Battle of Yellow Tavern and the Death of General Stuart
by PH Sheridan (Excerpted from his memoirs)
The expedition which resulted in the battle of Yellow Tavern and the death of General Stuart started from the vicinity of Aldrich's toward Fredericksburg early on the morning of May 9, 1864, marching on the plank-road, Merritt's division leading. When the column reached Tabernacle Church it headed almost due east to the telegraph road, and thence down that highway to Thornburg, and from that point through Childsburg to Anderson's crossing of the North Anna River, it being my desire to put my command south of that stream if possible, where it could procure forage before it should be compelled to fight. The corps moved at a walk, the three divisions on the same road, making a column nearly thirteen miles in length, and marched around the right flank of the enemy unsuspected until my rear guard had passed Massaponax Church. Although the column was very long, I preferred to move it all on one road rather than to attempt combinations for carrying the divisions to any given point by different routes. Unless the separate commands in an expedition of this nature are very prompt in movement, and each fully equal to overcoming at once any obstacle it may meet, combinations rarely work out as expected; besides, an engagement was at all times imminent, hence it was specially necessary to keep the whole force well together.
As soon as the Ny, Po, and Ta rivers were crossed, each of which streams would have afforded an excellent defensive line to the enemy, all anxiety as to our passing around Lee's army was removed, and our ability to cross the North Anna placed beyond doubt. Meanwhile General Stuart had discovered what we were about, and he set his cavalry in motion, sending General Fitzhugh Lee to follow and attack my rear on the Childsburg road, Stuart himself marching by way of Davenport's bridge, on the North Anna, toward Beaver Dam Station, near which place his whole command was directed to unite the next day.
My column having passed the Ta River, Stuart attacked its rear with considerable vigor, in the hope that he could delay my whole force long enough to permit him to get at least a part of his command in my front; but this scheme was frustrated by Davies's brigade, which I directed to fight as a rear-guard, holding on at one position and then at another along the line of march just enough to deter the enemy from a too rapid advance. Davies performed this responsible and trying duty with tact and good judgment, following the main column steadily as it progressed to the south, and never once permitting Fitzhugh Lee's advance to encroach far enough to compel a halt of my main body. About dark Merritt's division crossed the North Anna at Anderson's ford, while Gregg and Wilson encamped on the north side, having engaged the enemy, who still hung on my rear up to a late hour at night.
After Merritt's division passed the river, Custer's brigade pr ceeded on to Beaver Dam Station to cut the Virginia Central railroad. Before reaching the station he met a small force of the enemy, but this he speedily drove off, recapturing from it about four hundred Union prisoners, who had been taken recently in the Wilderness and were being conducted to Richmond. Custer also destroyed the station, two locomotives, three trains of cars, ninety wagons, from eight to ten miles of railroad and telegraph lines, some two hundred thousand pounds of bacon and other supplies, amounting in all to about a million and a half of rations, and nearly all the medical stores of General Lee's army, which had been moved from Orange Court House either because Lee wished to have them directly in his rear or because he contemplated falling back to the North Anna.
On the morning of the 10th Gregg and Wilson, while crossing the North Anna, were again attacked, but were covered by the division on the south side of the stream; the passage was effected without much loss, notwithstanding the approach of Stuart on the south bank from the direction of Davenport's bridge. The possession of Beaver Dam gave us an important point, as it opened a way toward Richmond by the Negro foot road. It also enabled us to obtain forage for our wellnigh famished animals, and to prepare for fighting the enemy, who, I felt sure, would endeavor to interpose between my column and Richmond.
Stuart had hardly united his troops near Beaver Dam when he realized that concentrating there was a mistake, so he began making dispositions for remedying his error, and while we leisurely took the Negrofoot road toward Richmond, he changed his tactics and hauled off from my rear, urging his horses to the death in order to get in between Richmond and my column. This he effected about 10 o'clock on the morning of the 11th, concentrating at Yellow Tavern, six miles from the city, on the Brook turnpike. His change of tactics left my march on the 10th practically unmolested, and we quietly encamped that night on the south bank of the South Anna, near Ground Squirrel Bridge. Here we procured an abundance of forage, and as the distance traveled that day had been only fifteen to eighteen miles, men and horses were able to obtain a good rest during the night.
