A SCOUT WITH GENERAL KEARNEY.
(From the Philadelphia Weekly Times, January 10, 1885.)
During the winterof 1861-2, my regiment—the First New York Cavalry— lay encamped in a field immediately adjoining a house occupied by General Kearney, near Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from Alexandria. Wc had been mustered into the service but a short time, and, it must be confessed, were not so well disciplined as good troops ought to be. But it is not expected that raw recruits can become thoroughly drilled and disciplined in a few weeks, and it takes longer to accomplish this with cavalry than with infantry, for the reason that the horses have to be taught as well as the men.
General Kearney, who was a veteran of the Mexican war, where he lost his left arm in a gallant cavalry charge, was our beau ideal of a soldier, and, although a severe disciplinarian, was beloved by the entire Army of the Potomac.
The men of my regiment were in nowise vicious, but they had not been used to restraint before volunteering to fight for their country, and they did not fully appreciate the necessity for yielding prompt and exact obedience to orders ; their lawlessness tempted them to stray from camp considerably, and, as they had no respect for the enemy, they could not conceive why the enemy’s property was not legitimate spoils of war. As a consequence, some of them became too familiar with the hen-roosts of the neighboring farmers, made themselves free with pigs, poultry and other small game, and were fully impressed with the idea that fences were built expressly to furnish them with firewood.
General Kearney commanded a New Jersey brigade of infantry at that time and received many complaints regarding the marauding of the soldiers ; and while I have no doubt that his own regiments were quite as guilty as our men, he fell into the habit of charging all evil-doing to the account of the Lincoln Cavalry, as our regiment was then known, but which title he perverted into “ Lincoln Robbers/’
He remarked on one occasion that if he wanted to capture Tophet he would build a rail fence on the other side of it, and tell the “Lincoln Robbers” they must not touch it. He was confident the regiment would charge through Tophet to get firewood. Our men annoyed him exceedingly by strolling across his grounds to visit the Jersey regiments encamped on the other side.
One day he came out of his house and sprang on the back of his milkwhite horse Baby—for, although he had but one arm, he was an elegant horseman—and as he was galloping out of the gate he spied two or three cavalrymen walking across his yard. At the same time he caught sight of me attending to some duty about the camp, and wholly oblivious of the fact that any of our men were straggling. He rode up to me at full dash and sang out, “ Lieutenant, what are your men doing in my grounds ? Send the guard after them! What’s your name? Go to your quarters under arrest ! How dare you let these infernal ‘ Lincoln Robbers’ straggle into my grounds 1 Report yourself under arrest !”
He did not give me an opportunity to explain that I was on other duty and had nothing to do with the men, but rode off muttering that he would put charges against me. I did as ordered, and sure enough, in the course of the day, the general himself called on our colonel and filed charges against me to the effect that, being an officer, I had permitted men of my regiment to invade his premises. But his anger had cooled down, and he said to the colonel : ” I put one of your officers under arrest when I was angry this morning; here are the charges, but don’t press them. Release the young man and tell him he must enforce discipline with his men.” But I refused to be released on such terms ; I had been put in arrest by a general officer, and refused to accept my release except in writing signed by him. So I kept to my quarters for a week, having a good time reading and no duty to do. Finally the colonel wanted me very much one day, and on being informed that I still claimed to be under arrest, reported the fact to General Kearney, who forthwith ordered my release and I had to return to duty.
The general was of an exceedingly impetuous nature and did many little things like this hastily which he regretted afterwards. He had been so severe with some of our men that we had no love for him at that time, and were given to speaking of, him in tharsh terms. Our subsequent experience with him changed all this and taught us to reverence him highly. We also found that the best disciplinarians in camp were the best friends of the soldiers and took the best care of them in the field, on the march and in battle.
