Accounts of War

Rudolph Wellington Donmoyer

Rudolph Wellington Donmoyer“Rudy, as his nearest friends all called him, enlisted in Co. E of the Seventeenth Pa. Cavalry soon after the enrollment of his unfortunate brother Lewis. He was a stout and venturesome boy, though at that time only fifteen years and six months old. The first notable experience he had happened just when his regiment received orders to leave Harrisburg for the seat of war, and that was to become infected with the loathsome disease of smallpox. It was not the way in which he expected to serve his country, but he could not help it, and it is only mentioned to illustrate one of the disagreeable exigencies of war. December 9th was a cold, unpleasant day. It snowed fast all that afternoon and night, and the next morning the drift against the tents was so high that, as one of the company remarked to me, ‘we could hardly crawl out,’ though, of course, a snowbank is not a very formidable obstacle to a soldier. After packing up the camp accompaniments the men mounted their horses and at nine o’clock rode to the railroad, where they were compelled to wait until four before the trains came to transport them to the City of Washington.

“Rudy had for several days been feeling miserable. It was night when the men reached Washington, when they again mounted their horses, and rode out several miles to an open field to encamp on the soft side of four inches of snow. As the tents had not yet arrived, the sick boy lay that night on an open bale of hay under a blanket. In the morning a hospital tent was put up and he was then taken to better quarters on a stretcher, not improved by the exposure and exertion since leaving Harrisburg. A stove placed in the tent made him more comfortable. The next night the frozen earth on the near side of the stretcher thawed, and suddenly the litter executed a flank movement, and the prostrate incumbent involuntarily debouched into the mud. As no support to this forlorn detachment was present, it scrambled out of the mud as best it could, and so soon as able formed a new alignment. As the boy had eaten nothing for several days, his anxious brother thought that a piece of chicken would tempt him, so the next morning a raid was made on the market for a chicken. It was still hoped that nothing serious ailed him, and that he would in a few days come out all right. Before the detail with the chicken came, however, the Doctor came, and closely scrutinizing the young soldier, exclaimed, ‘My dear boy, you have the smallpox.’ Almost instantly a colored man came with an ambulance and hurried away with him to a better furnished hospital, a large stone house in Georgetown, D. C., where hundreds of others, in the house and in tents on the environing ground, were down with the same repulsive disease. Lewis and his mess that day may have had a chicken for their dinner, but not their laid up comrade.

“Rudy was carried up the stairs of the big stone house on a stretcher and left for some time in the hall, where he could meditate on the novelty of the situation, if he felt inclined to reflect upon it, until the corpse of a man who had just died of smallpox could be carried out from the bed he was to occupy. The tick of the bed to which he was in turn assigned was filled with corn husks ‘with the nubbins left on.’ The Doctor mildly admonished him not to turn over any more than he could help, but to keep as quiet as possible, like a good soldier. The advice was doubtless well meant. Where the nubbins came into contact with his body a sore formed, until he had thirty-five of the bothersome things. These sores became abscesses, filled with corruption, and the Doctor, as kindly as he could under the circumstances, lanced them. Then in some of them gangrene set in, and for a time every morning the Doctor entertained his sore-suffering patient by burning out the holes with caustic. The Doctor did not mind it much, but Rudy remembers that he himself minded it somewhat. Some of the holes ran down to the bone. Finally, at the end of four months, being thought unfit for cavalry service, he was kindly offered an honorable discharge, which he would not accept, as he was still mending, and hoped to be in good shape soon to be with his brother Lewis, at the front, where he understood the boys were having lively times. The Doctor thought he could not for some time ride a horse on account of his sores. However, he gladly accepted a furlough for thirty days to visit the old folks and sisters at home, and at the end of the leave of absence he believed he would ride with the boys. When the time expired, instead of reporting at the hospital, from which he was glad to escape, he presented himself at the dismounted camp at Alexandria, Va., where he was given a horse and sent on to his regiment. When he arrived at the front, just before the great battle of Chancellorsville, his captain notified the hospital that the young cavalryman was again in the ranks. And the boy remained to participate in forty-five battles and skirmishes.

