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Custer Vs. Stuart

By Thom Hatch
7/6/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Two cavalry legends galloped into yellow tavern. Only one would gallop out.

President Lincoln forced a major management shift in the Union Army in March 1864 when he promoted Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him top command. The changes trickled down to the cavalry leadership, where young Brig. Gen. George A. Custer found himself taking orders from Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. As the spring progressed, Grant was determined to use the Army of the Potomac to menace Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. But after the grueling and inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Sheridan set his sights on a specific target: Lee’s renowned cavalier, Jeb Stuart.

At daylight, May 9, 1864, as infantry battled at Spotsylvania Court House, Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry— seven brigades, six batteries and a wagon train, 10,000 men strong—saddled up and rode out from Spotsylvania in a column of fours that stretched for 13 miles and required four hours to pass any given point.

Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade led the impressive procession, which headed east of Spotsylvania then south on the Telegraph Road. Sheridan purposely moved at an easy pace, hoping the column would prove an irresistible target to Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart.

This bold move to pass around the farthest of Stuart’s outposts. was immediately detected by Confederate Brig. Gen. Williams Wickham’s brigade. Wickham dispatched a courier to inform Stuart, and then dashed off in pursuit. The Confederate cavalry reached the Union rear guard and engaged in a running battle. The Federals made a determined stand near Mitchell’s Shop, temporarily fighting off the Rebels. By this time, Stuart mounted three brigades—about 4,500 men—and took up the chase.

Sheridan turned his column toward Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, indicating to Stuart that the march would proceed toward Richmond and that he needed to interpose his cavalry between Sheridan and the capital. Stuart was also concerned about his family, who had established residence in Beaver Dam Station and were now in imminent danger.

Shortly before sunset, Custer’s Wolverines approached Beaver Dam Station to observe a detachment of the enemy escorting about 400 Union prisoners, captured during the Battle of the Wilderness, toward the railroad depot for transport to Richmond. One battalion of the 1st Michigan was ordered to charge the Rebels, and succeeded in liberating the prisoners and capturing a number of the enemy.

The piercing shriek of locomotive whistles from the direction of the depot soon reached the Union troopers’ ears. The impatient engineers were waiting for delivery of their human cargo, but were also there to restock Robert E. Lee’s advance supply base.

Custer’s 1st and 6th Michigan dashed to the station and easily seized two locomotives and three trains laden with several million dollars’ worth of supplies destined for the Confederate army. Custer reported the boxcars were full of “bacon (200,000 pounds), flour, meal, sugar, molasses, liquor (confiscated by provost guards), and medical stores; also several hundred stand of arms, a large number of hospital tents.” In all, supplies composing 1.5 million rations had been waylaid.

Custer distributed all the rations his men could carry, then burned the remainder. He also ordered the 100 railroad cars and depot put to the torch, disabled the locomotives by firing artillery shells through the boilers, tore up the tracks in the vicinity and cut 10 miles of telegraph line. The Wolverines then departed to bivouac south of the South Anna River.

Stuart rode through the night, crossed the North Anna River at Davenport’s Bridge, and reached Beaver Dam Station on the morning of May 10. His wife and children were staying at the station’s namesake plantation, owned by Colonel Edmund Fontaine. To his profound relief, his family had not been harmed. Without taking the time to dismount, Jeb visited briefly with his wife Flora, affectionately kissed her goodbye and rode off with Major Reid Venable.

Stuart was strangely somber, and rode for some distance in contemplation before he confided to Venable that he never expected to outlive the war, and further, that he did not want to survive if the South were defeated.

 

SHERIDAN ROUSED HIS MEN EARLY ON May 10 and angled toward Hanover Junction. His troopers would cover 18 miles to Ground-Squirrel Bridge before resting for the night.

Stuart moved quickly to place his cavalry between the Union horsemen and Richmond. He dispatched Gordon’s Brigade to nip at Sheridan’s heels, and led the three other brigades on an alternate route in an effort to get ahead of the Yankees.

General Wesley Merritt’s Division led Sheridan’s cavalry on the move down Mountain Road toward its junction with Telegraph Road. Sheridan was confident this was the area where Stuart would make his stand.

At 10 a.m. May 11, Stuart and his troopers arrived at the intersection of Telegraph and Old Mountain roads, known as Yellow Tavern for a nearby abandoned inn whose bright color had by now faded to gray. At that point, the two roads merged into the Brook Turnpike, which led to Richmond—only six miles beyond.

