"Halt! Who comes there?" was the challenge.
"Major Wells and a portion of the First Vermont cavalry," was the reply.
He advanced and was recognized and for the remainder of the night we jointly looked after the rear until a camping ground was found near Old Church about daylight the next morning.
An amusing thing happened after Barnhart and the orderly pulled me out of the tent. The orderly saddled my horse and after buckling on sword and belt I put my foot in stirrup and proceeded to mount. The saddle slipped off to the ground. In the excitement he had neglected to fasten the girths. I put the saddle on again and, making all tight, mounted and gave the horse the spur, when to my dismay he proved to be still tied to the tree. It was necessary to dismount, untie and adjust the halter. By this time it is needless to say I was getting "rattled." But the precautions taken made it easy to get the regiment into shape and keep it well in hand. The most regrettable thing about it all was that Sawyer did not rush his entire brigade to the support of the picket line. Had that been done, it is more than likely that Litchfield and his men might have been saved from capture, though I do not know how Hampton found them when he stole into their camp. If they were scattered about and asleep it would have been impossible to rally them and get them into line for effective resistance. On the other hand, had Sawyer with his other regiments, or Davies with his brigade, or both of them together made a concerted attack Hampton might have been worsted. But there was no attempt to make a fight. Hampton's attack caused consternation, forced a precipitate retreat, and led to the final abandonment of the objects of the expedition.
In a previous chapter I have sought to show that official reports are often meager, sometimes misleading. There has always been a good deal of mystery about this affair. There is mystery still, which careful reading of the official records does not dispel. Sawyer made no report; or, if he did it was not published. Few if any of the regimental commanders submitted reports. The Michigan brigade suffered its usual fate in that regard.
Kilpatrick's report as published says:
"The command was moved out on the road to Old Church, and placed in position and after considerable hard fighting repulsed the enemy and forced him back on the road to Hanover Courthouse."
Davies in his official report said:
"The enemy during the evening skirmished slightly with my pickets, and about 12 p.m., attacked the Second brigade in force. My command at once mounted and formed, but the Second brigade unassisted repulsed the attack and I moved to the vicinity of Old Church."
Davies, it is seen, did not claim to have made any fight. He was ready and in position, but moved away to Old Church.
Wade Hampton, who led the attack, says:
"From Hanover Courthouse I marched to Hughes's Crossroads as I thought that would be the most likely place for the enemy to cross. From that place I could see their camp fires in the direction of Atlee's Station as well as to my right on the Telegraph or Brook road. I determined to strike at the party near Atlee's and with that view moved down to the station, where we met the pickets of the enemy. I would not allow their fire to be returned, but quickly dismounted 100 men and supporting them with the cavalry, ordered Colonel Cheek (of the North Carolina brigade) to move steadily on the camp while two guns were opened on them at very short range. * * * Kilpatrick immediately moved his division away at a gallop, leaving one wagon with horses hitched to it, and one caisson full of ammunition. The enemy was a brigade strong here with two other brigades immediately in their rear."
From these extracts it will be seen how commanding officers, when they write their official reports of a night rencounter, are apt to draw on their imaginations for the facts. The stout fight put up by Kilpatrick, and the graphic account by Hampton of how he whipped three brigades with a handful of confederates hastily assembled, are equally mythical.
Davies's report gives a very accurate description of the affair. From this we find that he picketed toward Richmond and the Meadow bridges, taking care of the flanks and rear. The slight skirmishing with his pickets, of which he speaks, must have been with small bodies that came out from Richmond or which followed him from his position of the day on the Brook pike. It had no relation to Hampton's attack which was from the opposite direction and entirely distinct. To Sawyer it was left, it would appear, to look out for the front—that is, toward Ashland and Hanover Courthouse. Sawyer sent the Seventh Michigan out on picket, the outer line advanced as far as Atlee's Station.
When Hampton came in from Hughes's cross roads, he did not stop to skirmish with the videttes. He did not fire a shot but followed the pickets into the camp and opened with carbines and two pieces of artillery at close range. No arrangements appear to have been made to support the Seventh properly in the event of such an attack, which might have been foreseen. Sawyer should have reinforced the Seventh with his entire brigade. And it was equally incumbent on Kilpatrick to support Sawyer with Davies's brigade if he needed support. Neither of these things was done. Kilpatrick's artillery made no response to that of Hampton. The only order was to retreat. Hampton was not far away from the facts when he said that "Kilpatrick immediately moved his division off at a gallop." He did not move it "at a gallop." He moved it at a walk. But he moved "immediately." He did not stop to fight, and morning found him well on the way to the Pamunkey river. It was an unlucky event for poor Litchfield. He was held as a prisoner of war very nearly if not quite until the curtain had fallen on the final scene at Appomattox. I do not remember that he ever again had the privilege of commanding his regiment.
Kilpatrick's strategy was better than his tactics. His plan was bold in conception, but faulty in execution. It has been shown that he made a mistake in dividing his command; that he made another when he failed to order an immediate attack after his arrival before the city. His afterthought of sending Preston and Taylor, at midnight, in a snow storm, and on a night so dark that it would have been impossible to keep together, to be sure of the way, or to distinguish friend from foe, to do a thing which he hesitated to do in the daytime and with his entire force, would have been a more serious blunder than either. Of course, if Preston had started, it would have been with the determination to succeed or lose his life in the adventure. That was his reputation and his character as a soldier. But the services and lives of such men are too valuable to be wasted in futile attempts. It might have been glorious but it would not have been war.
To conclude this rambling description. In October, 1907, while attending the Jamestown exposition I met Colonel St. George Tucker, president of the exposition company and a well known scion of one of the first families of Virginia. The conversation turned to certain incidents of the civil war, among others some of those pertaining to the Kilpatrick raid. Colonel Tucker was at the time a boy ten years of age. Armed with a gun he was at a window in the second story of his father's house ready to do his part in repelling the "vandals" should they invade the streets of the city. This circumstance sheds light on the real situation. With the schoolboys banded together to defend their homes, and every house garrisoned in that way, not to mention the regular soldiers and the men who were on duty, it is quite certain that Richmond would have been an uncomfortable place that night for Preston and his little band of heroes. A man's house is his citadel and boys and women will fight to defend it.
From Old Church the command moved Wednesday to Tunstall's Station, and thence by way of New Kent Courthouse and Williamsburg to Yorktown. At Yorktown the various regiments took transports to Washington and from Washington marched back to their old camps around Stevensburg, no event of importance marking the journey. They arrived on the Rapidan about the middle of the month, having been absent two weeks. The men stood the experience better than the horses. The animals were weakened and worn out and the time remaining before the opening of active operations was hardly sufficient for their recuperation.
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN
In the spring of 1864, the cavalry of the army of the Potomac was thoroughly reorganized. Pleasonton, who had been rather a staff officer of the general commanding the army than a real chief of cavalry, was retired and Sheridan took his place. Kilpatrick was sent to the west and James H. Wilson, an engineer officer, succeeded him in command of the Third division. Buford's old division, the First, was placed under Torbert, an infantry officer whose qualifications as a commander of cavalry were not remarkable. There were several of his subordinates who were both more capable and more deserving, notably Custer, Merritt and Thomas C. Devin. John Buford, the heroic, one of the ablest of all the generals of division, had succumbed to the exposures of the previous campaign. His death befell in December, 1863, on the very day when he received his commission as major-general, a richly deserved reward for his splendid and patriotic services in the Gettysburg and other campaigns. His death created a void which it was hard to fill. Gregg was the only one of the three old and tried division commanders who remained with the corps.
Of the generals of brigade, Merritt and Devin remained with their old division. Davies was transferred from the Third to the Second, and Custer's Michigan brigade became the First brigade of the First division, the general going with it.
Pleasonton who was sent to Rosecrans, in Missouri, although perhaps not, like his illustrious successor, a cavalry chief of the first rank, had a brilliant record, and in the campaign of 1863 had performed most meritorious and effective service and certainly deserves a high place in the list of union leaders of that period. In all the campaigns of the year 1863, he acquitted himself with the highest credit and in many of the battles, notably at Chancellorsville, Middleburg and Brandy Station, he was an equal match for Stuart and his able lieutenants. If, in the readjustment incident to the assumption by General Grant of the chief command, Pleasonton could have been permitted to serve loyally under Sheridan, who was his junior in rank, it would, doubtless, have been better for both of them. He would have been obliged, to be sure, to crucify his ambition and waive his rank, but his name might have been linked with those of Gregg, and Merritt, and Custer in the record of "Little Phil's" picturesque marches from the Wilderness to the James; from Harper's Ferry to Cedar Creek; and from Winchester to Appomattox. He left the army in whose achievements he had borne so honorable a part, and no opportunities for distinction came to him afterwards. Others wore the laurels that might have been his.
