Confederate Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart, commander of the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, vowed that he “had rather die than be whipped.” His vow would be answered at Yellow Tavern.
By Arnold Blumberg
“We have been badly used up,” a sergeant in the 5th New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment complained in a letter to his wife on May 8, 1864. Another Union trooper, a member of the 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, echoed those sentiments about the just concluded operations in the Virginia Wilderness. The Federal cavalry, said the Buckeye, had been “used in such a bumbling manner” that it brought into question the leadership ability of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the Army of the Potomac’s new cavalry commander, and at least partially explained why Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had failed to decisively defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee in their first encounter.
J.E.B. Stuart vs Phil Sheridan
The men’s complaints were valid. Sheridan’s debut as head of the mounted units during the fighting was far from what his superiors had expected of him. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Union Army chief of staff, in March 1864 had suggested to Grant that Sheridan lead the Federal cavalry corps in the eastern theater. “The very man I want,” Grant replied. Sheridan had served under Grant and Halleck in the western theater of the war, and they had been duly impressed with Little Phil’s performance. But the early achievements of Sheridan in his new role were less than reassuring when measured against what an experienced cavalry commander might have accomplished under the same circumstances.
Even before Sheridan’s shortcomings were revealed on the battlefield, the new cavalry commander had clashed with his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, head of the Army of the Potomac. The issue between them was the proper role of the army’s mounted force. Meade insisted that the horse soldiers’ primary tasks were picketing and scouting for the army and protecting its front, flanks, and rear. Sheridan fired back, arguing that if his command were kept concentrated, “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 no or little defense.” He further insisted that the true objectives of his troopers were to “defeat the enemy’s cavalry in general combat.” As for the legendary Confederate horse commander, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart, Sheridan professed little fear of his Rebel counterpart. He could, said Sheridan, “thrash hell out of Stuart any day.”
Sheridan’s confidence seemed premature. During the movement of the Army of the Potomac south of the Rapidan River, Sheridan’s cavalry completely failed to detect the approach of two enemy infantry corps from the rugged area known as the Wilderness. The result was that on May 5 the Confederate advance threatened to cut off and destroy a Union cavalry division and an entire infantry corps that was isolated from the rest of the army. Compounding the problem, Sheridan kept two-thirds of his command (two divisions) out of the brewing battle for the better part of the day. The poor performance of the Federal cavalry enabled Lee to surprise Grant and exploit the awkward Union deployments. The failure of the Union cavalry to pierce the protective cavalry screen around the Confederate army prevented Meade and Grant from forming a clear picture of where their enemy was, resulting in a Union tactical defeat during the brutal two-day Battle of the Wilderness.
Major General Phil Sheridan, third from left, with his subordinate commanders: Henry E. Davies, David M. Gregg, Wesley Merritt, Alfred Torbert, and James H. Wilson.
After Meade countermanded Sheridan’s orders during the army’s race to Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles south of the Wilderness, the stage was set for fireworks between the two hardheaded generals. Meade had worked himself into a towering passion regarding delays by Sheridan’s cavalry the day before. When Sheridan appeared, Meade went at him hammer and tongs, accusing the cavalryman of committing several blunders during the recent battle. Sheridan shot back that Meade’s interference with his command over the last four days “would render the [cavalry corps] inefficient and useless before long.” Since Meade insisted on giving the cavalry directions without notifying him, Sheridan said, he “could henceforth command the cavalry corps himself.” Sheridan spiced his rebuttal with hotly italicized expletives.
Soon Meade’s temper cooled, and according to a witness, Captain Theophilus F. Rodenbough of the 2nd United Cavalry Regiment, Meade apologized to Sheridan, putting his hand in a friendly fashion on Sheridan’s shoulder. But the stocky cavalryman simply moved aside and in an impatient tone declared, “If I am permitted to cut loose from this army I’ll draw Stuart after me, and whip him, too.” He then stomped out of the room.
Immediately after the contentious meeting, Meade visited Grant to report Sheridan’s impertinence and repeat Little Phil’s boast about thrashing Stuart. Instead of showing indignation over a subordinate’s disrespectful behavior to a superior, Grant simply said: “Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he’s talking about. Let him start out and do it.”
“Keep Moving, Boys. We’re Going On Through.”
