An abridgement from the forthcoming book published by Mercer University Press.
Author and motivational speaker Dr. John Maxwell sums up the roll of leadership as a significant quality at all times when he writes that, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” This maxim is the primary explanation for the highest praise given Cobb’s Legion Cavalry after the Civil War by the South Carolina Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Hampton promoted Cobb’s Legion Cavalry as “the best regiment of either army, north or south.”
Three men were responsible for Hampton’s apt description of the Legion Cavalry besides Hampton himself: Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb, who originally organized and led the unit; Brig. Gen. Pierce M.B. Young, the unit’s first colonel, and Lt. Col. William Gaston Delony.
Delony gave all his energy, courage and decisive determination for three and a half years in molding Cobb’s Georgia Legion Cavalry into an efficient and dependable fighting force. He was admired, respected and loved by the men who served under him during the Civil War.
One of those who most admired him was Wiley C. Howard, a 22-year-old law student at the University of Georgia who gave up an opportunity to serve as a first lieutenant in the infantry in order to serve as a private under Delony. That affectionate decision occurred at the outbreak of the war, when Delony was recruiting a cavalry company for Cobb’s Legion called “The Georgia Troopers.” Howard served throughout the war, rising to the rank of major, and afterwards practiced law in northeast Georgia. In 1901, Howard wrote the only complete record of Cobb’s Legion entitled Sketch of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry and Some Incidents and Scenes Remembered. Howard penned that Delony possessed three attributes that were greatly admired: “Commanding Presence, Bulldog Courage and Superb Generalship.”
Delonys’ leadership qualities blossomed early. As a student at the University of Georgia, he was the first Honor Graduate of the Class of 1846, and early on developed a passion for patriotism and politics. A few years later, he was hired by the trustees of the college as a faculty member (there were only nine) to teach “ancient language.” During the time that he was teaching at the university, he studied law and became a highly respected lawyer practicing in Athens, Ga., and the surrounding counties. While practicing law, he also served the community on several study committees. In 1855, he was elected as a town warden, and, in 1860, became a member of the state legislature, the first Democrat so elected in a Whig-dominated city. All the while, he associated with and learned from influential friends such as Cobb, a prominent lawyer from Athens who became his commanding officer.
During a visit to Savannah to see his favorite aunt, Eliza, Delony met, courted and eventually married the woman that became the love of his life, Rosa E. Huguenin. The couple married in Savannah in 1854 at the Independence Presbyterian Church. For the next two years, Rosa, after giving birth to their first child, lived in Savannah with her grandmother, while Delony practiced law and oversaw the building of their home in Athens, located a block away from “The Arch,” the symbolic entrance to the University of Georgia. It was during this time of separation that they accelerated their letter writing, a practice that eventually covered a 10-year period from 1853-1863. The time frame included the separation before Rosa moved to Athens in 1856, and again during the separation that lasted intermittently for almost three years, while he served the Confederacy and Cobb’s Legion.
“Will,” as Rosa called him, was totally devoted to her and their children, and their correspondence is a treasure trove of information. Delony not only wrote about his military movements and battles, but also of his views and concerns on events taking place politically, as well as expressing some of his innermost feelings. Most of the letters contain affectionate and tender words sprinkled with a sense of the romantic. Rosa’s correspondence gives an insight into the conditions and activities of the Civil War home front along with delightful news and, of course, concerns about the children’s well-being.
The Delony’s had five children, only two of whom lived to adulthood: Tom Cobb Delony, the third child born in 1859, lived to be 53, while “Little Rosa,” the second child born in 1857 died at age 80 in 1937. She was the one who preserved the legacy of her father and mother.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln and the rapid secession of Southern states from the Union, something Delony worked to obtain in Georgia, war became inevitable. With Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops “to put down the rebellion,” following the fall of Fort Sumter, both sides began mobilizing.
