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Monday, July 7, 2014

South Carolina Cavalry Clash with "Sheridan's Raiders", 1864

General Matthew Calbraith Butler

 Another account of the actions at White House to Samaria Church, June 1864 as seen through the eyes of the cavalry of General Matthew Calbraith Butler . . .


When Sheridan started on his retreat from Trevillian Station on Sunday evening about 9 P.M., the 12th of June, 1864, we hounded him night and day through the hottest, dustiest, driest country at that time on the continent. It was not an infrequent thing for us to pass five or six or eight of Sheridan's horses lying dead on the line of march. These horses had no doubt broken down were tied together and shot in their tracks no doubt to prevent their falling into our hands.
The reader will not be able to imagine our condition eating when we could find anything to eat sleeping and living in the stench of these dead animals. There was one helpful relief derived from the unconquerable pluck and cheer of those splendid Virginia women. As we would approach a house "Sheridan's Raiders" had rifled and robbed, as they supposed of everything they had to eat, these ladies would rush out, waving their handkerchiefs with unsubdued heroism, exclaiming as they recognized the Confederate gray: "Get down, we have a little bread and milk the Yankees did not get, and you shall have it!" God bless them and their descendants. Sheridan made a long detour to the left. Hampton kept his main column between Sheridan and Richmond, his (Hampton's) division, commanded by the incomparable Butler, with detachments harassing Sheridan's rear.
The night of the 20th of June, before we reached the White House, Sheridan got under the protection of Yankee gunboats. We dismounted near an old church.(?) Before daylight our column was put in motion, Butler leading the advance. About the early dawn of day he came upon a reserve picket post of the Yankees. They were not expecting us, were taken completely by surprise, and every man at the post captured without firing a shot. This picket post was located at the White House. Having taken the pickets, so that no information could be carried into the fort, General Butler decided to take the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry and charge in on the garrison and take them by surprise. Just as he had formed the regiment for the charge, a courier from General Hampton came up post haste and directed General Butler not to make any aggressive movement. I verily believe but for this restraining order we would have taken the place and everybody in it. A desultory skirmish was kept up for some time but all efforts to make an assault on the fort were abandoned and we withdrew to the adjoining hills. We could distinctly see the line of march of Sheridan's column many miles to the north of us by the great clouds of dust. Fitz Lee's division was posted on Butler's right, where, having attracted the attention of the gunboats in the river, they opened fire, sending what appeared to be fifteen-inch shells. The boys called them "flour barrels." Whenever they struck the ground and exploded they would shake the earth and make holes in the ground large and deep enough to hide a small-sized horse. During the afternoon General Hampton withdrew and kept his command in a position to cover the approaches to Richmond. Sheridan got under the cover of his gunboats, and after resting a few days, on the 24th June, dispatched Gregg with his division of Pennsylvanians. Gregg, too, was a hustling cavalry officer, none better and he moved out as if he meant to get to Richmond. His and Butler's divisions came together near Symaria(sic) Church and were exchanging "civilities" across an open field, each side dismounted. Rosser's and Young's brigades of Hampton's division, and Fitz. Lee's division, were strung out on Butler's right, but were not engaged.
Butler received an order from General Hampton who was at Phillip's house four miles away, to attack Gregg vigorously. Butler reported that if he moved on Gregg protected by woods and a line of fence, it would be a terrible loss of life to his (Butler's) men, and suggested that he had had Gregg's right flank, near the church, reconnoitered by Cloud, a dashing intelligent Virginia scout, Dick Hogan and Wallace Miller. He could not spare any troops from his line to make a flank movement. If General Hampton would detach a regiment from his (Butler's), right he could strike Gregg a fatal blow without a great loss to our side. Before receiving answer to this suggestion, General Fitz Lee rode up to Butler's headquarters at the foot of a large oak tree, where the bullets were flying uncomfortably close. Upon being informed of the situation Fitz Lee dispatched his staff officer, Major Dug Ferguson asking to be allowed to take command in the field. The result was General Hampton granted the request, and wrote a note to General Butler to take orders from General Lee. (This correspondence ought to be in existence somewhere). The couriers and staff were fully advised of it at the time. However that may be, General Lee fully concurred with General Butler and ordered the Ninth Virginia, commanded by Colonel Beale, to report to Butler, who in the meantime increased the fire across the field to attract Gregg's attention.
