"A. A. HUMPHREYS, "Major-General, Chief-of-staff."
As soon as the above order was received I issued instructions for the concentration of the three divisions of cavalry at Aldrich's to prepare for the contemplated expedition. Three days' rations for the men were distributed, and half rations of grain for one day were doled out for the horses. 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." I also indicated to my division commanders the line of march I should take—moving in one column around the right flank of Lee's army to get in its rear —and stated at the same time that it was my intention to fight Stuart wherever he presented himself, and if possible go through to Haxall's Landing; but that if Stuart should successfully interpose between us and that point we would swing back to the Army of the Potomac by passing around the enemy's left flank by way of Gordonsville. At first the proposition seemed to surprise the division commanders somewhat, for hitherto even the boldest, mounted expeditions had been confined to a hurried ride through the enemy's country, without purpose of fighting more than enough to escape in case of molestation, and here and there to destroy a bridge. Our move would be a challenge to Stuart for a cavalry duel behind Lee's lines, in his own country, but the advantages which it was reasonable to anticipate from the plan being quickly perceived, each division commander entered into its support unhesitatingly, and at once set about preparing for the march next day.
THE EXPEDITION STARTS—DESTROYING SUPPLIES—OPENING OF THE FIGHT AT YELLOW TAVERN—GENERAL CUSTER'S BRILLIANT CHARGE—DEATH OF GENERAL STUART—REMOVING TORPEDOES—EXCITEMENT IN RICHMOND—A NIGHT MARCH —ENTERPRISING NEWSBOYS—THE EFFECTS OF STUART'S DEFEAT AND DEATH —END OF THE FIRST EXPEDITION—ITS GREAT SUCCESS AND BENEFICIAL RESULTS.
The expedition which resulted in the battle of Yellow Tavern and the death of General Stuart started from the vicinity of Aldrich's toward Fredericksburg early on the morning of May 9, 1864, marching on the plank-road, Merritt's division leading. When the column reached Tabernacle Church it headed almost due east to the telegraph road, and thence down that highway to Thornburg, and from that point through Childsburg to Anderson's crossing of the North Anna River, it being my desire to put my command south of that stream if possible, where it could procure forage before it should be compelled to fight. The corps moved at a walk, three divisions on the same road, making a column nearly thirteen miles in length, and marched around the right flank of the enemy unsuspected until my rear guard had passed Massaponax Church. Although the column was very long, I preferred to move it all on one road rather than to attempt combinations for carrying the divisions to any given point by different routes. Unless the separate commands in an expedition of this nature are very prompt in movement, and each fully equal to overcoming at once any obstacle it may meet, combinations rarely work out as expected; besides, an engagement was at all times imminent, hence it was specially necessary to keep the whole force well together.
As soon as the Ny, Po, and Ta rivers were crossed, each of which streams would have afforded an excellent defensive line to the enemy, all anxiety as to our passing around Lee's army was removed, and our ability to cross the North Anna placed beyond doubt. Meanwhile General Stuart had discovered what we were about, and he set his cavalry in motion, sending General Fitzhugh Lee to follow and attack my rear on the Childsburg road, Stuart himself marching by way of Davenport's bridge, on the North Anna, toward Beaver Dam Station, near which place his whole command was directed to unite the next day.
My column having passed the Ta River, Stuart attacked its rear with considerable vigor, in the hope that he could delay my whole force long enough to permit him to get at least a part of his command in my front; but this scheme was frustrated by Davies's brigade, which I directed to fight as a rear-guard, holding on at one position and then at another along the line of march just enough to deter the enemy from a too rapid advance. Davies performed this responsible and trying duty with tact and good judgment, following the main column steadily as it progressed to the south, and never once permitting Fitzhugh Lee's advance to encroach far enough to compel a halt of my main body. About dark Merritt's division crossed the North Anna at Anderson's ford, while Gregg and Wilson encamped on the north side, having engaged the enemy, who still hung on my rear up to a late hour at night.
After Merritt's division passed the river, Custer's brigade proceeded on to Beaver Dam Station to cut the Virginia Central railroad. Before reaching the station he met a small force of the enemy, but this he speedily drove off, recapturing from it about four hundred Union prisoners, who had been taken recently in the Wilderness and were being conducted to Richmond. Custer also destroyed the station, two locomotives, three trains of cars, ninety wagons, from eight to ten miles of railroad and telegraph lines, some two hundred thousand pounds of bacon and other supplies, amounting in all to about a million and a half of rations, and nearly all they medical stores of General Lee's army, which had been moved from Orange Court House either because Lee wished to have them directly in his rear or because he contemplated falling back to the North Anna.
On the morning of the 10th Gregg and Wilson, while crossing the North Anna, were again attacked, but were covered by the division on the south side of the stream; the passage was effected without much loss, notwithstanding the approach of Stuart on the south bank from the direction of Davenport's bridge. The possession of Beaver Dam gave us an important point, as it opened a way toward Richmond by the Negro-foot road. It also enabled us to obtain forage for our well-nigh famished animals, and to prepare for fighting the enemy, who, I felt sure, would endeavor to interpose between my column and Richmond.
Stuart had hardly united his troops near Beaver Dam when he realized that concentrating there was a mistake, so he began making dispositions for remedying his error, and while we leisurely took the Negro-foot toad toward Richmond, he changed his tactics and hauled off from my rear, urging his horses to the death in order to get in between Richmond and my column. This he effected about 10 o'clock on the morning of the 11th, concentrating at Yellow Tavern, six miles from the city, on the Brook turnpike. His change of tactics left my march on the 10th practically unmolested, and we quietly encamped that night on the south bank of the South Anna, near Ground Squirrel Bridge. Here we procured an abundance of forage, and as the distance traveled that day had been only fifteen to eighteen miles, men and horses were able to obtain a good rest during the night.
At 2 o'clock in the morning, May 11, Davies's brigade of Gregg's division marched for Ashland to cut the Fredericksburg railroad. Arriving there before the head of the enemy's column, which had to pass through this same place to reach Yellow Tavern, Davies drove out a small force occupying the town, burnt a train of cars and a locomotive, destroyed the railroad for some distance, and rejoined the main column at Allen's Station on the Fredericksburg and Richmond railroad. From Allen's Station the whole command moved on Yellow Tavern, Merritt in the lead, Wilson following, and Gregg in the rear.
The appearance of Davies's brigade at Ashland in the morning had had the effect of further mystifying the enemy as to my intentions; and while he held it incumbent to place himself between me and Richmond, yet he was still so uncertain of my movements that he committed the same fault that he did the first day, when he divided his force and sent a part to follow me on the Childsburg road. He now divided his command again, sending a portion to hang upon my rear, while he proceeded with the rest to Yellow Tavern. This separation not only materially weakened the force which might have been thrown across my line of march, but it also enabled me to attack with almost my entire corps, while occupying the pursuers with a small rearguard.
