The Wildcat Battery
Light Company A, 2nd U.S. Artillery earned respect for its dashing bravery and military acumen from both sides during the Civil War—the Confederates nicknaming it “The Wild Cat Battery.” It had the distinction of firing the opening Union artillery rounds at the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. The Battery’s fighting legend began during the Mexican War; where it served as Duncan’s Battery. Here it played vital roles in a number of U.S. victories. During the battle for Chepultepec a section, led by Lieutenant Henry J. Hunt, advanced ‘by hand’, along the infamous Bloody Causeway, finally engaging the Mexican guns muzzle to muzzle. General Worth wrote, in his official report, ‘It has never been my fortune to witness a more brilliant exhibition of courage and conduct.’
On January 12, 1861, the Battery, commanded by Capt. William F. Barry, was the first Regular force to arrive in Washington. Quartered at a central location—the Arsenal—its mobility and fire power made it an ideal defensive tool. During President Lincoln’s inauguration the Battery was stationed at the corner of South Capitol and B streets; with an ample supply of canister, ready to come into action to quell any sign of pro-secession violence. The eventual easing of tension enabled the Battery to stage a number of public show drills. ‘We took,’ wrote John C. Tidball, ‘a soldierly pride in our superb batteries and were in nowise loath to entertain our fellow citizens with their performance.’
In April of 1861, the Battery took part in the relief expedition to Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay. The men of the battery were not, however, called on to display their talents as artillerists, but to use their muscles as labourers. They worked on the construction of the various works and outlying gun emplacements.
Mid July 1861 found General McDowell’s army advancing toward a confrontation with the Rebels at Manassas Junction. Several days before McDowell had ordered Company A’s return to Washington, as his army was crucially short of effective artillery. McDowell became so desperate for the Battery’s services he personally visited Washington Station, seeking news of its whereabouts. During the Battle of Bull Run the Company, now commanded by Capt. John C. Tidball, spent most of the day in reserve at Centreville. After the Federal rout began Company A formed part of the rear-guard, with whom it was instrumental in holding back the probing advances of the Confederate Cavalry, thus securing safe passage for the retreating Union army. Arriving back at Washington’s Long Bridge the Battery was ordered to remain on the Virginia side of the Potomac—to serve as pickets. This was due to a lack of organised infantry, who should have carried out this arduous and dangerous duty.
In September 1861 Company A, was the first battery on the American continent to be mounted as Horse Artillery.
Under General McClellan the Union army landed on the Virginia Peninsula in April 1862. During the siege of Yorktown the Battery’s cannoneers were again employed as labourers. After the Battle of Williamsburg it formed part of General Stoneman’s ‘Light Brigade’, chasing the Rebel forces up the Peninsula. The Union forces were eventually pushed back by the Confederates; and in seven days of constant warfare, were forced to regroup at Harrison’s Landing. The Battery played an important and conspicuous part in the rear-guard actions. It has been said that during the retreat from Beaver Dam Creek, and at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill, the Battery twice saved General Porter’s command. They also distinguished themselves in the engagement at Malvern Hill. It was during the retreat that Tidball, out of expediency, originated the sounding of ‘Taps’ over the grave of a dead comrade—he believed the advancing enemy would be alerted to his position if the guns fired the traditional three rounds.
The Battle of Antietam found the Battery storming, piece by piece, over Middle Bridge. Tidball, finding his command unsupported, and fired on by cannon and musket, chose a bold move. Instead of retreating, he ordered the guns to be advanced ‘by hand’ up the steep, freshly ploughed, slope. Sweeping away the Rebel sharpshooters, and pushing back the opposing artillery, the Battery took and succeeded in holding the ridge. Observing this action Gen. McClellan cried, “Bully for Tidball!”
In the spring of 1863, the Battery saw action as part of General Stoneman’s famous, but, ultimately, ineffectual cavalry raid.
During the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battery, under the command of Lieutenant John H. Calef, was part of General Buford’s audacious holding action. Strung out along a wide front—to give the impression of several batteries—Calef’s six guns were hotly engaged by approximately thirty enemy artillery pieces. During this action Buford ordered one of the guns to enfilade an unfinished railway cut the Confederates were using as a rifle pit. As the gun was being unlimbered its Chief of Piece, Corporal Bob Watrous, grabbed a double round of canister and rushed it to the gun. However, before he got there he was brought down by a minnie ball. Private Tom Slattery, the No. 2, rushed over to the Corporal and got the round to the gun just as the Confederates were about to overrun the piece. The Southerners were so close, they were ‘literally blown away from the muzzle’ when the No. 4 yanked the lanyard. The Battery, eventually, received orders to retire. After withdrawing the first two sections, Calef rode over to the position of the third. Unsupported, it was imperilled by charging Rebel infantry. Calef quickly ordered the section to withdraw, and it galloped off to rejoin the rest of the Battery. Buford told the weary cannoneers, “Men, you have done splendidly. I never saw a battery served so well in my life.”
The Battery continued to fight with distinction in all the succeeding battles in the Eastern theatre; including: the Wilderness, Cold Harbour, Reams Station and Saint Mary’s Church. It also saw service during various raids, and at the siege of Petersburg. During the final campaign the Battery, commanded by Lieutenant James H. Lord, served for a while with General George Armstrong Custer, notably in the Battle of Five Forks. It was in at the kill, firing some of the last artillery rounds of the War in the East, at the engagement at Clover Hill, near Appomattox Court House. After taking part in the Danville raid, it journeyed to Washington to take its place in the Grand Review of the Armies of the Republic on May 23rd, 1865.
Battle honours: Bull Run, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Upperville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbour, Saint Mary’s Church, Deep Bottom, Belfield.