6th Ohio Cavalry helps turn tide
By CAROLE BABYAK
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
Historians have commented that for the cavalry, the Gettysburg Campaign was a turning point.
In June 1863 at Upperville, the 6th Ohio Cavalry charged and held Confederate General Jeb Stuart, in the end driving him back through the gap.
The 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry’s participation in these engagements was not without casualties, but they faced the Confederate Cavalry fighting, standing their ground and, importantly, employed dismounted fighting. One trooper would hold the horses in the rear while the dismounted men would advance, firing from a favorable position.
This was implemented by Gen. Buford at the first days fighting at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. Historians have also commented that most Union troopers were more afraid of their horses than the Confederates.
The Confederate Cavalry had a dashing reputation, experienced horsemen, often riding their own horses, attacking, then quickly dashing away.
However, with the exception of big cities like New York or Philadelphia, where men would have little contact with horses, it is hard to believe recruits from northeast Ohio, rural boys who grew up with horses, would be afraid of their mounts.
George Washington Williams, mustered in Nov. 30, 1861, grew up in Howland. The 1860 census listed his occupation as sawyer. His father, Joseph was a carpenter-farmer, so George helped his father. Horses were important for farmers, much more than just transportation.
Gen. Ulysses Grant was an experienced horseman because he was raised with them, and cared about and respected them.
The historian’s remarks do not apply to all the 6th OVC troopers. A more important reason for the slow evolution of the Union Cavalry into effective fighters is the lack of leadership. Many early cavalry commanders were better suited to promoting themselves or administrative work rather than field command.
On June 24, 1863, Gen. Pleasanton was given the rank of major general of volunteers. Pleasanton had complained about Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel, saying he was unfit for cavalry command because he was foreign (Hungarian-born) and he had done little in subduing Confederate Gen. John Singleton Mosby’s harassment around Washington, D.C.
Pleasanton expanded his complaints to Congressman Farnsworth by promising his aide, Farnsworth’s nephew Elon, the rank of brigadier general. A note from Elon encouraged his uncle to act on Pleasanton’s request. On June 28, Stahel was relieved and Elon Farnsworth rose from captain to brigadier general.
Gen. Hooker had ordered Stahel to scour the Catoctin Mountain near the Pennsylvania border. These men then moved north into the town of Gettysburg, the first Union horsemen to enter Pennsylvania. The men were welcomed with jugs of water, fresh bread and apple butter.
The rest of the army was scattered. The cavalry, Gen. Buford guarded the rear of Gen. John Reynolds’s men, and crossed the Potomac River on June 25 and June 26. Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s division, including the 6th OVC, was guarding the rest of the army and its supply train.
The 6th OVC crossed the Potomac River at Edward’s Ferry on June 27. For more than a year, they had been in enemy territory. The troopers were elated to be in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, on June 28, Gen. Hooker resigned. President Lincoln promoted Gen. George Meade as commander and Meade gave Pleasanton free reign to reorganize the cavalry. Twelve hours later, Pleasanton promoted captains Wesley Merritt, Elon Farnsworth and George Armstrong Custer as brigadier generals of of volunteers. Merritt commanded the Reserve Brigade, Farnsworth commanded New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia cavalry. Custer took over Michigan units, identified as the Wolverine Brigade.
During Gettysburg, 10 companies of the 6th OVC guarded trains and the railroad. After the battle, they saw action with the retreating Confederate army and cavalry.
Tragically, Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth, who proved himself a bright, capable cavalry leader, was ordered by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, dubbed ”Kill-Cavalry,” to make an unwise mounted charge on July 3, 1863 near the foot of Big Round Top at Gettysburg. Elon protested the charge but followed orders, refused to surrender and was shot 5 times, dying on a wooded hill called Bushman’s Hill.
Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.