Gen. George A. Custer, among the boldest cavalry commanders in history, saw the zeal and dash he esteemed in Connecticut's Civil War horse soldiers.
"I cannot fail to remember the many triumphs in which your regiment bore such a prominent part," Custer wrote in 1867 to Gen. E.W. Whitaker, a Medal of Honor recipient who had led a company in the 1st Connecticut Cavalry Volunteers.
He had not forgotten the battle at Five Forks, Va., Custer wrote, when the 1st Connecticut "achieved the honor of being the first to leap the enemy's breastworks, secured his cannon, and turned them upon the retreating foe. Is it strange, then, that I should cherish a warm and lasting remembrance of the services of the sterling patriots of the First Connecticut Cavalry?"
And yet, the state's only Civil War cavalry regiment, a unit bloodied in 88 engagements and chosen to escort Gen. U.S. Grant to the rebels' surrender at Appomatox, has been little noted in the century and a half since the war ended. And in contrast to the state's many infantry unit memorials, there is no monument to Connecticut's mounted soldiers in the War of the Great Rebellion.
Torrington native Bob Angelovich seeks to fill the gap with a new book, "Riding For Uncle Samuel: The Civil War History of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry Volunteers." (Inner Workings, Grand Rapids, MI, $59.95.) To be released Dec. 1, the book is an exhaustive history of a regiment that was in the saber-slashing thick of many fights and suffered 57 percent casualties.
A cofounder and leader of the Connecticut Civil War Roundtable for many years, Angelovich moved to Gettysburg, Pa., 14 years ago and has spent the past 20 years researching and writing the book, which includes maps, photographs and illustrations. The author recently answered questions about the regiment and why Connecticut residents should prize their Yankee riders' storied service.
Q: When was the unit formed?
A: On Oct 22, 1861 at Camp Tyler in West Meriden, the state organized a volunteer cavalry battalion for service in the war. Named the 1st Battalion, Connecticut Volunteer Cavalry, it consisted of four cavalry companies that drew recruits from all four congressional districts in the state at that time. Total volunteers in the original battalion numbered 346 men and officers.
Later, in March 1864, the 1st Battalion, Connecticut Volunteer Cavalry was expanded to a full Federal regiment (twelve companies) and officially re-organized as the 1st Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Cavalry. In April 1864, the regiment was assigned to the Army of the Potomac's 3rd Cavalry Division for service. It was assigned to Gen. Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps and served under Gen. James Wilson and later under Gen. George Custer until the end of the war.
Q: Were most of the soldiers skilled riders, or did they have to learn by experience?
A: Most of the Connecticut boys were not skilled riders. Some never before had ridden a horse. They were used to wagons and carriages. The new volunteers learned by drilling, practice, experience and hard knocks. It was said by the Federal army that it took on average between 2 to 2 1/2 years to fully train a Union cavalryman. It was true.
Q: The regiment was involved in many battles and served under the war's most famous cavalry commanders, Sheridan and Custer. Why were they engaged so often?
A: The cavalry branch was the eyes and ears of the army… it was always on the move — raiding, scouting, patrolling, skirmishing and maintaining communications with various commands. These Nutmeg saddle soldiers were constantly on the front lines or on the flanks of the army and engaged the enemy often, almost daily in 1864. That was cavalry's mission in the service. If a unit demonstrated ability in combat, it was used in combat. And these guys had their share — 88 combat engagements during the war, 87 in Virginia and 1 in Maryland. They were a tough group.
Q: Who selected the Connecticut cavalrymen to escort Grant to the surrender ceremony at Appomatox?
A: No official records were found that designated the Connecticut regiment to escort Grant to Appomattox. But the account is clearly written in a number of personal letters, diaries and statements of the officers and men of the regiment. Most likely, they were at the right place at the right time during those crazy last days of the war and were "volunteered" to perform that duty. I'm sure they didn't go looking for the job.
Q: What were the unit's casualties at the end of the war?
A: According to the state official reports for the unit, total casualties of all categories for the 1st Regiment, Connecticut Cavalry during war, was a huge 57 percent. It included killed, wounded and missing in action, died in rebel prisons, disease, accidents, captured and other. Rolls listed some 2,034 men in service during the war, of which 66 were unassigned (never made it to the unit). 100 men served 4 years in the regiment; 300 men served 3 years; 100 men served 2 years; and 600 men served for 1 1/2 years. The remainder served a few months.
Q: Your research and writing spanned 20 years. Why so long?
A: I'm not fast but I am persistent! The research took about 20 years, but the actual writing phase encompassed the last 14 to 15 years. I did not write every day of every year. I wrote mostly during the winter months. Too much to do outside during the rest of the year. It was not a race for me, but a challenge of doing something totally different. I set out to tell the Connecticut cavalrymen's story in their own words since it was never told before. I completed my goal.
Q: Where can people find monuments to the regiment?
A: Unfortunately, there is NO monument today, anywhere, to the 1st Connecticut Cavalry Volunteers. But it was not from a lack of effort expended.
The veterans back in 1889 managed to have the state legislature issue a senate joint resolution that requested appropriations of $3,000 for the erection of a monument to the First Regiment, Connecticut Cavalry. That SJR was approved in June 1903. No further action followed. Another SJR years later in March 1911 was made to appropriate $25,000 for the regiment. That SJR was rejected by the state Committee on Appropriations on the third attempt. That was March 15, 1911. End of story. The politicians had forgotten about the veterans. Sound familiar?
Q: Final thoughts on the 1st Connecticut?
A: These saddle soldiers from the Nutmeg State fought against enemy cavalry, infantry, and artillery; they fought mounted and dismounted; and they accumulated a considerable number of prisoners, guns, and battle flags in their combat operations. The Connecticut horse soldiers' story is one of courage, endurance and achievement that the regiment and the state of Connecticut can be proud of.
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