By forced marches General Stuart succeeded in reaching Yellow Tavern ahead of me on May 11; and the presence of, his troops, on the Ashland and Richmond road becoming known to Merritt as he was approaching the Brook turnpike, this general pressed forward at once to the attack. Pushing his division to the front, he soon got possession of the turnpike and drove the enemy back several hundred yards to the east of it. This success had the effect of throwing the head of my column to the east of the pike, and I quickly brought up Wilson and one of Gregg's brigades to take advantage of the situation by forming a line of battle on that side or the road. Meanwhile the enemy, desperate but still confident, poured in a heavy fire from his line and from a battery which enfiladed the Brook road, and made Yellow Tavern an uncomfortably hot place. Gibbs's and Devin's brigades, however, held fast there, while Custer, supported by Chapman's brigade, attacked the enemy's left and battery in a mounted charge.
Custer's charge, with Chapman on his flank and the rest of Wilson's division sustaining him, was brilliantly executed. Beginning at a walk, he increased his gait to a trot, and then at full speed rushed at the enemy. At the same moment the dismounted troops along my whole front moved forward, and as Custer went through the battery, capturing two of the guns with their cannoneers and breaking up the enemy's left, Gibbs and Devin drove his centre and right from the field. Gregg meanwhile, with equal success, charged the force in his rear-Gordon's brigadeand the engagement ended by giving us complete control of the road to Richmond. We captured a number of prisoners, and the casualties on both sides were quite severe, General Stuart himself falling mortally wounded, and General James B. Gordon, one of his brigade commanders, being killed.
After Custer's charge, the Confederate cavalry was badly broken up, the main portion of it being driven in a rout toward Ashland and a small part in the direction of Richmond, which latter force finally rejoined Fitzhugh Lee near Mechanicsville. A reconnoitring party being now sent up the Brook turnpike toward the city, dashed across the South Fork of the Chickahominy, drove a small force from the enemy's exterior intrenchments and went within them. I followed this party, and after a little exploration found between the two lines of works a country road that led across to the pike which runs from Mechanicsville to Richmond. I thought we could go around within the outer line of works by this country road across to the Mechanicsville pike on the south side of the Chickahominy, and encamp the next night at Fair Oaks; so I determined to make the movement after dark, being influenced in this to some extent by reports received during the afternoon from colored people, to the effect that General B. F. Butler's army had reached a small stream on the south side of the James, about four miles south of Richmond. If I could succeed in getting through by this road, not only would I have a shorter line of march to Haxall's landing, but there was also a possibility that I could help Butler somewhat by joining him so near Richmond. Therefore, after making the wounded as comfortable as possible, we commenced the march about 11 o'clock on the night of the 11th, and massed the command on the plateau south of the Meadow bridge near daylight on the 12th.
The enemy, anticipating that I would march by this route, had planted torpedoes along it, and many of these exploded as the column passed over them, killing several horses and wounding a few men, but beyond this we met with no molestation. The torpedoes were loaded shells planted on each side of the road, and so connected by wires attached to friction-tubes in the shells, that when a horse's hoof struck a wire the shell was exploded by the jerk on the improvised lanyard. After the loss of several horses and the wounding of some of the men by these torpedoes, I gave directions to have them removed, if practicable, so about twenty-five of the prisoners were brought up and made to get down on their knees, feel for the wires in the darkness, follow them up and unearth the shells. The prisoners reported the owner of one of the neighboring houses to be the principal person who had engaged in planting these shells, and I therefore directed that some of them be carried and placed in the cellar of his house, arranged to explode if the enemy's column came that way, while he and his family were brought off as prisoners and held till after daylight.
Meanwhile the most intense excitement prevailed in Richmond. The Confederates, supposing that their capital was my objective point, were straining every effort to put it in a state of defense, and had collected between four and five thousand irregular troops, under General Bragg, besides bringing up three brigades of infantry from the force confronting General Butler south of the James River, the alarm being intensified by the retreat, after the defeat at Yellow Tavern, of Stuart's cavalry, now under General Fitzhugh Lee, by way of Ashland to Mechanicsville, on the north side of the Chickahominy, for falling back in that direction, left me between them and Richmond.
Our march during the night of the 11th was very tedious, on account of the extreme darkness and frequent showers of rain; but at daylight on the 12th the head of my column, under Wilson, reached the Mechanicsville pike. Here Wilson, encountering the enemy's works and batteries manned by General Bragg's troops, endeavored to pass. In this he failed, and as soon as I was notified that it was impracticable to reach Fair Oaks by passing between the works and the Chickahominy, Custer's brigade was directed to make the crossing to the north side of the Chickahominy, at the Meadow bridge. Custer moved rapidly for the bridge, but found it destroyed, and that the enemy's cavalry was posted on the north side, in front of Mechanicsville. When this information came back, I ordered Merritt to take his whole division and repair the bridge, instructing him that the crossing must be made at all hazards; for, in view of an impending attack by the enemy's infantry in Richmond, it was necessary that I should have the bridge as a means of egress in case of serious disaster.
All the time that Merritt was occupied in this important duty, the enemy gave great annoyance to the working party by sweeping the bridge with a section of artillery and a fire from the supporting troops, so a small force was thrown across to drive them away. When Merritt had passed two regiments over, they attacked, but were repulsed. The work on the bridge continued, however, not-withstanding this discomfiture; and when it was finished, Merritt crossed nearly all his division, dismounted, and again attacked the enemy, this time carrying the line, of temporary breastworks, built with logs and rails, and pursuing his broken troops toward Gaines's Mills.
While Merritt was engaged in this affair, the Confederates advanced from behind their works at Richmond, and attacked Wilson and Gregg. Wilson's troops were driven back in some confusion at first; but Gregg, in anticipation of attack, had hidden a heavy line of dismounted men in a bushy ravine on his front, and when the enemy marched upon it, with much display and under the eye of the President of the Confederacy, this concealed line opened a destructive fire with repeating carbines; and at the same time the batteries of horse-artillery, under Captain Robinson, joining in the contest, belched forth shot and shell with fatal effect. The galling fire caused the enemy to falter, and while still wavering Wilson rallied his men, and turning some of them against the right flank of the Confederates, broke their line, and compelled them to withdraw for security behind the heavy works thrown up for the defense of the city in 1862.
By destroying the Meadow bridge and impeding my column on the Mechanicsville, pike, the enemy thought to corner us completely, for he still maintained the force in Gregg's rear that had pressed it the day before; but the repulse of his infantry ended all his hopes of doing us any serious damage on the limited ground between the defenses of Richmond and the Chickahominy. He felt certain that on account of the recent heavy rains we could not cross the Chickahominy except by the Meadow bridge, and it also seemed clear to him that we could not pass between the river and his intrenchments; therefore he hoped to ruin us, or at least compel us to return by the same route we had taken in coming, in which case we would run into Gordon's brigade, but the signal repulse of Bragg's infantry dispelled these illusions.
Even had it not been our good fortune to defeat him, we could have crossed the Chickahominy if necessary at several points that were discovered by scouting parties which, while the engagement was going on, I had sent out to look up fords. This means of getting out from the circumscribed plateau I did not wish to use, however, unless there was no alternative, for I wished to demonstrate to the Cavalry Corps the impossibility of the enemy's destroying or capturing so large a body of mounted troops.