Soon after his arrival, General Sheridan reviewed the cavalry corps on the open ground near Culpeper. There were ten thousand mounted men in line, and when they broke into column to pass in review before the assembled generals of the army, it was a magnificent spectacle. To this day the writer's blood quickens in his veins and a flush of pardonable pride mantles his face whenever he recalls the circumstance of one of Custer's staff coming to his quarters after the parade, to convey with the general's compliments the pleasant information that General Sheridan had personally requested him to compliment the officers and men of the regiment, on its excellent appearance and soldierly bearing on the review. Only a short time before, General Kilpatrick had sent a similar message after seeing the regiment at brigade drill. How cheering these messages were; and how full of encouragement to the full performance of duty in the trying times that were close at hand! Life is not too full of such words of cheer, even when we do our best. It is not so much admiration as appreciation that one craves from his fellow men, especially from those who are by circumstance placed over him. But envy, and malice, and a mean, begrudging spirit often stand at the door to keep it out, when it would fain enter, bringing the sunshine with it. There was nothing narrow or mean about Sheridan. Conscious of his own greatness, he was too broad to begrudge recognition to others. When a subordinate deserved commendation and Sheridan knew it, he always gave it.
Although the movement of the army of the Potomac, which initiated in Virginia the campaign of 1864 and resulted in the battle of the Wilderness, began on May 3, it was the morning of May 4, when the Wolverine troopers left their camp near Culpeper. The Second and Third divisions, as has been shown, had the honor of leading the advance and preceded the infantry, crossing at Ely's and Germanna fords, respectively, on the day before. The First division bivouacked on the north side of the river during the night of May 4. At three o'clock on the morning of May 5, the march was resumed and, crossing at Ely's ford, it moved to Chancellorsville, and was encamped that night at the "Furnaces," south of the Orange plank road, about midway between Wilderness Church and Todd's Tavern, in the rear of the left of the union lines.
Early on the morning of May 6, "boots and saddles" and "to horse" summoned the brigade to arms; and at two o'clock a.m., it was on the march by the Furnace road toward the intersection of that highway with the Brock turnpike. Gregg was at Todd's Tavern, at the junction of the Catharpin and Brock roads. Custer was to be the connecting link between Gregg's division and Hancock's corps. Devin, with the Second brigade, was ordered to report to Custer. Wilson had been out the previous day on the Orange plank road and pike, beyond Parker's Store, where he encountered Stuart's cavalry and was roughly handled. While moving up in the darkness, we came upon the scattered troopers of the First Vermont cavalry, which for some time before the redistribution had been attached to the Michigan brigade, but was then in Chapman's brigade of Wilson's division. They were moving to the rear, and seemed much chagrined over their defeat and declared that they did not belong to the Third division, but were the "Eighth Michigan."
"Come along with us," said their old Michigan companions-in-arms.
"Wish we could," they replied.
Arriving at his destination before daylight, Custer posted his troops so as to be ready to meet the expected attack. Two troops, one from the First Michigan the other from the Sixth, commanded by Captain George R. Maxwell and Captain Manning D. Birge, respectively, were sent well out on the Brock road to picket the front. The line of battle was formed in the woods, facing a cleared space, beyond which dense timber served as a screen to prevent the enemy's approach from being discovered. The right was held by the First and Sixth Michigan, formed in two lines, regimental front, the Sixth in rear, the men standing "in place, rest" in front of their horses. It was prolonged to the left by the Fifth and Seventh Michigan and Devin's brigade, composed of the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth New York and Seventeenth Pennsylvania regiments of cavalry. Devin, however, did not arrive on the ground until the battle was well under way. The right of the line was "in the air," so far as was at that time known, the infantry not being in sight.
The open field directly in front extended some 200 yards beyond our position, to the right, and it was, perhaps, 500 yards across it to the woods. The timber in which we formed extended from the rear clear around the right and across the front. In other words, the patch of open ground was enclosed on three sides, at least, by dense woods. The alignment faced in a westerly direction, and was back in the timber far enough to be hidden from the approaching foe. To the right and as it turned out, somewhat to the rear, lay the army of the Potomac, which had been battling with Lee all the previous day; and orders had been issued for the fighting to be resumed at five o'clock in the morning.
Thus we stood, prepared, in a state of expectancy, awaiting the sounds that were to summon us to battle.
The brigade band was posted near the left flank of the First Michigan.
General Custer, alert and wary, with a portion of his staff and escort, was out inspecting the picket line.
The horse artillery had not yet arrived.
Every trooper was alert and ready for whatever might come.
The field, of which mention has been made, was bisected by a ravine, nearly diagonally from left front to right rear, the ground sloping into it from front and rear. This ravine was to play a prominent part in the battle that ensued.
Suddenly, the signal came. A picket shot was heard, then another, and another. Thicker and faster the spattering tones were borne to our ears from the woods in front. Then, it was the "rebel yell;" at first faint, but swelling in volume as it approached. A brigade of cavalry, led by the intrepid Rosser, was charging full tilt toward our position. He did not stop to skirmish with the pickets but, charging headlong, drove them pell-mell into the reserves, closely following, with intent to stampede the whole command.
It was a bold and brilliant dash, but destined to fall short of complete success.
Rosser had met his match.
When the confederate charge was sounded, Custer was near his picket line and, scenting the first note of danger, turned his horse's head toward the point where he had hidden his Wolverines in ambush and, bursting into view from the woods beyond the field, we saw him riding furiously in our direction. When he neared the edge of the woods, circling to the front and curbing the course of his charger as he rode, he bade the band to play and, with saber arm extended, shouted to the command, already in the saddle:
"Forward, by divisions!"
As the band struck up the inspiriting strains of "Yankee Doodle," the First Michigan broke by subdivisions from the right, the Sixth following in line, regimental front and the two regiments charged with a yell through the thick underbrush out into the open ground just as the confederate troopers emerged from the woods on the opposite side. Both commands kept on in full career, the First and Sixth inextricably intermingled, until they reached the edge of the ravine, when they stopped, the confederates surprised by the sudden appearance and audacity of the Michigan men and their gallant leader; Custer well content with checking Rosser's vicious advance. Some of the foremost of either side kept on and crossed sabers in the middle of the ravine. Among these was Lieutenant Cortez P. Pendill, of the Sixth Michigan, who was severely wounded among the very foremost. One squadron of the confederates, possibly a small regiment, charging in column of fours, went past our right flank, and then, like the French army that marched up a hill and then marched down again, turned and charged back, without attempting to turn their head of column towards the place where Custer was standing at bay, with his Michiganders clustered thick about him. Pretty soon the confederates ran a battery into the field and opened on us with shell. Every attempt to break Custer's line, however, ended in failure, the Spencer carbines proving too much of an obstacle to be overcome.
Meanwhile, the Fifth and Seventh had been doing excellent service on the left, forging to the front and threatening the right of the confederate position.
But it was evident that our own right was vulnerable, and Custer ordered Major Kidd to take the Sixth, move it by the rear to the woods on the right, dismount to fight on foot and, to use his own words: "Flank that battery."
The regiment had become much scattered in the charge, but the "rally" was sounded, and as many men as could be quickly assembled on the colors, were withdrawn from the field and, obeying the order with as much alacrity as possible, in a few moments they were in position and moving forward briskly through the thick woods. But, they had not proceeded far, when a strong line of dismounted confederates was encountered. Both commanders seem to have ordered a simultaneous movement with a similar purpose, viz: To flank the other and attack his rear.
The two forces met very nearly on the prolongation of the line held by the mounted men of the First, Fifth and Seventh Michigan, east of the ravine. The confederate line extended beyond the right of the Sixth as far as we could see, and it was at once evident that we were greatly outnumbered, and liable to have the right flank turned at any moment. The little force stood bravely up to their work, using the Spencers with deadly effect, and checking the advance of the confederates in their immediate front. Major Charles W. Deane who was helping to direct the movement, had his horse shot under him. Seeing that the left of the confederates were trying to pass around our right flank, the captain of the left troop was directed to hold on to his position and the right was "refused" to protect the rear. At the same time an officer was dispatched to General Custer with an appeal for reinforcements.
