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Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's overland campaign had ground to a halt. In two days of bitter but inconclusive fighting in the Virginia wilderness — that forbidding expanse of second-growth pine and tangled thicket below the Rapidan River — Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had fought the larger and better-equipped Army of the Potomac to a standstill. The daring and aggressive Lee had foiled his enemy's attempt to slice through the Wilderness and march on to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Aided by the great profusion of natural cover, Lee had parried the thrusts of Major General George Gordon Meade, the Union army's commander, and had blunted the broad strategy imparted to Meade by Grant, who was accompanying the Army of the Potomac in his role as general in chief of all U.S. armies. By the evening of May 7, 1864, the massive Union host sat stalled along the forest's southern rim.
Lee gave much credit for his success to his cavalry, especially its leader, Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart. Throughout the fighting that had just ended, the 31-year-old native of Patrick County, Virginia, had made inspired use of his 9,000 horsemen. As on numerous fields the previous fall, this most celebrated mounted leader of the war took the measure of his 12,000 opponents in the Union cavalry, currently led by a newcomer to the Virginia theater, the diminutive and feisty Major General Philip H. Sheridan. On the first day of fighting in the Wilderness, Stuart's savvy veterans cut off and pummeled Sheridan's advance echelon. On the second day they put heavy pressure on other elements of Sheridan's command, not only slowing their advance and that of the infantrymen in their rear, but also denying Meade critical intelligence on Lee's dispositions. To cap their performance, on May 7 Stuart's riders frustrated Sheridan's attempt to penetrate south of Todd's Tavern and open a way for Grant and Meade to exit the Wilderness in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House.
While Lee and Stuart worked closely and cordially in tandem, the same could not be said of Meade and Sheridan. Grant had brought Sheridan from Tennessee to command the Army of the Potomac's cavalry without asking for Meade's consent. Both Meade and Sheridan were highly competent officers, but Meade had a temper as volatile as Sheridan's. The two cooperated well enough during their first 24 hours below the Rapidan, but a clash of wills and temperaments seemed inevitable. By the evening of May 7, it was on the horizon.
The trouble began in earnest on the afternoon of the 6th, when Meade received an erroneous report that Confederate infantry had gotten between Sheridan and the army's infantry, threatening to encircle the cavalry. Against Sheridan's protests, Meade ordered the cavalry to withdraw from Todd's Tavern. The next morning, as Sheridan had foreseen, Grant ordered the cavalry back to spearhead the army's march south to Spotsylvania. By then, however, one of Stuart's divisions, under Major General Fitzhugh Lee, occupied the very works around the tavern that the Federals had just vacated. It took an all-day slugging match to evict the newcomers, saddling Sheridan with a casualty list he blamed on Meade's overreaction to bad news.
Sheridan's anger and frustration were still simmering when the next provocation came. Late on the 7th, after the fighting had died down, Meade went forward with his staff to inspect his positions below Todd's Tavern. Visiting the bivouacs of two of Sheridan's three divisions, he learned that the commanders — Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and David McMurtrie Gregg — had received no marching orders for the next morning. Without immediately informing Sheridan, he issued orders of his own. He sent Merritt's men to secure the Brock Road, the most direct route to Spotsylvania from the north, and he directed Gregg to head southwest along the Catharpin Road to guard Corbin's Bridge over the Po River, a logical avenue of enemy pursuit. Meade did not communicate with Sheridan's third division, under Brigadier General James Harrison Wilson, which already had orders to seize Spotsylvania early the next morning and hold it until the infantry arrived.
When Sheridan learned of Meade's intervention, he was incensed. He later claimed he intended for Merritt and Gregg to secure not only Corbin's Bridge, but also two other spans over the meandering Po — Snell's Bridge and the so-called Block House Bridge, both of which offered the enemy alternate routes to Spotsylvania. Meade's orders placed Merritt's command a mile or more from Block House Bridge and left Snell's completely unguarded.
