The gallant but ill-fated 12th New York Cavalry paid a steep price for its fidelity to the Union.

By David A. Norris

(This article is from America's Civil War, Volume 9, Number 6, January 1997)

By late 1862, the Civil War had raged for more than a year, with no end in sight. Many more men were needed to replace the heavy losses the Union suffered in the first year of the war. One of the new regiments that was being raised in the North was the 12th New York Cavalry, organized by Colonel James W. Savage.

The men of the 12th were recruited throughout the state of New York. Some were from New York City; some were from Buffalo; and the others hailed from various towns between those two cities.

The new companies of the 12th began to gather at Camp Washington, on Staten Island in the fall of 1862. The recruits languished there without pay or horses until the spring of 1863.

Discipline suffered during the winter of 1862-63. In the most serious incident, a drunken sentry attacked a lieutenant with his saber after the officer berated him for sleeping on duty. The lieutenant shot the man in the leg with his pocket revolver. The wounded culprit spent some time tied to a tree for punishment before being taken to the hospital.

Desertion was a much more common problem for the regiment that winter. Boredom, lack of pay or pay too meager to be much help to their poor families back home convinced many of the recruits to desert. In fact, so many deserted that the regiment was reorganized on May 20, 1863. Eight companies were disbanded and regrouped into four new ones. A number of officers, left without men to command, were given the choice of leaving the service or going back home to help recruit new men to fill their companies. Several officers chose to go back on recruiting duty and returned to the regiment in the fall.

Gleason Wellington was a 21-year-old enlistee from Oswego who served as a sergeant in Company A of the 12th New York Cavalry. He soon became bored with life at Camp Washington. He wrote his sister in April 1863: "If I am going to be a soldier 1 want to smell powder. 1 want to get into the field, and not as we are now, and have been for so long moping away our time, doing nothing but eat the grub we so poorly earn."

After the 12th was reorganized, the regiment was ordered to North Carolina. Six companies were there by the end of June, the rest of the regiment by the end of 1863. Major Floyd Clarkson commanded the first three companies to reach North Carolina. The largest concentration of Union troops was in New Bern, a town at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. Most of the secessionist citizens of New Bern had left during Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's occupation of the town in March 1862.

After they arrived in North Carolina, the 12th joined the 3rd New York Cavalry, which had been the only Union cavalry regiment in the state. One company each was sent to Union garrisons in the occupied towns of Washington and Plymouth, and the outpost of Newport Barracks, which guarded the military railroad that connected inland New Bern with the coastal port of Morehead City. The companies of the 12th would spend most of the war in this way, scattered at various garrisons rather than as one regiment in the same place.

The men of the 12th settled into their new routine. Wellington wrote home that he had "little to do" except carry dispatches and go into New Bern every three days with reports. He spent much of his free time riding his "splendid French pony," exploring roads and trails near the Federal lines. Sometimes he went foraging, coming back laden with "apples, peaches (not quite ripe), figs, watermelons, and the like."

Another man in Wellington's company, Private William Davies, was not as happy as the young sergeant. Davies was a carriage maker from Oswego, with a wife and four children. At 35, he was older than most of his comrades in Company A. He wrote his wife about camp life in North Carolina: "I am well at present But have had the Sumer Complaint for more than a week on a Count of Bad water we have to drink here with the hot wheather and Driling and Government Racion we all grow poor but we have not Lost any men yet But we have Lost Some horses since we came The men Seem to Stand it Better than the Northern horses here."

Davies spent much time on picket duty. He explained, in a letter to his wife, that half of his company went out on picket duty every other day. Each man was on guard for two hours, then had four hours at the relief picket post before going back on picket. Davies wrote of nighttime picket duty: “I can tell you it is not very pleasant to Be too ours on a horse and Cant See yor nose on yor face in the night and lisen and Dont know but a Reb is Crawling up in the Bushes to you...we Sit on the horse with Cock Revolvers and keep verry Still So they can't tell where we are.”

After a few weeks of picket duty and scouting expeditions, the three companies of the 12th in New Bern were ordered out on a major raid into the Confederate-held interior of North Carolina. They were part of an 800-man force led by Brig. Gen. Edward E. Potter, which also included the entire 3rd New York Cavalry, a company of loyalist North Carolina soldiers, and four mountain howitzers. Potter left New Bern on July 18, 1863, and returned on July 23 after raiding the towns of Greenville, Tarboro and Rocky Mount, N.C., during a 200-mile ride.