The entire of the Second brigade was now up and a battery which arrived on the field after the withdrawal of the Sixth, had been placed in position and opened upon the enemy. The battle was still raging in the field, but General Custer sent the Fifth Michigan, Colonel Russell A. Alger commanding, and the Seventeenth Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Colonel J.Q. Anderson commanding, to the relief of the Sixth Michigan.
The reinforcements came none too soon. The confederates, confident in their superior numbers, were pressing hard and threatening to envelop us completely.
In a solid line of two ranks, with Spencer carbines full shotted, the two magnificent regiments deployed into line on our right. Then moving forward, by a left half wheel, turned the tables on the too exultant foe, and he was forced slowly but surely back. By virtue of his rank Colonel Alger was in command of the line and, in response to his clear-voiced order, "Steady men, forward," the three regiments, with a shout, swept on through the woods, driving everything before them. At the same time, the mounted men of the First and Seventh charged the force in their front. The enemy, thereupon, gave way in disorder, was routed and fled, leaving his dead and wounded in our hands. His repulse was complete and crushing and we saw no more of him that day. The Michigan men, with the aid of Devin's New York and Pennsylvania troopers, had won a signal victory, momentous in its consequences, for it saved the union left from a disaster much dreaded, the fear of which neutralized one-half of Hancock's corps during the entire day.
No one who witnessed it, can ever forget the superb conduct of Colonel Alger and his men when they swung into line on the right of the Sixth Michigan and turned a threatened reverse into a magnificent victory.
Among the wounded, besides Lieutenant Pendill, already mentioned, were Captain Benjamin F. Rockafellow, of the Sixth Michigan, and Lieutenant Alvin N. Sabin, of the Fifth Michigan. All of these officers were severely wounded and all behaved with the most conspicuous gallantry.
In the meantime, what was the infantry doing? After Rosser was driven from the field, it was found that there was a line of infantry not far to the right and rear. Indeed, the left of the infantry line overlapped the right of the cavalry. Attention was called to the fact when, after the fight, some of the cavalrymen began to straggle to the rear and returning, said that the Twenty-sixth Michigan infantry was only a little way off, and a good many of the men went over for a brief hand-shake with friends therein.
The Twenty-sixth Michigan was in Barlow's division. They had been interested listeners to, if not actual witnesses of the cavalry fight. The contest between the dismounted men of Rosser's and Custer's commands had been almost, if not quite, in their front and occasional shots had come their way.
Why did not Barlow, or indeed, Gibbon's entire command, move up at the time when the Sixth Michigan cavalry was contending alone with a superior force directly in their front?
The answer to that question is in the sealed book which contains the reason of Grant's failure in the "Wilderness."
Let us see!
Grant's orders to the corps commanders—Sedgwick, Warren and Hancock—were to attack Lee's army at five o'clock a.m., May 6. Longstreet had not arrived but was expected up in the morning, and prisoners said he would attack the union left. Hancock was directed to look out for the left. Barlow's division was posted for that purpose. Hancock's corps was divided into two wings, the right wing under Birney consisting of the three divisions of Birney, Mott and Getty; the left wing of Gibbon's and Barlow's divisions under Gibbon. Barlow, as has been seen, was to look out for the left. "The left" was well looked after by Sheridan's cavalry for, aside from Custer's two brigades which were directly in contact with Barlow's left flank, Gregg's division was posted at Todd's Tavern, still farther to the left.
Sedgwick and Warren attacked Ewell at the hour, but were unsuccessful. Hancock's assault upon Hill was completely successful, although Longstreet arrived in the nick of time to save Hill. But Hancock's attack was with his right wing under Birney, and Longstreet struck the left of Birney's command. Where were the two divisions of Gibbon, posted for the very purpose of looking out for Longstreet?
In General A.A. Humphrey's, "Virginia Campaigns," page 40, we read:
"At seven a.m., General Hancock sent a staff officer to General Gibbon, informing him of the success of his right wing, and directing him to attack the enemy's right with Barlow's division. This order was only partially obeyed. Had Barlow's division advanced as directed, he (General Hancock) felt confident that the enemy's force would have been defeated. The cause of his failure was probably owing to the expected approach of Longstreet on his (Barlow's) left."
"At 8:30 a.m., Hancock began an attack with Birney's wing and Gibbon's division of the left wing."
General Grant, in his memoirs, (pp. 196-197):
"Hancock was ready to advance, but learning that Longstreet was threatening his left flank, sent a division of infantry, commanded by General Barlow, to cover the approaches by which Longstreet was expected."
General Sheridan, (memoirs, vol. I, pp. 362-363):
"On the sixth, General Meade became alarmed about his left flank and sent a dispatch, saying: 'Hancock has been heavily pressed and his left turned. You had better draw in your cavalry to protect the trains.'"
"On the morning of the sixth, Custer's and Devin's brigades had been severely engaged before I received the above note. They had been most successful in repulsing the enemy's attacks, and I felt that the line could be held. But the despatch from General Hancock was alarming, so I drew all the cavalry close in around Chancellorsville."
Grant's memoirs, once more:
"The firing was hardly begun when Hancock was informed that the left wing was seriously threatened so as to fully occupy Barlow. The enemy's dismounted cavalry opened on him (sic.) with artillery and pressed forward his skirmish line. The rapid firing of Sheridan's attack helped to confirm the impression that this was a serious flank attack by the enemy. These repeated reports prevented Hancock from throwing his full strength into the attack along the plank road."
"The rapid firing of Sheridan's attack" is good. Sheridan is entitled to the credit of placing Custer where he was. But that is all. Sheridan was not on the ground to direct the attack in any way; nor was the division commander on the ground. It was Custer's attack and it was Custer's victory. The only dismounted cavalry that attacked Barlow was Rosser's cavalry, and Custer's cavalry was between Rosser and Barlow. The only artillery with which the dismounted cavalry opened on Barlow was Rosser's battery and Custer and his men were between Barlow and that battery. Had Barlow taken the trouble to ascertain what was really going on in his front, an easy matter, he would have found that, so far from this dismounted cavalry endangering his flank, they had been driven off the field in headlong flight, leaving their dead and wounded. There was never a moment during the entire day (May 6, 1864,) when Barlow was in the slightest danger of being flanked. His failure to advance, enabled Longstreet to swing across his front and attack Birney's left, thus neutralizing Hancock's victory over Hill. If Barlow and Gibbon had advanced as they were ordered to do, they would have struck Longstreet's flank and, probably, crushed it.
All of which seems to demonstrate that, in battle, as in the ordinary affairs of life, imaginary dangers often trouble us more than those which are real.
The fear of being flanked was an ever present terror to the army of the Potomac, and the apparition which appeared to McDowell at Manassas, to Pope at the Second Bull Run, to Hooker at Chancellorsville, flitted over the Wilderness also, and was the principal cause why that campaign was not successful.
And then again, General Meade placed too low an estimate upon the value of cavalry as a factor in battle and failed utterly to appreciate the importance of the presence of Sheridan's troopers upon his left. Had Meade and Hancock known Sheridan then, as they knew him a year later, when he intercepted the flight of the army of Northern Virginia at Five Forks and Sailor's Creek, there would have been in their minds no nervous apprehension that Longstreet might reenact in the Wilderness the part played at Chancellorsville by Stonewall Jackson. As it was, Grant's strategy and Hancock's heroism were paralyzed by these false rumors about Longstreet's menacing the safety of the Potomac army by moving against its left and rear. If such a thing was seriously intended, it was met and thwarted by Custer and Gregg who, alone and unaided as at Gettysburg, successfully resisted every effort on the part of Stuart's cavalry to break through the union lines. The noise of the successful battle which the union cavalry was waging, instead of reassuring the federal commanders as it should have done, served only to increase the alarm which extended to General Hancock and to army headquarters, as well. If a proper rating had been placed upon the services of the cavalry all apprehension would have been quieted. Barlow and Gibbon would have moved promptly to the front as directed, and Hill and Ewell might have been crushed before Longstreet was in position to save them.