Because Sheridan never issued orders of his own, it is difficult to validate his claim that he was more farsighted than Meade. As he had proved on previous occasions, he was not averse to bending the truth to win an argument. Hindsight, however, placed Meade's decisions in a bad light. Early on the morning of the 8th, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson, temporarily commanding Lee's First Corps, led 12,000 Confederate infantry and artillery along the Shady Grove Church Road, across the Po at Block House Bridge, and into Spotsylvania. Supported by elements of Stuart's cavalry, Anderson drove out Wilson's troopers, who had arrived not much earlier. Although it would take two weeks of fighting to establish the fact beyond doubt, Lee had thwarted Grant's first attempt to pass around his south flank on the road to Richmond.
The events of May 7 were enough to cause a rift between Meade and his cavalry leader, but the breach widened after 3:00 the next morning, when the army's infantry vanguard, the V Corps of Major General G. K. Warren, began its march toward Spotsylvania. At about the same time, Merritt's troopers set out to clear the Brock Road, as Meade had ordered. But, as Lieutenant George B. Sanford of the 1st U.S. Cavalry observed, 'We had certainly not advanced a mile and daylight had scarcely broken, when we were again as heavily engaged as on the previous evening. For perhaps an hour or more we managed to make some slight progress, but then by the increasing weight of the fire it became evident that Stuart had been reinforced by the Confederate infantry, and our advance came practically to a standstill.' Soon, Warren's infantrymen found their path blocked by Union troopers, horses, and wagons, and it became clear they would not reach Spotsylvania in time to evict Anderson.
Warren, whose temper rivaled Meade's and Sheridan's, complained loudly about the foul-up, which he blamed on the cavalry in his front. Upon hearing the criticism, Sheridan reacted just as angrily. Arriving on the site of the traffic jam about 5:00 a.m., he pulled Merritt's men off the road, cursing Meade's interference.
When the V Corps at last went forward around 6:00, some of Warren's subordinates unleashed invective of their own. Brigadier General John C. Robinson, the bushy-whiskered commander of Warren's advance division, was heard to shout, 'Oh, get your double damned cavalry out of the way, there is nothing ahead but a little cavalry, we will soon clear them out!' One cavalryman who overheard this outburst thought to himself, 'Old man, you will find something more than a little cavalry on ahead; but on he went and in less than fifteen minutes afterwards I saw them carry my General Robinson back on a stretcher with a leg shot off.'
Shortly before noon, as the V Corps continued to make glacial progress against Fitz Lee and Anderson, Sheridan caught up with Meade. Then erupted one of the loudest, bitterest shouting matches ever overheard by the Army of the Potomac headquarters staff. Meade echoed Warren's criticism that the cavalry should have cleared the Brock Road long before the infantry reached it. Sheridan retorted that Meade's unwarranted meddling in the cavalry's operations had caused the foul-up. As Sheridan admitted, 'One word brought on another, until, finally, I told him that I could whip Stuart if he [Meade] would only let me, but since he insisted on giving the cavalry directions without consulting or even notifying me, he could henceforth command the Cavalry Corps himself — that I would not give it another order.' Sheridan stalked off in a huff.
Such flagrant insubordination could not go unpunished. Meade went directly to Grant's headquarters, where he recounted the episode, epithet for epithet. No doubt he expected Grant to take his side in the quarrel, so he must have been shocked when Grant appeared to act otherwise. But when he related Sheridan's boast that he could defeat Stuart if given a free hand, Grant is said to have replied, 'Did he say so? Then let him go out and do it.'
Meade must have been shocked. Instead of disciplining Sheridan, he was forced to send him on the mission of his dreams. By 1:00 p.m. that day, he had written an order directing Sheridan to concentrate his command, stockpile three days' rations and an appropriate amount of forage, cut loose from the army, detour eastward around Spotsylvania, and head for Haxall's Landing. At that supply base, 50-some miles to the south, Sheridan was to link with Major General Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James, which was operating directly against Richmond. There, the cavalry would refit prior to rejoining its own command. The operation, which the enemy undoubtedly would interpret as a raid on Richmond, was principally an effort to draw Stuart's men into the open for a finish fight.
Sheridan was delighted with his orders, which validated his belief that cavalry's primary role was independent operations, not close support of the main army. He realized the magnitude of the opportunity handed to him, and he vowed to make the most of it. As he later wrote, 'I sent for Gregg, Merritt, and Wilson and communicated the order to them, saying at the same time, 'We are going out to fight Stuart's cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me; we will give him a fair, square fight; we are strong, and I know we can beat him, and in view of my recent representations to General Meade I shall expect nothing but success."
