No one who was there would ever forget the sight.
Two brigades of Union cavalry, nine regiments, stretched out in
columns of fours, riding from right to left across the length of the
Federal line. There was a lull in the fighting at Cedar Creek
allowing the troopers to ride the entire front, unchallenged by the
attacking Confederates. Between the two armies, with the entire
panorama of the battlefield in view, the horsemen walked their
mounts slowly and calmly as if on parade. At their head was the
young Charles Russell Lowell, Jr. Colonel of the 2nd Massachusetts
Cavalry and commander of the vaunted Cavalry Reserve Brigade. A
volunteer with no prior military experience, Lowell had impressed
the West Pointers in the Army of the Shenandoah with his natural
talent for directing men in battle. Major General Phil Sheridan in
particular was impressed; a commission to Brigadier General was
signed and on the way from Washington for the deserving young
officer. On this 19th day of October, 1864, with his star on the
rise and far out shining his peers, Charles Lowell had less than 20
hours to live.
The eldest son of cousins Charles Lowell and Anna Jackson, Charles
Jr., or Charlie, was born in Boston on the 2nd of January, 1835. For
nine generations his family had been principal players in the
business and social circles of the city, as well as leaders in
politics and finance until Charles Sr., lost a sizeable amount of
the family fortune in the Panic of 1837. Though far from destitute
the family had seen better days and any reversal of fortune would be
left up to the son, the father now spending his days preparing a
card catalog at the Boston Athenaeum. If anyone was up to such a
challenge it was young Charlie.
Two years of prep school and Charlie entered Harvard at the tender
age of 15, the youngest man in his class. As a freshman he was not
too popular with his classmates, being a bit too boisterous and
blunt, but as the years went by and the boy matured he became quite
prominent and well-liked by all. A gifted student, he took his place
at the head of the class and stayed there, impressing his friends by
appearing to retain everything, though never studying. It was in
college that his love for philosophy bloomed as well as a passion
for science and literature. Plato was his constant companion and
provided the inspiration of his trademark phrase "By Plato!"
Attracted to mysticism, he was also, like his family and close
friends, a follower of the Transcendentalist movement.
Graduating as Valedictorian in 1854, a frail looking young man with
wavy brown hair and a light mustache, Charles was ready to embark
into the world of business. He could take his pick of jobs, his
family's standing in society assured that, but he chose a lowly
administrative position in the counting house of Boston businessman
John M. Forbes. A deep friendship began between the two men and
thereafter nothing was too good for Forbes' young protégée.
With no intention of staying with the firm, Charles soon took
another menial job as a laborer in an iron mill, the Ames
Manufacturing Co. in Chicoppee, Mass. It was simple, back breaking
labor, far below the abilities of a Harvard man, but Charles was
there for a purpose. He wanted to see and understand operations from
the workingman's point of view. He was appalled by the terrible
working conditions and the squalor in which they lived, already
making plans for change when he took a position of authority. Moving
on in the Autumn of 1855, Charles took a management position with
Trenton Iron Co. of New Jersey, a position he excelled in and seemed
to enjoy, when soon after he was found coughing up blood; stricken
with tuberculosis at the age of 20. Doctors recommended a move to a
warm climate and no work until past the age of 30.
Acting on the doctor's first recommendation, John M. Forbes whisked
Charles away on a trip to New Orleans and the West Indies where his
health soon returned, though it was apparent he would not be ready
for work for some time. Forbes and Charles' grandmother footed the
bill for an extended tour of Europe, a trip they hoped would restore
his vitality and strength. For two years he criss-crossed the
continent, learning the language wherever he stopped and developing
into an accomplished equestrian. He was able to observe military
maneuvers in Austria and France and found time to become a
proficient swordsman, all knowledge that would serve him well in the
years to come.
