- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004


By Lewis Marshall Helm

Higher Education Publications

Falls Church, Va.

302 pages, illus., $40

“What a liar history is,” William Henry Fitzhugh Payne wrote, lamenting that “the best & the noblest men of the war will die unknown.”

Payne, one of the principal founders of Fauquier County’s Black Horse Cavalry Troop, then proceeded to assault the legendary Gray Ghost of the Confederacy: “Raiding and guerilla warfare is but another name for shirking danger & hardship.” These refreshingly opinionated and contrarian remarks are among the delightful morsels in the 55 vignettes that make up “Black Horse Cavalry: Defend Our Beloved Country.”

The stories, in chronological order, relate mostly to the Black Horse Cavalry, “one of the most gallant, serviceable and picturesque contingents of the Army of Northern Virginia,” from its inception on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo to the postwar reunion camp meeting where old veterans reminisced and “where whiskey drowned out the ugly that no one wanted to see.”

The stories are sometimes sad, more often humorous and always informative.

The Black Horse Cavalry, like many regiments in the War Between the States, was made up largely of people who knew one another; at least 50 families had two or more members in the Black Horse.

The author has the Black Horse Cavalry in his heart and in his ancestry. In narrating the exploits of the regiment after the war, Payne wrote: “No family had done more nobly than that of the Helm family. It sent six soldiers to the front-four in the BHC.” Three Helm brothers died while in service of the regiment.

Prominently mentioned in the book is Payne, who was, simply put, a character. He got expelled from the Virginia Military Institute. (What made him think they would appreciate his leading a cavalry charge into the ranks of a cadet formation?) He survived several wounds and imprisonments, most amazingly a gunshot to the face: “The ball which had wounded him had gone through his jaw, broken the bone, knocked out four teeth, and the ball and teeth had passed through the tongue and the ball had knocked out three more teeth on the other side, coming out near the jugular vein.”

Even more shocking was that while recuperating from the injury, with his jaw wired shut, he managed to capture two Union soldiers and transport them to Confederate guards.

In a stroke of exceptionally bad timing, he was sent to Washington as a prisoner the day after President Lincoln died and was mistaken there as one of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators. Of course, it was always a bad time for a Confederate to be sent as a prisoner to Washington, but to have it happen the day after Lincoln died, when Northerners’ wrath and rage was at a code super-red, made for a surprising comparison.

All the awful battles and carnage of the war were nothing compared with the fury directed at Payne as he was led through Washington: “I am sure that I never passed through a more trying scene during the war. I never faced a more beastly and blood-thirsty set of savages.”

The strength of the book rests on its ability to share the personal experiences of the “Terrible Black Horse” through heavy use of unpublished primary sources. It is, indeed, a rare treat to read about events and incidents told from documents that have not grown stale by repetition.

Payne, who is frequently quoted, wrote passionately about the exploits of the Black Horse. And what an incisive writer he was. In a lengthy unpublished essay about the regiment, Payne quotes Napoleon and plays on the first sentence of Revolutionary War hero Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis” — “I have seen moments when men’s souls were tried.”

Payne commended J.E.B. Stuart: “To criticize him is like finding spots on the sun”; complained about the lack of food: “3 crackers and a greasy spot a day”; and even took a stab at a poem on the ephemeral nature of history: “These humble lives which here I trace/Years cannot change, nor age efface/They may be read though valued not/When the one who wrote them is forgot.”

With Mr. Helm’s book, the men from Virginia who wore the black plume hats and rode the black horses are not forgotten.

Paul N. Herbert is a criminal investigator who lives in Fairfax.

“Black Horse Cavalry” can be purchased at the Old Jail Museum and the Fauquier Times-Democrat in Warren, Va., and at the Fauquier Heritage Society in Marshall, Va. It also can be ordered at www.hakenson.net.



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