there the enemy, just as I had left them, with an open gap between for us to pass through. In a moment we were at the ford and Pelham's gun rumbling along after us into the water.

We were not half across when the bank we had left was swarming with the enemy who opened a galling fire upon us, the bullets splashing the water around us like a shower of rain. But the [Confederate] guns from the Virginia side immediately opened on them and mitigated their fire considerably, and we soon crossed and stood once more on Virginia soil. The march was continued a few miles farther to Leesburg, where we encamped that afternoon as weary a set as ever dismounted.

What happened next . . .

The Confederate cavalry continued to dominate Union cavalry units through the beginning of 1863. Gradually, however, the performance of Northern cavalrymen improved. Historians trace this change to several factors. First, the long months of hard training that Union cavalry endured finally began to pay off, as soldiers learned to become good riders. Union cavalry forces also benefitted from improved military leadership. During the first two years of the war, cavalry were often used poorly by the Union Army. But when soldiers like General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and General William T. Sherman took control of the Northern war effort, they used Union cavalry much more effectively. Finally, the Union Army began outfitting several cavalry units with seven-shot repeating rifles (rifles that could be shot seven times before a soldier had to stop shooting to reload) that were better than the guns used by rebel soldiers. These repeating rifles greatly increased the effectiveness of Union cavalrymen in combat.

Union cavalry forces also benefitted from growing problems within some Confederate cavalry units. In 1863 and 1864, rebel cavalry units experienced shortages of both soldiers and horses. Blackford admitted that from mid-1863 onward, "the difficulty of getting remounts [new horses] acted disastrously upon the strength of our cavalry arm, not only in diminishing the numbers but in impairing the spirit of the men. . . . The most dashing trooper was the one whose horse was the most apt to be shot, and when this man was unable to remount himself he had to go to the infantry service, and was lost to the cavalry. Such a penalty for gallantry was terribly demoralizing."

As the Union cavalry gained experience and the Confederate cavalry struggled with shortages of men and horses, the long-time Southern dominance in this area came to an end. One clear indication of the South's diminishing cavalry advantage came in June 1863, when a big battle between Union and Confederate cavalry forces at Brandy Station, Virginia, ended in a draw. By late 1863, Blackford was forced to acknowledge that "the cavalry of the enemy were steadily improving and it was all we could do sometimes to manage them." Only the skilled leadership of Southern cavalry leaders like Jeb Stuart enabled the Confederacy to match the Federal (Union) cavalry performance during the last two years of the war.

Stuart continued to command the cavalry arm of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until May 11, 1864, when he was mortally wounded in a battle with Union cavalry forces led by General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) outside of Richmond, Virginia. His death one day later was a tremendous blow to the South. After Stuart died, Confederate general Robert E. Lee admitted that "I can scarcely think of him without weeping." Lieutenant Colonel William Willis Blackford, meanwhile, served in the Confederate Army until the war ended. After the war, he worked as a railroad engineer and designer and as superintendent of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute campus. He died in 1905.

Did you know . . .

  • • Stuart's dramatic raid of Chambersburg made him famous throughout America. In fact, the raid even captured the imagination of foreign newspapers. In October 1862, for example, the London Times declared that "anything more daring, more gallant, and more successful than the foray [raid] of General Stuart . . . over the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania, has never been recorded."
  • • Cavalrymen on both sides often became very emotionally attached to their horses. This was especially true in the case of Confederate soldiers, who often used horses that they had been riding for years. One example of this loyalty to individual horses can be seen in Blackford's narrative. As Stuart's cavalry pushes southward in order to avoid pursuing Union troops, Blackford admits that he should ride one of the captured horses so that his horse Magic can rest a little. But he continues to ride Magic because he fears that he might lose her if their army comes under attack.
  • • During the opening months of the Civil War, many Northern communities became convinced that the Confederacy had formed a deadly "Black Horse Cavalry." This cavalry did not really exist, but Northern newspapers and magazines warned their readers about it all the time during the first year of the war. Fears about this imaginary cavalry actually ended up having an impact on the Civil War's first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861). When the Confederate Army gained an advantage in this clash in northern Virginia, Union military leaders decided to retreat. But this organized retreat turned into a panicked flight when frightened Northern civilians who had gone to watch the battle heard a rumor that the Black Horse Cavalry would soon swoop down and kill them all.
  • • Confederate and Union cavalries made many valuable contributions to the war effort for their respective sides. Even so, many soldiers who served in infantry or artillery units resented the extra praise and admiration that cavalrymen received from newspaper editors and ordinary citizens. Noting that cavalrymen engaged in fewer major battles than infantry and artillery units, they also felt that cavalry soldiers did not face the same dangers as ordinary soldiers. These feelings sometimes led bitter infantry soldiers to ask, "Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?"

For Further Reading

Blackford, William Willis. War Years with Jeb Stuart. New York: Scribner, 1945. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Carter, Samuel. The Last Cavaliers: Confederate and Union Cavalry in theCivil War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Longacre, Edward C. Mounted Raids of the Civil War. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1975. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J. E. B. Stuart. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

The South Challenges the North in One of America's Most Famous Horse Races

Nearly forty years before Confederate and Union cavalrymen mounted horses to face each other in the Civil War, a less violent contest between riders from America's Southern and Northern regions captured the country's attention. This contest, which pitted a horse from the North named American Eclipse against a horse from the South named Sir Henry, was the first great horse racing event in American history.

By May 1823, when the race took place, many Americans had decided that the nation's finest horses were raised in the South. After all, wealthy Southern planters and businessmen had purchased many of the country's finest horses and transported them south, and most of the best horse breeding farms in America were located in the South.

Eager to prove the superiority of Southern horses once and for all, a wealthy Southern horse owner named Colonel William Ransom Johnson challenged the owner of American Eclipse, the finest horse in the North, to a race. American Eclipse's owner, Cornelius Van Ranst, accepted the challenge and told Johnson that he would race any horse in the entire South. Johnson selected one of his own horses, called Sir Henry, for the contest. The two men then agreed on a $20,000 bet on the race.

When news of the race was announced, the whole nation became caught up in the contest. Northerners expressed high hopes for American Eclipse. Southerners staked their regional pride on Sir Henry, which had won sixty-one of sixty-three races in its career. In many cases, people bet large amounts of money on the outcome. A wealthy Virginia planter, for example, agreed to give up five years' worth of cotton crops if Sir Henry lost. A Northern cotton mill owner, meanwhile, wagered three years of profits on an American Eclipse victory.

On the night before the race, more than fifty thousand people gathered at the Union Race Course on Long Island, New York, where the contest was scheduled to be held. Race fans filled every hotel within fifty miles of the course. Thousands of other people slept in wagons, camped in the woods, and waited on boats anchored offshore. The U.S. Congress even called a break so that its representatives could attend the big race.

The contest consisted of three races. Whichever horse won two out of the three races would be the victor. Southerners cheered wildly as Sir Henry won the first race. But American Eclipse won the second race so easily that even optimistic Southerners in the crowd wondered if their horse could win the contest. As it turned out, those fears proved accurate. Sir Henry galloped hard in the third and deciding race, but American Eclipse won easily to take the contest. As Northerners in the crowd celebrated, many Southerners expressed disappointment with the outcome. But although a few wild newspaper reports suggested that some Southerners committed suicide after the race, reliable witnesses say that fans of Sir Henry reacted to the defeat with grace and good humor.

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