By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
In the spring of 1862, the Vermont Cavalry was part of an overall Union effort to prevent a Confederate movement against Washington. The Federals had set up headquarters in the Shenandoah Valley town of Strasburg to control the Manassas Gap Railroad (Southern) and the Valley Pike. However the Northerners were forced to evacuate the town by General Stonewall Jackson’s rapid flanking movement.
In a letter to the editor, Captain Addison Preston of Danville offered a stirring account of the action seen by Company D of the Cavalry. This unit was personally recruited and commanded by Preston. Born in Burke, the family soon moved to Danville. At the age of 21, Preston entered Brown University and became an accomplished scholar; however, after a year and a half he had to withdraw because of illness.
His physician advised a sea voyage to restore his health. Young Preston traveled to Australia and then California where he spent several years only to come back to Danville and go into business. But like U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, it was in the military that Addison Preston would find his niche.
North Star–June 14, 1862The Vermont Cavalry – Letter from Capt Preston Army of Shenandoah Williamsport, May 27, 1862
Mr Eaton – Dear Sir: There is doubtless much anxiety among the people of Vermont and the friends of the Vt. Cavalry to hear from this regiment, particularly of the company from your vicinity, and to know what part they performed in the very exciting and unexpected retreats and battles of the 24th and 25th of May.
On the 23rd of May, our army occupied Strasburg with the cavalry five miles in advance, on the right bank of the Shenandoah, watching Jackson’s forces while the 1st Maryland (infantry) held Front Royal, on the main branches of the Shenandoah, watching Ewell’s forces and guarding the railroad bridges at about 12 miles from Strasburg to its left.
On Friday the 23rd, Col Kenley, commanding the 1st Maryland, was surprised, and his forces badly cut to pieces by Ewell’s army, 15,000 strong, who immediately pushed a large column forward to Middleton in our rear to cut us off. Gen Banks hearing of the rout at Front Royal of Col. Kenley’s forces, made preparations for hasty retreat, as his forces are comparatively small…. [W]e moved back to our old camp. Passing through Strasburg and crossing Cedar Creek, we came up with our baggage wagons, which were halted with the enemy in full force in their front.
Our artillery immediately got into position, with 300 of the Vt Cavalry drawn up to line for support, and opened rapid and effective fire upon them, which caused them to keep under cover of the wood which protected them somewhat from shell as well as from a charge of our cavalry. It soon became evident that they were extending their lines in our right with intention of getting our rear; and we consequently fell back across the Creek towards Strasburg. In doing this great confusion was made with teams and men leading excited horses. We consequently became entangled in the stream, and the enemy coming on rapidly, pouring in a brisk fire, we were obliged to leave our teams there.
Our guns were immediately got in position again on the other side of the creek and without orders I halted my company, dismounting a part, sent them out as skirmishers against the rebel skirmishers who had also crossed and were fast following us up. A few rounds from my men and a few shells sent them back again in the other side. We shelled them until we could consult as to our safety…[W]e were entirely cut off from our army on the main road, and the enemy was fast closing on us. It was thought best to take a back road, and under cover of night, which was fast approaching, pass around them; and if that could not be done, take to the mountains.
The movement was successful. We reached Winchester about midnight marching 25 miles that night and 30 that day. We arrived in time to lead our horses and get a couple of hours sleep, to prepare ourselves for another struggle in the coming morn.
The morning of May 26th was ushered in by the booming of cannon and the brisk discharge of musketry, which showed that the rebels had taken an early start. Soon the whole line was engaged. We were drawn up in line rear of the city of Winchester, to act in an emergency and cover the retreat if necessary (for we expected a defeat, and this fact contributed to its accomplishment). The rebel line of battle was shut from our view, except the right wing, which extended toward a high ridge, and upon which was planted a battery. This battery did splendid execution. Its hissing messengers of death were hurled in such rapid succession against the pressing foe, that the sight was at once sublime and terrific.
The rebel right was soon hid from sight by dense clouds of smoke. At this point the left under Colonel Donnelly succeeded in pressing back the enemy front. But this was more than counterbalanced by their redoubled exertions on our right under Gen Gorman, which was now outflanked and obliged to withdraw – The enemy had already paid dearly for what they had won and they now charged forward with triumphant shouts.
At this juncture, this regiment was ordered forward to charge through the streets and retake the hill if it was deemed possible. I was ordered by Col Tompkins to follow in the rear and cover their retreat…Our regiment dashed through the streets thronged with fleeing soldiers and citizens… Col Tompkins seeing the hill too strongly possessed turned his column to the right and came back on a parallel street hard pressed by the foe, but in good order, giving the fugitives time to escape. Halting the squadron under my command (companies D and I) upon the next street, we checked the advance of the enemy charging down the street in large force. Being here exposed to a galling fire, which was impossible to return, and madness to charge into, we made a quick movement into a street to our left and fell slowly back, the best organized and unbroken body that left the city.
But before we got out of the place we were dealt with severely. The enemy …poured a full volley into our ranks from over fences and garden lots. Corporal Ashbel C. Meachem here fell mortally shot through and through … but we were to cover the retreat, and we remained, encouraging and urging forward straggling soldiers, contrabands and fugitive citizens who filled the roads and fields, fleeing for their lives…
The enemy pressed us hard all day with light artillery and cavalry shooting all strugglers they had come to. … We helped to cover the retreat for 35 miles that day, slept on our arms that night, and crossed to Williamsport Md., Monday morning, May 26th where we are now encamped…
Throughout the whole retreat the boys acted with the utmost coolness. Young Meacham who was shot, was a very promising and much respected man ever faithful and true….
A. W. Preston