- Jul 19, 2016
- Spotsylvania Virginia
“I will beat him there if I have to destroy every already worn-out horse in my command”
Phil Sheridan - Library of Congress
George Meade was faced with an undesirable situation on the morning of May 8th, 1864. He had an objectionable subordinate standing in front of him with a bold plan that he was forced to deal with in the midst of executing a major offensive. Phil Sheridan had been appointed by Grant himself to lead all cavalry operations for the Army of the Potomac. The previous week had surely given Meade reason to distrust his new cavalry chiefdom’s bold plan.
Sheridan had not performed as ordered the week before at The Wilderness, and to make matters worse he had failed in his latest assignment to clear Brock Road of the enemy, resulting in a contested path to Spotsylvania Courthouse for the Union army. Now, this new subordinate, who had failed to execute previous orders, was standing before Meade asking permission to break away from the main army and move toward Richmond. A bold move indeed!
It all begin the previous night, when Sheridan felt that his cavalry had grown superior to the enemy and he wanted nothing more than to entice his nemesis, J.E.B. Stuart, to fight. After approaching Meade with a plan to swing behind the Army of Northern Virginia and move towards Richmond, Meade initially declined to act. But later that day, Meade brought the idea before Grant, perhaps to illustrate how bold and dumb it would be to separate the cavalry from the main force in the face of a well-fortified enemy. Grant’s reply ..”Phil Sheridan said that? Well then he must believe it will work.”
In a short instance, Sheridan’s daring plan was approved by Meade. Later that night at the Alrich house near Chancellorsville, Sheridan called his staff together to lay out the plan. His cavalry would swing behind the Federal army and move east to Telegraph Road (modern day US Route 1 for the most part). From there he would turn south toward the Confederate capital, just 40 miles away. If Stuart follows, as he hoped, he would bring his larger Union force against him and cripple or perhaps destroy the enemy’s cavalry. Orders for a day’s provisions per man and horse were issued. Sheridan did not want any unnecessary baggage to show his progress. His intentions were to move fast, in the open and live off the land when necessary. The area he was to pass through was not war torn and he believed it could sustain his men and horses. An added bonus was the railway connections, and thus the hope of southern supplies that would likely add to his needs for supplies.
On the morning of May 9th, the Union cavalrymen were in the saddle each with 50 rounds of ammunition, 15 pistol rounds, five days rations of sugar, coffee and hardtack and one day’s ration of beef. If they needed more, they would have to forge for it.
At the beginning of the Overland campaign, James Wilson’s men in the 2nd and 5th New York regiments had been issued the new Spence repeating rifles. Now the new seven shot carbines were issued to his 1st. Connecticut, perhaps as a reward for their display of courage above Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 8.
As dawn broke, and the riders formed in ranks of four, rumors passed through the ranks they were headed north to protect Grant’s supply line from Fredericksburg and beyond. Few imagined they were about to embark on “one of the most daring raids on record”, as the New York Times would later state it.
Once the cavalrymen had picked their way east through back roads, they eventually crossed the Fredericksburg road and a little further east they reached their first primary object, Telegraph Road leading to Richmond. The thirteen-mile-long column, with ten thousand horsemen four abreast and six batteries of horse artillery was led by Wesley Merritt followed by James Wilson then David Gregg.
Sheridan led the procession at a walk. The dust rose high in the air sticking to uniforms, equipment and men’s sweat. One Ohioan stated, “the dust forming on our bodies, coated with horse hair made us feel as though a thousand insects were crawling on our bodies”.
“We found few houses with any pretentions to elegance, the white men of military age were with Lee, the women, children, Negros and animals hurried to the woods to hide as news of our entrance passed before us” Wilson would later write.
J.E.B Stuart - Library of Congress
J.E.B. Stuarts relentless scouts picked up Sheridan’s movement almost as soon as it began. Stuart reported to Lee at 8 AM telling him “the enemy cavalry is in a large demonstration on the Fredericksburg road, less than two miles from the Courthouse.” But there was little that could be done except watch. Wade Hampton was tied up with Winfield Hancock along the Po river at Tally’s Mill and Fitz Lee was holding Ambrose Burnside in check along the Fredericksburg road. William Wickham’s scouts continued to monitor Sheridan’s move.
At about noon, Jubal Early (acting 3rd Corps Commander) had completed his entrenchment, between the courthouse and Burnside. Fitz Lee was now free to join Wickham in the pursuit of Sheridan as both generals raced to Massaponax Church and Sheridan’s rear guard. Their object was to fall upon Sheridan as he approached Jerrell’s Mill, about two miles below Massaponax Church on Telegraph road.
