Broom of Destruction: Captain Blazer’s Scouts
By Darl L. Stephenson
Author of Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts
On November 18, 1864, a unit of Union Army scouts commanded by Captain Richard Blazer was attacked and defeated by at least two companies of John Mosby’s command near Kabletown, West Virginia. That defeat, the myths that have arisen because of it, and the egotistical intrigues of General Philip Sheridan have obscured the true history of what may have been arguably the most unique unit of the American Civil War.
By the end of 1861, Union commanders, most notably Gen. George B. McClellan, had secured the western part of the state of Virginia for the Union. More loyal than the rest of the state, it also contained vital transportation links to the west. The Confederacy tried to contest the area through a series of raids in 1862, including capturing Charleston, but whatever gains these raids made were temporary. Another method of contesting the area and harassing Union forces was through guerrilla warfare. Companies of “partisan rangers” were authorized by an act of the Confederate government on March 27, 1862. Some of these bands such as the companies of William D. and Philip J. Thurmond, were reasonably effective and provided valuable intelligence to Confederate authorities. However, the majority of partisan ranger units had a checkered reputation with Northerners and Southerners alike and eventually even Robert E. Lee called for their disbandment. One such band, the Moccasin Rangers, was so notorious that even the unit’s founders deserted it because of its lawless ways.
The bushwhacker was particularly feared by both soldier and citizen alike. Often dressed in the homespun of his ancestors he “lies in wait for a straggling soldier, courier, or loyal citizen, to whom the only warning given of his presence is the sharp click of his deadly rifle.” The only remedy for these bushwhackers was constant scouting and sometimes larger expeditions to sweep the country of guerrillas. One such expedition was put together by woodswise Col. George Crook of the 36th Ohio Infantry, who had fought Indians out west before the Civil War. However, one officer, Col. Carr B. White of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 8th Army Corps came up with a more organized way to deal with the guerillas and to provide for security of the Army.
On the 5th of September, 1863, he issued the following order:
Three (3) Lieutenants, eight (8) Sergeants, eight (8) corporals and one-hundred (100) privates will be received as volunteers to form an independent Scouting Company for this brigade.
The company will be relieved from guard, fatigue and other camp duties during the continuance of its organization. At least one half of the company will be expected to be on the scout all the time. Its headquarters will be in the woods. None but experienced woodsmen and good shots will be accepted. Commanders of regiments are directed to receive and report the names of suitable men volunteering for this service.
The brigade consisted of the 9th West Virginia Infantry and the 12th and 91st Ohio Infantries. Captain John White Spencer of the 9th WVA was chosen to command the scouts and Lieutenants Harrison Gray Otis of the 12th Ohio and Richard Blazer of the 91st Ohio were also assigned as well. There was no shortage of volunteers for the unit. Harrison Otis spoke not only for himself but many of the other men when he wrote, ” I suffered nothing from the lethargy of garrison life, but had free play to indulge my penchant for doing audacious things in war.” Assertions in the Mosby accounts that these men took on the designation “Legion of Honor” almost certainly have no basis in fact. Not one of the men assigned ever used this term in an article, pension record or had it attributed to them in their obituaries. They were proud to be “Independent Scouts” or call themselves “Blazer’s Scouts” after the man who would command them in 1864.
The scouts took to the field immediately and began to take casualties. Their first loss was John McMullen, “a meritorious soldier” of the 9th WVA, who was killed at the home of Henry Glaze, the father of scout Stephen Glaze. They lived in Roane County, where the bushwhackers were thick and the scouts had stopped at the house to pay a visit. Stephen’s brother Marshall, who was home on sick furlough from the 13th WVA Infantry, was also slain in the surprise attack.
John Spencer quickly disappeared from the story of the scouts. He is sent to Roane and Calhoun Counties with two companies of the 9th WVA and becomes bogged down in garrison duty and a court martial brought against him. Command of the scouts is left to the two lieutenants.
Richard Blazer in particular has a knack for scouting. He seems an unlikely choice. Before the war Blazer was a coal boatman and at his time of enlistment was driving a “hack” between Gallipolis and Portland, the first station on the Cincinnati, Washington, and Baltimore branch of the B&O. Accounts that he was a “hardened Indian fighter” seem to have no basis in fact and have become part of the mythology of Mosby’s command. Richard Blazer was 32 years old when the war began. Hostile Indians had been long vanquished from the Ohio Valley and there is no record that Richard ever went further west to encounter Indians.
