A 17th Lancer in the American Civil War - Thomas Morley

On the 25th October 1854 the 17th Lancers went into the Charge of the Light Bragade 147 officers and men strong. At the height of the action, with the British cavalry amongst the British batteries, the voice of Corporal Thomas Morley of the 17th Lancers was to be heard rising clear above the din of battle, rallying the front line to escape the Russian cavalry. "Coom ere, coom ere! Fall in lads, fall in!" His broad accents were distinct in the bedlam. (1)

Thomas Morley was born in Nottinghamshire in either 1831 or 1832 and he enlisted into the 17th Lancers in 1849. by the time of embarkation for the Crimea Morley had risen to the rank of Corporal. Following the battles of Balaclava and Inkerman (where he claimed to have helped bring in the mortally wounded Cornet Cleveland) he was promoted to Sergeant but felt that his actions should merit the award of either the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Victoria Cross. He campaigned at length to get an award (not an unusual circumstance at the time, strange though it seems to us today). "I inquired of my troop officer why I did not get a medal for distinguished conduct. He told me ... it lay to the commanding officer's descretion. so it appears they are not 'distinguished conduct' medals, but 'discretion madels'" (2) Morley was at odds with his new C.O., Lt Col Henry Benson, and he left the Regular Army in 1857.

Joining the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry in Mansfield as Drill Sergeant, Morley might have been forgiven for thinking that his campaigning days were past. However, the beckoning thunder of guns reached him again and in 1861 he made his way to America where the War between the States was in its opening stages. Good riders were badly needed in the Union Army whose cavalry was woefully inferior to the dashing Southern horsemen. With his experience Morley was promptly welcomed, joining the 12th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry as 2nd Lieutenant in time for the 1862 summer campaign in northern Virginia.

By July George McLellan's Army of the Potomac was stalled on the Yorktown Peninsula outside Richmond, the Confederate capital. John Pope was appointed to command the newly formed Army of Virginia (not to be confused with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northren Virginia) and tasked to keep the Confederates occupied while McLellan shiped back to Washington. Pope's energy (and obstinacy) were not matched by his military skill, and in a dazzling campaign Lee turned on him and his supply depots. Principal amongst these was the great base at Manassas Junction. On Wednesday 27th August 1862, Branch's brigade of Stonewall Jackson's advance guard struck and scattered the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry near Manassas.Thomas Morley was among the prisoners who trudged to the rear. The Rebels were able to pillage and then burn the mountain of supplies left by the Federals (including the baggage of the hapless 12th Pennsylvania). Morley's spell as a prisoner did at least preclude his presence at the battle of Second Manassas two days later when Pope was roundly beaten, his army falling hurriedly back towards Washington.

Prisoner exchanges were a common feature of the Civil War and Morley was back with the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry for the fighting in the summer of 1863. McLellan's successor, Joe Hooker, had been beaten at Chancellorsville in May. Lee had then persuaded the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, that an offensive to take the war into the North was needed. As a prelude to what became the Gettysburg campaign the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded since Jackson's death by Richard Ewell, was directed to move into the Shenandoah Valey and crush the 2nd Division of the Federal 8th Corps which lay at Winchester. (3)

Luckless James Milroy was one of that band of generals who lose their entire command to a better foe. He was over-confident of the strength of his position at Winchester and dangerously sceptical of the strength Ewell was bringing against him. Despite pleas from Washington to fall back to Harpers Ferry on the River Potomac, Milroy stuck it out. "I can hold this place for five days ... they will surround, but can't take my fortifications." (4) The very next day, June 14th, Ewell fell on him and in a fine attack Milroy was outclassed and outfought. That night, as he attempted a breakout, Milroy was blocked by Edward Johnstons Confederate division and his force dissolved into chaos. Milroy and a small band of riders made it to Harpers Ferry, but the 2nd Division went into the bag. As his 1st Brigade commander Washington Elliott rather tartly put it in his report "The Twelfth Pennsylvania Cavalry, as soon as fired upon, left my column without orders." (5) Thomas Morley was a prisoner of the Confederacy for a second time.

Life in City Point Gaol was far from pleasant, even if less grim than the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond. Morley was therefore fortunate to be exchanged once again in March 1864, before Ulysses Grant put a stop to such arrangements. Rejoining his regiment, he received promotion to Captain in February 1865, soldiering to the end of the campaign in Virginia in April that year.

By 1867 Morley was back in Britain, and took the post of Drill Troop Sgt Major in the Ayrshire Yeomanry on 1st January 1868, being appointed Regimental Sergeant Major in June 1871. On resigning this position in June 1877 he once again emigrated to America where he joined the government service fora second time. He continued in rather restless vein as in 1893 he again returned to England, and was in time to receive financial help from the T.H. Roberts Fund (6) In June 1899 Morley published privately The Cause of the Charge of Balaclava. He made much of his own part in the action and was vitriolic about Colonel Benson, of whom he obviously had no happy memory, and of Sgt Wooden who did get a V.C. for his part at Balaclava.

Morley died on the 14th August 1906. His photograph in later life shows us a rather grim visage, not helped by the full spade beard (7) It might seem that his vain quest for a Victoria Cross had left its mark. It is perhaps better to see him as a grizzled old warrior who had seen much action on two continents, and no doubt had many an interesting tale to tell.


(1) Heroes of the Crimea,Michael Barthorp, 1991 page 53

(2) Naval & Military Register Editor's Jounral 1857, page 105

(3)Milroy's Division Orbat:

1st Brigade (Elliott)
2nd Brigade (Ely)
3rd Brigade (McReynolds)

(4) Milroy Signal June 13th 1863 - Official Records Page 182, chapter XXXIX

(5) Elliott Report June 16th 1863 - Official Records Page 57, chapter XXXIX

(6) Honour the Light Brigade - Lummis & Wynn 1973, page 255.

(7) Morley wears, in addition to his Crimea medal and four clasps, a Turkish medal, and what might appear to be a Congressional Model of Honour. There is no note of Morley being a rrecipient for this last award in Sharp & Dunnigan's list published in 1894.

Further Reading

History of the 17th Lancers - J W Fortescue 1895
Battles & Leaders Vol II - Century War Series. New York 1887

General Enquiries

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
20 Priory Road
RG14 7QN, United Kingdom


Subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter. You do not need to be a member to receive it.

Full Name (*)

Please type your full name.
E-mail (*)

Invalid email address.

A Registered Charity

Number 1117006

Go to the Charity Commision's web site