Delony was relentless in raising troops from Athens and the adjoining counties to form one of the cavalry companies under Cobb’s Legion. In the summer of 1861, the Legion, after participating in some preliminary drills in Athens, was sent off to Richmond, Va., for further assignment. By early fall, it joined forces under Gen. John B. “Prince John” Magruder to challenge Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s invasion of the peninsula en route to Richmond. After being pushed back to the gates of Richmond, the Confederate army commander, Gen. Joe Johnston, was wounded leading an assault at Seven Pines. Gen. Robert E. Lee replaced him, and the new commander wasted no time in initiating a massive attack on McClellan’s army in what marked the beginning of the Seven Days Battles. Eventually, the aggressive Confederate Army drove the Union Army of the Potomac away from the capital of the Confederacy.
It was in late June of 1862, during the Seven Days Battles, when Delony participated in his first cavalry charge—the first of his many in the war. He was ordered by Jeb Stuart to attack Dispatch Station and rout the federals on the railroad that was part of the Union army’s main supply line at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. Delony led the charge from the front, a leadership position that would characterize his style throughout the war. His squadron captured 120 federal soldiers and scattered the rest. By putting himself out front and in danger, even more so than his troops, he further gained the respect and confidence of the men he led.
The greatest example of Delony’s aggressiveness and fighting spirit was in a skirmish east of the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia in November 1862, in a small village called Little Washington. This skirmish was one of the several that took place in northern Virginia after the Battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, where Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, who relieved McClellan, was determined to be aggressive in contrast to his cautious predecessor.
The action began when a squadron of Union soldiers collided with Confederate sharpshooters dispatched by Delony as pickets. As the pickets began to give ground, Delony, scouting the situation alone on his beloved horse Marmion, found himself being charged by a dozen mounted Union cavalry. Instead of galloping away from the pursuing Union column, according to Wylie Howard, Delony “wheeled his horse like a lion at bay prepared to meet the onslaught and alone coped with a party of ten far in advance of the others. Emptying both his pistols and deliberately drawing his saber he met them as they dashed around him … he was fighting like a mad boar with a whole pack of curs about him, having his bridle hand dreadfully hacked, his head gashed and side thrust.” In the middle of the crisis “Gallant Jim Clayton” led several of Delony’s company “dashing down the hill … like lightening to the reserve of our brave and beloved Delony. Stalwart Jim Clayton spurring his horse knocked others aside and plunged his saber” into one of the Union soldiers who was in a virtual death lock with Delony. At that moment, “Delony quickly drew up his blade, and, with almost superhuman effort, cleaved his antagonist’s skull as he fell forward.”
Delony’s most critical and significant charge took place during the famous Battle of Brandy Station. Early in the morning of June 9, 1863, prior to Lee’s second invasion of the North, a disaster almost took place at Stuart’s encampment. John Buford’s Union cavalry division, supported by infantry and artillery, crossed the Rappahannock River and headed south, and attacked Stuart’s cavalry of some 9,500 cavalrymen, driving in his pickets and initiating the largest cavalry battle in North America. When the Union attack was finally about to be neutralized, another Union cavalry division led by Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg attacked the encampment from a southern direction. Within a short period, Union troopers were on Fleetwood Hill about to capture Stuart’s headquarters.
Hampton ordered Cobb’s Legion and the 1st South Carolina Regiment to save Stuart’s headquarters. With Col. Young, Cobb’s Legion commander leading the first two companies, and Delony leading the last two, the Georgia Troopers and the Richmond Hussars, the Legion charged up Fleetwood Hill hitting the 10th and 2nd New York cavalries from the flanks. As they were about to hit the Yankee flanks, Delony yelled to his men in that “deep voice,” Howard recalled, “sabers, boys, sabers, no pistols” and then he saw Delony “smiting Yankees right and left as he charged along in advance. He sat on his charger grandly, his fine physique and full mahogany beard flowing, he looked a very Titan of a war God, flushed with exuberance and exhilaration of victory. He called to me to rally with others of his old company about him and on he led us pressing the retreating foe right down to a railroad cut.” In his battle report, Young stated that while “all of his troops performed so well it seems unfair to mention the names of any particular individuals” [however] ”I cannot fail to mention the intrepid personal gallantry of my Lieutenant Colonel W.G. Delony.”
