Captain Peter Keenan was born in 1834 to Irish parents at the town of York in the rural North West of the State of New York. By 1861 he was living in Philadelphia. He helped recruit the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was appointed Captain, Company C, 19 August 1861. He was promoted to Major of the regiment 15 October 1862. According to the Pleasonton version, at the Battle of Chancellorsville,
“he was ordered by General Alfred Pleasonton, after the rout of the 11th corps on the right wing, to charge the advancing enemy in a wood, and hold them in check until the artillery could be got into position. He charged with his regiment, which numbered fewer than 500 men, so impetuously that the Confederates were startled, and hesitated to advance from the wood, until the guns were ready to rake the column as it emerged. Keenan met an inevitable death at the head of his men, many of whom fell with him, but the sacrifice enabled General Pleasonton to hold Stonewall Jackson’s corps in cheek and save the army from rout.”
His life is the subject of ‘To the Knife: The Biography of Major Peter Keenan, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’ by Charles C. Kelsey. His famous charge which is on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade a decade earlier is also immortalised in the following poem by George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898).
The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863
The sun had set;
The leaves with dew were wet:
Down fell a bloody dusk
On the woods, that second day of May,
Where Stonewall’s corps, like a beast of prey,
Tore through with angry tusk.
“They’ve trapped us, boys!”
Rose from our flank a voice.
With a rush of steel and smoke
On came the rebels straight,
Eager as love and wild as hate;
And our line reeled and broke;
Broke and fled.
Not one stayed—but the dead!
With curses, shrieks, and cries,
Horses and wagons and men
Tumbled back through the shuddering glen,
And above us the fading skies.
There’s one hope, still—
Those batteries parked on the hill!
“Battery, wheel!” (‘mid the roar)
“Pass pieces; fix prolonge to fire
Retiring. Trot!” In the panic dire
A bugle rings “Trot!”—and no more.
The horses plunged,
The cannon lurched and lunged,
To join the hopeless rout.
But suddenly rode a form
Calmly in front of the human storm,
With a stern, commanding shout:
“Align those guns!”
(We knew it was Pleasanton’s.)
The cannoneers bent to obey,
And worked with a will at his word;
And the black guns moved as if they had heard.
But, ah, the dread delay!
“To wait is crime;
O God, for ten minutes’ time!”
The General looked around.
There Keenan sat, like a stone,
With his three hundred horse alone,
Less shaken than the ground.
“Major, your men?”
“Are soldiers, General.” “Then
Charge, Major! Do your best;
Hold the enemy back at all cost,
Till my guns are placed;—else the army is lost.
You die to save the rest!”
By the shrouded gleam of the western skies,
Brave Keenan looked into Pleasanton’s eyes
For an instant—clear, and cool, and still;
Then, with a smile, he said: “I will.”
“Cavalry, charge!” Not a man of them shrank.
Their sharp, full cheer, from rank to rank,
Rose joyously, with a willing breath—
Rose like a greeting hail to death.
Then forward they sprang, and spurred, and clashed;
Shouted the officers, crimson-sashed;
Rode well the men, each brave as his fellow,
In their faded coats of blue and yellow;
And above in the air, with an instinct true,
Like a bird of war their pennon flew.
With clank of scabbards and thunder of steeds
And blades that shine like sunlit reeds,
And strong brown faces bravely pale
For fear their proud attempt should fail,
Three hundred Pennsylvanians close
On twice ten thousand gallant foes.
Line after line the troopers came
To the edge of the wood that was ring’d with flame;
Rode in, and sabred, and shot— and fell;
Nor came back one his wounds to tell.
And full in the midst rose Keenan tall
In the gloom, like a martyr awaiting his fall,
While the circle-stroke of his sabre, swung
Round his head, like a halo there, luminous hung.
Line after line—aye, whole platoons,
Struck dead in their saddles, of brave dragoons
By the maddened horses were onward borne
And into the wavering vortex flung, trampled and torn;
As Keenan fought with his men, side by side.
So they rode, till there were no more to ride.
But over them, lying there shattered and mute,
What deep echo rolls?—’Tis a death-salute
From the cannon in place; for, heroes, you braved
Your fate not in vain; the army was saved!
Over them now—year following year—
Over the graves the pine-cones fall,
And the whippoorwill chants his spectre-call;
But they stir not again: they raise no cheer.
They have ceased. But their glory shall never cease,
Nor their light be quenched in the light of peace.
The rush of their charge is resounding still
That saved the army at Chancellorsville.
by: George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898)