Sheridan Joined the Army of the Potomacrt Donelson
ACCOMPANIED by Captain Forsyth and Lieutenant Moore, I arrived in Washington on the morning of April, 4, 1864, and stopped at Willard's Hotel, where, staying temporarily, were many officers of the Army of the Potomac en route to their commands from leave at the North. Among all these, however, I was an entire stranger, and I cannot now recall that I met a single individual whom I had ever before known.
With very little delay after reaching my hotel I made my way to General Halleck's headquarters and reported to that officer, having learned in the meantime that General Grant was absent from the city. General Halleck talked to me for a few minutes, outlining briefly the nature and duties of my new command, and the general military situation in Virginia. When he had finished all he had to say about these matters, he took me to the office of the Secretary of War, to present me to Mr. Stanton. During the ceremony of introduction, I could feel that Mr. Stanton was eyeing me closely and searchingly, endeavoring to form some estimate of one about whom he knew absolutely nothing, and whose career probably had never been called to his attention until General Grant decided to order me East, after my name had been suggested by General Halleck in an interview the two generals had with Mr. Lincoln. I was rather young in appearance-looking even under than over thirty-three years-but five feet five inches in height, and thin almost to emaciation, weighing only one hundred and fifteen pounds. If I had ever possessed any self-assertion in manner or speech, it certainly vanished in the presence of the imperious Secretary, whose name at the time was the synonym of all that was cold and formal. I never learned what Mr. Stanton's first impressions of me were, and his guarded and rather calculating manner gave at this time no intimation that they were either favorable or unfavorable, but his frequent commendation in after years indicated that I gained his good-will before the close of the war, if not when I first came to his notice; and a more intimate association convinced me that the cold and cruel characteristics popularly ascribed to him were more mythical than real.
When the interview with the Secretary was over, I proceeded with General Halleck to the White House to pay my respects to the President. Mr. Lincoln received me very cordially, offering both his hands, and saying that he hoped I would fulfill the expectations of General Grant in the new command I was about to undertake, adding that thus far the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac had not done all it might have done, and wound up our short conversation by quoting that stale interrogation so prevalent during the early years of the war, "Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?" His manner did not impress me, however, than in asking the question he had meant anything beyond a jest, and I parted from the President convinced that he did not believe all that the query implied.
After taking leave I separated from General Halleck, and on returning to my hotel found there an order from the War Department assigning me to the command of the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. The next morning, April 5, as I took the cars for the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, General Grant, who had returned to Washington the previous night from a visit to his family, came aboard the train on his way to Culpeper Court House, and on the journey down I learned among other things that he had wisely determined to continue personally in the field, associating himself with General Meade's army, where he could supervise its movements directly, and at the same time escape the annoyances which, should he remain in Washington, would surely arise from solicitude for the safety of the Capital while the campaign was in progress. When we reached Brandy Station, I left the train and reported to General Meade, who told me that the headquarters of the Cavalry Corps were some distance back from the Station, and indicated the general locations of the different divisions of the corps, also giving me, in the short time I remained with him, much information regarding their composition.
I reached the Cavalry Corps headquarters on the evening of April 5, 1864, and the next morning issued orders assuming command. General Pleasonton had but recently been relieved, and many of his staff-officers were still on duty at the headquarters awaiting the arrival of the permanent commander. I resolved to retain the most of these officers on my staff, and although they were all unknown to me when I decided on this course, yet I never had reason to regret it; nor to question the selections made by my predecessor.
The corps consisted of three cavalry divisions and twelve batteries of horse artillery Brigadier-General A. T. A. Torbert was in command of the First Division, which was composed of three brigades; Brigadier-General D. McM. Gregg, of the Second, consisting of two brigades; and Brigadier-General J. H. Wilson was afterward assigned to command the Third, also comprising two brigades. Captain Robinson, a veteran soldier of the Mexican war, was chief of artillery, and as such had a general supervision of that arm, though the batteries, either as units or in secdons, were assigned to the different divisions in campaign.