While Delony escaped the Brandy Station charge without any injuries, he was not as lucky in his next gallant but reckless charge at Hunterstown, Pa. After initially screening Lee’s army as it moved north on June 25, 1863, Jeb Stuart took three of his five cavalry brigades, including Hampton’s, on what some have termed as his “glory ride.” He led his troops around the Union Army (his second encirclement of the war). But the ride took much longer than anticipated and deprived Lee of his full cavalry corps during the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Stuart finally arrived in Gettysburg on July 2 around noon on the second day of the battle, and reported to a not so happy Lee. After the meeting with Lee, Stuart assigned Hampton’s Brigade to position itself astride the Hunterstown road northeast of the town in order to block any movement by Union forces trying to get behind Lee’s line. At the same time, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s federal cavalry, with George A. Custer and Elon J. Farnsworth, conducted a probing mission of the Confederate position and ran into Hampton’s rear guard at Hunterstown. The two aggressive units charged each other, resulting in fierce hand-to-hand combat. In one of the charges led by Delony, he was thrown from his horse and seriously wounded with saber cuts to his head. In a letter to Rosa on July 7th, while downplaying his wound, he admitted he had received “three saber cuts on the head, two of them slight and one of them severe.”
With his head bandaged, Delony was loaded into a wagon as part of the 17-mile ambulance train along with 6,000 other wounded Confederates retreating to Williamsport, before crossing the Potomac River back into Virginia. Gen. John Imboden’s cavalry, whose troops had to contend with torrential rain and constant harassment by the Union cavalry, escorted the train. When the convoy reached Williamsport, it was unable to ford the swollen Potomac caused by the heavy rain. Close on the heels of the ambulance train was Buford’s cavalry division. The Union threat forced Imboden to form a three-mile defensive perimeter along the river. In doing so, he called upon all hands to help in the desperate situation. Delony responded after hearing the growing boom of cannons. He climbed out of his wagon and started collecting other walking-wounded, and, along with stragglers, wagoneers and teamsters, they filled in a gap in the defense of the train. Delony reported this to Rosa, adding that he eventually commanded “a heterogeneous crowd” of around 200 willing bodies and led them in support of Hart’s Battery that had been attached to Imboden’s Brigade. The makeshift Confederate defenders fought gallantly, and after the battle raged back and forth for some three hours, Imboden ordered Hart’s Battery and Delony’s motley crew to attack the right flank of one of Buford’s Brigades. Delony wrote that his unit “drove the enemy about three fourths of a mile, and about dark had completely flanked one of their batteries.” Soon after the attack, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Brigade arrived to support to Imboden’s courageous force. Buford soon realized that his position was untenable, and ordered a full withdrawal of his Union cavalry division.
Howard was on the scene and described Delony’s action in this critical situation: “With his commanding presence, bulldog courage and superb generalship, he made a most determined resistance and successfully held them at bay until reinforcements arrived, thus avoiding a train stampede and a great disaster to Lee’s retreat.” Known as the “Battle of the Wagoneers,” Delony proudly wrote Rosa when his pieced-together defenders were dismissed; “they gave me three cheers … and promised to gather again if necessary if I would command them which I promised to do.”
Delony’s saber cuts received at Hunterstown turned out to be much worse than he anticipated. It took a full month before his wounds healed and he could rejoin the regiment. One wound left what he described to Rosa as a “Y” shaped “honorable scar … leaving quite a sink in my forehead (just above his right eye) … you can almost lay your finger in it.”
As Delony concluded his third summer nearly exhausted from the hardships of war, his mood swings became more pronounced. His feelings, as usual, were revealed in his letters to Rosa. He expressed deep concerns about her welfare and that of the children, while also complaining about the favoritism shown to the Virginia cavalry, especially to the West Point graduates. His frustration led to a sense of depression, and he once wrote that he was going to resign. By the end of the summer of 1863, he had fought in almost 50 engagements.
Despite his mood swings, his adrenaline flowed to a fever pitch when it came time to engage the enemy. He once expressed to Rosa after an anticipated clash with the enemy that never materialized: “Strange as it is there is a fascination in danger that allures a soldier and perhaps it is well that it is so to those who are soldiers from necessity and a sense of duty.”