His physical characteristics and habits were also less than impressive:
He surely impressed no one with a martial bearing. He had a far away look in one eye, and a nearly sleepy look in the other. His vest was not always buttoned straight, nor his coat collar always turned down. If his boots were not made to shine as the picture on the blacking box is represented, he made no racket with his servant, for as like as any way he had no servant, or blacking either. If he undertook to drill his company he would give the wrong command, and at dress parade he rarely placed himself in the exact position required by the adjutant.
If Lieutenant Blazer lacked the trappings of martial excellence, he possessed the qualities of a good intelligence officer. He questioned every local woman and child he saw. He kept the information obtained to himself, as well as his conclusions. He was developing the information to attack when the guerillas would not expect it.
The scouts were always aggressive–“to light down upon ’em like a hawk on a chicken or like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky.” They had become a “besom [broom] of destruction” surprising the Confederates behind their lines time after time and keeping rebel commanders “constantly confused and perplexed.” After scouting one such guerilla camp one of Blazer’s men noted the result. Blazer “made quick work of it and first sending a volley into their camp, he charged them with a yell, and capturing many prisoners, several horses and all their camp outfit, with which he returned to Fayetteville, and once more entering into his own camp not having lost a man or sustained a scratch.” The men returned to their units and “told the marvelous tales that caused all to wonder, and to invest Blazer with a character hitherto unsuspected.”
Besides attacking the guerrillas directly, Blazer’s men participated as the advance guard in expeditions against Lewisburg in November and December 1863. Initially disbanded after the first Lewisburg raid in November, the scouts were hastily reassembled in December under Lt. Blazer. Carr White was pleased with their actions.
The company of detached men acting as scouts under command of Lieutenants Blazer and Otis having accomplished the ends for which it was formed is hereby disbanded . . . the Col. Commanding desires to return his thanks to the Officers and men . . . for the very efficient service they have rendered in keeping the country in our immediate front clear of rebel guerillas and in furnishing the commanding officer with much valuable information regarding the movements and intentions of the enemy.
With bad weather finally making military operations nearly impossible and men signing up as veterans, the scouts were disbanded. However, a new Division Commander was coming on the scene who would make the scouts one of the most formidable fighting forces man-for-man in the Civil War. After taking command of the 3rd Division, George Crook went about planning for Grant’s Spring campaign of 1864. Probably taking a cue from Carr White, Crook went a step further. The foot scouts of the fall of 1863 would now be mounted under the command of Lieutenant Blazer, who would soon be promoted to Captain. General order No. 2 sets forth Crook’s ideas.
General Orders No. 2
The regimental commanders of this division will select one man from each company of their . . . regiments to be organized into a body of Scouts . . .
Officers will be particular to select such persons only as are possessed of strong moral courage, personal bravery, and particularly adept for this kind of service . . .
The men selected who are not already mounted will mount themselves in the country by taking animals from disloyal persons in the proper manner. The regimental quartermaster giving conditional vouchers for the animals thus taken, provided however, that sufficient stock is left these people to attend their crops with. Commanders may send out expeditions for the purpose of obtaining these animals.
Now the scouts were selected from among the best men in the 5th, 9th, 13th and 14th West Virginia Infantries, the 12th, 23rd, 34th and 36th Ohio infantries and the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. Despite protestations from some of the “disloyal persons” the scouts were soon mounted and prepared to aid in the Spring campaign. Crook had an especially shrewd plan for the scouts on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad raid in May 1864. To divert Confederate forces from his main objective, the scouts, as well as the 5th WVA Infantry and his field music, were sent a different direction, setting fires at night and creating enough noise to make the Confederates think that Lewisburg was again the target. The Confederates bought the bait– hook, line, and sinker. Lewisburg was thrown into panic, Confederate columns were diverted in the wrong direction and Crook’s main column met almost no opposition till it reached Cloyd’s Mountain, just outside of Dublin Depot, Virginia where a bloody pitched battle ensued. Union forces drove the Confederates from the field after heavy losses on both sides and next day Crook’s men began the destruction of the railroad after capturing the New River Bridge.
