Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman with Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War, By J.H. Kidd, Ionia, Michigan, Sentinel Printing Company, 1908 p 167-171
Well, on the morning of the Fourth, General Kilpatrick sent an order to regimental commanders to draw three days’ rations and be prepared for a protracted absence from the army, as we were to go to the right and rear of Lee to try and intercept his trains, and in every way to harass his retreating columns as much as possible. We were all proud of our new commanders, for it was evident that they were fighting men, and that while they would lead us into danger, if we survived it there would be left the consciousness of having done our duty, and the credit of accomplishing something for the cause.
It must also be said that a strong feeling of “pride in the corps” had taken root. Men were proud that they belonged to Kilpatrick’s division and to Custer’s brigade, for it must not be supposed that the above estimate of the former is based upon what we knew of him at that time. We were under him for a long time after that. This was the first day that we felt the influence of his immediate presence.
When it was known that Kilpatrick was to lead a movement to the enemy’s rear all felt that the chances were excellent for the country to hear a good deal about our exploits within the next few days, and nobody regretted it.
But before the start it began to rain in torrents. It has been said that a great battle always produces rain. My recollection is not clear as to the other battles, but I know that the day after Gettysburg the flood-gates of heaven were opened, and as the column of cavalry took its way towards Emmittsburg it was deluged. It seemed as if the firmament were an immense tank, the contents of which were spilled all at once. Such a drenching as we had! Even heavy gum coats and horsehide boots were hardly proof against it. It poured and poured, the water running in streams off the horses’ backs, making of every rivulet a river and of every river and mountain stream a raging flood.
But Lee was in retreat and, rain or shine, it was our duty to reach his rear, so all day long we plodded and plashed along the muddy roads towards the passes in the Catoctin and South mountains. It was a tedious ride for men already worn out with incessant marching and the fatigues of many days. It hardly occurred to the tired trooper that it was the anniversary of the nation’s natal day. There were no fireworks, and enthusiasm was quenched not by the weather only but by the knowledge that the confederate army, though repulsed, was not captured. The news of Grant’s glorious victory in the west filled every heart with joy, of course, but the prospect of going back into Virginia to fight the war over again was not alluring, but possibly that might not be our fate.
Vigorous pursuit might intercept Lee on this side of the Potomac. Every trooper felt that he could endure wet and brave the storm to aid in such strategy, and all set their faces to the weather and rode, if not cheerfully, at least patiently forward in the rain.
I have said that on that memorable Fourth of July there were no fireworks. That was a mistake. The pyrotechnic display was postponed until a late hour, but it was an interesting and exciting exhibition, as all who witnessed it will testify. It was in the night and darkness lent intensity to the scene.
Toward evening the flood subsided somewhat, though the sky was overcast with wet-looking clouds, and the swollen and muddy streams that ran along and across our pathway fretted and frothed like impatient coursers under curb and rein. Their banks could hardly hold them.
During the afternoon and evening the column was climbing the South Mountain. A big confederate wagon train was going through the gap ahead of us. If we could capture that, it would be making reprisal for some of Stuart’s recent work in Maryland.
Toward midnight we were nearing the top, marching along the narrow defile, the mountain towering to the right, and sloping off abruptly to the left, when the boom of a cannon announced that the advance guard had encountered the enemy. The piece of artillery was planted in the road, at the summit, near the Monterey house, and was supported by the confederate rearguard, which at once opened fire with their carbines. It was too dark to distinguish objects at any distance, the enemy was across the front and no one could tell how large a force it might be. The First Michigan had been sent to the right, early in the evening, to attack a body of the enemy, hovering on the right flank in the direction of Fairfield, and had a hard fight, in which Captain Elliott and Lieutenant McElhenny, two brave officers, were killed. The Fifth and Sixth were leading and at once dismounted and deployed as skirmishers. Generals Kilpatrick and Custer rode to the place where the line was forming, and superintended the movement. The Sixth, under Colonel Gray, was on the right of the line, the road to its left. At least the portion of the regiment to which my troop belonged was in that position. I think, perhaps, a part of the regiment was across the road. The Fifth formed on the left; the First and Seventh in reserve, mounted. There is a good deal of guess work about it, for in the darkness one could not tell what happened except in his immediate neighborhood.
