The 1st Maine Cavalry faced annihilation near St. Mary’s Church, Va., on June 24, 1864. About 3 p.m. that afternoon, an overwhelming force of Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s rebel troopers struck the Maine boys like a thunderbolt and knocked them backwards.
As the stunned men recoiled following the shock, a singular voice pierced the crescendo of whizzing bullets and shouting men. It belonged to the colonel of the 1st, Charles Henry Smith. A 37-year-old college graduate and schoolteacher who started his service as a company captain, his leadership abilities soon landed him in the regiment’s top spot.
Smith and the 1st belonged to Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s division, part of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry corps. They were on a raid that took them to the outskirts of Petersburg. According to the regimental history of the 1st, when a brother regiment learned that Smith and his troopers rode in the vanguard of Gregg’s Division, word spread that there would be a “fight, to-day, boys, the First Maine’s got the advance!”
The forecast proved accurate. In the fight that erupted in the vicinity of St. Mary’s, Smith took action to prevent a rout. “As his voice, clear as the sound of a trumpet, rang out over that bloody field, calling on the men to rally, an answering shout came back from the whole line. Above the din of battle rose the loud ‘Hurrah for Col. Smith!’ Instantly they rallied and turned upon the foe, who, strong in numbers and confident of success, was pressing close upon them,” recounted the regiment’s chaplain.
Smith successfully regrouped his command and led them on several charges, remaining on the field despite suffering a gaping wound in his thigh and having two horses shot beneath him. He and his troopers checked the superior number of Hampton’s boys until nightfall. The engagement went down in history as the Battle of St. Mary’s, part of the larger Trevilian Station Raid by Sheridan that failed to achieve its primary mission to link up with Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s army at Charlottesville.
Smith recovered and survived the war. He joined the regular army and commanded the 19th and 28th infantries before retiring as a colonel in 1891. Four years later, he received the nation’s highest military honor for extraordinary heroism at St. Mary’s. He died in 1902 in Washington, D.C. A son and daughter survived him. His remains rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
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