Stuart had succeeded in placing his men ahead of the Union cavalry’s drive toward Richmond, and mulled his options. He could assume a position directly in front of Sheridan’s approach or remain on the flank where he could attack his enemy as they rode toward the capital. With odds stacked against him by at least 3 to 1—10,000 Yanks as opposed to 3,000 Rebs—he decided to strike the enemy’s flanks rather than attempt to absorb a frontal assault.

Stuart dispatched Major Henry McClellan to Richmond to inform General Braxton Bragg, who commanded the city’s defense force. The eventual strategy would depend on Bragg’s ability to defend the capital. Stuart, however, was unaware that Sheridan’s primary objective was not Richmond, but the legend of invincibility possessed by the Confederate cavalry and its commander.

Without knowing Sheridan’s intentions or how many troops were at Bragg’s disposal, Stuart finally compromised between his defensive options. He deployed Wickham’s brigade along a ridgeline on the right, parallel to Telegraph Road facing south-south-west. Lomax was placed on the left along another ridge at right angles to the road. Stuart’s dismounted cavalrymen maintained an excellent defensive position, supported by several artillery pieces, but were greatly outnumbered.

Within an hour, the Union cavalry had advanced to the vicinity of Yellow Tavern and observed the line of gray-clad defenders. One detachment was dispatched across country to seize the Brook Turnpike and effectively cut Stuart off from Richmond. Merritt sent Gens. Alfred Gibbs and Thomas Devin to feel out Stuart’s lines, while Custer’s Wolverines waited in reserve. The Union troops were met with intense fire from the woods. Full-scale combat ensued, much of it hand to hand, as the Union force attempted to assert its will.

Custer’s brigade was finally ordered to the front, and at once came under blistering fire from the woods directly ahead. Custer ordered the 5th and 6th Michigan forward to silence the Rebel riflemen. Before the 6th could dismount, an eager Colonel Russell A. Alger led his 5th ahead on foot into an open field that stretched for some 400 yards to a ridge where Lomax’s men waited. Alger’s troops immediately came under a vicious cross fire as scores of Southerners materialized from the timber to draw a bead on the exposed Yankees. In the words of Sergeant E.L. Tripp: “We were trying to return the fire, shooting in three directions.”

Custer galloped up in clear view of enemy sharpshooters, and shouted to Alger’s men: “Lie down, men—lie down! We’ll fix them!” He ordered Major James Kidd’s 6th Michigan to contend with the flank, and, joining that unit with the 5th, formed a skirmish line and moved steadily forward. Custer’s brazen maneuver—not to mention the firepower produced by the seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles—drove the surprised Virginians up the slope to their original position. The Wolverines remained in a swale, and exchanged fire with the enemy for about two hours while Custer went off to reconnoiter and consult with Merritt.

 

CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES MOUNTED as the Yankees probed every inch of the line in an effort to detect any vulnerability. At about 2 p.m., McClellan returned from Richmond. His message from Bragg relieved Stuart’s concern for the capital. Richmond was defended by 4,000 irregular troops supported by artillery, and three brigades from Petersburg were en route. Bragg was confident his force could withstand an enemy assault.

During a lull in the fighting, Stuart conversed for more than an hour with McClellan, Venable and other staff members. He intended to maintain his present position, and speculated that if he were reinforced by infantry coming up from Richmond he could assume the offensive and cripple the Yankee cavalry. “I cannot see how they can escape,” he observed.

Stuart thought the worst was over, and Sheridan would at some point break contact and head south.

 

THE IDEA OF WITHDRAWING WHEN HIS quarry was at bay never entered Sheridan’s mind. In fact, he was finalizing a plan to strike the entire length of the Confederate line with one massive assault—denying Stuart the opportunity to shift reinforcements to any one endangered point. But before Sheridan could launch the attack, Stuart opened up with an artillery barrage from the south end of his line that wreaked havoc on Custer’s horse holders and the ranks of the 1st and 7th Michigan.

Custer informed Merritt that he had detected a weakness he could exploit with a mounted charge. Custer rode off to form his command as Sheridan joined Merritt and was briefed about the plan. “Bully for Custer!” Sheridan exclaimed. “I’ll wait and see it.”

Custer formed Lt. Col. Peter Stagg’s veteran 1st Michigan in a mounted column of squadrons out of sight in the trees, and ordered Alger’s 5th Michigan and Kidd’s 6th Michigan to move forward on foot as a diversion to confuse the enemy. He was concerned about his left, and borrowed the 1st Vermont from Wilson’s 3rd Division to guard that flank.