After rejoining his regiment, Delony regained his sense of duty, which immediately supplanted his growing feeling of disillusionment. His competitive spirit also was aroused by a series of challenges from the Union army. Commander George Meade planned an attack to take advantage of the absence of Gen. James Longstreet and his First Corps from Lee’s army in summer of 1863 to support Gen. Braxton Bragg in Georgia. Meade wanted to drive Stuart’s cavalry out of the land between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock rivers. Confederate troops controlled this area, centered on Brandy Station, since the retreat of Gettysburg. When it was confirmed that Longstreet was gone, Meade sent two divisions of federal cavalry with infantry and artillery support on Sept. 13 across the Rappahannock River, driving Stuart all the way back to the Rapidan in what became known as the Second Battle of Brandy Station. Stuart was personally in charge of Hampton’s division during the battle, while Hampton continued his recovery from wounds received at Gettysburg. The division, strung out along the Rapidan, reacted daily to Union threats, causing a weeklong fight along the fords of the river. Cobb’s Legion and Delony were daily in the thick of the battle.
Meade, eyeing a strike at Lee’s left flank, was determined to continue the offensive. He sent two divisions of Alfred Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corps, Buford’s First and Kilpatrick’s Third, around the Robinson and Rapidan rivers “to assess the roads in Madison County and the bridges and fords of those rivers.” On the morning of Sept. 21, the two Union divisions joined forces, and, with 7,000 troops, they crossed the Robinson River and occupied Madison County Courthouse. This movement brought an immediate response from Stuart, who moved his division of 2,000 horsemen to the area to scout out the situation and report it to Lee’s headquarters in nearby Orange County. Stuart moved his troops to a village called Rochelle, near a crossroads known as Jack’s Shop because of the blacksmith shop there. Leaving an outpost at the crossroads, Stuart took the rest of his division into the town to have their lunch and to take advantage of the shop to tend to their horses.
Capt. Francis Eve, who commanded the Richmond Dragoons in Cobb’s Legion, described the scene years later in a Memorial Day speech in Athens. Eve vividly recalled that the Legion was relaxing on the ground with their horses in a hollow next to Jack’s Shop and he was with his “two best friends W.G. Delony and W.L. Church … smoking our pipes … little did we think that in a few minutes we would never meet again.” Suddenly, all hell broke loose as shots rang out from the north over the hill and bullets were whistling around the Legion.
The two Union divisions had earlier split with Kilpatrick crossing and patrolling the Rapidan heading southwest of Jack’s Shop. Buford sent one regiment east to reconnoiter, while he traveled due south along the turnpike with the rest of the division. Buford’s advance guard soon ran into Stuart’s rear guard at the crossroads and the battle began. The contest raged back and forth some three hours, with Stuart’s division slowly being caught up in a double envelopment. Before long, Stuart’s force was being hit from the north, south and east.
In the middle of the battle, Eve and Delony led a charge “down a lane leading by a barn and ran into an ambuscade of men posted in the barn who dealt death and destruction upon us,” Eve reported in his Memorial Day speech. Eve was shot in the chest and, at that same moment, turned to see Delony’s “horse make a lunge falling with the Colonel against a clapboard fence around a garden in the rear of Jack’s Shop.” Eve remembered that Delony’s horse hurled “the fence to the ground in his death struggle.”
Delony’s second-in-command, Barrington King, wrote to his father a few days after the battle further describing the action. King said that Delony’s horse was shot first in the flank, and almost immediately Delony was shot in the left thigh with a shotgun blast, “the same shot killing his horse instantly.” Howard then picked up the scene, noting Delony’s vulnerability. “Three Yankees seeing his almost helpless position and that he was an officer of note dashed upon him to subdue, capture him, or kill him, shooting and cutting from their horses. But this superb fighter with his Huguenot blood boiling, raised himself on one knee and with dexterous and wiry arm fenced and parried their blows. Then, Bugler H.E. Jackson of Company C Cobb’s Legion, who was coming up from the rear spurted his horse to the fray and to Delony’s aid fencing with these daring assailants, at last by a dexterous movement successfully thrust one man through the side, the others escaping with saber wounds from Delony’s shimmering blade as he rose to his feet.” Quickly, recognizing the situation, Delony ordered “Church, our adjutant, to form the regiment… in lines of battle in front and beyond the shop.” This action prevented a Union brigade from charging in and administering a knockout blow against the Confederates.
