Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Fallout from the Raid on Camp Beckwith: Lt. Keays Takes the Heat

Last week I wrote about the surprise Confederate attack on the Federal garrison guarding the contraband farm at Camp Beckwith in Lewinsville, Virginia. During the early morning of October 2, 1863, troopers from the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry under Lt. Col. Elijah V. White pounced on the unsuspecting Union force encamped in and around the main house on the farm. When all was said and done, White rode away with 20 prisoners and 64 horses. The Union suffered casualties of  two dead and three wounded.

A messenger alerted the nearby Federal garrison at Fort Ethan Allen. Col. John C. Tidball of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery sent a contingent of men to investigate. Once Tidball gleaned more details about the raid, he sent word to an assistant adjutant-general with the Department of Washington. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, the commander of the Department, wasted no time in ordering his own investigation. On October 2, he sent Capt. Carroll H. Potter to "the scene of the [ ] reported surprise." (OR, 1:29:1, 201.) Potter, an assistant adjutant-general, was told "to make a thorough and rigid examination into the circumstances attending" the attack. (OR, 1:29:1, 201.) Heintzelman seemed convinced from the outset that someone was at fault for what had just happened out in the Virginia countryside. He instructed Potter to "specify on whom the blame should fall" in his official report on the matter. (OR, 1:29:1, 201.)

Potter left Washington at 1:30 p.m. that same day with one commissioned officer and 25 men from Scott's Nine Hundred Cavalry (11th N.Y. Cav.). The party arrived at Camp Beckwith around 5:30 p.m. Potter conducted his investigation in short order and left camp the next morning. After reconnoitering for possible guerrilla activity near Vienna and along the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, Potter and his men rode through Falls Church, crossed the Aqueduct Bridge, and returned to headquarters at 4:30 in the afternoon.

William Jeremiah Keays, c. 1869 (courtesy of Rod A. MacDonald). Keays was born in Bytown, Upper Canada (now Ottawa, Ontario) on January 24, 1829. He engaged in various business ventures in Goderich, Ontario before moving with his family to Buffalo, New York in 1861. There he served as an agent for the Great Western Railroad. By the end of 1862, Keays had lost his wife, children, and mother. He enlisted in the 16th New York Cavalry in June 1863. After the Civil War, Keays returned to Canada, where he remarried.  Railroad work brought Keays back to the United States in 1881-82. He died in Buffalo on April 24, 1914, at the age of 84. (I'd recommend reading MacDonald's meticulously researched biography of Keays referenced in the sources section below.)

Potter sent his report to Heintzelman on October 3. Faithful to Heintzelman's order, the captain minced no words in laying the blame for the recent mess on 1st Lt. William J. Keays of Co. B, 16th New York Cavalry, who commanded the cavalry detachment at Camp Beckwith. The report described how Keays's handling of cavalry pickets ultimately led to the Confederate victory:
[The attack] was all done in five minutes from the time [White's men] were known to be in the vicinity, and all done without the least show of resistance on the part of our cavalry or infantry, for as far as I could learn, not a shot was fired at them, or a stand of any description made on the part of our forces, happening, no doubt, from the very foolish position given the cavalry pickets, they being very poorly posted within a very short distance from the camp, and each post being in a ravine, with the men dismounted, their horses in camp unsaddled, as were also those of the entire command. (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)*
In fact, White's men approached along an old wood road that was entirely unguarded. (OR, 1:29:1, 202.) Moreover, Keays appeared to have ignored recent warnings. Potter learned that "Lieutenant Keays had heard it reported by some of the citizens that these guerrillas were in his vicinity, but did not place reliance enough upon the information to take more than the usual precaution." (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)

Standard of the 16th New York Cavalry (courtesy of New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center).

Potter observed a deviation in normal security procedures at the time of White's raid. Despite an opportunity to lay the blame elsewhere, the captain made clear that Keays was ultimately responsible for what had occurred:
There was a commissioned officer placed on duty belonging to the cavalry, every night previous to the attack, whose duty it was to look out for the safety of the camp, and see that the picket performed their duty properly; but on the night of the attack, Sergt. S. F. Shaddock, Company B, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, was given this duty to perform. This duty he tried to perform, and would have, had the picket placed out for the safety of the camp been of any use whatever, which was an impossibility arising from the posts given to them, and the manner in which they were posted, i. e., dismounted. (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)
Potter described Shaddock's futile attempt to mount a defense as White's men descended on the garrison:
The moment [Shaddock] heard the enemy advancing, he exerted himself to wake up the officers, who were at the time all in the house and asleep in their blankets; but before he could accomplish his object the enemy were in both of the encampments, taking the men from their beds, and the officers were of no use whatever, their men nearly all having been taken before they were made aware even of the approach of the enemy. (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)
Potter left no doubt that Lt. Keays was to blame. He concluded his already critical report with another stinging indictment:
In my opinion had the pickets been properly posted (even the same number of men used by Lieutenant Keays would have been sufficient), this surprise could not have occurred, and the men in camp could have been formed certainly in time have made some resistance, if not sufficiently strong to drive the enemy entirely away, which I think they could have done had they been prepared to receive them. For this I consider Lieutenant W. J. Keays, Company B, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, entirely to blame. (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)
Heintzelman must have reacted to Potter's findings with a combination of disgust and anger. On October 5, he forwarded Potter's report to the Assistant Adjutant-General of the Union Army with the recommendation that Keays "be summarily dismissed the service of the United States, or tried by general court-martial." (OR, 1:29:1, 203.) On October 8, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck recommended "summary dismissal." (OR, 1:29:1, 203.) Later that same day, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton agreed and ordered Keays's dismissal.

Keays left the army on October 10, but not for long. His commanding officer lobbied to have Keays reinstated, and for whatever reason, the War Department agreed. On December 31, 1863, Keays was restored to duty as a First Lieutenant with his old unit, Company B. The following month he was transferred to Company A. In April 1865, Keays was named captain of Company G and later assigned to the 3rd New York Provisional Cavalry. He was mustered out of service in September 1865.

The attack on Camp Beckwith happened at a time when the Union Army was dealing with bitter partisan warfare throughout Northern Virginia. The brass reacted predictably to Keays's mistakes as commander during the Confederate raid. The Canadian immigrant who had enlisted to fight for his adopted country paid a price for his amateurish handling of the pickets at Camp Beckwith. Luckily, Keays got another chance to prove that he was worthy of the rank on his should straps.


*According to a modern regimental history, 2nd Lt. Patrick Welch led members of Co. C, 111th New York in a counterattack and drove away White's men. (Husk 87.) This version of events contradicts Potter's account that the Union garrison never had a chance to respond to the raiders.


Aside from the OR, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Rod A. MacDonald, "William Jeremiah Keays" (genealogy website); New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 11th Cavalry Infantry Regiment (website); New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 16th Cavalry Regiment (website); Martin W. Rusk, The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry: A Civil War History (2010); Jerry D. Thompson, Civil War to the Bloody End: The Life & Times of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman (2006); Adrian Tighe, The Bristoe Campaign: General Lee's Last Strategic Offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia, October 1863 (2011).

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