Sheridan’s lack of awe toward Stuart and his vaunted Confederate cavalry mirrored Grant’s similar attitude toward Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The army commander appreciated Sheridan’s aggressiveness and was willing to allow Sheridan to make good on his boast. He granted Sheridan’s request to seek combat with his Southern counterpart. Assembling his three division commanders—Brig. Gens. Wesley Merritt, David M. Gregg, and James H. Wilson—Sheridan gave them their marching orders. “We are going to fight Stuart’s cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me,” he said. “We will give him a fair, square fight; we are strong, and I know we can beat him, and in view of my recent representations to General Meade I shall expect nothing but success.”
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
The Federal cavalry spent May 8 preparing for its raid south. The command was stripped of all impediments, including unserviceable animals, wagons, and tents. Then, at 6 am on the ninth, a column of 10,000 blue-clad horsemen, accompanied by artillery and supply trains, left Spotsylvania Court House and set off toward Richmond. Although Sheridan hoped to threaten the Confederate capital and possibly assist the Union Army of the James, which was menacing Richmond from the southeast, his primary mission was to engage and destroy the gray cavalry under Stuart.
The Federal column headed north, made a wide curve to the east beyond the Wilderness, and angled southward over the Nye, Po, and Ta Rivers. It moved at a measured walk to place less strain on horses and riders. The column stretched for more than a dozen miles along Telegraph Road. Confederates near Spotsylvania Court House quickly discovered Sheridan’s departure, and at 1 pm Stuart sent the two-brigade division of Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, joined by the North Carolina brigade of Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon, a total of 4,500 sabers, after the Union intruders. Certain that Richmond was his enemy’s target, Stuart chose to leave Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s four brigades to act as the eyes and ears of the army in case the Federals moved to turn Lee’s flank. Stuart was not going to repeat the grievous mistake he had made during the invasion of Pennsylvania the previous year, when he left Lee’s army in the dark by embarking on a widely criticized raid around the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg campaign. He hastened to join his men in the field.
Just before nightfall, part of Brig. Gen. William C. Wickham’s brigade caught up with the rear of the Union march north of Mitchell’s Shop above the North Anna River. A single Confederate regiment charged the enemy rearguard under Brig. Gen. Henry E. Davies, briefly arresting the Federals’ progress. But soon the Confederates were driven back by the Union horsemen supported by dismounted comrades in the woods along both sides of the roadway. Sheridan, riding to the head of the column, asked about the gunfire. “Keep moving, boys,” he said loudly enough for all to hear him. “We’re going on through. There isn’t cavalry enough in all the Southern Confederacy to stop us.”
As Wickham dueled with Davies, Sheridan’s van splashed across the North Anna and into the important rail stop of Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. The depot served as a large supply point for Lee’s army and was an important communication link between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley. After its arrival at the depot, Brig. Gen. George A. Custer’s brigade burned down the depot, destroying more than a million rations awaiting shipment to the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as two locomotives and 100 railroad cars. Custer’s Michigan troops also tore up 10 miles of track and telegraph wire. In the admiring words of one Union trooper, “Custer had knocked the bottom out of everything.” As darkness approached, the Union horsemen went into camp along both banks of the North Anna. Meanwhile, from the east Fitzhugh Lee rode hard all that night to overtake the head of Sheridan’s column.
J.E.B. Stuart’s Trap
Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee
The next morning, Stuart intended to strike his opponent while the North Anna still split the Federal command. Ordering Fitzhugh Lee, with Wickham, to harass and delay the enemy force on the north side of the river, Stuart planned to take Gordon’s and Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s units west, cross the North Anna upstream, then loop back to strike that portion of Sheridan’s command bivouacked south of the waterway.
Meanwhile, Sheridan was planning his own movements for the next day. He intended to concentrate his entire force by bringing Gregg’s and Wilson’s divisions over the North Anna and joining them with Merritt at Beaver Dam Station. From there he would travel over Mountain Road, which crossed the South Anna River, striking Telegraph Road six miles above Richmond. Sheridan felt certain that Stuart “would endeavor to interpose between my column and Richmond.” At 5 am on May 10, as the two Federal cavalry divisions waded to the south bank of the North Anna, Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers gave them a spirited sendoff with artillery rounds and musket fire from dismounted skirmishers. Nonetheless, the Union force managed to disengage and resume its march with full haversacks and well-fed horses taken at Beaver Dam Station.