The chances of seriously injuring, us were more favorable to the enemy this time than ever they were afterward, for with the troops from Richmond, comprising three brigades of veterans and about five thousand irregulars on my front and right flank, with Gordon's cavalry in the rear, and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry on my left flank, holding the Chickahominy and Meadow bridge, I was apparently hemmed in on every side, but relying on the celerity with which mounted troops could be moved, I felt perfectly confident that the seemingly perilous situation could be relieved under circumstances even worse than those then surrounding us. Therefore, instead of endeavoring to get away without a fight, I concluded that there would be little difficulty in withdrawing, even should I be beaten, and none whatever if I defeated the enemy.
In accordance with this view I accepted battle; and the complete repulse of the enemy's infantry, which assailed us from his intrenchments, and of Gordon's cavalry, which pressed Gregg on the Brook road, ended the contest in our favor. The rest of the day we remained on the battle-field undisturbed, and our time was spent in collecting the wounded, burying the dead, grazing the horses, and reading the Richmond journals, two small newsboys with commendable enterprise having come within our lines from the Confederate capital to sell their papers. They were sharp youngsters, and having come well supplied, they did a thrifty business. When their stock in trade was all disposed of they wished to return, but they were so intelligent and observant that I thought their mission involved other purposes than the mere sale of newspapers, so they were held till we crossed the Chickahominy and then turned loose.
After Merritt had crossed the Chickahominy and reached Mechanicsville, I sent him orders to push on to Gaines's Mills. Near the latter place he fell in with the enemy's cavalry again, and sending me word, about 4 o'clock in the afternoon I crossed the Chickahominy with Wilson and Gregg, but when we overtook Merritt he had already brushed the Confederates away, and my whole command went into camp between Walnut Grove and Gaines's Mills.
The main purposes of the expedition had now been executed. They were "to break up General Lee's railroad communications, destroy such depots of supplies as could be found in his rear, and to defeat General Stuart's cavalry." Many miles of the Virginia Central and of the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads were broken up, and several of the bridges on each burnt. At Beaver Dam, Ashland, and other places, about two millions of rations had been captured and destroyed. The most important of all, however, was the defeat of Stuart. Since the beginning of the war this general had distinguished himself by his management of the Confederate mounted force. Under him the cavalry of Lee's army had been nurtured, and had acquired such prestige that it thought itself well-nigh invincible; indeed, in the early years of the war it had proved to be so. This was now dispelled by the successful march we had made in Lee's rear; and the discomfiture of Stuart at Yellow Tavern had inflicted a blow from which entire recovery was impossible.
In its effect on the Confederate cause the defeat of Stuart was most disheartening, but his death was even a greater calamity, as is evidenced by the words of a Confederate writer (Cooke), who says: "Stuart could be ill spared at this critical moment, and General Lee was plunged into the deepest melancholy at the intelligence of his death. When it reached him he retired from those around him, and remained for some time communing with his own heart and memory. When one of his staff entered and spoke of Stuart, General Lee said: 'I can scarcely think of him without weeping.'"
From the camp near Gaines's Mills I resumed the march to Haxall's Landing, the point on the James River contemplated in my instructions where I was to obtain supplies from General Butler. We got to the James on the 14th with all our wounded and a large number of prisoners, and camped between Haxall's and Shirley. The prisoners, as well as the captured guns, were turned over to General Butler's provost-marshal, and our wounded were quickly and kindly cared for by his surgeons. Ample supplies, also, in the way of forage and rations, were furnished us by General Butler, and the work of refitting for our return to the Army of the Potomac was vigorously pushed. By the 17th all was ready, and having learned by scouting parties sent in the direction of Richmond and as far as Newmarket that the enemy's cavalry was returning to Lee's army I started that evening on my return march, crossing the Chickahominy at Jones's bridge, and bivouacking on the 19th near Baltimore crossroads.
My uncertainty of what had happened to the Army of the Potomac in our absence, and as to where I should find it, made our getting back a problem somewhat difficult of solution, particularly as I knew that reinforcements for Lee had come up from the south to Richmond, and that most likely some of these troops were being held at different points on the route to intercept my column. Therefore I determined to pass the Pamunkey River at the White House, and sent to Fort Monroe for a pontoon-bridge on which to make the crossing. While waiting for the pontoons I ordered Custer to proceed with his brigade to Hanover Station, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South Anna, a little beyond that place; at the same time I sent Gregg and Wilson to Cold Harbor, to demonstrate in the direction of Richmond as far as Mechanicsville, so as to cover Custer's movements. Merritt, with the remaining brigades of his division, holding fast at Baltimore crossroads to await events.
After Gregg and Custer had gone, it was discovered that the railroad bridge over the Pamunkey, near the White House, had been destroyed but partially—the cross-ties and stringers being burned in places only—and that it was practicable to repair it sufficiently to carry us over. In view of this information General Merritt's two brigades were at once put on the duty of reconstructing the bridge. By sending mounted parties through the surrounding country, each man of which would bring in a board or a plank, Merritt soon accumulated enough lumber for the flooring, and in one day the bridge was made practicable. On the 22d Gregg, Wilson, and Custer returned. The latter had gone on his expedition as far as Hanover Station, destroyed some commissary stores there, and burned two trestle bridges over Hanover Creek. This done, he deemed it prudent to retire to Hanovertown. The next morning he again marched to Hanover Station, and there ascertained that a strong force of the enemy, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was posted at the South Anna bridges. These troops had gone there from Richmond en route to reinforce Lee. In the face of this impediment Custer's mission could not be executed fully, so he returned to Baltimore crossroads.
The whole command was drawn in by noon of the 22d, and that day it crossed the Pamunkey by Merritt's reconstructed bridge, marching to Ayletts, on the Mattapony River, the same night. Here I learned from citizens, and from prisoners taken during the day by scouting parties sent toward Hanover Court House, that Lee had been, forced from his position near Spottsylvania Court House and compelled to retire to the line of the North Anna. I then determined to rejoin the Army of the Potomac at the earliest moment, which I did by making for Chesterfield Station, where I reported to General Meade on the 24th of May.
Our return to Chesterfield ended the first independent expedition the Cavalry Corps had undertaken since coming under my command, and our success was commended highly by Generals Grant and Meade, both realizing that our operations in the rear of Lee had disconcerted and alarmed that general so much as to aid materially in forcing his retrograde march, and both acknowledged that, by drawing off the enemy's cavalry during the past fortnight, we had enabled them to move the Army of the Potomac and its enormous trains without molestation in the manoeuvres that had carried it to the North Anna. Then, too, great quantities of provisions and munitions of war had been destroyed—stores that the enemy had accumulated at sub-depots from strained resources and by difficult means; the railroads that connected Lee with Richmond broken, the most successful cavalry leader of the South killed, and in addition to all this there had been inflicted on the Confederate mounted troops the most thorough defeat that had yet befallen them in Virginia.
