Philip Sheridan had finally been let loose onto his own independent command from the rest of the Army of the Potomac. He took his 10,000 men under Wesley Merritt, James Wilson, and David Gregg – the first time they had all been together since the start of the campaign – with six batteries of horse artillery and were making plans to draw out Confederate Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart. The easiest way would be to move south, as if they would be on the road to Richmond. Upon the map, they would start at Alrich, then jump on the Telegraph Road and march across the North Anna River onto the Confederate Capital. If they made it that far, they’d resupply with Benjamin Butler upon the James River and head back to join Union General George Gordon Meade around Spotsylvania. Along the way, their paths would cross the Virginia Central Railroad and make for ideal raiding.
With every man given 50 rounds of ammunition, 18 rounds of pistol shot, and three days of rations, they set out at dawn on May 9th, 1864. The line in columns of four stretched for 13 miles according to some. The pace was easy and slow, as if Sheridan were taunting Stuart to attack. Every Union soldier would remember that march, but not for the glorious prospects of fighting the star horseman of the Confederacy. “The clouds of dust, sent up by the thousands of hoofbeats, fill eyes, nose, and air passages, give external surfaces a uniform, dirty gray color, and form such an impenetrable veil, that, for many minutes together, you cannot see even your hand before you.”
Stuart was well aware of the dust cloud moving along the eastern horizon. Confederate Brigadier General Williams Wickham, who had taken position on the right Confederate flank when Orlando Willcox, came to probe out the line, had been watching the activity. As soon as Wickham was freed from the arrival of Jubal Early’s corps, he rode on to scout Sheridan’s progress. He reported back to Stuart that he had made it past Massaponax Church that afternoon. From there, Sheridan diverted his route from the heavily guarded bridge on Telegraph Road to swing southwest toward Jerrell’s Mill with Chilesburg as the new checkpoint objective. Anderson’s Ford across the North Anna along that road was less guarded.
What Sheridan couldn’t expect was Wickham coming in hot on his rear guard made up of Henry Davies’ 1st New Jersey, 1st Massachusetts, and 6th Ohio cavalry. At Jerrell Mills, Davies checked the charging Confederates and proceeded in a running fight as they continued to guard the rear of Sheridan’s caravan. At Mitchell’s Shop, just on the south side of a creek, they made their stand. The 6th Ohio served as the bait sitting square on the road, while the New Jersey and Massachusetts boys hid in the woods on either side a little further back. Though the Confederates could see it was a trap, they plowed ahead. The 6th Ohio took shelter behind the other regiments who unleashed a withering volley into the gray tide. One Massachusetts soldier recalled, “There was nothing for the rebels to do but get out of that hornets nest as expeditiously as possible.”
Wickham ordered a flanking maneuver and the fighting turned into a massive mess around the Union guns as Yankees and Rebs slugged away at one another. Meanwhile, the 1st New Jersey had been left alone on the road and charged into Wickham’s rear. Artillery from the Confederates thundered and the Federals took refuge in a sunken section of the road as best they could. Barricades were thrown up to further deter any Confederate advancement while Sheridan continued south.
About 3pm, Stuart finally made his awaited appearance with Major General Fitzhugh Lee at Mitchell’s Shop. The men gave a hearty cheer, but Stuart talked them down, saying, “Don’t holler, boys, until you get out of the woods.” Fitzhugh Lee would remember his commander, “singing his usual refrains, laughing, joking, dressed too as common – top boots, spurs, grey pants, vest and jacket, the latter lapped back and buttoned – hat and long black feather.” Brigadier General Lunsford Lomax arrived, but the brigade under James Gordon was missing to make Stuart’s unit complete. He sent urgent word to the aides to hurry it up. His plan would warrant the presence of every available trooper he could get his hands on. With three brigades facing three divisions, he couldn’t afford to be missing anything. Fitzhugh Lee would stay with Wickham and keep Davies occupied while Lomax and Gordon would cross and strike at the enemy below the river. As darkness settled in and Gordon’s men arrived, Stuart led the way across Davenport Bridge.
