Over the course of the last month I’ve written posts on Benjamin “Grimes” Davis and Elon J. Farnsworth. These men share a common trait: their promising careers were cut short in battle during the Gettysburg Campaign. Davis was in the prime of his and it appeared the recently promoted Farnsworth had a bright future ahead. After giving the subject some additional thought, I realized there is another individual who also fits in this category who died several months earlier, Brig. Gen. George Bayard.
Like many of his contemporaries, Bayard attended West Point and was a member of the Class of 1856. After graduation, he was assigned to the 1st U.S. Cavalry and for he next several years served on the Great Plains. Among his fellow officers was future Confederate cavalry commander, James Ewell Brown Stuart.
While on an expedition against the Kiowas in July, 1860, Bayard was shot in the face with an arrow during a skirmish. Doctors were able to remove the shaft in the field, but the arrowhead proved elusive. Bayard was eventually sent to St. Louis where it was successfully extracted. He would suffer from the residual effects of the wound for the remainder of his life.
After recuperation, Bayard reported to West Point as Instructor of Cavalry Tactics. A few weeks later, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. For the next several months, Bayard attempted to gain a volunteer commission, however War Department policy forbade regular army officers from taking a leave of absence to serve in the volunteers. This rule was later rescinded and Bayard was appointed Colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry in the fall of 1861.
Bayard and his regiment spent the winter of 1861-1862 in the Washington defenses. When Maj. Gen. George McClellan undertook his Peninsula Campaign in March, Bayard was sent to Fredericksburg as part of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s corps. Later in the spring, Bayard was promoted to Brigadier General and elevated to command a brigade which consisted of his former regiment and the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. His primary responsibility was picketing the north bank of the Rappahannock River.
Late in May, Bayard was dispatched to the Shenandoah Valley to support Union forces operating against Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. His unit consisted of the two cavalry regiments, along with a battalion from the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves and the Maine Light Artillery, 2nd Battery (B). Not surprisingly, the old regular army officer handled this hodge-podge force rather well. In a skirmish outside Harrisonburg that June, elements from the Reserves killed the Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby.
At the end of the Valley Campaign, Bayard withdrew his troopers to central Virginia. The latter part of July was spent scouting Madison County and picketing the Rapidan River. In early August, he established a picket line below Culpeper Court House to watch the approaches from the south. His troopers detected and briefly delayed Stonewall Jackson’s advance which later led to the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Following the engagement, Bayard’s command was augmented by the 1st Maine, 1st Rhode Island and 2nd New York. On August 20, Bayard and his troopers fought the first of what became a series of battles around Brandy Station, a train stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Despite having his flank turned by Confederate cavalry under Beverly Robertson, Bayard ordered a counterattack which drove back the Southerners.
The summer months of 1862 had been hard for Bayard and his troopers. When the armies entered Maryland, he remained behind on outpost duty around Washington. In November, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac. Burnside reorganized the army into Grand Divisions. Bayard’s brigade was assigned to Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division. The 1st Rhode Island was replaced by the 10th New York and an Independent Company of D.C. Cavalry had been added to his command.
In an effort to gain a victory before the year closed, Burnside moved his army to Fredericksburg. After securing a bridgehead across the Rappahannock on December 11, Burnside planned to move against the Confederate line west of the town on the thirteenth. Franklin was to attack Jackson’s men south of town. Throughout the morning, Bayard’s troopers skirmished with enemy infantry. Around mid-afternoon, while conversing with Franklin outside his headquarters, Bayard was struck below the hip by an exploding shell. The wound proved mortal and he passed away the following afternoon, just days before his twenty-seventh birthday.
At the time of his death, Bayard was a proven commodity. He had performed well in picketing and reconnaissance duties. Bayard had also shown he could handle joint commands. At Brandy Station, he demonstrated composure in battle when Confederate cavalry threatened to cut off his line of retreat. Most importantly, Bayard was the senior brigadier in the army’s cavalry when died. His rank would have entitled him to a division command a few months later when Joseph Hooker reorganized the mounted arm. We are left to wonder how or even if Bayard’s career would have evolved, how his actions may have impacted future campaigns and the horse soldiers he so ably led.