Unaware of the titanic clashes around him, this Civil War soldier followed orders but saw great opportunities to do much more.
Lieutenant Robert Thruston Hubard Jr. was born into a successful family and grew up on a thriving Virginia plantation, Rosny, one of several his entrepreneurial father owned. He had completed his first year of law school at the University of Virginia when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter. He spent four unscathed years with J.E.B. Stuart in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry before a bullet struck him down at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, shortly before the Civil War ended. After the war, he wrote vivid memoirs, in part by referring to the many letters he had penned during the conflict to a wide group of correspondents, recently published as The Civil War Memoirs of a Virginia Cavalryman (University of Alabama Press, 2007). His account, beginning in early 1864, reveals the life of Confederate horsemen with the Army of Northern Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness.
Matters were now very gloomy, the prospects of the Confederacy were very doubtful and many had despaired since the battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Our currency was in a hopeless condition of depreciation. Our population had furnished nearly as many soldiers as it could naturally bear and the conscript laws therefore availed but little and the tax and impressment laws had nearly stripped the country of flour, grain, and meat and greatly discouraged production. Congress was weak-headed, weakhearted, and weak-kneed, resorting to every kind of temporizing expedient rather than boldly resorting to strong measures which alone could restore hope and confidence and provide the sinews of war. They gave their treasury notes a fatal stab instead of a healing dose by providing for their funding in a new issue of 331⁄3 cents discount on the dollar. None of our armies in the field were looked to with any hope at-all except that of General [Robert E.] Lee. And all that was hoped of it was to hold Richmond.
After [Major General Ulysses S.] Grant’s great success over [General Braxton] Bragg, he was appointed “Lieutenant General Commanding the Armies of the United States.” He established his own headquarters with the Army of the Potomac with a view to crush Lee’s army, take Richmond, and close the war.
Though President [Jefferson] Davis had grown more sour and obstinate as matters grew worse and had no great fancy for General Joe Johnston, he yielded to the earnest wishes of the people and appointed him to succeed Bragg. The latter was called to Richmond to act as a sort of advisory and directory general. Being himself disappointed and soured, imagining everybody hated [him], he seemed to have taken to hating everybody else and was eternally getting up a mess between the President and some of the generals in the field.
Such efforts were made to remit and strengthen the Army of Northern Virginia as lay in the power of the nearly exhausted government. And we prepared now not to conquer independence directly but by prolonging the war another year, exhaust the Federal treasury, and thus through the “pocket nerve” of the Yankee, operate to bring about a cessation of hostilities and our acknowledgement. We didn’t consider that in a fight, the man who has had strength and wind enough to get his adversary down generally has enough to hold him there till he cries, “Hold, enough.”
[Brigadier General Lunsford] Lomax’s brigade, holding the left of General Lee’s line, having been compelled to scatter about very much to get forage during the months of January and February, about the close of the latter month, [Union Brigadier] General [Judson] Kilpatrick, with 2 brigades, one which was commanded by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, broke through the lines and came to Barbourville. There, dividing his force, a part threatened Charlottesville but were driven off by Major R.F. Mason of General Fitz[hugh] Lee’s staff and one company of Stuart’s Horse Artillery.
The other pushed on to Gordonsville, burned the depot, etc., and tore up the tracks very considerably. They then united, struck the canal at Columbia, attempted in vain to blow up the aqueduct, and went on towards Richmond along the 2 Chopt Road tearing up the track and burning the depots between and including Frederick’s Hall and Hanover Junction and burning the bridges across the South Anna and other streams. They thus cut off General Lee’s supplies and now moved forward towards Richmond where we hadn’t any troops, scarcely a regiment or two guarding prisoners, etc.
General [Henry] Wise who was on a visit to his brother-in-law, Mr. Stanard in Goochland, was almost captured but escaped galloping into Richmond with the first news of the approach when they were within 15 miles of the city!
All was now bustle and confusion. General Bragg managed to draw up enough recruits the next day to man the works. Had the enemy bolted ahead the day they came near catching Wise, instead of stopping to plunder rich farms along the river, they might have taken and burned Richmond.