With the Confederates being hit from three sides, Stuart knew the situation was critical. He shouted to his troops, “Boys, it’s a fight to captivity, death or victory!” Stuart began to reform his division in an attempt to cut its way out of the trap and move down the turnpike south to the safety of the Confederate main lines at Liberty Mills. In the process of shifting more troops to the south on the turnpike, Stuart’s troops tore down a rail fence that was shielding some Union troops. This cleared a gap that the Confederates could fight through. Stuart was assembling the wounded when the break in the Union line occurred.
As Eve, who was already beginning to feel “clammy” from his chest wound, was moving with the wounded, he “overtook Colonel Delony mounted on another horse although his leg was bleeding.” Sighting Eve, Delony assured him “no bones are broken, but that the horse in falling had hurt him more than the shots.” Delony asked Eve to “ride forward and tell Dr. Bradley to hurry up with the ambulance as he felt faint …We parted never to meet again,” Eve stated.
To Stuart’s credit, he was able to get most of his command out of the trap. However, he was forced to leave some of his wounded behind as the Union force swarmed into the defenses, capturing the wounded Confederates, including Delony and his close friends, Dr. Henry S. Bradley and Cpl. Reuben L. Nash. Both men were members of Delony’s old company C, and both chose to stay with their beloved friend. The next day they were separated, and Delony was taken to Stanton U.S.A. General Hospital in Washington.
The Battle of Jack’s Shop, with approximately 10,000 troops engaged, was a costly one with some 1,500 casualties—mostly Confederates. During the planning of the 150th commemoration of the battle, The Charlottesville Daily Progress in bold headlines called Jack’s Shop “The Biggest Cavalry Battle You Never Heard Of.”
Delony lingered for a week in the Stanton Hospital before dying on Oct. 2 from the effects of the gunshot wound to his left leg that had mortified. Delony’s close friend “Willie” Church from Athens, who later rose to captain in the Legion, telegraphed Mrs. Pleasant Stovall, a close friend of Rosa, informing her of Delony’s passing asking her to “break the news to Mrs. Delony as best you can … on account of her condition.” At the time, Rosa was seven months pregnant with the couple’s fifth child.
The morning after Delony’s death a “magnificent metallic coffin” was left on the hospital steps with a card attached “for the remains of Colonel Delony.” Rosa tried in vain for years to find out who secretly furnished the coffin to her husband. One theory among some Civil War enthusiasts was that Union Gen. George Custer left the coffin upon the request of his old West Point friend and Civil War rival Confederate Gen. P.M.B. Young. There is no proof to substantiate the theory, but it makes for an intriguing story. Delony was buried in a marked grave in the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery in Washington.
A year after the war, Delony’s remains were removed from the Washington Cemetery and shipped to Athens, arriving on Sept. 24, 1866, almost three years to the date of his last fight at Jack’s Shop. Delony was buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery, just a few yards away from Tom Cobb, his former Legion commander. Rosa died in 1897 and was buried next to Will. Dutifully, “Little Rosa” kept alive the memories and treasures of her mother and her dear “Papa”–Georgia’s First Bulldog.
Former Marine, football coaching legend, athletic director, and sports personality Vince Dooley serves as Chairman of the Georgia Historical Society and as a Trustee of the Civil War Trust, chairing the Education and Web Committee. He has authored a variety of works on the history of the University of Georgia, football and gardening. He and his wife, Barbara, reside in Athens, Ga.
Sam Thomas has worked in the museum field for the past 25 years and has authored or co-authored seven works. He and his wife, Lynn, live in Athens, where he serves as Curator of the T.R.R. Cobb House.