His strength restored, Charles returned to the States in 1858, and
with the assistance of John M. Forbes, took a position as treasurer
with the Burlington and Missouri Railroad. Though he excelled in the
position, Charles had developed a passion for the iron making
industry and soon left for a post, again thanks to Forbes, as
ironmaster of the Mt. Savage Iron Works in Cumberland, Md. While
engrossed in his work, Charles was not blind to the political unrest
in the border state he now called home, or the larger turmoil in the
country as a whole. A Lincoln man and a passive abolitionist, he
waited patiently for the inevitable. In the days after Fort Sumter,
when the 6th Mass. Infantry was attacked by a mob in Baltimore,
Charles knew his duty and left for Washington to seek a commission.
Applying directly to the Senator Charles Sumner, Lowell claimed,
"... (I) am tolerant proficient with the small sword and
single-stick; and can ride a horse as far and bring him in as fresh
as any other man." Sumner passed the request on to Secretary of War
Simon Cameron who gave the young man a commission as captain in the
3rd (later 6th) U.S. Cavalry, a regiment that had seen nearly all of
it's experienced officers transfer to the volunteer service. It is
an interesting question why Lowell chose to accept a commission with
the regulars rather than with the troops being raised in his home
state. Quite possibly it was a belief that he would find a more
professional air about the regulars, and he was not disappointed
with his appointment to a renowned unit. .
first months in uniform were spent recruiting in Ohio and
Pennsylvania, and by September he had joined the regiment in camp at Bladensburg, Md. where the new men were learning to ride
and fight like a team. The commanding officer of the 6th, Lt. Col.
William Emory, was impressed with Charles referring to him as
"...the best officer appointed from civilian life he had ever
known... ", and soon rewarded him with command of a squadron (two
companies). It was April of 1862 before the 6th U. S. was called to
action, boarding transports for the trip to Fort Monroe, Va. and the
massive military buildup that preceded Gen. George McClellan's
peninsular campaign. The pursuit of the Confederate forces after the
siege of Yorktown gave Capt. Lowell his first taste of action, and
during the fighting around Williamsburg he distinguished himself
leading sabre charges against the enemy. "Our Capt.", recalled
orderly Frank Robbins, "was the first man through the rebel lines
every time we charged that day." Cited for bravery at Williamsburg
and Slatersville he was recommended for brevet to Major.
Not involved with the fighting during the Seven Days Battle, the 6th
U.S. camped at Harrison's Landing, within earshot of the battle
raging to the northeast. Charles took a deep personal loss during
this battle with the death of his younger brother James, killed in
the fighting near Glendale. An officer in the 20th Mass. Infantry,
James was mortally wounded during the battle, dying several days
later in enemy hands.
Charles' recommendation for promotion, though not granted, was
noticed by the commanding general who had the young captain
transferred to his staff. Life on McClellan's staff was exciting and
hectic as the army was then engaged in transferring men and
equipment back to Washington via the James River. It was not
glorious work, and kept him away from the action during the fighting
at Second Bull Run, but not the terrific battle along Antietam Creek
on the 17th of September. While the Union troops were heavily
engaged against the Confederate left, Lowell was dispatched with
orders for Gen. Sedgwick's division of Sumner's corps. Arriving on
the field he found a part of the line routed and in retreat. In a
moment he was everywhere, calling the men to rally and stemming the
flow of men to the rear. He called the men to return to the fight
and something about the scrappy little captain caused them to
follow. A nearby officer recalled "I shall never forget the effect
of his appearance. He seemed a part of his horse ...After I was
wounded, one of my first anxieties was to know what became of him;
for it seemed to me that no mounted man could have lived through the
storm of bullets that swept the (East) wood just after I saw him
enter it." Twice his horse was struck, a third bullet ripped through
his overcoat, and a final ball struck and shattered his scabbard.
Charles himself was miraculously untouched. McClellan rewarded his
young aide by giving him the honor of presenting the thirty-nine
captured battleflags to President Lincoln in Washington.
His letters to friends and family after the battle are typical. He
names officer friends who were wounded and downplays the ferocity of
the fighting, but never a word about himself, his close calls, or
the high honor he was given. In a rare moment he mentions to John M.
Forbes that he would need a new scabbard and would have to ride a
different horse for a time. The letters of Charles Lowell, like his
official correspondence, never were platforms for bragging or
garnering attention to his accomplishments. It was simply beyond him
to blow his own horn.