With barely time to rest from a grueling campaign, the scouts were on the march again in June. This time they were to participate in Hunter’s Raid against Lynchburg. The scouts acted as the advance and rear guard of the army, always at the point of extreme danger. For the first time, there is evidence that Blazer dressed some of his men in Confederate uniform to obtain information and surprise the enemy.
At Covington in Southwest Virginia, the eighty scouts took on the brigade of William “Mudwall” Jackson, according to Asbe Montgomery, a scout Sergeant from the 9th West Virginia Infantry. The eighty scouts dismounted, waded Jackson River and pushed the rebels through the town. Fighting for two hours and running low on ammunition, they were forced back through Covington, where two scouts were cut off and captured. Another scout, Joseph Frith of the 34th Ohio was mortally wounded in an unfortunate friendly fire incident. Jackson reported he had a fight with Crook’s army, but Montgomery said proudly, “it was only Crook’s scouts. If his army [Crook’s] had got hold of him not a grease spot would have been left of Jackson.”
Outside Lexington, Virginia, the scouts captured canal boats loaded with arms and provisions, an act which made many of the national papers and probably contributed to their fame as “the celebrated Blazer Scouts.” Hunter failed to take Lynchburg and his retreat left the Shenandoah wide open for the Confederates to use as an avenue to attack Washington under General Jubal Early. Finally, Grant had had enough and he called for General Phil Sheridan to clean out the Valley once and for all. George Crook was put in field command of the Army of West Virginia, much to the delight of scouts such as Asbe Montgomery. The scouts would soon have a new adversary–Mosby and his celebrated guerrillas.
The scouts soon came into action in the Shenandoah. At Snicker’s Gap on the 17th of July the scouts “served as sharpshooters and got highly complimented.” However, Captain Blazer’s men would soon be engaged in a more independent fashion. Mosby was harassing Sheridan’s supply lines and “Little Phil” was irritated. The Berryville wagon train raid on August 13th was an embarrassment to Sheridan. Although exaggerated in importance, the raid made all the papers and once again made the Union Army look foolish against an outnumbered but cunning foe.
Sheridan was reluctant to commit large numbers of cavalry to chase down Mosby. He knew that Mosby’s men would just hide their guns and horses and disappear, leaving regiments of cavalry strung out along roads and railroads and not available for combat. Sheridan wanted his cavalry intact to use as a hammer against the anvil of his infantry to smash Early’s army. But Richard Blazer’s scouts were perfect to keep Mosby off guard. Hearing about them from Crook, Sheridan had the men equipped with Spencer repeating rifles. Some of Blazer’s men, such as the 34th Ohio Infantry and possibly the 2nd West Virginia cavalry boys already had Spencers by this time. Also, at this time, fresh men were detailed from the different regiments to make up for losses over the spring campaign.
Blazer soon went to work. Mosby was now faced with a foe whose men were as familiar with mountain passes and river fords as his own. In fact, much of the Blue Ridge country probably appeared positively pastoral compared to the convoluted mountains of the Kanawha and New Rivers. At Myer’s Ford on September 4th, Blazer “got the bulge” on the 1st Squadron of Mosby’s command and drove them from the field. “Without knowing their number we were all in a heap in a moment shooting them off and dashing among them.” Asbe Montgomery saw William Sloan receive a fatal wound to the cheek. Rushing his horse among the rebels, he saw the man who had just shot Sloan now direct his revolver at Asbe’s face from about two feet away. Not having time to cock his own pistol, Asbe struck a blow at the man’s hand, spinning the revolver over his head. Now Asbe had time to cock his revolver and sent the reb spinning from his horse.
“Being in the thickest ranks of the rebs I had a chance to do all the work I wished for a short time. Having a seven-shooter and two navy revolvers, you may guess how I used them . . . ” Unfortunately, Asbe Montgomery received a wound that was nearly fatal. The ball struck him in the back, passed under the spine and lodged under his right shoulder blade. It was never removed. Montgomery was out of the fight and out of the war. Richard Blazer had lost a bold, daring sergeant. He also lost Sergeant William Leaf that day to a severe wound.