General Sheridan's report gives a very meager and inadequate account of the cavalry fight in the Wilderness. In his book he dismisses it with a paragraph. Major McClellan, Stuart's adjutant general, in his "Campaigns of Stuart's Cavalry," makes no mention of it at all, though he devotes much space to Rosser's victory over Wilson, on the fifth. That is not strange, perhaps, in the case of the confederate chronicler, who set out in his book to write eulogiums upon his own hero, and not upon Sheridan or Custer. He has a keen eye for confederate victories and, if he has knowledge of any other, does not confess to it. As for Sheridan, his corps was scattered over a wide area, its duty to guard the left flank and all the trains, and he was not present in person when Custer put an abrupt stop to Rosser's impetuous advance. It is now known that he was so hampered by interference from army headquarters that his plans miscarried, and the relations between himself and his immediate superior became so strained that the doughty little warrior declared that he would never give the cavalry corps another order. By General Grant's intervention, however, these difficulties were so far reconciled that Sheridan was soon off on his memorable campaign which resulted in the bloody battle of Yellow Tavern and the death of the foremost confederate cavalier, General J.E.B. Stuart.
THE YELLOW TAVERN CAMPAIGN
The sequel to the false alarm about Hancock's left flank being turned was that all the cavalry was drawn in to guard the trains and protect the rear of the army. Custer's brigade moved back to the furnaces where it remained during the night. The morning of the seventh he was ordered to resume his position of the day before. Gregg's division was returned to Todd's Tavern. Before the arrival of Gregg's command the First Michigan cavalry had a spirited encounter with Fitzhugh Lee, in which Captain Brevoort, in command of the mounted men, particularly distinguished himself. There was pretty sharp fighting during the entire day, mostly on foot, the nature of the ground practically precluding movements on horseback.
The engagement of the cavalry on the seventh of May is known in history as the battle of Todd's Tavern. It was made necessary in order to retake the position surrendered by Meade's order of the sixth. Much blood was shed and many valuable lives were lost in retrieving the error. In the events of the two days may be found a good illustration of the rule that an officer (even a great soldier like Sheridan) must obey orders, right or wrong. Sheridan must have known that there was no need to withdraw his cavalry from the left of the army. On the contrary he knew that by all means it ought to remain where it was. Yet he obeyed and had to fight an offensive battle to regain what he was thus forced to give away. The conditions of the two days were reversed. On the morning of the sixth Sheridan was in possession and Stuart was trying to drive him out. On the morning of the seventh Stuart was in possession and Sheridan had to drive him out. The material difference was that Stuart failed, Sheridan succeeded. Sheridan outgeneraled Stuart in both offensive and defensive tactics. The names of the respective chiefs are given here but, on the sixth the actual fighting of the union forces was directed by Custer and Gregg, of the confederates by Rosser and Fitzhugh Lee; on the seventh, by Gregg, Merritt and Custer for the federal side, by Fitzhugh Lee on the part of the confederates. Gregg and Custer stood together in the Wilderness as they had done at Gettysburg. At Todd's Tavern Merritt, Davies and Devin were added to the combination. And it was one that neither Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee nor Hampton was ever able to match.
At night the First and Second divisions were encamped in the open fields east of Todd's Tavern, and in front of the positions held by them during the previous two days. Mounted pickets and patrols guarded the front and it soon became apparent that a movement of both armies was in progress. From front and rear came significant sounds which the practiced ear had no difficulty in interpreting. Grant, breaking off successively from his right, was passing by the rear to the left, concentrating around Todd's Tavern for a forward movement in the morning towards Spottsylvania Courthouse. The principle involved was to maneuver Lee out of the Wilderness into more open country by threatening his communications. Once again his strategic plans were thwarted by the faulty manner in which the tactics of the movement were executed. Sheridan had planned to seize Spottsylvania with his cavalry and his orders were for all three divisions to move at daylight with that end in view. Wilson was to lead and be followed up and supported by Merritt and Gregg with the First and Second divisions. We shall see how Wilson was successful in carrying out his part of the plan, but how the others were stopped by orders from Meade, thus preventing the accomplishment of a well conceived enterprise and neutralizing two-thirds of the cavalry corps just when it was about to open the way to victory.
By his peculiar tactical night movement Grant held his line of battle intact except as the various corps broke successively from right to rear to march to the left. Thus Hancock's corps, though on the extreme left, was the last corps to move.
Lee, quick to divine the purpose of his adversary, moved his army by the right flank on a parallel line. All night long the ears of the alert cavalrymen could catch the indistinct murmur of troops moving with their impediments which, coming from both front and rear, bespoke the grand tactics of both commanders and presaged a great battle on the morrow. The "pop," "pop," "pop," of the carbines along the line of videttes was well nigh continuous, showing the proximity of the enemy's prowling patrols and scouts, and the necessity of constant vigilance. So closely did the confederates approach the outposts that there was unceasing fear of an attack and neither officers nor men were able to obtain much rest. To sleep was out of the question. The First Michigan was held in readiness to make a mounted charge, while the other regiments were under orders to deploy dismounted, in case the attack which was looked for should be made. The officers of the First could be heard encouraging and instructing their men, keeping them alert and prepared for battle.
From the time of the organization of the Michigan brigade, the First regiment had been designated as distinctively a saber regiment, the Fifth and Sixth for fighting on foot, as they were armed with Spencer rifles, and the result was that with them, dismounting to fight when in contact with the enemy in the early part of their terms of service became a sort of second nature. The First had a year's experience with the cavalry before the others went out, and it was in a saber charge at the Second Bull Run battle that Brodhead its first colonel was killed. The First Vermont, like the First Michigan, was a saber regiment and went out in 1861. When this regiment was attached to the brigade, Custer had three saber regiments, and it fell to the lot of the Fifth and Sixth Michigan to be selected more often than the others, perhaps, for dismounted duty. It often happened, however, that the entire brigade fought dismounted at the same time; and sometimes, though not often, all would charge together mounted. Owing to the nature of the country, most of the fighting in Grant's campaign from the Wilderness to the James was done on foot. In the Shenandoah valley campaign in the latter part of the year 1864, the reverse was the case and at the battles of Tom's Brook, Winchester and Cedar Creek the troopers in the command for the most part kept to the saddle throughout the engagements.
When Custer wanted to put a single regiment into a mounted charge he generally selected the First Michigan, because it was not only older and more experienced but had many officers who possessed both great personal daring and the rare ability to handle men in action, keeping them well together so as to support each other and accomplish results. This regiment was not excelled by any other in the army for that purpose. The Seventh was an under study for the First. The Fifth and Sixth worked well together on the skirmish line or dismounted line of battle and had no superiors in this kind of work. That they were pretty reliable when called upon mounted also, is shown by the conduct of the Sixth in the Wilderness and of the Fifth at Trevillian Station. It is only necessary to mention the gallantry of the Seventh at Hanovertown and at Yellow Tavern to demonstrate that it was an apt pupil of the First. All the officers and all the men of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh took off their hats and gracefully yielded the palm to the First. It is doubtful if there was another regiment in the federal cavalry service which contained so many officers highly marked for their fearless intrepidity in action. The circumstance of their talking to their men before an expected engagement was characteristic. They were always ready to face the peril and lead their men.
Later in the evening, away to the left where the infantry was going into bivouac a union band began to play a patriotic air. This was the signal for loud and prolonged cheering. Then a confederate band opposite responded with one of their southern tunes and the soldiers on that side cheered. Successively, from left to right and from right to left this was taken up, music and cheering alternating between federals and confederates, the sounds receding and growing fainter and fainter as the distance increased until they died away entirely. It was a most remarkable and impressive demonstration under the circumstances and lingered long in the memory of those who heard it.
Though the fighting on the 5th, 6th and 7th had been for the most part favorable to the union troopers, it was disjointed and, therefore, neither decisive nor as effective as it might have been. Sheridan believed that the cavalry corps should operate as a compact organization, a distinct entity, an integral constituent of the army, the same as the other corps. He looked upon his relation to the general in command as being precisely the same as that of Hancock, Sedgwick or Warren, and insisted that orders to the cavalry should be given through the cavalry corps commander just as orders to the Second corps were given through General Hancock. He could not bring himself to consent to be a mere staff officer dangling at the heels of General Meade, but conceived himself to be an actual commander, not in name only but in fact.
