Charging into the Muzzle

A latent theme in Decision at Tom’s Brook concerns the spirit that animated American warriors in 1864. Most of the warriors mentioned–Rosser, William Payne, James Breathed, James Thomson and others–wore gray. But Custer was a prime practitioner of the warrior ethos, and plenty of other men in blue were battle lovers as well, among them Moses Harris.

Moses HarrisA New Hampshire native, Harris, rose through the ranks of the 1st United States Cavalry, and ended the Civil War as a captain. As a lieutenant on August 28, 1864, near Smithfield, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, Harris’s “personal gallantry was so conspicuous as to inspire the men to extraordinary efforts,” and Congress later voted him a Medal of Honor. Harris was in the thick of the fight at Tom’s Brook, too, and he later left a brief, but vivid, recollection that can still quicken the pulse of a reader.

Harris spent his 27th birthday skirmishing with Confederates on October 8, 1864, on the Valley Pike near Maurertown and on the Back Road near Mt. Olive. The next day, Lt. Harris would participate in the climactic charge up the Pike that smashed Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s crumbling defensive line on the ridges south of Tom’s Brook. A soldier for more than 40 years, Harris would rise to the rank of major in the 1st Cavalry and serve though the Indian wars in the west. In his early fifties in 1890, he wrote his recollections of action in the Reserve Brigade during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and included the eventful days early in October that brought him to Tom’s Brook.

There are two principal roads extending the length of the Valley; the Valley turnpike, a broad macadamized thoroughfare, and what is known as the “Back Road,” which extends along the west side of the Valley near the base of the North Mountain. Merritt’s division held the pike, while Custer with his division marched on the Back Road. We were followed on the pike at a respectful distance by Lomax, while Rosser who, with his brigade, was full of confidence, devoted himself to Custer. On the 8th, Rosser became so persistent in his attentions that Custer’s rear guard was engaged nearly all day, and it was found necessary toward evening to send the First Division to his assistance. General Sheridan, surprised and annoyed at this arrogance of a defeated enemy decided on the evening of the 8th, that he would halt his army for a day and give the cavalry of the two armies an opportunity to settle any little differences which might exist between them. That there might be no mistake as to his intentions he sent for General Torbert and told him “To start out at daylight and whip the Rebel cavalry or get whipped himself.”

Orders having been given for the whole command to be in the saddle at daybreak, we went to our- rest with the consciousness that we had a tidy bit of work before us for the next day. Our camp this evening was on Tom’s Brook, which runs along the base of Round Top Mountain about three miles south of Strasburg. We were in the saddle at dawn and, as we moved out across the little stream in our front, the rosy light of the rising sun could be seen over the summit of the Massanutten Mountain, presaging a lovely day and, as we hoped, success to our arms. Lomax and his men were already in motion, and as we came into position his lines could be seen forming in the distance. The Reserve Brigade was given the post of honor on the pike, with the Second Brigade on our right, [245] and the First on the right of the Second connecting with Custer’s left. The enemy’s artillery opened as we began forming, got the range promptly, and pitched in their shells with fine accuracy until they were replied to by a section of Williston’s battery of our brigade, and obliged to change position. An advance of the enemy’s right having been promptly checked by a rapid movement of our left, he now deemed it prudent to get his men out of the saddle and established behind rail barricades. Our artillery was kept well up to the front and made lots of trouble for the Confederate troopers in their attempt to establish dismounted lines. It now became evident from the sound of artillery on our right that our forces on the Back Road were engaged, and we proceeded to crowd our adversaries by a general forward movement. The artillery on this occasion distinguished itself by keeping well up with our advance; and, by pouring in canister at short range, contributed in a great measure to the demoralization and final rout of the enemy. The opportune moment having arrived, we leave the artillery to shift for itself and move into the pike. The charge is sounded — the whole line goes forward with a cheer — and we ride for the battery which is now directly in our front; they are too quick for us; all the guns but one are limbered up and off at a gallop before we can reach them. This one gun they appear willing to sacrifice for the sake of the execution it will do at close quarters. There is one discharge which has no effect toward stopping the head of the column; the cannoneers can be seen ramming home another charge; the gunner is making frantic efforts to get it off, but his nerves are evidently at fault, and while he is yet adjusting his lanyard we are upon him and the gun is ours. Nobody thinks of pausing to secure trophies; we have the advance, and pressing on are soon in the midst of the flying rabble, their officers in vain expostulating, cursing, and imploring them to stop. The blinding dust of the pike obscures everything; Union or Confederate, we are all the same color, and as we come upon their guns one after another, the drivers plying whip and spur in the vain effort to escape, it takes a saber stroke to enforce a command to halt. Wagons, caissons, and ambulances are passed, and still the chase continues. We leave to our comrades in the rear the work of securing prisoners; our only thought is to press on so that there shall be no possibility of their disorganized forces halting to reform. We dash through the streets of Woodstock, and the people, even though the flying cavalrymen are their friends and neighbors, become so imbued with the excitement of the chase that they fairly cheer us on. Finally at the little town of Edinboro [Edinburg], eighteen miles from our starting point, when the last [246] trooper of Lomax’s force is clean out of sight and everything on wheels is in our possession, we pause to take breath and permit our scattered forces to reform.

The length of the chase was such that the question of who should keep the advance was largely one of horse-flesh. The little squad of officers and men who had had the good fortune to keep their places at the front, having halted a moment before crossing the river at Edinboro, was joined almost immediately by the brigade commander, Colonel Lowell, alone and unattended, staff and orderlies having been left far behind. The remainder of the brigade soon came up, but as the work assigned to it seemed to have been completed it was there halted and reformed. The pursuit was at that point taken up by the Second Brigade and continued to Mount Jackson, eight miles further on, and twenty-six miles from where the attack was made. This affair has received the official designation of Tom’s Brook; but the soldiers, having in mind the plaudits of the fair Confederates in Woodstock as they chased their friends and sweethearts through the town, called it “The Woodstock Races;” by which name it will always be known by those participants who were on the winning side.

Moses Harris, “With the Reserve Brigade, Paper 2,” Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, 3(1890):235-247.

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