Soon after the, battle McClellan was replaced and the members of his
staff returned to their regiments or sought new assignments. Charles
had begun hinting to friends months before that he would like to
command his own regiment and one replied that he should spend the
winter recruiting a regiment of gentlemen. "Gentlemen?", he scoffed,
"What do you mean Gentlemen, drivers of gigs?" Another friend, John
M. Forbes, was then involved in an enterprise that would soon give
Lowell that very opportunity.
In October of 1862 Governor John Andrew was presented with an offer
by J. Sewall Reed of San Francisco of a company of cavalry from
California if he would agree to pay the travel expenses. Recruiting
was difficult in New England at this stage in the war and
contemplating his own plan of raising a second regiment of state
cavalry, he accepted. This company, soon to be known as the
'California Hundred', was to be the hand picked elite of the west,
and when another offer was presented for an additional four
companies, the 'California Battalion', he didn't hesitate in
embracing the plan that would bring another 400 men into the service
of Massachusetts. By early December Captain Reed and the 'Hundred'
were aboard a ship steaming for the Isthmus of Panama.
A cavalry regiment is made up of twelve companies and another seven
would have to be soon forthcoming to make the regiment a reality.
John M. Forbes and Amos A. Lawrence, like Forbes a wealthy Boston
businessman, had proposed to raise a battalion of troops for the
state if the bounty money for the new recruits would be turned over
directly to the new partners. It was their plan to waive the
commission that most bounty brokers charged, thus giving the
recruits more cash, and therefore filling the ranks that much
quicker. The plan was agreed to and recruiting was ready to kick off
as soon as a commanding officer was selected. Forbes suggested his
young friend Lowell, a recommendation that the Governor, who
probably knew the young man socially, agreed to without
reservations. On the 4th of November, 1862, Captain Lowell secured
McClellan's permission to leave his staff and was soon on his way to
Boston and his new command.
Recruiting in Boston was tough even with the added incentive of a
big wad of cash. More officers were selected from other regiments to
assist in the recruiting with the understanding that they would
receive commissions in the 2nd Mass. Cav. Officers scoured the
counties around Boston and soon the men came pouring in; butchers,
bakers, farmers and sailors, men from every walk of life and most
with only one thought on their mind: the said wad of cash. Mr.
Forbes and Mr. Lawrence made one, albeit very large, mistake in the
recruiting process. They gave the money to the men as soon as they
enlisted, rather than as was the custom to give it to them after
they were in the field. The result was that bounty jumpers came from
near and far to get a free piece of the pie. So many that Charles
Lowell, now Col. Lowell, had the distinction of commanding the
regiment with the highest number of desertions in the state of
Massachusetts. A total of 614 deserters, a number which becomes even
more astonishing when considering all but a handful came from the
seven eastern companies. Filling the companies took a lot of time, a
lot of money, and occasionally a fair dose of courage.
Entering the recruiting office one morning Col. Lowell found a
handful of new men in a 'mutiny' having only taken the oath of
enlistment moments before. A sergeant had ordered the ringleader
handcuffed and the malcontents were preparing to charge when Lowell
happened on the scene. The men tried to explain their side of the
story but he quickly hushed them saying he'd hear what they had to
say after the order was obeyed. "God knows, my men, I don't want to
kill any of you; but I shall shoot the first man who resists.
Sergeant, iron your man." Of course they resisted, and the gentle,
philosophical Lowell, pulled his pistol and dropped the leader where
he stood. Holstering the smoking sidearm, Lowell walked over to the
Governors office, entered and said, "I have to report to you, sir,
that in the discharge of my duty I have shot a man." Without another
word he turned and left, the Governor mentioning to an onlooker, "I
need nothing more. Colonel Lowell is as humane as he is brave."
Nothing further was ever done about the matter, though the other
'mutineers' did wind up in various prisons for their part in the
Recruits were sent to the regimental barracks at Camp Meigs in
Readville, some nine miles by rail from Boston, where Lowell began
the process of converting citizens into soldiers. It was not an easy
task and the Colonel kept his men in the saddle for hours. Nearly
all of the Californians were accomplished riders, but not so their
eastern counterparts who were routinely bucked off, bitten, or out
smarted by their unruly mounts. By February of 1863 five companies
were formed into a battalion and sent off to Virginia under the
command of the senior Major, Caspar Crowninshield. Assigned to the
troops around Yorktown and Gloucester Point, the regiment would do
picket duty far to the south while the remainder of the regiment was
recruited and trained.
