I see the long, blue line, push back the rebel pickets
Far stretched o’er hill and dale; through break and thickets.
My old heart leaps
As up the steeps
Rock-crowned and flinty:
I see the dash,
And hear the crash,
Where leads the peerless Minty.
County Mayo-born Civil War Union officer Robert Horatio George Minty, who commanded a cavalry brigade in the western Federal army, is little remembered today by anyone other than Civil War buffs and historians. He certainly lived a life worthy of notice, though not always for the right reasons. Like many men who accomplished much in their lives, Minty was a complicated and flawed man.
In the war that kept the “united” in the United States, he was a great cavalry commander. He was undoubtedly personally courageous, though not physically impressive, being about 5’ 7” with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He neither smoked nor drank alcohol, both of which were unusual among Civil War officers, though in time he would prove to have other vices.
He showed a great initiative and tactical intuition in command, many times being away from superior officers as was common with cavalry units, and thus making independent command decisions. He did much to be admired during the war. Some have called him one of the best cavalry brigade commanders of the war. In his post-war personal life, however, he was far less estimable, though one might find his actions required courage of a sort, or at least incredible audacity.
Minty, his father, and his grandfather were all officers in the British army. His father, also named Robert, was stationed in Ballina, County Mayo, in the 1820s. In 1828 he met and married Robert’s mother, Rebecca Goodwin, who was born in Westport. Robert was born in that same town on December 4, 1831.
In 1836, Robert’s father was promoted to lieutenant in the 1st West India Regiment of Foot (right), which was a regiment of black enlisted men with white officers The whole family left Ireland and traveled with him through Robert’s later childhood and teenage years. They moved all around the Caribbean and West Africa when the regiment was sent to Sierra Leone. By his late teens, Robert would have been more well-traveled and worldly than most men three times his age.
His father became judge advocate general in Jamaica in 1846 but soon fell victim to one of the tropical diseases that were such a great threat to Europeans in the region, dying of Yellow Fever in 1848. Though Robert was only 17 at the time, he must have already been an impressive young man, as he was allowed to take over his father’s commission in the regiment.
After serving five years in the regiment he resigned his commission, possibly because he nearly became a victim of a tropical disease himself. He immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where his mother and the family had moved after his father’s death. Minty was hired by the Great Western Railroad Co. at a time when the railroad business was exploding in both the United States and Canada. He would be involved with railroads for the rest of his life, with time out for the Civil War.
(Below: Locomotive and tender, Great Western Railway, Canada, 1859.)
Through his railroad work, he met and married Grace Ann Abbott, whose father was a customs agent and also a former officer in the British army. They were married Nov. 5, 1857. Grace had eight siblings, one of whom, her younger sister Laura, would figure prominently in the Minty’s post-war life.
In late 1858 they had their first child, a daughter named Anna, and Robert was transferred to the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway. With the war clouds gathering on the horizon, their move to Michigan would have a profound effect on Minty’s future.
When the war began and the U.S. Army had to massively increase its numbers. Immigrants with previous military experience, especially ones who had been officers, were highly sought after. Minty hadn’t been in the country long enough to develop any great patriotic fervor, but perhaps his years commanding black troops influenced him in supporting this cause. Or perhaps like many young men before and since, he was simply filled with a desire for adventure and a need to be a part of his momentous event. Whatever the motivation, he volunteered and was immediately appointed a major in the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. Shortly after that he advanced to be lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Michigan Cavalry and spent most of the fall and winter of 1861 training them.
The colonel of the regiment, John Mizner, wasn’t appointed until March 1862 and was absent for much of that spring, so Minty was in command most of the time. They saw action in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, during which Minty first led a saber charge, something that would be a trademark of his commands when other cavalry units on both sides were edging away from the saber and more toward being mounted infantry.
Commanding the "Saber Brigade"
In late July, Minty was promoted to full colonel and given command of a new cavalry regiment, the 4th Michigan (regimental flag, right). The people of Michigan sent the 4th off equipped with Colt revolving rifles (below); the high rate of fire made them a formidable opponent in any fight. Minty performed so well commanding this regiment that he was given command of a cavalry brigade in December 1862, which for most of the war would consist of his own 4th Michigan, the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 4th U.S. Cavalry, and the Chicago Board of Trade Battery.
