- Jul 19, 2016
- Spotsylvania Virginia
“……….. Go back! go back! I had rather die than be whipped.”
On February 1, I posted an essay titled Phil Sheridan’s Raid on Richmond – A Prelude to Yellow Tavern. This post picks up where I left off in February, and continues to the next encounter between the Union and Confederate cavalry………….
J.E.B. Stuart faced a daunting task. Phil Sheridan had gained a head start on his ride to Richmond. With 10,000 troopers in the saddle before dawn on May 9th , news of Sheridan’s move reached Stuart nearly as soon as it began. But there was little “JEB” could do but keep an eye on Sheridan’s activity. Wade Hampton was west of Spotsylvania Courthouse, keeping close tabs on Winfield Hancock’s II Corps, which had crossed the Po River the night prior and was threating Lee’s left flank. Fitz Lee was positioned east of the hamlet, keeping Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps under close surveillance. Eventually, by noon, Jubal Early had completed his entrenchments in front of Burnside and Fitz Lee was now free to follow the largest Union cavalry caravan ever assembled on American soil.
As more southern mounted regiments became free around the courthouse, they were ordered to join the pursuit. A series of harassing rear and flanking attacks begin later that day and continued until Stuart eventually out-ran his opponent and gained position just six miles north of Richmond.
Lunsford L.Lomax Wikipedia
Around 8 AM, on May 11, an exhausted and dust-clad group of horsemen pulled up to halt near the intersections of Telegraph and Mountain Roads and dismounted. Just a few yards south, was a long-ago abandoned building called Yellow Tavern. Brigadier Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s brigade formed a line of battle in the road. Lomax placed the 6th Virginia on his left, the 5th Virginia in the center and the 15th Virginia on the right, he then dispatched a skirmish line west of the intersecting roads. Momentarily, JEB Stuart galloped up and immediately began inspecting the defensive position.
Sheridan, had sent Henry Davies to Ashland, about six miles north of Lomax, while keeping check on George Gordon with John Gregg at the South Anna River, and advancing Wesley Merritt and James Wilson down Mountain Road toward Yellow Tavern.
Major General George A. Custer April 1865 LoC
About an hour after Lomax took position, gun fire erupted to the west as his skirmishers unloaded their carbines into the advance of Merritt and Wilson. Merritt deployed Col. Thomas Devin’s brigade on the right, Col. Alfred Gibbs in the center and Brig. Gen. George Custer’s brigade on the left. Gibbs and Devin dismounted and deployed to attack. Custer kept two of his regiments in the saddle to act as reserves while his other two regiments joined the battle line. With his preparations complete, Merritt sent his men forward. As the northerners advanced, Lomax’s line erupted, “throwing the lead about us like hail,” according to a trooper in Gibbs’ brigade. Devin’s troopers advanced into the Telegraph Road south of Lomax’s position. Forcing him to withdraw.
In an effort to cover the retreat, the 5th Virginia re-formed in the road above its original position. Troopers from the 9th New York of Devin’s brigade, supported by Gibbs, bore down on the Virginians forcing them to retire under rapid fire of repeating rifles.
The overdue Virginia brigade of William Wickham’s finally reached the field from Ashland and deployed the 1st Virginia on the left adjacent to the Telegraph Road. The 3rd Virginia, 4th Virginia and 2nd Virginia extended the line to the right. Supporting the 1st Virginia were guns from Capt. William Griffin’s Baltimore Light Artillery. Lomax chose to reform his men on Wickham’s left and opposite the 1st. Virginia.
Griffin’s battery arrived to lend its fire to the stand of the 5th Virginia. Custer took a temporary halt in fighting to scout the Confederate position. Although a stream known as Turner’s Run ran at the base of the ridge and could potentially slow an advance, Custer determined that an attack could be made.
Once back to the Union line, Custer proposed his plan. With Sheridan’s consent he intended to attack Griffin’s battery by sending the 1st. Michigan and Colonel George Chapman’s 1st. Vermont from Wilson’s Division, in a mounted charge up Telegraph Road, with the 7th Michigan formed in support. Meanwhile, Custer’s 5th and 6th Michigan were to advance dismounted against the center of Wickham’s line. Chapman’s remaining regiments, the 3rd Indiana and 8th New York, would form and attack on the far left of Custer’s Wolverines, opposite Wickham’s right. Gibbs’ brigade was assigned the task of attacking on Custer’s right against Lomax’s brigade.
At about 4:00 p.m., Custer, Chapman and Gibbs commenced the attack. “As soon as the First Michigan moved from the cover of the woods the enemy divined our intention and opened a brisk fire from his artillery with shell and canister” Custer wrote. Despite the frontal fire and the stream crossing, the 1st Michigan stormed up the ridge toward the Confederate guns.
Nearby, Stuart watched as Custer punched a hole in his line. However, help was on the way as reserve companies from Wickham arrived to check the Federals and drive the 1st. Michigan back. Stuart joined the fight, by rushing forward with Company K, 1st Virginia, firing his revolver at the enemy.
Then, tragedy struck. Maj. Henry McClellan, one of Stuart’s staff officers remembered, “As they retired, one man who had been dismounted in the charge, and was running out on foot turned as he passed the general and discharging his pistol, inflicted the fatal wound.” The bullet entered Stuart near his stomach and exited his back. The plumed hat cavalier, reeled in the saddle as men rushed to assist him. Before he was placed in an ambulance, Stuart turned command over to Fitzhugh Lee. As he departed the field, Stuart desperately shouted to his men who were abandoning the line, “Go back! go back! and do your duty, as I have done mine and our country will be safe. Go back! go back! I had rather die than be whipped.”
As Custer watched his attack meet resistance, he sent the 7th Michigan and 1st. Vermont forward. The added pressure forced the Southerners back. Sheridan’s luck continued with a Union victory over a numerically inferior foe.
By close of battle, the Confederates retreated from the field while Stuart’s ambulance made its way to Richmond. Around 11:00 p.m., it arrived at 206 West Grace Street, a house owned by Stuart’s brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. In severe pain, Stuart was taken to the second floor, where his condition continued to rapidly deteriorate throughout the following day. That evening, a party gathered in Stuart’s room and, at the general’s request, joined in singing his favored hymn, “Rock of Ages.” At 7:38 p.m. on May 12, 1864, James Ewell Brown Stuart passed into eternity.
Meanwhile, back at Spotsylvania Courthouse, a lone rider hurried the news to Edgar Harrison’s house, where Robert E. Robert was headquartered. Although Wade Hampton would prove a worthy replacement to Stuart, the loss a year prior of Jackson, a few days prior of Longstreet and now Stuart, would challenge Lee’s ability as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Following his victory at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan turned his juggernaut of horsemen east on the evening of May 12th, following the north bank of the Chickahominy River under the cover of darkness and in a thunderstorm. The Confederate cavalry was in disarray with the loss of their chief cavalry officer, but they were already planning their next encounter at a crossroad of the Chickahominy River and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad.
Map Courtesy Library of Congress