Slowly, and with a great deal of effort, the other companies were
recruited and in April were joined by the 'California Battalion',
just arrived from the west. The Californians were the heart and soul
of the regiment, everyone in the command knew it, most of all Col.
Lowell. So it came as no little shock when he broke up the battalion
and divided its companies up and with the eastern recruits formed
the second and third battalions. (The first was with Crowninshield
in Virginia). It was a logical move, the westerners providing an
element of professionalism and esprit de corps, that was sadly
lacking in the other companies. Lowell needed a fighting regiment,
not an elite battalion with eight companies of dead weight, though
his decision was a bitter pill for the west coasters. Never able to
forgive Lowell for this slight was Major DeWitt C. Thompson who had
recruited the 'Californian Battalion' and had fully expected to
command them in the east. Thompson smoldered with resentment and
would leave no stone unturned in his futile attempts to remove his
men from the regiment and form their own command.1 1 At war's end
Thompson was still so furious over having lost his battalion, that
when he wrote their history he managed to tell the story without
ever mentioning the 2nd Mass. Cav., Col. Lowell, or any other
By May the men were nearly ready for the field and a move was made
to Camp Brightwood, Md. a fine camp just outside the Capitol and
close to the seat of war. Knowing that real fighting was now just a
matter of time, Lowell pushed his men relentlessly to prepare them.
Many growled and complained at the fever pace he set, but later,
when it counted, they blessed him for it. Others noted that as hard
as they worked their little Colonel was always there, going thru the
same exercises and drills, never tiring, never sparing himself, and
always saving the administrative details until the men were resting.
So near to Washington, it's political intrigues and showy military
reviews, Lowell didn't give a hoot for the martial dog and pony
shows and was irritated when Maj. Gen. Silas Casey called for a
review of the regiment. Casey was pleased with the review, and,
grudgingly, so was Lowell who could see the long days paying off,
writing to his fiancé, "I wish you could see how my Battalion will
turn out tomorrow morning; not an extra gewgaw, nothing for
ornament. If they want ornamental troops around Washington, they'll
let me go, -indeed, I have dropped some things which have generally
been counted necessaries; two of my companies go without any
blankets but those under their saddles. That is pretty well for
recruits. " .
The call to action finally came on the 10th of June, 1863, when
Lowell ordered three days rations for every man and soon had them in
the saddle hunting the partisan leader John. S. Mosby. Earlier that
day Mosby and his newly organized 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry
had attacked two companies of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, routing them
before disappearing into the Maryland countryside with their
prisoners. This inaugural raid of the Rangers initiated a year of
contact between Lowell and Mosby, a year that would see victories,
and defeats, but never the outright destruction of the rebel band.
Mosby was a master of hit and run operations, striking quickly at a
smaller target, then disbanding his men into the countryside to
await another call to action, tactics that were nearly impossible to
counter with conventional means. The concept of total war had yet to
come to Northern Virginia, the only way to effectively deal with
such a guerilla force, and Colonel Lowell had no choice but to act
in a predictable way. A pattern developed where Mosby would strike,
Lowell would be notified and give chase, on a good day taking one or
two of the Rangers as prisoners.
A change in routine occurred during the Gettysburg campaign when
Lowell, tasked with picketing a stretch of the Potomac, was ordered
by Major Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, to
join Gen. Slocum's troops then at Harper's Ferry, Va. Sending a
telegram to inform his own commanding officer (Maj. Gen. Peter
Heintzelman) of his orders, Lowell put his men in the saddle and
hustled off in compliance. Arriving in Knoxville (across the river
from Harper's Ferry) the next morning, he was presented with a
telegram from Heintzelman ordering him back to his position on the
river, a location which had just been used by the Confederate
cavalry to cross into Maryland. Informing Hooker and Slocum of his
new orders Lowell immediately puts his boys back in the saddle for
the return trip. This initiated a flurry of orders and telegrams
back and forth between the three generals, all claiming they had the
authority over Lowell's two battalions. Hooker was furious that the
young Colonel refused to heed his orders. The issue was finally
settled when Union General in Chief Henry Halleck entered the fray
and specifically ordered the 2nd Mass. Cav. back to the defenses of
Washington. A livid Hooker used this small incident, as well as
several larger ones, to claim lack of support from the
administration and to submit his resignation as army commander.