At 2 o'clock in the morning, May 11, Davies's brigade of Gregg's division marched for Ashland to cut the Fredericksburg railroad. Arriving there before the head of the enemy's column, which had to pass through this same place to reach Yellow Tavern, Davies drove out a small force occupying the town, burnt a train of cars and a locomotive destroyed the railroad for some distance, and rejoined the main column at Allen's Station on the Fredericksburg and Richmond railroad. From Allen's Station the whole command moved on Yellow Tavern, Merritt in the lead, Wilson following, and Gregg in the rear.
The appearance of Davies's brigade at Ashland in the morning had had the effect of further mystifying the enemy as to my intentions; and while he held it incumbent to place himself between me and Richmond, yet he was still so uncertain of my movements that he committed the same fault that he did the first day, when he divided his force and sent a part to follow me on the Childsburg road. He now divided his command again, sending a portion to hang upon my rear, while he pr ceeded with the rest to Yellow Tavern. This separation not only materially weakened the force which might have been thrown across my line of march, but it also enabled me to attack with almost my entire corps, while occupying the pursuers with a small rear-guard.
By forced marches General Stuart succceded in reaching Yellow Tavern ahead of me on May 11; and the presence of his troops on the Ashland and Richmond road becoming known to Merritt as he was approaching the Brook turnpike, this general pressed forward at once to the attack. Pushing his division to the front, he soon got possession of the turnpike and drove the enemy back several hundred yards to the east of it. This success had the effect of throwing the head of my column to the east of the pike, and I quickly brought up Wilson and one of Gregg's brigades to take advantage of the situation by forming a line of battle on that side of the road. Meanwhile the enemy, desperate but still confident, poured in a heavy fire from his line and from a battery which enfiladed the Brook road, and made Yellow Tavern an uncomfortably hot place. Gibbs's and Devin's brigades, however, held fast there, while Custer, supported by Chapman's brigade, attacked the enemy's left and battery in a mounted charge.
Custer's charge, with Chapman on his flank and the rest of Wilson's division sustaining him, was brilliantly executed. Beginning at a walk, he increased his gait to a trot, and then at full speed rushed at the enemy. At the same moment the dismounted troops along my whole front moved forward, and as Custer went through the battery, capturing two of the guns with their cannoneers and breaking up the enemy's left, Gibbs and Devin drove his centre and right from the field. Gregg meanwhile, with equal success, charged the force in his rear-Gordon's brigade-and the engagement ended by giving us complete control of the road to Richmond. We captured a number of prisoners, and the casualties on both sides were quite severe, General Stuart himself falling mortally wounded, and General James B. Gordon, one of his brigade commanders, being killed.
After Custer's charge, the Confederate cavalry was badly broken up, the main portion of it being driven in a rout toward Ashland and a small part in the direction of Richmond, which latter force finally rejoined Fitzhugh Lee near Mechanicsville. A reconnoitring party being now sent up the Brook turnpike toward the city, dashed across the South Fork of the Chickahominy, drove a small force from the enemy's exterior intrenchments and went within them. I followed this party, and after a little exploration found between the two lines of works a country road that led across to the pike which runs from Mechanicsville to Richmond. I thought we could go around within the outer line of works by this country road across to the Mechanicsville pike on the south side of the Chickahominy, and encamp the next night at Fair Oaks; so I determined to make the movement after dark, being influenced in this to some extcnt by reports received during the afternoon from colored people, to the effect that General B. F. Butler's army had reached a small stream on the south side of the James, about four miles south of Richmond. If I could succeed in getting through by this road, not only would I have a shorter line of march to Haxall's landing, but there was also a possibility that I could help Butler somewhat by joining him so near Richmond. Therefore, after making the wounded as comfortable as possible, we commenced the march about 11 o'clock on the night of the11th, and massed the command on the plateau south of the Meadow bridge near daylight on the 12th.