Beale was sent off from Butler's left, guided by Cloud, Hogan and Miller and other scouts, under cover of a hill and thick woods, and as soon as he gained Gregg's right, made a vigorous assault,* which compelled the latter to withdraw hurriedly and with a good deal of confusion. General Butler then rushed his line across the open field and Gregg's discomfiture was complete and amounted almost to a rout. General Butler ordered the Jeff Davis legion (of Young's brigade), mounted, under the command of that gallant officer and gentleman, Lieutenant-Colonel Waring of Savannah, to pursue with his mounted column, and right lustily did he carry out his orders.
We pursued Gregg's Yankee cavalry until some time after dark captured a large number as I now remember about three hundred one lieutenant colonel and several other commissioned officers They were sent to Richmond with a detachment under command of Captain A.P. Butler, of General Butler's staff. After Waring had got fully under way, cutting and slashing as he went, General Butler followed with staff and couriers in his wake, meantime ordering his dismounted men to the saddle.
General Lee, with his division and Rosser's and Young's brigades, moved in from our right to take Gregg on his left and rear, but Gregg was too fleet of foot and got away under cover of darkness with the losses I have mentioned.
And now I will describe a scene which was truly pathetic and distressing. As we went moving along in a sweeping trot on Waring's track with the rest of our division, which had promptly mounted and joined in the pursuit, General Butler observed a large man with long red side whiskers lying on the roadside on an improvised stretcher, an army blanket and two poles attached to each end. It turned out to be Lieutenant-Colonel Covode of the Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Butler halted, and upon Colonel Covode being informed who it was, said, among other things: "This is the fate of Sheridan's raiders, but, General, I have the consolation of knowing that I have done nothing dishonorable during this raid.' General Butler replied: "However that may be, sir, I certainly would not remind you of it unden present conditions," and then inquired if he was seriously wounded. Colonel Covode replied: "Yes, my left arm is shattered, and our litter bearers dropped me here when your cavalry charged and overtook us." Under instructions from General Butler, Dr. B.W. Taylor, chief surgeon of the division, of Columbia, S.C., dismounted and gave Colonel Covode some apple brandy.
General Butler directed Dr. Taylor to have him sent to the rear to a field infirmary, I think Symaria Church, and properly attended to. Dr. Taylor found that in addition to the shattered arm Colonel Covode had received a pistol shot in the back, from which he died soon after reaching the field hospital General Butler's theory was that Colonel Covode would not disclose the fact that he was shot in the back from pride as an indication of cowardice, but no such inference can be drawn from such a wound, as in a cavalry melee a man is as apt to be shot in the back as in the breast or forehead. This wound of Colonel Covode's was no badge of dishonor or cowardice. We learned afterwards that Colonel Covode was one of the most gallant, meritorious officers in Gregg's division. Colonel Covode's father was a distinguished member of Congress from Pennsylvania, extremely radical towards the South, and referred to the death of his son in the most bitter and relentless terms, as we afterwards learned, and among other things said, they had never been able to find or recover his body. No doubt he was buried with other dead near Symaria Church, and if the Confederates had been approached in a proper manner, his grave could have been identified and his body recovered. We were certainly not to blame for his death. He only met the fate of thousands of good men who take their lives in their hands when they go to war and into battle.
"The next dreadful thing to a battle lost is a battle won."

-Butler and His Cavalry in the War of Secession, 1861-1865
Ulysses Robert Brooks
State Company, 1909

*possibly the engagement where Capt. James Pollard lost his leg . . . or maybe not. More later.

The unfortunate Col. G.H. Covode

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