Each one of my division commanders was a soldier by profession Torbert graduated from the Military Academy in 1855, and was commissioned in the infantry, in which arm he saw much service on the frontier, in Florida, and on the Utah expedition. At the beginning of hostilities in April, 1861, he was made a colonel of New Jersey volunteers, and from that position was promoted in the fall of 1862 to be a brigadier general, thereafter commanding a brigade of infantry in the Army of the Potomac till, in the redistribution of generals, after Grant came to the East, he was assigned to the First Cavalry Division.
Gregg graduated in 1855 also, and was appointed to the First Dragoons, with which regiment, up to the breaking out of the war, he saw frontier service extending from Fort Union, New Mexico, through to the Pacific coast, and up into Oregon and Washington Territories, where I knew him slightly. In the fall of 1861 he became colonel of the Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and a year later was made a brigadier He then succeeded to the command of a division of cavalry, and continued in that position till the close of his service, at times temporarily commanding the Cavalry Corps. He was the only division commander I had whose experience had been almost exclusively derived from the cavalry arm.
Wilson graduated in 1860 in the Topographical Engineers, and was first assigned to duty in Oregon, where he remained till July, 1861. In the fall of that year his active service in the war began, and he rose from one position to another, in the East and West, till, while on General Grant's staff, he was made a brigadiergeneral in the fall of 1868 in reward for services performed during the Vicksburg campaign and for engineer duty at Chattanooga preceding the battle of Missionary Ridge. At my request he was selected to command the Third Division. General Grant thought highly of him, and, expecting much from his active mental and physical ability, readily assented to assign him in place of General Kilpatrick. The only other general officers in the corps were Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, Brigadier Gen. George A. Custer, and Brigadier Gen Henry E. Davies, each commanding a brigade.
In a few days after my arrival at Brandy Station I reviewed my new command, which consisted of about twelve thousand officers and men, with the same number of horses in passable trim. Many of the general officers of the army were present at the review, among them Generals Meade, Hancock, and Sedgwick. Sedgwick being an old dragoon, came to renew his former associations with mounted troops, and to encourage me, as he jestingly said, because of the traditional prejudices the cavalrymen were supposed to hold against being commanded by an infantry officer. The corps presented a fine appearance at the review, and so far as the health and equipment of the men were concerned the showing was good and satisfactory, but the horses were thin and very much worn down by excessive and, it seemed to me, unnecessary picket duty, for the cavalry picket-line almost completely encircled the infantry and artillery camps of the army, covering a distance, on a Continuous line, of nearly sixty miles, with hardly a mounted Confederate confronting it at any point. From the very beginning of the war the enemy had shown more wisdom respecting his cavalry than we. Instead of wasting its strength by a policy of disintegration he, at an early day, had Organized his mounted force into compact masses, and plainly made it a favorite; and, as usual, he was now husbanding the strength of his horses by keeping them to the rear, so that in the spring he could bring them out in good condition for the impending campaign.
Before and at the review I took in this situation, and determined to remedy it if possible; so in due time I sought an interview with General Meade and informed him that, as the effectiveness of my command rested mainly on the strength of its horses, I thought the duty it was then performing was both burdensome and wasteful. I also gave him my idea as to what the cavalry should do, the main purport of which was that it ought to be kept concentrated to fight the enemy's cavalry. Heretofore, the commander of the Cavalry Corps had been, virtually, but an adjunct at army headquarters sort of chief of cavalry and my proposition seemed to stagger General Meade not a little. I knew that it would be difficult to overcome the recognized custom of using the cavalry for the protection of trains and the establishment of cordons around the infantry corps, and so far subordinating its operations to the movements of the main that in name only was it a corps at all, but still I thought it my duty to try.