The spring of 1862 found the Army of the Potomac confronting Manassas, where the enemy had erected wooden logs to represent guns, on fortifications, for the purpose of deceiving our generals, which they did most effectually. Finally an order was given to the army to advance on Manassas. Kearney’s Brigade and our regiment were attached to Franklin’s Corps and two companies of my regiment were assigned to General Kearney, who had the advance of the corps, for scouting purposes. It was a terribly tedious march, for the roads were frightfully muddy, and it was with difficulty we could get the wagons and artillery along at all. The general was exceedingly wary in moving along, and kept our cavalry companies constantly on the alert, to the right and left of the column and in front. Now a squad would be sent off to reconnoitre a side road, visit the farm houses and hunt for concealed Confederates ; another would be sent in another direction to “ feel ’’ of a piece of woods, where, possibly, there might be a Confederate picket.
General Kearney was constantly at the head of the column, followed immediately by such of the cavalry as was not off’on these scouting excursions. At one time my platoon was all that remained of our two companies with the general. We were approaching quite a dense piece of woods, through which we had to pass to reach an open field beyond, where a good view of the surrounding country could be obtained. We had to descend a hill into the woods, mount another and then make an abrupt turn to the right. It was a splendid place for a Confederate picket, and General Kearney suspected we might get a few shots as we passed through. As we neared the brow of the hill the general called me to his side and said : “ Lieutenant, please loosen my sword in the scabbard ; it sticks a little and I can’t do it with one hand. We may find a Confederate picket in these woods and we must be ready for them. . Keep your men well together and follow me.”
I gave the necessary orders, and being ready, the general gave Baby the spur and away we dashed down the hill into the woods and up the opposite side. As we reached the crest, three or four shots were fired at us by the Confederate pickets, consisting of half a dozen men, whom we could see making for the woods at the other side of the field to the left of the road. “Give them a chase, lieutenant,” cried the general, “but don’t go too close to the woods, for there is probably a regiment there.” So off I started with my platoon for the flying Confederates, but they got under cover of the woods before wc could even get a shot at them.
By this time Lieutenant Harry Hidden, of my regiment, had joined the general with his platoon. As they came into the open field to the right of the road, they spied another small Confederate picket, and the general ordered Hidden to charge them. Off dashed this gallant young officer with sixteen troopers at his heels, determined to have a brush with the enemy if hard riding would bring him up to them. They rushed down a short declivity on the charge, shouting and yelling as “Yanks” and “ Rebs” only could shout under intense excitement, and were lost to view. What was the surprise of our men to see that where there had been a small Confederate picket there now appeared a full regiment. This was the headquarters of the picket, and the small detachments that had been scattered about had fallen back on their reserves at our approach.
The brave Hidden and his few troopers could not see this force and were too far away to be recalled. General Kearney, however, sent an aide with instructions to Hidden to turn back, hoping that when he sawa whole regiment in his front he would come to a halt. The onward rush of the troopers distanced the aide, and he was unable to give the order. Reaching the crest of the hill, Hidden saw the enemy in front of him ready to receive his charge.; but instead of being intimidated by their numbers, he rose in his stirrups and, swinging his sabre over his head, cried : “There they are! Charge !” A wild yell from his little band was the answer, as they spurred forward directly for the centre oftheenemy’s line.
This daring act of the handful of troops seemed to confound the Southerners, who fired.a few straggling shots and then broke for the woods, completely demoralized, throwing away their guns, blankets, ammunition, everything that impeded their flight. On dashed the troopers and were soon in the midst of the disorganized mob, Hidden leading and calling upon them to surrender. The pursuit was kept up till the woods were reached, into which the cavalry could not penetrate, but they saw that the enemy were still in full flight. Scores of them had thrown down their guns and cried : “We surrender,” as the troopers sped past them, and thus saved themselves from being shot or sabred.
But one of these men, after having surrendered to Lieutenant Hidden, picked up his gun again and deliberately shot that brave and gallant officer in the back as he was riding away from him. The shot proved fatal ; poor Hidden rolled from his saddle and fell upon the green sward, where his life blood soon ebbed away. Corporal Lewis sounded the recall and the troopers returned to where General Kearney was standing, bringing with them more than twice their own number of prisoners.
By this time Lieutenant Alexander and myself had returned with our commands, and General Kearney directed us to ride forward and recover the body of our beloved comrade. As we hurried forward, the general rode beside us, cautioning us not to approach the woods too closely, for he anticipated that the enemy had reformed under cover and would be waiting for us.