Proceeding on this theory he issued orders to the various division commanders to move at daylight on the morning of May 8, and cooperate with each other under his personal direction in a plan which he had devised to seize Spottsylvania Courthouse in advance of Lee's infantry. They were to advance on converging roads in such a manner as to arrive successively but to support each other and open a way for the infantry columns. Wilson crossed Corbin's bridge, charged through the town driving out some of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalrymen and pursuing them several miles beyond. Merritt and Gregg made a good start and if they had been allowed to proceed would have had no difficulty in accomplishing what Sheridan desired to have them do. But without notice to Sheridan, Meade countermanded the orders to those two officers directing them to halt at the bridges and not cross. The result was that Wilson was isolated, Merritt's cavalry became inextricably entangled with Warren's infantry, so that neither one of them reached Spottsylvania, as they were both expected to do, Gregg was neutralized, Wilson's safety jeoparded, Sheridan's combinations broken up without his knowledge, and the way was left open for Lee's infantry, so that Anderson with Longstreet's corps took advantage of the situation and drove Wilson out and took possession—thus paving the way for Lee to form a defensive line there instead of farther south, probably inside the defenses of Richmond. Then it befell that a series of bloody battles had to be fought to regain what was thus foolishly surrendered; to regain what indeed might have been held with slight loss, if Sheridan had been let alone, and permitted to have his way. If he had been given a free hand, and assuming that Warren, Burnside, Sedgwick and Hancock would have carried out their part of the program with the same zeal and skill displayed by Sheridan, it is certain that the battle of Spottsylvania with its "bloody angle" would never have taken place.
The affair was a fiasco, but for that no blame can be attached to either Sheridan or Grant, unless the latter be considered blameworthy for not directing the movements in person instead of leaving the tactics of the battle to be worked out by Meade.
Once more, as in the Wilderness, the cavalry was drawn in. The entire corps was massed in rear of the infantry and rendered inert. Sheridan with his ten thousand troopers was held idle and inactive while Warren, Sedgwick and Burnside were given the task of defeating Lee's veteran army without Sheridan's help. All his plans were rendered nugatory. He became satisfied that his efforts were useless. About noon he went to Meade's headquarters and they had an interview which is one of the famous historical episodes of the civil war. He told Meade that, inasmuch as his plans were to be interfered with, his orders countermanded, thus destroying the efficiency and usefulness of the cavalry corps, he must decline to give it further orders and General Meade could take it and run it himself, as he evidently desired to do. He kept his poise, however, sufficiently to intimate that he would like an opportunity to take his corps and go out after Stuart, since he believed he could whip Stuart in a fair fight if he could have a chance. Meade reported this conversation to Grant who told Meade to let him go and try. Grant had confidence enough in Sheridan to believe that he would make his word good.
The outcome of this was that the entire corps was ordered that very afternoon to concentrate at Alrich's, on the plank road leading to Fredericksburg, and be prepared to start at daylight on an expedition around Lee's right flank, into the enemy's country. It was to be a second edition, only on a much larger scale, and under a very different commander, of the Kilpatrick raid, an account of which was given in a previous chapter. The route selected was very much the same. But, unlike Kilpatrick and others who had led cavalry expeditions up to that time, and whose idea was to ride rapidly through the country and avoid the enemy as much as possible, never fighting unless forced into it unwillingly, Sheridan went out with the utmost deliberation, looking for trouble—seeking it—and desiring before every other thing to find Stuart and fight him on his native heath. The confidence which he manifested in himself and in the prowess of his command was of its own kind, and a distinct revelation to the army of the Potomac, in which it had long been a settled article of belief that Stuart was invincible and, indeed, up to that time he had been well nigh so, as Sheridan points out in his memoirs.
In the meantime, the battle was raging around Spottsylvania. Lee's army was getting into position, his various corps concentrating and intrenching, and making every preparation for a new base and a stout resistance. Grant's plans had all miscarried, thus far. Still, he had taken up his bridges and resolved to fight it out on that line. It was already evident that there was to be no more retreating. The officers and men of the army of the Potomac made up their minds that they had crossed the Rapidan and the Rappahannock for the last time and that Lee would never be permitted to make a permanent halt outside the intrenchments of Richmond.
When the long column was marching along the rear of the army, the sounds of the battle going on could be distinctly heard. Hundreds of wounded men were coming from the front, mostly so slightly injured that they were helping themselves off the field to a place of safety where they could receive needed treatment. It filled us with astonishment to see the number of them. The official records show that Grant lost more than ten thousand men in the series of battles around Spottsylvania. It seemed wicked to take ten thousand men well mounted and equipped away from the army at such a time as that. Queer ideas Meade had. And queerer still that Grant should have yielded to him in a matter of such vital importance. And the men that Sheridan was taking away, were the very same troops with whom he broke Early's flank at Winchester; and who stood like a stone wall in the way of Early's advance at Cedar Creek after two corps of infantry had been routed, only a few months later. Just imagine for a moment what might have been the result if Sheridan had been permitted to make the same use of his cavalry in the Wilderness or at Spottsylvania which he made of it at Winchester and Cedar Creek.
We camped at Alrich's for the night. And it was Sunday night. It will be remembered that the Kilpatrick expedition left Stevensburg on Sunday night. Three days' rations were drawn and issued to the men. There was but one-half of one day's ration of grain for the horses. So it was settled that our animals would have to depend on the country for their forage. The force thus assembled consisted of three divisions—about ten thousand troopers—under Merritt, Gregg and Wilson—seven brigades commanded by Custer, Devin, Gibbs, Davies, Irvin Gregg, McIntosh and Chapman. These were all veteran officers, often tried and never found wanting. Of these brigade commanders, two, Custer and Davies, held the rank of brigadier general; Devin was colonel of the Sixth New York; Gibbs of the First New York dragoons; Gregg of the Sixteenth Pennsylvania; McIntosh of the Third Pennsylvania; Chapman of the Third Indiana.
There were six batteries of artillery, all regulars but one—the Sixth New York independent—Captain J.W. Martin. Pennington was still with the Third division, as was the First Vermont cavalry also. The four Michigan regiments were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Stagg, Colonel Russell A. Alger, Major James H. Kidd and Major Henry W. Granger, respectively.
The movement began at an early hour. The start was made long before daylight. General Custer, who was to lead, ordered that the Sixth Michigan move out first and thus it fell to my lot to be in the van at the outset of that historic expedition. A guide was furnished, with directions that the route taken be by the plank road to Tabernacle church, thence to the Telegraph road running from Fredericksburg to Richmond, then due south toward Thornburg. The long column wound its way slowly out of the wilderness on a single road, marching by fours, Merritt in front, Gregg in rear, Wilson in the centre—seven brigades and six batteries—beyond doubt the most superb force of mounted men that ever had been assembled under one leader on this continent, and a more formidable body of horse than had been seen in that war on either side, up to that time, or was ever seen afterwards. The column when stretched out like a huge snake was thirteen miles in length, so that when the last of Gregg's regiments turned south on the Telegraph road, the head of Custer's brigade must have been nearing Chilesburg.
The night was clear and quiet; the air was soft and refreshing. To the right the two great armies were sleeping. There was no note of bugle, no boom of cannon, no crack of rifle to disturb the tranquility of the night. As the dawn approached the baying of dogs in the distance gave notice that the echoes of the march would soon reach the ears of the enemy's outposts.
But the morning was far advanced, the head of column well on its way past the right flank of Lee's army, when the first hostile patrols were encountered. At a crossroad leading to the right a small force of cavalry made its appearance. It was put to flight by Captain Birge with troop A. At this point troop E, Captain A.E. Tower, was sent to the front as advance guard, Sergeant M.E. Avery with eight men going ahead with orders to charge any enemy that appeared on the road, the troop to follow him closely and the regiment to support the troop. General Custer with his staff and escort rode close up to the rear of the regiment. Behind him came the other Michigan regiments, Devin's and Gibbs's brigades, then Chapman, McIntosh, Irvin Gregg, and Davies in succession. Davies was to look out for the rear. Thus the latter, who led the Kilpatrick expedition, found his position reversed on this. The responsibility was great and he met it with his accustomed courage and ability. Davies was one of the few men who early in the war found his niche and stuck to it. He was an ideal general of brigade; and he kept his place as such without a check until the war closed.
To those of us who had been with Kilpatrick but a short two months before the contrast presented by a mental comparison of Sheridan's manner of conducting a march with that of his predecessor was most marked and suggestive. This movement was at a slow walk, deliberate and by easy stages. So leisurely was it that it did not tax the endurance of men or horses. There was a steadiness about it that calmed the nerves, strengthened self-reliance, and inspired confidence. It was a bold challenge for the confederates to come out and fight a duel to the finish. That they would be compelled to take up the gage thus thrown down there was no shadow of doubt.