[Major General Wade] Hampton pushed forward in pursuit from Fredericksburg and we had two regiments of cavalry on the Peninsula which turned out scouting.
I received a telegram from Farmville on the 2nd March to notify the regiment to report by companies to General Fitz Lee at Richmond immediately, notified them, and reported in person with the Cumberland Troop the evening of the 4th.
The enemy divided [on] the 1st or 2nd, Kilpatrick with the main column going off safely to Old Church down the Peninsula. Dahlgren’s party were cut off and, attempting to escape by the north side of the Pamunkey through the darkness of night, ran into an ambuscade, was himself killed, and his command dispersed. On his person were found instruction to his men to burn and sack Richmond and in some captured wagons were found turpentine balls and other combustible materials for this purpose. His corpse was taken to Richmond and buried in disgrace, secretly at night in an old burial ground.
We now had an extremely disagreeable time until the 15th April being encamped in a very soggy piece of ground, and exposed to almost incessant rain and sleet with indifferent shelter, but little wood and little forage for the horses. By the middle of April we put out for Fredericksburg, where we had a very pleasant camp and good grazing with some corn for our horses.
On the 4th May, Grant crossed the Rapidann at Germanna, etc., with 112 thousand muskets, about 15,000 cavalry and two to three hundred pieces of artillery. On the 5th one division [of Confederate cavalry] marched up to Massaponax Church. On the 6th (our brigade, numbering about 2250 men, my regiment 30 officers and 494 men), we marched up beyond Spottsylvania Court House, dismounted and formed a line of battle about two miles east of Todd’s Tavern where we skirmished with the enemy slightly all day. [We] had 2nd Lieutenant Puryear, Company A, wounded through the lung and one man of Company B killed.
[In the Wildness campaign, Grant intended to avoid attacking strong Confederate defenses along the Rapidan River, turn the Confederate left and get between Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. Grant’s line of advance after his army forded the river at various points led through the Wilderness, along lines where Confederates would also be advancing, a risky maneuver that exposed his troops to flank attacks. A battle ensued in the thick forest, negating much of the Federal numerical advantage.]
Next day Brigadier General [Thomas] Rosser sent us word to advance and press the enemy as he had a brigade cut off. We impetuously assaulted the enemy and drove him back to Todd’s and here, being backed by infantry, he made a firm stand and was unmovable. The 5th and 6th [Virginia] Regiments of Lomax’s Brigade suffered severely.
Finding we could do nothing, were turned to our position and found that Rosser instead of a brigade had “cut off” two divisions of cavalry, several brigades of infantry, and one or two batteries of artillery and had to withdraw without his game.
Towards evening the enemy made a heavy movement on our front, at the same time threatening our right, which was guarded by Colonel Owen with three squadrons, Lieutenant Colonel Carter being hotly engaged in front with the other two. About 5 P.M. Colonel Owen was ordered to the front with one squadron on foot. I went with him. [We] double-quicked for half a mile.
We got up on the line, found our right driving the enemy some distance ahead while the left was being forced
back almost upon the artillery. Halting only long enough to form a hasty line, not waiting for stragglers, the Colonel bolted right ahead into the thick woods with about fifty men. We halted in about 150 yards, deployed, and commenced firing. We saw but few men in our front. There was a heavy firing to our left succeeded by a profound silence. Presently somebody seemed to be firing upon our rear. I called out to them to desist and come up on the line or they would hit some of us. Then a sergeant on my left came running up to me saying, “The Yankees are behind us and I believe have captured the Colonel for I went to the left to look for him and ran into them.”
Thinking him frightened, [I] told him to take his place and watch out. He had scarcely left me when turning around, I saw two Yankees, one in 15 yards of me. While hesitating to fire as he came from the rear and I feared I might kill a Confederate, he aimed at me. I had a carbine cocked in my hand and raised, aimed, and fired it, killing him. I then called to the men to face about and right oblique. In this way we got out of the scrape and fell back upon the line which was now about 75 yards further back.