When the expedition set out the Confederate authorities in Richmond were impressed, and indeed convinced, that my designs contemplated the capture of that city, and notwithstanding the loss they sustained in the defeat and death of Stuart, and their repulse the succeeding day, they drew much comfort from the fact that I had not entered their capital. Some Confederate writers have continued to hold this theory and conviction since the war. In this view they were and are in error. When Stuart was defeated the main purpose of my instructions had been carried out, and my thoughts then turned to joining General Butler to get supplies. I believed that I could do this by cutting across to the Mechanicsville pike and Fair Oaks on the south side of the Chickahominy, but the failure of Wilson's column to get possession of the outwork which commanded the pike necessitated my crossing at Meadow bridge, and then moving by Mechanicsville and Gaines's Mills instead of by the shorter route. Moreover, my information regarding General Butler's position was incorrect, so that even had I been successful in getting to Fair Oaks by the direct road I should still have gained nothing thereby, for I should still have been obliged to continue down the James River to Haxall's.
GENERAL WILSON'S ADVANCE TOWARD HANOVER COURT HOUSE—CROSSING THE PAMUNKEY—ENGAGEMENT OF HAWE'S SHOP—FIGHT AT MATADEQUIN CREEK —CAPTURE OF COLD HARBOR—THE FIGHT TO RETAIN THE PLACE—MOVEMENTS OF GENERAL WILSON.
When I rejoined the Army of the Potomac, near Chesterfield Station, the heavy battles around Spottsylvania had been fought, and the complicated manoeuvres by which the whole Union force was swung across the North Anna were in process of execution. In conjunction with these manoeuvres Wilson's division was sent to the right flank of the army, where he made a reconnoissance south of the North Anna as far as Little River, crossing the former stream near Jericho Mills. Wilson was to operate from day to day on that flank as it swung to the south, covering to New Castle ferry each advance of the infantry and the fords left behind on the march. From the 26th to the 30th these duties kept Wilson constantly occupied, and also necessitated a considerable dispersion of his force, but by the 31st he was enabled to get all his division together again, and crossing to the south side of the Pamunkey at New Castle ferry, he advanced toward Hanover Court House. Near Dr Pride's house he encountered a division of the enemy's cavalry under General W. H. F. Lee, and drove it back across Mechamp's Creek, thus opening communication with the right of our infantry resting near Phillips's Mills. Just as this had been done, a little before dark, Wilson received an order from General Meade directing him to push on toward Richmond until he encountered the Confederates in such strength that he could no longer successfully contend against them, and in compliance with this order occupied Hanover Court House that same day. Resuming his march at daylight on June 1, he went ahead on the Ashland road while sending Chapman's brigade up the south bank of the South Anna to destroy the bridges on that stream. Chapman having succeeded in this work, Wilson re-united his whole command and endeavored to hold Ashland, but finding the Confederate cavalry and infantry there in strong force, he was obliged to withdraw to Dr. Price's house. Here he learned that the army had gone to the left toward Cold Harbor, so on the 2d of June he moved to Hawe's Shop.
While Wilson was operating thus on the right, I had to cover with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions the crossing of the army over the Pamunkey River at and near Hanovertown. Torbert having recovered from the illness which overtook him in the Wilderness, had now returned to duty. The march to turn the enemy's right began on the 26th. Torbert and Gregg in advance, to secure the crossings of the Pamunkey and demonstrate in such manner as to deceive the enemy as much as possible in the movement, the two cavalry divisions being supported by General D. A. Russell's division of the Sixth Corps.
To attain this end in the presence of an ever-watchful foe who had just recently been reinforced in considerable numbers from Richmond and further south—almost enough to make up the losses he had sustained in the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania—required the most vigorous and zealous work on the part of those to whom had been allotted the task of carrying out the initial manoeuvres. Torbert started for Taylor's ford on the Pamunkey with directions to demonstrate heavily at that point till after dark, as if the crossing was to be made there, and having thus impressed the enemy, he was to leave a small guard, withdraw quietly, and march to Hanovertown ford, where the real crossing was to be effected. Meanwhile Gregg marched to Littlepage's crossing of the Pamunkey, with instructions to make feints in the same manner as Torbert until after dark, when he was to retire discreetly, leaving a small force to keep up the demonstration, and then march rapidly to Hanovertown crossing, taking with him the pontoon-bridge.
At the proper hour Russell took up the march and followed the cavalry. The troops were in motion all night, undergoing the usual delays incident to night marches, and, early on the morning of the 27th the crossing was made, Custer's brigade of Torbert's division driving from the ford about one hundred of the enemy's cavalry, and capturing between thirty and forty prisoners. The remainder of Torbert's division followed this brigade and advanced to Hanovertown, where General Gordon's brigade of Confederate cavalry was met. Torbert attacked this force with Devin's brigade, while he sent Custer to Hawe's Shop, from which point a road leading to the right was taken that brought him in rear of the enemy's cavalry; when the Confederates discovered this manoeuvre, they retired in the direction of Hanover Court House. Pursuit continued as far as a little stream called Crump's Creek, and here Torbert was halted, Gregg moving up on his line meanwhile, and Russell encamping near the crossing of the river. This completed our task of gaining a foothold south of the Pamunkey, and on the 28th the main army crossed unharassed and took up a position behind my line, extending south from the river, with the Sixth Corps on the right across the Hanover Court House road at Crump's Creek, the Second Corps on the left of the Sixth, and the Fifth Corps about two miles in front of Hanovertown, its left extending to the Tolopotomy.
There was now much uncertainty in General Grant's mind as to the enemy's whereabouts, and there were received daily the most conflicting statements as to the nature of Lee's movements. It became necessary, therefore, to find out by an actual demonstration what Lee was doing, and I was required to reconnoitre in the direction of Mechanicsville. For this purpose I moved Gregg's division out toward this town by way of Hawe's Shop, and when it had gone about three-fourths of a mile beyond the Shop the enemy's cavalry was discovered dismounted and disposed behind a temporary breastwork of rails and logs.
This was the first occasion on which, since the battle of Yellow Tavern, the Confederate troopers had confronted us in large numbers, their mounted operations, like ours, having been dependent more or less on the conditions that grew out of the movements in which Lee's infantry had been engaged since the 14th of May.
On that date General Lee had foreshadowed his intention of using his cavalry in connection with the manoeuvres of his infantry by issuing an order himself, now that Stuart was dead, directing that the "three divisions of cavalry serving with the army [Lee's] will constitute separate commands, and will report directly to and receive orders from the headquarters of the army." The order indicates that since Stuart's death the Confederate cavalry had been re-organized into three divisions, that were commanded respectively by General Wade Hampton, General Fitzhugh Lee, and General W. H. F. Lee, the additional division organization undoubtedly growing out of the fact, that General M. C. Butler's brigade of about four thousand men had joined recently from South Carolina.
When this force developed in Gregg's front, he attacked the moment his troops could be dismounted; and the contest became one of exceeding stubborness, for he found confronting him Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's divisions, supported by what we then supposed to be a brigade of infantry, but which, it has since been ascertained, was Butler's brigade of mounted troops; part of them armed with long-range rifles. The contest between the opposing forces was of the severest character and continued till late in the evening. The varying phases of the fight prompted me to reinforce Gregg as much as possible, so I directed Custer's brigade to report to him, sending, meanwhile, for the other two brigades of Torbert, but these were not available at the time—on account of delays which occurred in relieving them from the line at Crump's Creek—and did not get up till the fight was over. As soon as Custer joined him, Gregg vigorously assaulted the Confederate position along his whole front; and notwithstanding the long-range rifles of the South Carolinians, who were engaging in their first severe combat it appears, and fought most desperately, he penetrated their barricades at several points.
