The Military Career of David McMurtie Gregg
By David M. Gregg
DAVID MCMURTRIE GREGG was born at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, on April 10, 1833, the third in the order of birth of the nine children of Matthew Duncan Gregg, lawyer and iron master of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and his wife Ellen McMurtrie, of Huntingdon.
The Gregg children were of almost pure Scotch-Irish ancestry, their generation being the sixth in the line of descent from David Gregg, of Ayrshire, Scotland, who after serving as a Captain in Cromwell’s Army, was one of the many Scotsmen who settled near Londonderry, Ireland, prior to 1658; the fifth in line from Captain John Potter, of what was then Lancaster County, who also came from Ireland; the fourth in line from David McMurtrie, of Scotland, a Philadelphia merchant and friend of Dr. Benjamin Rush; the fifth in line from Robert Elliott, of Scotch-Irish ancestry; the sixth in line from Heinrich Zimmerman, of Switzerland, who changed his name to Carpenter when he came to America and settled near Philadelphia, later moving to Lancaster County; and, through the wife of General James Potter, of Revolutionary fame, the sixth in line from Captain James Patterson, Jr., of Lancaster County, the celebrated Indian fighter and pioneer settler in the Juniata region.
Their great-grandfather Andrew Gregg, the grandson of Captain David Gregg, came to America about 1723 and settled at Chestnut Level, in Lancaster County, where he married, as his second wife, Jean Scott, also of Scotch-Irish ancestry, by whom he had four children, the youngest of whom, Andrew Gregg, became an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, later United States Senator from Pennsylvania, and finally Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Senator Gregg married Martha Potter, daughter of General James Potter, and by her had eleven children, of whom Matthew Duncan Gregg was the eighth, and who, as stated above, married Ellen McMurtrie.
As Matthew Duncan Gregg died at Potomac Furnace, in Loudoun County, Va., in 1845, and as his wife Ellen McMurtrie died at Bedford in 1847, the children were orphaned when very young and were cared for by their several uncles and aunts, the boy David and at least two of his brothers being taken into the spacious home of their uncle David McMurtrie in Huntingdon, which is still standing at the south-east corner of Fourth and Penn Streets in that town.
The subject of this sketch, who was fourteen at the time of his mother’s death, continued his primary education at Mr. Hall’s private school at Huntingdon, and two years later was sent to Milnwood Academy at Shade Gap, in the lower part of Huntingdon County, and in 1850 entered the University of Lewisburg, now “Bucknell”, where his elder brother Andrew was in his sophomore year. In 1851, on the recommendation of the Hon. Samuel Calvin, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he found among his classmates such men as Whistler, the artist, Comstock, Breck, Averill, Torbert, and others who obtained high rank during the Civil War, while in the class ahead of his, J. E. B. Stuart, Mercer and Pender were men of whom he was to see much in later years. He was graduated in June 1855, with a standing of eighth in a class of 34, and a rating of 30th on the conduct roll of the 204 members of the Corps of Cadets. He was considered one of the finest horsemen at the Academy, and as his standing was high enough to permit of a certain amount of choice he was commissioned a brevet 2nd Lieutenant of Dragoons and assigned to Co. “C”, 2nd Dragoons. During the furlough granted after graduation he was promoted, on September 4, to a full 2nd Lieutenancy and assigned to the First Dragoons, the headquarters of which were at Fort Union, New Mexico.