The enemy, anticipating that I would march by this route, had planted torpedoes along it, and many of these exploded as the column passed over them, killing several horses and wounding a few men, but beyond this we met with no molestation. The torpedoes were loaded shells planted on each side of the road, and so connected by wires attached to friction-tubes in the shells, that when a horse's hoof struck a wire the shell was exploded by the jerk on the improvised lanyard. Mter the loss of several horses and the wounding of some of the men by these torpedoes, I gave directions to have them removed, if practicable, so about twentyTive of the prisoners were brought up and made to get down on their knees, feel for the wires in the darkness, follow them up and unearth the shells. The prisoners reported the owner of one of the neighboring houses to be the principal person who had engaged in planting these shells, and I therefore directed that some of them be carried and placed in the cellar of his house, arranged to explode if the enemy's column came that way, while he and his family were brought off as prisoners and held till after daylight.
Meanwhile the most intense excitement prevailed in Richmond. The Confederates, supposing that their capital was my objective point, were straining every effort to put it in a state of defense, and had collected between four and five thousand irregular troops, under General Bragg, besides bringing up three brigades of infantry from the force confronting General Butler south of the James River, the alarm being intensified by the retreat, after the defeat at Yellow Tavern, of Stuart's cavalry, now under General Fitahugh Lee, by way of Ashland to Mechanicsville, on the north side of the Chickahominy, for falling back in that direction, left me between them and Richmond.
Our march during the night of the 11th was very tedious, on a& count of the extreme darkness and frequent showers of rain; but at daylight on the 12th the head of my column, under Wilson, reached the Mechanicsville pike. Here Wilson, encountering the enemy's works and batteries manned by General Bragg's troops, endeavored to pass. In this he failed, and as soon as I was notified that it was impracticable to reach Fair Oaks by passing between the works and the Chickahominy, Custer's brigade was directed to make the crossing to the north side of the Chickahominy, at the Meadow bridge. Custer moved rapidly for the bridge, but found it destroyed, and that the enemy's cavalry was posted on the north side, in front of Mechanicsville. When this information came back, I ordered Merritt to take his whole division and repair the bridge, instructing him that the crossing must be made at all hazards; for, in view of an impending attack by the enemy's infantry in Richmond, it was necessary that I should have the bridge as a means of egress in case of serious disaster.
All the time that Merritt was occupied in this important duty, the enemy gave great annoyance to the working party by sweeping the bridge with a section of artillery and a fire from the supporting troops, 50 a small force was thrown across to drive them away. When Merritt had passed two regiments over, they attacked, but were repulsed. The work on the bridge continued, however, notwithstanding this discomfiture; and when it was finished, Merritt crossed nearly all his division, dismounted, and again attacked the enemy, this time carrying the line of temporary breastworks, built with logs and rails, and pursuing his broken troops toward Gaines's Mills.
While Merritt was engaged in this affair, the Confederates advanced from behind their works at Richmond, and attacked Wilson and Gregg. Wilson's troops were driven back in some confusion at first; but Gregg, in anticipation of attack, had hidden a heavy line of dismounted men in a bushy ravine on his front, and when the enemy marched upon it, with much display and under the eye of the President of the Confederacy, this concealed line opened a destructive fire with repeating carbines; and at the same time the batteries of horse-artillery, under Captain Robinson, joining in the contest, belched forth shot and shell with fatal effect. The galling fire caused the enemy to falter, and while still wavering Wilson rallied his men, and turning some of them against the right flank of the Confederates, broke their line, and compelled them to withdraw for security behind the heavy works thrown up for the defense of the city in 1862.
By destroying the meadow bridge and impeding my column on the Mechanicsville pike, the enemy thought to corner us completely, for he still maintained the force in Gregg's rear that had pressed it the day before; but the repulse of his infantry ended all his hopes of doing us any serious damage on the limited ground between the defenses of Richmond and the Chickahominy. He felt certain that on account of the recent heavy rains we could not cross the Chickahominy except by the Meadow bridge, and it also seemed clear to him that we could not pass between the river and his intrenchments; therefore he hoped to ruin us, or at least compel us to return by the same route we had taken in coming, in which case we would run into Gordon's brigade, but the signal repulse of Bragg's infantry dispelled these illusions.