The most determined and obstinate efforts for success were now made on both sides, as the position at Hawe's Shop had become of very great importance on account of the designs of both Lee and Grant. Lee wished to hold this ground while he manoeuvred his army to the line of the Tolopotomy, where he could cover the roads to Richmond, while Grant, though first sending me out merely to discover by a strong reconnoissance the movements of the enemy, saw the value of the place to cover his new base at the White House, and also to give us possession of a direct road to Cold Harbor. Hawe's Shop remained in our possession finally, for late in the evening Custer's brigade was dismounted and formed in close column in rear of Gregg, and while it assaulted through an opening near the centre of his line, the other two brigades advanced and carried the temporary works. The enemy's dead and many of his wounded fell into our hands; also a considerable number of prisoners, from whom we learned that Longstreet's and Ewell's corps were but four miles to the rear.
The battle was a decidedly severe one, the loss on each side being heavy in proportion to the number of troops engaged. This fight took place almost immediately in front of our infantry, which, during the latter part of the contest, was busily occupied in throwing up intrenchments. Late in the afternoon I reported to General Meade the presence of the enemy's infantry, and likewise that Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's divisions were in my front also, and asked, at the same time; that some of our infantry, which was near at hand, be sent to my assistance. I could not convince Meade that anything but the enemy's horse was fighting us, however, and he declined to push out the foot-troops, who were much wearied by night marches. It has been ascertained since that Meade's conclusions were correct in so far as they related to the enemy's infantry; but the five cavalry brigades far outnumbered my three, and it is to be regretted that so much was risked in holding a point that commanded the roads to Cold Harbor and Meadow bridge, when there was at hand a preponderating number of Union troops which might have been put into action. However, Gregg's division and Custer's brigade were equal to the situation, all unaided as they were till dark, when Torbert and Merritt came on the ground. The contest not only gave us the crossroads, but also removed our uncertainty regarding Lee's movements, clearly demonstrating that his army was retiring by its right flank, so that it might continue to interpose between Grant and the James River; as well as cover the direct route to Richmond.
General Lee reported this battle to his Government as a Confederate victory, but his despatch was sent early in the day, long before the fight ended, and evidently he could not have known the final result when he made the announcement, for the fight lasted until dark. After dark, our own and the Confederate dead having been buried, I withdrew, and moving to the rear of our infantry, marched all night and till I reached the vicinity of Old Church, where I had been instructed to keep a vigilant watch on the enemy with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions. As soon as I had taken position at Old Church my pickets were pushed out in the direction of Cold Harbor, and the fact that the enemy was holding that point in some force was clearly ascertained. But our occupation of Cold Harbor was of the utmost importance; indeed, it was absolutely necessary that we should possess it, to secure our communications with the White House, as well as to cover the extension of our line to the left toward the James River. Roads from Bethesda Church, Old Church, and the White House centred at Cold Harbor, and from there many roads diverged also toward different crossings of the Chickahominy, which were indispensable to us.
The enemy too realized the importance of the place, for as soon as he found himself compelled to take up the line of the Tolopotomy he threw a body of troops into Cold Harbor by forced marches, and followed it up by pushing a part of this force out on the Old Church road as far as Matadequin Creek, where he established a line of battle, arranging the front of it parallel to the road along the south bank of the Pamunkey; this for the purpose of endangering our trains as they moved back and forth between the army and the White House.
Meanwhile I had occupied Old Church and pushed pickets down toward Cold Harbor. The outposts struck each other just north of Matadequin Creek, and a spirited fight immediately took place. At first our pickets were sorely pressed, but Torbert, who was already preparing to make a reconnoissance, lost no time in reinforcing them on the north side of the creek with Devin's brigade. The fight then became general, both sides, dismounted, stubbornly contesting the ground. Of the Confederates, General Butler's South Carolinians bore the brunt of the fight, and, strongly posted as they were on the south bank of the creek, held their ground with the same obstinacy they had previously shown at Hawe's Shop. Finally, however, Torbert threw Merritt's and Custer's brigades into the action, and the enemy retired, we pursuing to within a mile and a half of Cold Harbor and capturing a number of prisoners. Gregg's division took no part in the actual fighting, but remained near Old Church observing the roads on Torberts flanks, one leading toward Bethesda Church on his right, the other to his left in the direction of the White House. This latter road Gregg was particularly instructed to keep open, so as to communicate with General W. F. Smith, who was then debarking his corps at the White House, and on the morning of the 31st this general's advance was covered by a brigade which Gregg had sent him for the purpose.
Torbert having pursued toward Cold Harbor the troops he fought at Matadequin Creek, had taken up a position about a mile and a half from that place, on the Old Church road. The morning of the 31st I visited him to arrange for his further advance, intending thus to anticipate an expected attack from Fitzhugh Lee, who was being reinforced by infantry. I met Torbert at Custer's headquarters, and found that the two had already been talking over a scheme to capture Cold Harbor, and when their plan was laid before me it appeared so plainly feasible that I fully endorsed it, at once giving directions for its immediate execution, and ordering Gregg to come forward to Torbert's support with such troops as he could spare from the duty with which he had been charged.
Torbert moved out promptly, Merritt's brigade first, followed by Custer's, on the direct road to Cold Harbor, while Devin's brigade was detached, and marched by a left-hand road that would bring him in on the right and rear of the enemy's line, which was posted in front of the crossroads. Devin was unable to carry his part of the programme farther than to reach the front of the Confederate right, and as Merritt came into position to the right of the Old Church road Torbert was obliged to place a part of Custer's brigade on Merritt's left so as to connect with Devin. The whole division was now in line, confronted by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, supported by Clingman's brigade from Hoke's division of infantry; and from the Confederate breastworks, hastily constructed out of logs, rails, and earth, a heavy fire was already being poured upon us that it seemed impossible to withstand. None of Gregg's division had yet arrived, and so stubborn was the enemy's resistance that I began to doubt our ability to carry the place before reinforcements came up, but just then Merritt reported that he could turn the enemy's left, and being directed to execute his proposition, he carried it to a most successful issue with the First and Second regular cavalry. Just as these two regiments passed around the enemy's left and attacked his rear, the remainder of the division assailed him in front. This manoeuvre of Merritt's stampeded the Confederates, and the defenses falling into our hands easily, we pushed ahead on the Bottom's bridge road three-fourths of a mile beyond Cold Harbor.
Cold Harbor was now mine, but I was about nine miles away from our nearest infantry, and had been able to bring up only Davies's brigade of cavalry, which arrived after the fight. My isolated position therefore made me a little uneasy. I felt convinced that the enemy would attempt to regain the place, for it was of as much importance to him as to us, and the presence of his infantry disclosed that he fully appreciated this. My uneasiness increased as the day grew late, for I had learned from prisoners that the balance of Hoke's division was en route to Cold Harbor, and Kershaw near at hand, interposing between the Union left near Bethesda Church and my position. In view of this state of affairs, I notified General Meade that I had taken Cold Harbor, but could not with safety to my command hold it, and forthwith gave directions to withdraw during the night. The last of my troops had scarcely pulled out, however, when I received a despatch from Meade directing me to hold Cold Harbor at every hazard. General Grant had expected that a severe battle would have to be fought before we could obtain possession of the place; and its capture by our cavalry not being anticipated, no preparation had been made for its permanent occupancy. No time was to be lost, therefore, if the advantages which possession of Cold Harbor gave us were to be improved, so at the same hour that Meade ordered me to hold the place at all hazards the Sixth Corps was started on a forced march, by Grant's directions, to aid in that object, and on arrival to relieve my cavalry.