At first General Meade would hardly listen to my proposition, for he was filled with the prejudices that, from the beginning of the war, had pervaded the army regarding the importance and usefulness of cavalry, General Scott then predicting that the con test would be settled by artillery, and thereafter refusing the services of regiment after regiment of mounted troops. General Meade deemed cavalry fit for little more than guard and picket duty, and wanted to know what would protect the transportation trains and artillery reserve, cover the front of moving infantry columns, and secure his flanks from intrusion, if my policy were pursued. I told him that if he would let me use the cavalry as I contemplated, he need have little solicitude in these respects, for, with a mass of ten thousand mounted men, it was my belief that I could make it so lively for the enemy's cavalry that, so far as attacks from it were concerned, the flanks and rear of the Army of the Potomac would require little or no defense, and claimed, further, that moving columns of infantry should take care of their own fronts. I also told him that it was my object to defeat the enemy's cavalry in a general combat, if possible, and by such a result establish a feeling of confidence in my own troops that would enable us after a while to march where we pleased, for the purpose of breaking General Lee's communications and destroying the resources from which his army was supplied.
The idea as here outlined was contrary to Meade's convictions, for though at different times since he commanded the Army of the Potomac considerable bodies of the cavalry had been massed for some special occasion, yet he had never agreed to the plan as a permanency, and could not be bent to it now. He gave little encouragement, therefore, to what I proposed, yet the conversation was immediately beneficial in one way, for when I laid before him the true condition of the cavalry, he promptly relieved it from much of the arduous and harassing picket service it was performing, thus giving me about two weeks in which to nurse the horses before the campaign opened.
The interview also disclosed the fact that the cavalry commander should be, according to General Meade's views, at his headquarters practically as one of his staff, through whom he would give detailed directions as, in his judgment, occasion required. Meade's ideas and mine being so widely divergent, disagreements arose between us later during the battles of the Wilderness, which lack of concord ended in some concessions on his part after the movement toward Spottsylvania Court House began, and although I doubt that his convictions were ever wholly changed, yet from that date on, in the organization of the Army of the Potomac, the cavalry corps became more of a compact body, with the same privileges and responsibilities that attached to the other corps-conditions that never actually existed before.
On the 4th of May the Army of the Potomac moved against Lee, who was occupying a defensive position on the south bank of the Rapidan. After detailing the various detachments which I was obliged to su ply for escorts and other mounted duty, I crossed the river with an effective force of about 10,000 troopers. In the interval succeeding my assignment to the command of the cavalry, I had taken the pains to study carefully the topography of the country in eastern Virginia, and felt convinced that, under the policy Meade intended I should follow, there would be little opportunity for mounted troops to acquit themselves well in a region so thickly wooded, and traversed by so many almost parallel streams; but conscious that he would be compelled sooner or later either to change his mind or partially give way to the pressure of events, I entered on the campaign with the loyal determination to aid zealously in all its plans.
General Lee's army was located in its winter quarters behind entrenchment's that lay along the Rapidan for a distance of about twenty miles, extending from Barnett's to Morton's ford. The fords below Morton's were watched by a few small detachments of Confederate cavalry, the main body of which, however, was encamped below Hamilton's crossing, where it could draw supplies from the rich country along the Rappahannock. Only a few brigades of Lee's infantry guarded the works along the river, the bulk of it being so situated that it could be thrown to either flank toward which the Union troops approached.
General Grant adopted the plan of moving by his left flank, with the purpose of compelling Lee to come out from behind his in trenchments along Mine Run and fight on equal terms. Grant knew well the character of country through which he would have to pass, but he was confident that the difficulties of operation in the thickly wooded region of the Wilderness would be counterbalanced by the facility with which his position would enable him to secure a new base; and by the fact that as he would thus cover Washington, there would be little or no necessity for the authorities there to detach from his force at some inopportune moment for the protection of that city.
In the move forward two divisions of my cavalry took the advance, Gregg crossing the Rapidan at Ely's ford and Wilson at Germania ford. Torbert's division remained in the rear to cover the trains and reserve artillery, holding from Rapidan Station to Culpeper, and thence through Stevensburg to the Rappahannock River. Gregg crossed the Rapidan before daylight, in advance of the Second Corps, and when the latter reached Ely's ford, he pushed on to Chancellorsville; Wilson preceded the Fifth Corps to Germania ford, and when it reached the river he made the crossing and moved rapidly by Wilderness Tavern, as far as Parker's Store, from which point he sent a heavy reconnaissance toward Mine Run, the rest of his division bivouacking in a strong position. I myself proceeded to Chancellorsville and fixed my headquarters at that place, where on the 5th I was joined by Torbert's division.