They reached Anderson Ford just before dark with Wilson and Gregg on the north side of the river and George Custer moved on with his unit toward Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. At about 8pm, a thunderstorm dumped upon the Federals who made a fortunate discovery. A detail of prisoners, men who had been captured the previous day around Laurel Hill, were being taken to the station for transport. Custer reclaimed his fellow Northern soldiers and captured two trains, along with the provisions they were to bring to the Confederate army. After bagging what they could, Custer’s men toppled over the cars, set the buildings on fire, and twisted up 8-10 miles of tracks. One witness described it, “With the blazing buildings in front of us, the drenching rain falling, the thunder peeling overhead, and the blinding flashes of lightning, the situation can be better imagined than described.”
While Custer’s men reveled in their raid, the 1st Maryland Cavalry (Confederate) with its 150 men under Colonel Ridgely Brown thought to charge the scene. However, upon learning who they were facing, he thought better and withdrew into the darkness. The rest of the night passed uneventful.
Upon May 10th, Sheridan intended to reunite his divisions on the south side of the North Anna and reconvene at Beaver Dam Station before moving south along the Mountain Road toward Richmond. He predicted that the Rebs would make an effort to cross at Davenport Bridge and sent Captain Abraham Arnold of the 5th US Cavalry with the 1st New York Dragoons to hold the position. Stuart, meanwhile, gave orders for Wickham to stay on the rear guard while Lomax and Gordon circled to the west to flank the Union cavalry. On his priority of concerns wasn’t his men, but his wife and child who were visiting at Beaver Dam Station.
Dawn came, and with it a barrage from Rebel artillery upon Wilson and Gregg as they attempted to cross the North Anna. A regiment was sent to drive off the horse artillery that was giving them trouble and threw up works to protect the balance of the divisions that still needed to cross. In the meantime, Arnold’s men found Confederates trying to repair the Davenport Bridge (a casualty of an earlier engagement in the area) and he ran them off. Arnold set up his men to ambush any Rebs who tried to attempt a crossing, but when Gordon and Lomax appeared, they swerved west down river. A detachment was sent to see where they would cross and were met with an attack from some of Gordon’s North Carolinian troops. Arnold, knowing he was far outnumbered, rushed back to Beaver Dam Station to find that Sheridan had already moved on. In fact, Arnold found himself stuck between Wickham in his front pursuing Sheridan, and Lomax and Gordon hot on his stirrups. “There was a general melee, sabres and pistols being used freely,” Arnold reported later. Despite his compromised position, he managed to squeeze himself around Wickham and rejoined in the rear of Sheridan’s army just before the engineers were ready to cut the last bridge ties across Little River.
Stuart, now confident that his family was safe, modified his plan. He’d make every effort to ambush Sheridan closer to Richmond where reinforcements in the form of infantry could be afforded to him by General Braxton Bragg. He knew he was outnumbered 3 to 1, but splitting his forces seemed advantageous under the circumstances. Gordon was to harass Sheridan in the rear while Fitzhugh Lee would deviate to Hanover Junction, then south down Telegraph Road to intercept the Federals.
Sheridan’s forces trotted at a steady, easy gait as before in columns of four so that a line of battle may be formed more easily once the ball was to open. Gordon did his job and commenced in the type of bushwhacking, hit-and-run tactics that the Confederate cavalry had perfected over the years. Flankers several yards out from the massive column contended with the ghosts as they flitted through the forests on either side, but no general engagement initiated. Sheridan permitted light foraging from the farms and plantations as they neared closer to Richmond. Around 4:15pm, Sheridan reached Ground Squirrel Church (what a name!) along the South Anna River, eighteen miles from Beaver Dam Station. They burned the bridge after crossing it and set up headquarters at an occupied plantation.
While the Yanks were taking their ease along South Anna, Stuart galloped into Hanover about 9pm and then steered south to cut down Telegraph Road, pushing his exhausted men harder toward their objective, racing against time itself to get to the junction of Telegraph and Mountain Road before Sheridan. At Taylorsville, he permitted them to rest for a few hours, but received word of Sheridan’s progress and made plans to move out at 3am with Captain Hunter Griffin’s Baltimore Light Artillery in tow. In all, he would have ten guns for the showdown.
