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Connecticut soldiers played “cowboy”; returned stolen cows to Yorkers

023-Probable Field of Advance of 35th VA Cavalry Battalion

A young Connecticut lad named William Caruthers had quite the experience as a Civil War soldier. His ancestors had immigrated to British North America in the early 1700s, but being loyalists fled the colonies during the American Revolution. Caruthers, born in England in 1844, moved with his family to Norwich, Connecticut, in the 1850s. He received a public education, worked as a dry goods clerk, and then in the spring of 1861 enlisted in the 3rd Connecticut, a three-months’ regiment, at the start of the Civil War. He “saw the elephant” at the battle of Bull Run in July before mustering out and returning home.

A year later, in July 1862, he re-enlisted, this time in the 18th Connecticut as a quartermaster sergeant before being promoted to second lieutenant. At the Second Battle of Winchester in June 1863, he led his company on a daring charge which captured 19 Confederates holed up in a brick farmhouse. On his way back to his regimental line, he suffered a hideous wound to his liver, back, and stomach. A surgeon gave him less than 30 minutes to live; he was placed in an ambulance and taken to the rear. A Confederate shell exploded in front of the ambulance, mangling and killing several other soldiers. Somehow Caruthers held on for several days, being taken prisoner by the Rebels after his division retreated from Winchester.

His adventures were only beginning…


Caruthers earlier the year had been stationed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where he befriended a noted prisoner, the famed Confederate partisan ranger and cavalryman Harry Gilmor. Now in late June 1863, Gilmor happened to be part of the enemy force which had just taken Winchester. He slipped a wad of Confederate money to the grievously injured Caruthers, who was lying in a hospital bed in the Taylor Hotel. As Gilmor departed to head north toward Pennsylvania with the army, he boasted, “The next good dinner I’ll eat will be at the Continental hotel in Philadelphia!” “Never!” retorted Caruthers. As a local black lady nursed Caruthers back to health on corn pone and fresh milk, weeks later the Rebels returned following their defeat at Gettysburg. Major Gilmor, of course, never made it to Philadelphia, but he stopped at the hospital and gave Caruthers $50 in U.S greenbacks from a looted bank in Chambersburg.

After Union cavalry re-took Winchester, Caruthers was taken to Harper’s Ferry where he spent his last money to telegraph the governor of Connecticut to ask for assistance. The governor, in turn, contacted Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had Caruthers removed to a fine hospital in Baltimore before he returned home to Norwich, where his family and friends were stunned to see him, having thought him dead.

Wounded again at New Market, VA, Caruthers would carry a small sliver of Rebel lead in his eyelid for the rest of his life. In a subsequent battle in Martinsburg, WV, he dashed into a church to see if he could help the wounded men; there he met a young 16-year-old local girl, Nanny Snider, whom he later married.

While stationed near Martinsburg in November 1864, the lieutenant and a small squad of his fellow 18th Connecticut soldiers were detailed to escort some 200 cattle, taken earlier in the war when Jubal Early’s Rebel division had invaded York County, Pennsylvania, back to their rightful owners. They played “cowboy,” driving the large herd northward. “This was a hard trip,” a newspaper later reported, as Caruthers had “great difficulty in understanding the dialect of the Pennsylvania Dutch.”

Their mission, however, was successful despite the communications issues. The Connecticut boys managed to return all the cows to their surprised owners, who likely thought they would never again see their confiscated animals. Satisfied with the result, Caruthers and his party happily boarded a Northern Central Railway train and eventually returned through Baltimore to their post in the Lower Shenandoah Valley. They arrived just before Thanksgiving.

Caruthers had a number of other adventures in the conflict and became close friends with William McKinley, an assistant adjutant general and staff officer from Ohio. After the war, he renewed his friendship with Harry Gilmor, visiting his home in Baltimore several times. In 1880 he started working in the post office of Norwich, being named as postmaster in 1889 by his war-time friend McKinley, now the president of the United States. Caruthers served in that patronage position for several years, except during Democrat Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms when he was replaced.

William Caruthers, well respected and beloved by his neighbors and postal clients, died in November 1919. He is buried in Norwich’s Yantic Cemetery.

Sources: The Day, December 10, 1907. Caruthers and the captured cow caper are also briefly mentioned in the regimental history of the 18th Connecticut (page 317).

Watch this autumn for Scott Mingus’ and Eric Wittenberg’s new book on the Second Battle of Winchester with a lot more detail on Caruthers and his adventures in that battle!