Tag Archives: George A. Custer

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

The Battle of Yellow Tavern

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.

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

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.”

Maj Gen Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20093-102; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403-05; 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 4728-48, 4894-914, 4942-52; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 433-34, 436; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6986; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-15, 117-23; http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-yellow-tavern.htm; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 244, 275-76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-99; 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. 728; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551, 680, 846-47

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid

February 28, 1864 – Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick led a Federal cavalry force on a mission to raid the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Gen Hugh Judson Kilpatrick | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Kilpatrick, commanding a division of the cavalry corps within Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, had proposed leading a raid on Richmond in early February. The purpose would be to wreck lines of communication and supply between the capital and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, to scatter the Confederate government, and to free Federal prisoners of war.

When word of this proposal reached President Abraham Lincoln, he wrote Meade, “Unless there be strong reasons to the contrary, please send Gen. Kilpatrick to us here, for two or three days.” Kilpatrick met privately with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the next day and described his plan in detail. Stanton approved, adding that each horseman should distribute 100 copies of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction to citizens in the Confederate capital.

Kilpatrick next met with Lincoln, who learned that the plan had been devised by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the 22-year-old son of Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren. Lincoln and John Dahlgren were good friends, and Kilpatrick hoped that Ulric’s “well-known gallantry, intelligence, and energy” would enhance publicity. Both Meade and Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the army’s cavalry corps, opposed the plan. But Lincoln, hopeful that this daring gamble might break the frustrating stalemate in northern Virginia, approved.

Kilpatrick and Dahlgren spent much of the second half of February planning and preparing for the raid. During that time, a woman attending a ball held by the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps learned of the plan and informed Lee, whose army was camped around Orange Court House. Lee instructed his cavalrymen to be on high alert for any Federal attempt to threaten Richmond.

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick assembled a force of about 3,500 troopers. The plan called for Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade to take a diversionary ride around the Confederate left toward Charlottesville. Kilpatrick and Dahlgren would then ride around the Confederate right; Dahlgren would lead 500 troopers across the James River to attack Richmond from the southwest, while Kilpatrick led the remaining Federals in an attack on the city from the north. Dahlgren wrote an address that he intended to read to his troopers before attacking Richmond:

“You have been selected from brigades and regiments as a picked command to attempt a desperate undertaking–an undertaking which, if successful, will write your names on the hearts of your countrymen in letters that can never be erased, and which will cause the prayers of our fellow-soldiers now confined in loathsome prisons to follow you and yours wherever you may go.

“We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first, and having seen them fairly started, we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us and exhorting the released prisoners to destroy and burn the hateful city; and do not allow the rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape…”

“Many of you may fall; but if there is any man here not willing to sacrifice his life in such a great and glorious undertaking, or who does not feel capable of meeting the enemy in such a desperate fight as will follow, let him step out, and he may go hence to the arms of his sweetheart and read of the braves who swept through the city of Richmond.”

Custer’s brigade, along with infantry from VI Corps, began the diversion from Brandy Station on the 27th. Lee, believing that this might be the raid he had been warned about, directed Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, to confront the enemy forces. Kilpatrick’s troopers crossed the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford at 10 p.m. the next evening, capturing the small Confederate force guarding the crossing. Kilpatrick’s signal officer, Captain Joseph Gloskoski, reported:

“The first night of our march was beautiful. Myriads of stars twinkled in heaven, looking at us as if in wonder why should we break the laws of God and wander at night instead of seeking repose and sleep. The moon threw its silvery light upon Rapidan waters when we forded it, and it seemed as if the Almighty Judge was looking silently upon our doings. We moved as fast as our horses could walk, making halts of 15 minutes twice every 24 hours. Thus we reached Spotsylvania Court-House. There Colonel Dahlgren with his command took the direct road toward Frederick’s Hall, while we moved to Beaver Dam Station.”

