Tag Archives: Alfred T.A. Torbert

The Battle of Trevilian Station

June 7, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry launched a raid intended to draw Confederate attention away from the Army of the Potomac’s impending crossing of the James River.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command, continued facing off against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in front of Cold Harbor, northeast of Richmond. Grant was planning to sidestep Lee to the south, across the James River, and he assigned Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to create a diversion.

Sheridan’s troopers were to ride around Lee’s left (north) flank and link with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah at Charlottesville. This would draw Lee’s cavalry away from discovering the James crossing, while Hunter and Sheridan “break up the (Virginia Central) railroad connection between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and Lynchburg.” The combined force was also to destroy the James River Canal.

Early on the 7th, Sheridan led 7,000 cavalrymen in two divisions north to New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey River. The next day, Lee received word of Sheridan’s expedition and responded by dispatching two divisions of about 4,700 troopers and three batteries under Major Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee (with Hampton in overall command) to oppose him. This left Lee with hardly any cavalry, but he believed that since Sheridan and Hunter were both on the move, Grant would stay put until their mission was completed.

Hampton correctly guessed that Sheridan’s target was Trevilian Station, east of Charlottesville. Hampton’s men took a more direct route along the Virginia Central and got there first. Sheridan’s Federals struggled in the excessive heat and had to shoot several horses that broke down. President Jefferson Davis noted, “If our cavalry, concentrated, could meet that of the enemy, it would have moral as well as physical effects, which are desirable.”

On the 10th, Hampton placed his division three miles ahead of the Trevilian Station depot and Fitz Lee’s division near Louisa Court House, about five miles away. That night, Sheridan’s troopers camped near Clayton’s Store on the south bank of the North Anna River. The Federals noted large groups of Confederate scouts nearby, which indicated that an enemy force blocked their way up ahead. Sheridan prepared for battle.

Hampton learned from a spy that Sheridan would come from Clayton’s on two roads–one leading south to Trevilian and one leading southeast to Louisa. He deployed two brigades along the Trevilian road, with one brigade stationed behind breastworks protecting his left (west). Hampton then called on Fitz Lee to come up from Louisa and form on his right.

Action on 11 June | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the right, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Federal brigade clashed with Lee’s Confederates on the Louisa road. Lee disengaged to join Hampton, but Custer took a more direct road and moved around Hampton’s right before Lee got there. Custer’s Federals then reached the station in Hampton’s rear, seizing all of Hampton’s unguarded supplies and 800 of his horses left when the troopers dismounted to fight.

Hampton responded by sending the brigade on his left to confront Custer. Lee soon came up on Hampton’s right and dispatched a force to deal with Custer as well. Finding himself nearly surrounded, Custer pulled back and, as he reported, “From the nature of the ground and the character of the attacks that were made upon me, our lines resembled very nearly a circle.”

Custer pulled his colors from their staff and stuffed them into his coat before the Confederates could capture them. The Confederates closed in, regaining all their wagons and horses, and even capturing Custer’s headquarters wagon. But then Sheridan launched a strong assault in Hampton’s front and on Lee’s right flank. This forced the Confederates to withdraw and saved Custer’s command. By that time, both sides were short on ammunition and exhausted from fighting in the oppressive heat.

Hampton’s men fell back west and entrenched themselves on the road to Gordonsville. Lee’s troopers withdrew east toward Louisa. This gave the Federals control of Trevilian Station. Sheridan planned to renew the assault the next day, but he received word that Hunter “was marching toward Lynchburg, away from instead of toward me, thus making the junction of our commands beyond all reasonable probability.” Sheridan therefore resolved to end the raid and return to the Army of the Potomac.

The next day, the Federals destroyed Trevilian Station and wrecked railroad track to the east and west. Sheridan dispatched part of his force to reconnoiter the Confederate positions to the west, and around 3 p.m. they found Hampton’s men in an L-shaped defense line about two miles northwest of Trevilian. Fitz Lee’s troopers had joined with Hampton earlier that day.

Action on 12 Jun | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals, led by Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert, assaulted the smaller part of the “L,” which ran north-south parallel to the railroad. But despite seven charges, the Federals could not break the Confederate line. Lee’s troopers on the larger part of the “L” then swung southeast to attack the Federal right. The Federals held their ground until fighting stopped around 10 p.m. Torbert withdrew during the night.

Sheridan began his withdrawal back to Cold Harbor the next day. He kept his pace deliberately slow to prevent Hampton from returning to the Army of Northern Virginia for as long as possible. The Federals sustained 1,007 casualties (102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 missing) in the fighting, while the Confederates reportedly lost 831, including about 500 taken prisoner. These were the most casualties of any cavalry battle in the war.

Sheridan claimed victory over Hampton, but his Federals did not link with Hunter as ordered. Also, the Confederates quickly repaired all the damage done to the Virginia Central Railroad, and the supply line reopened within two weeks. Nevertheless, this engagement erased any remaining doubt that Federal cavalrymen were at least the equal of their southern counterparts.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-25; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 423; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6369-79, 6407-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451-54; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414-25; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17, 519-21; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 739; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551, 763

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The Battle of Haw’s Shop

May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.

At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.

Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”

Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.

The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.

When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.

Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.

A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.

The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.

Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.

Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:

“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”

But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20321; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-15; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5814-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7235-58; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 434; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 137, 148-49; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551