Early the next morning, more than 10,000 blue-jacketed troopers, accompanied by horse artillery batteries, ammunition wagons, ambulances, and pack mules trotted out the plank road toward Fredericksburg, then south along the historic Telegraph Road toward Richmond. Sheridan had elected to take all but five partially dismounted regiments. Never before had such a throng set off on a mission in the eastern theater. As if to better display the power at his disposal, Sheridan marched his force in a single column more than 12 miles long. From the start, the gait was slow and deliberate, in contrast to the near-killing pace Sheridan's predecessors had forced on men and mounts. The day was warm and dry and this, added to the prospect of an open road after days of battle in the maddening Wilderness, lifted the troopers' spirits. The only blot on the enthusiasm was the effect that thousands of hooves had upon the sun-baked Telegraph Road. An officer in Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer's Wolverine Brigade of Merritt's division observed, 'Clouds of dust…fill eyes, nose, and air passages, [and] give external surfaces a uniform, dirty gray color, and form such an impenetrable veil that, for many minutes together, you can not see even your hand before you.'
The dust gave away Sheridan's position and hinted at his intentions. Just as Sheridan had hoped, Stuart's scouts tracked the Union column almost from the hour it set out. First to observe its movements were members of Brigadier General Williams C. Wickham's brigade of Fitz Lee's division, patrolling the Confederate far right south of Fredericksburg. Wickham reported the size of Sheridan's column to Stuart, noted that it appeared to be on a raid and opined that it was heading for Beaver Dam Station, a Virginia Central Railroad depot 30 miles above Richmond.
The report reached stuart east of Spotsylvania Court House, where he was watching Brigadier General Lunsford L. Lomax's brigade of Fitz Lee's division battle Meade's vanguard. At once, Stuart understood that he must bar Sheridan's path, but his tactical options were limited. His first division, under Major General Wade Hampton, was well to the west and north, engaged along the Po River. Realizing that Hampton could not relocate in timely fashion, Stuart decided to pursue with Lomax's Virginians and Marylanders — who in midafternoon were relieved by infantry — and the North Carolina brigade of Brigadier General James B. Gordon, recently detached from Hampton's command. These forces would be augmented by Wickham's Virginians, whom Stuart ordered to trail the Federal column, slowing it as much as possible. The Confederate pursuit force was less than half the size of Sheridan's party, but Stuart had beaten longer odds on more than a few occasions.
By 3:00 p.m. Stuart was heading south from Spotsylvania, accompanied by Fitz Lee, Lomax's troopers, a horse artillery unit, and a two-gun section of a second battery. Sheridan had such a head start that this force, even riding at top speed, would not catch him until the next morning. Having much the shorter route, Wickham's troops enjoyed what one of his troopers described as 'the satisfaction of harassing the enemy to our heart's content.' Late in the afternoon they made first contact at Jerrell's Mill on the Ta River, about 22 miles from Sheridan's starting point. The blow fell squarely on the rear guard, part of Brigadier General Henry E. Davies's brigade of Gregg's division. Davies eventually repulsed the attackers, but for a time his position was awash in chaos as panicked troopers fled through the ranks of the next regiments in line.
After destroying Jerrell's Mill and the grain and flour stockpiled there, the Federals resumed their march. They found, however, that they could not shake Wickham, whose point riders struck time and again in hit-and-run fashion. At first an irritant, the small-unit assaults became a cause of alarm as casualties mounted. Finally, Davies had had enough. Near Mitchell's Shop, five miles south of Jerrell's Mill, he set a trap by having his rear guard feign retreat. As the Federals raced along a bend in the narrow, tree-lined road, Wickham's men sped forward, shouting in triumph, directly into a crossfire from dismounted members of the 1st New Jersey and 1st Pennsylvania, positioned behind good cover on both sides of the road. Dozens of Confederates fell dead or wounded before the survivors managed to pull back. An angry and frustrated Wickham collected his men, tended to his casualties, and sent a small force to observe the enemy at a more prudent distance. He then waited for Stuart, Lee, and the rest of the pursuit force to join him.