On the third and crucial day of the raid, July 20, Potter divided his force. He sent six companies of the 3rd New York against Rocky Mount, a station town on the vital Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. The rest of the force concentrated on the Tar River port of Tarboro, the site of a Confederate hospital, warehouses, mills and a partially built ironclad gunboat. Porter's men destroyed the gunboat's unfinished frame, two river steamboats, two warehouses, hospital supplies, two grist mills, the jail, the market house and other military and civilian property. Southern accounts mention a great deal of looting during this raid.

As Potter's men went about their mission of destruction in Tarboro, some of them were fired on by a couple of Confederate cavalrymen across the river from the town. Major Clarkson of the 12th volunteered to take one of the howitzers and the three companies of his regiment across the bridge and attack any Rebels they found. As Clarkson's men galloped along the roads across the river, they caught occasional glimpses of the Confederate horsemen ahead of them.

Near a place called Daniel's Schoolhouse, about four miles from Tarboro, the Confederate riders suddenly halted and fired at them. Clarkson ordered Company B of the 12th, under Captain Simeon Church, to charge the enemy with his company. After a gallop of half a mile, Church's company was blasted by a storm of gunfire from the woods that lined both sides of the road. They had been lured into an ambush planned by Major John T. Kennedy of the 62nd Georgia Cavalry. Kennedy had hidden about 80 men of his regiment, which included North Carolinians and Georgians, in the woods along the road. He had then sent a few men with Captain J. B. Edgerton to Tarboro to draw the Yankee raiders to the ambush site.

The first Confederate volley brought down six of Church's men and a number of horses. Men either sought cover in the woods or bolted back to the main force in Tarboro. Clarkson sent his remaining troops into the fray: Company F, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Bruce, and Company A, commanded by the brother of Simeon Church, Captain Cyrus Church. The Church brothers, who were from Volney, N.Y., were commissioned as captains of their companies of the 12th on the same day. Although Simeon was two years older than his brother, the two must have looked much alike, since some of their contemporaries thought they were twins.

The men charging with the companies of Cyrus Church and Bruce rode into heavy fire from the 62nd Georgia Cavalry. Few of the New Yorkers or their horses had ever been in battle before. Many of the inexperienced cavalrymen had trouble controlling their frightened mounts amid the thunderous gunfire and swirling smoke, and most of their shots went astray. The fire of the more experienced Confederates was much more accurate. All three officers of Company A were hit, along with two of their sergeants and several other enlisted men.

Clarkson rallied his remaining men for a final dash at the Confederates. They drew their sabers and charged toward Kennedy's men in the woods, but the charge was turned back by heavy fire. Cyrus Church died trying to save his brother's company. There are conflicting accounts of how he was fatally wounded. One version stated that he was killed in a pistol duel with a Confederate captain; another version had him falling from his horse, pierced by 18 bullets. Whatever happened, Church was brought fatally wounded into Daniel's Schoolhouse with other casualties of the skirmish, and died later that day. Sergeant John Miller, whose horse had bolted during the firing, was brought in fatally wounded, as well. Private William Davies, the letter writer, was also killed that day.

Altogether, six men of the 12th were killed in their first real skirmish. A dozen others were wounded at Daniel's Schoolhouse, and 18 more were captured, including Lieutenants Henry Mosher and Henry Hubbard of Company A. Badly wounded, the two officers were soon on their way to Libby Prison in Richmond. They narrowly escaped hanging when they and a few other Union prisoners were threatened by a mob in Rocky Mount, a town hit hard by Potter's troops. The officers were saved by a steadfast Confederate lieutenant who drew his revolver and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to kill the prisoners under his charge. Mosher died of yellow fever in a Charleston prison in 1864; Hubbard was released a year later and returned to his regiment.

Ironically, Gleason Wellington, who had wanted to "smell powder," was not with his company during its dreadful introduction to war. Earlier that morning he had collapsed, sick with a fever that had plagued him for several days. The regimental surgeon had sent him to an ambulance. Lying in the ambulance in Tarboro, he heard the firing as his friends were being killed or wounded. He wrote later, "Oh, how I begged for my horse and saber as I lay there burning with a fever when I heard the firing."

