Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Great Great Grandfather Flynn Won the Civil War, Maybe

On Genealogy and Cavalry

It may be difficult to believe, but my father, William R. Moore, was a bona fide cavalryman who rode with the 102nd regiment in the late 1930s. Of course Dad became an Air Force pilot once World War II started, but before that, he had volunteered for the cavalry and wound up being stationed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, with the 102nd.

Cavalryman William R. Moore (aka Dad), ca. 1939

But wait, there’s more. On our mother’s side of the family we also had a couple of cavalrymen, as sister Betsy’s diligent research on has brought to light. One was Jacob Goerth, our Grandmother Yost’s maternal grandfather, who was a veteran of Grant's Vicksburg campaign and who later rode with the 5th cavalry out west, at one time serving as a scout with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. One of his sons (our great great uncle) was Frank Goerth, who was stationed in the Philippines and also spent time in Panama. Betsy has done wonders digging up all this information, though from an anthropologist’s perspective, it’s a little embarrassing to see all these family connections to wars of imperialistic conquest.

Frank Goerth in the Philippines ca. 1900

Jacob Goerth who rode with the 5th Cavalry out west and with Buffalo Bill

My favorite cavalry ancestor was Patrick Flynn, who fought with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. According to stories handed down to us through our beloved Grandmother Yost, her grandfather, Patrick Flynn, brought glory to the family as a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg - the turning-point of the Civil War.  Since my adolescence, I have had a longstanding fascination with that war and so, some years ago, when I had a chance to visit the Gettysburg battlefield I wrote the following account of Great Great Grandfather Flynn’s heroic actions.

Patrick Flynn and the Thundering Guns of Gettysburg

Part 1: Brandy Station

According to our family lore, Patrick Flynn of Lafayette, Indiana,  was a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg. Consequently, when I visited the Gettysburg Battle site, I was anxious to find out all that I could concerning our ancestor’s acts of daring during his service with Company I of the 2nd New York Cavalry Regiment, (also known as the Harris Light Cavalry). The information below is based on historical materials and the records collected by Grandpa Yost. Since Patrick Flynn was a private, the historical records say nothing about him in particular, but the information I provide here follows the records of the units in which he served. Patrick Flynn was present and accounted for with his unit almost continuously from August 1861 until he was mustered out on June 23, 1865. Also, as noted in the Lafayette Daily Courier article included by Grandpa Yost in his Flynn-Goerth-Ullrich Genealogy, Private Flynn was among several Lafayette residents who received a medal for bravery for participation in the Battle of Gettysburg.

A medal for bravery! "What heroic exploits," I wondered, "could have warranted this honor?" The following account summarizes what my sleuthing revealed about Private Flynn.

In June of 1863 Patrick Flynn's regiment, as part of the Army of the Potomac, participated in the Battle of Brandy Station, one of the first battles on the eastern front of the Civil War in which the Union cavalry showed it could match the renowned Confederate cavalry in skill and tactics. In fact, I have on occasion overcome my natural modesty to point out (with no more than a little imaginative reconstruction) that on the basis of the Battle of Brandy Station we might say that Private Flynn actually won the Civil War for the North.

My reasoning is as follows: The famous and flamboyant Confederate cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, had been spending some time in northern Virginia in the spring of 1863 gallivanting and parading about for the local citizenry, glorying in the laurels he had earned by making fools of his Union adversaries in recent campaigns.

On June 9 at Brandy Station, however, the scene changed dramatically when Stuart was rudely surprised by a strong contingent of Union cavalry that included Patrick Flynn’s regiment. Stuart’s Rebels were driven back and only managed to regain their footing after a bracing dose of fierce fighting -- something they had not been anticipating on the basis of their previous engagements with Yankee horse soldiers.

There are some writers familiar with the Battle of Brandy Station churlish enough to point out that Private Flynn’s 2nd NY did not entirely succeed in obtaining its objective in this fight. According to historian Edward G. Longacre, for example, when the 2nd NY regiment charged the Fleetwood Heights position where Jeb Stuart himself was personally trying to save his crumbling line, the New Yorkers were taken in flank, turned back and, “swerved to the right, broke and fled in utter rout.”

Still, the picture in my mind’s eye has Private Flynn riding up to Jeb Stuart in the heat of the assault (before Flynn and his fellow cavalrymen reconsidered the wisdom of continuing their attack on the heights), making a slash at the Rebel commander with his saber, missing his head only by inches and slicing off the Rebel general’s famed black ostrich plume in the process.

