This tale focuses on the wounding of Private John A. Nugent, alias John Thompson, a member of the 3rd U.S. Light Artillery. Nugent suffered the ignominy of getting sabered by his own men. Here’s how it happened.
On the afternoon of May 4, 1862, Major General George Stoneman sent a reconnaissance force along the Yorktown-Williamsburg Road. The Army of Northern Virginia had just abandoned its earthworks on the Warwick River. Without wasting a moment, the bluecoats mounted a swift pursuit. After traveling ten miles, Stoneman’s reconnaissance force came in sight of Fort Magruder, the principal earthwork protecting Williamsburg’s southern approaches. From the fort, Confederate artillerists opened fire. Immediately, Captain Horatio Gibson ordered his unit, Battery C, 3rd U.S. Artillery, to unlimber its guns and return the gesture. Gibson’s men got the worst of it. The short barrage cost the Horse Artillery six men wounded (one of whom later died) and seventeen horses killed. In addition, Gibson’s men had to abandon one gun and one caisson, both of which fell into the hands of the Confederates.
After retiring from the field, a party of men from Battery C returned to the scene of the battle, intent on rescuing a corporal who had broken his leg. When they got back to the battlefield, they discovered that a squad of Virginia cavalry had arrived ahead of them. In fact, the Virginia horsemen had loaded the wounded corporal onto a wagon. Drawing their revolvers, the Union artillerymen gave a shout and charged into the fray. One of them, Private John A. Nugent, recalled what happened. He said, “I wrenched from the hands of the rebel standard bearer his Guidon. I raised it aloft in my left hand, feeling, I must confess, a little proud of my action.”
Nugent and his comrades rescued the wounded corporal and drove off the Confederate cavalry. As the rebels gave way, a section of Company I, 1st U.S. Cavalry, led by Captain B. F. “Grimes” Davis thundered onto the field, whooping madly and swinging their sabers. Spying Nugent with the captured Confederate guidon, they charged upon him. Nugent explained what happened next:
I made my way down the road when I was set upon by a party of the 1st Cavalry who had not been in the fight, and who mistook me, as they said afterwards, for a rebel. They demanded the Flag, which I refused to give up and they attacked me, and in trying to defend myself and the Flag, received four sabre cuts. It was taken from me and I was dragged to the rear as a rebel prisoner by a Cavalryman, but on our way to the Provost Marshall this man found out his mistake. He put spurs to his horse and left me alone on the road to pursue my way as best I could. The man that took the flag from me was a Sergeant and he represented to General McClellan that he took the flag from a rebel and killed said rebel. . . . I admire an honest man, but detest a Liar and a Coward. This man is Botts. He now occupies the position of Ordnance Sergeant[.] . . . If this man had acted honorably by me—even had I been, as he suspected, a rebel—it is not any part of a brave man, especially when backed by others, to cut down a single man. It seems to me more the act of a Coward than a soldier. If he had protected me (as I should have done him under similar circumstances) taken me prisoner, taken me to the Provost Marshall, then everything would have been settled and I should now be enjoying the reward which he now enjoys unmeritedly.
The official reports bear out the testimony. Lieutenant Colonel William Grier, commander of the 1st Cavalry, credited Captain Davis and his men with capturing “a regimental standard, with the coat of arms of Virginia.” Grier also stated that Davis’s troopers returned with “a [rebel] captain taken prisoner.” Meanwhile, Captain Gibson told Nugent’s side of the story. He wrote, “Private John Thompson [Nugent’s fake name] captured a guidon from the enemy, and was sabered by some of our own men in the melee, receiving four wounds.”
Nugent’s tale speaks for itself. Men will do shocking things to win a trophy.
(This image depicts the officers, men, and horses of Battery C, 3rd U.S. Light Artillery. Captain Horatio Gibson sits atop his horse, which is just behind the limber chest in the foreground. Somewhere in this image--I do not know where--is Private John Nugent, the victim of the sabering.)