To the Editor of The Sun:
Sir,—An article in the Literary Digest, with the title ‘ Stuart's Last Battle’ and credited to The Sun, is so wrong as to the facts leading up to the engagement of Yellow Tavern and so imaginative as to the circumstances of the wounding and death of General Stuart that I, who happened to be there in the humble capacity of a corporal in the ranks of the First Virginia Cavalry, feel impelled to state the truth about the wounding and death of our general.
My own opinion has always been that his reckless bravery led to his untimely death. I suppose there are reports in the proper archives, both Federal and Confederate, of this action of Yellow Tavern and of the movement of troops preliminary to it, but I know nothing of them. I state what came under my observation and hearing as a soldier in the ranks. It was not at the beginning of the Wilderness campaign that the movement of the cavalry culminating at Yellow Tavern took place, but in the campaign more than a year later (May, 1864), in which the terrible battle near Spotsylvania Courthouse was fought. It was the current talk of our army that that conflict was by far the most desperate of the war. I have heard our men say that so near did the Yankees come that they could look into their eyes and even club them with the butts of their guns. It was in this battle that trees were torn and cut through and fell from the steady hail of Minie bullets. So desperately did Grant's men press their assaults that, as the gossip in our army was, a portion of our line faltered and was giving way when General Lee himself rode up, but his men made him go to the rear with cries of ‘ Lee to the rear!’ and they soon drove the enemy off.
The morning following this desperate battle and repulse of Grant, our cavalry, which had been only partially engaged, was put in motion and headed south toward Richmond. We in the ranks did not know what for, but as we became extended on the way south word came along the line that the Yankee cavalry had been dispatched on a raid to Richmond, that city being, as it was supposed, but weakly defended. We were to follow up the Yankees and put them out of business before they got to Richmond. I will say here, to dispel any idea that we were worn down by Sheridan's troops, ‘hanging on us like a troop of wolves,’ that Stuart's cavalry was at that time in the best of condition. We were well clothed, well fed and well mounted. For many of our horses we were indebted to our friends the enemy, to whom we looked when in need. I myself was then on my third mount derived from that source.
I remember this march after Sheridan as a very pleasant one, our only fear being that he would get away, as usual. That we would not whip him if we caught up with him did not enter our minds. I remember that we pressed the rear so closely that in Louisa County we came on a detachment of the enemy. I being in the leading column joined in the pursuit with visions of a fresh mount; but alas! there were others who wanted those horses more than I did, and they were soon appropriated, while their riders were sent to the rear. As I remember, the enemy's cavalrymen were an insignificant looking set of men, but their horses and equipment were excellent. I would like to emphasize a fact not sufficiently dwelt on by the Southern historian: that is, the contempt in which Stuart's men held the Federal cavalrymen and the great respect the Southerners had for the horses and equipment of the enemy.
Our command neared Richmond, and soon we knew from the booming of cannon that an engagement had begun between the two cavalry forces. Now, as to this engagement, I can say little, because I saw little of it. When a soldier from the ranks undertakes to tell about a battle extending over a mile or two in wooded country you can set him down as a man ‘talking through his hat.’ I did see a battery or two or ours located on a hilltop firing away, and did see squadrons of our cavalry moving forward near those batteries, but I saw none of our forces retreating. When our regiment reached the field the squadron to which I was attached was ordered to dismount and to deploy as sharpshooters, which we did, one hundred or more of us scattering along the edge of a wood. I heard rifle firing to the right and left and in front; this firing did not approach our position, but rather receded.
What the dispositions of the forces severally were I never knew. What I did see, after being in the position say twenty or thirty minutes, was a solitary horseman approaching us through the thicket. He was riding slowly. We soon knew from his black plume that it was our general, and the exclamation came from four or five of us: ‘That is General Stuart and he is wounded. ’As he rode slowly toward us we of course rushed up to him. It was but too true; he was wounded, and mortally, as we knew when we saw where the bullet had entered his side and torn his gray jacket. He spoke not a word nor uttered a groan as we assisted him from his horse to the ground. He was borne away on a stretcher or blanket, I forget which, some of the more stalwart of my company doing that duty. Charles Wheatly, of Georgetown, and Bob Bruce, of the Relay House, near Baltimore (both now dead), were two of the men. Ours was a Maryland troop. The writer of this article was from Howard County. The troop was commanded by Captain, afterward Colonel, Gus Dorsey, of Montgomery County, Md. I remained in the line of skirmishers a short time and we were ordered to mount and return to our regiments. I remember that we joined the main command on the Telegraph road not far from Yellow Tavern. The battle was over; in fact, so far as I could see or hear, it was not much of a battle anyhow. Of course, as soon as the Federal command realized that we had caught up with him his raid was at an end. We went quietly into camp near Atlee Station, a few miles from the field of battle that night, grieving for our dead general. He had died a few hours after being carried from the field.
W. W. Burgess. Orange, Va., December 23, 1908
William Wallace Burgess ended the war as 1st SGT of Company K, 1st VA Cavalry. He settled in Orange, VA. His father was War of 1812 veteran Thomas Burgess, his grandfather was Revolutionary War Veteran, Michael Burgess. He was the youngest brother of my Great Great Grandmother Alcinda Maria-Dorsey Burgess Day and the first cousin of Col Gus W Dorsey.