The sword-wielding Calvin Sanger Douty charged to glory in a Virginia dust cloud in mid-June 1863.
Born in Sangerville, Douty lived in Dover when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter. Joining the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment as its major, Douty mustered into the Army on Nov. 7, 1861. A colonel by March 1863, he commanded the 1st Maine when events took the regiment north that June.
Confederate cavalrymen commanded by J.E.B. Stuart screened the mountain passes through which Union scouts might spot Lee’s infantry marching through the Shenandoah Valley while en route to Pennsylvania. In 90-degree heat, two Confederate cavalry brigades supported by four cannons deployed “in a strong position on a ridge of hills covered with stone walls back of” of Aldie, Va., on Wednesday, June 17, recalled Edward Tobie, the 1st Maine Cavalry historian.
The Confederates guarded the roads leading from Aldie west to Ashby’s Gap and Snickers Gap in the Bull Run Mountains. Confederate lines extended across “the Middleburg and Snicker’s Gap roads,” according to Tobie, and “their skirmish line occupied a stone wall on the eastern slope of the hill and a long ditch behind some haystacks.”
Fighting broke out in late afternoon as Union cavalrymen probed west beyond Aldie. Confederate troopers fired from behind the stone walls or met their enemies on horseback. “The cavalry was hotly engaged,” recalled 1st Lt. Henry Hall, Co. H, 1st Maine. “The charges and counter-charges were superb and grand.”
Commanded by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, Union cavalrymen pushed their Confederate foes “back a full half-mile to some high stone fences (walls)” beyond the Furr House, Hall wrote later. “A regiment of dismounted cavalry had been placed” behind those walls.
As Federal troopers approached them, the Southern cavalrymen “received Kilpatrick’s men with a murderous fire, which literally covered the field in front with dead and dying, and sent the others flying in disorder to the rear,” Hall wrote. Two mounted Confederate regiments then charged the “retreating troops, and drove them back in wild confusion. Kilpatrick now called lustily for help.”
Minus four companies detached a while earlier, Douty was leading the 1st Maine Cavalry “up the left bank of Little River” when Kilpatrick’s courier reached him, Hall said. The regiment rode north to a hill where deployed Union artillery fired west toward the enemy.
Capt. George Armstrong Custer guided the 1st Maine into position near the cannons, and Douty ordered his companies to assemble “as fast as they arrived” atop the hill, Hall said. He watched as “Kilpatrick’s broken regiments came up the hill in our front and passed to our right and rear, routed and demoralized.”
At that moment, Calvin Douty hovered somewhere on the 1st Maine’s left flank, “attending to the formation of the companies as they arrived,” Hall recalled.
Riding among his fleeing horsemen, Kilpatrick crested the hill and suddenly “saw an unbroken front of live men, with glistening sabres drawn.” He “instantly stopped,” Hall said.
“His moistened features were covered with dust; his countenance was dejected and sad; and fire and the flash of his eye were gone, and he looked indeed ‘a ruined man,’” Hall observed.
“What regiment is this?” Kilpatrick blurted.
“First Maine!” at least a dozen troopers shouted.
“The response was electric,” Hall realized. “Then we heard the old, familiar, clear-ringing tones, and saw his countenance brighten to a smile, [and] his eyes flash.”
“Forward, First Maine!” Kilpatrick cried. “Are there twelve men who will follow me?”
The sun was low in the Virginia sky as Kilpatrick turned his horse west and charged. “With deafening yells and flashing sabres,” some “forty boys of Co. H, followed by Co. D … charged down the hill” and collided with “the victorious rebels, brave, bold determined fellows,” Hall recalled. Troopers fought with pistols and sabers; “some of our boys fell here,” and so did Confederate riders, who “felt the steel borne” by the Maine troopers. Four 1st Maine companies remained behind near the cannons.
Then the Confederate regiments broke, and cavalrymen rode intermingled “in the dusty darkness” along the Snickersville Turnpike, “where it was scarcely possible to distinguish friend from foe,” Hall recalled.