Meanwhile, General Meade had crossed the Rapidan and established his headquarters not far from Germania ford. From that point he was in direct communication with Wilson, whose original instructions from me carried him only as far as Parker's Store, but it being found, during the night of the 4th, that the enemy was apparently unacquainted with the Occurrences of the day, Meade directed Wilson to advance in the direction of Craig's Meeting House, leaving one regiment to hold Parker's Store. Wilson with the second brigade encountered Rosser's brigade of cavalry Just beyond the Meeting House, and drove it back rapidly a distance of about two miles, holding it there till noon, while his first brigade was halted on the north side of Robinson's Run near the junction of the Catharpen and Parker's Store roads.
Up to this time Wilson had heard nothing of the approach of the Fifth Corps, and the situation becoming threatening, he withdrew the second brigade to the position occupied by the first, but scarcely had he done so when he learned that at an early hour in the forenoon the enemy's infantry had appeared in his rear at Parker's Store and cut off his communication with General Meade. Surprised at this, he deter-mined to withdraw to Todd's Tavern, but before his resolution could be put into execution the Confederates attacked him with a heavy force, and at the same time began pushing troops down the Catharpen road. Wilson was now in a perplexing situation, sandwiched between the Confederates who had cut him off in the rear at Parker's store and those occupying the Catharpen road, but he extricated his command by passing it around the latter force, and reached Todd's Tavern by crossing the Po River at Corbin's bridge. General Meade discovering that the enemy had interposed at Parker's store between Wilson and the Fifth Corps, sent me word to go to Wilson's relief, and this was the first intimation I received that Wilson had been pushed out so far, but surmising that he would retire in the direction of Todd's Tavern I immediately despatched Gregg's division there to his relief. Just beyond Todd's Tavern Gregg met Wilson, who was now being followed by the enemy's cavalry. The pursuing force was soon checked, and then driven back to Shady Grove Church, while Wilson's troops fell in behind Gregg's line, somewhat the worse for their morning's adventure.
When the Army of the Potomac commenced crossing the Rapidan on the 4th, General J. E. B. Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, began concentrating his command on the right of Lee's infantry, bringing it from Hamilton's crossing and other points where it had been wintering. Stuart's force at this date was a little more than eight thousand men, organized in two divisions, commanded by Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. Hampton's division was composed of zthree brigades, commanded by Generals Gordon, Young, and Rosser; Fitzhugh Lee's division comprised three brigades also, Generals W. H. F. Lee, Lomax, and Wickham commanding them.
Information of this concentration, and of the additional fact that the enemy's cavalry about Hamilton's crossing was all being drawn in, reached me on the 5th, which obviated all necessity for my moving on that point as I intended at the onset of the campaign. The responsibility for the safety of our trains and of the left flank of the army still continued, however, so I made such dispositions of my troops as to secure these objects by holding the line of the Brock road beyond the Furnaces, and thence around to Todd's Tavern and Piney Branch Church. On the 6th, through some false information, General Meade became alarmed about his left flank, and sent me the following note:
"Headquarters A Of the Potomac'
"MAJOR GENERAL SHERIDAN, "May 6, 1864 1 o'clock P. M.
"Commanding Cavalry Corps:
"Your despatch of 11.45 AM. received. General Hancock has been heavily pressed, and his left turned. The major general commanding thinks that you had better draw iii your cavalry, so as to secure the protection of the trains. The order requiring an escort for the wagons to-night has been rescinded.
"A. A. HUMPHREY'S,
On the morning of the 6th Custer's and Devin's brigades had been severely engaged at the Furnaces before I received the above note. They had been most successful in repulsing the enemy's attacks, however, and I felt that the line taken up could be held; but the despatch from General Humphreys was alarming, so I drew all the cavalry close in toward Chancellorsville. It was found later that Hancock's left had not been turned, and the points thus abandoned had to be regained at a heavy Cost in killed and wounded, to both the cavalry and the infantry.