Besides combat casualties Blazer was losing men to attrition through the chaotic personnel system of the Union Army. Some men such as Jesse Middaugh, an experienced scout of the 5th WVA Infantry who called himself a “Southern Yankee” did not reenlist. Units such as the 5th and 9th West Virginia and 12th and 23rd Ohio Infantries were being consolidated due to thinning ranks and expiration of terms of service. By November 1864 Blazer was down to about 65 men. It is unlikely he ever took the field with the full complement of 100 allotted to him.
Blazer’s men bested Mosby again at “The Vinyard” on 14 November. Despite a couple of setbacks at Summit Point on September 23rd and on the Berryville Pike, Blazer was now a thorn in Mosby’s side. Mosby sent out Aldolphus (Dolly) Richards with the 1st Squadron and probably many other men now absent from Early’s army and riding with Mosby, to hunt Blazer down. A fatal confrontation was in the making.
Henry Pancake was an affable grocer in Ironton, Ohio, when he was interviewed for a series of articles called “Close Escapes” for the Ironton Register in 1886. Henry’s story is the only known complete account of the final fight between Mosby and Blazer at Kabletown from one of Blazer’s own men. He was being interviewed for a local audience and the only exaggeration may be Henry’s own involvement in the action. The matter of fact account of the capture of Capt. Blazer and the killing of Lieutenant Coles differ markedly from the dramatized Mosby accounts of these incidents.
The scouts had been in the saddle two days and nights and were returning toward Winchester from the Luray Valley. They crossed the Shenandoah River at Jackson’s Ford about daylight and rode into Kabletown, about a mile from the ford and back on the Harper’s Ferry road, where they stopped to cook breakfast. Henry was within earshot of Capt. Blazer and Lt. Coles when a little colored boy came up and reported that 300 of Mosby’s men had crossed the ford and taken up a position about halfway between the ford and Kabletown and were watching the scouts.
The opposing forces were only about a half mile or so apart. The colored boy had been sent by a Union woman near the ford to let the scouts know about their danger. Henry recalled that Capt. Blazer sent Lt. Coles and himself forward to a little hill to ascertain the situation. This differs from accounts that it was Captain Blazer himself who made the scout and it may be Henry’s exaggeration of his own part in the affair.
“We proceeded up the hill and got a good view of the rebs, and confirmed all the intelligence given by the colored boy.” Capt. Blazer had mounted his command and proceeded some distance when Lt. Coles and Henry rejoined him. “We told him there were 300 of them, that they were in a good position and it wouldn’t do to attack them with our little force, amounting to 65 men all told.”
Capt. Blazer, however, told them to fall in “and the way we went.” In order to attack Mosby’s force “who were across the road” (probably the Myer’s Ford road), Henry reported that they had to let down two big rail fences. They then filed into the field which was skirted by woods where the rebels were “and in plain view of them.” Henry remembers it as a “desperately daring thing to do.” Blazer’s men hurried as much as possible “coming around into line like whip cracker.” They were barely in line when the Confederate force was upon them with a yell. The scouts got off one good volley at what must have been very close range “and then they were on us blazing away.”
“To get through the gap in the fence and out of that scrape, and into the road, was the aim of all.” However, the two sides were now completely intermingled with “the rebs shooting our boys down and hacking our ranks to pieces. Every fellow was for himself, and when those got into the road who could get out, they flew in all directions.” Some of the scouts fled back toward Kabletown and some toward the ford. “Oh, it was a nasty fight! We stood no show at all.”
Henry was among the last to get through the gap and into the road with rebels all around him and after him. He credits his escape to having on a rebel uniform “and that’s what saved my head, just there.” Henry took off down the road toward Kabletown, with Lt. Coles ahead of him and Capt. Blazer ahead of the Lieutenant. One of the scouts following Henry was soon captured. “The balls whizzed all around me. Near the crossroads at Kabletown, Lieutenant Coles fell from his horse wounded, and he lay with his head resting on his arm as Henry passed by. “After I had passed him, I looked back and the foremost reb, whom I recognized as one of the prisoners we had when we made the attack, stopped right over him, aimed his carbine and shot Lieut. Coles dead.” This account of the death of Lieutenant Coles differs markedly from the dramatized Mosby accounts, but still documents a wound received after the Lieutenant had ceased being a combatant.