All the wounded men of the 12th who reached New Bern survived, although some of them were in hospitals for more than a month. The men who were well had little time to relax after the raid. By July 25, they were again out on picket duty. There was bad news for the men of the 12th after their return from the raid-their pay had mistakenly been sent to Washington, D.C.

Company C of the 12th, under Captain Ralph H. Olmstead, was stationed in Washington, N C., during the summer of 1863. On August 14, one of Company C's outposts was surprised and captured by Confederates. Two men were wounded in the attack; several others were captured. As he considered Company C "small and inefficient," Maj. Gen. John Peck sent some more troops to reinforce Washington. Olmstead was discharged from the army in November, "on adverse report of examining board."

By November, 1863, two other companies of the 12th New York Cavalry were in Washington, N.C. – Company D, under Captain Rowland R. West, and Company G, under Captain James L. Graham. Together, these companies achieved some notable small-scale successes late in the year

On November 25, West and Graham took their companies out on a raid with details from two other units. Riding 65 miles in 21 hours, the raiders surprised a Confederate camp of local defense troops near Haddock's Crossroads, a community a few miles south of Greenville. West and Graham captured about 50 men, killing a lieutenant and four men while losing only one man themselves.

In December, the same Union troops clashed with Confederates in the same general area. Again, they were successful, capturing a cannon and killing several Confederate soldiers. The Union loss was one loyalist North Carolinian lieutenant killed, four men captured and one wounded, all belonging to the 12th. Peck, relenting a bit on his opinion of the 12th New York Cavalry, called the raid a "bold and successful affair."

Most of the 12th New York Cavalry was still encamped in the New Bern area. In December 1863, details from the 12th took part in expeditions to bring into the Union lines the families of some Confederate deserters who had joined the Federal Army.

Captain Charles Roche, who took over command of Company A after the death of Captain Church, led one such mission, leaving New Bern on December 16. Roche split his command into two units. The first brought hack the family and possessions of a Union volunteer after crossing the rain-swollen Trent River a dozen times with a small boat.

Roche took the rest of his force, about 50 men and a mountain howitzer, to rescue the family of a Union volunteer named Brighton. When Roche reached a bridge over Chincapin Creek, he ran into a band of stubborn Confederates. The defenders had destroyed the bridge, and the creek was deep, with high steep banks. Roche skirmished with the Rebels at Chincapin Bridge for half an hour before withdrawing. The mountain howitzer fired 18 shots during the fight, and one of the cannoneers was killed. Brighton's family, on the other side of the creek, could not be brought in.

On February 1, 1864, the Union garrison at New Bern was shaken by an attack from a Confederate force led by Maj. Gen. George Pickett. Under heavy pressure from Pickett's men, Union pickets were driven from outlying posts into the main defenses of New Bern. The camps of the 12th New York at Rocky Run and Pine Tree were burned to prevent their capture. Before Pickett broke off the assault after three days of fighting, three men of the 12th had been killed.

During the winter and spring of 1863-64, two companies were stationed at Plymouth, a small town on the banks of the Roanoke River a few miles upstream, where that river widens into the Albemarle Sound. Plymouth was defended by a stout ring of forts, redoubts and breastworks on the land side. In the river floated a small flotilla of gunboats. The 2,800-man Plymouth garrison was commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Wessells.

One of the soldiers of the 12th New York Cavalry stationed at Plymouth was Gleason Wellington, who had returned to Company A after a trip home to Oswego to recover from his fever He arrived in Plymouth in February 1864. It had snowed all during the previous night, and Wellington thought it was "as cold as Iceland." Wellington soon considered Plymouth a "very nice place." He explained in a letter that although Plymouth was "not a very large place now there being but few houses for they were nearly all burnt when the rebs left it, yet the country around is very nice and I am in hopes of having a good time."

Some of the Union soldiers in Plymouth felt secure enough to send for their wives to come down from the North and join them. The wives of two officers of the 12th, Captain Robert B. Hock and Lieutenant Alonzo Cooper, were among them. Their presence brightened life at the remote garrison. “The ladies are out riding every day, so it makes things look quite cheerful," wrote Wellington.