He reported at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, in September, and in October was transferred to Fort Columbus, one of the fortifications about New York City, and on November 4 he started on the long journey to Fort Union, traveling by way of New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. From Galveston he made his way overland to San Antonio, where he attached himself to a small army train which was en route to Fort Clarke, 120 miles due west from San Antonio. At Fort Clarke he reported to Col. Bonneville who was marching about 1000 infantry recruits to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, about 380 miles further west. The trail led through an almost entirely unsettled country, with but four small army posts on the way, and on this march he had his only experience with a “Norther”, which swept down on the command, lasted several days, and caused intense discomfort to both men and officers. Reaching Fort Bliss in the latter part of January, 1856, Lieutenant Gregg and two other officers, accompanied by three orderlies and a small wagon, started on the long ride to Santa Fe, 275 miles up the Rio Grande, which they reached in six days riding, the orderlies following along more slowly. After reporting at Departmental Headquarters, they pushed on to Fort Union, which they reached on February 2, 1856, having had a trying journey through a severe snow storm and the unpleasant experience of being lost on the open prairie.
Having reported to Regimental Headquarters, Lieutenant Gregg was assigned to Company H, and on June first he assumed command of that splendid company of Dragoons, the senior officers being absent on leave or detached duty. In August the Headquarters, the Regimental Band, and Companies ‘‘I”, ‘‘F’’ and “H’’, the latter under the sole command of Lieutenant Gregg, started on the long march to Fort Teton, about 65 miles north east of Los Angeles, California, and fully 1200 miles from Fort Union, by the route the command intended to follow. The march led them down the Rio Grande to Fort Thorn and then west to Fort Blake, where they remained till September 30, when they began the difficult trek through the southwestern part of New Mexico and the lower part of Arizona to Fort Yuma; and then north west, crossing the southern part of the great California desert, to Los Angeles and Fort Tejon, reaching the latter in January 1857. Lieutenant Gregg’s diary, kept from day to day, gives a very interesting account of this long march and stresses the wild beauty and desolation of the country; the hovering bands of Apache Indians; the beauty of the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, in the Papago Indian Reservation near Tucson, Arizona; the terrible suffering of men and beasts on the march from Tucson to the Gila River; and then later, the frightful march across the California desert, where, owing to both Indian and Sackett’s Wells being found dry, the command had to march 65 miles through the ankle-deep sand without water for the horses; the squalor of the Indians along the Gila River; and finally the beauty of the El Monte Valley and the joy in reaching Fort Tejon, all of which made a strong impression on this young man fresh from the safety and comforts of the East.
In August of 1857 Company “H” was ordered to Fort Vancouver, in Washington Territory, so Lieutenant Gregg, then but 24 years of age, started out with his troop of hard-bitten old regulars on the long trail through central California and the western part of Oregon to Vancouver, nearly 800 miles away. As he was the only officer with the troop, it speaks well for his character and training that he was able to lead his men to their objective, preserving perfect discipline, and reaching the fort in October without any mishaps. In March 1858, the troopers resumed their march, this time acting as escort to several hundred cavalry horses, the whole under the command of Captain Taylor of Troop “C”, and reach Walla Walla, about 300 miles due east, in April, where they joined several other companies of their own regiment.
On May 6, 1858 Company “H”, still under the sole command of Lieutenant Gregg, became part of a force of eight officers and 152 men, under the command of Colonel Steptoe. They started on the trail to Colville, Washington, about 175 miles north, for the purpose of reassuring the inhabitants of that small place, and to confer with the Indians of the region, who had grown restless under the constant invasion of their lands by the white miners and settlers. It was on this expedition that Lieutenant Gregg received his baptism of fire. On nearing the Spokane River, the command was attacked by a force of about one thousand warriors of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, and in the ensuing battle lost two officers and five men killed, and a number of men badly wounded, of whom two died the next day. The command was only saved from a general massacre by a night retreat to the Snake River, possibly 100 miles away, where they met reinforcements sent from Walla Walla; for an Indian scout had been dispatched to the fort by Colonel Steptoe at the beginning of hostilities.
Lieutenant Gregg, with his Company “H”, formed part of the punitive expedition sent out in August, under Colonel Wright, to punish the Indians for the unprovoked attack on Colonel Steptoe’s command; and as Colonel Wright’s command consisted of about 570 regulars, besides Indian scouts and teamsters, he had no trouble in defeating the enemy in several battles and subduing them completely.