The Federals did not know that troopers from Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry brigade had spotted their movement. Kilpatrick’s force arrived at Spotsylvania Court House near dawn on the 29th. As planned, Dahlgren detached his 500 men and veered slightly southwest toward Goochland Court House while the main force continued south toward Richmond along the Virginia Central Railroad. The weather turned cold, with rain turning into sleet and snow. Gloskoski recalled:

“Now it stormed in earnest. Sharp wind and sleet forced men to close their eyes. The night was so dark that even the river in front could not be seen and trees on the roadside could not be distinguished. So complete darkness I never saw. Men depended entirely on the instinct of their horses, and the whole command on a negro to guide them.”

But Kilpatrick continued forward, crossing the North Anna River around noon and arriving at the South Anna by nightfall. The Federals cut telegraph wires and destroyed property as they went. Dahlgren met little resistance, but Kilpatrick’s men were opposed by hostile citizens and guerrillas. Meanwhile, Hampton’s 300 Confederates hurried to pursue the Federals from the east but had not quite reached them by the end of the 29th. The drive toward Richmond continued into March, as the city defenders learned of the Federal approach and prepared defenses.

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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 20016-24; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 379; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 907-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397, 403-04; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-35, 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464, 469-70; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 417

Northern Virginia: The Buckland Races

October 19, 1863 – A lopsided cavalry engagement near Buckland Mills marked the end of the 11-day Bristoe campaign.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry served as the Confederate rear guard as the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew toward the Rapidan River. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division headed the Federal advance in pursuit of the Confederates. On the morning of the 19th, Kilpatrick approached Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate division, accompanied by Stuart, on the south bank of Broad Run.

The Confederates proceeded with the plan devised by Stuart and Major General Fitzhugh Lee, in which Hampton (with Stuart) would lead a part of the force in a feigned retreat toward Warrenton, and when Kilpatrick pursued, Fitz Lee’s force would ambush his left flank.

Stuart headed off, purposely leaving the bridge at Buckland Mills open so the Federals could pursue. The Federals fell into the trap, headed by Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Michigan brigade. Stuart rode southwest through the Bull Run Mountains, with Kilpatrick adding his other brigade under Brigadier General Henry Davies to the pursuit. As Stuart drew them to Chestnut Hill, five miles away, Kilpatrick received word that a second Confederate cavalry force was to the southeast, on his left and rear.

Custer’s troopers turned to face Fitz Lee, who attacked with both his cavalry and artillery. When Stuart heard the firing, he turned his troopers around and charged Davies’s men. The Federals fell back but turned several times to fire at their pursuers. Stuart then launched an all-out charge that panicked the Federals and sent them fleeing into Custer’s brigade.

Lee then charged Custer’s line, and the entire Federal force broke. The Confederates reversed the chase and pushed the Federals back seven miles to Broad Run. Colonel Thomas Owen, commanding a brigade in Fitz Lee’s division, reported that the Federals rushed across Broad Run “pell-mell, in great disorder and confusion, to save themselves the best way they could.” The Federals crossed Broad Run, and infantry support from I Corps came up to halt the Confederate pursuit.

The Federals sustained 1,251 casualties while Stuart lost 408. The Confederates took about 600 prisoners and seized eight wagons. They also captured Custer’s tent and Kilpatrick’s horse. The “Buckland Races,” as Stuart called it, lightened Confederate spirits and boosted morale after the sharp defeat at Bristoe Station five days before.

The strength of Stuart’s attack convinced many Federals, including Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, that he had infantry support. This led Meade to believe that General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was poised to attack, as he notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck at 9:30 p.m.:

“The enemy’s infantry follow him (Kilpatrick) up, and are now in front of our infantry pickets. All the intelligence I have been able to obtain indicates the concentration of Lee’s army within the last two days at Warrenton.”

In reality, the “Buckland Races” were just a delaying action on Stuart’s part to allow the rest of the Confederate army to fall back across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. This was the last significant engagement of what became known as the Bristoe campaign. On the 20th, Stuart led the last of the Confederates back to their original camps near Orange Court House.

In this 11-day campaign, Lee’s 48,402 Confederates had pushed Meade’s 80,789 Federals back 60 miles, from the Rapidan River to north of Bull Run. The Federals sustained a total of 2,292 casualties (136 killed, 733 wounded, and 1,423 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 1,381 (205 killed and 1,176 wounded).