The advance guard was kept active in the pursuit of confederate scouts and pickets, small bodies of whom were constantly appearing in front or hovering on the flanks. Before reaching the point where the road leading to Beaver Dam was to be taken, the guide, either by ignorance or design, misled Avery and his men and took them to the eastward. Avery suspecting something wrong put a halter around the guide's neck and started to swing him up to the limb of a tree. He immediately discovered his mistake and a trooper was sent with word to take the other road, who reached the intersection just as the head of column did, so there was not a moment's delay. Avery soon came in with a squad of prisoners who with the guide were turned over to the provost guard. After reaching Chilesburg we were on the same road over which we marched with Kilpatrick and needed no guide. The confederate prisoners looked with astonishment upon this big body of cavalry which had stolen into their territory like a thief in the night, unexpected and unannounced.
During the day, as long as I had the advance, Captain Craig Wadsworth of Sheridan's staff rode by my side to represent and report to his chief. No very important incident happened, but the weather was pleasant, the air was exhilarating, the companionship was congenial, and there was sufficient of excitement to make it interesting. Things were kept moving, and it was very enjoyable, as service with the advance of a marching column always is.
Late in the afternoon we passed Chilesburg and the country began to have a familiar look. It was not yet dark when we crossed the North Anna river at Anderson's bridge and the First division prepared to bivouac on the south side. Gregg and Wilson went into camp for the night north of the river.
After crossing the river, Custer was ordered to proceed with his brigade to Beaver Dam station. Here the First Michigan was given the advance, Major Melvin Brewer with one battalion as advance guard. The Sixth followed the First. Otherwise the order of march was the same as during the day. A mile or so before reaching Beaver Dam, Brewer came upon several hundred union prisoners who were being hurried under the escort of confederate infantry to the station, where trains were waiting to convey them to Richmond. His appearance, of course, resulted in the release of the prisoners, those of their guards who did not succeed in escaping by running away in the woods being captured. The engineers began to sound their locomotive whistles, as a signal for the confederate escort to hurry up with their prisoners, and Brewer followed by the First and Sixth dashed into the station before the presence of the Michiganders was suspected, taking them by surprise and capturing the two locomotives with their trains. In a few minutes Custer with the entire brigade was on the ground and it was found that, besides the trains, he had captured an immense quantity of commissary, medical, and other stores belonging to Lee's supply departments and which included nearly all his medical supplies. Everything that could not be carried away was destroyed. While this destruction was going on some confederates made their appearance in the adjacent woods and opened fire but they were driven away without much trouble. This must have been a very severe loss to the confederates.
The brigade then marched away and rejoined the division, every trooper having his horse loaded to the limit with such supplies as he thought he could use. General Merritt in his official report refers to this destruction of property as a mistake and characterizes the action as "gaucherie." It is, however, quite certain that the only way to have saved the supplies for issue to the corps would have been to move the division to Beaver Dam that night, for Stuart was concentrating his force at that point and might have been able to reclaim a portion of them if they had not been destroyed. At all events, Custer was on the ground and Merritt was not. Custer's action must have been approved by his judgment.
Early on the morning of May 10 the march was resumed by the Negrofoot road toward Groundsquirrel bridge across the South Anna river. It was even more leisurely than on the day before. Flankers were thrown out in both directions. The long column of fours thus proceeded slowly by the road while to the right and to the left, about 500 yards out, were parallel columns of flankers, marching by file, thus assuring that should the enemy attack either flank, it was only necessary to wheel by fours in that direction to be in line of battle with a very strong line of skirmishers well out in front.
But Stuart did not attack. He seems on that morning to have begun to comprehend Sheridan's plan which was no doubt then sufficiently puzzling but, as we can see now, very simple. In a word, a slow and steady march, straight toward the confederate capital, all the time in position to accept battle should Stuart offer it. If he should not, to hold to the unyielding tenor of his purpose, and with exasperating persistence continue to invite it. Stuart had turned off toward the east and was making a forced march with Fitzhugh Lee's division, consisting of the brigades of Lomax and Wickham, Gordan's brigade still hanging on to the rear of Sheridan's column. Our column made the march of eighteen miles to Groundsquirrel bridge without molestation and camped there that night on the south side of the river. Stuart after a much longer march went into camp at Hanover Junction. At one o'clock in the morning May 11 he moved out toward Yellow Tavern, arriving there at about ten o'clock in the forenoon, before Sheridan's advance, which was headed in the same direction, made its appearance. Stuart had thus by a long and hard march brought his command where it could interpose between the Union cavalry and Richmond. He seems, however, to have been halting between two opinions—whether to form squarely across Sheridan's front or to hold his position on the flank until near enough to Richmond to be within reach of reinforcements from the troops that were being hurried into the city from the south to aid in the defense. He appears to have chosen the latter alternative, for he formed his command in a line running north and south, facing west, Wickham on the right, Lomax on the left with batteries near both his right and left flanks. The left of his line crossed the Telegraph road in front of Yellow Tavern where was quite an elevated piece of ground on which across the road was a battery well stationed and well manned. His men, however, must have been pretty well exhausted by the long march.
Yellow Tavern, which gave its name to the battle that ensued, is a hamlet at the junction of the Telegraph and Old Mountain roads, about six miles north of Richmond, where the first named road coalesces and becomes the Brook Turnpike, as I understand it. The Old Mountain road comes down from the northwest, the Telegraph road from the east of north. Sheridan struck the former at Allen's Station on the Fredericksburg railroad and followed it to Yellow Tavern. The Reserve brigade reached that place a little before noon and finding Stuart in possession immediately began skirmishing. Devin came up next and was put on the line to reinforce Gibbs. When Custer's brigade came up pretty sharp skirmish firing could be heard in front. Merritt was in charge and the battle was on. Stuart had dismounted his entire force and formed them in a very strong defensive position on a commanding ridge beyond the tavern. Merritt had dismounted a portion of Gibbs's and Devin's commands and was feeling of Stuart's position. Custer's regiments as they successively arrived were massed mounted in column of battalions on the right of the road, in a field, thus clearing the road. The march that day had been an easy one, the rest the night before had been complete, and never were men and horses in better condition or spirits for battle than were Sheridan's troopers.
Then there was an anxious pause. Glancing back I saw that we were at the rear of the division. Down the road about 100 yards a column of cavalry was approaching very slowly. Something at the head of the column attracted my particular attention and in a moment I made out that it was a general's battle flag. But I did not recognize it as one that I had seen before. There were a good many staff officers and a pretty large escort. As they came opposite the regiment, the officer at the head looked back and saw that the flag was hanging limp around the staff, there not being air enough stirring to make it float out. He noted this and said to the color bearer, "Shake out those colors so they can be seen." The voice was mild and agreeable. The color-bearer did as directed and the general looked our way with a keen glance that was characteristic and took in every detail. Then instantly I knew who he was. I saluted and said, "Men, General Sheridan," and they gave him a cheer.
That was the first time I had seen Sheridan except as I "looked toward" him when passing in review. One may do a good deal of service, even be in many skirmishes and battles without getting a good look at the corps commander, much less the commander of the army. There was nothing about Sheridan's appearance at first glance to mark him as the principal figure in the scene. Except for the fact that he rode in front one might have mistaken one of the other officers for chief. But close inspection easily singled him out. He was well mounted and sat his horse like a real cavalryman. Though short in stature he did not appear so on horseback. His stirrups were high up, the shortness being of leg and not of trunk. He wore a peculiar style of hat not like that of any other officer. He was square of shoulder and there was plenty of room for the display of a major general's buttons on his broad chest. His face was strong, with a firm jaw, a keen eye, and extraordinary firmness in every lineament. In his manner there was an alertness, evinced rather in look than in movement. Nothing escaped his eye, which was brilliant and searching and at the same time emitted flashes of kindly good nature. When riding among or past his troopers, he had a way of casting quick, comprehensive glances to the right and left and in all directions. He overlooked nothing. One had a feeling that he was under close and critical observation, that Sheridan had his eye on him, was mentally taking his measure and would remember and recognize him the next time. No introduction was needed.
It would be as difficult to describe the exact physical traits that marked Sheridan's personality as to make a list of the characteristic mental attributes that distinguished him from others. There were perhaps no special, single, salient points. At least none were abnormally developed. In making an estimate of the man it was the ensemble of his qualities that had to be considered. He had to be taken "all in all." So taken, he was Sheridan. He was not another, or like another. There was no soldier of the civil war with whom he fairly can be compared with justice to either. As a tactician on the field of battle he had no equal, with the possible exception of "Stonewall" Jackson. In this respect he to my mind more nearly resembled John Churchill, the great duke of Marlborough, than any other historical character of modern times of whom I have any knowledge. If he had not the spark of genius, he came very near to having it. This is a personal judgment put down here, the writer trusts, with becoming modesty and with no desire to put himself forward as a military critic.
