History of the Fifth Regulars
Bull Run to Appomattox
"The Second Cavalry Regiment"
"Life in the Fifth"
The cavalry received little encouragement in the early part of the war. It suffered from the well-known ignorance, in high places, of the fit management and proper use of the arm. The war was nearly half over when Mr. Lincoln asked General McClellan "what the horses did to fatigue anything," and about the same time the celebrated remark about "dead cavalrymen " was attributed to General Hooker, but never made. As a matter of fact, the Fifth Cavalry performed some of its best services in those days, when the arm was outnumbered and overworked. The brilliant dash at Fairfax, the capture of two companies of unbroken infantry by Harrison's troop at Hanover Court House, Custer at New Bridge, McIntosh at Sycamore Church, afforded a few of the examples of successful use of efficient cavalry in those early days. With battle records far exceeding that of the infantry, it was not called upon to suffer the terrible losses of foot troops in single engagements. The opportunities for mounted action were few. When dismounted, it was not its duty to fight desperately in attack or defense.
But while the infantry had its season of rest the cavalry was constantly exposed and suffered a large percentage of loss in almost daily fighting and scouting. Many were captured as a matter of course, from the isolated nature of its duties, but capture meant neither defeat nor dishonor; it generally showed that the trooper had ventured and risked too much.
A regular regiment, during the war, was under many disadvantages. Its field officers, and many others, were commanding volunteers and serving on important duty elsewhere. The Fifth Cavalry, with the exception of a few months, was commanded by captains and lieutenants. The command of the regiment changed thirty-four times, and, curiously enough, it frequently served under men who had been in its ranks not very long before. It was often difficult to get one officer to a squadron. Casualties among general officers and those on detached service were slight, so that promotion was comparatively slow. In the matter of recruits, like the States, and many of the towns and counties offered large bounties, the volunteer regiments were more easily kept up to their standard. There were ladies aid societies, congressmen, and newspapers, always watching the home organizations, mindful of their comfort, caring for their wounded, and praising their deeds. The regulars were deprived of these advantages.
There was many a tough tussle of outposts and advance and rear guards, where the cost was not counted and the road unexplored. As Private Mulvaney would have stated in the case, the word was "hit first and frequent." The roster was greatly changed by the war. In place of the fire-eating Southerners and hard-riding Northerners of a few years before, we find that all the junior officers were now promotions from the ranks, the best of the sergeants and privates who had learned their trade so well in the good school of the border war. There were English, Irish, Germans, and Americans among them, and they were a brave, stiff-backed set, who got all the law and the prophets out of the blue book and the tactics. They kept up much of the old style and rigidity of discipline and formed an excellent model for the volunteer cavalry.
"A Hard Duty"
At the battle of Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862, the regiment performed its most distinguished service. On that day, it will be remembered, the Confederate Army, reinforced by the corps of Stonewall Jackson from Northern Virginia, made four desperate attacks upon the Federal left under Fitz John Porter, who was occupying an open plateau, with temporary entrenchments, east of Powhite creek, his left protected by the marshes of the Chickahominy bottom. The sluggish creek flowed through deep banks, concealed by heavy timber; the high ground of the plateau was free of obstacles and suitable for cavalry over a strip varying from four hundred to one thousand yards in width; and in the breaks of the plateau, in the rear of the extreme left of our line, were massed the weak cavalry brigades of Philip St. George Cooke. In front of the cavalry, the batteries of the reserve artillery were stationed.
After seven o'clock in the afternoon, the sun had sunk below the horizon, the heavy smoke of battle was hanging thicker over the field, and the enemy's last attack had been made and won. Only the cavalry and a part of the artillery remained on this part of the field. A brigade of Texans, broken by their long advance, under the lead of the hardest fighter in all the Southern armies, came running on with wild yells, and they were a hundred yards from the guns. It was then that the cavalry commander ordered Captain Charles J. Whiting, with his regiment, to the charge. With sabers drawn, the 5th Cavalry moved forward with a wild cheer. Soon enveloped by dust and smoke, the five companies (A, D, F, H & I), forming a small battalion, veered to the left and right to avoid the guns. They charged 275 yards across the open plateau, where the Confederates met them with heavy gunfire. Musket fire emptied many Union saddles, and the charge degenerated into a stampede in reverse when the troopers reached the edge of the woods bordering Boatswain’s Creek. Many horses went out of control, and their backward rush carried them into the reserve artillery line.
No one had blundered; it was the supreme moment for cavalry, the opportunity that comes so seldom on the modern field of war, the test of discipline, hardihood, and nerve. Right well was the task performed. The two hundred and twenty troopers of the Fifth Cavalry struck Longstreet's veterans square in the face. Whiting, his horse killed under him, fell stunned, at the feet of the Fourth Texas Infantry. Chambliss was torn almost to pieces with six wounds. Sweet was killed. Only one of the other officers was unwounded. In all, the loss in killed, wounded, and missing, was fifty-eight, and twenty-four horses were known to, have been killed. Unsupported and almost without officers, the troopers were stopped by the woods of the creek bottom, returned, reformed, and were soon after opposed to the enemy in covering the retreat of the Federal Army. Two days later the same troops were engaged at Savage Station. The guns which were in a condition to retire were saved. The facts of that charge speak for themselves. No action was ever more worthy of a poet's genius; no cavalry charge was ever ridden better or against more hopeless odds of numbers.
This battle gave a strange instance of the fortune of war. Hood had served as a lieutenant under Whiting in the regiment before the war. Now, at the head of a Confederate brigade, he received the charge of his former comrades. After the fight, finding Chambliss so desperately wounded on the field, he saw that his old friend had every care and attention. Such encounters were frequent. Fitzhugh Lee's own regiment of Virginia cavalry overwhelmed Royall's outpost at Old Church, captured part of his old troop, and wounded a couple of officers. The Rebellion records show that Confederate commanders took some pride in reporting to the Commander-in-Chief that they had encountered his old regiment.
Although the regimental historian later noted that the “regiment performed its most distinguished service” in the charge, Porter and Cooke carried on an extended dispute over the 5th’s effectiveness in the battle. In charging that the cavalry action was unsuccessful, Porter sought an excuse for the events of the day that resulted in the defeat of his V Corps. For his part, Cooke solicited the testimony of many cavalry colleagues to argue that the charge had actually saved the entire V Corps from destruction. Historians have generally sided with Cooke.
Painter William B. T. Trego is considered to be one of the greatest American military painters and his rise to such a position was largely because of his pieces covering the charge at Gaines' Mill. During his career, Trego painted 7 pieces dedicated to the desperate charge of the fifth regulars. His most famous illustration was the one titled "The Charge of the Fifth Regulars at Gaines’s Mill, 27th of June, 1862." The painting is one of seven commissioned by publisher George Barrie of Philadelphia as illustrations for his monumental work The Army and Navy of the United States, published in Philadelphia, 1889–1895. The painting was reproduced in section 3 as a photogravure, 9½ by 13¾ inches, hand-colored in deluxe editions.
The painting shows the threatened artillery pieces, partially obscured by smoke, just behind the line of cavalrymen as they start on their wild charge. The withering fire the riders face is indicated by the fact that two of them have already been shot. In an image typical of Trego’s battle scenes, the soldier leading the charge turns to see one of his comrades about to fall from his saddle. One of the horses is rearing back as though wounded, while close to the center of the painting, the eye of a terrified horse seems to look directly at the viewer, signaling to us the extreme danger of the moment. Not far behind him, the eyes of a soldier, just visible over another horse’s head, reinforce that impression.