At this point Henry reports that only he and Capt. Blazer were left on the road with 30 to 40 of Mosby’s men in pursuit. “I gained on Blazer and soon caught up with him. The Captain asked, ‘Where’s the boys?’ I replied, ‘All I know is one just behind and I guess they’ve got him by this time.’ ‘I am going to surrender,’ said he and I said ‘I’m going to get out of this.'” The Captain halted and gave himself up. Pancake had to flee because his rebel uniform would have meant sure death for him “The rebs were not over 30 yards from us and peppering away. The surrender of the Captain stopped them a moment and I gained a little, but on came the rebs mighty soon again and chased me for two miles further. The pursuing party was reduced to about ten, and those finally gave up the chase by sending a volley that whizzed all around me. When I looked back and saw they were not pursuing me, I never felt so happy in my life.”
The rest of the scouts were fighting for their very lives. Tobias Haught of the 13th West Virginia was surrounded on all sides by Mosby’s men. He fought desperately until he was mortally wounded. Tobias died that same night of his wounds. He was remembered to have often said, “I never will surrender to them.” It was recorded in the company’s descriptive book that, “He was loved by all who knew him.”
Moses Swarner was also nearly surrounded and received multiple gunshot wounds to both groins, his right thigh and back. Amazingly, Moses survived these wounds and after a long stay in hospitals was discharged for disability on May 20, 1865.
Bill Wass tried to get away from the pursuing rebels. His horse was running full speed when it was shot behind the shoulder and killed. When Bill saw his horse shot, he tried to dismount but the horse fell, throwing him across a rail fence. Bill struck the rail fence with the small of his back and the horse catapulted on top of him. He was wearing his Spencer across his chest and the horse pinned the rifle against him. Bill was pinned in this position until the battle was over and the rebels took the dead horse off of him.
When everything was over, orderly sergeants pieced together the casualty reports and sent them to headquarters. Wild reports from survivors drifting into Union camps that they were the only ones who survived led eventually to claims that all of Blazer’s command were either killed or captured. In fact, 19 were killed and probably the little colored boy who had helped them. The Roll of Honor for Winchester National Cemetery lists a “colored” buried in the same area as Capt. Blazer’s men and killed on 18 November 1864. Henry Pancake, who visited the scene the next day and Confederate cavalryman John Opie, who came upon the scene after the fight, claim there were 22 graves at the Blacksmith Shop. Just who these additional casualties are is not known. They could have been Confederates not directly under Mosby’s command who were not taken from the field. They could also have been other loyal Union people from the vicinity, who may have been helping Blazer and suffered the same fate as the little colored boy.
Eighteen men were taken prisoner and six were badly wounded. Sheridan, in a report to General Halleck noted that 29 men had come in. Rutherford B. Hayes noted in his diary on November 20th that 32 men had been accounted for. Blazer’s scouts were disbanded on January 2, 1865. However, his command could have been reconstituted under other officers in Crook’s Army, but Crook notes bitterly in his autobiography that he was “relieved from any further service of that nature.” (Italics added)
In fact, General Sheridan had formed his own unit of scouts under Henry Young of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry. In his memoirs, Sheridan praises Young but fails to mention the efforts of Blazer and his men to keep his supply lines open. It is the perfidy of an egotistical Union officer that has more to do with the elimination of Blazer’s Scouts than their defeat in battle.
Richard Blazer’s methods in conducting irregular warfare were far ahead of his time. George Crook went on to become the best Indian fighter in American history and his use of organized units of Indian scouts probably was influenced substantially by his experience in West Virgnia during the Civil War. It can be appropriately said that George Crook learned to fight Indians in West Virginia during the Civil War.
Most of Blazer’s men returned to their families, farms and businesses and did not glorify their part in the war. In 1865, Asbe Montgomery wrote R.R. Blazer and His Scouts. . . the only complete account of the unit’s history. Harrison Gray Otis became the celebrated publisher of the Los Angeles Timesand served as a brigadier general in the Spanish-American War. Richard Blazer died of kidney failure, a complication of a severe cold or flu in 1878. His death has often been attributed to Yellow Fever, but this is probably the final myth perpetrated on him in the Mosby accounts. The kidney condition was acquired while a prisoner of war in Libby Prison and it was more palatable for Mosby’s men to attribute the death to an impersonal disease rather than his harsh treatment in prison.
Copyright 1998. Darl L. Stephenson. All Rights Reserved.