The moment Meade's order was received, I directed a reoccupation of Cold Harbor, and although a large portion of Torbert's command was already well on its way back to the line we held on the morning of the 31st, this force speedily retraced its steps, and re-entered the place before daylight; both our departure and return having been effected without the enemy being aware of our movements. We now found that the temporary breastworks of rails and logs which the Confederates had built were of incalculable benefit to us in furnishing material with which to establish a line of defense, they being made available by simply reversing them at some points, or at others wholly reconstructing them to suit the circumstances of the ground: The troops, without reserves, were then placed behind our cover dismounted, boxes of ammunition distributed along the line, and the order passed along that the place must be held. All this was done in the darkness, and while we were working away at our cover the enemy could be distinctly heard from our skirmish-line giving commands and making preparations to attack.
Just after daylight on the 1st of June the Confederate infantry under General Kershaw endeavored to drive us out, advancing against my right from the Bethesda Church road. In his assault he was permitted to come close up to our works, and when within short range such afire was opened on him from our horse-artillery and repeating carbines that he recoiled in confusion after the first onset; still, he seemed determined to get the place, and after reorganizing, again attacked; but the lesson of the first repulse was not without effect, and his feeble effort proved wholly fruitless. After his second failure we were left undisturbed, and at 9 A.M. I sent the following despatch to army headquarters:
"HEADQUARTERS CAVALRY CORPS, "ARMY OF THE POTOMAC. "Cold Harbor, Va., June 1, 1864—9 A.M.
"MAJOR-GENERAL HUMPHREYS, "Chief-of-Staff.
"GENERAL: In obedience to your instructions I am holding Cold Harbor. I have captured this morning more prisoners; they belong to three different infantry brigades. The enemy assaulted the right of my lines this morning, but were handsomely repulsed. I have been very apprehensive, but General Wright is now coming up. I built slight works for my men; the enemy came up to them, and were driven back. General Wright has just arrived.
"P. H. SHERIDAN, "Major-General Commanding."
About 10 o'clock in the morning the Sixth Corps relieved Torbert and Davies, having marched all night, and these two generals moving out toward the Chickahominy covered the left of the infantry line till Hancock's corps took their place in the afternoon. By this time Gregg had joined me with his two brigades, and both Torbert and Gregg were now marched to Prospect Church, from which point I moved them to a position on the north side of the Chickahominy at Bottom's bridge. Here the enemy's cavalry confronted us, occupying the south bank of the stream, with artillery in position at the fords prepared to dispute our passage; but it was not intended that we should cross; so Gregg and Torbert lay quiet in camp at Bottom's bridge and at Old Church without noteworthy event until the 6th of June.
As before related, Wilson's division struck the enemy's infantry as well as W. H. F. Lee's cavalry near Ashland on the 1st of June, and although Chapman destroyed the bridges over the South Anna, which was his part of the programme, Wilson found it necessary to return to Price's Store. From this point he continued to cover the right of the Army of the Potomac, on the 2d of June driving the rear-guard of the enemy from Hawe's Shop, the scene of the battle of May 28. The same day he crossed Tolopotomy Creek, and passed around the enemy's left flank so far that Lee thought his left was turned by a strong force, and under cover of darkness withdrew from a menacing position which he was holding in front of the Ninth Corps. This successful manoeuvre completed, Wilson returned to Hawe's Shop, and on the 4th went into camp at New Castle ferry, in anticipation of certain operations of the Cavalry Corps, which were to take place while the Army of the Potomac was crossing to the south side of the James.
THE MOVEMENT TO THE JAMES—THE SECOND EXPEDITION—BATTLE OF TREVILLIAN STATION—DEFEAT OF GENERAL WADE HAMPTON—MALLORY'S CROSSROADS—SUFFERING OF THE WOUNDED—SECURING THE TRAINS—GENERAL GREGG'S STUBBORN FIGHT.
By the 6th of June General Grant again determined to continue the movement of the army by its left flank to the south bank of the James River, his unsuccessful attack on the enemy's works near Cold Harbor having demonstrated that Lee's position north of the Chickahominy could not be carried by assault with results that would compensate for the enormous loss of life which must follow; therefore a further attempt to fight a decisive battle north of Richmond was abandoned. In carrying the army to the James River the hazardous manoeuvres would be hampered by many obstacles, such as the thick timber, underbrush, and troublesome swamps to be met in crossing the Chickahominy. Besides, Lee held an interior line, from which all the direct roads to Richmond could be covered with his infantry, leaving his cavalry free to confront our advance on the south bank of the Chickahominy as far down as Jones's bridge, and thence around to Charles City Court House. In view of these difficulties it became necessary to draw off the bulk of the enemy's cavalry while the movement to the James was in process of execution, and General Meade determined to do this by requiring me to proceed with two divisions as far as Charlottesville to destroy the railroad bridge over the Rivanna River near that town, the railroad itself from the Rivanna to Gordonsville, and, if practicable, from Gordonsville back toward Hanover Junction also.
"HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, "June 5, 1864. 3.30 P. M.
"MAJOR-GENERAL SHERIDAN, Commanding Cavalry Corps.
"I am directed by the major-general commanding to furnish the following instructions for your guidance in the execution of the duty referred to in the order for movements and changes of position to-night, a copy of which order accompanies this communication.
"With two divisions of your corps you will move on the morning of the 7th instant to Charlottesville and destroy the railroad bridge over the Rivanna near that town; you will then thoroughly destroy the railroad from that point to Gordonsville, and from Gordonsville toward Hanover Junction, and to the latter point, if practicable. The chief engineer, Major Duane, will furnish you a canvas pontoon-train of eight boats. The chief quartermaster will supply you with such tools, implements, and materials as you may require for the destruction of the road. Upon the completion of this duty you will rejoin this army.
"A. HUMPHREYS, "Major-General, Chief-of-Staff."
After Meade's instructions reached me they were somewhat modified by General Grant, who on the same evening had received information that General Hunter, commanding the troops in West Virginia, had reached Staunton and engaged with advantage the Confederate commander, General Jones, near that place. General Grant informed me orally that he had directed Hunter to advance as far as Charlottesville, that he expected me to unite with him there, and that the two commands, after destroying the James River canal and the Virginia Central road, were to join the Army of the Potomac in the manner contemplated in my instructions from General Meade; and that in view of what was anticipated, it would be well to break up as much of the railroad as possible on my way westward. A copy of his letter to Hunter comprised my written instructions. A junction with this general was not contemplated when the expedition was first conceived, but became an important though not the paramount object after the reception of the later information. The diversion of the enemy's cavalry from the south side of the Chickahominy was its main purpose, for in the presence of such a force as Lee's contracted lines would now permit him to concentrate behind the Chickahominy, the difficulties of crossing that stream would be largely increased if he also had at hand a strong body of horse, to gain the time necessary for him to oppose the movement at the different crossings with masses of his infantry.
