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14th PA Vol Cav at Lexington  
14th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry at Lexington, Virginia

One of my ancestors was Ashbel Fairchild Duncan. Ashbel raised Company E, 14th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry and served under Colonel (then General) James M. Schoonmaker until Ashbel was mortally wounded leading a cavalry charge against Confederates at Star Fort during the Battle of 3rd Winchester, Virginia on September 19, 1864. Shot seven times, he then died seven days later and was returned to Pennsylvania for burial.

Ashbel accompanied Schoonmaker during the fighting at Lexington, Virginia where the Virginia Military Institute was burned. Several moving stories have come from that engagement. To wit:

               Fifty years after the battle of Lexington, Virginia, and the destruction of the buildings of the Virginia Military Institute of which General Robert E. Lee, the idol of the South, was president the last four years of his life, Colonel Schoonmaker, the only living commander of the northern army engaged in the battle of Lexington, who by order of General Hunter directed the shot and shell that battered down the college walls and fired the buildings, was invited by General Nichols, Superintendent of the Institute and the Cadets of 1914 to deliver the class address at the seventy-fifty commencement of this time-honored institution. The Colonel accepted the invitation and was elected an honorary member of the alumni. After commencement he received the following letter; worthy a place in our history.

                                             “Lexington, Va., June 277, 1914.

Col. James M. Schoonmaker,

               Vice President P. & L. E. R. R., Pittsburgh, Pa.

My dear Colonel Schoonmaker:

               I am sending you under another cover a half-dozen copies of the Rockbridge County News giving an outline of your address and of our commencement exercises. You will, I think, in your quiet moments enjoy a perusal of it. Permit me to add, that you have a host of friends who no doubt will be greatly gratified at the hearty reception you received there. It was hearty but the expression of its heartiness was but a feeble indication of the kindly feeling everyone entertained for you.
               If language could express the feelings of those who had the privilege of being thrown with you I would say that you impressed everyone as having led a life of benevolence, of benefaction, and of benediction. You have done much good in the long life that has been vouchsafed to you. It is the very earnest prayer of your Southern friends that your life may be continued for many years.     

               It is needless, I am sure, to add that a hearty welcome always awaits you in this community. The latch-string of my own home is always open to you.

               With cordial good feelings, believe me to remain yours, my dear Sir.

                                                                                                         Very sincerely,

                                                                                                          E. W. Nichols.”


               From the Rockbridge County News we quote: “A startling event of history recalled by the story told in person by Col. James M. Schoonmaker, a gallant and noble officer of the Union Army, who in 1864 watched in mute protest the burning of the Institute buildings.

               “The story of Colonel Schoonmaker though it closed the exercises of the day, will be related first, for he was the special guest of honor of the occasion. A veteran of hard service in the Union army, he wore upon the lapel of his coat a badge in recognition of his having the night before by unanimous vote of the Alumni around the banquet board, been made an honorary alumnus of the V.M.I. how near the “Yankee” Colonel, General, in fact, was to the hearts of all present, was showed by a magnificent ovation when he arose upon the platform.

               “Though long engaged in the quiet pursuits of life, his bearing is much that of a soldier. Tall, spare and graceful, with dark hair and mustache, somewhat whitened, with cheeks ruddy and little furrowed and a manner that draws men to him in confidence and good will, wearing the air indeed of a high bred gentleman; such indeed was the man given an ovation in Jackson Hall at the V.M.I. Tuesday, and he was the man who in command of a federal cavalry brigade captured the town of Lexington, the one and only time in its history, June 14, 1864.

               “Colonel Schoonmaker was introduced by General Nichols, as having, when a boy of eighteen, in May, 1861, enlisted as a private in the Union army. He had been promoted for meritorious conduct until three years later he was a colonel in command of one of the cavalry brigades under Averill. He had in time of peace risen to be a highly successful railroad man of Pittsburgh. He was a man whose spirit and demeanor was such that he was cordially welcome alike at the reunions of Union and Confederate soldiers. In terms of great emphasis General Nichol expressed the pleasure all had in having Colonel Schoonmaker with them.

               “Colonel Schoonmaker, coming forward after his reception, declared it was impossible for him to say what he was or where he was. He did not know whether he was a Yankee of a Johnny Reb. Analyzing the age of the soldiers of the two armies he said they were made up of boys, and it was boys of no military training; and boys who with two years’ training had surpassed all records by their deeds at Gettysburg. Those boys, he declared, for he was one of them, never had any animosity toward one another

“The speaker before taking up his subject threw a bouquet to the interested cadets. He was not at New Market, he said, but had a brother there, and he said to me, “I wish you could have seen how those little devils fought. I never saw any better fighting. I believe we could have whipped them had it not been for those V.M.I. cadets.” 