Meanwhile Sheridan changed his route after crossing the Matta river, when scouts reported the North Anna river bridge at Telegraph road was heavily defended. He turned southwest just past Jerrells Mill, toward Chilesburg. He would delay an engagement until the next day, give his men rest and wait for the enemy to gather its forces.
Sheridan had dependable Henry Davies as the end party in his caravan. Just as the last remnants crossed the Matta River at Jerrells Mill, Wickham’s men began firing on the rear guard. Davies selected a defensive position a quarter mile south of the crossing and placed the 1st Massachusetts and 1st New Jersey in defense, as the 1st Ohio rode back to meet the enemy. The Buckeyes soon fell into the perusing party and made a hasty retreat to the new defenses and safety. Soon the grey clad horsemen reached the makeshift earthworks where the 1st Massachusetts fought admirably until the pursuers retired. For the next thirty minutes the Southerners harassed Davies rear guard, by cutting cross county and striking the flanks, occasionally shelling with its horse artillery and flanking the Union saddle men.
Finally, Davies had had enough of the harassment. When he reached the tiny hamlet of Mitchells Shop, he formed the 1st Massachusetts at the base of a small hill where a bridge crossed a creek. The 1st Pennsylvania was sent to the woods on the left. The 6th Ohio stayed on the road as bait. It was now 5PM.
Wickman rode at the head with Captain George Mathews of the 3rd Virginia. The sight of the isolated Ohioans was irresistible for Wickham, who ordered Mathews to charge. As the Ohioans turned to flee, the Virginians were soon upon them with sabers reeling. An Ohioan recalled glancing over his shoulder at the site of “rebels charging down the road in columns of four, with a yell they were soon upon us”. Flames erupted from both sides of the road. Southern troopers fell like summer wheat before the scythe. Private James Robinson survived by throwing himself low on his horses’ neck as the led shot passed over him. Mathews fell dead…..”one of the most promising officers in our army”, Fitz Lee would later state.
Robinson found himself in the mist of the mealy. After the war he wrote, “I will always remember the sound of saber’s clashing, pistol shots filling the air, the distinctive ring of the carbines’; the distant yelling of officers filled the air as my horse fell dead.” He leveled his piston on a soldier, only to look down the barrels of six rifles pointed at him. He surrendered as most of his regiment beat an embarrassing and hasty retreat. But many of the Virginians felt it safer to ride forward than retreat. They soon came upon the Federals horses and artillery. Determined to break the impasse, Wickham ordered a flank attack and push the remaining 3rd Virginia back into a frontal assault as Davies made preparations for another assault. During the action a squadron of the the 1st New Jersey became isolated and stumbled upon Wickman’s flank.
While Davies held Wickhan at a standstill, Sheridan’s main body pressed on led by Custer’s 6th Michigan. By late afternoon Sheridan had reached Chilesburg and before dark Andersons ford on the North Anna river. Gregg and Wilson bivouacked on the north bank while Custer took his brigade and elements of Thomas Davis’ command on toward Beaver **** and the Virginia Central railroad. There he recovered 278 prisoners and captured two locomotives.
At about 3 PM on May 9th Stuart left the Courthouse and eventually caught up with Fitz Lee near Mitchell’s Shop that night. Lunsford Lomax followed Stuarts arrival bringing Lee to full strength.
Stuart dispatched his aid Theodore Garnett to find George Gordon. The two met at Mudd Tavern on Telegraph Road just north of Jerrell’s Mill. When Garnett relayed Stuarts orders, Gordon replied “**** it. My men have covered forty miles without a break. We will not move until they have been feed and rested”. Gordon then invited Garnett to eat, after which both feel asleep on the porch. But before dawn, Gordon had his men in the saddle and heading south.
Meanwhile Stuart had devised a plan to use the North Anna as an equalizer to compensate between the Union numerical advantage and his shortage of cavalrymen. He hoped to strike Sheridan as he was crossing the river, thus dividing the numerically superior army and defeating it.
Lee was to remain to the rear with Wickham to delay the federals who were camped north of the river. Stuart would circle west with Lomax and Gordon, cross the river at Davenports Bridge and attack Sheridan from that side of the river. He gathered Lomax and Gordon and rode off before daybreak.