By the time Stuart had crossed the North Anna and reunited his entire force south of Beaver Dam Station, Sheridan had escaped the intended Confederate envelopment. Although disappointed at not snaring his enemy, Stuart was greatly relieved to find that his family had not been bothered by enemy forces while visiting friends nearby. At the home of Edmund Fontaine, Stuart had a brief reunion with his wife, Flora. Not taking time to dismount, Stuart exchanged a few words with her from the saddle, then kissed his wife goodbye and galloped off. During the ride back to the front, the usually ebullient Stuart was subdued, telling his aide Major Andrew Reid Venable that he never expected to survive the war. Stuart added that he would not want to live if the Confederacy lost the war. It was the first, but not the last, time the general would offer intimations of mortality during the campaign.
Stuart devised a scheme to trap his opponent: Gordon would follow on the heels of the blue-clad troops and attempt to delay their forward movement, while Fitzhugh Lee hurried east to Hanover Junction and descended Telegraph Road to interdict Sheridan at the Mountain Road junction. Stuart hoped that the weak militia forces at Richmond would be able to assist his regulars in springing the trap.
“I Would Rather Die Than Let Him Go On”
May 10 was uneventful for Sheridan and his men, who marched only 18 miles that day. After crossing the South Anna River, some Union troopers surmised that their leisurely pace was a sign that Sheridan was hoping to allow Stuart to catch up with them in order to force a fight. Others guessed that Richmond, only 20 miles from Beaver Dam Station, was their ultimate destination.
As Sheridan’s column snaked its way south, Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee’s exhausted riders reached Hanover Junction at 10 pm, having ridden all day and night to get there. During the journey, an officer gloomily mentioned to Stuart that it would be impossible to overtake and stop Sheridan. Stuart replied, “I would rather die than let him go on.” At 3 am on May 11, Stuart started his men from Hanover Junction for the intersection of the Mountain and Telegraph Roads. Following in his wake were three artillery companies (10 cannon) that he had added to his force. He would need every gun since he would be outnumbered 3-to-1 in the coming fight.
An orderly, disciplined Union cavalry division rides smartly through enemy territory in this drawing by Edwin Forbes. Sheridan’s raid on Richmond included over 10,000 troopers, plus 32 pieces of artillery.
Shortly after sunrise on May 11, Sheridan continued his drive toward Richmond. He divided his command into four parts: Colonel Irvin Gregg’s brigade remained on the south shore of the South Anna acting as rearguard; Merritt and Wilson’s divisions continued down the Mountain Road; Davies’s brigade headed toward Ashland Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. Later in the morning, near Ground Squirrel Bridge, Gordon got his men across the river and initiated an hours-long running battle with Gregg’s brigade, which, although mauled and forced to continually fall back, shielded Sheridan’s rear as the main Union body advanced inexorably toward Richmond.
Davies’s excursion to Ashland Station proved less than peaceful. After a lively fight, Davies drove some of Wickham’s Virginians from the village. Not wishing to tangle with the increasing number of Rebel reinforcements pouring into the area, the Union brigadier pulled out of Ashland Station and rejoined Sheridan’s main column.
Stuart and Custer in the Fray
Around 8 am, Lomax’s riders reached the intersection of the Mountain and Telegraph Roads. The roads formed a Y with Mountain Road constituting the western branch, Telegraph Road the eastern, and the Brook Turnpike drooping south. A short distance down the Brook Turnpike, on its east side, stood an abandoned hostelry called Yellow Tavern six miles due north of Richmond. As Lomax positioned his men on Telegraph Road, Sheridan approached from the west. A little later Stuart arrived and decided to leave Lomax in place and position Wickham, not yet up due to his fight at Ashland Station, to the right and rear of Lomax along the slopes at right angles to Telegraph Road behind a little creek called Turner’s Run.
A period colorized photograph of an unidentified Union cavalryman.
It was Stuart’s intention to attack Sheridan’s flank and rear if he tried to pass along Brook Turnpike. Stuart sent an aide to Richmond to have troops from the city move toward Yellow Tavern on Brook Turnpike. He reasoned that between his troopers on Telegraph Road and any friendly forces moving toward him from Richmond, Sheridan would be trapped and destroyed. To one Confederate soldier on scene it appeared“we had him [Sheridan] penned and would surely capture his whole command.”
At 9 am, Sheridan’s main force moving along Mountain Road approached the Confederate position. As it did so, Alfred Gibbs, leading the Reserve Brigade from Merritt’s division, sent out mounted skirmishers from the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. Rebel pickets belonging to the 6th Virginia Cavalry Regiment engaged them just short of the road junction. As the two skirmish lines exchanged fire, Colonel Thomas Devin’s brigade of Merritt’s division came up and deployed on Gibbs’s right, followed by Custer’s men on Gibbs’s left.