Unaware of the small part he had played in army politics, Lowell
returned to camp after an ineffectual pursuit of the rebel cavalry
Charles Lowell's first taste of combat as a commanding officer came
during the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg when it was unsure
among the Union high command just where Gen. Lee's army was located.
Dispatched to Ashby's Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to watch for
troop movements in the Shenandoah valley, Lowell fought with
dismounted Confederate cavalry defending the gap, easily flanking
them out of their position. No forces of the enemy were spotted in
the valley and Lowell reluctantly returned to his new camp in Vienna
and operations against the guerrillas.
Clashing with Mosby on the 31st of July Lowell succeeded in
recapturing a wagon train of 30 wagons and their terrified sutler
owners. The Rangers themselves were once again too elusive a target
and managed to disappear into the countryside, taking on their guise
of innocent farmers, or hiding in hidden locations. It was obvious
that a concerted effort was needed to shut down the irregular
operations, and Washington responded by giving Lowell command of an
Independent Cavalry Brigade, consisting of the 13th and 16th NY, as
well as his own 2nd Mass. (including his first battalion just
returned from the York River). Lowell welcomed the New Yorkers
though his own regiment considered the newcomers, predominantly
German, as "...so much excess baggage to be taken care of." Tasked
with picketing a 20 mile line and sending out daily patrols, the
brigade had nearly daily contact with Mosby's men.
Rooting out the guerrillas from their farms and hideouts brought
Col. Lowell into close contact with the civilian population, a
business he had little enthusiasm for. "I don't at all fancy the
duty here", he wrote, "serving against bushwhackers; it brings me in
contact with too many citizens, -and sometimes with mothers and
children." On one occasion a young Ranger was captured and his
mother came pleading for the boys release. Though Vienna was a
pro-Union town other nearby communities expressed contempt and
hatred toward Lowell and his men, always making a show of slamming
doors and letting down window shades as they passed. Lowell detested
the work but he was very good at it, prompting Mosby to later write,
"I have often said, that of all the Federal commanders opposed to
me, I had the highest respect for Colonel Lowell, both as an officer
and a gentleman."
Lowell got the upper hand on Mosby in August when a detachment of
his men was surprised by the Rangers but managed to put a pair of
bullets into the rebel leader's side. Out of action for nearly two
months, Mosby's absence allowed his adversary to concentrate on
other guerilla forces that prowled the area. "The Comanches", as the
35th Battalion of Virginia cavalry were known, were a frequent
nuisance under their commander Lt. Col. Elijah White. Never a threat
on the level of Mosby, White and his men were a bit of a discipline
problem and were frequently attached to the Army of Northern
Virginia. By Fall Mosby was healed and all was as it was before.
Things were well enough in hand during the Fall to allow Charles to
take leave and marry his fiancé Josephine Shaw. The sister of the
martyred Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry,
Josephine, or Effie, was the perfect match for Charlie Lowell. An
attractive, slender young woman of 19, Josephine had been educated
in Paris and Rome, where, like Charlie, she gained a deep love for
literature and history. Casual friends since childhood, they fell
deeply in love after his return from Antietam and wrote each other
nearly every day.