The order “Forward,” finally came, and the line of skirmishers advanced up the slope, a column of mounted men following in the road, ready to charge when opportunity offered. Soon we encountered the confederate skirmishers, but could locate them only by the flashes of their guns. The darkness was intense and in a few moments we had plunged into a dense thicket, full of undergrowth, interlaced with vines and briars, so thick that it was difficult to make headway at all. More than once a trailing vine tripped me up, and I fell headlong. To keep up an alignment was out of the question. One had to be guided by sound and not by sight. The force in front did not appear to be formidable in numbers, but had the advantage of position, and was on the defensive in a narrow mountain pass where numbers were of little avail. We had a large force, but it was strung out in a long column for miles back, and it was possible to bring only a few men into actual contact with the enemy, whatever he might be. This last was a matter of conjecture and Kilpatrick doubtless felt the necessity of moving cautiously, feeling his way until he developed what was in his front. To the right of the road, had it not been for the noise and the flashing of the enemy’s fire we should have wandered away in the darkness and been lost.
The confederate skirmishers were driven back across a swollen stream spanned by a bridge. The crossing at this point was contested fiercely, but portions of the Fifth and Sixth finally forced it and then the whole command crossed over.
In the meantime the rumbling of wagon wheels could be heard in the road leading down the mountain. It was evident we were being detained by a small force striving to hold us there while the train made its escape. A regiment was ordered up mounted to make a charge. I heard the colonel giving his orders. “Men,” he said, “use the saber only; I will cut down any man who fires a shot.” This was to prevent shooting our own men in the melee, and in the darkness. Inquiring, I learned it was the First (West) Virginia cavalry. This regiment which belonged in the First brigade had been ordered to report to Custer. At the word, the gallant regiment rushed like the wind down the mountain road, “yelling like troopers,” as they were, and good ones too, capturing everything in their way.
This charge ended the fighting for that night. It was one of the most exciting engagements we ever had, for while the actual number engaged was small, and the casualties were not great, the time, the place, the circumstances, the darkness, the uncertainty, all combined to make “the midnight fight at Monterey” one of unique interest . General Custer had his horse shot under him which, it was said and I have reason to believe, was the seventh horse killed under him in that campaign. The force that resisted us did its duty gallantly, though it had everything in its favor. They knew what they had in their front, we did not. Still, they failed of their object, which was to save the train. That we captured after all. The Michigan men brushed the rear guard out of the way, the First Virginia gave the affair the finishing touch.
The fight over, men succumbed to fatigue and drowsiness. I had barely touched the saddle before I was fast asleep, and did not awake until daylight, and then looking around, could not see a man that I recognized as belonging to my own troop. As far as the eye could reach, both front and rear, was a moving mass of horses with motionless riders all wrapped in slumber. The horses were moving along with drooping heads and eyes half-closed. Some walked faster than others and, as a consequence, would gradually pull away from their companions through the column in front; others would fall back. So it came to pass that few men found themselves in the same society in the morning with which they started at midnight. As for myself, I awoke to wonder where I was and what had become of my men. Not one of them could I see. My horse was a fast walker, and I soon satisfied myself that I was in advance of my troop and, when the place designated for the division to bivouac was reached, dismounted and awaited their arrival. Some of them did not come up for an hour, and they were scattered about among other commands, in squads, a few in a place. It was seven o’clock before we were all together once more.
Then we had breakfast, and the men had a chance to look the captures over and quiz the prisoners. The wagons were soon despoiled of their contents and such stuff as was not valuable or could not be transported was burned. Among the prisoners was Colonel Davis, of the Tenth Virginia cavalry, who claimed that he led the charge against our position on the third. He expressed himself very freely as having had enough, and said, “This useless war ought to be ended at once.”