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Friday, July 11, 2014

Butler's Cavalry at White House, 1864

A BRILLIANT LITTLE CHARGE
Of a Squadron from the Fifth Regiment, South Carolina Cavalry, of General M. C. Butler's Division.
On the 20th June, 1864, General Hampton conceived the idea of surprising and capturing the Yankee fort at White House, Virginia, situated on the Pamunky River. A large amount of supplies for Grant's Army were stored there. Hampton's object was to surprise the garrison, capture the fort and burn the supplies before the gunboats could land sufficient marines to defend same. The fort had a small garrison, but was further protected by several gunboats in the river.
In this attack, which was a surprise to the enemy, Hampton took with him portions of General M. C. Butler's division of cavalry, also of General Fitz Hugh Lee. After a night's march we struck their pickets a little after daylight ; they were stationed on the edge of a body of woods, about half a mile from the fort, an open field between them and the fort. Hampton's plan of attack was to make a feint in front of the works with Butler's command, while Fitz Lee was to make a detour and strike on flank. The Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Zimmerman Davis, was in advance of Butler's command. This regiment struck the Yankee pickets, about twenty men, while they were cooking breakfast. All were captured, and they were promptly sent to the rear, their breakfast being devoured by the boys of the Fifth.

Colonel Davis halted his regiment, after the capture of these pickets, on the edge of the woods and sent a courier to notify General Butler. The general rode up to the front, and while looking across the field towards the fort the long roll was heard beating, and a body of men, about eighty, came out of the sally port, deployed as skirmishers, and advanced towards the woods where the Confederate cavalry were mounted. They were in easy reach of the Enfield guns of the Fifth, but not a shot had been fired. General Butler then said to Colonel Davis: "Colonel, as soon as those fellows get far enough from the fort for you to catch them, take a squadron of your regiment and charge them."
 The Fifth regiment had been much depleted by hard fighting, and, as a squadron only numbered about thirty men, it looked like certain death for all. If the Yanks had been veterans they could easily have emptied every saddle before the Confederate boys got within pistol shot of them. They were some new troops from New Jersey who had never been in a fight.
Again the order to charge was given, the squadron from the "fighting fifth" went after them with a yell, making a cloud of dust. The Yankees broke into a run to regain their fort, firing but one volley, hitting no one. We shot some of them, but as they surrendered as fast as we came up to them, we gathered them in as prisoners. Our men charged up so near the fort that its guns could not be depressed so as to rake us with cannister.
Colonel Davis gave the order. "Fall back, men, and bring out your prisoners." We brought out forty-seven "blue coats." While nearing our lines the guns of the fort killed four of the prisoners and one man and a horse of our squadron. General Butler, who witnessed the charge, complimented us and said to Colonel Davis,
"Well, Davis, that was a brilliant charge."
Fitz Lee, who was to attack the fort in flank and rear, through some mistake was delayed by taking a wrong road, and the gunboats landed men in the works and shelled us so vigorously that the attack was abandoned, as the place, if captured, could only have been held at a great sacrifice of life.
An interesting incident is connected with this squadron charge of the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry. Lieutenant John P. Deveaux and Glenn E. Davis, of Charleston, were both expert shots. The smoke from their pistols generally meant an empty saddle. They were riding together in this charge. "When the Yankee were caught up with they threw down their arms and cried that they surrendered. Our men shot all who retained their rifles. One of the Yanks held on to his gim, and Davis shot at him, his bullet striking the fellow's gun which was held across his breast. Seeing that he had surrendered, but was only too excited to throw his weapon down, he did not shoot at him again; but Deveaux, seeing the man still holding his gun, concluded to shoot him, having his pistol a few inches from his head. Glenn Davis saved the Yankee's life by knocking Deveaux's pistol up just before he fired, telling Deveaux not to shoot the man, as he had surrendered. The Yankee was very grateful to Davis for saving his life and so expressed himself. Davis told him it was all right, but he could just swap hats with him — he had a new one and the one Davis wore was rather the worse for wear.
Many years after the war Glenn Davis was in New York. One day riding on a car he sat next to a gentleman with whom he commenced to chat. When the gentleman found that Davis was a Southerner the talk drifted to the war. Davis told him that he was a veteran of Lee's army. The Northerner said that he was in the Union army, but his career as a soldier was a short one. He said he was taken prisoner in the first and only fight he ever was engaged in, and that it was in Virginia at a place called White House. He then related to Davis the incident of his capture and of his life being saved by a Confederate soldier, who knocked up the pistol of another who was about to blow his head off. He also told of the incident of swapping hats on the battlefield, and said that before he got to the prison at Richmond his hat had been exchanged five times, finally arriving at prison he had no hat; his shoes had been exchanged three times. He said it was fortunate Richmond was near, or he might not have had on anything on his arrival there. He was not kept a prisoner long, and when exchanged put in a substitute and never went back into
the army.

When Davis informed him that he was the man who saved his life, he was very much gratified to meet him and insisted upon his lunching with him. They had a mutually pleasant reunion.

Verily as the "Good Book" says, "Truth is stranger than fiction."

-Stories of the Confederacy by D. B. Rea
Editor: Ulysses Robert Brooks
State Company, 1912

Col. Zimmerman Davis


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