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PA Civil War > Regiments > 181st > History

PA Civil War Volunteer Soldiers

One Hundred and Eighty-First Regiment, 20th Cavalry

181st PA Regimental History

This regiment was recruited in the months of June and July, 1863, in compliance with an order of the War Department, of the 9th of the former month. It was composed of seven companies, recruited for six months' service, and five companies of emergency militia, and was principally from the counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Dauphin, Cumberland, Union, and from the city of Philadelphia. Previous to its organization, and while the rebel army was making its triumphal march in the State, the several companies-acting independently-were employed in scout and picket duty along the fords of the Susquehanna, in the vicinity of Harrisburg, and on the various roads leading towards Carlisle, York, and Marysville.

The regiment was organized in July, with the following field officers: John E. Wynkoop, Colonel; William Rotch Wister, Lieutenant Colonel; Samuel W. Comly, Major. On the 7th of July, the regiment left camp Couch, near Harrisburg, where it had rendezvoused and had been drilled, and marched up the Cumberland Valley to Greencastle, whence it was sent upon scout duty into Maryland, and in conjunction with three companies of the First New York Cavalry, followed upon the footsteps of Lee's army to Hagerstown, near which. place, a portion of the command, under Captain Singiser, engaged the rebel rear-guard, capturing a few prisoners and horses. From Greencastle, the regiment marched to Falling Waters, where it bivouacked, and picketed the shores of the Potomac, then much swollen by recent rains. The roads were in a horrible condition, and for nearly three weeks it was kept upon the march, the trains being moved with the greatest difficulty. At the end of this time, it went into camp near Clear Spring, Maryland.

Early in August, and after the emergency companies had returned to Harrisburg, and their places had been partially supplied by six months' men, the regiment was ordered to Sir John's Run, West Virginia, to guard a portion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and to cover the country in the direction of Winchester. Accordingly, companies F and I, under Major Comly, were stationed at Berkeley Springs, D and E, under Major Thorp, at Bloomery Gap, A and H, at Great Cacapon Station, and C at Hancock. The remaining five companies were on detached service, under Major Douglass, at Philadelphia, Reading, and Pottsville, and did not re-join the rest of the regiment until the final muster-out. About a hundred dismounted men remained at headquarters.

The command at Berkeley Springs was attacked, in the early part of September, by a body of the enemy's cavalry, who penetrated the picket lines by a mountain defile. After a sharp struggle, they were driven, with a loss to the regiment of twenty taken prisoners. A number of horses and some camp equipage were also lost. Major Comly, with the company at Hancock, pursued the party for twenty miles, but failed to overtake it. Soon after this, the companies were all concentrated at headquarters, whence scouting parties were sent out, by night and by day, which frequently met roving bands of the enemy, and were fired upon by parties lying in wait for them in concealment,but failed to encounter any organized forces.

In November, the regiment was brigaded with the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, Fifteenth Virginia, First Pennsylvania Battalion, and the Third Virginia Artillery, which it joined at Springfield. The weather soon after became intensely cold, and the enemy was wily and active, requiring ceaseless vigilance, and subjecting the troops to great hardship and suffering. From Springfield, two companies were sent on a reconnaissance to the south of Romney. They proceeded nearly a hundred miles into the heart of the State, engaged the enemy-a part of Imboden's command-defeated him, captured and destroyed a piece of artillery, and a number of small arms, and took several prisoners. They also burned the Columbian Furnace, then operated by the rebel authorities for the manufacture of war material. They returned to Springfield, after an absence of four days, without having sustained any loss. On the 24th of December, the regiment was ordered to Harrisburg, where, on the 7th of January, 1864, its term of service having expired, it was mustered out.

Previous to its disbandment, measures were taken for its re-organization for three years' service, and during the month of February, the men were mustered into service, in camps at Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and the following field officers were commissioned: John E. Wynkoop, Colonel; Gabriel Middleton, Lieutenant Colonel; J. Harry Thorp, Major; Robert W. Douglass, Major; W.W. Anderson, Major.

Upon taking the field, it reported to General Sigel, who was in command of the army in the Shenandoah Valley. On the 15th of May, Sigel encountered a superior force of the enemy under Breckenridge, at New .Market, and after a severe battle, in which he lost some prisoners and. guns, was forced to retire to Strasburg. The Twentieth sustained a loss of three in this engagement. Sigel was soon after succeeded by Hunter, who at once opened an active campaign, advancing in the direction of Lynchburg, encountering obstinate opposition on the way. The cavalry was kept actively, employed in this advance, the Twentieth sustaining a loss of three at Staunton, on the 10th of June, and of two at New Glasgow, on the 14th, and losing in the various encounters almost daily. Hunter arrived in front of Lynchburg on the 17th, and during the two succeeding days, the fighting was severe, the regiment being actively engaged, and losing heavily in killed and wounded. Hunter was obliged to retire, after having made a vigorous assault, without success, and retreated into the Kanawha Valley, whence he proceeded by transport with his army to Parkersburg, and thence by rail to Martinsburg. The Twentieth shared the hardships of this retreat, and in an action at Salem, on the 21st, sustained a loss of four.