Stuart and Lee, riding ahead of the main body, did not reach Mitchell's Shop until nightfall. The bulk of Lomax's brigade arrived about an hour later. Gordon's men, whose disengagement from Spotsylvania had been slow and precarious, reined in some time before midnight. By then Stuart had decided to split the force so recently concentrated. He sent Fitz Lee, with Wickham's and Lomax's men, south to Beaver Dam Station. There, they could counter any attempt by Sheridan to cut the Virginia Central close to Richmond or to move against the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Meanwhile, Stuart accompanied Gordon's brigade farther west to oppose any raiding parties that slipped around Lee's right flank.
Stuart's side operation proved unnecessary, but early the next morning Lee caught up with Sheridan's column, which was breaking camp just above the North Anna after a long, leisurely sleep. Quickly emplacing his battery-and-a-half, Lee shelled the Federal rear — now held by Wilson's division — as it began to accompany Gregg's men across the stream to join Merritt near Beaver Dam Station. As one perturbed raider put it, 'Reveille was sounded by the enemy with artillery and carbines, instead of the friendly trumpet or bugle.' As the raiders fell into line, dismounted, to oppose the intruders, Sheridan sent Custer's brigade of Merritt's division to occupy and destroy Beaver Dam Station. At that strategic depot the Federals not only torched a vast amount of railroad property but also liberated nearly 400 Union prisoners of war from trains carrying them to Richmond prisons.
The fight along the North Anna was sharp but brief. Believing the terrain unsuited to a decisive engagement, Sheridan had his entire column moving toward Richmond, 27 miles away, by midmorning. Aware that he lacked the manpower to force a longer encounter, Fitz Lee let him go and crossed the river to inspect the smoldering ruins of Beaver Dam Station. Stuart and Gordon joined him there a few hours later.
Having guessed wrong about Sheridan's westward strike, Stuart now suspected he might head east to Hanover Junction, where he could cut not only the Virginia Central but also the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. Again, Stuart divided his force. Because the Federals had pushed directly south from Beaver Dam, he sent Gordon and his North Carolinians in that direction, while he accompanied Lee's brigades cross-country toward the junction. Before starting out, however, Stuart ran an impromptu errand of his own. Accompanied by a single aide, Lieutenant A. Reid Venable, he left Beaver Dam and rode a mile and a half to the Edmond Fontaine plantation. There, he fell into the arms of his family, who had been staying as guests of Colonel Fontaine. After embracing his wife, Flora, Stuart kissed four-year-old James, Jr., and 17-month-old Virginia Pelham Stuart. The 'most affectionate fare-well,' as Venable pronounced it, lasted only minutes; then Stuart and he galloped back to the main body.
The two officers overtook Lee's column on the march and accompanied it to Hanover Junction. There, Stuart found he had guessed both right and wrong about his enemy's latest intentions. Sheridan had not attacked the junction. Instead, he had continued south across the Little and South Anna rivers. But below the South Anna he had indeed turned eastward toward Ashland Station on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Rail-road; in fact, only the Federal rear guard was still at that depot, the main body having pushed on south. At last convinced that Sheridan intended to attack Richmond, Stuart sent one regiment, the 2nd Virginia, ahead to Ashland, where it chased off enemy stragglers. Gordon's brigade followed shortly after, aiming for the rear of the main column. Stuart and the remaining men, including the horse artillery, rode southeastward at a furious clip, determined to intercept the Federals short of the capital.
Sheridan's column took a roundabout route toward Richmond, moving parallel to the railroad for some miles after leaving Ashland before angling off in the direction of an old, abandoned watering hole known as Yellow Tavern, six miles north of Richmond. Divining Sheridan's objective, Stuart beat him to that dilapidated landmark, where the Mountain and Telegraph roads came down from the northwest and northeast, respectively, to form the Brook Turnpike, a major avenue to Richmond. Sizing up the area for its defensive potential in the midmorning of May 11, Stuart determined to make a stand. He deployed Lomax's brigade astride and east of the Telegraph Road and Wickham's men farther to the north and west. The troopers, most of them dismounted, took a position behind farm fences and atop tree-covered ridges. Artillery units trundled into position at various points along both lines. All weapons — cannon, carbines, pistols — pointed west toward the Mountain Road, on which the Federals could be seen advancing.