Even had it not been our good fortune to defeat him, we could have crossed the Chickahominy if necessary at several points that were discovered by scouting parties which, while the engagement was going on, I had sent out to look up fords. This means of getting out from the circumscribed plateau I did not wish to use, however, unless there was no alternative, for I wished to demonstrate to the Cavalry Corps the impossibility of the enemy's destroying or capturing so large a body of mounted troops.
The chances of seriously injuring us were more favorable to the enemy this time than ever they were afterward, for with the troops from Richmond, comprising three brigades of veterans and about five thousand irregulars on my front and right flank, with Gordon's cavalry in the rear, and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry on my left flank, holding the Chickahominy and Meadow bridge, I was apparently hemmed in on every side, but relying on the celerity with which mounted troops could be moved, I felt perfectly confident that the seemingly perilous situation could be relieved under circumstances even worse than those then surrounding us. Therefore, instead of endeavoring to get away without a fight, I concluded that there would be little difficulty in withdrawing, even should I be beaten, and none whatever if I defeated the enemy.
In accordance with this view I accepted battle; and the complete repulse of the enemy's infantry, which assailed us from his intrenchments, and of Gordon's cavalry, which pressed Gregg on the Brook road, ended the contest in our favor. The rest of the day we remained on the battle-field undisturbed, and our time was spent in collecting the wounded, burying the dead, grazing the horses, and reading the Richmondjournals, two small newsboys with commendable enterprise having come within our lines from the Confederate capital to sell their papers. They were sharp youngsters, and having come well supplied, they did a thrifty business. When their stock in trade was all disposed of they wished to return, but they were so intelligent and observant that I thought their mission involved other purposes than the mere sale of newspapers. so they were held till we crossed the Chickahominy and then turned loose.
After Merritt had crossed the Chickahominy and reached Mechanicsville, I sent him orders to push on to Gaines's Mills. Near the latter place he fell in with the enemy's cavalry again, and sending me word, about 4 o'clock in the afternoon I crossed the Chickahominy with Wilson and Gregg, but when we overtook Merritt he had already brushed the Confederates away, and my whole command went into camp between Walnut Grove and Gaines's Mills.
The main purposes of the expedition had now been executed. The',' were "to break up General Lee's railroad communications, destroy such depots of supplies as could be found in his rear, and to defeat General Stuart's cavalry." Many miles of the Virginia Central and of the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads were broken up, and several of the bridges on each burnt. At Beaver Dam, Ashland, and other places, about two millions of rations had been captured and destroyed. The most important of all, however, was the defeat of Stuart. Since the beginning of the war this general had distinguished himself by his management of the Confederate mounted force. Under him the cavalry of Lee's army had been nurtured, and had acquired such prestige that it thought itself wellnigh invincible; indeed, in the early years of the war it had proved to be so. This was now dispelled by the successful march we had made in Lee's rear; and the discomfiture of Stuart at Yellow Tavern had inflicted a blow from which entire recovery was impossible.
In its effect on the Confederate cause the defeat of Stuart was most disheartening, but his death was even a greater calamity, as is evidenced by the words of a Confederate writer (Cooke), who says: "Stuart could be ill spared at this critical moment, and General Lee was plunged into the deepest melancholy at the intelligence of his death. When it reached him he retired from those around him, and remained for some time communing with his own heart and memory. When one of his staff entered and spoke of Stuart, General Lee said: 'I can scarcely think of him without weeping.'
From the camp near Gaines's Mills I resumed the march to Haxall's Landing, the point on the James River contemplated in my instructions where I was to obtain supplies from General Butler. We got to the James on the 14th with all our wounded and a large number of prisoners, and camped between Haxall's and Shirley. The prisoners, as well as the captured guns, were turned over to General Butler's provost-marshal, and our wounded were quickly and kindly cared for by his surgeons. Ample supplies, also, in the way of forage and rations, were furnished us by general Butler, and the work of refitting for our return to the Army of the Potomac was vigorously pushed. By the 17th all was ready, and having learned by scouting parties sent in the direction of Richmond and as far as Newmarket that the enemy's cavalry was returning to Lee's army I started that evening on my return march, crossing the Chickahominy at Jones's bridge, and bivouacking on the 19th near Baltimore crossroads.