Returning to camp in November, Lowell changed tactics and caught
Mosby's men off guard. Sending out a mounted detachment of 25 men
that followed the roads and lanes by day, it was shadowed by 75
dismounted troopers who kept to the shelter of the woods, making
most of their movements by night. Led by a local Union sympathizer,
the force swept up two dozen of Mosby's men. Within days the Rangers
adapted and Lowell returned to the standard procedure of patrolling
A new assignment came in February of 1864 when Col. Lowell was
detached for temporary duty at the Cavalry Bureau in Washington and
tasked with organizing the supply system at the Giesboro Point
depot. The depot, located just across the Eastern Branch of the
Potomac from Washington, supplied the remounts for all of the
eastern armies and was an administrative nightmare. To bring order
to chaos, newly appointed Bureau chief Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson,
brought in Lowell to straighten out the depot which was floundering
without a head. Charles threw himself whole heartedly into the new
duty, efficiently overhauling the system that processed over 20,000
horses during his brief stay. By the end of March the depot was
running productively and Lowell was allowed to return to his brigade
During his absence disaster had struck when a 125 man detachment was
ambushed and routed by Mosby. 55 men were captured and 10 killed
including Capt. J. Sewall Reed, the popular commander of the
'California Hundred', whose idea to bring the men east had led to
the formation of the regiment. A similar misfortune occurred in July
when a 150 man patrol under Major William F. Forbes (the son of John
M. Forbes) was attacked and routed resulting in a dozen killed and
38 captured. This fight brought an end to Lowell's activities
against the guerrillas as he was soon called north into Maryland to
help in the defense of the Capitol against the approaching
Confederate army of Gen. Jubal Early.
Taking only his 2nd Massachusetts, Lowell gathered up fragments of
other regiments scattered around Washington and was the only unit
ready to pursue when Early's force was pushed back from the city
gates. Harassing the Southern rear guard while the Federal infantry
slowly began a pursuit, Lowell nearly met disaster in the streets of
Rockville. Tired of the cavalry dogging his heels, Early sent two
brigades to punish Lowell's force, striking at them during a halt in
the Maryland town. Massively outnumbered and with his own troops
clogging the street, unable to retreat or counterattack, Lowell had
to act quickly or face annihilation. Waving his hat, he shouted,
"Dismount! and let your horses go!" Unable to spare one man out of
four to hold the mounts, Lowell's order was immediately obeyed. "He
waited till the enemy came near, fired one volley at short range, -
it checked the rush; another, -it stopped it. then Lowell, on foot,
ran out before them, waving his hat, and they ran forward firing,
and the rout was averted."
Word of the scrappy little Colonel had gotten out and in early
August when Maj. General Phil Sheridan was appointed to command the
Army of the Shenandoah he asked for and received Lowell and his 2nd
Mass. Cav. Assigned to Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's First division,
Lowell was given command of the Third Brigade consisting of the 2nd
Mass, 14th and 22nd Penn, and the 1st Md. The days of chasing
bushwhackers were over, Lowell was once again part of an army,
confiding to Josephine, "It is exhilarating to see so many cavalry
about and to see things going right again.
For two weeks Lowell's brigade maneuvered with the army, fighting
with the enemy every day. On the 25th of August Lowell led his
brigade in an attack on entrenched Confederate infantry, "...he
himself actually whacking their leveled muskets with his saber.."
while his men tore down the barricades and charged thru. Capturing
74 prisoners and suffering only a handful of casualties, the
Colonel's actions had been observed by Sheridan who remarked to an
aide while watching Charles jump his horse over the barricade,
"Lowell is a brave man." Barely two weeks later the third brigade
was disbanded and Lowell was given command of the Reserve Brigade,
made up of the tough regular cavalry and considered by many to be
the best in the service. Consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th U. S.
along with his own 2nd Mass., Lowell's appointment was a high honor,
one due to his own exceptional abilities.
Sheridan's trust in putting the young volunteer in charge of the
regulars paid off with big dividends on the 19th of September during
the Third Battle of Winchester. Forcing a crossing of the Opequon
River under a withering fire early in the battle, the cavalry waited
through the day while the infantry wore down Early's ranks. Sensing
victory, the cavalry was massed to the north of Winchester awaiting
the pivotal moment. The Reserve brigade was on the left of the line
when the massive charge of five Union brigades, a line half a mile
wide in double ranks, charged and crushed the Confederate line.
Lowell, with the regulars, charged a battery, capturing two guns and
caissons during which his horse was shot out from under him, one of
thirteen lost during the campaign.