Sheridan's point riders came into view at about 11:00. Satisfied that the showdown he awaited had arrived, Sheridan moved immediately to the attack. Even as he did so, however, he had to turn about and confront Gordon's men, who thudded into the Union rear, again covered by Gregg. As had happened two days earlier, the attack created a panic in the Union ranks before order could be restored. A fierce saber and pistol battle between mostly mounted opponents followed and lasted well over an hour. The men of the 10th New York of Colonel J. Irvin Gregg's brigade found themselves in the thick of the action. One New Yorker had his skull crushed by a heavy blade in the hands of a hulking Confederate. A second killed an opponent literally at point-blank range, pressing his carbine against the man's back, pulling the trigger, and shattering his vertebrae. A third fell from his saddle in the midst of the melee and escaped being trampled only by grabbing the tail of a passing horse, which pulled him to safety. The strange battle slackened only when reinforcements from Davies's brigade rushed up to beat back the attackers and hold them at arm's length.
While Gregg battled Gordon, Sheridan advanced his main force in the opposite direction. Ordering large portions of each division to dismount, he sent Wilson's men to occupy Wickham and, farther south, Merritt's troopers to oppose Lomax and gain access to the turnpike to Richmond. Both commands made headway — at first slowly, against fierce resistance, especially from Stuart's horse artillery. Then, as Sheridan's greater numbers began to tell, his men made steadier progress toward the Telegraph Road and the Brook Turnpike. By perhaps 3:00 p.m., the Confederates had been forced back at all points, although a counterattack on the right by Wickham's Virginians had regained most of the ground lost in that sector. More importantly, Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin's brigade of Merritt's division had fought its way afoot around Stuart's lower flank and held the upper reaches of the turnpike.
At this point, the Confederates appeared to be holding on for dear life. Sheridan, whose most memorable characteristic was his killer instinct, determined to press his advantage as far as it would go. He saw an opening when a battery along the Confederate left flank — Captain Wiley H. Griffin's Baltimore Light Artillery — began to infiltrate the Union right-center, held by the Michigan Brigade. At Sheridan's urging, Custer — who shared his superior's predilection to go for the jugular — advanced the dismounted troopers of his 5th and 6th Michigan to clear a path for a mounted charge by the rest of his brigade. The carabineers were successful enough that, at about 4:00 p.m., Custer sent forward the mounted 1st Michigan — a regiment he had led in a similar attack on the third day at Gettysburg — followed by elements of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
With a fierce yell, the charging troopers covered the distance to their target — approximately 400 yards — with remarkable speed, especially considering the obstacles in their path, which included several fences and a meandering watercourse. Despite the resistance they met on all sides, the Wolverines reached Griffin's battery before its guns could be trained on them. Slicing downward with their sabers, they knocked hapless gunners off their feet. Other Michiganders chased off the battery's mounted supports. Still others swarmed over the guns, capturing two of them and carrying them off in triumph along with a pair of ammunition-laden limbers and dozens of prisoners.
Noting Custer's success, Sheridan gave the order to advance on all fronts. With renewed momentum, Wilson's men began to drive in Wickham's, while the bulk of Merritt's command pushed back the troops on either side of the captured battery. Taking part in the push were many of the dismounted men who had paved the way for the 1st Michigan, including Private John A. Huff of Armada, Michigan. Formerly a member of one of Colonel Hiram Berdan's celebrated sharpshooter regiments, Huff had reenlisted in the spring of 1864 and opted to ride to war with the 5th Michigan. Ironically, he now found himself charging a Rebel battle line afoot, lugging a Colt Army revolver instead of a rifle with a telescopic sight. Still imbued with the sharpshooter instinct, Huff singled out an officer in a plumed hat, sitting on his horse along the Telegraph Road just north of where the battery had gone under. The rider was firing his own pistol at a group of Huff's comrades. Taking careful aim at a distance of more than 400 yards, the private drilled his victim in the right side of his abdomen with a 44-caliber bullet and then raced for his own lines to avoid retaliation.
