Dartmouth Cavalry Boys’ Ludicrous, Thrilling Civil War Exploits
No frolic so slight ever won such glowing praise as the service of the Dartmouth Cavalry during the Civil War. Writers lauded these college men on horseback even for what they didn’t do.
On class day at graduation in 1863, the cavalryman William Lapham Flagg began the drumbeat with a poem of many stanzas, ending with this one:
In after years when history’s read
Of colleges and college bred,
In times of danger, war, and noise,
No brighter page will meet the eye,
No Poet sing a sweeter lay
Than that which does a tribute pay
The “Dartmouth Cavalry Boys.”
In 1898, William A. Ellis of Norwich University wrote: “A book could be written filled with incidents, both ludicrous and thrilling, of their exploits.”
Five years later, John Scales, Dartmouth Class of ’63, had a go at the company’s legacy in his book for the 40th class reunion. The college, he wrote, “has just occasion to feel proud of that company of cavalrymen, not only for what they did, but for what they were willing and prepared to do, had more been demanded of them.”
Now, as the country observes the 150th anniversary of the war, a more sober account of the Dartmouth Cavalry may be in order.
The company was the brainstorm of Scales’s classmate, Sanford Smith Burr, of Roxbury, Mass. Burr had died in 1901, but Scales remembered him as “one of those nervous, wiry, wide-awake fellows not overly fond of books.” In May of 1862, Burr began urging classmates to volunteer for three months as cavalrymen. He found 35 takers on campus. Norwich contributed 23 men, Bowdoin, Union, Williams and Amherst a total of 10 and other colleges 17. In the end, the company was 85 men strong.
Nathaniel Berry, the governor of New Hampshire, declined their services. Undeterred, Burr wrote to other New England governors. He got his wish when William Sprague IV, the 31-year-old governor of Rhode Island, invited the company to join the 7th Squadron, Rhode Island Cavalry.
To the cheers of well-wishers from Dartmouth, Burr’s company boarded the night express at White River Junction on June 18, 1862, and arrived in Providence just after noon the next day. Here the men began what Scales called “the change from students in gay attire with their minds pictured full of the glory of war, to cavalrymen in Uncle Sam’s army.”
The change was “ludicrous in the extreme, and, at the same time, in many cases most affecting.” Providence residents threw a banquet for them, and they went to church as a body for a service attended by “the best people of the city.”
They reached Washington, D.C., on June 30, had their first taste of hardtack and drew lots for horses. Few of them had ever ridden a horse, and some of the horses assigned to them had not been broken. The Dartmouth Cavalry’s first ride amused those who witnessed it.
After just 2½ weeks of drill, the company headed west. It spent a month or so riding about on patrols in the Shenandoah Valley and around Harpers Ferry. The men’s main task was reconnaissance. They captured a few rebels and had a few of their own captured in return.
Their service coincided with some of the heaviest fighting of the war. The Seven Days battles on the Virginia Peninsula were ending just as they arrived in Washington. Second Bull Run was fought on Aug. 29-30, 1862, the battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14 and Antietam on Sept. 17.
The last was the bloodiest day in American history. The Dartmouth Cavalry remained in service nearby for a few days after the battle but saw no action.
In an early stab at alternate history, Scales found more glory for the company here. Most mainstream historians have blamed George B. McClellan, general of the Army of the Potomac, for not pursuing Robert E. Lee after Antietam. Scales also considered him the villain.
“If McClellan had done his whole duty in that battle,” he wrote, the Dartmouth Cavalry “would have joined in the fight, and Lee’s army would have been either captured or annihilated.”
The cavalrymen mustered out in Providence and returned to Hanover in early October. Their captured troopers had been paroled from Confederate prisons by then. Scales was present at their homecoming. “Conquering heroes, the world over, never had a more royal greeting on their return from war!” he wrote.
Nathan Lord, Dartmouth’s president at the time, favored slavery, an opinion that would cost him his job in 1863. He and some of the faculty discouraged Dartmouth men from joining the army, but many from the college enlisted and had experiences more typical than the Dartmouth Cavalry’s.
For instance, Charles W. Morrill, Class of ’63, was drafted after graduation. The son of a Canterbury farmer, he joined the 8th New Hampshire Volunteers in Louisiana just as that regiment was being converted from infantry to cavalry. Morrill had horses shot out from under him in two battles, contracted chronic diarrhea and died in the military hospital at Cairo, Ill., on the way home.
The company poet Flagg was not unaware of the gap between the Dartmouth Cavalry’s noble intentions and its actual experience. More than one couplet of his class poem is comical, including this one:
We fought and bled and almost died,
Not in battle, but in learning to ride.