Otherwise, life in Plymouth was quiet during the winter. There were a few brushes with Rebels during patrols, or on trips to bring in Unionist families. Mostly, the men could worry about small things, such as the scarcity of stamps and paper to write home, and the long delays in getting their pay.

The peaceful interlude at Plymouth was shattered on Sunday, April 17, 1864, when a Confederate army under Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke attacked the town. Picket posts south of the town were overrun. Several men from the 12th New York were captured. More men of the 12th were sent out from Plymouth under Lieutenant Bob Russell to meet the attackers, but they were driven back into the main defenses of the town, and Russell was severely wounded. That night, the U.S. steamer Massasoit left Plymouth crowded with refugees, including women, children, loyalist North Carolinians, black soldiers and civilians. The wives of Captain Hock and Lieutenant Cooper of the 12th were among them. The boat took the passengers to safety at Union-held Roanoke Island.

Fierce fighting went on for three days, as Union forts and redoubts fell one by one. On April 19, the Confederate ironclad Albemarle steamed down the Roanoke to join the fighting. The ironclad sank one Union vessel, drove off the rest of the flotilla, and turned her heavy guns on the land defenses.

General Wessells surrendered Plymouth with about 2,500 men on April 20. Among the prisoners were about 100 men of the 12th New York. Three men had been killed in battle and five others fatally wounded. Many of the captives were marched overland to Tarboro, the nearest town with a railroad, to begin the long trip to prison at Andersonville, Ga.

Sergeant Wellington was one of those who was sent to Andersonville. He was able to dash off a brief letter before leaving, to say, “We are all gobbled. I am happy to say I am the only one of my company hurt. I have a cut on the head, but guess it is not very bad."

A list of burials at Andersonville shows 30 men of Companies A and F of the 12th New York Cavalry were interred at the prison. Wellington was one of them; he died of dysentery on September 6, 1864.

Lieutenant Alonzo Cooper, also captured at Plymouth, survived his stay in captivity after a series of adventures. He spent time in various prisons before escaping from one in South Carolina. After making his way through hundreds of miles of enemy territory, Cooper was recaptured in Virginia just short of reaching the Union lines. When Cooper returned to prison, he learned that he had been on a list of prisoners to be exchanged, and that when he escaped another man was released in his place. Cooper was finally released a few weeks before the end of the war and returned to his regiment. Years later, he wrote a book about his experiences, titled In and Out of Rebel Prisons.

New Bern was menaced by a deadlier foe than the Confederates in the summer of 1864. Yellow fever killed several hundred soldiers and civilians during an epidemic that raged from August to November. The victims included Captain Charles Roche of the 12th. There was little that could be done to stop yellow fever. Surgeons prescribed doses of quinine and whiskey. Great amounts of tar and pitch were set afire, in the vain hope that the thick clouds of smoke would protect people from the fever

During the last months of the war, the 12th took a more active role. Captains Graham and Horn led their companies on a raid from Washington to Greenville on February 8,1865. About six miles from there, they overran a camp of the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, capturing a lieutenant and a couple dozen men. Moving on to Greenville, Graham and Horn destroyed some stocks of government supplies and captured a Confederate commissary officer, Major William Demill, the grandfather of the famous Hollywood motion picture director Cecil B. DeMille.

The 12th suffered several casualties during the last April of the war. One was Henry A. Hubbard, who had survived a year in captivity after being wounded and captured at Daniel's Schoolhouse. Promoted to captain after his return to duty, Hubbard commanded Company L. On April 8, 1865, he and an orderly were shot in an ambush near Hookerton. Shot twice, Hubbard managed to reach his camp but died about eight hours later. The day after Hubbard's death, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House.

The regiment moved to Raleigh in July 1865. There the men turned in their horses and were mustered out on July 19. They marched to City Point, Va., and then took steamers to New York City. After receiving their final pay, they started for their homes.

In two years of war, the 12th New York Cavalry lost 222 men. Three of the unit's officers and 36 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded in battle, and five officers and 178 enlisted men died of "disease and other causes." Another 85 enlisted men died in Southern prisons.

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Kenneth Jennings Wooster
File created: 26 September 1997.
File modified: 23 December 2002; 26 December 2002.