Camp No. 5, Princeton, Mercer County, Virginia,
May 2, 1862.
Dearest: — I reached yesterday this town after a hard day's march of twenty-two miles through deep, slippery mud and a heavy rain, crossing many streams which had to be waded — one, waist-deep. The men stood it bravely and good-humoredly. Today, only twelve are reported as excused from duty. Our advance company (C), Lieutenant Bottsford in command, had a severe battle. Seventy-five of them were attacked by two hundred and forty of Jenkins' Cavalry, now Jenifer's, with seventy-seven of Foley's guerrillas. The battle lasted twenty minutes, when the Rebels fled, leaving their killed and wounded on the ground. One of our men was killed outright, three mortally wounded, and seventeen others more or less severely injured. The whole regiment came up in a few moments, hearing the firing. Didn't they cheer us? As I rode up, they saluted with a “present arms.” Several were bloody with wounds as they stood in their places; one boy limped to his post who had been hit three times. As I looked at the glow of pride in their faces, my heart choked me, I could not speak, but a boy said: “All right, Colonel, we know what you mean.” The enemy's loss was much severer than ours.
We pushed on rapidly, hearing extravagent stories of the force waiting for us at Princeton. Prisoners, apparently candid, said we would catch it there. We would have caught Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzhugh and his men, if our cavalry had had experience. I don't report to their prejudice publicly, for they are fine fellows — gentlemen, splendidly mounted and equipped. In three months they will be capital, but their caution in the face of ambuscades is entirely too great. After trying to get them ahead, I put the Twenty-third in advance and [the] cavalry in the rear, making certainly double the speed with our footmen trudging in the mud, as was made by the horsemen on their fine steeds. We caught a few and killed a few. At the houses, the wounded Rebels would be left. As we came up, the men would rush in, when the women would beg us not to kill the prisoners or the wounded. I talked with several who were badly wounded. They all seemed grateful for kind words, which I always gave them. One fine fellow, a Captain Ward, was especially grateful.
This work continued all day; I, pushing on; they, trying to keep us back. The fact being, that General Heth had sent word that he would be in Princeton by night with a force able to hold it. As we came on to a mountain a couple of miles from Princeton, we saw that the Rebels were too late. The great clouds were rolling to the sky — they were burning the town. We hurried on, saved enough for our purposes, I think, although the best buildings were gone. The women wringing their hands and crying and begging us to protect them with the fine town in flames around us, made a scene to be remembered. This was my May-day. General Heth's forces got within four miles; he might as well have been forty [miles away]. We are in possession, and I think can hold it.
Joe and Dr. McCurdy had a busy day. They had Secesh wounded as well as our own to look after. Dr. Neal of the Second Virginia Cavalry (five companies of which are now here in my command), a friend of Joe's, assisted them.
SOURCE: Charles Richard Williams, editor, Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume 2, p. 245-7