On May 11th, Gregg was given the task of guarding the Federal rear while Merritt and Wilson would carry on to Allen Station. A unit under Davies would divert to Ashland Station along the railroad to cause as much mischief and havoc as possible. That morning, the 1st Maine Cavalry under Gregg were picketing along the South Anna when more of Gordon’s notorious North Carolinians appeared and crossed unexpectedly at an old ford. Gordon’s men pushed them back to Goodall’s Tavern where Gregg tried to make his stand. Sharpshooters opened fire from the various outbuildings, but Gordon worked his way around them and flushed them into the open road. Gordon pursued, leaving chaos in his wake. The “rout was complete” recalled a southerner. Still a horseman from New York remembered that, “none of the boys appear to have retained a very clear recollection of just how things had occurred or where the regiment was ‘when last seen’; but all agreed that the regiment as a unit did not remain there long.”
Gordon might have had no artillery, but Gregg did. Assistance from the battery allowed Gregg to pull up a second line, fired with “all the lead we could from our carbines and revolvers”, but he was flanked again and continued in the rearguard of Sheridan’s column for several hours. The Confederates considered it a victory to have driven them off so effectively.
Davies was having a battle of his own against Lomax at Ashland Station, tearing up the tracks and burning the buildings before running south to meet up with the rest of the army at Allen Station. There, they did the same and resumed their march south. Early that morning, Stuart had sent off reports to Richmond about the destruction at Ashland, but heartened them with the coming victory. He wrote that he planned to “intersect the road the enemy is marching on at Yellow Tavern, the head of the turnpike, six miles from Richmond. My men and horses are tired, hungry, and jaded, but all right.”
The turnpike he spoke of was Brooke Turnpike, which the Mountain Road dumped into from the northwest, and Telegraph Road from the northeast. Some distance from the three-way sat Yellow Tavern, a former hostelry now abandoned and to become numbered amongst the other taverns and crossroads where history-altering battles took place. Confederates under Lomax were present about 8am, but exceedingly bushed. They had won the race to the junction, but at the cost of sleep and needed rest for the men and the horses. Stuart gave him instructions to line his three regiments down Telegraph Road below Turner’s Run. To the north of the creek, a ridgeline would offer an ideal defensive position if they should be run off. Wickham’s men soon arrived and were positioned along said ridge between the two roads, facing south to receive whatever would come. Right about now, he was needing those reinforcements that Bragg said would be on their way. But it would be far too late for help to arrive from Richmond now. Even with the Baltimore Light Artillery posted along Telegraph Road, it would take a miracle for Stuart’s two available brigades to take on all of Sheridan’s forces.
Sheridan arrived to the intersection at 9am with Merritt’s men in the lead. His three divisions under Thomas Devin, Alfred Gibbs, and Custer (going south to north along the Mountain Road) turned to face Lomax. Pickets began to probe the position, not quite ready for battle until Wilson could join them. Custer, trying to give the army some breathing room, lead a charge against Lomax’s Virginian cavalry. The Confederates unleashed a halting fire, stalling him only until his men engaged in brutal hand-to-hand to push them back up the Telegraph Road.
Half a mile above the intersection, Telegraph Road was sunk in from excessive use and became congested by the troops looking for a place to rally. Stuart gave orders for Colonel Clay Pate to hold the road cut at all costs. He did so, knowing it was “a veritable ‘death sentence.’” The Yankees slammed into him and he shouted to his men, “One more round, boys, and then we’ll get to the hill.” They would be his last words as a bullet passed through his forehead and killed him, one of the many who would die before the end of the day. The Union “boys broke into a yell, and began pumping the lead from their deadly seven-shooter carbines into that line of gray at such a terrible rate that they broke and ran like a flock of sheep.”
Many of Lomax’ men fell back to the ridge, occupying the east side opposite from Wickham. Others took shelter elsewhere in the terrain and 200 more were captured as Merritt’s men pushed forward. Wickham’s men and the artillery upon the ridge opened up and the tide of blue receded to the Mountain Road. Stuart exhibited pride at the sight of his men holding their own against Sheridan, but the battle wasn’t over. It was just beginning.