The order calling for two divisions for the expedition, I decided to take Gregg's and Torbert's, leaving Wilson's behind to continue with the infantry in its march to the James and to receive instructions directly from, the headquarters of the army. All my dismounted men had been sent to the White House some days before, and they were directed to report to Wilson as they could be provided with mounts.
"COLD HARBOR, VA., June 6, 1964.
"MAJOR-GENERAL D. HUNTER, Commanding Dept West Virginia.
"General Sheridan leaves here to-morrow morning with instructions to proceed to Charlottesville, Va., and to commence there the destruction of the Virginia Central railroad, destroying this way as much as possible. The complete destruction of this road and of the canal on James River is of great importance to us. According to the instructions I sent to General Halleck for your guidance, you will proceed to Lynchburg and commence there. It would be of great value to us to get possession of Lynchburg for a single day. But that point is of so much importance to the enemy, that in attempting to get it such resistance may be met as to defeat your getting into the road or canal at all. I see, in looking over the letter to General Halleck on the subject of your instructions, that it rather indicates that your route should be from Staunton via Charlottesville. If you have so understood it, you will be doing just what I want. The direction I would now give is, that if this letter reaches you in the valley between Staunton and Lynchburg, you immediately turn east by the most practicable road until you strike the Lynchburg branch of the Virginia Central road. From there move eastward along the line of the road, destroying it completely and thoroughly, until you join General Sheridan. After the work laid out for General Sheridan and yourself is thoroughly done, proceed to join the Army of the Potomac by the route laid out in General Sheridan's instructions. If any portion of your force, especially your cavalry, is needed back in your department, you are authorized to send it back. If on receipt of this you should be near to Lynchburg and deem it practicable to reach that point, you will exercise your judgment about going there. If you should be on the railroad between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, it may be practicable to detach a cavalry force to destroy the canal. Lose no opportunity to destroy the canal.
"U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General."
Owing to the hard service of the preceding month we had lost many horses, so the number of dismounted men was large; and my strength had also been much reduced by killed and wounded during the same period of activity. The effective mounted force of my two divisions was therefore much diminished, they mustering only about six thousand officers and men when concentrated on June 6 at New Castle ferry. Here they were provided with three days' rations, intended to last five days, and with two days' grain for the horses. The rations and forty rounds of ammunition per man were to be carried on the persons of the troopers, the grain on the pommel of the saddle, and the reserve ammunition in wagons. One medical wagon and eight ambulances were also furnished, and one wagon was authorized for each division and brigade headquarters; enough canvas-covered boats for a small pontoon-bridge were also provided.
My instructions permitting latitude in the route I should take, I decided to march along the north bank of the North Anna River, cross that stream at Carpenter's ford, strike the Virginia Central railroad at Trevillian Station, destroy it toward Louisa Court House, march past Gordonsville, strike the railroad again at Cobham's Station, and destroy it thence to Charlottesville as we proceeded west. The success of the last part of this programme would of course depend on the location of General Hunter when I should arrive in the region where it would be practicable for us to communicate with each other.
From my camp at New Castle ferry we crossed the Pamunkey, marched between Aylett's and Dunkirk on the Mattapony River, and on the 8th of June encamped at Polecat Station. The next day we resumed the march along the North Anna—our advance guard skirmishing with a few mounted men of the enemy, who proved to be irregulars—and bivouacked on Northeast Creek, near Young's Mills. This day I learned from some of these irregulars whom we made prisoners that Breckenridge's division of infantry, en route to the Shenandoah Valley by way of Gordonsville, was passing slowly up the railroad parallel to me, and that the enemy's cavalry had left its position on the south side of the Chickahominy, and was marching on the old Richmond and Gordonsville road toward Gordonsville, under command of General Wade Hampton, the information being confirmed by a scouting party sent out to cut the telegraph wires along the railroad in the night. Breckenridge had been ordered back to the valley by General Lee as soon as he heard of Hunter's victory near Staunton, but now that my expedition had been discovered, the movement of Breckenridge's troops on the railroad was being timed to correspond with the marches of my command till Hampton could get more nearly parallel with me.
On the 10th we resumed the march, passing by Twyman's store, crossing the North Anna at Carpenter's ford and encamping on the road leading along the south fork of the North Anna to Trevillian Station. During the evening and night of the 10th the boldness of the enemy's scouting parties, with which we had been coming into collision more or less every day, perceptibly increased, thus indicating the presence of a large force, and evidencing that his shorter line of march had enabled him to bring to my front a strong body of cavalry, although it started from Lee's army nearly two days later than I did from Grant's. The arrival of this body also permitted Breckenridge to pass on to Gordonsville, and from there to interpose between General Hunter and me at either Charlottesville or Waynesboro' as circumstances might determine.
On the night of the Loth General Hampton's division camped about three miles northwest of Trevillian, at a place called Green Spring Valley and Fitzhugh Lee's division not far from Louisa Court House, some six miles east of Trevillian. Learning that I was at Carpenter's ford, Hampton marched his division by way of Trevillian Station toward Clayton's store, on the road from Trevillian to Carpenter's ford, intending to attack me at Clayton's. Fitzhugh Lee's division was to join Hampton at Clayton's store from Louisa Court House; but on the morning of the 11th the two generals were separated by several miles.
At daylight of the 11th my march, to Trevillian Station was resumed on the direct road to that point, and engaging the enemy's pickets and advanced parties soon after setting out, we began to drive them in. Torbert had the lead with Merritt's and Devin's brigades, and as he pressed back the pickets he came upon the enemy posted behind a line of barricades in dense timber about three miles from Trevillian. Meanwhile Custer's brigade had been sent from where we bivouacked, by a wood road found on our left, to destroy Trevillian Station. In following this road Custer got to the rear of Hampton's division, having passed between its right flank and Fitzhugh Lee's division, which was at the time marching on the road leading from Louisa Court House to Clayton's store to unite with Hampton.
Custer, the moment he found himself in Hampton's rear, charged the led horses, wagons, and caissons found there, getting hold of a vast number of each, and also of the station itself. The stampede and havoc wrought by Custer in Hampton's rear compelled him to turn Rosser's brigade in that direction, and while it attacked Custer on one side, Fitzhugh Lee's division, which had followed Custer toward Trevillian, attacked him on the other. There then ensued a desperate struggle for the possession of the captured property, resulting finally in its being retaken by the enemy. Indeed, the great number of horses and vehicles could not be kept on the limited space within Custer's line, which now formed almost a complete circle; and while he was endeavoring to remove them to a secure place they, together with Custer's headquarters wagon and four of his caissons, fell into the hands of their original owners.