As an aside I would add that the New Yorkers’ less than fully successful charge on Fleetwood Heights was ordered by Colonel H. Judson Kilpatrick, an officer not lacking in bravery, but of whom it can certainly be said “his bravery far outshone his wisdom.” Kilpatrick is described by Civil War historian Longacre as “meagre of stature, shrill of voice, and looking like a weasel in sideburns.” He had earned the nickname “Kill-cavalry” from his tendency to order idiotic and pointless cavalry charges whose main aim seemed to be getting the name Judson Kilpatrick in the northern newspapers. He harbored dreams of becoming the Governor of New Jersey on the basis of an army career that he hoped would be brilliant, and eventually of running for President of the United States.

To get back to our main story, the Brandy Station cavalry engagement took place less than a month before the Battle of Gettysburg, and the embarrassment it caused Jeb Stuart (especially in light of the prancing and strutting he had been indulging in just prior to the fight), disrupted his judgment and caused him to make a fatal error during the Gettysburg campaign.

Stuart was so upset by the Brandy Station surprise attack--and the sharp criticism he was getting in the Confederate press because of it--that he was determined to overcome this humiliation with another great cavalry coup against the Yankee Army. Consequently, when Lee marched north into Pennsylvania, Stuart did not stay with him, but rather rode far to the east around the Army of the Potomac, capturing supply wagons as he went. Since cavalry usually provided a Civil War army with information about enemy movements, General Lee was badly handicapped by the absence of Jeb Stuart’s forces in the early phases of the Battle of Gettysburg - just when the Union army was most vulnerable. So, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that this, the most crucial battle of the Civil War, was lost largely because Lee lacked the information about the enemy that Stuart’s cavalry could have provided had it been on hand. But Stuart’s wounded ego (and trimmed plumage?) had him off on a mission aimed more at restoring his own glory rather than supporting the aims of his commander in chief, Robert E. Lee.  Thank you, Private Flynn.

Part II: Gettysburg

Anyway, during my visit to Gettysburg, I made up my mind to find out exactly what crucial part Great Great Grandfather Flynn might have played in this historic battle. At Gettysburg, Private Flynn’s 2nd New York Cavalry was in the Second Brigade (under Colonel Pennock Huey) of the Second Division (under General David McMurtrie Gregg) of Pleasonton's Cavalry Corps. Though General Gregg was a courageous and competent man whose professionalism prevented him from currying favor with the press, Colonel Huey’s only redeeming quality seemed to be that he was not quite as big a jackass as Judson Kilpatrick. At a crucial point leading up to Gettysburg, when General Gregg’s division was in pursuit of Stuart’s raiders, both Gregg and the second ranking commander of the division fell gravely ill. This automatically made Colonel Huey the acting division commander, but so concerned about his lack of abilities were Gregg and his second-in-command that they decided not to inform Huey of his new responsibilities, figuring the division would be better off with no leader than with Huey in command. When Huey eventually was informed of his temporary promotion, he was, according to one observer, “so swelled up with importance” that he began rearranging the division staff to suit his own whims. This infuriated the second-ranking division commander to such an extent that his rage apparently killed his intestinal virus and he rose from his sickbed to take the reins from Huey’s hands.

But back to the Battle of Gettysburg: During the three-day battle, the Northern forces found themselves on the defensive from the outset.  For most of the fight, the Union line stretched in a fishhook shape from Culp’s Hill on the right, around through Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge down to Little Round Top and Round Top on the extreme left.

The struggle for the strategic Culp’s Hill, which lasted for all three days of the battle, has been described as perhaps the most long-lasting, toe-to-toe slugfest in the Civil War. Since I knew that Gregg's cavalry division had been on the union right flank, it was here that I anticipated finding traces of Grandfather Flynn’s glory. So, almost as soon as we had arrived in Gettysburg, I set out for Culp's Hill to look for evidence of the 2nd New York's heroic participation.

On this hill, thousands lost life or limb as first the Yankees and then the Rebels seized and held strategic bulwarks on the wooded slopes which crucially anchored the Union right flank. From previous reading before my trip to Gettysburg, I had surmised that Patrick Flynn’s regiment was in the thick of this vital struggle. But, as I discovered on my quest, such was not the case. Culp’s Hill was an infantry battle, and General Gregg’s Cavalry Division, to which the 2nd NY belonged, was stationed much further east, protecting the extreme right of the Army of the Potomac. Private Flynn, in other words, missed the toe-to-toe slugfest on Culp's Hill.