When the Confederates retreated after the Battle of Stones River in early January 1863, it was Minty’s Brigade that pressed their retreat, including a saber charge by the 4th U.S. and 7th Pennsylvania. In late January, he attacked Confederate cavalry units from a raid by Wheeler and Forrest and captured over 130 of them, including some officers from Forrest’s staff. For most of the war, Minty’s Brigade would face the troopers of Forrest and Wheeler on the battlefield.
In March, General Rosecrans sent Minty to clear some Confederates threatening the Federal supply lines in Tennessee. With another saber charge he routed them, killing 28 and capturing more than 150, all, he claimed, without firing a shot. His brigade was becoming well known for this tactic, and was given a sobriquet by a newsman by which they were forever after known: “The Saber Brigade.”
Their use of the saber had been noted by the enemy, as well. Around this time, General Bragg sent General Rosecrans a message protesting the fact that some federal cavalry were sharpening their sabers, which he described as barbarous. Minty was called to Rosecrans' headquarters to hear this complaint and told the general he did, indeed, have his troopers sharpening them. Rosecrans told him, “Such troopers as yours should have anything they want; sharpen every saber you have.”
On June 27 Minty’s Brigade played a major part in the Battle of Shelbyville, Tennessee, during the Tullahoma Campaign. Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry was routed that day, with many of them drowning while trying to escape over the Duck River. Wheeler just barely escaped capture himself, having a horse shot out from under him and barely managing to swim across the river with a borrowed mount. Minty and his brigade were establishing a formidable reputation.
"We saved the Army of the Cumberland"
(Below: Minty and his staff: Back row L-R: Dr. & Major John Sherk (Brigade Surgeon), Captain Robert McCormick (Brigade Inspector), Captain George Landon (Brigade Commissary), Lt. John Pugsley (Brigade Quartermaster), Lt. Harvey Heywood (Topographical Engineer). Front row L-R: Captain William Sander (Aide de Camp), Capt B. Fish (Aid de Camp), Colonel Robert H.G. Minty (Brigade Commander), Major Robert Burns (Adjutant General).
Two months later, Minty would provide what was probably his most significant contribution to the Union cause at the Battle of Chickamauga, in northern Georgia. On the morning of September 18th, following up Bragg’s retreat from Chattanooga, Minty and his brigade were camped near Reed’s Bridge on the Chickamauga River. But Bragg had been reinforced by Longstreet’s Corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and some other units and was about to turn and launch a desperate assault on Rosecrans' army.
Minty had sent several messages back to his superior officers reporting that Confederate reinforcements were arriving by train in Ringgold. This was, in fact, Longstreet’s Corps arriving, but the return messages insisted that Bragg was in retreat, so Minty must be mistaken. “You have nothing but dismounted cavalry in your front,” he was assured. Luckily for Rosecrans' army, and our country, Minty believed his scouts and disregarded these assurances and prepared to fight.
(Below: Sketch artist Alfred Waud's depiction of the Federal retreat from Reed's Bridge.)
With barely over 900 troopers, Minty was eventually confronted by at least 5,000 Confederates, and perhaps as many as 10,000, as the day wore on. They had orders to move over the bridge Minty was defending and flank Rosecrans' army, but Minty was not inclined to be easily moved. He was first attacked by infantry belonging to Bushrod Johnson’s division, newly arrived from Mississippi and now attached to Longstreet’s Corps. But this advance was commanded by Minty’s familiar enemy, Bedford Forrest, who had just arrived on the field with a small cavalry contingent. Minty confronted them south of the bridge around 7:30 am, conducting a skillful fighting retreat back to it as the much longer Confederate lines would constantly threaten to flank him.
Minty finally backed over the bridge and formed a line on the far side, using the river to strengthen his defense. Robertson’s famous Texas Brigade of Hood’s division had now reinforced the Confederate line. Still, Minty would not be budged, holding the position against vastly superior numbers for a further two hours and even utilizing his signature tactic, the saber charge, several times to disrupt the enemy's lines. Around 4 p.m., he retreated and held yet another line along with Wilder’s cavalry brigade on his right. Wilder had made an equally stout defense at Alexander’s Bridge. Together they continued to delay the Confederate infantry, before finally pulling back to the main Federal line. During the fight, Minty, for the fourth time in the war and second time in a month, had a mount shot out from under him.
(Below: A post-war photo of Reed's Bridge.)