Sheridan was modest as he was brave, reticent of his plans, not inclined to exploit his own merits, and he did not wear his heart or his mind upon his sleeve. His inmost thoughts were his own. What impressed us at this first sight of him was his calm, unruffled demeanor, his freedom from excitement, his poise, his apparently absolute confidence in himself and his troops, his masterful command of the situation. He rode away toward the front as quietly as he had come from the rear, with no blare of bugles, no brandishing of swords, no shouting of orders, no galloping of horses. In his bearing was the assurance that he was going to accomplish what he had pledged himself to do. He had found Stuart and was leisurely going forward to see for himself, to make an analysis of his adversary's position, and, so far as necessary, to give personal direction to the coming conflict. But he was in no hurry about it and there was in his face and manner no hint of doubt or inquietude. The outcome was to him a foregone conclusion.
Such was our chief and such was the beginning of the battle from which dates his fame as a cavalry leader and independent commander of the first rank.
Merritt and Custer were already at the front. Experience taught us that sharp work was at hand. It was not long delayed. The order came from General Custer for the Fifth and Sixth to dismount to fight on foot. The First and Seventh were held in reserve mounted. Not having visited this battle field since that day I am unable to give a very accurate description of its topographical features and shall not attempt to do so. The published maps do not throw a very clear light upon the matter, neither do the official reports. I am in doubt as to whether the Telegraph road and Brook turnpike are synonymous terms after passing Yellow Tavern or whether the former lies east of the latter. As I have shown, Stuart's line ran along the Telegraph road, the right north of Half Sink, the left on a hill near Yellow Tavern. My authority for this is McClellan. Lomax held the left and had two pieces of artillery posted "immediately in the road;" one piece behind them "on a hill on the left." This would make his line extend due north and south and our approach to attack it must have been from the west. Devin in his report says Stuart was driven off the Brook pike to a position 500 yards east of it. Whether that was at the beginning or near the close of the engagement is not quite clear. If the former, then the line referred to by Major McClellan could not have been on the Brook turnpike. I shall have to deal in general terms, therefore, and not be as specific and lucid as I would like to be in describing Custer's part in the battle.
Just where the Michigan regiments were posted at the time they were ordered into the fight I cannot say. They came down toward Yellow Tavern on the Old Mountain road and I have no recollection of crossing the pike. It seems to me that they must have been west of it. We were moved across the road, from where stationed when Sheridan came up, and deployed in the woods, the Sixth on the right of the Fifth. The line advanced and presently reached a fence in front of which was a field. Beyond the field, and to the left of it were woods. In the woods beyond the field were the dismounted confederate cavalry. Skirmishing began immediately across the field, each line behind a fence. After a little, Captain Bayles of Custer's staff came from the right with an order to move the Sixth by the left flank and take position on the left of the Fifth. Just as he was giving this order a great shout arose to the left and, looking in that direction, we saw that the entire of the Fifth cavalry was climbing the fence and starting for a charge across the field. The Sixth instantly caught the infection and, before I could say "aye, yes or no," both regiments were yelling and firing and advancing on the enemy in the opposite woods. "You can't stop them," said Bayles. I agreed and in a moment had joined my brave men who were leading me instead of my leading them.
The wisdom and necessity of Custer's order was, however, immediately apparent. Some confederates lurking in the woods to the left, opened fire into the flank of the Fifth Michigan, which for the moment threatened serious consequences. The line halted and there was temporary confusion. Quicker than it takes to tell it, Custer had appeared in the field mounted. One of Alger's battalions changed front and charged into the woods on the left and the two regiments advanced and drove the enemy clear through and out of the woods in front. Barring the temporary check, it was a most gallant and successful affair, for which Custer gave the two regiments full credit in his official report.
The line was then reformed with the Sixth on the left of the Fifth. At that time this was the extreme left of the First division and of the line of battle as well, the Third division not yet having become engaged.
It was then found that the force with which we had been fighting had retreated to their main line of battle, along a high ridge or bluff. In front of this bluff was a thin skirt of timber and a fence. Here Fitzhugh Lee's sharpshooters were posted in a very strong position indeed. Between the ridge and the edge of the woods where our line was halted was a big field not less than four hundred yards across, sloping down from their position to ours. To attack the confederate line in front it would be necessary to advance across that field and up that slope. It looked difficult. The confederate artillery was stationed to the right front on the extreme left of their line. We were confronted by Lomax's brigade. Beyond the right of the Fifth Michigan, Custer had the First Michigan, Colonel Stagg; the Seventh, Major Granger; and First Vermont, Lieutenant Colonel Preston; all mounted. They were across a road which ran at right angles with the line of battle, and in the direction of Lomax's battery.
As soon as our line appeared in the open—indeed, before it left the woods the confederate artillery opened with shell and shrapnel; the carbineers 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. It was necessary to take advantage of every chance for shelter. Every Wolverine who exposed himself was made a target of. Many men were hit by bullets. The artillerists did not time their fuses right and most of the damage was done to the trees behind us, or they were on too high ground to get the range. The line gradually advanced, creeping forward little by little until it reached a partial shelter afforded by the contour of the ground where it sloped sharply into a sort of ditch that was cut through the field parallel with the line of battle. Here it halted and the battle went on in this manner for a long time, possibly for hours. In the meantime, Chapman's brigade, of Wilson's division, had come into position on the left of the Sixth Michigan, thus prolonging the line and protecting our flank which till then had been in the air and much exposed. Off to the left, in front of Chapman, the lay of the land was more favorable. There were woods, the ground was more nearly level. The confederate position was not so difficult of approach and gradually his left began to swing forward and threaten the right flank of Lomax's position or, more accurately, the confederate center.
Thus for several hours the lines faced each other without decisive results. At length Sheridan determined upon an assault by mounted troops supported by those on foot. To Custer was assigned the important duty of leading this assault. It was toward four o'clock when Sergeant Avery who had as quick an intuitive perception in battle as any man I ever knew, and whose judgment was always excellent and his suggestions of great value, called my attention to what appeared to be preparations for a mounted charge over to the right where General Custer was with his colors. "They are going to charge, major," said Avery, "and the instant they start will be the time for us to advance." That is what was done. The regiment forming for the charge was the First Michigan. Two squadrons under Major Howrigan led the vanguard. The bugles sounded, "forward," "trot," "charge." Heaton's battery farther over was served with splendid effect. Custer's staff passed the word along for the entire line to advance. There was no hesitation. The Fifth and Sixth and Chapman's regiments sprang forward with a shout. There was a gallant advance up the slope. Fitzhugh Lee's men held on grimly as long as they could, but there was no check to the charge. Howrigan kept on till he was among the guns sabering the cannoneers, capturing the two pieces in the road with their limbers and ammunition. In a few minutes Custer and Chapman were in possession of the ridge and the entire line of the enemy was in full retreat. Back about 500 yards the enemy attempted to make a stand and the Seventh Michigan was ordered to charge. This charge led by Major Granger resulted in his death. He was killed just before he reached the enemy's position, causing a temporary repulse of the regiment, but the entire line came on and the enemy was put to flight in all directions.
Stuart was mortally wounded while trying in person with a few mounted men of the First Virginia cavalry to stem the tide of defeat which set in when the First Michigan captured the battery. There is a controversy as to how he met his death. Colonel Alger claimed that Stuart was killed by a shot from one of the men on his dismounted line. Captain Dorsey, of the First Virginia, who was riding with Stuart at the time, quoted by Major McClellan, says that he was killed by a pistol shot fired by one of the men who had been unhorsed in the charge on the battery and who was running out on foot. In that case it must have been a First Michigan man who, very likely, paid the penalty of his life for his temerity. It does not matter. One thing is certain. Stuart's death befell in front of Custer's Michigan brigade and it was a Michigan man who fired the fatal shot.
Stuart was taken to Richmond, where he died, leaving behind him a record in which those who wore the blue and those who wore the gray take equal pride. He was a typical American cavalryman—one of the very foremost of American cavaliers and it is a privilege for one of those who stood in the line in front of which he fell in his last fight to pay a sincere tribute to his memory as a soldier and a man.
It fell to that other illustrious Virginian—Fitzhugh Lee—to gather up the fragments and make such resistance as he could to the further march of the union cavalry.