“In the first battle, fought on the 3d day of May, 1863, Rudy and Lewis were well initiated into the malignity of war, though they were little more than deeply interested spectators. The Seventeenth was one of the only three cavalry regiments with Hooker in the battle, the rest of the mounted troops having all been sent with Averill and Stoneman in a raid to cut Lee’s communications. On the evening of the 2d day of May the Eleventh Corps was driven back in alarming disorder by the rebels under Jackson, and the whole Union army was threatened with a fearful disaster. At a critical moment General Pleasanton approached the breast-works with the Eighth and Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, just as Jackson’s 20,000 victorious troops were coming on a rush after the broken and retreating Eleventh Corps. Comprehending at a glance what was transpiring, he ordered Major Keenan to charge with the Eighth, then hardly a half regiment strong, with all the fury and vigor possible on the head of Jackson’s approaching army, so as to give him (Pleasanton) time to get his battery of horse artillery into position. It was a fearful venture, but a few moments of time thus gained was of inestimable importance. The Eighth performed the direful task in the most gallant manner, making a charge that will be known in history as one of the most daring assaults that a small body ever attempted against such immense odds. The rebels supposed, of course, that they were being attacked by a heavy force, and paused in their mad rush to receive the anticipated shock. The object was thus attained. Twenty-two guns were instantly unlimbered, loaded, double-shotted, and placed into position, and as the enemy, checked but for a few minutes, came pouring in a great mass over the parapet that the Eleventh Corps had just forsaken, the order was given to fire. The well-aimed, double-shotted guns mowed the rebels down at a fearful rate, and again checked the furious onset, though a fierce musketry and artillery duel followed that lasted almost an hour. The Seventeenth Cavalry, composed of new and raw men, sat on their horses in the rear of the battery, in single line, with drawn sabers, and with orders to charge if the enemy attempted to take the guns. It is believed that they were taken for the front line of a much larger force, as the ground back of them sloped downward and was not in the enemy’s view. The position was a perilous one for the Seventeenth, but it performed for the army a service of immense importance. It is difficult to imagine the feelings of Rudy and Lewis when close witnesses of such an awful scene, and standing with sabers drawn and ready, expecting every moment to be themselves engaged hand to hand in an unsparing struggle. In a general order after the battle General Pleasanton said: ‘The coolness displayed by the Seventeenth in supporting the batteries has excited the highest admiration.’

“After the baptism of fire at Chancellorsville Rudy and Lewis had many lessons in the rigorous school of war, to enter into the details of which would require a great deal of space. They were together in the terrible first-day battle on the field of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, when the Union troops were vastly outnumbered, and when the percentage of casualties was far greater than that of the main army in the second and third days’ awful fighting, but both boys came out unharmed. One of the most trying moments of that fateful day was when, through the dust and smoke, the Seventeenth was mistaken for a body of the enemy by Howard’s artillery, posted on Cemetery Hill, and became the target for a fire that was dreaded more than the fire from the hostile side. While the shells were bursting over and around them the order was given to change position, and, said Rudy, ‘we never obeyed a command with greater alacrity.’ One of Rudy's recollections of this fight may here be mentioned to show that shells sometimes play strange freaks, as well as floods, tornadoes and lightning. When the Seventeenth crossed Seminary Ridge on the morning of July 1st and met Hill’s infantry, a shell entered the body of his captain’s horse, bent the scabbard of his saber, removed a patch from the seat of his pants and gave him a black spot for a reminder of the day. The horse plunged with him over a stone fence and fell dead, but the plucky captain sustained no further injury and continued in command of his company. On the second and third memorable days Co. E was a part of the force detailed to protect the wagon trains at Westminster, and the brothers were, therefore, not in the final battles at Gettysburg.

“Rudy was wounded by a shot through his right foot on the 7th day of May, 1864, at Todd Tavern, where his brigade relieved Gregg’s Division, and drove the enemy, with heavy loss, and that day he saw his dear brother Lewis for the last time. ‘As I was being carried to the rear,’ said Rudy, ‘I shall always remember the anxious look Lewis gave me. He said something to me, but the noise and clash of the battle was so great that I could not catch a word of what he said.’ Lewis was himself fatally wounded in the fight at Cold Harbor, on the last day of the same month, as already stated, and was brought to the same hospital where Rudy lay, but the unfortunate brothers never dreamed of their being again so near each other, and under such ill-fated circumstances. But such is the fate of war. How true it is that, ‘What Fate imposes, men must needs abide.’ Lewis died, and was carried to his ‘long home,’ at Arlington, before Rudy or any of his kindred had learned of his sad end. Rudy’s foot healed rapidly, and by midsummer he was again at the front.

