Civil War Book Review: The Fifth New York Cavalry in the Civil War

by Brett Schulte on March 12, 2014 · 4 comments

Burns, Vincent L. The Fifth New York Cavalry in the Civil War. (McFarland: 2013). 304 pages, maps, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-4766-0624-8 $35.00 (Paperback). Note: Also available in Kindle format.

5thNewYorkCavalryinTheCivilWarBurnsMcFarland2013 Civil War Book Review: <i>The Fifth New York Cavalry in the Civil War</i>McFarland has produced dozens of regimental histories over the last decade, and The Fifth New York Cavalry in the Civil War by Vincent L. Burns falls somewhere in the middle of the group.  The author clearly did a lot of research on a regiment which has less than an ideal number of sources available to researchers.  The book suffers, though, from a lack of maps.  Cavalry regiments tended to be engaged hundreds of times in the Civil War, and the few maps and many place names in the text can leave the inexperienced reader bewildered at times.

The Fifth New York Cavalry had a varied and interesting war record.  The regiment was mustered in early in the war and left New York for Baltimore in November 1861.  The unit was involved in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, playing a key role in helping Banks escape Stonewall Jackson’s trap from Front Royal to Winchester.  They continued on with Banks through Second Bull Run and Chantilly, serving primarily as escorts to General Pope and others, finally getting detached to the Defenses of Washington in September 1862.  For the next eight months, they were primarily involved in battling Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby in Northern Virginia.  When the Gettysburg Campaign demanded every single man who could be spared, the 5th New York Cavalry was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac.  With that division they participated heavily and frequently in the Gettysburg Campaign, escaping Farnsworth’s famous doomed charge on July 3, 1863 because they had been detailed to protect an artillery battery.  The 5th continued as a Cavalry Corps regiment through the rest of 1863.  As Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign got underway, the unit found itself protecting first the left and then the right flank of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness.  The unit continued on and reached Petersburg with the rest of Grant’s large army group.  The Wilson-Kautz Raid, designed to seriously hurt one of Lee’s railroad supply lines, saw the 5th New York participate from June 21-July 1, 1864.  It was the costliest campaign in the unit’s existence, and they were lucky to mostly escape back to Union lines after surviving a Confederate ambush at the First Battle of Ream’s Station on June 29.  After a month of rest, the unit accompanied the rest of the First and Third Divisions of the Cavalry Corps to the Shenandoah Valley, and the 5th New York Cavalry, aside from a small group who accompanied General Phil Sheridan, never returned to Petersburg.

The 5th New York Cavalry is often referred to as a crack unit in primary accounts, accounts whose authors did not belong to the regiment.  It seems a great deal of that credit is due to long-time commander John Hammond, who was primarily a Major in the time he led the unit.  The 5th seems to have had a bizarre number of resignations and dismissals among its upper level leadership.  The Colonel, Othneil De Forrest, as well as the Lieutenant Colonel, were dismissed in less than honorable circumstances, though author Burns believes the Lt. Colonel unfairly implicated the Colonel, who was honorably discharged after his death from illness.  Even John Hammond, the oft-praised and dashing leader the men of the 5th New York had come to love, resigned suddenly in September 1864 during the Valley Campaign.  Burns was unable to piece together anything more concrete than a “pressing family matter” as the cause.  The men of the 5th New York Cavalry are often given the opportunity to speak for themselves, though Chaplain Boudrye’s works fill in most gaps in the narrative.  Boudrye was captured during the Gettysburg Campaign and spent some time in Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison before being exchanged in time for the 1864-5 campaigns.

Author Vincent L. Burns relies heavily on Chaplain Louis N. Boudrye’s war diary and journal, also published by McFarland (in 1996) and worth a pretty penny today.  Boudrye’s regimental history from 1865, Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, is also used extensively.  In addition, Burns makes use of the Officials Records, referring to them repeatedly as the “Official Record”, singular.  Long time 5th New York Cavalry commander John Hammond’s letters are used, as are letters found in various New York newspapers which covered the 5th New York Cavalry during the war.  All in all, though there were some gaps in the war time record, notably in the fall of 1863, Burns did a very solid job of piecing together this unit’s story in an interesting format.  Burns made one big mistake which was more than likely unintentional.  The book claims John Bell Hood was at Cedar Creek, when it is almost certain the author meant to refer to John B. Gordon instead.

Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry is a solid if not spectacular regimental history covering what appears to be one of the better volunteer cavalry units on the Union side in the Civil War.  Collectors of regimental histories, those who enjoy first person accounts and the piecing together of a story through primary sources, and fans of the Union cavalry and its war in the Eastern Theater will want to own this book.  Those interested in the 5th New York Cavalry and its men, obviously, will have the most use for the book.  The book is an easy read, though be prepared to bring out maps of the various campaigns the 5th New York Cavalry was involved in.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
cppbanner Civil War Book Review: <i>The Fifth New York Cavalry in the Civil War</i>

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Etman March 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Interested to read this book, although disappointed since I spent 4 years doing research and writing the same book, which now will just be a manuscript in my personal library…I think some of what found during my studies might fill in some of the gaps described here also.

Reply

Brett Schulte March 14, 2014 at 10:24 am

Andy,

Sorry to hear this didn’t work out for you. After diving deep into primary accounts of the Siege of Petersburg, I’m beginning to understand the amount of time and effort finding and studying these materials requires. I’d still consider writing your book, especially if you find after reading this one that you have something to add to the story.

Brett

Reply

Bob Williamson April 14, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Brett,
My father is a relative of Charles and Louis Boudrye, and has close to 100 letters during the civil war time between Charles and his wife Juliette. They do not describe anything directly related to the war, but the writing is incredible. He has been trying to find an organization/museum/etc. that would accept and make good use of them (still in envelopes, some with stamps). Any ideas? I ran across the reviewed book by Burns and will purchase it for my dad. Plus I also found on Amazon copies of Louis’ chaplain journal.

Reply

Brett Schulte April 14, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Bob,

Thanks for writing in. I’d recommend contacting the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. They have an excellent Civil War collection.

Brett

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