Concerned about enemy artillery that had him in range, Custer dismounted his 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry Regiments to drive back the Confederate pickets and gain the shelter of a wood to their front. With his other regiments, the 1st and 7th Michigan, acting as mounted support, Custer attacked but was driven back. Sheridan decided not to risk a full-scale attack with just Merritt’s men but to wait until the rest of his corps was up.
During the initial fighting, Stuart was on the skirmish line directing fire and making his dispositions for the coming battle. Custer was also in the thick of the fray, leading a body of his troopers in an assault that pushed Lomax’s pickets back toward Telegraph Road before being halted by a combination of effective enemy small-arms and artillery fire. As Custer’s efforts were being stymied, Gibbs and Devin, on Custer’s right, were able to forge ahead and insert the 17th Pennsylvania and 6th New York Cavalry Regiments between Stuart and Richmond.
Stuart placed Wickham, newly arrived on the field, on the slopes to the right and rear of Lomax with a battery of horse artillery wedged in between. Gibbs’s regiments delivered such a devastating fire into the position of the 5th Virginia Cavalry south of Turner’s Creek on a sunken road that Lomax’s entire position collapsed. More than 200 Confederates were taken prisoner, while the rest sought safety north of Turner’s Run on Wickham’s left. Soon it was Gibbs’s turn to retire after his troops were savagely raked from the flank by Wickham’s horsemen and artillery.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy”
The Federal repulse convinced Sheridan to plan a multidivisional assault on the Confederate position as soon as Wilson’s division reached the field. In the meantime, he sent two regiments south toward Richmond to ascertain whether enemy reinforcements were being sent to aid Stuart. They reported that no body of troops was seen leaving the city and that since they were able to penetrate into the town’s inner defensive line, Richmond itself seemed ripe for the taking.
As the morning dragged on into the afternoon, the lull in the fighting continued. Stuart hoped and waited for reinforcements from Richmond or from Gordon. On the opposite side of the field, Sheridan received some much-needed help with the arrival of Wilson’s division, which he placed on Merritt’s left. The opposing battle lines now ran generally east to west separated by half a mile.
At 4 pm, Sheridan launched his decisive attack against Stuart, with Custer leading the assault. Custer pushed his dismounted 5th and 6th Michigan Regiments directly against the heights held by Wickham’s Confederates, while his other two regiments, the 1st and 7th, aided by the 1st Vermont Cavalry, made a mounted charge straight up Telegraph Road to take the enemy guns (the Baltimore Light Artillery Battery) located there. Wilson attacked Wickham on Custer’s left, while Gibbs moved forward against Lomax on Custer’s right.
Private David M. Thatcher, Company B, 1st Virginia Cavalry.
Union buglers sounded the start of the action. Custer, theatrical as always, had his regimental band strike up “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” In all directions over the field, Union forces advanced. The attacking Federals were immediately met by a hail of Confederate artillery fire joined by the equally loud peals from a thunderstorm, accompanied by flashes of lighting indistinguishable from the blasts of cannon.
Mounted on Telegraph Road near the Baltimore Light Artillery, Stuart concentrated on Custer’s men moving out of some woods toward the Confederates. He realized that his artillery was Custer’s target and ordered the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment, being held in reserve, to support the guns. Out of the clump of woods they had been using to organize for the attack the 1st Michigan Cavalry sprinted uphill in columns of squadrons followed closely by the 7th Michigan and 1st Vermont. At the same time, Gibbs and Wilson attacked on Custer’s flanks. As the Federals crossed Turner’s Run and pounded up Telegraph Road toward the heights held by the Confederates, the 6th Virginia Cavalry Regiment made a forlorn and desperate charge against the 1st Michigan, driving the bluecoats back to Turner’s Run.
As the 1st Michigan and 6th Virginia grappled furiously with each other, Wilson sent the 3rd Indiana and 8th New York into the woods on Custer’s left. Although coming under heavy artillery fire, the troopers managed to crest the heights and overrun part of Wickham’s defensive position. Meanwhile, the 5th and 6th Michigan endured deadly enemy artillery fire as Sheridan rode among them giving encouragement. When the bluecoats saw part of Wickham’s line melt away under Wilson’s pressure, Custer’s entire Michigan brigade surged up the slopes toward the main Confederate position.
“Give It Them, Boys!”
At the Baltimore Light Artillery Battery on Telegraph Road, Stuart stood with 70 men from Company K, 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment. They held their ground while a wave of Federals passed on either side of them only to be turned back by a counterattack by the rest of the newly arrived 1st Virginia. “Bully for old K!” shouted Stuart. “Give it them, boys!”
