- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

“Edwin F. Savacool was in many respects one of the best, if not the very best, soldier in our regiment,” Capt. James Stevenson wrote. “If any man possessed a heart that knew no fear, that man was Savacool. His modesty was equal to his courage, and it was a long time before his merits were properly recognized.”

Savacool, a resident of Marshall, Mich., enlisted at Grand Rapids on Aug. 29, 1861, as a private in what later became Company K, 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry. Although service records list his age as 21, the 1835 birth date on his tombstone indicates he was at least five years older.

The volunteer regiment consisted of 10 New York companies, one from Pennsylvania and the Michigan contingent. President Lincoln appointed Grand Rapids lawyer and Mexican War veteran Andrew T. McReynolds as colonel.

During the first half of the war, McReynolds’ horsemen learned their trade fighting in many of the important campaigns in the Eastern theater and during a long stint hunting guerrillas threatening the B&O; Railroad along the upper Potomac River. Some, like Savacool, became expert scouts. Riding far in front of the column, these men, usually outfitted in gray, captured many unwary Rebels.

Both Stevenson, who wrote a regimental history titled “Boots and Saddles,” and 1st. Lt. William H. Beach, who penned “The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry,” began to chronicle Savacool’s exploits in early October 1863. At that time, Savacool, who had been promoted to sergeant, roamed the lower Shenandoah Valley posing as a mailman.

Fooling Gilmor

On the 14th, Savacool coolly rode into the camp of partisan chieftain Maj. Harry Gilmor. Although nervous that he might be recognized by some desperado he had captured previously, the crafty spy hailed Gilmor and handed him a letter from a lady friend. After reading the missive, the grinning cavalier showed his appreciation by giving the phony postman a few shots of applejack. Later, after the liquor had loosened his tongue, Gilmor boasted of an upcoming assault on the B&O; bridge across Back Creek.

Shortly afterward, Savacool galloped off to headquarters at Martinsburg, W.Va., and divulged the raiders’ plan to McReynolds. The next afternoon, Union forces easily captured 36 of “Gilmor’s Band” in a secluded ravine along the creek near Tomahawk, W.Va., just five miles from their destination. Gilmor was absent, however, having stopped off along the trail to visit his paramour. He had sent the men on ahead, commanded by Capt. John C. Blackford, a noted scout.

Wrong man

On Nov. 6, Maj. William H. Boyd received orders to take a large force and patrol up the valley from Charlestown. The next day, near Front Royal, Va., Savacool was searching for a dangerous partisan named Lt. Baylor — probably George Baylor. A black man, evidently getting the name confused with Bayle, volunteered that Savacool could find the man at his mother’s house located “on the point of land between the forks of the river.”

Savacool promptly rode to Riverton and, revolver in hand, walked through the front door. Although both authors date this episode as having happened a few weeks earlier and state that the man’s name was Baylor, a reliable primary source confirms both the Nov. 7 date and that the man was Pvt. Marcus “Mack” Bayle of the 13th Virginia Infantry.

According to local diarist Lucy Rebecca Buck, Baylor had been in Front Royal, but after being warned by Buck’s uncle that bluecoats were about, he had ridden out around 10 a.m. Bayle, however, had just arrived home that day and was visiting his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth “Bett” Richards.

Beach and Stevenson differ on details, but both agree that a scuffle soon ensued. Then, when Savacool attempted to shoot Bayle, the Rebel grabbed hold of the gun, wedging his thumb between the hammer and the firing pin. When they finally untangled, Bayle scurried behind his mother. After promising Mrs. Richards that he would not shoot her son “provided he would quietly surrender,” Savacool sat down and waited for help.

Not long afterward, Mrs. Richards began searching through a cupboard. Then, acting suspiciously, she began to back slowly toward her son. Savacool called for her to show her hands, but she ignored him and kept moving. Finally, Savacool shouted for her to halt or he would blow out her son’s brains.

With her plan thwarted, Mrs. Richards surrendered a pocket pistol. Other troopers arrived soon and took Bayle off Savacool’s hands. He remained a prisoner until the end of the war.

