The story of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry began in July of 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln ordered the state of Pennsylvania to furnish three regiments of cavalry. Col. Josiah Kellogg, a regular army officer, was named the leader of the newly formed fighting unit that was mustered into service at Camp Simmons near Harrisburg on October 18.
The original unit, designated as the 162nd, recruited from such diverse counties as Beaver, Susquehanna, Lancaster, Bradford, Lebanon, Cumberland, Franklin, Schuylkill, Perry, Philadelphia, Luzerne, Montgomery, Chester and Wayne. These men possessed skills better suited for farming, coal mining and foundry work than military life. To many they were hardly of the caliber that one would expect to prevail against the skilled horsemen of the South. Fortunately, the ranks of the 17th also included a core of officers and cavalrymen who had “seen the elephant” during the war with Mexico. From these seeds of past glory grew a skilled fighting unit that served with honor throughout the war.
After being equipped for battle and rigorously trained the 17th was moved to Washington and shortly thereafter to Occoquan, VA. There the noted Confederate cavalryman, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, met them in a blistering baptism of fire on December 22, 1982. From that moment on, moving from one campaign to another was to be the life of a trooper in the17th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
In early January 1863, the enemy was engaged at Stafford Court House near Neabasco Creek. Under the command of Major Ruben Reinhold the 17th successfully repulsed a force of Confederates trying to cross that body of water. Several days later an attempt was made by the Federal Cavalry to move deeper into Virginia, which resulted in a meeting with JEB Stuart and a superior body of Cavalry. The 17th was forced to retire the field and withdraw to just north of the Neabasco. At this time the 17th Cavalry was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, commanded by Brig. General Thomas C. Devin. The association with Devin was to last throughout the war.
At the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, the 17th was assigned to Maj. General George Gordon Meade while its sister unit the 8th Cavalry was commanded by Brig Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. These two units were the only fighting forces available to stop the aggressive tactical advance of Stonewall Jackson’s army. Jackson’s battlefield tactics so confused the troops of General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac that their lines were on the verge of being split. With the 8th Cavalry at the forefront delaying the attack Pleasonton rallied his retreating army and fortified the Federal line with artillery. Meanwhile two squadrons of the 17th were drawn up to the rear of the artillery in single file – sabers drawn – in a successful maneuver that convinced Confederate aggressors that they were a superior force not yet committed to battle.
From Chancellorsville the 17th moved to Beverly and Kelly’s Ford and Sulphur Springs where they fought under Brig. Gen. John Buford. Eventually they found themselves in the quite Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. When Major General Henry Heath’s infantry marched down the Chambersburg Pike July 1, 1863, the 17th was part of Buford’s dismounted troopers waiting for them on McPherson’s Ridge. It is well know that that it was the Federal Cavalry that kept the growing force of Confederates at bay until infantry reinforcements arrived.
Other engagements followed, Morton’s Ford, Brandy Station and Oak Hill to mentioned a few. After wintering through late February 1864 in Culpepper, VA the 17th was assigned to Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick for a sweeping engagement aimed at the heart of the Confederacy. The mission called for an attack on Richmond to free thousands of Union prisoners, an unprecedented move which planners believed could shorten or end the war.
Five thousand well-equipped troopers rode south with five days rations, well groomed mounts and high hopes. After completing several diversionary moves the campaign appeared to be destined for success. Even bad weather, impassable roads and the harassment of rebel skirmishers did not deter the feelings of victory. Euphoria faded quickly when the relieving column that had gone ahead became hopelessly lost. The mission ground to a disastrous halt when the advancing Federal Cavalry found the trenches surrounding Richmond filled with combat veterans - not the weak militia they expected. The only option left was a dangerous retreat to the north.
In May of 1863 Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan again directed the 17th toward the city of Richmond. This time the 17th and their fellow cavalrymen liberated many Union prisoners and destroyed great quantities of Confederate stores. Many engagements followed including the bloody battle of Cold Harbor where the unit moved to the front lines dismounted and held its ground until relieved by the infantry. In August, Sheridan and his troops moved on the orders of Gen. U.S. Grant to turn the breadbasket of the Confederacy, the Shenandoah Valley, into a wasteland incapable of re-supplying the forces of Robert E. Lee.
The campaign proved effective until and early morning attack in October wherein Maj. Gen Jubal Early routed the Federal 6th Corps at Cedar Creek near Middletown, VA. It was the return of Sheridan from Winchester, VA with his bodyguard of the 17th Cavalrymen that turned the tide of that battle. Sheridan successfully rallied the retreating Federal stragglers into a counterattack force that reclaimed its lost ground, lost cannons and most of the abandon supplies.
On December 27 Col. Josiah Kellogg left the regiment. The 17th had a brief tour of duty protecting the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and local citizens against roving bands of outlaws. Sheridan again took command and led his cavalry units in raid to the rear of Richmond. The 17th Cavalry was at the center of heavy fighting as rebel forces were driven into the vicinity of Appomattox Court House and the eventual surrender of the Confederate forces.
From Appomattox the trip home took the troops to Petersburg, then to Washington, and finally the Unit was mustered out of service on June 16, 1865. Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Devin summed up the story of the 17th in a farewell address by describing this fighting force as, “a unit of the state of which none had a brighter record, none had more freely shed its blood on every battlefield from Gettysburg to Appomattox.”
The history of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry is summarized from an article by David L. Valuska in the Reading Eagle “By any number, 17th Cavalry mounted an impressive record” and its follow-up “More from the history of the 17th Pennsylvania”.