The campaign ended in stalemate, as Lee had to return to his original base due to lack of supplies. But the Confederates destroyed railroad tracks and bridges as they went to slow any Federal pursuit.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 335; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 795-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 362-63; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6464; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 424; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87-88

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Three

July 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a massive, desperate charge to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac once and for all.

The Confederates had bested the Federals in two days of fighting south of Gettysburg. However, the Federals had fallen back behind their defenses, and their lines remained intact. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, strengthened his defenses even more in preparation for another Confederate attack expected on this day.

During the night, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps returned to Culp’s Hill on the extreme Federal right after being transferred to support the left the previous day. The Confederates had blown a gap in the Federal line there which, if penetrated, could threaten the Federal lines of supply and possible retreat. Slocum directed his men to build defenses and plug the gap.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The third day of fighting began when Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps attacked Culp’s Hill at 4 a.m. Waves of Confederates surged against the Federals for over six hours before finally falling back, unable to break the strong Federal lines. The fighting ended around 10:30 a.m., and an eerie quiet fell upon the battlefield.

As Meade guessed, Lee planned to shift his focus to the center of the Federal line at Cemetery Ridge. Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, again urged Lee to move around Meade’s left flank and interpose himself between the Federals and Washington. Lee insisted that Federal morale was low, Confederate strength was at its peak, and one more assault would break the Federal army.

Under Lee’s plan, a heavy artillery bombardment would soften the Federal defenses. Then three divisions (consisting of 50 regiments in 11 brigades) totaling 15,000 men would march across the open ground from Seminary Ridge and attack. The divisions included those of:

  • Major General Isaac Trimble, replacing the mortally wounded Major General William D. Pender, of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps
  • Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, replacing the wounded Major General Henry Heth, of Hill’s corps
  • Major General George Pickett of Longstreet’s corps

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet would be the overall commander, even though only one of the divisions belonged to him. Two of the divisions would be led by men who had never held divisional commands before. One division, Pettigrew’s, had already been decimated in the first day of fighting.

Longstreet said, “General Lee, there never was a body of 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully.” But Lee would not relent. He had initially hoped that Longstreet’s attack would be coordinated with Ewell’s on Culp’s Hill, but Ewell had already been defeated. Now Lee hoped that Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry could attack the Federal rear to divert attention from Longstreet’s impending attack.

Meanwhile, Federals strengthened their defenses along Cemetery Ridge, sensing that Lee would attack that sector of the line after attacking both flanks. The defenders consisted mostly of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, led by the divisions of Major Generals John Gibbon and Alexander Hays. They could see the Confederates unlimbering their cannon a mile west.

Longstreet worked with Colonel E. Porter Alexander, his chief artillerist, to ensure that the upcoming bombardment, according to Alexander, “was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try and cripple him–to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” Longstreet then rode off to assemble the infantry.

Alexander received a message from Longstreet around 11 a.m.: “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.” Alexander, knowing he could not accurately determine what effect his cannon would have on hidden troops, replied, “If there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire.”

Around noon, Stuart’s cavalry set out to attack the Federal rear and divert attention from Cemetery Ridge, when about 4,500 Federal horsemen under Brigadier General David Gregg rode up to oppose them. A vicious fight ensued, featuring charges and countercharges with rifles and sabers among mounted and dismounted troopers.

Federals guns came up in support, and the Confederates were driven off. They lost 181 men, while the Federals lost 254. Stuart’s planned assault on the Federal rear was aborted, making this a Federal victory. A Federal brigade under Brigadier General George A. Custer particularly distinguished itself.

At 1:07 p.m., Confederates opened 140 guns on Cemetery Ridge. This was intended to weaken the defenses before the infantry assault. However, most of the guns were aimed too high, so the shells screamed past the Federals and crashed harmlessly beyond the ridge. The Federals slowly responded with 100 guns of their own, and this soon became the largest artillery duel of the war. The booming could be heard all the way to Pittsburgh, nearly 200 miles west.

