John Regester’s Last Ride

Heading south from Breezewood, Pennsylvania. Photo by me.

Recently we visited Kernstown, an unincorporated community in Winchester, Virginia, where on July 24th, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies clashed in the Second Battle of Kernstown. My partner’s ancestor, John Regester, fought and died there as part of the 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry. Ever since we got back yesterday, I’ve been wanting to put together a basic reconstruction of John Regester’s last battle. This is an initial attempt to do so.

The 22nd was a new guise for an ultimately old unit called the Ringgold Cavalry, which was a Western Pennsylvania cavalry battalion that was one of the first units to serve in the war, in the Western Virginia Campaign of 1861. The Ringgolds were combined with a newly raised battalion of western Pennsylvania cavalry to form the 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, in February 1864. John Regester belonged to the new battalion, as a trooper of Company D.

On the morning of 23 July 1864, the Army of West Virginia, to which the 22nd belonged, was encamped around the Winchester/Kernstown area, with the Rebels close by to the south. General Alfred Napoléon Alexander Duffié, an officer of what seems like rightfully poor reputation, commanded the army’s 1st Cavalry Division.

General Alfred Napoléon Alexander Duffié (image is in PD)

Colonel A.J. Greenfield, commanding the 22nd, ordered Major George Work and Captain James P. Hart to reconnoiter the area in front of the army to evaluate the enemy troop strength. They soon returned with word that there was a strong force of enemy infantry, cavalry, and artillery waiting south of Kernstown.

Somehow, Duffié didn’t hear that– for reasons that are utterly beyond me, and were beyond his contemporaries, he insisted that there was “only a corporal’s guard” (i.e., a tiny force) of enemies, and ordered Hart to take 45 troopers to take the enemy’s artillery that sat in view, and bring them back to Union lines.

Captain James P. Hart of the 22nd Pennsylvania. (Image is PD)

Hart knew it was a fool’s errand, but orders were orders, and so he rounded up 45 volunteers, including Corporal Regester of D Company. They rode off to the edge of Union lines to await the signal to move out. They wouldn’t know the exact numbers, but Ellwood’s Stories of the Ringgold Cavalry reports that the Rebels waiting for them, under General Ramseur’s command, were 5000 infantry, 600 cavalry, and two batteries of artillery with six guns each.

While they waited, Colonel Allen of the First New York Veteran Cavalry, commanding the outer edge of the Union picket line, met with Hart and discussed his orders. According to Ellwood, Allen said

“I am not in the habit of advising men to disobey orders, but I would not obey your orders.”

Hart replied:

“I have the first one yet to disobey; I won’t begin here.”

Allen complained to Duffié, to no avail.

And so the 45-soldier detachment charged Ramseur’s command; and was immediately fired upon by artillery and infantry– but miraculously, a dip in the  terrain around Opequon Creek protected them– and the rebels at the top of the ridge fired too high (in the case of the artillery) or fired low and missed (in the case of the infantry).

Hart ordered a retreat: his detachment had two miles to ride, some of them had their horses shot out from under them, and they were soon chased by 600 troopers of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry. Of the 45 troopers of the 22nd, only John Shallenburger of D Company, and Levi Patterson of the old Ringgolds, were captured. John Regester was mortally wounded and his horse immediately killed by an artillery shell that passed through the treeline during the retreat. The Rebels found him on the battlefield, and in a strange irony, he was treated by a Rebel doctor from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

The “corporal’s guard” that Duffié insisted that Hart and his 45 troopers could take, marched up the road the next day and drove the Army of West Virginia back over the Potomac soon afterward, continuing north to burn Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in the final Confederate stab north in the Civil War.

Despite the attention of the Rebel surgeon, Corporal John Regester died just shy of 21 years old. His body was eventually recovered by his comrades. His brother Isaac, a 2nd Lieutenant in the same company, was severely wounded several days earlier, but lived.

We visited them yesterday, 17 October 2020, in their hometown of Beallsville, Pennsylvania. Having been to the part of Virginia where both brothers fought and one died, we thought to bring them home along the old National Road.

“Rest thee– there is no prouder grave.” (source)

Sources


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