The battleground far to the east of the Culp's Hill is known today as East Cavalry Field. It was here that General Gregg’s division along with George Armstrong Custer's brigade clashed with the superior forces of Jeb Stuart's late arriving Confederate cavalry. The fighting took place simultaneously with the renowned Pickett’s Charge, the Confederacy's high watermark according to most historians. Robert E. Lee's plan was to have Stuart’s cavalry support Pickett’s Charge by smashing into the Union rear just as the men of Pickett’s and Pettigrew's divisions hurled themselves against the Union front.

Pickett’s Charge was preceded by a deafening cannonade that was started by over 150 Confederate guns and was answered by a like number of Union guns. For hours on the afternoon of July 3 the two sides battered each other with thundering death that could be heard as far away as Baltimore and Washington--where Lincoln waited for news of the battle.

At this point Stuart wheeled around the Union right in order to strike at the rear, but he had not planned on running directly into Gregg’s and Custer's units, both of which had been stationed out on the right flank specifically to block just such an attack. The fighting at East Cavalry Field on July 3rd was one of the fiercest cavalry engagements of the Civil War. For hours men and horses charged against each other in demonstrations of valor made horrendous by the participation of artillery on both sides which bloodied the field with every volley. But Stuart might as well have charged against a brick wall as against these brave and sturdy Yankee horsemen who threw the Rebels back in disarray. Unfortunately Private Flynn cannot be counted among these brave and sturdy Yankee horsemen.

Huey’s brigade, which included Private Flynn’s regiment, had been detached from Gregg’s division and so was not engaged in the East Cavalry Field fight. Huey and his men had been sent about 20 miles off to the southeast to the town of Manchester, Maryland, in order to guard Union supplies there. Note that Maryland is right next to Pennsylvania and this would have placed Private Flynn within hearing range of the thundering guns of Gettysburg.

I should also add that after his defeat at Gettysburg General Lee sent a 17-mile-long wagon train loaded with wounded soldiers down one route while the bulk of his army retreated along another. According to Gettysburg Guide Charles Fennell, Huey’s Brigade saw action in attacks on that retreating wagon train. I have not yet confirmed whether or not Private Flynn’s regiment won glory as one of these ambulance-chasing units.

At any rate, we Yosts and Moores can definitely tell our descendants that in the summer of 1863, our ancestor, Great Great Grandfather Patrick Flynn, was in the 2nd NY Cavalry when that unit attacked Jeb Stuart’s position at Brandy Station on June 9, and that three weeks later during the Battle of Gettysburg his regiment was stationed in Manchester, Maryland. Assuming Private Flynn was not taking an afternoon nap during Pickett’s Charge (most unlikely considering the stern stuff of which the Flynns are made), he could, with little effort, have heard the mighty thundering guns of Gettysburg.

Culp's Hill, site of fierce fighting in which Patrick Flynn did not take part 


May 28, 2018 - final, humbling addendum: I discovered on looking more closely at Patrick Flynn's military records that he was in hospital for the second half of 1863 and so, missed the actual Battle of Gettysburg entirely. I'm guessing that he was wounded at Brandy Station or in a skirmish at Aldie, Virginia, about a week later where his regiment also suffered serious casualties. In any case my theory that he maybe won the war for us not thereby undermined.


  1. Hello Mr. Moore. I found your post while researching my Grandmother's genealogy. She had a family tree book, which I now have (but I'm overseas so it's packed away state side). From what I remember the book detailed the Flynn surname up to my Grandmother. I believe Patrick Flynn from your post was among them. I remembered certain details...the name Lafayette (which I often got mixed up with my Grandmother's maiden name Leverette), a battle in Virginia (didn't pay too much attention just flipped through it really). Pretty sure it's the same guy. I am going to email my Grandmother's brother's daughter and see if her father also had the book, if so I'll verify the name, dates, places, etc. (the book was filled with family stories). I'll send you a FB request.

  2. My Great, great grandfather, Joseph Whiting, was also in the Harris Light (Bugler, Co.F). I've been researching his service. I'm curious about the medal that your ancestor won at Gettysburg (or, as you point out, the Gettysburg campaign). I'd appreciate any information you might have? Thanks
    Janet Vincent

    1. Hello Ms. Vincent. My information comes from a newspaper article located by my Grandfather Yost. I believe it appeared in the Lafayette, Indiana, newspaper on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but I'm not sure. I can scan and send you a copy of it if you like.