It seems that the 15th Regiment on our left was driven back, leaving our flank exposed, when the Colonel and men nearest him were attacked in rear but repulsed, at least for a moment, those attacking him, captured five or six and got out with the loss of one of the Colonel’s fingers which was shot away.
That night we still held our position and awaited attack early the next morning. We now learned of the desperate fight of the Wilderness, which was fought near the ground over which [General Thomas J. “Stonewall”] Jackson made his great flank movement, on the 6th of May by A.P. Hill’s and Ewell’s corps against Grant’s whole army. [Chancellorsville was actually fought May 1-4, 1863. Jackson was mortally wounded after his flanking movement on May 2.] The latter attacked and met with a bloody repulse. Longstreet’s Corps, which had arrived from east Tennessee, had not yet gotten upon the ground, but was marching down from Orange Court House.
This battle was fought almost exclusively on densely wooded grounds so that artillery couldn’t be but little used. It is said that at a critical juncture General Lee having ordered a desperate charge and, seeing the men hesitate a little, placed himself at the head of Heth’s Division and called upon the men to follow him. They insisted that he should not expose his precious life and that they would charge whenever and wherever he wished, and did make a splendid and successful charge.
Lee had, including Longstreet’s command, about 45,000 effective infantry, about 8,000 cavalry, and some 200 guns. Though his army hadn’t altogether the spirit it had commenced other campaigns with, it was yet self-reliant and went into the campaign with the hope that it was to be the last and with the determination that General U.S. Grant should not whip “Mas’ Bob.”
W.H.F. Lee was now major general commanding division composed of his own, now Chambliss’ brigade and Rosser’s [brigade].
My regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Carter commanding, was left on picket the 7th and at 3 A.M. [May 8] we heard the Yankee bugles sounding to horse. So we prepared for immediate attack and sent couriers to inform the generals. They took but little notice, however of the messages. We had heard a movement on our right as of a marching column with trains etc. but this, when told [to] Brigadier General [Williams] Wickham and Major General Fitz Lee, was likewise little heeded; they turned over and “slumbered and slept.”
Sending our horses to the rear, Lieutenant Colonel Carter formed the four squadrons with him in line behind the barricade and resolutely expressed his purpose to hold his ground. At 4 A.M. we plainly heard the commands not many yards down in the woods, “Battalion forward, guide center, march,” and, in a few moments more, we were firing as fast as we could load, at a very heavy line of blue jackets. It was one incessant, deafening rattle while the smoke arose so thick we could scarcely see.
The generals seem to have waked up at last and a courier came to say that we must hold on and the brigade would be up after a while. Carter, finding his left flank completely passed by a heavy column, and that he was about being flanked on the right, ordered his men to retreat firing. This we did for about 300 yards after having fought for one hour against odds of four or five to one.
The brigade now coming to our support dismounted, we formed a longer line along a ridge in a dense piece of woods and here we lay and fired for three hours more incessantly.
Meanwhile the cavalry in our front had given place to the 5th U.S. Army Corps who fought us very heavily and at a distance between the skirmishers of about 40 yards and about 100 [yards] between the main lines. The [Federal] cavalry, meanwhile, hurried off across our right and striking the road from the Plank Road to Spottsylvania Court House, advanced toward the latter point. Our brigade was now withdrawn and relieved by Lomax’ brigade (stationed a mile nearer the Court House) ordered to mount and our regiment hurried off at a gallop to the Court House.
Arriving there and turning the head of the column into the road the Yankees were on, we had two horses killed by a shell before we could dismount for they had planted a battery in sight of the Court House. They had dismounted skirmishers deployed and advancing, supported by heavy bodies of mounted men [at least a brigade in sight]. Matthews squadron was deployed to the left of the road, dismounted, and I went with it on its extreme right. The rest of the regiment was on our left. We were vigorously shelled besides being under a heavy fire of small arms. As we were in an open field and the mounted men were preparing to charge us, we had to retreat across the road we came down, giving up the village temporarily. The Yankees now charged vigorously, capturing the greater part of the New Kent Company of Matthews’ squadron. The rest of us had to thank our legs for safety. Getting into some woods we now checked them somewhat.