My uncertainty of what had happened to the army of the Potomac in our absence, and as to where I should find it, made our getting back a problem somewhat difficult of solution, particularly as I knew that reinforcements for Lee had come up from the south to Richmond, and that most likely some of these troops were being held at different points on the route to intercept my column. Therefore I determined to pass the Pamunkey River at the White House, and sent to Fort Monroe for a pontoon-bridge on which to make the crossing. While waiting for the pontoons I ordered Custer to proceed with his brigade to Hanover Station, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South Anna, a little beyond that place; at the same time I sent Gregg and Wilson to Cold Harbor, to demonstrate in the direction of Richmond as far as Mechanicsville, so as to cover Custer's movements. Merritt, with the remaining brigades of his division, holding fast at Baltimore crossroads to await events.
After Gregg and Custer had gone, it was discovered that the railroad bridge over the Pamunkey, near the White House, had been destroyed but partially-the cross-ties and stringers being burned in places only-and that it was practicable to repair it sufficiently to carry us over. In view of this information General Merritt's two brigades were at once put on the duty of reconstructing the bridge. By sending mounted parties through the surrounding country, each man of which would bring in a board or a plank, Merritt soon accumulated enough lumber for the flooring, and in one day the bridge was made practicable. On the 22d Gregg, Wilson, and Custer returned. The latter had gone on his expedition as far as Hanover Station, destroyed some commissary stores there, and burned two trestle bridges over Hanover Creek. This done, he deemed it prudent to retire to Hanovertown. The next morning he again marched to Hanover Station, and there ascertained that a strong force of the enemy, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was posted at the South Anna bridges. These troops had gone there from Richmond en route to reinforce Lee. In the face of this impediment Custer's mission could not be executed fully, so he returned to Baltimore crossroads.
The whole command was drawn in by noon of the 22d, and that day it crossed the Pamunkey by Merritt's reconstructed bridge, marching to Ayletts, on the Mattapony River, the same right. Here I learned from citizens, and from prisoners taken during the day by scouting parties sent toward Hanover Court House, that Lee had been forced from his position near Spottsylvania Court House and compelled to retire to the line of the North Anna. I then determined to rejoin the Army of the Potomac at the earliest moment, which I did by making for Chesterfield Station, where I reported to General Meade on the 24th of May.
Our return to Chesterfield ended the first independent expedition the Cavalry Corps had undertaken since coming under my command, and our success was commended highly by Generals Grant and Meade, both realizing that our operations in the rear of Lee had disconcerted and alarmed that general so much as to aid materially in forcing his retrograde march, and both acknowledged that, by drawing off the enemy's cavalry during the past fortnight, we had enabled them to move the Army of the Potomac and its enormous trains without molestation in the manoeuvres that had carried it to the North Anna. Then, too, great quantities of provisions and munitions of war had been destroyed-stores that the enemy had accumulated at subdp6ts from strained resources and by difficult means; the railroads that connected Lee with Richmond broken, the most successful cavalry leader of the South killed, and in addition to all this there had been inflicted on the Confederate mounted troops the most thorough defeat that had yet befallen them in Virginia.
When the expedition set out the Confederate authorities in Richmond were impressed, and indeed convinced, that my designs contemplated the capture of that city, and notwithstanding the loss they sustained in the defeat and death of Stuart, and their repulse the succeeding day, they drew much comfort from the fact that I had not entered their capital. Some Confederate writers have continued to hold this theory and conviction since the war. In this view they were and are in error. When Stuart was defeated the main purpose of my instructions had been carried out, and my thoughts then turned to joining General Butler to get supplies. I believed that I could do this by cutting across to the Mechanicsville pike and Fair Oaks on the south side of the Chickahominy, but the failure of Wilson's column to get possession of the outwork which commanded the pike necessitated my crossing at Meadow bridge, and then moving by Mechanicsville and Gaines's Mills instead of by the shorter route. Moreover, my information regarding General Butler's position was incorrect, so that even had I been successful in getting to Fair Oaks by the direct road I should still have gained nothing thereby, for I should still have been obliged to continue down the James River to Haxall's.