Lowell excelled again five days later during fighting in the Luray
Valley, a follow-up to Sheridan's Winchester victory, prompting
Sheridan to request a commission for Charles to Brigadier General.
Unaware of Sheridan's request for his advancement, Lowell thought
just as highly of his commander. "I like Sheridan immensely," he
wrote Josephine, "Whether he succeeds or fails, he is the first
general I have seen who puts as much heart and time and thought into
his work as if he were doing it for his own exclusive profit." Two
days later during the ill planned advance on Waynesboro, Early's
forces, which had been retreating steadily, turned and lashed at the
Federals pursuing him. The Reserve brigade, leading the advance, was
nearly surrounded and was fighting for it's life, while Colonel
Lowell, calm and unshaken, coolly directed a fighting withdrawal
which safely brought his men out of the trap.
A little over a week later, as the Federal troops were engaged in
burning the Valley's resources, the Confederate cavalry under newly
appointed commander Gen. Thomas Rosser struck out at Sheridan's
cavalry. Sheridan was amazed that the rebels would strike at his
rear and ordered his chief of cavalry to, "...either give Rosser a
drubbing or get whipped himself." On the 9th of October the Federal
cavalry struck back at the Battle of Tom's Brook, smashing the enemy
and driving them headlong in a 26 mile running retreat. By evening
Lowell's men had captured 1 battle flag, 4 pieces of artillery, 4
caissons, 2 forges, 2 ambulances, 7 wagons and 50 prisoners. His
total losses; seven wounded.
Throughout the Valley campaign Charles Lowell had led a charmed
life, never struck though men fell all around him. As they days of
fighting wore on he seemed to have a premonition which he revealed
in his letters to Josephine with statements such as "I should like
to have Sundays quiet", or, "I do wish this war was over!", and most
telling of all, "...I don't want to be shot till I've had a chance
to come home. I have no idea that I shall be hit, but I want so much
not to now, that it sometimes frightens me." It was not to be.
On the 19th of October, 1864, General Early's supposedly beaten army
turned and in a surprise flanking attack caught Sheridan's army
unprepared at Cedar Creek. The Union cavalry was encamped on the far
right of the line and other than a small foray at the opening of the
battle was left unengaged while the infantry fought on the left.
Lowell had awakened at three that morning, preparing to take his men
out on a reconnaissance, and so had his brigade mounted and ready
when the battle broke out. Keeping his brigade in the saddle and
awaiting orders, he listened to the sound of the battle with Col.
James Kidd, commander of the Michigan brigade, wondering what was
happening to the southeast. It was apparent by the sound of the
firing that the Federal line was falling back, but still the cavalry
stood by listlessly, without orders. Finally Lowell made a decision
to take the Reserve brigade to the left, and when questioned by Col.
Kidd what he thought he should do replied, "I think you should go
too". He thought for a moment and then, "Yes, I will take the
responsibility to give you the order." And so the two brigades began
their march across the entire length of the front, taking full
advantage of a lull in the fighting to make their movement.
Two corps of the Union army had been crushed and were in retreat.
Gen. Sheridan, returning from a conference in Washington, had spent
the night in Winchester and was now making his way to his embattled
army. Union stragglers choked the field while a single corps of
infantry held a defensive position against the victorious
Confederates. It was over this confusing field that the cavalry
rode, their movement noted by Gen. William Dwight of the VI Corps.
"They moved past me, that splendid cavalry; if they reached the
Pike, I felt secure. Lowell got by me before I could speak, but I
looked after him for a long distance. Exquisitely mounted, the
picture of a soldier, erect, confidant, defiant, he moved at the
head of the finest body of cavalry that today scorns the earth it
treads." While making their transit, Lowell and Kidd finally
received a dispatch, confirming Lowell's instincts and ordering
them, and the remaining cavalry brigades to the left.