The rest of the regiment and brigade were better off, not having the brunt to bear so much. I and three others on the extreme right were rather cut off from the rest and, in attempting to get back, ran nearly upon a body of men who were taken by Sergeant Garrett to be Yankees wherefrom we concealed ourselves and not being able to judge from the firing but that our men were driven back by the old court house, we set out after dark to get out of the enemy’s lines (as we supposed), came near running upon several pickets, had a terrible walk through briars, bushes, swamps, and one creek thigh deep for eight miles.
Next morning we went to a house where they told us that Longstreet had gotten up about the time we were driven back to the Court House and retook the place and had held it since. So it seems we were in the midst of our own men that night. We then set out to join our regiment; about two o’clock after marching ten miles on foot, we learned that while our brigade was hotly engaged fighting infantry at the Court House, [Union] Major General P[hilip H.] Sheridan, with three divisions [of] cavalry, has passed the extreme right running off some pickets of the 5th Virginia Cavalry and was off for Richmond along the Telegraph Road and Stuart after him.
It was subsequently ascertained that our obstinate resistance to the 5th Corps on the 8th was of utmost importance; had we been driven off before Longstreet got up, Grant would have secured the road from Spottsylvania to Louisa Court House and, thus, cut off Lee from Richmond, being himself between him and the latter point.
Indeed, our generals seemed aware of the importance of the struggle for they said we must hold our ground no matter what the odds were against us. And I have had several other opportunities of observing how generals, while never approving of a feeble resistance, were nevertheless, at times, so far impressed with the old adage “a good run is better than a bad stand” that they were not utterly inconsolable on being repulsed whereas on other great occasions, like that I am now commenting on, they would recognize no choice, whatever, and say, “Soldiers, you must fight—this position must be held.” And when they spoke thus, I noticed the soldiers fought with far greater desperation holding out in the face of losses that would otherwise have sufficed to cause a perfect stampede.
As we were withdrawing Sunday morning, General Fitz Lee riding by the “Old Brigade” said with great emotion, “Boys, you have made the most glorious fight you ever made, the noblest I ever saw.” Our loss that day was quite heavy. Among the killed in the 3rd Regiment were [J.W.] Fitzgerald and J[ames D.] Vaughn, Company E, and Thomas Pride, Company G, the latter killed in a yard of me while lying on his belly behind a large tree by a diagonal musket shot that took effect in his right temple.
General Fitzhugh Lee came up with Sheridan’s rear guard at Mitchell’s Shop some 10 or 15 miles from Massaponax Church and at once ordered the 4 regiments to commence a successive charge by squadrons. I hadn’t gotten up and therefore can’t describe the fight accurately.
Captain Moss’ Buckingham squadron was in front and in their front set of fours was my brother Edmund, whose health had prevented his joining the army till February of this year when he entered the Buckingham Company as a private. So the charge was made down the road upon the Yankee rear [which] halted and prepared to receive it. A body of the latter [Federals] charged them on the flank, separating the front set from the rest, the latter being thrown into disorder, thereby. My brother and three companions wheeling about found a party of 15 or 16 “Yanks” between them and their command, and demanded their surrender. Some of [the Federals] started to comply when others, seeing the confusion, etc., said, “Don’t surrender to 4 damned rebels, kill them.” Thereupon they commenced firing at very short range and our party of four only escaped by leaping the fence. My brother got a ball through his clothes and another through the belt holster of his pistol.
After some further delay and while [Fitz] Lee was trying to devise some scheme to fall upon the flank, Brigadier General Wickham, in pursuance of his instructions, rode up to Captain Matthews, commanding a squadron of the 3rd and ordered him to break through at all hazards, promising that he should have support.
At this time Sheridan had several regiments flanking the road on both sides ready to deliver a cross fire, a regiment drawn up in the road with a section of artillery unlimbered and shotted just behind them.