Because of Minty and Wilder’s resistance, Longstreet’s Corps, which was supposed to attack the main Federal line no later than 10 a.m., by Bragg’s plan, had not finally reached that line until the late afternoon. Rosecrans would lose the battle over the following two days, but Minty’s Brigade had performed a service much like Buford’s cavalry at Gettysburg, delaying the Confederates long enough to avoid an utter disaster that would have had an unknown, but certainly negative, effect on the war as a whole.
A news story later said Minty had: “by a series of brilliant cavalry maneuvers held the whole rebel army at bay for one day.” That was a bit hyperbolic, but it was a large portion of that army, and he had certainly delayed a far larger force than his own for hours. Modern-day historian Eric Wittenberg called it: “one of the most effective covering force actions of the Civil War.” Unlike Gettysburg, however, Chickamauga was a defeat, probably the worst the western army ever suffered, and thus Minty’s great service has since been mostly forgotten.
In October, Minty ran afoul of General George Crook, who would later become famous as a great Indian fighter against the Apache and Sioux tribes. Crook claimed Minty failed to carry out an order, while Minty said he had not received that order. Minty demanded a court-martial and was found innocent of all charges, but the incident may have later cost him a promotion to division command.
In August 1864, during the Atlanta Campaign, Minty’s Brigade took part in a famous raid commanded by Judson Kilpatrick, who was sometimes disdainfully referred to as "Kilcavalry." The goal of the raid was to capture the railroad junction at Jonesboro and do as much destruction as possible to the depot to disrupt supplies to Atlanta. This they did, with Minty’s Brigade making the assault that secured it. On the way out, they were surrounded by pursuing Confederate forces near Lovejoy’s Station. Needing a “shock” attack to break out and avoid the destruction or capture of his entire force, Kilpatrick ordered a charge by the “Saber Brigade.” Minty led this charge personally and a hole was blasted in the Confederate ring for the Union troopers to make their escape. When it was over, they had made a full circle around Atlanta.
In March and April 1865, Minty had temporary command of a cavalry division during Wilson’s Raid on Selma, Alabama. Minty would make one more significant contribution as the war ended. It was troopers under his command from his old regiment, the 4th Michigan that captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Georgia. More on that later.
"Be it ever so humble ... "
Minty was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general and then major general at the end of the war. His life to this point was that of a former officer in the British army, a respected railroad executive, and a war hero who had fought courageously for his adopted nation. Historian Peter Cozzens has said that Robert Minty was “as fine a cavalry officer as the Army of the Cumberland produced.” He could justifiably be called a hero. He had soared like in eagle in war, but he would come back to earth with a thud when it was over.
His post-war family life, sad to say, reads like a bad 1960s TV soap opera, lacking only a scene where a head bump causes a case of amnesia, and he definitely does not play the part of the hero in this soap opera.
Minty returned to Jackson, Michigan, and his wife Grace (right, around 1862 with their 1st son, Robert) and four children after the war and to his railroad job, turning down an offer of a commission to stay in the post-war regular army. By 1869, they had two more children, but in January 1870 tragedy struck the family when their 3-year-old son John got sick and died. As sometimes happens after such tragedies, Minty and his wife grew apart, though she was shortly pregnant with their seventh child. Minty, who had been traveling extensively for his work, began to live away for long periods in New Albany, Indiana, supposedly because the company needed him there.
One of the members of the Minty household had been Grace’s sister, Laura (left), who was nine years younger. In early 1871, not long after Minty began spending time in Indiana, Laura left also, saying she’d found employment as a governess. But Laura didn’t have any job, her new “position” was as the mistress of her brother-in-law in New Albany, and within a few months, she was pregnant by him.
Minty was spending nearly all his time in New Albany now, and Laura delivered his eighth child, a son named George in January 1872. But heartbreak would be visited on Minty again when George died of cholera in July. Perhaps some men would have seen this as a sign from above to end this double life he was leading, but Minty didn’t, and almost immediately Laura was pregnant again.
In April 1873, Laura gave birth to Minty’s ninth child, another son. He had lost his job due to a recession earlier that year. So here he was with one official family, one secret family, and no job. He may have longed for the “carefree” days of trying to hold Reed’s Bridge against Bushrod Johnson.
Truly the man had nerves of steel, though we have to question his morals, for in May he returned to Jackson for a time, living with Grace, and nine months later she gave birth to twins, his 10th and 11th children, though his wife was only aware of him having fathered nine.