One of the retreating Federals was Private John A. Huff, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment. As the 48-year-old Huff, a crack shot, passed on foot to the rear, he spotted Stuart calmly sitting on a big gray charger firing his nine-shot LeMat revolver at the retreating enemy. Almost as an afterthought, at about 50 yards, Huff fired his own .44-caliber pistol at the mounted Confederate officer, striking him in the abdomen. It was almost too easy. Stuart reeled in the saddle as some of his men gathered around him. When asked if he was badly hurt, the general replied, “I’m afraid I am.”
Union and Confederate forces come together at sword point in this period engraving of the Battle of Yellow Tavern, six miles north of Richmond.
Among the 1st Virginia troopers who came to the rescue of the Confederate artillery was Fitzhugh Lee. He came over to Stuart, who was in obvious pain. “Go ahead Fitz, old fellow,” said Stuart. “I know you’ll do what’s right.” Then, with his men retreating all around him, Stuart called out: “Go back! Go Back! I had rather die than be whipped.” Stuart was then carried to the rear.
Exhortations aside, Stuart’s command was beaten, even though the 1st Virginia had cleared the enemy from the area around the guns. The final collapse came when the 7th Michigan, trailed by the 1st Vermont, stormed up the ridge on Telegraph Road, scattering any remaining Confederate defenders to the wind and sending them fleeing north across the Chickahominy River, north to Ashland Station or south to Richmond. The battle had been a glorious victory for the often derided Union cavalry. General Wilson crowed later, “We captured his guns, crumpled up his dismounted line, and broke it into hopeless fragments.” Sheridan had made good on his promise to destroy Stuart.
The Death of J.E.B. Stuart
As his defeated men scattered to the four winds after Yellow Tavern, Stuart was carried by ambulance to the Richmond home of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer, on Grace Street. Back at Spotsylvania Court House, Robert E. Lee received a telegram that rendered him speechless. “Gentlemen,” he told his staff, “we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.” A little later, Lee added, “I can scarcely think about him without weeping.”
With a brilliant battlefield success behind him, Sheridan planned his next move. Although taking the almost defenseless Confederate capital was tempting, Sheridan decided against it. “I could capture Richmond, if I wanted, but I can’t hold it,” he explained. “It isn’t worth the men it would cost.” He chose instead to circle around Richmond to the north, slip by the entrenchments guarding Richmond, and join Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James southeast of the city. He started off that rainy night moving down the Brook Turnpike, but the plan was aborted after it was discovered by the Confederates manning the Richmond defenses.
With the enemy closing in on two sides, Sheridan chose to force a crossing of the Chickahominy River at Meadow Bridges. On May 12, with Custer’s Michiganders leading the way, Sheridan’s force breached the defenses Fitzhugh Lee had erected on the north bank of the Chickahominy. Moving on to Mechanicsville and Haxall’s Landing on the James River, the Federal cavalry eventually found safe haven with Butler’s nearby Union army.
An 1865 photograph of Stuart’s grave in Richmond‘s Hollywood Cemetery. The cemetary is the final resting place for 25 Confederate generals, Jefferson Davis, and U.S. Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler.
The stricken Stuart heard artillery fire in the distance and was told that it was Sheridan moving east down the Chickahominy with Fitzhugh Lee’s troops waiting to trap him. “God grant that they may be successful,” murmured Stuart, “but I must be prepared for another world.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited his fallen cavalry leader that afternoon and asked how he was. “Easy,” replied Stuart, “but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.”
At 7 pm, Episcopal minister Joshua Peterkin gathered the household staff around Stuart’s bedside, where they prayed and sang Stuart’s favorite hymn, “Rock of Ages.” The general tried to sing along but was too weak. “I am resigned,” he told his brother-in-law. “God’s will be done.” At 7:38 pm, 27 hours after being shot in the side by Private Huff, Stuart died.
A Decisive Victory For Sheridan
The Battle of Yellow Tavern was a decisive victory for Sheridan and his Union horsemen. At a loss of 625 men, Sheridan inflicted some 400 casualties on his opponent and captured another 300. Although the death of Stuart was a severe blow to the South in general and the Confederate cavalry in the East in particular, it did not destroy that body’s ability to fight effectively in the future. There would be other sharp battles between the two sides in the remaining 11 months of the war, but Jeb Stuart’s war was over. He was true to his vow—he had been whipped, and he had died.