Sheridan decided to wait for Wilson to come up, but sent the 17th Pennsylvania Cav and 6th New York Cav to recon further south. There, they found Richmond wide open to attack and snuck into the inner city’s defenses. The fact that they were able to send men that far down with no resistance hints that Bragg’s 2pm missive to Stuart that help was on the way was perhaps premature. News of Gordon’s win at South Anna brightened Stuart’s spirits, hoping that the third part of his army would arrive soon. He wrote back to Bragg, asking for a brigade under Brigadier General Eppa Hunton. He guessed that “if we make a combined attack on them with Hunton’s brigade I cannot see how they can escape.” He closed on an eager note, “The enemy fights entirely as infantry today – though yesterday we got in with sabres with good execution. I am glad to report enemy’s killed large in proportion.”
These outlooks might have been a little too optimistic. Even if a single brigade could come up in Sheridan’s rear to sandwich the dismounted cavalry against the ridge with its artillery, the numbers were still not in his favor. But the cavalier full of dash and zeal couldn’t linger on the odds at a time like this. Not when Wilson was forming on Merritt’s left and the ball would open again.
Sheridan planned a full-on cavalry charge supported by a storm of infantry at 4pm. A spectator later wrote, “In all directions over the field, regiments, or brigades, upon the trot or gallop, in columns of fours, companies, squadrons, or battalions, with batteries galloping into position, and here and there reserves drawn up in a line as straight and motionless as stone walls.” As if timing couldn’t have been better, a thunderstorm broke overhead. A Virginian recalled, “The lightning and cannonading were so terrific, that sometimes we couldn’t tell the flash of one from the other. The rain was just pouring and often ammunition would get so wet, as we were loading our guns, that they wouldn’t fire.”
Stuart ordered the 1st Virginia Cavalry to support the artillery pieces that were vulnerable to the coming charge. They managed to overwhelm a portion of Wickham’s line, but one blasting cheer from Stuart helped reverse the flood. The 1st Virginia forced them back and Stuart participated, gleefully firing at the retreating Federals.
One private, a prize-winning marksman from the 5th Michigan by the name of John Huff spotted the cheerful officer and took aim. The shot struck Stuart in the abdomen. A trooper rushed forward and asked his slumping commander if he was hurt. “I am afraid I am. But don’t worry, boys. Fitz will do as well for you as I have.” With Stuart still mounted and gripping his saddle pommel, he was led away from the battle.
Fitzhugh Lee did take over command, but the position was untenable. Losing their leader took the starch out of the Confederate cavalry. In the driving rain, the units were shattered. Some fled north to Ashland Station and others snuck their way south to seek shelter in Richmond. Darkness descended and Wilson bragged, “We captured his guns, crumpled up his dismounted line, and broke it into hopeless fragments.” Around the same time, Gregg whipped Gordon’s unit around Allen Station, effectively blocking any hope of reinforcements.
Stuart was taken to Richmond and brought to a relative’s house on Grace Street. The men left behind who heard of the tragedy were reduced to “shedding tears when they heard our gallant General had been shot.” The wound was inoperable and the most they could do was make him comfortable. Stuart asked for them to send for his wife. Whiskey was offered to ease the pain and, though reluctant, Stuart took his first and last drink. He pressed ice to his wound to help as well. By 7:30pm on May 12th, 1864, it became evident that the end was near. Stuart gave out his last wishes and messages. A clergyman sang “Rock of Ages” upon his request. After a bit of prayer, he said, “I am going fast now. I am resigned, God’s will be done.” Then, Stuart was gone. He was buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
However, the spirit of the cavalry did not die with him. Fitzhugh Lee would bring a new order of discipline to Stuart’s old command and see through to the end of the war. Sheridan’s victory was hollow, because even though he had put Stuart out of commission, he had also put the Army of the Potomac at a severe disadvantage. Back at Spotsylvania, they were without the crucial eyes and ears that were supposed to keep Grant informed of the Confederates’ movements. His absence cost the Union army precious time and lives. The one bright side might have been the boost to the Union cavalry’s morale, as they would continue into the 1864 campaign year with refreshed vigor and confidence that the Confederate cavalry was not so invincible after all.
“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7 – 12, 1864” by Gordon Rhea