Taking up a position on the army's left flank the cavalry held off
the enemy on their front and stabilized the line as Sheridan arrived
on the field, electrifying his men with his presence. One of
Sheridan's first orders was to Lowell questioning whether he could
hold the vital flank while the army rallied. Lowell's simple answer;
he could. Three successive charges against Lowell's line could not
dislodge his men from their strong position behind a stonewall. On
the third charge a spent bullet ricocheted off the wall and slammed
squarely into the chest of Charles Lowell. Reeling in the saddle but
not falling, he was helped to the ground by Col. Smith Hastings of
Kidd's brigade who searched for a wound but found only a mushroomed
piece of lead. All breathed a premature sigh of relief, not knowing
that the wound was probably mortal. The bullet had most likely
collapsed one of his tubercular lungs and he was bleeding
internally. With blood on his lips Lowell tried to reassure the men
around him, "It is only my poor lung", he whispered.
General A.T.A. Torbert, commander of Sheridan's cavalry, urged
Lowell to move to the rear but he refused. The rallied army would
soon be advancing and he insisted on leading his men when the charge
was called. His men built a small earthwork around him for
protection as he waited and rested for the advance. When the order
for the counterattack was given Lowell was lifted into the saddle
where he summoned all his strength, drew his sword, and whispered to
an aide to sound the charge. Almost immediately he was tumbled off
the back of his horse, a bullet passing through his body and
severing his spinal cord.
As the fighting raged on, Charles was taken to an old house in
nearby Middletown where he was attended to by Dr. Oscar DeWolf,
surgeon of the 2nd Mass. Cav. The Dr. recalled his final hours,
"There were four or five that night in the room. Lowell lay on the
table, shot through from shoulder to shoulder; the ball had cut the
spinal cord on the way. Of course, below this he was completely
paralyzed. Four others were lying desperately wounded on the floor.
One young officer was in great pain. Lowell spent much of his ebbing
strength helping him through the straits of death. 'I have always
been able to count on you, you were always brave. Now you must meet
this as you have the other trials - be steady - I count on you.'"
Urged by the doctor to write a few words to his wife, Charles found
he could use his writing hand and managed a few lines to her.
Dictating a few orders and final requests, he found his strength
slipping away and by morning it was all over, Dr. DeWolf pronouncing
8 a.m. as the time of death.
His loss was felt deeply within the brigade but most keenly among
the army's high command. "His fall cast a gloom on the entire
command," wrote Gen. Merritt. "No one in the field appreciated his
worth more than his division commander. Young in years, he died too
early for his country, leaving a brilliant record for fixture
generations, ending a .career which gave bright promise of yet
greater usefulness and glory." Gen. George Custer, once a member of
McClellan's staff with Lowell, echoed this feeling, "We all shed a
tear when we knew we had lost him. It is the greatest loss the
Cavalry Corps has ever suffered." And especially touched by the loss
was Gen. Sheridan himself. "I do not think there was a quality which
I could have added to Lowell. He was the perfection of a man and a
soldier." In a letter to Josephine Lowell Sheridan stated, "Had
General Lowell lived, it is my firm belief that he would have
commanded all my cavalry and would have done better with it than I
could have done."
Charles Russell Lowell, Jr. was buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery
on the 28th of October. His biographer, Edward Waldo Emerson
recalled the scene, "I remember, one rainy day when the sudden gusts
blew the yellow leaves in showers from the College elms, hearing the
beautiful notes of Pleyel's Hymn, which was the tune to which
soldiers were borne to burial, played by the band as the procession
came, bearing Charles Lowell's body from his mother's house to the
College Chapel; and seeing the coffin, wrapped in the flag, carried
to the alter by soldiers; and how strangely in contrast with the new
blue overcoats and fresh white and red bunting were the
campaign-soiled cap and gauntlets, the worn hilt and battered
scabbard of the sword that lay on the coffin." Charles Lowell's
commission to Brigadier General had been signed the day before his
death. He was 29 years old. Historians and friends have speculated
where he would have gone, what he would have accomplished had he not
perished that day in the Shenandoah Valley. A brilliant student, a
natural leader, a gifted soldier, a gentle philosopher. There was no
limit to his promise. Barely a month after his funeral, Josephine
Shaw Lowell gave birth to the couples only child. Named for the
father she would never know, the daughter was called Carlotta.
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