The Federal guns eventually stopped firing, leading the Confederates to believe they had run out of ammunition. But the Federals were simply trying to lure the Confederates into the open. Alexander sent a message to Pickett: “For God’s sake come quick… or I can’t support you.” Pickett rode to Longstreet and asked, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet, sensing the futility of this attack, turned away. Pickett said, “I am going to move forward, sir.”

Longstreet met with Alexander, who explained that he could not support the infantry because his ammunition train was too far in the rear. Longstreet said, “Go and halt Pickett right where he is and replenish your ammunition.” But Alexander said that by the time it was replenished, the Federal lines would be strengthened to the point that neither artillery nor infantry could break them. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this attack. I believe it will fail. I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” Alexander said nothing.

The Confederate infantry advance began at 3 p.m. The men marched with parade ground precision as their flags waved in the breeze. General Frank Haskell of the Federal II Corps recalled:

“More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the army of 18,000 men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on the move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”

Federal artillerists waited until the troops came within range and then opened fire with deadly accuracy. As men fell, the others closed ranks and continued forward. They moved into the open ground, with Pickett’s Virginians leading, toward a copse of trees in the middle of the Federal line. The troops stopped at the Emmitsburg road to dress their line, having already sustained heavy losses.

Confederates charge Cemetery Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As the Confederates entered rifle range, Federal infantry along Cemetery Ridge began pouring their fire into them. Men fell in heaps, but the Confederates still pushed forward. Just a small fraction of the attacking force reached the ridge. A soldier recalled:

“Men fire into each other’s faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet-thrusts, sabre-strokes, pistol-shots;… men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of dead men…”

Those Confederates who reached the ridge were enfiladed on both sides by overwhelming Federal numbers. Nevertheless, a group of 150 men led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of Pickett’s division penetrated the Federal line at what became known as the Angle. This was the closest the Confederate army ever came to military victory on northern soil.

Armistead’s men were met by a Pennsylvania brigade of II Corps led by Brigadier General Alexander S. Webb, who surged forward to seal the gap and force the surviving Confederates to either surrender or retreat. Armistead was killed, and Webb was also wounded; he later earned the Medal of Honor for his action.

The Federals ultimately held firm, as artillery and reinforcements massed to repel the Confederate attackers. Federal troops who remembered their horrible defeat at Fredericksburg in December shouted, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” to the withdrawing Confederates. The climactic battle of the Eastern Theater ended in Confederate defeat.

Only about half the Confederate attackers returned to their lines on Seminary Ridge. As they came, Lee rode among them saying, “It’s all my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” The troops implored Lee to give them another chance, but Lee would not. He issued orders to prepare defenses against a potential Federal counterattack.

Ewell’s corps was pulled out of Gettysburg. By day’s end, Lee told a subordinate, “We must now return to Virginia.” He planned to retreat as soon as the wagon trains and ambulances filled with the wounded could be put in motion.

In the horrific three-day struggle, the Federals sustained 23,049 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing). The Confederates lost 20,451 (2,592 killed, 12,709 wounded, and 5,150 missing). The Confederate losses were especially crippling because the South lacked the manpower to replace them. Pickett’s division alone lost more than half its men, including every regimental commander, two brigadier generals, and six colonels. The 43,500 total casualties made this the costliest battle ever fought in American history.

The performance of Lee’s commanders contributed to the defeat. Ewell had been reluctant to attack, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s strategy, Hill was sick and thus not fully involved, and Stuart had deprived Lee of vital intelligence before the battle. Lee himself bore some responsibility for not properly coordinating his attacks, for issuing vague orders, and for rejecting Longstreet’s advice to move around the Federal left.

Some commanders urged Meade to use his 20,000 reserves to counterattack and finish Lee off. But Meade, having been army commander for just six days, three of which were spent fighting the largest battle of the war, was satisfied to have repelled Lee’s attacks for now. Unaware that his men had just destroyed about a third of Lee’s army, leaving him crippled in enemy territory, Meade said, “We have done well enough.”

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37, 342; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-32, 138, 144, 146; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320, 322-23; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6246; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 182; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-123, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 377-78; 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. 661-63; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 173; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 306-07, 584, 811