Forward we galloped and soon came upon the body of poor Hidden lying upon the grass, which was saturated with his blood, without a particle of life remaining. We placed him upon a spare horse and sorrowfully retraced our steps. Alas! gallant, noble Hidden! to be thus slaughtered by a treacherous assassin in the first flush of your bright manhood, was a fate we little anticipated for one of your intelligence and capacity, and for whom such a brilliant career was predicted. His body now lies in Greenwood Cemetery, over which a tall, gray granite shaft has been erected, on which is an excellent relief portrait in bronze of this brave and gallant soldier.
As the prisoners were brought to General Kearney, he was enthusiastic in commending the conduct of the “ Lincoln Robbers.” He could scarcely find words sufficiently complimentary to bestow upon them, and then and there gave notice that Corporal Lewis should at once be promoted for gallant conduct in the field. And he was as good as his word, for in a few days Corporal Lewis became Lieutenant Lewis. In his report of this affair General Kearney gave a glowing account of this charge of sixteen troopers against a regiment of infantry, adding that “ it marks a new era in the history of cavalry.” These words are engraved upon the monument to young Hidden in Greenwood.
After this we moved forward cautiously to Manassas, but encountered no more of the enemy. Passing through the fortifications where the wooden guns %vere mounted, it became evident that but a small force of Confederates had been sheltered behind them, and that these had taken a hasty departure on learning of the advance of our army. A few stores that had been abandoned fell into our hands, but the fact stood revealed that the Confederate army had retired to another position, and how to reach them was a question the President and his generals pondered over long and earnestly. The result was that the Army of the Potomac was transferred to the Peninsula, and what is known as the Seven Days’ Battle followed soon after. Of that campaign I may have something to say in the future.
While serving under the immediate orders of General Kearney during this advance on Manassas, we had a better opportunity to get acquainted with him and he with us, and while we learned to reverence him as a bold, daring leader, he found that, although the “ Lincoln Robbers ’’ might be a little lawless when in camp, they were prepared to do good work when brought face to face with the enemy. General Kearney was constantly on the alert to secure the comfort of his troops when on the march, and woe be to the commissary or quartermaster who neglected his duty and thereby deprived either man or horse of their rations.
One night, when we were bivouacked in the woods to feed our horses and to give the men a little rest, I, who was acting as quartermaster to our two companies of cavalry, was aroused about midnight by the general, who had galloped into camp with his orderly to see how we were faring. He asked all about the rations for the men, the forage for the horses, and a hundred other questions that could only have suggested themselves to an old campaigner. Before leaving, he directed me to write an order addressed to myself, authorizing me to take hay or feed for horses whenever I could find it. This he signed, writing on the pommel of his saddle by the light of a camp-fire. This done he was off like a rocket to visit the other troops of his command.
Again, while we were riding along we came suddenly upon one of our picket posts. The sentinel on duty, seeing a general officer approaching, called out sharply: “Turn out the guard !” in order that the men might be ready to give the customary salute. The general rode rapidly forward and directed the officer in charge not to disturb the men who were sleeping. “ It is all well enough to make your salutes when we are in camp, as a matter of drill and discipline,” he said, “but we are now on a campaign, and I want the men to get all the rest they can. Keep your sentinels vigilant, but let all the rest of your men sleep and rest whenever they have an opportunity.”
It was two weeks before we got back to the camps we had left near the seminary, but in that time we had learned more of the duties and the life of a soldier than in the months we had spent in camp. A day or two after our return, General Kearney invited all the officers of the two companies that had been %vith him to dine with him, and you may be sure we had a good time as well as a “ good square meal.”
Never after that campaign did any one of our regiment speak disrespectfully of General Phil. Kearney, nor did he ever again allude to the First New York Cavalry as “ Lincoln Robbers.”
In subsequent campaigns, the regiment earned a glorious record for itself, and in hundreds of encounters left its mark upon the enemy. The glorious example of Lieutenant Hidden left its impress upon every man, and notone ever forgot the cowardly, treacherous manner in which he was assassinated by a prisoner who had surrendered to him and whose life he had spared.