In October 1862, twenty-three Norwich cadets returned to campus from a stretch in the Civil War with an amazing story to tell. They had been part of “the College Cavaliers”, a Union cavalry unit made up of college students primarily from Dartmouth and Norwich. They had signed up for a three-month enlistment, and during that time participated in a daring escape from Harper’s Ferry that resulted in the capture of a Confederate cavalry wagon train. It turned out to be Gen. James Longstreet’s 40-wagon reserve ammunition train, and the capture of these materials hindered the Confederates in the coming battle of Antietam.
In early 1862, Confederate troops in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley threatened Washington, D.C. The U.S. Government called for short-term, “three-month” troops to help defend the Capital. The Governor of Rhode Island was charged with raising a three-month cavalry squadron to counter the threat and put out a call for volunteers.
Dartmouth College junior Sanford Burr proposed organizing a troop of cavalry composed entirely of Dartmouth students and offered their service to the State of Rhode Island. Many Dartmouth students signed up but later dropped the idea when their parents and faculty disapproved. Sanford Burr then turned to the rival Norwich cadets for help in filling up the ranks. Twenty-three Norwich cadets enlisted their services.
The cadets convinced their families and professors that they would serve their three-month enlistments over their summer vacation and return to college in the fall. The troop became known as the “College Cavaliers.” It was the only unit of its kind in the Civil War, composed entirely of college students.
The College Cavaliers left for Providence, Rhode Island amid the cheers of their fellow students on June 18, 1862. They were mustered into service along with another company of cavalry, this one enlisted mainly from working-class men from the city of Providence. The two companies were united as the 7th Squadron, Rhode Island Cavalry. By the toss of a coin, the Providence company won the distinction as “Troop A,” while the College Cavaliers became “Troop B.”
In September 1862, the Confederate Army moved north into Maryland. The College Cavaliers retreated to the town of Harper’s Ferry, in western Virginia, where a force of 11,000 Union soldiers, including 1,300 other cavalrymen, was stationed. The advancing Confederates surrounded Harper’s Ferry and it soon became evident that the Union forces there would be forced to surrender.
The Union cavalry commanders in Harper’s Ferry met and decided on a bold plan. Instead of surrendering with the rest of the Union soldiers, they would attempt a night-time escape through the Confederate lines. On the night of September 14, the College Cavaliers mounted up and joined the long column of 1,500 Union cavalrymen. They left the town of Harper’s Ferry and crossed the pontoon bridge over the Potomac River. The river muffled the sound of the horses’ hooves on the bridge and they were able to sneak under the Rebel guns posted on the hills above. The College Cavaliers, along with the other Union horsemen, made a dash through the lines of the sleeping Confederates and began a fifty-mile ride to safety.
Before dawn, the Union cavalry came upon and captured a lightly-guarded Confederate wagon train. This turned out to be Gen. James Longstreet’s 40-wagon reserve ammunition train and the capture of these materials hindered the Confederates in the coming battle of Antietam. On the morning of September 15, the Union cavalry, with the captured Confederate wagons, finally crossed into Pennsylvania. Both men and horses were exhausted, but had managed to escape from Harper’s Ferry without a single casualty.
There would be no rest for the cavalrymen. Even though the three-month term of enlistment for the 7th Squadron, including the College Cavaliers, had just expired, they all volunteered to remain on active duty until the emergency of the Confederate invasion had passed. A few days later, the College Cavaliers were part of the reserve force guarding the flank of the Union Army engaged in the nearby battle of Antietam. On September 23, shortly after the battle, College Cavaliers disbanded with most, if not all, of the Norwich students returning to complete their studies. For some of these cadets, the College Cavaliers would be their only experience of military service. However, others went on to re-enlist and fight on with other units later in the War.
The College Cavaliers are mentioned in a number of primary sources available through the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections. Their activity is cited in Grenville Dodge/William Ellis’ “History of Norwich University”, volume 1 and described in an 1863 edition of the student newspaper, the Reveille.
Content courtesy of the Sullivan Museum and History Center, with contributions by University Archives staff.