Last week, I felt positively joyful when a reader offered to share some information about the fight at Tom’s Brook. That sentence is an understatement. What Ron Cleveland shared with me was not mere information but a great, fun, factual detective story directly related to the climax of the battle at Tom’s Brook. Ron Cleveland owns one of the cannon that George Custer’s men captured at Tom’s Brook, and he can prove it.
We’ll begin with the gun. It was born in 1862 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, at the mighty Phoenix Iron Company, a major supplier of artillery to the U.S. Army. Unfortunately for the Union cause, Phoenix Iron supplied a significant number of guns to the Confederate Army as well— unintentionally, of course. The U.S. Army proved rather lax in protecting all of excellent guns crafted at Phoenixville, and, as this story demonstrates, the Confederates made excellent use of many guns manufactured above the Mason-Dixon Line. The gun in question was a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, a weapon of superior modern design invented at the Phoenix Iron Company. On its muzzle, the rifle bore the number 194, PICo (Phoenix Iron Co.).
The Army shipped #194 into Virginia in the summer of 1862, where the enemy immediately captured it. As Ron’s research makes plain, Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart took possession of two trains of cars at Manassas Junction just prior to the Battle of Second Manassas. Gun #194 and five sister guns—a full battery with caissons, harness and horses, all brand new–were still on the train and had apparently never fired a shot in defense of the Union. General Stuart immediately issued four of these excellent, advanced weapons to his 1st Stuart Horse Artillery Battery, commanded by the soon-to-be-famous John Pelham. With these guns Pelham and his battery would earn renown at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and beyond.
Though Pelham died in March 1863, his battery continued using those 3-inch rifles. As Ron correctly points out, “Ordnance Rifles were state-of-the-art wrought iron, very safe and dependable to the crews that were working them. They were also lighter and very accurate at up to a mile.” Evidence, including the testimony of a member of the battery, establishes that the 1st Stuart Horse fought with those guns all the way through the war from August 1862 to Tom’s Brook. On October 9, 1864, the battery, then under Capt. Philip P. Johnston, fought on Coffman’s Hill until pressured to withdraw. Somewhere between Coffman’s Hill and Columbia Furnace, the Federal troopers, likely the New Yorkers of William Wells’s brigade, overran the battery and thus ended Gun #194’s service to the Confederate States of America.
This tale of the adventurous existence of Gun #194 would have remained unknown had not those Yankee cavalrymen felt a strong pride in themselves and their new commander, Custer. Tom’s Brook was their first battle together, and the exultant troopers wished to mark the occasion by crowing about their victory. After the battle, before turning in the captured equipment to Federal staff officers, the cavalrymen attached a card to each of the four guns. Each sign read: “Captured by Third Division Cavalry, Brigadier General Custer commanding, October 9th, 1864, near Columbia Furnace, Shenandoah Valley.” This unusual act of bravado attracted the attention of Major J.G. Benton when the guns arrived at the Washington Arsenal, and Benton mentioned the cards and their contents when writing to a superior. Years later, when the War Department assembled The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the story of the cards and the captured guns continued to impress people and the compilers decided to print Maj. Benton’s note in the Official Records. Benton’s brief statement is, in effect, merely a receipt acknowledging the arrival of the captured ordnance at the Arsenal. While such documents were undoubtedly routinely issued by hundreds or thousands of officers, almost never were such mundane communications printed in the Official Records. In fact. Major Benton’s brief note might be unique in the ORs in that it lists the location of particular guns by number. Guns #32, #339, #141 and #194 are the four taken at Tom’s Brook.
Most of the men who had served these guns at Tom’s Brook sat out the war at Point Lookout Prison on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The four captured guns arrived at the Washington Arsenal on October 17, 1864, eight days after they were captured. Since the guns were no longer in prime condition after two years of hard service, Federal officers likely ordered them into storage at the arsenal, where the historic pieces probably remained, about 65 miles from Point Lookout.
Ron reveals the locations of all four of the “Tom’s Brook” guns, and it seems appropriate that the quartet that was born in the north but served the South has been broken up by geographic section: Two of them stand in the North and two in the South. Fittingly, Gun #32, which had been twice captured during the war, now does duty educating visitors at Andersonville National Historic Site. Gun #339 stands at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. Number #141 is in private hands in Wisconsin and Gun #194, as the photos on this page prove, resides resplendently in Michigan with Ron Cleveland.
Ron credits Jim Bender, keeper of the list of surviving guns of the Civil War, for uncovering the paper trail that led to the confirmation of #194 as one of the four taken by Custer’s division on October 9, 1864. Ron further acknowledges friend and fellow researcher Chris Buryta and also Matt Switlik and Ken Baumann of the Loomis Battery, 1st Michigan Light Artillery, for their help in restoring the gun and carriage.
Ron’s willingness to share his information helps fulfill one of my hopes. Every historical event is a puzzle composed of countless pieces. While researching Decision at Tom’s Brook, I dragged many of those fragments out of libraries and archives, but I know that my picture of the event is, and always will be, incomplete. History lovers like Ron all across the nation retain many more pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, most of those folks have had no way to share their information. This blog is intended to serve as a place for them to bring their pieces to the table, to make them public and to help complete a fuller picture of the historical event. I hope more readers like Ron will write in to share their knowledge.
Note: Benton’s list shows thirteen guns were captured in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in the summer and fall of 1864, but as Ron points out, “It may be more appropriate to say ‘recaptured,’” since all but one were Union cannons that had been taken by the Confederates earlier in the war. Ron specifies that of the 13 guns on the list, only seven are known to have survived. Numbers 8 and 11 on the list, Gun #185 and Gun #13, are in the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and number 9 on the list, Gun #596, is in a cemetery in Pennsylvania. The locations of the four guns captured at Tom’s Brook are given above. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 12th guns listed by Benton, as well as the 13th, the lone gun of Confederate manufacture, cannot be accounted for.
Sources recommended by Ron Cleveland: Johnson, Curt, and Richard C. Anderson, Jr. Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam; Maxwell, Jerry. The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham; McClellan, H.B. The Campaigns of Stuart’s Cavalry; Milham, Charles G. The Gallant Pelham; Neese, George M. Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery; Official Records, 43, pt. 2, 411; Trout, Robert J. Galloping Thunder: The Stuart Horse Artillery; _____. Memoirs of the Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion; Wise, Jennings C. The Long Arm of Lee or the History of the Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Photos courtesy of Ron Cleveland.