As Kilpatrick ordered the Maine boys to charge, Douty chased after the two Kilpatrick-led companies. He may not have been aware that the other four companies remained behind; Douty certainly knew that the four detached companies had not yet rejoined the regiment.
Pvt. William Howe of Lewiston caught up with Douty as he rode hell-bent for leather toward the thick dust kicked up by hundreds of horses.
Today asphalt covers the narrow Snickersville Turnpike (Route 734), a winding country lane that gradually rises to the northwest after diverging from the Ashby Gap Turnpike (modern Route 50) a mile west of Aldie. Fields separated by fences and stone walls border the road.
Their spirited westward charge funneled the 1st Maine troopers westward into the Snickersville Turnpike; as they struck the Confederate cavalry, the Maine boys spread the fight into the adjacent fields.
Not far behind his men, Douty rode parallel on their right.
Steering a wider course to Douty’s right, Howe saw “there were a few scattering men still in the open field.” He rode “into the cloud of dust,” where “no one was then individually visible” except for “a lone horseman charging up the line leaping obstacles and every obstacle that lay in his path.”
Howe “followed closely in his wake” and finally “saw that it was Col. Douty,” who this day rode “on his old white horse.”
The cavalry charge created a “line of smoke and dust … stretching from the summit of the hill to the base and no man could tell where the dividing front between friend and foe ended,” Howe said.
Union troopers “charged on and up the slope, and I followed” Douty to “the terminus of the field,” he recalled.
“At the point where the road turned in a right angle to the left, he espied me in his wake,” Howe noticed.
His sword thrust above his head, Douty shouted, “Where is the head of the regiment?”
“The [Confederate] cannonading from the heights had ceased in large measure,” so Howe thought that the 1st Maine Cavalry “was in possession of the hill.” He pointed toward the summit.
Digging in his spurs, Douty steered his horse through “an opening in the fence” and “over a pair of bars and through a dugout road in the side of the hill,” Howe noticed as he rode behind Douty.
The road was “skirted on the right by a heavy stone wall” that intersected another stone wall at a right angle “about twenty rods” away, Howe described the topography.
This stone wall “ran over the brow of the hill, leaving the field open beyond the intersection,” he said.
Heavy fighting had left the “dugout [road] literally filled with dead and dying men and horses.” Still riding hard behind Douty, Howe saw him “turning [his horse] to the right to go into the open field beyond.” Douty still rode “with his sword hand raised.”
This was the moment “I last saw him alive,” Howe realized. “Just then a volley came from behind the stone walls and the Colonel fell, my horse was wounded and I received a slight wound in the right ankle.”
Howe and his mount fled, racing east and uphill “toward the woods on the high ground at the other side.”
There waited the four 1st Maine Cavalry companies that had not charged.
Maj. Stephen Boothby of Portland “came forward and asked if I knew where was the Colonel,” Howe recalled.
Pointing west toward the distant Confederate-held hill, “I told him he was yonder on the heights dead[,] I believed,” Howe wrote.
“The very air was blue with flashing words that fell from Boothby’s lips,” Hall recalled. Boothby ordered the four companies to charge “on the right (north) side of the road” to aid companies D and H.
Boothby’s men “had a hard fight down by the sheds and the haystacks on the right,” but led by Lt. Col. Charles Smith, the four detached 1st Maine companies arrived and joined the charge.
The reinforcements “quickly got in on the rebel left and cleared the field,” remembered Hall.
“Then the second charge and the most irreversible ever known was made by the old First Maine Cavalry,” Howe described the savage charge that carried the day. “Inside of two minutes the life of this indomitable hero was avenged, the heights captured, and Colonel Douty’s body recovered from that point where I last saw him in life.
“His wound was two buckshots under the right armpit which must have entered the heart,” Howe noticed.
Dover residents held a hero’s funeral for Douty on Saturday, June 27.
Brian Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http:/maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.