“When armies move and skirmish to secure strategic positions, and fight battles, every private soldier has a share and interest in the general course of events, and the record of the service of every private is therefore a bit of an army’s history. His part has also a certain entirely individual interest, especially to his immediate friends and relations. The private is in truth the real fighter, the man who is obliged to do the effective and most disagreeable work, and on whose strength and valor the success of the army so much depends. Generals, colonels, majors, and captains are the pilots and helmsmen, the eyes and ears of the army, and as a rule do not often with their own hands harm any one, though they are frequently the shining marks for the missiles of the enemy. The following episode in the army life of Rudy well illustrates the duty, value, and perils of the common soldier. In the latter part of September 1864, Rudy was one of a detail of twenty men from Co. E that was sent from Winchester to Martinsburg with a dispatch to General Sheridan. On the return trip, when hardly more than one mile from the Union line, two men on horseback appeared on the road who were at once concluded to be ‘bushwackers.’ Instantly the detail charged pell-mell and pursued the suspects as they fled from the main road into a tract of timber. Unsuspectingly the detachment was led into a trap of one hundred or more of Mosby’s famous guerrillas, who suddenly opened a destructive fire on them, instantly killing three and wounding four, one-third of their number, and the next instant made prisoners of twelve, only one being so fortunate to escape. This, considering the brief moment the affair lasted, and the actual result, was ‘about the hottest place,’ Rudy says, ‘that he was ever in.’

“After hastily disarming their captives, relieving them of the best of their clothing, cutting the buttons from the hard-worn garments that they did not covet, and appropriating all the footwear that passed their hurried inspection, the rebels started them, under a strong guard, in the direction of the Shenandoah River. Meanwhile the lucky soldier who escaped had lost no time in getting back to Winchester and reporting that his comrades were either captured or killed. So near the lines did this affair occur that the bugle-call to boots and saddles for the purpose of pursuit and rescue was distinctly heard by the guard and their prisoners. The alarmed guard hurried their captives into a piece of timber some distance from the scene of the capture, from which the boys could see their regiment galloping past in the pursuit, and so near were they that they would have shouted to let them know where they were but for the disagreeable fact that their convoy held their revolvers right in their faces and threatened to blow out their brains the instant they made their presence known. This happened about three o’clock in the afternoon. The regiment gave up the pursuit, and on returning sought the scene of the disaster to carry off the dead and wounded. Three of the latter had been left by the guard at a farm house, and they were not found—but the trio luckily got back into the lines three weeks later through the friendly aid of the farmer, who proved to be a good Union man.

“When near the Shenandoah River a company of horsemen were seen coming across a field. The major in charge of the rebel guard, thinking it was another detachment of Mosby’s force, that had been detailed to capture a supply train that was going from Winchester to Martinsburg, halted his men to have a talk with the officer in charge. When, getting into closer range, the major called out, ‘Who are you?’ The response was, ‘Who are you?’ The major replied, ‘we belong to Col. Mosby’s command.’ ‘So do we,’ said the officer with the most perfect sang froid, allaying the major’s suspicion, and then the pair agreed to meet each other half way and have a chat. When at close range the officer quickly raised his revolved and shot the major dead, and instantly his men came on in a furious charge, beginning to discharge their carbines. The road to the river now led into a deep cut, and down between the sloping banks the retreating rebels rushed, nearly every one with the horse of a prisoner tied on the right-hand side of his horse. The captives, seeing their opportunity in the rush, suddenly slid off their horses. Several shots were fired at them, but the stampeded rebs were in too great a hurry to take proper aim, and too eager to get away from their lively pursuers to bother with prisoners. Their impetuous adversaries—a company of independent scouts of West Virginians who had just been on the look-out for Mosby’s men—were getting too uncomfortably near them. The W. V.’s told the freed captives to take care of themselves, as they desired to devote their attention entirely to their now fleeing captors. Rudy and his comrades made as short a cut as possible for Winchester, and sometime after midnight were admitted within the picket line, where they were detained until morning, when they were sent under guard to headquarters, and thence to their command. In camp they were soon surrounded by their comrades, eager to shake hands and congratulate them, and to hear what kind of a time they had.

“After the war Rudy also served three years in the Regular Army as a member of Co. I, 19th Infantry, and assisted in taking care of the famous Klu Klux in Missouri and Arkansas, but limited space will not permit a fuller account of his military service. The army life of most men who served their country from three to six years during that eventful era would furnish material enough for a separate volume. During the last twenty-five years Rudy has been a general manager of the South Bend Toy Manufacturing Company, a concern now having $100,000 capital, and employing from 300 to 350 men. He is one of the original proprietors. The enterprise launched upon the great commercial tide with the imposing sum of several hundred dollars, but is now regarded as one of the largest institutions of the kind in the country. Among the articles manufactured are croquet sets, ball bats, game boards, children’s wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, toy tables, chairs and carriages, in illustrating and advertising which the firm has from time to time issued many beautiful catalogues” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 158-166).

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