On August 4, 1861, less than a week before the battle of Wilson’s Creek, there was a skirmish at Dug Springs, Missouri between Union forces under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Confederate Missouri State Guard forces under Brigadier General James Rains. At some point during the skirmish, a charge by Captain David S. Stanley’s troop of the 1st Cavalry routed an advancing enemy force of infantry. Exactly what the circumstances of the charge were varying according to the view of the witness.
According to Lyon’s official report, “The rebels’ advance perceived my halt, and being mostly mounted, became bold, and threatened me at various points, though in small force — though about 1,000 infantry advanced pretty well forward at one time under an advance of cavalry force. My advance guards of infantry opened fire upon them, and without orders from me, by a spontaneous emotion, the advance guard of my cavalry charged and drove back the rebels, but lost 4 killed and 5 wounded. Cavalry again advanced, but were driven back by my artillery, under Captain Totten.” (OR, Ser I, Vol 3, pg 47)
Captain Frederick Steele, 2nd US Infantry, commander of Lyon’s advance guard, had this to say in his report. “We then advanced upon the enemy, driving him rapidly back. Captain Stanley, with his troop, took position on a commanding spur on our left and front, to prevent our flank from being turned. The enemy was now in complete rout, a part of Captain Stanley’s troop having gallantly charged and cut through his line.” (Ibid, pg 49)
We also have two other eyewitness accounts of the charge. Second Lieutenant George B. Sanford of the 1st Dragoons was attached to the column en route to his first unit. This skirmish was his first in uniform, and he describes the charge like this:
“The fighting was quite sharp for some time, but the enemy fell back as we advanced, and at one time a very gallant charge was made by a party of “C” troop 1st Cavalry under Lieut. Kelly. He mistook the trumpet call to halt for the signal to charge and dashed into the enemy’s lines completely routing them at that point, though nearly all his own men were killed or wounded. The rest of “C” troop under Capt. Stanley afterwards Maj. Gen. Stanley and my own troop both under command of Capt. Elliott then moved to the front in support, and the enemy fell back.” (Sanford, Fighting Rebels and Redskins, pg 129)
An unknown correspondent from the Herald is quoted in the Harper’s Weekly article reporting the skirmish as follows:
“Captain Steele was still on the left, and a body of nearly eight hundred infantry, with a few mounted men, came forward on the enemy’s right with the evident intention of engaging and surrounding the Captain’s two companies. Company C, of First cavalry, was in the rear (lately front), near Captain Steele and Lieutenant M.J. Kelly, with twenty men from this company, made a Balaklava charge right in the face of the bullets and bayonets of the whole rebel infantry. Four of the twenty were killed and six were wounded, but they succeeded in breaking the infantry and putting them to flight. Four horses were wounded so badly that it was necessary to kill them — one receiving nine, and another eleven rifle balls. One of the men – Sergeant Sullivan – received three terrible, though not fatal wounds. As he was falling from his horse he waved his saber, and shouted “Hurrah for the old Stars and Stripes!” When brought to camp he seemed to forget his wounds in his joy at having struck a blow for the Union. One of the enemy’s wounded inquired of Lieutenant Kelly, with great earnestness,
‘Are your cavalry men or devils!’
The lieutenant replied that it was possible they might be a composition of both.
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we can’t stand such a charge as that. You can whip us all out if you’ve got a decent army of such soldiers.’ “
Which of these are correct and which aren’t? It’s impossible to know for sure, but at least parts of all of them. A footnote in the OR describes Stanley’s losses as 4 killed and 6 wounded, of 42 engaged, or a loss of 25%. According to Sanford and the reporter, only 20 made the charge, so the actual loss would be 50%. One of the men under Lieutenant Kelly, a Corporal Elbridge Roys, received a commission in the regiment the following year for his conduct during the charge. He was later killed in action near Selma, Alabama in 1865.
I believe Sanford’s account that the cause of the charge was a misunderstood bugle call. I can’t think of another reason why only part of the company would charge. It’s doubtful that it was reported that way by Captain Stanley in his official report, however, which is likely where the “spontaneous emotion” mentioned in Lyon’s report comes from.
As to the results of the charge, I again tend to favor Sanford’s account. It was late in the day at the time of the charge. While the charge probably stopped the infantry’s advance temporarily, I doubt any 20 men and horses would be enough to rout 800. Receiving such a charge and then seeing more cavalry and infantry advancing through the dusk probably led to their hasty retreat.
The reporter’s account is sufficiently vivid, and my Harper’s Weekly’s circulation large enough, that it’s small wonder that there was a perception that a cavalry charge could rout infantry. Such charges had succeeded in combat against Indians on several occasions in the experience of cavalrymen returning from the frontier. Only time and blood would dispel this perception.