May 11, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan embarked on a Federal cavalry raid intended to disrupt Confederate supply lines and destroy the famed command of Major General Jeb Stuart.
Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, blamed Cavalry Corps commander Sheridan for failing to clear the Brock Road on the 8th, which helped the Confederates win the race to Spotsylvania Court House. As the two men argued, Sheridan snapped that if headquarters left him alone, he could ride out and whip Stuart’s Confederate horsemen.
Meade relayed this to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant responded, “Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” Meade issued orders for Sheridan to lead 10,000 troopers south to cut Confederate supply lines and destroy Stuart’s command. Sheridan could then either ride south to join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James or return to the Army of the Potomac.
Sheridan gathered his three division commanders–Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt, David M. Gregg, and James H. Wilson–on the night of the 8th and announced, “We are going out to fight Stuart’s cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me. In view of my recent representations to General Meade I shall expect nothing but success.” According to Theophilus F. Rodenbough of Sheridan’s staff:
“The command was stripped of all impediments, such as unserviceable animals, wagons and tents. The necessary ammunition train, two ambulances to a division, a few pack-mules for baggage, three days’ rations and a half-day’s forage carried on the saddle, comprised the outfit.”
The troopers, along with six batteries of horse artillery, rode out at 6 a.m. on the 9th, with Sheridan vowing to whip Stuart out of his boots. To conserve energy, the Federals kept a slow pace as their line stretched 13 miles along the Telegraph Road.
Confederate scouts learned of the enemy movement almost as soon as it began, and elements of Stuart’s cavalry under Brigadier General William C. Wickham quickly began harassing Sheridan’s rear. Sheridan disregarded these sporadic attacks, telling his command, “Keep moving, boys. We’re going on through. There isn’t cavalry enough in all the Southern Confederacy to stop us.”
Stuart, perhaps underestimating Sheridan’s strength, kept nearly half his command at Spotsylvania to guard the Army of Northern Virginia’s flanks while leading his remaining 5,000 men (in three brigades under Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Lunsford Lomax, and James B. Gordon) to positions between Sheridan and Richmond.
Sheridan’s horsemen reached the North Anna River by nightfall. Merritt’s division continued to Beaver Dam Station, a key Confederate supply depot on the Virginia Central Railroad. Confederates burned the depot before retreating, and the advancing Federals burned 100 railroad cars and two locomotives. Some 504,000 rations of bread and 904,000 rations of meat for Confederate soldiers was destroyed. The Federals also freed 400 of their comrades held as prisoners of war.
Unable to beat Sheridan to the North Anna, Stuart continued south to try beating him to the South Anna. He reported to Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg in Richmond that Sheridan was heading south from Beaver Dam Station, while Federal detachments continued destroying tracks on the Virginia Central between the North and South Anna rivers.
Stuart wrote, “Should he attack Richmond, I will certainly move in his rear and do what I can; at the same time, I hope to be able to strike him if he endeavors to escape.” Stuart intended to make a stand outside Richmond that would delay Sheridan just long enough for the Confederate troops in Richmond to man the capital’s defenses.
Sheridan stopped after crossing the South Anna that night. Stuart’s command, having rode 36 straight hours, halted north of that same river. The next morning, Stuart divided his force even further by sending Gordon’s troopers to harass Sheridan’s rear while the other two Confederate brigades headed to Yellow Tavern, an old stagecoach stop on the Brook Turnpike about six miles north of Richmond.
The Federals came up around 11 a.m., and the fight that Sheridan had hoped to draw Stuart into soon began. With Confederates continuing to harass his rear, Sheridan patiently scouted Stuart’s positions and deployed Merritt’s division in line of battle. The Federals had three divisions versus just two Confederate brigades; the Federals also had superior Spencer repeating rifles.
Merritt attacked Lomax’s brigade, sending the Confederates reeling back to their second defense line under Fitz Lee. A lull came over the field as both sides held back until reinforcements could arrive. Then, a Federal brigade under Brigadier General George A. Custer appeared in the clearing and charged an artillery battery. One of the Federal cavalrymen later wrote:
“As soon as our line appeared in the open, indeed, before it left the woods, the Confederate artillery opened with shell and shrapnel; the carbines and sharpshooters joined with zest in the fray and the man who thinks they did not succeed in making that part of the neighborhood around Yellow Tavern an uncomfortably hot place, was not there at the time.”
But the Federals managed to capture the battery and turn Stuart’s left flank around 4 p.m. Stuart directed a countercharge by the 1st Virginia, which he held in reserve, and they repelled Custer’s Federals. As Stuart rode forward with the Virginians, a bullet from a .44-caliber Federal pistol hit him in the right side below the ribs. His aides helped him off his horse. Fitz Lee soon arrived, and Stuart passed command to him: “Go ahead, Fitz, old fellow, I know you will do what is right.”
Stuart’s aides loaded him into an arriving ambulance, with one aide recalling:
“As he was being driven from the field he noticed the disorganized ranks of his retreating men and called out to them: ‘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.’”
Under command of Fitz Lee, the Confederates ultimately held firm. After probing for weaknesses, Sheridan disengaged and rode down the Brook Turnpike toward Richmond. However, the Confederate delaying action gave city officials enough time to bolster their defenses.
The Federals rode past the capital’s outer works as alarm bells rang and artillery fire erupted. Sheridan surveyed the defenses and told an aide, “I could capture Richmond, if I wanted, but I can’t hold it. It isn’t worth the men it would cost.” Sheridan reported to Meade:
“It is possible that I might have captured the city of Richmond by assault, but the want of knowledge of your operations and those of General Butler, and the facility with which the enemy could throw in troops, made me abandon the attempt.”
Sheridan asserted, “I should have been the hero of the hour. I could have gone in and burned and killed right and left.” But it was not worth sacrificing his men “for no permanent advantage,” since they could have only temporarily occupied the capital. Besides, Stuart had been Sheridan’s main objective, not Richmond. The Federals turned east to eventually join either Butler or Meade.
This marked a turning point in the cavalry struggle in Virginia, as the Federals now had not only the numbers but the skill to easily match the Confederate cavaliers. Estimated casualties at Yellow Tavern for each side were about 800, but the greatest loss of them all was Stuart himself.
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