On the 7th of May, under directions from headquarters, Army of the Potomac, the trains were put in motion to go into park at Piney Branch Church, in anticipation of the movement that was about to be made for the possession of Spottsylvania Court House. I felt confident that the order to move the trains there had been given without a full understanding of the situation, for Piney Branch Church was now held by the enemy, a condition which had resulted from the order withdrawing the cavalry on account of the supposed disaster to Hancock's left the day before; but I thought the best way to remedy matters was to hold the trains in the vicinity of Aldrich's till the ground on which it was intended to park them should be regained.
This led to the battle of Todd's Tavern, a spirited fight for the possession of the crossroads at that point, participated in by the enemy's cavalry and Gregg's division, and two brigades of Torbert's division, the latter commanded by Merritt, as Torbert became very ill on the 6th, and had to be sent to the rear. To gain the objective point-the cross-roads-I directed Gregg to assail the enemy on the Catharpen road with Irvin Gregg's brigade and drive him over Corbin's bridge, while Merritt attacked him with the Reserve brigade on the Spottsylvania road in conjunction with Davies's brigade of Gregg's division, which was to be put in on the Piney Branch Church road, and unite with Merritt's left. Davies's and Irvin Gregg's brigades on my right and left flanks met with some resistance, yet not enough to deter them from executing their orders. In front of Merritt the enemy held on more stubbornly, however, and there ensued an exceedingly severe and, at times, fluctuating fight. Finally the Confederates gave way, and we pursued them almost to Spottsylvania Court House; but deeming it prudent to recall the pursuers about dark, I encamped Gregg's and Merritt's divisions in the open fields to the east of Todd's Tavern.
During the preceding three days the infantry corps of the army had been engaged in the various conflicts known as the battles of the Wilderness. The success of the Union troops in those battles had not been all that was desired, and General Grant now felt that it was necessary to throw himself on Lee's communications if possible, while preserving his own intact by prolonging the movement to the left. Therefore, on the evening of the 7th he determined to shift his whole army toward Spottsylvania Court House, and initiated the movement by a night march of the infantry to Todd's Tavern. In view of what was contemplated, I gave orders to Gregg and Merritt to move at daylight on the morning of the 8th, for the purpose of gaining possession of Snell's bridge over the Po River, the former by the crossing at Corbin's bridge and the latter by the Block House. I also directed Wilson, who was at Alsop's house, to take possession of Spottsylvania as early as possible on the morning of the 8th, and then move into position at Snell's bridge conjointly with the other two divisions. Wilson's orders remained as I had issued them, so he moved accordingly and got possession of Spottsylvania, driving the enemy's cavalry a mile beyond. During the night of the 7th General Meade arrived at Todd's Tavern and modified the orders I had given Gregg and Merritt, directing Gregg simply to hold Corbin's bridge, and Merritt to move out in front of the infantry column marching on the Spottsylvania road. Merritt proceeded to obey, but in advancing, our cavalry and infantry became intermingled in the darkness, and much confusion and delay was the consequence. I had not been duly advised of these changes in Gregg's and Merritt's orders, and for a time I had fears for the safety of Wilson, but while he was preparing to move on to form his junction with Gregg and Merritt at Snell's bridge, the advance of Anderson (who was now commanding Longstreet's corps) appeared on the scene and drove him from Spottsylvania.
Had Gregg and Merritt been permitted to proceed as they were, originally instructed, it is doubtful whether the battles fought at Spottsylvania would have occurred, for these two divisions would have encountered the enemy at the Po River, and so delayed his march as to enable Our infantry to reach Spottsylvania first, and thus force Lee to take up a line behind the Po. I had directed Wilson to move from the left by "the Gate" through Spottsylvania to Snell's bridge, while Gregg and Merritt were to advance to the same point by Shady Grove and the Block House. There was nothing to prevent at least a partial success of these Operations; that is to say, the concentration of the three divisions in front of Snell's bridge, even if we could not actually have gained it. But both that important point and the bridge on the Block House road were utterly ignored, and Lee's approach to Spottsylvania left entirely unobstructed, while three divisions of cavalry remained practically ineffective by reason of disjointed and irregular instructions.
