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Confederate Scout William Downs Farley – an audacious attack

30 January 2013 No Comment

At 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861 tension filled the air in Charleston as soldiers manning two Confederate batteries of ten mortars were ordered to their posts. A young lieutenant stood, lanyard in hand, near the mortar he commanded. At word from the captain, the lieutenant jerked the lanyard and sent a shell screaming into the night sky.

The twenty-year-old lieutenant who participated in one of history’s pivotal moments was Henry Saxon Farley, younger brother of William Downs Farley. Sorely disappointed that he had not been in Charleston for the opening salvo, older brother Will made his way northward to Virginia and claimed to be the first South Carolinian to come to the defense of the Old Dominion. He spent three months in Gregg’s regiment until it disbanded.

He then became and independent fighter and commenced a career of personal adventure and romantic exploits that would make him a legend in the Army of Northern Virginia. Farley proceeded to the distant outposts of the enemy, penetrated their lines, harassed detached parties, and gained information for Generals Bonham and Beauregard. He fought at the first battle at Manassas although he was so sick with a raging fever and measles that he could barely stand.

Following the battle, he continued his forays as a scout. With three men he took and held Upton’s Hill, directly in the face of a superior enemy force. On numerous occasions he surprised the enemy’s pickets. Perhaps his successes and his love for the most desperate adventure led him into his next encounter.

Again with three other comrades he ventured ten or fifteen miles in front of Confederate lines where he discovered a column of several hundred cavalry led by Colonel Baynard moving towards the fields where Confederates foraged for their winter food. Farley ambushed the enemy while concealing himself and his men in a pine thicket. But although he could have remained safely hidden, Farley determined to attack. The four scouts charge forward and fired first on Baynard, nearly stampeding the whole regiment. Baynard was slightly wounded and his horse was killed.

After a desperate fight, Farley and his companions were all captured or killed. Thus the bold scout seethed at the certainty of prison and inaction. He remained in captivity at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington for several months. General Bayard would later mention this affair in a interview with Jeb Stuart, and spoke warmly of the courage which led Farley to undertake such an audacious and dangerous adventure.

Upon his exchange and return to the army, Farley was offered a command. But he did not want a commission and felt he could do far more injury to the Federals as an independent partisan. He considered himself a true volunteer and never accepted a penny of pay or arms from the Confederate Army. Rather he took pride in capturing everything he needed to make war on the enemy from the enemy. The handsome scout became one of the best attired soldiers in the army.

In May of 1862 General Jeb Stuart, who had heard of the South Carolinian’s reputation, snatched Farley from the generals who also coveted his services. Farley had already seen Stuart at work, observed his love of adventure and contempt of danger, and his ability to exhibit coolness and mastery of the situation no matter how perilous it appeared. These similarities of the two cavalrymen fostered a bond of union and mutual respect between them. Stuart encouraged Farley to use his talents to the fullest. Knowing that the scout could be counted on in any circumstance, Stuart gave his newest staff officer carte blanche as an operative.*

Stay tuned for The Peninsula Campaign: Farley is awarded a sword by the governor.

They Followed the Plume by Robert Trout
Wearing of the Gray by John Esten Cooke

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