            “I received command from General Hunter, said Colonel Schoonmaker, to advance with my brigade of cavalry and occupy Lexington. It was June 14th that I arrived on the hills overlooking the town from the north, and there was checked by some resistance. General McCausland, in command of Confederates, was in front of me. A battery came up, sent by General Hunter, to support me. The officer said he had orders to shell the town. I protested against his shelling an empty town.

            “He fired a few rounds and stopped. The Confederates had burned the bridge over the river at Lexington. After the firing ceased, I divided my command and with part crossed the river just             General      below the bridge, the other I sent several miles up to cross the river and approach the town               David Hunter     from the other side. I then posted sentinels on the roads coming into the town“An officer came to me with the information that a Confederate flag was flying in the cemetery. I made inquiry and learned that it was flying over the grave of Stonewall Jackson. I ordered a guard placed there. I had placed guards at the institute and the College. I rode over to the Institute with my orderly, dismounted from my horse near the Washington statue and alone walked through the arch into the cadet barrack. I advanced well into the center of the areaway. It was quiet and tenantless. I was the only occupant, hence I am now honored as the one cadet of the class of 1864. It was an unpopular class in Lexington.

             “Later in the evening General Hunter moved his command up into the town. General Hunter did not, as reported, put me under arrest for refusing to burn the institute. To refuse would have been insubordination on my part, and I as not guilty of that. He relieved me of command on the ground that I did not know enough on taking possession of the town to burn the institute. He was an old army man, hard and vindictive.

             “He had the Institute building fired. It was dry and burned like tinder. I sat on my horse on the parade ground and saw it burning. Great volumes of smoke and flames rushed through the air and settled over the Washington statue some feet in front. A gust of wind sometimes lifted the smoke and revealed standing in its dignity the statue of the “Father of his Country.” And I thought how Washington struggled eight years for the freedom of his country, and now a few years afterward his people are engaged in burning and killing, in bitter warfare against one another. It to be stopped.

               “General Hunter ordered me to proceed south with my brigade. I told him I had been humiliated by his treatment of me. “I was in disgrace. I should be subjected to court martial. If I am not, I shall ask for a court of inquiry.” He then handed me a paper setting forth that his treatment of me had been under a mis-apprehension. I thereupon resumed command of my brigade and marched south. At Buchanan we had a brush with McCausland, who burnt the bridge and fell back. I forded the river. The town had been set on fire and we carried water and put out the flames. I stopped at a handsome country house and asked permission to make my headquarters there. The old lady of the house showing some trepidation, consented. I reassured her. Afterwards she came to me saying, “I must talk to somebody. My servants have gone off with my valuables and other property to the mountains to save them from the Yankees. I am afraid the servants have gone off to the Yankees with the property.” “Madam,” said I, “I you will tell me where to send, I will investigate.” She did so, and I sent a sergeant. He finally found the valuables and brought them to the house. We took them into the cellar, raised the floor, and buried them there. Next day General Hunter came along and burnt the house. I learned the sequel eighteen years ago. I was stopping at Narragansett Pier with my family and b accident came to know Mrs. Jefferson Davis, also there. In her company I became acquainted with Mr. Anderson of Richmond. We talked over wartime reminiscences. I told of this experience near Buchanan and Mr. Anderson then revealed that he was a grandson of the lady of the house whose valuables we had buried. What was buried was all that was saved and Anderson had them in Richmond.

               “Colonel Schoonmaker in conclusion complied with a request from General Nichols made before he began, to talk about the Jackson flag incident at Lexington. He said:

             “The day I reached Lexington three old gentlemen called at my headquarters and asked to see the commander. They expressed surprise at my youthful appearance. They asked permission to remove the flag at General Jackson’s grave. They explained that it had been left there by an oversight, and no disrespect was intended. I asked them to let it fly until sunset and I would take it down. I said to them we regard Jackson as the highest type of a Christian soldier. At the appointed time I rode to the cemetery gate with my staff and accompanied by a file of twelve soldiers and a bugler. Alighting, we walked to the grave. It was a simple little mound. We carried two flags: one, the Twelfth Pennsylvania, we planted in the ground of one side of the mound, and that of the Fifth Massachusetts, was planted on the other side. The chief bugler stood on my right. I lowered the flag to the ground, where it rested between the two regimental flags. The file of soldiers fired three volleys over the grave, the bugler sounded taps. I lifted the flag and handed it to the three venerable citizens who received it with emotion; the emotion was not confined to them.”

              This incident is worthy a place in every school history of the land. It shows the magnanimity of a northern commander for a conquered and fallen foe. We are all glad that our gallant Colonel had so much heart in him, even in times of triumph. No wonder he was given a great ovation fifty years later. 


SUBMITTED BY: Duncan Campbell


SOURCE: Rev. William Davis Slease, V.D.M., A.B.M.A.; The Fourteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall and Military Museum, 4141 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, pp. 146-151.


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