Sheridan in the meantime had realized a mistake. His orders were to take with him what was needed. He took all but three cavalry regiments, leaving Meade without the advantage of having “eyes and ears” similar to Lee’s situation at Gettysburg. Meanwhile Stuart left fifteen regiments behind, learning from his scolding by Lee the previous July in Pennsylvania.
The night of May 9 proved relatively quiet for both cavalry commanders. Wilson and Gregg’s bivouacked above the North Anna, while Merritt continued his demolition of rails around Beaver **** Station. Sheridan’s hold on Beaver Dam Station proved to be just what he had hoped for and needed. There, his tired horses feasted on southern forage as his men dinned on food intended for Lee’s desperate army. By candle light Sheridan met with Merritt and Captain Abraham Arnold of Gibbs’s brigade to layout his intended next move. Gregg and Wilson were to cross the river and consolidate with the rest of his cavalry. After studying the area maps, he felt that Stuart might attempt a flank attack. The best place, he believed, was that Stuart would swing west and cross at the Davenport Bridge allowing a flank maneuver. His hold on Beaver Dam Station permitted one other important opportunity. The road leading south passed a small hamlet named Negro Foot and thereby giving access to Mountain Road, which lead back to Telegraph Road, just six miles above Richmond. He ordered Arnold to take a regiment and the 1st NY Dragoons to the Davenport Bridge and hold it at all cost.
Meanwhile Stuart was preparing to move at first light. Wickham was to cover the federal column while Stuart was to lead Lomax and Gordon west to Davenport Bridge. His plan was just what Sheridan anticipated, but feared. Wickham was to press from the north and east, while Lomax and Gordon were to hit from the west like a vice clamping down on Sheridan.
Captain Arnold started up river before daybreak. When he arrived at the Davenport Bridge, he found a small confederate party of engineers repairing a bridge that had been destroyed the previous winter. He quickly chased the repair party off and destroyed their repairs. He then placed his men out of sight and waited. The wait was not a long one. Soon, Lomax and Gordon were at the scene. After finding the river impassable at Davenport, they turned upstream. Arnold sent a squad to follow on the opposite bank. A few men from the 5thNorth Carolina crossed at a ford, Arnold had presumed to be impassable. Meanwhile other elements of the 5thNC dismounted and took control of Arnolds small force driving them back deeper into the woods on the south side. With the ford secured Lomax and Gordon splashed across and begin closing the gap. Arnold was ordered to retreat to Beaver Dam Station which he found abandoned. He now faced Lomax closing from the rear and elements of Wickham in his front. An attempt to smash through would only bring devastation to the small group of mounted men. Arnold found an opening on the flank and cut through in the direction of Little River, where he found union engineers in the process of destroying the bridge Sheridan had just crossed. He hurried his men across while the engineers held the pursuing enemy at bay.
While Arnold was in a heated contest at Davenport, Sheridan was gathering his troops at the Virginia Central Railroad where Custer had just destroyed 12 miles of track. Soon after his departure, around 8 AM, elements of Wickham’s 4th Virginia begin closing in, capturing many of the former Union prisoners who had just been liberated the day prior.
Stuart united Lomax, Wickham and Gordon just below Beaver Dam while Fitz Lee had sent some of Wickham’s troopers after Sheridan. But the federals had learned from trying to clear Brock Road a few days earlier, and copied Lee’s tactic by littering the road with fallen trees to show the enemy’s progress. Sheridan was well on his way to Negro Foot, as the confederate horsemen struggled with a tangled roadway.
Knowing his three small brigades was no match for Sheridan, Stuart implemented a new and risky plan to ambush Sheridan near Richmond, where he could enlist infantry guarding the city. Gordon was sent after Sheridan to harass his rear guard and delay his progress while Lee hurried to Hanover Junction. His already tired men would have to ride all day and night to beat Sheridan there.
Sheridan meanwhile pressed south with the 1st. Maine leading. A single solder rode in front, followed by two more, then a sergeant and four more riders, then a squad, followed by a regiment and then an endless group of riders. The purpose was to press forward rapidly, while being able to wheel in either direction in the event of a flank attack. By placing skirmishers well in front, the main body would have plenty of notice of an attack.
As Fitz Lee raced to Hanover, Gordon steady harassed the main body, using a tactic he employed at the Wilderness where he delayed the entire Union 6th Corps.
At around 4:30 PM Sheridan reached the Ground Squirrel Bridge on the South Anna River where he made camp for the night. Lee meanwhile entered Hanover Junction at around 9PM, then continued on about another two miles to Taylorsville. Stuart’s scouts relayed the message of Sheridan’s whereabouts. Stuart instructed his scouts to keep a watchful eye on Sheridan. He thought with luck he could win the race to the intersection of Mountain Road and Telegraph Road, where he then planned to move just south of that intersection and wait for Sheridan at Ashland. “I will beat him there if I have to destroy every already worn-out horse in my command” he wired Richmond.
Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW
Note: The river marked Ma just southeast of Spotsylvania Courthouse is consistent with period maps. It is the Matta river.
At 2 AM Stuart put his plan into motion. Sheridan meanwhile decided to split his command for the final push to Richmond. Gregg’s brigade was to remain at the river. Davies was to advance along country roads to Ashland. Merritt and Wilson were to continue down Mountain road, to Allen’s Station and on to Telegraph Road. Sheridan rode off from Gregg, confident he was secure with the bridge destroyed the night prior.
Soon after Sheridan’s departure, Gregg felt something was amiss at his camp near Goodall’s Tavern. Rifle fire erupted along the south bank, as Union pickets hurried back to camp and their horses. A moment later, Gordon’s three North Carolina regiments galloped in on both sides of the road. As Gordon’s Tarheels approached, a hotly contested fire commenced, between the 1st North Carolina and 1st. Maine. Gordon succeeded by forcing Gregg to retire. Meanwhile Davies was being tested. His mixed New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvanians and Massachusetts commands broke camp at 2 AM and rode toward Ashland station where Lomax had just passed through. They arrive, moments prior to Whickham and quickly drove the Virginians back.
Gregg met up with Merritt and Wilson on Mountain road. Davies soon joined the trio as they pressed forward to Telegraph Road.
Meanwhile as Wickham fell back toward Lomax, the two set their tired riders in a defensive position where the Mountain and Telegraph roads converge. There the two roads formed a Y with Mountain Road being the western point, Telegraph Road being the eastern point and the intersection continuing south as Brook Turnpike. A short distance away on the Brook Turnpike sat an abandoned pub, Yellow Tavern.
Union Army Cavalry Corps
Major General Philip H. Sheridan
Major General Philip H. Sheridan
1st Division Second Division Third Division
Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt Brig. Gen. David Gregg Brig. Gen. James Wilson
1st. Brigade 1st. Brigade 1st. Brigade
Brig. Gen. George Custer Brig. Gen. Henry Davies Colonel John McIntosb
1st Michigan 1st. Massachusetts 1st Connecticut
5th Michigan 1st. New Jersey 2nd. New York
6th Michigan 6th Ohio 5th New York
7th Michigan 1st. Pennsylvania 18th Pennsylvania
2nd Brigade 2nd Brigade 2nd. Brigade
Colonel Thomas Davis Colonel J. Gregg Colonel George Chapman
4th New York 1st. Maine 3rd. Indiana
6th New York 10th New York 8th New York
9th New York 2nd. Pennsylvania 1st. Vermont
17th. Pennsylvania 4th Pennsylvania
Colonel Alfred Gibbs
19th New York
Cavalry Assigned to 9th Corps
3rd New Jersey
22nd New York
Confederate Army Cavalry Corps
Major General James E. B. Stuart
Hampton’s Division Fitzhugh Lee’s Division Wm. H.F. Lee’s Division Horse Artillery
Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee Maj. Gen. W.H.F. Lee Major R. Preston Chew
Young’s Brigade Lomax’s Brigade Chambliss’ Brigade Breathed’s Battalion
Brig. Gen Pierce Young Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax Brig. Gen. John Chambliss Maj. James Breathed
7th GA 5th Virginia 9th Virginia Hart’s (South Carolina) Battery
Cobb’s (Georgia) Legon 6th Virginia 10th Virginia Johnson’s (VA) Battery
Phillips (Georgia) Legon 15th Virginia 13th Virginia McGeorge’s (VA) Battery
20th Georgia Battalion Shoemaker’s (VA) Battery
Jeff Davis (Mississippi) Legion Thomson’s (VA) Battery
Rosser’s Brigade Whicham’s Brigade Gorgon’s Brigade
Brig. Gen.Thomas Rosser Brig. Gen. Wm. Wickham Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon
7th Virginia 1st. VirginiA 1st. North Carolina
11th Virginia 2nd. Virginia 2nd. North Carolina
12th Virginia 3rd. Virginia 5th North Carolina
35th Virginia Battalion 4th Virginia
Recommended follow on reading:
The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern May 7 -12 – Gordon C. Rhea -Louisiana State University Press
A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 8-21, 1864 – Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White - Savas Beatie Publishing