Curtis Eriksmoen, Published July 11 2010
Eriksmoen: Fargo doctor succeeded Custer in Civil War
Henry Capehart entered the war as a surgeon, but because of his “knowledge,” “adroit strategy,” “accomplished horsemanship” and familiarity with the terrain, he was persuaded to become a cavalry officer. He quickly rose through the ranks and, through his bravery and leadership, became a major general at war’s end.
Capehart was born March 18, 1825, near the town of Johnstown, Pa. His mother died by the time he was 5, and Capehart was charged with looking after his younger brother, Charles. After graduating from high school in Pittsburgh and after graduating from Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson College) in Washington, Capehart moved in 1847 to Waynesburg, south of Pittsburgh, where he studied medicine. After securing his medical license in 1849, Capehart set up a practice in Bridgeport, Ohio, across the Ohio River.
When the Civil War broke out, Capehart volunteered as a surgeon for the 1st West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry on Sept. 18, 1861. Capehart’s duties were monumental in July 1863 when his regiment was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the battle, Gen. Robert E. Lee retreated into Virginia with his troops, and Union commander Maj. Gen. George Meade planned new offensives. Two of those offensives, in which Capehart played major roles, were the Battle of Bristoe and the Battle of Mine Run.
Capehart helped Brig. Gen. Henry E. Davies Jr. guide troops through unfamiliar terrain. When Col. Nathaniel P. Richmond resigned in November because of health reasons, Generals Judson Kilpatrick, George Custer, Alfred Pleasonton and others pushed to have Capehart promoted to colonel to replace Richmond.
In May 1864, Capehart’s regiment was involved in the “Valley Campaigns” of the Shenandoah of Virginia. Under heavy enemy fire, Capehart was leading his regiment across the Greenbriar River, near a waterfall, on May 22. One of the soldiers, Pvt. Watson Karr was swept out of his saddle and down the swift stream. Capehart fell when he tried to grab Karr as he came rushing by, and both men were swept over the falls. Capehart finally reached Karr and pulled him to safety. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was the Union’s commanding officer during the Valley Campaigns, and Gen. William W. Averell was Capehart’s superior. On Sept. 21-22, Capehart’s regiment was involved in the Battle of Fisher’s Hill. After the battle, Sheridan relieved Averell of his command and replaced him with Col. William H. Powell. Capehart was then placed in charge of the 3rd Brigade, which was composed of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd West Virginia regiments and the 1st New York Lincoln Cavalry. The colonel’s brother, Charles Capehart, was brought in to take over command of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. The 3rd Brigade became known as “Capehart’s Fighting Brigade.” There is dispute as to whether this name was designated by Sheridan or Custer.
When the brigade began its march toward Petersburg, Va., it was placed under the 3rd Cavalry Division, commanded by Custer. On March 2, 1865, the Confederate forces, under Gen. Jubal Early, made a stand at Waynesborough, Va. When Custer’s division encountered the Confederates, Capehart’s brigade charged through the enemy line. Nearly 1,400 of Early’s soldiers surrendered. This battled ended the Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley. On March 13, Henry Capehart was promoted to brigadier general.
After successes at Chamberlain Creek and White Oaks, Sheridan, Custer, Capehart and the Union army fought the Battle of Five Forks southwest of Petersburg on April 1, 1865. The battle is often called “the Waterloo of the Confederacy.” Under heavy fire, Custer approached the entrenchments and fortifications of the enemy. Capehart rode up to Custer and suggested that “the moment was opportune for a charge.” With Capehart in the forefront and his bugler, Tom Custer, at his side, more than 1,000 Union cavalrymen rode full speed into the enemy lines. Most of the Confederates fled or surrendered.
Gen. Lee blamed the defeat at Five Forks on the fact that the commanding officer, Gen. George Pickett, was two miles away at a fish fry hosted by Gen. Thomas L. Rosser. Rosser was Custer’s roommate at West Point, and both men later lived in the Bismarck area. An avenue in that city is named in the Confederate general’s honor.
We will conclude our look at Henry Capehart next week, focusing on his involvement at Appomattox, his medical career in Fargo and the controversy over what eventually happened to Gen. Grant’s Appomattox chair after it left Capehart’s possession.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org