Matthews commanded forward and dashed away splendidly followed by his men. Getting under the cross fire, his men and horses began to fall and this, together with a number of dead horses of Captain Watkins’ squadrons E and K which had made a partially successful charge before this and lost only about a dozen horses and no men, lying in the road constituted such an obstacle as to sever his columns, those in front, (about 25), keeping on at full speed cutting right and left and the enemy closing in behind them.
Matthews was shot down by a man just behind him while fighting one or two in front. 1st Lieutenant Palmore was wounded and unhorsed, Privates [Archer T.] McLaurine and [Rodophil] Jeter killed, B[enjamin B.] Overton, mortally wounded, [John V.] Ryals badly [wounded] also [George B.] Mayo and [Powhatan J.] Ayers and 8 more captured. Two or three got out unharmed, the rest were thrown or had their horses killed. Other regiments suffered here, Lieutenant [Charles W.] Hubbard of the James City [Troop], 5th Virginia Cavalry, being killed.
Having been repulsed in all of our efforts to penetrate Sheridan’s column, we desisted from further attack but followed closely. I met with Reverend W[illiam] C. Meredith, chaplain of the 4th, who let me ride his horse till I got up with an ambulance on which I rode till overtaking the command shortly after the fight was over, when I got my horse again.
Matthews was carried to a house nearby where he lingered, being shot through the liver, till the 13th, I think. As a soldier he had “rather die than disobey” and accordingly charged with the utmost enthusiasm into a position from which he must have known he could not calculate upon coming out unhurt. To him is due the meed [mead] of praise awarded to the bravest of the brave who fall in the front rank of battle with the sweet words upon their lips, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
[Although the Wilderness battle ended as a stalemate, Grant determined to continue south, toward Richmond. Racing Confederate troops narrowly beat Union forces to a critical junction at Spotsylvania Court House, and on May 8, fighting commenced there. Although Grant broke the Rebel lines after several days of fighting, the thrust was blunted, and by May 21 he began shifting his army eastward and then south again, leading to another confrontation on the North Anna River. Previously, however, cavalry had also contested the important bridge on the road to Richmond.]
We marched all night the 9th and shelled the enemy’s rear guard while crossing the North Anna River. Crossing the 10th we followed to Frederick’s Hall, where the 1st and 2nd charged one or two regiments and inflicted considerable loss. After this we only kept in sight of the rear guard. Sheridan went down the Mountain Road followed by Gordon’s North Carolina Brigade. Wickham’s and Lomax’s brigades encamped at Hanover Junction.
The 11th, at 10 A.M., [we] attacked a detachment at their work of destruction along the railroad at Ashland and about to burn the place. We charged them and drove them off, killing and capturing six or eight.
At 12 noon we gained the head of Brook Turnpike at Yellow Tavern. Lomax’s Brigade dismounted and formed across the mouth of and facing up the Mountain Road. Our brigade dismounted and formed at right angles to Lomax and on his right flank. In rear of each brigade 4 rifle guns were planted.
Dispatches were sent to General Bragg commanding Richmond to send us reinforcement and we could capture a large portion of the force, perhaps, but he didn’t have any to send. Dispatches from Gordon said he was pressing their rear and skirmishing heavily.
In our three brigades we had something less than 3000. Sheridan’s force was variously estimated at 10 to 12 thousand of which one brigade was mounted infantry.
About 2 P.M. he appeared in our front and the action at once commenced. Leaving a small force to check Gordon, he brought up a very heavy force upon us. The first discharges of our artillery fell right among my regiment, mortally wounding one trooper and crushing the arm of another, besides knocking down the small pines at a dreadful rate. This so disorganized the regiment that its efficiency was greatly impaired. But it was reformed, moved a little to the right, and made a handsome charge in conjunction with the 1st and 4th upon the flank of a column which was attacking Lomax heavily. [We] compelled the enemy to fall back in great disorder.
Finally, Lomax was so heavily pressed that the 1st Virginia had to go to his support. The 3rd took its place under heavy fire and the 2nd closed on the right of the 4th. I had just thrown forward a body of men under a very heavy fire by command of the lieutenant colonel [Carter] commanding the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and, carbine in hand, was doing my best to pick off some of the rascals who were shooting at us, when I received orders to “Retreat in good order.” Whereupon I brought off my command and, observing the line moving back rapidly and in disorder [and] hearing loud huzzahs and a fire of increased intensity from the enemy, I felt convinced that my worst fears were realized.
