Saturday, June 30, 2012

Measure For Measure: The Death Of Edward Bredell

Asby's Gap
Although the campaign between [Union General Phil] Sheridan and [Confederate General Jubal] Early ended with the Union victory at Cedar Creek, the Federals had remained in the lower Shenandoah Valley.  Sheridan had not forgotten about Mosby nor Mosby about Sheridan.  Raids and counterraids still characterized the duel that had never really ceased.  On November 7, for instance, Colonel William Powell's cavalry division, entering Fauquier through Manassas Gap, rode through Markham, Piedmont, Rectortown, Upperville and Paris, collecting cattle and horses and burning crops and a few barns.

Mosby countered several days later, dispatching Richard Montjoy and Company D to the Valley.  Montjoy raided along the Valley Pike between Winchester and Newtown on the fifteenth.  His men bagged about twenty prisoners and their mounts.  Starting back for Fauquier the next day, Montjoy's men dispersed en route, with the Rangers who boarded in Loudoun County turning northeastward to cross the Shenandoah River at Castleman's Ferry.  Montjoy, with thirty men, proceeded toward Berry's Ferry and Ashby's Gap.  About two miles west of the crossing, a detachment of Blazer's Scouts attacked the Rebels.  The Yankee's gunfire killed Ranger Edward Bredell and scattered the others.  Mountjoy and Lieutenant Charles Grogan rallied the men a mile or so to the east at "Vineyard," the home of John Esten Cooke, one of Jeb Stuart's staff officers.  But the Scouts came on with a relentlessness, gunning down William A. Braxton, wounding five other Rangers and capturing two.  The remaining Confederates splashed across the river and escaped. 
-Mosby's Rangers

The above comes from Jeffry Wert's excellent book and, if you're interested in Civil War history, I recommend you pick it up.

Edward Bredell was killed in action on November 16, 1864, about two miles west of Berry's Ferry, in a skirmish between his company and a group from Blazer's Scouts, a unit that was specifically tasked with finding and eliminating Mosby's guerrillas.  While he died near Ashby's Gap, he did not die in the Battle of Ashby's Gap, which was a seperate engagement that took place in July 1864.  Incidentally, the skirmish in which Bredell was killed took place very near to what is today John Mosby Highway (U.S. Route 50).  Two days after Bredell's death, Mosby would effectively destroyed Blazer's Scouts at the Battle of Kabletown.

Berry's Ferry map from Civil War

While I don't want to get too much into the history of Mosby's Rangers, I think it's important to talk a bit about what was going on in the weeks leading up to Bredell's death, in order to understand the nature of the fight between the Rangers and the Scouts.  Mosby's men were, essentially, a partisan guerrilla band that would attack Union forces or raid behind their lines and then disperse or disappear among the civilian population in northern Virginia.  The Union response to Mosby's effectiveness was severe.  U.S. Grant issued Phil Sheridan rather simple instructions: "[Where] any of Mosby's men are caught hang them without trial".  While Sheridan did not issue general orders to execute prisoners, a series of executions and reprisals did take place.

John Singleton Mosby

On September 23, 1864, Union forces under the command of General George Custer executed six of Mosby's men, captured out of uniform, at Front Royal, Virginia.  The Union troops believed, erroneously, that during the skirmish that had taken place earlier that day, in which the six prisoners were captured, a Union officer had been executed by Mosby's men.  Four of the men were shot, one in the presence of his mother who had begged that his life be spared, and two were hanged.  On one of the hanged men, a note was pinned that read "Such is the fate of all of Mosby's men."

While Custer did not order the execution, Mosby held him personally responsible for the conduct of his men and Wert wrote that Mosby "instructed his men that whenever a member of Custer's command was captured, the prisoner should be separated from other captives and not forwarded to Richmond.  Mosby told Robert E. Lee in a letter of October 29 precisely what he had decided: 'It is my purpose to hang an equal number of Custer's men whenever I capture them.'  Lee gave his approval..."  By the time Mosby received word of Lee's approval, on November 6, another of his men had been executed by Union forces.

On November 6, at Rectortown, Virginia, seven Union prisoners, who had served under Custer, were selected by lot.  Four were ordered to be shot and three to be hanged, just as Mosby's men had been.  Of the four who were to be shot, two escaped and two were shot in the head but survived their execution.  The other three were not so lucky and were hung, one with a note pinned to his chest that read "These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby's men hung by order of General Custer, at Front Royal.  Measure for measure."

Capt. Richard Mountjoy

It is almost certain that Edward Bredell was at Rectortown that day because his commanding officer, Captain Richard Mountjoy, played a prominent role in the executions.  According to Wert, "As the condemned were being led to the place of execution in the Shenandoah Valley, the Ranger guard detail met Captain Richard Mounjoy and Company D in Ashby's Gap.  As was his custom, Montjoy was dressed fastidiously with a Masonic pin on the lapel of his coat.  Lieutenant Disosway, a member of the order, flashed the Masonic distress signal to Montjoy.  The Ranger captain convinced Edward Thompson, the Ranger in charge of the detail, to swap Disosway for a Custer trooper Montjoy had with him.  Thompson agreed, and Disosway was released to Montjoy for a cavalryman.  When Montjoy later told Mosby of the trade, the latter reminded the commander of Company D that the 43rd Battalion 'was no Masonic lodge.'"  It's an odd moment in a dark tale but the fact remains that Bredell most likely saw the execution party on November 6.

Interesting, Mosby, after the botched executions, did not seek to execute more of Custer's men, deciding that he had made his point.  On November 11, he wrote a letter to Sheridan, delivered under a flag of truce, stating what he had done and why he had done it.  He also stated that he would not execute any more prisoners "unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me reluctantly to adopt a course of policy repulsive to humanity."  The execution of prisoners in the Shenandoah Valley, by both Union and Confederate forces, ended at that point.  However, when Mosby's Rangers and Blazer's Scouts fought on November 16, the executions must have been fresh in the minds of all who took part in the battle and those engagements that took place around that time must have been desperate affairs.  In the back of Bredell's mind, and that of his comrades, must have been the thought that they would be executed if taken prisoner.   William Barclay Napton actually heard that Bredell had been executed and wrote as much in his journal. 

Some of Mosby's Rangers

This was the world that Edward Bredell was living in when he was killed just west of Berry's Ferry.  It's difficult for me to imagine the pioneer ball-player, the science student at Brown University and the business manager of the Missouri Glass Company involved in a nasty, dirty, brutal partisan guerrilla fight in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.  But Bredell was one of Mosby's men and, after his capture at Vicksburg and his parole, he actively sought to join the Rangers.  Ulysses S. Grant, if he had the chance, would have hung him for that.  A bullet fired by one of Blazer's Scouts, however, saw to it that an execution would not be necessary.    

1 comment:

Maze said...

It's very old photos