Distinctive captives

That December, Savacool captured two Confederates who years later attained high positions in the federal government. The first was Lt. Harrison H. Riddleberger, a future U.S. senator from Virginia.

On Dec. 13, Savacool and sidekick Sgt. Charles Warren were nearing Woodstock, Va., when they spotted a group of Rebel horsemen. Upon their approach, the butternuts quickly scattered. The Union troopers, spurring their steeds, raced after an officer mounted on a magnificent horse.

Some women, not fooled by the Union duo’s gray uniforms cried out, “Run, run, the Yankees are coming!” Hearing this, their prey turned and shouted, “Come on boys, I’ll wait for you.” In an instant, the pair rode alongside Riddleberger, and Savacool shouted, “You are a prisoner; please dismount and I will change horses with you.”

The second was William L. Wilson, who would serve in the House of Representatives and as postmaster general during Grover Cleveland’s presidency.

Toward the end of the month, Savacool had been scouting around Charlestown, looking for local boys home on Christmas leave. On patrol one day with a few other troopers, the squad spotted some Southerners and quickly gave chase. They caught only one, the finely mustachioed Wilson.

Unruly horse

Many of Savacool’s adventures were humorous. One of the funniest stories Savacool’s friends told about him came from an incident that same December, not long after he had captured a white thoroughbred (but not the horse he had taken from Riddleberger).

Warren remembered: “You never saw a happier boy than Ed was when he rode up on his white horse. He was a regular peacock, his head and tail up in the air, and looked like a trained racehorse.”

Three days later, though, the prize almost broke his new master’s neck. Near Mount Jackson, Savacool, Warren and three other scouts started pursuing a few Rebels. Galloping around a curve in the road, they suddenly spotted about 50 graybacks blocking their way. The others reined up, but Savacool’s horse kept right on going, flying past the startled Southerners. They promptly gave chase but were unable to catch the thundering stallion.

Finally, Savacool coaxed his steed over a roadside fence, turned around and made tracks for his friends. Warren recalled, “He made for a very high fence. The horse for a wonder refused to jump this time. He stopped so suddenly that Ed went over his head on the other side of the fence.”

About this time, reinforcements showed up and put the Rebels to flight. Bruised but unfazed, Savacool continued scouting that day, and about an hour later, he captured another soldier. Upon returning to camp, he gave away the thoroughbred.

Deadly duel

On the night of Jan. 6, 1864, Savacool had a deadly run-in with Capt. John C. Blackford. Savacool was leading an eight-man patrol that evening and previously had dispatched Warren and Pvt. John Hogan to ride ahead.

Reaching Newtown, Va. (today known as Stephens City), the two cold, famished troopers stopped at a house to get something to eat. Upon entering the dwelling, they told the fearful woman there that they belonged to Gilmor’s battalion. Breathing a sigh of relief, she happily volunteered that Blackford and some of his men were at a nearby inn called Aunt Mary’s.

After having been captured at Tomahawk the year before, Blackford and company had been dispatched to Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. On the night of Oct. 20, sometime between 9 and 11, he and two other prisoners escaped from the guardhouse.

According to the Nov. 4, 1863, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, guards spotted the trio in the water and began shooting. The other two stopped, but Blackford swam on, escaping in the darkness to Baltimore. There, two detectives eventually caught him, but he flattened both with rocks and ran away.

Now Blackford was back in the valley on a special mission for Gen. Jubal Early, and the Union horsemen were on his trail. Warren rode back to get Savacool, who immediately galloped off, followed by the other soldiers. The noise they made coming into town, however, alerted the Rebels, who ran from the inn and hid in the garden.

Savacool and Warren entered and began questioning “Aunt Mary,” a widow, about Blackford’s whereabouts. As they expected, she denied he had been there. The soldiers then walked out the back door and started searching the grounds. In an instant, they flushed four graybacks from some currant bushes.

