- Jul 19, 2016
- Spotsylvania Virginia
“Every effort was made by the enemy to break the lines of our division and push us back into the river and swamp………...”
In February and May of this year, I posted the first two parts in this three-part series on Sheridan’s Raid on Richmond; A Prelude To Yellow Tavern and A Prelude To Meadow Bridge; Soldiers Who Fought On Horseback - Cavalry forum.
Following the defeat of the Confederate cavalry and the fatal wounding of J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan turned his horseman east on the evening of May 12. As his long train of horse-soldiers followed the Chickahominy river, severe and threating storm clouds begin forming overhead.
The Southern cavalry was divided and in disarray following the wounding of Stuart. Portions under talented and capable Wade Hampton were still at Spotsylvania Courthouse, forty miles north of the action at Yellow Tavern. Fitz Lee was facing the daunting task of uniting the cavalry and infantry forces around Richmond to pursue Sheridan.
Seemingly in no hurry, Sheridan led his troops southward towards the Confederate capitol, carefully feeling his way through the abandoned outer defensive works. At the fall of darkness, the threating clouds on the evening horizon unleashed a driving rain on the column. Undeterred, by the elements, Sheridan kept up his steady movement down the Brook Pike. Even occasional explosions of torpedoes (land mines) placed in front of the column by the enemy had little impact on slowing his progress as he pressed his troopers onward, unaware he was boxing himself into a potential trap.
Thirty-two lb landmine, Confederate Army, American Civil War, Fort McAllister (GA) State Park Museum, 1864.
By sunrise of May 13th the storm had subsided and the Federals found they were only two and one-half miles from the Confederate capitol. But with the dawning of the new day, Sheridan soon realized the potential hazard he had inflected upon his mission. The intermediating defenses in his front swarmed with enemy. His left flank was against the swollen Chickahominy, and Fitz Lee had regrouped the cavalry and was threatening his rear. The Army of the Potomac’s cavalry was in real danger of being captured or destroyed.
After evaluating his dilemma, Sheridan conclude he needed to cross the river at Meadow Bridge, where the Virginia Central Railroad crossed the river. (2) But the southerners had temporarily rendered the bride impassable by dismantling the flooring over the bridge, while leaving the support struct unharmed.
Sheridan assigned the Wolverine brigade of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer and a part of Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s division, to seize the span and the high bluffs beyond. He then used the rest of his command to fend-off the enemy threat.
The remaining two brigades in Merritt's division, commanded by Colonels Thomas Devin and Alfred Gibbs, were tasked with guarding the center of the Union line to protect against Confederate advances out of the Richmond fortifications. On the western end of the Union line, near Brook Church, the division of Brig. Gen. David Gregg had to resist the advance of Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon’s brigade. On the eastern end, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson was to oppose any Confederate advances along Meadow Bridge road and Mechanicsville Pike.
At daybreak, the rearguard of the Gregg's division was assailed on three sides by a brigade of Confederate infantry from the fortifications. Soon, other Confederates, including Richmond citizens hastily pressed into military service, joined in the efforts to break through the rear lines. According to the regimental historian of the veteran 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry,
“Every effort was made by the enemy to break the lines of our division and push us back into the river and swamp. But as often as he came up, he was driven back with heavy loss. The fighting continued thus, the enemy charging, time after time, only to be hurled back, until about eleven A.M., when, apparently completely disheartened by his repeated repulses, he withdrew”
Initially Wilson's men were pushed back in confusion, but Gregg had concealed a heavy line of skirmishers armed with repeating carbines in an overgrown ravine. His men poured forth a devastating fire, that halted the final Confederate advances while some of Wilson’s men assisted by turning the flank of the attacking column. Federal horse artillery put a conclusion to the Confederate infantry effort and ended their threat. Meanwhile, three mounted cavalry regiments skirmished with approaching enemy cavalry, turning them aside and protecting the rear. Tarheel Brig. Gen. Gordon was mortally wounded in the fighting and died on May 18.
Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon - Wickpedia
While the treat from the rear was underway, Custer's 5th Michigan Cavalry used snipers to suppress Confederate rifle fire and sent several dismounted troopers forward across the railroad bridge to establish a defensive line on the opposite side of the river. By early afternoon, the 6th Michigan had cleared the north bank and gained a solid position on the other side of the Chickahominy. Custer's men pinned down the remaining threatening enemy units and captured two artillery pieces, while pioneers hastily planked the bridge to provide safe passage for the Federals. By mid-afternoon, Merritt's entire division had crossed and engaged the hastily built Confederate works on Richmond Heights, driving the defenders back to Gaines's Mill. By 4 p.m., the rest of Sheridan's cavalry had pushed crossed the river.
Sheridan’s route to and from Richmond Library of Congress
After his men had destroyed the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge, Sheridan brushed aside the remaining Confederate resistance and marched his troopers to Mechanicsville and out of harm’s way. There, his exhausted men rested and bivouacked at Gaines's Mill. Upon reaching Bottom's Bridge, over the Chickahominy, on the 13th, they found it had also been damaged and rested there for the night while it was repaired. By now, Sheridan's men were suffering from hunger and it was becoming urgent that they reach Union lines. On May 14, he led his men to Haxall's Landing on the James River, in the rear of General Butler’s position near City Point. By the 17th his men were back in the saddle headed east before turning north to meet the main body of the Army of the Potomac. The north-easterly route was taken to avoid enemy, and to forage off a portion of Virginia relatively untouched by war. On the 25th he rejoined Grant at Chesterfield station on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad line, about a mile north of the North Anna River.
(1) Originally developed by General Gabriel J. Rains, these antipersonnel explosives were typically iron containers rigged with gunpowder, a fuse and a brass detonation cap. Rains first used the invention in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, and later buried thousands more around Richmond and in various parts of the Deep South. Some of these still-active landmines were recovered in Alabama as recently as the 1960s
(2) See my post under Travelers Companion “Beaverdam Station”; June 30, 2021.