A few minutes before, a very large mounted body concealed from my view by the conformation of the ground, but evidently large from the loud tramping of the horses, had swept down like an avalanche upon Lomax and it was now evident that they had broken or run over his lines, that the day was lost, and the road towards the fortifications open.
I afterwards learned that at the critical moment Stuart ordered Colonel H.C. Pate of the 5th Virginia Cavalry to hold the enemy back at all hazards, to save the artillery, etc., that that officer replied he would [but] was shot dead in his track and many of his men killed when the rest fell back in confusion. Stuart, endeavoring by his own heroic doing, to rally this command and arouse the flagging spirits of his own old regiment, received his mortal wound and was borne from the field.
He made his cavalry more completely and thoroughly be the “eyes and ears” of the army than any other officer I ever knew. Up to the time of his death, our cavalry had had only two or three pitched battles with the whole of the enemy’s cavalry and therefore we had never had opportunity to thoroughly test his qualities as a cavalry commander in a heavy engagement. But for outpost duty, reconnaissances, scouts, raids, organizing efficient signal and detective corps, etc., etc., he hadn’t his equal in the Southern army.
During [Stuart’s] life, Lee seemed to anticipate, as if by divination, every movement of the enemy. After his death there was always more or less of a perplexity as to what Grant would do next and no positive knowledge of his plans or movements until they were actually being put into execution.
We fell back to the Ashland Road and retreated over the Chickahominy across Half Sink Bridge, the retreat being covered by the 1st and 3rd Virginia Cavalry. Lomax’s Brigade lost heavily and ours considerably. The former lost two or three guns. The gallant captain of artillery, [Major James] Breathed, was twice sabred that day but killed two or three Yankees and got off.
The enemy, turning down Brook Turnpike crossed Brook Creek (leaving us behind as unworthy of further notice) and entered the third [or outer] line of fortifications going into camp on the farm of my most excellent friend, Mr. John Steward—Brook Hill. That night two infantry brigades occupied the second line of fortifications which mounted a number of heavy guns.
This obstinate fight [Yellow Tavern] lasted until about 5 P.M. and considering the great disparity of numbers, was one of which we had no cause to feel ashamed. But its effect was very bad, demonstrating, as it did, to the men that our cavalry with its paucity of arms of improved patterns and half-starved horses couldn’t hope to contend successfully with the larger, splendidly mounted and equipped command of Philip Sheridan, Major General. He had an entire brigade armed with Spencer’s splendid breach-loading rifle which fired accurately 600 yards and seven successive shots without reloading. Many others had the Henry gun, a sixteen-shooter, and all the rest Sharpe’s splendid single-shooter rifle. About half of our men had captured Sharpe’s carbines or his barrels with a miserably made Richmond breach while the others either had muzzle loading Enfield rifles or only their pistols and sabers.
It was universally admitted that, though defeated in this fight, the time we gained General Bragg saved Richmond. In all previous campaigns, the superior pluck and gallantry of our boys had more than balanced the weight and numbers and the great advantages the enemy had in regard to arms and horses. And on nearly every occasion the enemy’s cavalry had been worsted, whatever odds he had, unless backed by infantry. Now, however, a dear bought experience, rigid discipline, constant drilling, and a more thorough organization and complete equipment of three divisions [of about 4,000 men each], gave Sheridan a decided superiority over three divisions [averaging about 2,500 men].
For in addition to other causes, the spirits of our men were greatly depressed by continued disasters to our arms, increased hardships, and lessening prospects of either independence or speedy peace. Yet our dear private soldiery, noble men, whose families, many of them, were suffering for the very necessities of life, some were burnt out of house and home, braced themselves for another great endeavor and as the dangers thickened around the army’s beloved Commander and “Father,” resolved that they would make at least one other earnest endeavor to rise to the height of his sublime courage and fortitude.
Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.