On the morning of the 8th, when I found that such orders had been given, I made some strong remonstrance's against the course that had been pursued, but it was then too late to carry out the combinations I had projected the night before, so I proceeded to join Merritt on the Spottsylvania road. On reaching Merritt I found General Warren making complaint that the cavalry were obstructing his infantry column, so I drew Merritt off the road, and the leading division of the Fifth Corps pushed up to the front. it got into line about 11 o'clock, and advanced to take the village, but it did not go very far before it struck Anderson's corps, and was hurled back with heavy loss. This ended all endeavor to take Spottsylvania that day.
A little before noon General Meade sent for me, and when I reached his headquarters I found that his peppery temper had got the better of his good judgment, he showing a disposition to be unjust, laying blame here and there for the blunders that had been committed. He was particularly severe on the cavalry, saying, among other things, that it had impeded the march of the Fifth Corps by occupying the Spottsylvania road. I replied that if this were true, he himself had ordered it there without my knowledge. I also told him that he had broken up my combinations, exposed Wilson's division to disaster, and kept Gregg unnecessarily idle, and further, repelled his insinuations by saying that such disjointed operations as he had been requiring of the cavalry for the last four days would render the corps inefficient and useless before long. Meade was very much irritated, and I was none the less so. One word brought on another, until, finally, I told him that I could whip Stuart if he (Meade) would only let me, but since he insisted on giving the cavalry directions without consulting or even notifying me, he could henceforth command the Cavalry Corps himself-that I would not give it another order.
The acrimonious interview ended with this remark, and after I left him he went to General Grant's headquarters and repeated the conversation to him, mentioning that I had said that I could whip Stuart. At this General Grant remarked: "Did he say so? Then let him go out and do it." This intimation was immediately acted upon by General Meade, and a little later the following order came to me:
"HEADQUARTERS Army OF The Potomac. "May 8th, 1864-1 PM.
"Commanding Cavalry Corps.
"The major-general commanding directs you to immediately concentrate your available mounted force, and with your ammunition trains and such supply trains as are filled (exclusive of ambulances) proceed against the enemy's cavalry, and when your supplies are exhausted, proceed via New Market and Green Bay to Haxall's Landing on the James River, are communicating with General Butler, procuring supplies and return to this army. Your dismounted men will be left with the train here.
"A. A. HUNIPHREYS,
"Major-General, Chief of-Staff."
As soon as the above order was received I issued instructions for the concentration of the three divisions of cavalry at Aldrich's to prepare for the contemplated expedition. Three days' rations for the men were distributed, and half rations of grain for one day were doled out for the horses. I sent for Gregg, Merritt, and Wilson and communicated the order to them, saying at the same time, "We are going out to fight Stuart's cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me; we will give him a fair, square fight; we are strong, and I know we can beat him, and in view of the recent representations to Genera Meade I shall expect nothing but success." I also indicated to my division commanders the line of march 1 should take-moving in one column around the right flank of Lee's army to get in its rear-and stated at the same time that it was my intention to fight Stuart wherever he presented himself, and if possible go through to Haxall's Landing; but that if Stuart should successfully interpose between us and that point, we would swing back to the Army of the Potomac by passing around the enemy's left flank by way of Gordonsville. At first the proposition seemed to surprise the division commanders somewhat, for hitherto even the boldest mounted expeditions had been confined to a hurried ride through the enemy's country, without purpose of fighting more than enough to escape in case of molestation, and here and there to destroy a bridge. Our move would be a challenge to Stuart for a cavalry duel behind Lee's lines, in his own country, but the advantages which it was reasonable to anticipate from the plan being quickly perceived, each division commander entered into its support unhesitatingly, and at once set about preparing for the march next day.