CAMP YORKTOWN, June 12, 1861.
SIR: I beg leave to make the following report of reconnaissance made by of the enemy’s position at Newport News on Friday, 7th June, 1861:
I had under my command twenty picked men and horses from the Old Dominion Dragoons, together with two men from my company. Captain Phillips accompanied me, as did Lieutenant Cary and Lieutenant Harrison, the latter from the Charles City Cavalry. My object was to make a close examination of the enemy’s works at Newport News, which I knew would be of service to you in your future movements. I did not start with the intention of pressing my men into certain ruin by an attack upon an overwhelming force, but simply to make a reliable reconnaissance. At about 1 o’clock I had approached the enemy’s position to within two miles. I, Captain Philips, and two men were in advance of the detachment some four hundred yards, whilst two men marched the same distance in rear.
At his juncture I saw a squad of eight men on the bank of James River, and distant from me some distance, probably a mile and a half I examined them with my glass, and knew them to be soldiers. They immediately fled toward their fortifications. I saw at once that if I allowed them to reach the works and give the alarm, my whole command might be cut of and my reconnaissance broken up, so I at once ordered a forward movement at speed so that I might cut them off. Our advance party of five being better mounted, and having so much the start, distanced the detachment in running the two miles, and placed them probably six hundred yards in thereat. When our little advance party had ridden to within seven hundred yards of Newport fortifications, I ordered Captain Philips and the two men of the advance guard to change direction to the right, so that he might get between the eight fugitives, and the works, whilst I continued my direct advance upon the works, thinking if Captain Philips failed to intercept these men that I should certainly meet them.
After I had approached the fortifications of the enemy within four hundred yards, I turned to the right (the James River side) to head the eight men. I had gone in this direction probably two or three hundred yards, when suddenly I came up to within fifty yards of a party of the enemy engaged in cutting wood. I was then entirely alone. I halted and hid myself behind a thicket only twenty yards from the party. Here I remained long enough to count the number of men, distinguish the officers, &c. In about three minutes the eight men (who Captain Philips had failed to intercept) raised the alarm in the Massachusetts regiment (which was encamped outside of the works, and not more than one hundred and sixty yards from the spot where I stood), and I at once saw that I must to quickly whatever i intended doing, so I reined my horse back, and walked him out into the clearing in plain view of the whole party, and not more than twenty paces from them, picked out the commissioned officer, and shot him dead in his tracks. The whole party then yelled, “Look out, look out for the d—d Virginia horsemen; they are down upon us,” &c., and at once threw down everything they had, and commended a retreat at a double quick. I put the spurs to my horse and rode into them at full speed (giving at the same time a loud walla-walla war-whoop), and then delivered my second shot, which brought another man (a private) dead to the ground. (I shot the first one thorough the heart, and the last one under the right shoulder-blade.)
My horse by this time became totally unmanageable, and my third fire missed its aim, but killed a sorrel mule. I fired only these three shots. The party consisted of twenty-seven privates of infantry, two privates of artillery, one commissioned officer, and one non-commissioned officer of infantry-in all, thirty-one. Their uniform corresponded with mine-gray cloth with black trimming. Captain Phillips and his party of two men had been joined in the mean time by the main party, and I soon crossed over to them. We then galloped after the retreating enemy, but saw one or two companies from the regiment running to the rescue, which induced me to apprehend an attack. In this I was mistaken, for instead of the party of thirty-one rallying in the two companies, the two companies partook of the panic, and rushed back towards the fortifications, yelling “Virginia horsemen” as long as I staid to hear them. The party of thirty-one had their arms stacked against a tree, whilst four of them were on guard whit their muskets. I cannot say whether the guard fired or not. I did not pay much attention to them. The two companies which came to the rescue had their muskets, but forgot to fire. On the left wing of the encampment there was a field battery of two brass 12-pounders, unlimbered, which were not over one hundred and fifty or one hundred and sixty yards from us, but the gunners had abandoned the battery. If I had not been so entirely at the mercy of the guns of the fortifications at Newport News (only about six hundred yards off), I should certainly have burned the whole encampment, for it is my firm impression the whole regiment ran into the works and abandoned everything.
Captain Philips, I must say, proved upon theirs occasion that he was a man of consummate coolness and bravery, and his men are of that kind of metal which can be relied upon under any and all circumstances. Lieutenants Cary and Harrison were prepared for anything, and I am convinced would have followed to any place where their horses could have leaped.
In making the approach I went by New Market Bridge and St. Clair’s Steam Mill, but upon returning I took a new road through the woods, fearing the troops from Hampton had formed and ambuscade for my reception. I returned to Bethel by 6 o’clock without damage, and then joined my command on Poquosin River.
I am, sir, yours, respectfully,
W. H. WERTH,
Captain Chatham Grays, Virginia Volunteers.
Colonel J. B. MAGRUDER, Commanding Division.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. II. With additions and corrections. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902.