“My attention was diverted by what appeared to be a tornado sweeping in the rear,” recalled Lieutenant Asa B. Isham of the 7th Michigan. “It was the First Michigan Cavalry, in a column of squadrons, moving at the trot. It wheeled upon my flank as a pivot with beautiful precision, and it came to a halt a little in advance of me, squarely in front and in full view of the Rebel guns. This splendid body of horsemen was halted but for a moment, when General Custer reined in at the head of it with an order to ‘charge,’ and away it went toward the guns. It was swallowed up in dust and smoke, a volume of exulting shouts smote the air, the earth shook and it was evident that a besom of destruction was sweeping over the face of nature.”

“His [Custer’s] headquarters flag—of the gayest colors—was flying in advance of the moving mass of glittering blades,” one of Merritt’s staff remembered. “The shrill blast of one hundred bugles and the familiar air of ‘Yankee Doodle’ rang out upon the battlefield while brave men of the Michigan brigade rode boot to boot into what seemed the very jaws of death.”

The Confederate battery intensified its shell and canister barrage directed at both the diversionary force and the riders as they entered the clearing. To make matters worse, the terrain was rife with obstacles. The horsemen anxiously waited while five fences were opened for passage, and temporarily broke formation to cross a narrow bridge three at a time. Advancing to within 200 yards of the battery on the bluff, the troopers charged with what Custer termed “a yell that spread terror before them.”

Carbine and cannon fire from the advancing 5th and 6th Michigan enabled the charging horsemen to gain momentum and sweep into position before any effective resistance could be mounted. The Confederate gunners were overwhelmed. Many fell under the sabers of the Wolverines, while two cannon, two limbers of ammunition and a large number of prisoners were captured.

Stuart hurried with his staff to the scene of this breach to encourage Lomax’s regiments, which had fallen back about 400 yards to a ravine and reformed at right angles with Wickham to halt the Yankee advance. Stuart sat exposed to the enemy fire as he directed his men. Venable remarked that men behind trees and other cover were being hit, and perhaps Stuart should be more cautious. Stuart laughingly replied, “I don’t reckon there is any danger!”

Sheridan was elated by Custer’s audacious actions, and jubilantly ordered Merritt to “send a staff officer to General Custer and give him my compliments. The conduct of himself and his brigade deserves the most honorable mention.”

But Custer’s job was far from finished. The 1st Michigan was exhausted and required reinforcement to dislodge the Confederates who had withdrawn to the ravine. He dispatched the 7th Michigan toward the enemy line, but the terrain impeded progress and the troopers became easy targets for Rebel sharpshooters.

Stuart rode to the left flank to join the 1st Virginia just as a combined force of blue-clad cavalrymen assailed that position.

To relieve the pressure on the 1st Michigan, Custer had assembled every available man from his four brigades of Wolverines, and, reinforced by the 1st Vermont, threw them all at once against the tenuous Confederate position.

“Steady, men, steady; give it to them!” Stuart calmly advised. He emptied his pistol at the onrushing Union troopers, but his line virtually dissolved from the might of Custer’s charge. Stuart shouted for them to rally, but the retreat was in full stride.

Nearby, 44-year-old Private John A. Huff of Company E, 5th Michigan, a veteran of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, steadied his .44-caliber Colt pistol upon a fence rail. He peered through the sights to observe an officer wearing a plumed hat who sat astride his horse—only 10 to 15 yards distant—while firing his own pistol in the midst of the confusion. Huff took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger.

Jeb Stuart was about to shout a command when a sudden, stabbing pain in his right side knocked him off balance. He reeled in the saddle, his head dropping, his hat tumbling to the ground, but remained astride his horse. Concerned troopers rushed to Stuart’s side. “Go tell General [Fitzhugh] Lee and Doctor [John B.] Fontaine to come here,” Jeb rasped.

Captain Gus W. Dorsey led Stuart’s horse toward the rear, but the animal resisted and became unmanageable. Stuart asked Dorsey to help him down. The battle still raged, and Stuart ordered Dorsey to gather his men and engage the enemy, but the captain refused to leave until Stuart was safely aboard another horse and headed for the rear.

Private Fred Pitts soon arrived with his horse, and Stuart was helped into the saddle. Dorsey, Pitts and others helped balance Stuart atop this mount, and led him beyond the limits of another Union charge. All the while, Stuart implored his men to repel the enemy and protect Richmond from Sheridan. An ambulance moved Stuart to the low land near the bridge, which would assure that they were completely out of range. He would later be transported to Richmond.