The Rebels sprinted toward a fence, hoping to vault it and escape into a nearby pine thicket, where their horses were tied. Dodging the Yankee bullets, two made it but another was captured. The last man stopped. It was Blackford, now straddled atop the fence. He called out, “Don’t fire. I’m shot. I’ll surrender.”

Slowly approaching the man, Savacool and Warren both lowered their guns. In an instant, the escape artist slid off the fence and sprinted away. Savacool chased after him.

After handing his prisoner over to the other troopers, Warren rushed to Savacool’s aid. He came upon him just as the two men shot at each other. Both toppled into the snow.

As Blackford yelled for help, Warren rushed to Savacool’s side. Although hit in the thigh, Savacool told him, “Go and see what he wants. I am not suffering. I am pretty sure he is wounded this time.”

Warren cautiously walked over to where Blackford lay and asked where the bullet had hit him. “Here in the breast,” he said, “and I am badly wounded this time. I am not playing off.” Warren turned the Rebel over and gave him a sip of water. A few moments later, he died.

Union troopers carried Savacool to a Union man’s residence and carried Blackford back to Aunt Mary’s. They laid the once-feared grayback, who had just turned 25 on New Year’s Day, across the dining room table. As the occupants gazed on the still-warm corpse, an anguished voice cried out, “He was worth more than the whole Yankee army.”

A promotion

On Valentine’s Day, the troopers who had re-enlisted began a well-deserved furlough. Subsequently transported by rail from Frederick, Md., to New York City, they were treated to a banquet four days later, “provided by the Common Council in the Jefferson Market drill rooms.”

In an awards ceremony after the meal, McReynolds presented Savacool with the shoulder straps of a second lieutenant — a reward for killing Blackford. Beach wrote, “He was more than embarrassed as the recipient of his well-earned honors than if he had been facing an enemy in the field.”

Throughout the next year, Savacool dutifully tended to his new responsibilities as an officer and, as a result, eventually became a captain. His days of lone-wolf scouting were over, but danger still found him.

In July, the Rebels captured Savacool twice, once in a Loudoun County skirmish and another in a fight near Winchester, Va., but both times other soldiers rescued him. On the 24th, while acting as a courier during the Battle of Second Kernstown, he had three horses shot out from under him.

Fallen warrior

Toward the end of the war, the 1st New York was part of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s division, and during the first week of April 1865, it helped chase Gen. Robert E. Lee’s battered army as it retreated west from Petersburg. Beach wrote that “the most splendid fighting the regiment ever did was done in this final campaign.”

Savacool was at his best during the pursuit. “Captain Savacool of Company K,” Beach wrote, “slight in form, alert, fearless, was an inspiration to the entire regiment.”

During fierce skirmishing on April 5, he was not scratched, but his horse was shot seven times. His luck ran out the next day at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek.

Toward the end of that fight, the New Yorkers charged two lines of Rebel infantry and took their works. As they pierced the first line, a Rebel shot Savacool just after he grabbed a regimental flag out of a color bearer’s tight grip.

Soon the seriously wounded captain was on his way to the hospital at City Point, Va. There, Savacool’s friends hoped, a skilled surgeon could extract the bullet. During Savacool’s stay there, Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan occasionally stopped at his bedside and tried to lift his spirits by promising him an important spot in the postwar Army when he got better.

Unable to help him at City Point, his doctors transferred the captain to Armory Square Hospital in Washington. He died there sometime before dawn on June 3.

Not long afterward, all of Marshall, Mich., turned out for their hero’s burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Seventeen years later, the scout who had captured 72 Rebels single-handedly and scores of others with help, was disinterred at the request of his mother and reburied in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.

About three weeks after his death, the officers of the regiment wrote and later published a tribute to Savacool’s memory in the New York Herald and leading Michigan papers. In it, his many feats of bravery, including the last, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, were listed along with praise for his character and patriotism.

In conclusion, they wrote that “in his death the Republic has lost one of its bravest defenders and truest citizens, who fell a martyr to the cause of freedom just at the coming of the righteous peace.”

Steve French is a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table and a frequent contributor to the Civil War Page. He can be reached at [email protected]yahoo.com.

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