Lieutenant Gregg remained in the Indian country until the outbreak of the Civil War, taking part in several skirmishes and having many very Staffinteresting experiences. In 1861 we find him again at Fort Tejon, where he was promoted to a First Lieutenancy of Dragoons, March 21, 1861, and where, on May 14, be was made a Captain in the Sixth Cavalry and ordered east to join that regiment. He was assigned to Company “E”, and served with that company in the defenses of Washington, until he was stricken with typhoid and sent to the Government Infirmary on I Street in Washington. The hospital was destroyed by fire during his convalescence, but he was carried to safety on the back of his orderly.
He returned to duty on December 31, and on January 21, 1862 he was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the Regular Army. On the recommendation of his first cousin, Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Colonel of the Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, his commission being dated January 24, 1862. He served with that regiment through the Peninsula Campaign, but was in command of the Second Brigade of the Cavalry Division from early in July until August 3, when he was relieved by the assignment of General Pleasonton to that Brigade. Remaining with his regiment, he took part in all the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac, until at Fredericksburg he was notified of his promotion to a Brigadier Generalship, to date from November 29; and he at once assumed command of General Bayard’s Division, the latter having been killed on that bloody field. To recount General Gregg’s services from then on would be to rewrite the history of the Army of the Potomac, so it is only necessary to state that in January 1863, under the reorganization of the Army by General Hooker, he was assigned to the command of the Third Division of the Cavalry Corps, and later, in June, under another reorganization, he was transferred to the command of the Second Division, which he continued to command during the remainder of his service with the army. Perhaps the most noteworthy of his many brilliant battles was at Gettysburg where, on July third, he, with two of his own Brigades, and one of General Kilpatrick’s Brigades serving under him, checked General Stuart’s effort to reach the rear of the Union Army, simultaneously with Pickett’s charge on the central front of the Union position, thus preventing what might have developed into a serious situation.
During the period between the departure from the Cavalry Corps of General Pleasonton and the arrival of General Sheridan, General Gregg was in command of the Corps, and again, after General Sheridan was assigned to the command of the Army of the Shenandoah, he was, from August first until February 1865, in command of all the cavalry serving with the Army of the Potomac, being brevetted Major General of Volunteers on August first, 1864, for “highly meritorious and distinguished conduct throughout the campaign, particularly in the reconnaissance on the Charles City Road”. General Gregg resigned from the Service February 3, 1865.
In 1874 General Gregg was appointed by President Grant, United States Consul to Prague, Bohemia; and in 1891, rather against his personal inclination, he was nominated and elected Auditor General of Pennsylvania.
In 1899 it was suggested, with the endorsement of Senator Quay, that he be nominated for the office of State Treasurer, but owing to ill health, he refused to permit his name to be presented to the Convention.
General Gregg was the Commander of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States from 1886 to 1904; he was for a long time Commander of Post 76, G. A. R. of Reading; he received the degree of L. L. D. from the Pennsylvania Military Academy, and was an honorary member of the Union League of Philadelphia, sharing that honor with a then very small list of distinguished gentlemen. He was the President of the Board of Trustees of The Charles Evans Cemetery Company of Reading from 1891 until the time of his death.
He married on October 6, 1862, Ellen Francis Sheaff, a great-granddaughter of Governor Joseph Hiester, of Reading, and also of the Rev. Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, Speaker of the Lower House in the first Congress of the United States. They resided in Reading from shortly after his return from Europe until his death, which occurred on August 7,1916.
General Gregg’s military career was epitomized by General James H. Wilson in his book, “Under the Old Flag”, wherein he states that “it has been often said that he was the best all ‘round cavalry officer that ever commanded a division in either army . . . whose superb figure, knightly bearing, and perfect self possession won the admiration of his companions in arms and secured for him the reputation of a soldier ‘sans peur et sans reproche’.”
This article originally appeared in the July 1942 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.