 

SHERIDAN PERMITTED HIS MEN SEVERAL hours of rest and celebration before resuming his march down Brook Pike toward Richmond. The Rebels had mined the road, and Sheridan ordered 25 prisoners to crawl on hands and knees in front of the column to alleviate this threat. But that was not the end of Sheridan’s obstacles to taking Richmond. A Rebel spy had managed to appoint himself guide for the march into Richmond, and led Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson’s division directly into the city’s defenses. Wilson’s troops were taking a beating from the Home Guard, and were pinned down. Sheridan wisely called a halt to bivouac for the night and assess his situation in the daylight.

Long after dark, the wounded Stuart arrived at the home of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer, on Grace Street in Richmond. Word of his wounding had spread, and the foremost medical men of the city were waiting to attend him. After examinations, the consensus opinion was that nothing could be done.

May 12 dawned with rain pouring down, and Sheridan could now fully comprehend the ticklishness of his situation on the outskirts of Richmond. His cavalry was caught between the enemy earthworks and the swollen Chickahominy River. The Confederates gave every indication they would mount an attack.

In addition, Stuart’s cavalry under Fitz Lee were engaged with Gregg in the rear. Sheridan remained confident that he could take Richmond, but realized he could not hold it. He must fight his way out before being trapped by Rebel reinforcements. He ordered Custer to secure a crossing five miles above the city, on the north side of the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge.

Custer discovered the bridge’s planks had been removed, rendering it impassable. The only other way across was a railroad trestle too hazardous for horses to cross. On the north bank, Confederate cavalrymen lay in wait with artillery and rifles. Custer dismounted Alger’s and Kidd’s regiments, and ordered them to move across the railroad trestle as quickly as possible. The Rebels instantly opened up with artillery in an effort to destroy the trestle.

Alger’s men were the first across, and fanned out toward the left to lay down a base of fire to cover the movement of the 6th. Custer was observing the crossing when a shell exploded in a ditch near him, splattering him with mud. He remarked to Major Charles Deane: “Well, that is pretty hot for us, Major, but we will get them out of that pretty soon.”

Before long, Kidd’s 6th Michigan had joined Alger on the other side, and they successfully kept the Rebels at bay while engineer and pioneer teams laid a floor across the rails utilizing cut timber and lumber from nearby houses.

By mid-morning, the trestle was deemed negotiable. Custer led the 7th Michigan and elements of the 5th and 6th across, while the 1st Michigan was dispatched to rout the Rebels. The Wolverines chased the enemy for two miles, capturing several prisoners.

 

SHERIDAN WAS SO IMPRESSED WITH Custer’s initiative that he remarked to Alger, “Custer is the ablest man in the Cavalry Corps.” The actions of Gen. James Wilson, however, were less than acceptable. His blunder the previous evening had nearly cost Sheridan the Cavalry Corps. The 1st Vermont, which had been on detached duty with Custer and now returned to Wilson, sent a message to the Michigan Brigade requesting “a pair of Custer’s old boots” to lead their division.

Jeb Stuart was visited by Von Borcke in the morning; later Henry McClellan, who had delivered messages from Fitz Lee to General Bragg, arrived at his bedside. Between spasms of pain, Stuart dictated his final wishes to his trusted adjutant.

Stuart was interrupted by the sound of distant artillery fire, and inquired about its origin. McClellan explained that Fitz Lee was attempting to trap Sheridan down the Chickahominy. “God grant that he be successful,” Stuart fervently answered; then, with a sigh, “But I must be prepared for another world.” After a moment, Stuart said, “Major, Fitz Lee may need you.” McClellan understood that it was time for him to leave. He pressed his commander’s hand before heading to the door, where he encountered President Jefferson Davis, who had entered.

The president departed after a brief visit. Stuart’s condition worsened throughout the afternoon. He suffered painful seizures, and passed in and out of consciousness, occasionally shouting orders, and often asking about Flora.

At 7 p.m., everyone in the house gathered around Stuart’s bed. Rev. Joshua Peterkin, an Episcopal minister, led them in prayers and the singing of “Rock of Ages,” Stuart’s favorite hymn. Stuart made a feeble effort to sing along, then turned to Brewer, and said, “I am going fast now. I am resigned; God’s will be done.” He then drifted into unconsciousness.

At 7:38, James Ewell Brown Stuart passed into the hands of his God.

 

Adapted from Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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