YELLOW TAVERN TO CHESTERFIELD STATION
Daylight, May 12, found the entire corps concentrated south of the Meadow bridges, on the broad table-land between Richmond and the Chickahominy river. Sheridan still kept his forces well together. Having accomplished the main purpose of the expedition—the defeat of Stuart—it remained for him to assure the safety of his command, to husband its strength, to maneuver it so as to be at all times ready for battle, offensive or defensive as the exigency might demand.
The next stage in the march of his ten thousand was Haxall's Landing, on the James river, where supplies would be awaiting him. By all the tokens, he was in a tight place, from which all his great dexterity and daring were needed to escape with credit and without loss. His plan was to pass between the fortifications and the river to Fair Oaks, moving thence to his destination. Its futility was demonstrated when Wilson's division attempted to move across the Mechanicsville road. It was found that all the ground was completely swept by the heavy guns of the defenses, while a strong force of infantry interposed. Reinforcements had been poured into Richmond, where the alarm was genuine, and it was clear that an attempt to enter the city or to obtain egress in the direction of Fair Oaks would bring on a bloody battle of doubtful issue. Either course would at least, invite discomfiture. To return by the Brook turnpike or Telegraph road, even if that course could have been considered as an alternative, was alike impracticable. The cavalry force which had been trailing the command all the way from the North Anna river still maintained a menacing attitude in that direction. The only gateway out, either to advance or retreat, was by the Meadow Bridge, over the Chickahominy, unless fords could be found. The river had to be crossed and, owing to the recent rains it was swollen.
All the signs pointed to a sortie in force from the fortifications. The defenders emboldened by the hope, if not belief, that they had Sheridan in a trap; inspired by the feeling that they were fighting for their homes, their capital and their cause; and encouraged by the presence at the front of the president of the confederacy—Jefferson Davis—were very bold and defiant, and even the lower officers and enlisted men knew that it was a question of hours at most when they would march out in warlike array and offer battle. Sheridan decided to await and accept it. Indeed, he was forced to it whether he would or not, as the sequel proved.
He sent for Custer and ordered him to take his brigade and open the way across the Chickahominy at the Meadow bridges. Where work was to be done that had to be done, and done quickly and surely, Custer was apt to be called upon. The vital point of the entire affair was to make absolutely sure of that crossing, and Sheridan turned confidently to the "boy general" as he had done before and often would do again.
The Michigan men were just beginning to stretch their limbs for a little rest—having fought all day the day before and ridden all night—when called upon to mount. They had not had time to prepare their breakfast or cook their coffee, but they rode cheerfully forward for the performance of the duty assigned to them, appreciating highly the honor of being chosen.
The road leading to Meadow bridge descended to low ground and across the river bottoms. The wagon road and bridge were at the same level as the bottoms. Some distance below was the railroad. The grade for the track must have been at least twenty feet above the level where it reached the bridge which spanned the river. So the approach by the railroad was along the embankment.
When Custer reached the river he found that the bridge was gone. The enemy had destroyed it. The railroad bridge alone remained. A force of dismounted cavalry and artillery had taken a position on the other side which commanded the crossing. Their position was not only strong but its natural strength had been increased by breastworks. Two pieces of artillery were posted on a slight hill less than half a mile back. In front of the hill were the breastworks; in front of the breastworks woods. A line of skirmishers firing from the edge of the woods kept the pioneers from proceeding with the work.
But Custer could not be balked. His orders were imperative. He was to make a crossing and secure a way for the entire corps to pass "at all hazards." He ordered the Fifth and Sixth Michigan to dismount, cross by the railroad bridge on foot and engage the enemy. The enemy's artillery swept the bridge, and as soon as it was seen that the Michigan men were climbing the railroad embankment to make the crossing they trained their pieces upon it. Yet the two regiments succeeded. The Fifth led, the Sixth followed. One man, or at most two or three, at a time, they tip-toed from tie to tie, watching the chance to make it in the intervals between the shells. Though these came perilously near to the bridge none of them hit it, at least while we were crossing. They went over and struck in the river or woods below. It looked perilous, and it was not devoid of danger, but I do not remember that a single man was killed or wounded while crossing. It may have been a case of poor ammunition or poor marksmanship or both. The worst of it was the nature of the ground was such that our artillerists could not bring their guns to bear.
Once over, the two regiments deployed as skirmishers and advancing with their 8-shotted Spencers, drove the confederate skirmishers back through the woods and behind their breastworks, where we held them until a bridge was built, which must have been for two or three hours. The skirmishing in the woods was fierce at times, but the trees made good cover. It was here that Lieutenant Thomas A. Edie, troop A, Sixth, was killed by a bullet through the head. No attempt was made to assault the breastworks. The confederates behind them, however, were kept so fully occupied that they were unable to pay any attention to the bridge builders, who were left unmolested to complete their work. This was the work which the two Michigan regiments were sent over to do and they accomplished it successfully—something for which they never received full credit. At one stage of this fight my attention was attracted to the coolness of a trooper, troop A, Sixth, who was having sort of a duel with a confederate. The latter was lying down in his works, the former behind a tree. When either one exposed any portion of his anatomy the other would shoot. Some of the confederate's bullets grazed the tree. The Michigan man would show his cap or something and when the other fired, step out, take deliberate aim and return the shot, then jump behind his natural fortress and repeat the maneuver. Finally the confederate ceased firing and there was little doubt that a Spencer bullet had found its mark. Making my way to the tree I asked my man his name. His coolness and courage had much impressed me. "Charles Dean," he replied. "Report to me when the fight is over," I said. He did so, and from that day until the war ended he was my personal orderly. A better, braver soldier, or a more faithful friend no man ever knew than Charles Dean, troop A, Sixth Michigan cavalry.
After the completion of the bridge the entire division crossed over. The Seventh Michigan, two regiments from Devin's brigade, two from Gibbs's—which with the Fifth and Sixth Michigan made seven in all were put on the line as reinforcements and an assault ordered. The entire line advanced and even then it was no child's play. The confederates fought well but were finally driven out of their works and routed. Pursuit with dismounted men was useless. As soon as the horses could be brought over the First Michigan and two of the Reserve brigade regiments were sent in pursuit mounted, but were too late, most of the confederates having made good their escape.
While this was going on, Gregg had a hard fight with the strong force of infantry and artillery which came out full of confidence to crush Sheridan. By a brilliant ruse he took them by surprise and whipped them so thoroughly that they retreated within their inner fortifications, completely discomfited, and Sheridan remained on the ground most of the day with no one to molest or make him afraid. Gregg's fight was characteristic of that fine officer who never failed to fill the full measure of what was required of him. Indeed, it was one of the most creditable actions of the war and one for which he never received full credit. The feeling throughout the First division, at the time, I know, was that the superb courage and steadiness of Gregg and his division had extricated Sheridan from a grave peril. The same Gregg who, with the help of Custer's Michigan brigade, saved the Union right at Gettysburg, stood in the way and stopped a threatened disaster before Richmond.
After Gregg's repulse of the infantry, Custer's success in opening the way across Meadow bridge and Merritt's rout of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, the Second and Third divisions remained unmolested for the rest of the day on the ground of the morning's operations, the First division going to Gaines's Mills.
General Sheridan tells a story of two newsboys who came out after the fight, with Richmond papers to sell. They did a thriving business and when their papers were disposed of desired to return to the city. But they were so bright and intelligent that he suspected their visit involved other purposes than the mere selling of papers, and held them until the command was across the river and then permitted them to go. There is an interesting coincidence between this story and the one told to the writer by St. George Tucker, of Richmond, and which appears on page 259 of this volume.
Late in the afternoon the entire corps moved to Gaines's Mills and went into camp for the night.
The march from Gaines's Mills to the James river was uneventful. When the head of the column, on the 14th, debouched on Malvern Hill, a gunboat in the river, mistaking us for confederate cavalry, commenced firing with one of their big guns, and as the huge projectiles cut the air overhead the men declared they were shooting "nail-kegs." The signal corps intervened and stopped this dangerous pastime.
Three days were taken here for rest, recuperation, drawing and issuing forage and rations, shoeing horses, caring for and sending away the sick and wounded, and in every way putting the command on a field footing again. It was a brief period of placid contentment. Satisfaction beamed from every countenance. Complacency dwelt in every mind. The soldiers smoked their pipes, cooked their meals, read the papers, wrote letters to their homes, sang their songs and, around the evening camp fires, recalled incidents, humorous, thrilling or pathetic, of the march and battle-field. There was not a shadow on the scene.