A Cavalry Raid in the Civil War


By John Esten Cooke in 1862

Cavalry Combat

Cavalry Combat

The order was given, in a ringing voice: “Form fours! draw saber! charge!” and now the Confederate people pursued at headlong speed, uttering shouts and yells sufficiently loud to awaken the seven sleepers! The men were evidently exhilarated by the chase, the enemy just keeping near enough to make an occasional shot practicable. A considerable number of the Federal cavalrymen were overtaken and captured, and these proved to belong to the company in which Colonel Fitz Lee had formerly been a lieutenant.

The gay chase continued until we reached the Tottapotamoi, a sluggish stream, dragging its muddy waters slowly between rush-clad banks, beneath drooping trees; and this was crossed by a small rustic bridge.

The line of the stream was entirely undefended by works; the enemy’s right wing was unprotected. The picket at the bridge had been quickly driven in and disappeared at a gallop, and on the high ground beyond, Colonel Lee, who had taken the front, encountered the enemy. The force appeared to be about a regiment, and they were drawn up in line of battle in the fields to receive our attack. It came without delay. Placing himself at the head of his horsemen, Colonel Lee swept forward at the pas de charge, and with shouts, the two lines came together. The shock was heavy, and the enemy stood their ground bravely, meeting the attack with the saber. Swords clashed, pistols and carbines banged, yells, shouts, cheers resounded; then the Federal line was seen to give back, and take to headlong flight.

Colonel Fitz Lee

Colonel Fitz Lee

Fitz Lee immediately pressed on and burst into the camp near Old Church, where large supplies of boots, pistols, liquors, and other commodities were found. These were speedily appropriated by the men, and the tents were set on fire amid loud shouts. The spectacle was animating; but a report having got abroad that one of the tents contained powder, the vicinity thereof was evacuated in almost less than no time. We were now at Old Church.

“I think the quicker we move now the better,” I said, with a laugh.

“Right,” was the reply; “tell the column to move on at a trot.”

So at a rapid trot, the column moved.

The gayest portion of the raid now began. From this moment it was neck or nothing, do or die. We had one chance of escape against ten of capture or destruction.

Everywhere the ride was crowded with incident. The scouting and flanking parties constantly picked up stragglers and overhauled unsuspecting wagons filled with the most tempting stores. In this manner, a wagon, stocked with champagne and every variety of wines, belonging to a General of the Federal army, fell prey to the thirsty gray-backs. Still, they pressed on. Every moment an attack was expected in front or rear.

The column was now skirting the Pamunkey, and a detachment hurried off to seize and burn two or three transports lying in the river. Soon a dense cloud rose from them, the flames soared up, and the column pushed on. Everywhere were seen the traces of flight — for the alarm of “hornets in the hive” was given. Wagons had turned over, and were abandoned — from others the excellent army stores had been hastily thrown. This writer got a fine red blanket, and an excellent pair of cavalry pantaloons, for which he still owes the United States.

Other things lay about in tempting array, but we were approaching Tunstall’s, where the column would doubtless make a charge; and to load down a weary horse was injudicious. The advance guard was now in sight of the railroad. There was no question about the affair before us. The column must cut through, whatever force guarded the railroad; to reach the lower Chickahominy, the guard here must be overpowered. Now was the time to use the artillery, and every effort was made to hurry it forward.

Turnstall’s was now nearly in sight, and that good fellow Captain Frayser, came back and reported one or two companies of infantry at the railroad. Their commander had politely beckoned to him as he reconnoitered, exclaiming in wheedling accents, full of Teutonic blandishment, “Koom yay!” But this cordial invitation was disregarded; Frayser galloped back and reported, and the ringing voice of the leader ordered “Form platoons! draw saber! charge!” At the word the sabers flashed, a thundering shout arose, and sweeping on in column of platoons, the gray people fell upon their blue adversaries, gobbling them up, almost without a shot. It was here that my friend Major Foote got the hideous little wooden pipe he used to smoke afterward. He had been smoking a meerschaum when the order to charge was given; and in the rush of the horsemen, dropped and lost it. He now wished to smoke, and seeing that the captain of the Federal infantry had just filled his pipe, leaned down from the saddle, and politely requested him to surrender it.

“I want to smoke! “growled the Federal captain.

“So do I,” retorted Major Foote.

“This pipe is my property,” said the captain.

“Oh! what a mistake!” responded the major politely, as he gently took the small affair and inserted it between his lips. Anything more hideous than the carved head upon it I never saw.

In an hour the column moved again. Meanwhile, a little incident had happened which still makes me laugh. There was a lady living some miles off in the enemy’s line whom I wished to visit, but I could not obtain the General’s consent. “It is certain capture,” he said; “send her a note by some citizen, say Dr. Hunt; he lives near here.” This I determined to do, and set off at a gallop through the moonlight for the house, some half a mile distant, looking out for the scouting parties which were probably prowling on our flanks. Reaching the lonely house, outside the pickets, I dismounted, knocked at the front door, then the back, but received no answer. All at once; however, a dark figure was seen gliding beneath the trees, and this figure cautiously approached. I recognized the Doctor and called to him, whereupon he quickly approached, and said, “I thought you were a Yankee!” and greeting me cordially, led the way into the house. Here I wrote my note and entrusted it to him for delivery — taking one from him to his wife, within our lines. In half an hour I rode away, but before doing so asked for some water, which was brought from the well by a sleepy, sullen, and insolent negro. This incident was fruitful of woes to Dr. Hunt! A month or two afterwards I met him looking as thin and white as a ghost.

“What is the matter?”, I said.

“The matter is,” he replied, with a melancholy laugh, “that I have been starving for three weeks in Fortress Monroe on your account. Do you remember that servant who brought you the water that night of the raid?”


“Well, the very next day he went over to the Yankee picket and told them that I had entertained Confederate officers, and given you all information which enables you to get off safely. In consequence, I was arrested, carried to Old Point, and am just out! “

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