He got a job with a railroad in Florida, moving there with Laura and his son. Grace still had no idea of her husband’s infidelity. In July 1874 he returned to Michigan briefly, once again unemployed, and incredibly Grace was pregnant again when he left. Minty was plainly quite potent and both the Abbott ladies were apparently very fertile, but this parting was not an amicable one, and it was essentially the end of their marriage as he left to be with Laura.
With little or no money coming from her husband, Grace lost their family home in late 1876. There is no way to put a good face on Minty’s abandonment of his original wife and family. The family doctor by then had seen Minty and Laura together in Tennessee, and rumors began to swirl around Jackson, though other members of the Abbott family kept them from Grace for a time. In 1877, Minty’s duplicity fell apart when the president of the railroad was informed of his double life. Minty wrote to his wife, admitting everything and amazingly asking her to write the man and lie, saying they had divorced to save his job. This she would not do, and he had to resign.
Laura had child number four (for them) in 1878. Minty and Laura would marry in 1884, though he never received a legal divorce from Grace. In 1886 they moved west, and he got a railroad job, living in Ogden, Utah. He would live in the west with Laura the remainder of his life. He had squandered a chance to be extremely successful with his unfortunate personal life, but would manage to live comfortably with Laura and their children.
(Right: “The Driving of the Last Spike” by Thomas Hill, 1881, commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Odgen, Utah.)
In 1895, he returned to the Chickamauga battlefield with some of his “Saber Brigade” comrades to dedicate a monument to the 4th Michigan Cavalry, delivering the keynote address. It must have warmed his heart when his address was followed by one of the former members of the regiment, who said of Minty: “We love him for what he did for his country and for us. No man ever lived more loyal to the flag. No man ever lived more careful and considerate of his men … We beg to assure him that the prayer of every surviving comrade is that peace and happiness may follow him all the days of his life.”
Minty moved to Jerome, Arizona, for another railroad job in 1897, and his second family joined him there in 1898. He became involved with the GAR there and was commander of Negley Post No. 1. He would pass away in Jerome in the early morning hours of August 24, 1906, from what the doctor called an acute intestinal obstruction. His body was buried back in Ogden.
(Left: The elderly Minty.)
If Minty had died in battle late in the war, he’d have left behind a legacy of a hero with hardly a blemish. But he lived, certainly tarnishing that heroic legacy with his post-war personal conduct. He struggled financially for much of it, and he never gained much recognition for his service.
Near the end of Minty’s keynote address at the Chickamauga in 1895, perhaps showing resentment over lack of appreciation for his service that he perceived, he said, “Whether history does us justice or not, we have the proud and gratifying knowledge that, by the performance of our whole duty, in the hour of danger and necessity, we saved the Army of the Cumberland from terrible disaster, if not from annihilation.”
Minty surely would find a place on the list of “most unforgettable character” for anyone who knew him. Not all aspects of Minty’s life were admirable, but certainly, none of it was dull
Postscript: "All that Glitters ..."
Minty would find a moment of “recognition” in the 21st century when two treasure hunters in Michigan concocted a rather fanciful tale (one made for the sensationalism of the reality TV world) that Minty had been involved with stealing millions in Confederate gold during the capture of Jefferson Davis. They believe this Confederate gold implausibly ended up in the bottom of Lake Michigan in a boxcar that was pushed off the deck of the ship.
(Left: A political cartoon by J. L. Magee , ridiculing Davis, who was caught wearing one of his wife's dresses.)
The two men ignored or were more likely ignorant of, the fact that Minty was not at the scene of Davis’ capture. Troopers from his old regiment, the 4th Michigan, participated in the capture, but Minty was a brigade commander then and was over 100 miles away at the time. The regiment was then being commanded by Col. Benjamin Pritchard (right). It’s likely they were unaware of that fact. They also placed him in several other places, such as working on a railroad with a line near the spot of Davis’ capture and having him retrieve the hidden gold, but he never did work for any railroad in that area.
It’s more a tale starting with a conclusion, and looking for a way for it to be true. They wanted this gold to be in a boxcar pushed off a boat in Michigan. So how do you get it there? Well, Minty was in “command” of the men who caught Davis, and he worked on railroads for the rest of his life after the war. From there, they wove a farfetched tale that probably would have made Minty chuckle at its absurdity.
“Minty and His Cavalry: A History of the Saber Brigade and its Commander” by Rand K. Bitter
"Sherman's Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign" By David Evans
"Minty and the cavalry. A history of cavalry campaigns in the western armies" by Joseph G. Vale
More on Robert H. G. Minty and the missing Confederate gold nonsense