As Huff retreated, members of Stuart's staff turned to see their general, an expert horseman, reel in his saddle. When a crimson stain spread along the waist of his gray jacket, they realized to their horror that Stuart had been wounded. One of Stuart's closest subordinates, Captain Gustavus W. Dorsey of the 1st Virginia, was close enough to reach up and steady him in the saddle. When Dorsey asked Stuart about his condition, Stuart replied in a quiet voice, 'I'm afraid they've killed me, Dorsey.' By this point, both Wickham's and Lomax's men were falling back to positions beyond the Telegraph Road, giving Sheridan complete access to the Brook Turnpike and Richmond. Afraid that his entire line was collapsing, Stuart at first refused to be taken to the rear. He shouted to Dorsey and all near him, 'Go back to your men and drive the enemy!'
But it was too late. The sun was going down and the battle was ending as a strategic victory for the Federals. All the Confederates could do was escort Stuart from the field. The noise and carnage on every side had rendered Stuart's horse unmanageable, so Dorsey helped the general to the ground, placed him against the base of a tree, rounded up another horse, and, with the assistance of comrades, helped him remount. Holding the suffering Stuart in the saddle, Dorsey and the others helped him to the rear. En route, an increasing number of riders passed them at breakneck speed. The sight so overwhelmed Stuart that he called out in an anguished voice, '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.'
About half a mile behind the front, Confederates placed Stuart in an ambulance, which he shared with Reid Venable and a second aide, Lieutenant Walter Hullihen. Soon afterward, Fitz Lee and Stuart's medical director, Major John B. Fontaine, arrived. Stuart formally passed his command to an ashen-faced Fitz Lee, and then Doctor Fontaine turned Stuart onto his side and gently probed the wound. During or immediately after the procedure, Stuart, fearing he had taken on the death-pallor he had observed on the countenance of so many badly wounded subordinates, asked Venable and Hullihen how he looked 'in the face.' Hesitating only slightly, both aides pronounced him free of the pallor. Stuart was silent for a moment and then remarked, 'Well, I don't know how this will turn out; but if it is God's will that I shall die I am ready.' At one point Fontaine suggested that Stuart would benefit from an alcoholic stimulant. At first Stuart, a lifetime teetotaler, refused, but at Venable's strong urging, he relented.
It was indeed God's will that Stuart should die, and soon. Fontaine's original diagnosis — that Huff's bullet had severed blood vessels and perforated Stuart's intestines, a fatal condition — was later confirmed via more thorough examination by other surgeons. Detouring around Sheridan's roadblock on the Brook Turnpike, the ambulance lurched along, slowly and painfully carrying Stuart to Richmond, the sounds of battle growing ever fainter. Early on May 12, Stuart was finally placed in bed at the Grace Street home of his brother-in-law Dr. Charles Brewer. There he lay, often in great pain, as doctors tried unsuccessfully to stop the internal hemorrhaging. In the distance he could hear the sounds of renewed combat as Sheridan's raiders struggled to cross the James River northeast of the city against spirited opposition from Stuart's appointed successor, Fitz Lee. Considering his primary mission fulfilled at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan had decided against a direct attack on Richmond. Then he was content to head south to refit in preparation for a triumphal return to the Army of the Potomac.
Death from peritonitis overtook Stuart at 7:40 p.m., four hours before his hastily summoned wife could reach his side. By then Stuart had disposed of his official papers and personal effects, had led his attendants in the singing of hymns, and had informed a stream of sorrowing visitors, including President Jefferson Davis, that he was willing to die 'if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.' All he addressed in this way assured him that he had done so, nobly and well.
Generations of historians have echoed the sentiment of those at the deathbed, ensuring Stuart a place among the world's most successful leaders of mobile strike forces. Yet his greatest contribution to military science was not in the realm of battlefield tactics but in his unerring ability to send his commanders accurate, specific, up-to-date reports of enemy movements and intentions — real-time strategic intelligence, as it is called today. It was this gift that Robert E. Lee emphasized in his famous lament that Stuart 'never brought me a piece of false information.'
This article written by Edward G. Longacre and originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
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