General Crook succeeded General Hunter in command of the army, which was subsequently known as the Eighth Corps, and on the 18th of July, met the forces of Early and Breckenridge, at Snicker's Gap, in the Blue Ridge, and defeated them, taking three hundred wagons. In this engagement the regiment actively participated, and sustained a loss of fourteen. It was engaged on the 24th, at Winchester, making a daring charge down the Winchester Pike, in which Captain John C. Henry was mortally wounded. A few days later the regiment was sent, by order of General Crook, to attack the rear of General Early's forces, by way of Ashby's Gap, and in the engagement which ensued, it sustained a loss of one hundred and eighteen killed, wounded, and missing.

In the meantime, the command in the valley had been reinforced by the Sixth and Nineteenth corps, and two divisions of cavalry, and on the 7th of August, General Sheridan was placed in command of the combined forces. In the re-organization of the cavalry, which soon after took place, the Twentieth was assigned to the Second Brigade, of the First Division, General Devin in command. A month later, Sheridan inaugurated an active offensive campaign, in which a series of brilliant victories were gained, and the power of the enemy in the valley was completely annihilated, the subsistence of any considerable hostile force being rendered impossible. So complete was this destruction, that it was humorously declared, "'If a crow wants to fly down the valley, he must carry his provisions with him." In this campaign the Twentieth participated, and at its conclusion, went into winter-quarters with the brigade, where it was engaged in severe guard and scout duty, and in occasional expeditions in force against bands of the enemy's cavalry, which still maintained a bold and defiant attitude. Upon the retirement of Colonel Wynkoop, Lieutenant Colonel Middleton was promoted to succeed him.

On the 27th of February, 1865, Sheridan, who had remained during the winter in the valley, opened the spring campaign by a grand cavalry raid. With a force of ten thousand horse, he led in the direction of Lynchburg. At Owensboro, he again encountered Early, whom he routed after a spirited engagement, and striking the James River Canal, and the Virginia Central Railroad, effected immense destruction; and moving in by White House, on the 27th of March, just one month from the time of starting, reported to Grant in front of Petersburg.

Grant was now upon the point of moving upon the rebel position with all his forces, and Sheridan was immediately put in motion with the cavalry towards Dinwiddie Court House. The enemy's advanced lines were pressed back behind his entrenchments, and a part of the cavalry was sent out towards Five Forks. But the enemy who had been reinforced, struck heavily the Union infantry which had come into position on his front, and pushed the cavalry back towards Dinwiddie, Sheridan dismounting his men, and disputing the ground stubbornly. General Grant, in his report, says of Sheridan's action:
"Here General Sheridan displayed great generalship. Instead of retreating with his whole command on the main army, to tell the story of superior forces encountered, he deployed his cavalry on foot, leaving only mounted men enough to take charge of the horses. This compelled the enemy to deploy over a vast extent of woods and broken country, and made his progress slow."
In the meantime, Devin's command, in which was the Twentieth, had been temporarily separated from the rest of the corps, but again effecting a junction, it united in the attack which was made on the morning of the 1st of April, by which the enemy was driven by impetuous charges from one line of works after another, until he finally took shelter behind his main fortifications, on the White Oak Road. "The courage displayed," says General Sheridan, " by the cavalry officers and men, was superb."

When the enemy had been thus driven to cover, the cavalry was ordered to make a feint to turn his right flank, while the Fifth Corps was brought into position for a powerful assault upon his left. The opening of the infantry fire was to be the signal for the cavalry to attack in earnest.
"As stated before,"says General Sheridan, "the firing of the Fifth Corps was the signal for General Merritt to assault, which was promptly responded to, and the works of the enemy were soon carried at several points by our brave cavalrymen. The enemy were driven from their strong line of works and completely routed, the Fifth Corps doubling up their left flank in confusion, and the cavalry of General Merritt dashing on to the White Oak Road, capturing their artillery and turning it upon them, and riding into their broken ranks so demoralized them, that they made no serious stand after their line was carried, but took to flight in disorder. Between five and six thousand prisoners fell into our hands, and the fugitives were driven westward, and were pursued until long after dark, by Merritt's and McKenzies cavalry, for a distance of six miles."

"I cannot speak too highly," says Sheridan further on in his report," of the conduct of the troops in this battle, and of the gallantry of their commanding officers, who appeared to realize that the success of the campaign and the fate of Lee's army depended upon it."
In the heroic conduct by which this brilliant result was secured, the Twentieth, led by Colonel Middleton, shared, and won by its steadiness and resolution, the commendation which was thus freely given; but not without serious loss. Lieutenant Henry Lebo was killed, and Lieutenant Albert S. Ely was mortally wounded, and a large number of killed and wounded in addition, shows the fiery ordeal through which it passed. Until the final surrender, which took place on the 9th, the regiment was kept constantly in motion and in action, and sustained losses almost daily. At the close of the campaign, it returned to the neighborhood of Washington,where, on the 17th of June, it was consolidated with the Second Pennsylvania Cavalry, under the name of the First Provisional Cavalry. It remained in service scarcely a month longer, and was finally mustered out on the 13th of July, at Cloud's Mills, Virginia

Source: Bates, Samuel P. (Samuel Penniman), 1827-1902.: History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5; prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature, by Samuel P. Bates. Civil War Databases

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