A unique edition of a young Union cavalry trooper’s Civil War recollections
with A Short History of the Service of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers by Benjamin W. Crowninshield
There have been several editions of Stanton Allen’s book, (previously published under the titles ‘A Boy Trooper With Sheridan’ and ‘Down in Dixie’), recounting his experiences as a ‘boy trooper’ in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry during the American Civil War. There are some differences of content, in terms of illustrations and text, between earlier editions. This is such an outstanding book, in every way, that the Leonaur editors have gathered together all the material from previously published editions and carefully combined it to create this definitive volume for modern readers to enjoy. Young Allen was just 12 years old when the Civil War between the states erupted, yet he was destined to serve on campaign and battlefield from the Battle of the Wilderness of 1864 to Lee’s final surrender at Appomattox. Allen’s recollections of his military experiences naturally make gripping reading , but the inclusion of a large number of first rate illustrations to illuminate his account elevate this memoir from the excellent to the truly exceptional. While Allen’s book is interesting enough on its own, this edition has been enhanced by the inclusion of a concise history of the service of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers during the Civil War by the regiment’s historian, Benjamin W. Crowninshield.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
In that almost impenetrable forest it was next to impossible for one regiment to know what was going on among neighbours to the right or the left. It was a sort of touch-elbow relation that organisations had with each other. The man on the right of each regiment was supposed to keep close in to the right within a few feet at least of the man on the left of the regiment to the right, to prevent the enemy from stealing through gaps in the line and getting into our rear. This arrangement was absolutely necessary to maintain anything like a solid front.
At times when the firing was exceedingly brisk, and there were charges and counter-charges at any point, the troops so engaged could form no sort of an idea which side was getting the better of it on other parts of the battlefield. The noise of battle close at hand drowned the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry comparatively only a short distance away. When there was a lull in the fight anywhere, soldiers who were not actively engaged for the time being could “read the sounds,” if the expression will pass muster, and thus obtain a tolerably fair understanding of the condition of affairs on their right and left.
The irregular scattering discharge of rifles indicated that the skirmishers were exchanging shots. The continuous roll of musketry developing into an almost deafening roar, above which could be heard now and then the hearty cheers of the boys in blue or the rebel yell of the butternut-clad warriors, gave warning that the battle was on in earnest. When the rapid firing of artillery added to the fearful din, until an indescribable roar went up from the terrible cyclone of death, it was known that a charge had been ordered, and that desperate effort was being made for the mastery. It did not require much stretching of the imagination to hear the crash at a distance when the opposing lines came into collision. It was a moment of the greatest suspense while listening with every nerve strained to catch the sound of victory.
If there ever was a time when the North American soldiers—Federal and Confederate—pricked up their ears and listened for news from the fight, it was when a charge had been made and they were waiting the announcement of the result. At such times the cheer of the soldiers was set on a hair trigger. The participants in the hand-to-hand struggle—the victorious participants—would shout themselves hoarse as the enemy was hurled back and the banners of the conquerors were planted on the captured lines. And the cheer was contagious. It would be taken up by the comrades on the right and left, and along the line it would go until the inspiration would be felt among all the troops. Soldiers who were desperately wounded and even while undergoing operations in the hands of the surgeons, were known to join in the glad acclaim when the echo of the hurrahs reached the field hospitals.
But it made all the difference in the world to the soldiers holding the line to the right or to the left of the strategic point which side whipped. If our boys took up the shout and passed it along the line it meant that the advantage had been gained by the Union forces. And in such cases the glad tidings proved an incentive to the troops in reserve to pitch into the rebels in their front and serve them as their comrades had already been served by the Federals. On the other hand, when the result of the conflict was made known to the Yankees by way of the rebel line in our front, it was naturally expected that the Johnnies would pitch into us, and we governed ourselves accordingly.
Survivors of the Battle of the Wilderness will bear testimony that they never took part in a fight that was more stubbornly waged on both sides. Veterans of the Army of the Potomac who had faced death on the Peninsula, at Fredericksburg, Antietam and Gettysburg, and had become familiar with all the horrors of war, declared that the two days’ hand-to-hand conflict in the Wilderness witnessed scenes of carnage the like of which had not been known in all the history of the rebellion up to that time.
The awful screeching of shot and shell, the ping-pinging of the missiles of death from tens of thousands of muskets, the groans of the wounded, the cheers of victory as the blue or the gray gained a temporary advantage, the yells of defiance as either line was pressed back from positions captured at the expense of hundreds of lives, the heart-rending cries for water by wounded and dying—all these are recalled at the present writing.
The agonising shrieks of the helpless men who perished in the flames in that wilderness of woe, are not forgotten. They never will be forgotten this side of eternity. Hundreds of the wounded were burned to death, the underbrush and trees taking fire during the battle. Soldiers temporarily crippled by shot and shell, bayonet thrust and sabre-stroke—many of whom would have recovered under the ordinary circumstances of war—were swallowed up by that wave of fire that swept a portion of the battlefield and drove back the Federals where Lee’s veterans had vainly sought to break the Union line. Heroic efforts were made to carry off the wounded, but the flames spread so rapidly that it was impossible to reach only those who were at a considerable distance from the point where the fire started. In some instances the clothes of men who plunged into the burning forest and attempted to save their wounded comrades were burned from their bodies, and many lost their lives while endeavouring to rescue their disabled companions. At one point on the line Union and Confederate dead and wounded were cremated together.
The wisdom of the thorough organisation of the cavalry corps, and the assignment of Phil Sheridan to its command, was fully demonstrated on the very first occasion that the Federal troopers came in contact with the enemy’s cavalry. Grant was always the right man in the right place, and he possessed, most fortunately, the faculty of discovering who among his subordinates were best fitted to command at critical periods. Wade Hampton’s “critter companies,” as the Confederate cavalry was designated by the butternut-clad foot-soldiers, had played havoc with the flanks of the Army of the Potomac in other campaigns. And here they were, ready to cut all around Grant’s flanks and put to flight any blue-coated troopers that might come in their way. But Hampton and his followers had substantial reason for changing their estimate of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, dating from the first skirmish in the Wilderness.
There is no question that Sheridan was the best cavalry general of modern times—of all time, for that matter. And as a commander of separate armies he was equal to every emergency, displaying superior generalship.