As soon as the firing told that Custer had struck the enemy's rear, I directed Torbert to press the line in front of Merritt and Devin, aided by one brigade of Gregg's division on their left, Gregg's other brigade in the meantime attacking Fitzhugh Lee on the Louisa Court House road. The effect of this was to force Hampton back, and his division was so hard pushed that a portion of it was driven pell-mell into Custer's lines, leaving there about five hundred prisoners. The rest of Hampton's men did not rally till they got some distance west of Trevillian, while, in the meantime, Gregg had driven Fitzhugh Lee toward Louisa Court House so far that many miles now intervened between the two Confederate divisions, precluding their union until about noon the next day, when Fitzhugh Lee effected the junction after a circuitous march in the night. The defeat of Hampton at the point where he had determined to resist my further advance, and his retreat westward, gave me undisturbed possession of the station; and after destroying the railroad to some extent toward Gordonsville, I went into camp.
From prisoners taken during the day, I gathered that General Hunter, instead of coming toward Charlottesville, as I had reason to expect, both from the instructions given me and the directions sent him by General Grant, was in the neighborhood of Lexington—apparently moving on Lynchburg—and that Breckenridge was at Gordonsville and Charlottesville. I also heard, from the same source, that Ewell's corps was on its way to Lynchburg, but this intelligence proved afterward to be incorrect, for these troops, commanded by General Early, did not leave Richmond till two days later.
There was no doubt as to the information about Hunter's general location, however. He was marching toward Lynchburg, away from instead of toward me, thus making the junction of our commands beyond all reasonable probability. So in view of this, I made up my mind to abandon that part of the scheme, and to return by leisurely marches, which would keep Hampton's cavalry away from Lee while Grant was crossing the James River. I was still further influenced to this course by the burden which was thrown on me in the large number of wounded—there being about five hundred cases of my own—and the five hundred prisoners that I would probably be forced to abandon, should I proceed farther. Besides, the recent battle had reduced my supply of ammunition to a very small amount—not more than enough for one more respectable engagement; and as the chances were that I would have to fight a great deal before I could reach Hunter, now that the enemy's cavalry and Breckenridge's infantry were between us, the risks of the undertaking seemed too great to warrant it.
The morning of June 12 Gregg's division commenced destroying the railroad to Louisa Court House, and continued the work during the day, breaking it pretty effectually. While Gregg was thus occupied, I directed Torbert to make a reconnoissance up the Gordonsville road, to secure a by-road leading over Mallory's ford, on the North Anna, to the Catharpen road, as I purposed following that route to Spottsylvania Court House on my return, and thence via Bowling Green and Dunkirk to the White House. About a mile beyond Trevillian the Gordonsville road fork—the left fork leading to Charlottesville—and about a mile beyond the fork Hampton had taken up and strongly intrenched a line across both roads, being reinforced by Fitzhugh Lee, who, as before related, had joined him about noon by a roundabout march. Torbert soon hotly engaged this line, and by the impetuosity of his first attack, gained some advantage; but the appearance of Fitzhugh Lee's troops on the right, and Hampton's strong resistance in front, rendered futile all efforts to carry the position; and, although I brought up one of Gregg's brigades to Torbert's assistance, yet the by-road I coveted was still held by the enemy when night closed in.
This engagement, like that off the day before around Trevillian, was mostly fought dismounted by both sides, as had also been the earlier fights of the cavalry during the summer in the Wilderness, at Todd's Tavern, Hawe's Shop, and Matadequin Creek. Indeed, they could hardly have been fought otherwise than on foot, as there was little chance for mounted fighting in eastern Virginia, the dense woods, the armament of both parties, and the practice of barricading making it impracticable to use the sabre with anything like a large force; and so with the exception of Yellow Tavern the dismounted method prevailed in almost every engagement.
The losses at Mallory's Crossroads were very heavy on both sides. The character of the fighting, together with the day's results, demonstrated that it was impossible to make the passage of the North Anna at Mallory's ford without venturing another battle the next day. This would consume the little ammunition left, and though we might gain the road, yet the possibility of having no ammunition whatever to get back with was too great a hazard, so I gave orders to withdraw during the night of the 12th. We retired along the same road by which we had come, taking with us the prisoners, and all of our wounded who could be moved. Those who could not be transported, some ninety in number, and all the Confederate wounded in my hands, were left at Trevillian in hospitals, under charge of one of our surgeons, with plenty of medical and other stores.
We recrossed the North Anna at Carpenter's ford the following morning, and halting there, unsaddled and turned the horses out to graze, for they were nearly famished, having had neither food nor water during the preceding forty-eight hours. Late in the afternoon we saddled up and proceeded to Twyman's Store, while General Hampton's main body moved down the south bank of the North Anna, with the purpose of intervening between me and the Army of the Potomac, in the hope of preventing my return to it; but his movements took no definite shape beyond watching me, however, till several days later, near St. Mary's Church, when I was crossing the peninsula to the James River.
On the 14th the march was continued, and we reached the Catharpen road, upon which it was originally intended to move if we had been able to cross at Mallory's ford, and this conducted me to Shady Grove Church. The next day we passed over the battle-field of Spottsylvania Court House. The marks of the recent conflicts about there were visible on every hand, and in the neighboring houses were found many Union and Confederate wounded, who had been too severely hurt to be removed from the field-hospitals at the time of the battles. Such of our wounded as were able to travel were brought away.
On the 16th I marched from Edge Hill on the Ta River through Bowling Green to Dr. Butler's, on the north side of the Mattapony. When I arrived here I was unable to ascertain the position of the Army of the Potomac, and was uncertain whether or not the base at the White House had been discontinued. I had heard nothing from the army for nine days except rumors through Southern sources, and under these circumstances did not like to venture between the Mattapony and Pamunkey rivers, embarrassed as I was with some four hundred wounded, five hundred prisoners, and about two thousand negroes that had joined my column in the hope of obtaining their freedom. I therefore determined to push down the north bank of the Mattapony far enough to enable me to send these impediments directly to West Point, where I anticipated finding some of our gunboats and transports, that could carry all to the North. Following this plan, we proceeded through Walkerton to King and Queen Court House, and bivouacked in its vicinity the night of the 18th. Next day I learned that the depot at the White House had not yet been broken up entirely, and that supplies were in store for me there; so after sending the wounded, prisoners, and negroes to West Point under an escort of two regiments, I turned back to Dunkirk, on the Mattapony, and crossed to the south side at a place where the stream was narrow enough to bridge with my pontoon-boats.
In returning from Trevillian, as the most of our wounded were hauled in old buggies, carts, and such other vehicles as could be made available in the absence of a sufficient number of ambulances, the suffering was intense, the heat of the season and dusty roads adding much to the discomfort. Each day we halted many times to dress the wounds of the injured and to refresh them as much as possible, but our means for mitigating their distress were limited. The fortitude and cheerfulness of the poor fellows under such conditions were remarkable, for no word of complaint was heard. The Confederate prisoners and colored people being on foot, our marches were necessarily made short, and with frequent halts also, but they too suffered considerably from the heat and dust, though at times the prisoners were relieved by being mounted on the horses of some of our regiments, the owners meantime marching on foot. Where all the colored people came from and what started them was inexplicable, but they began joining us just before we reached Trevillian—men, women, and children with bundles of all sorts containing their few worldly goods, and the number increased from day to day until they arrived at West Point. Probably not one of the poor things had the remotest idea, when he set out, as to where he would finally land, but to a man they followed the Yankees in full faith that they would lead to freedom, no matter what road they took.
On the morning of the 20th, at an early hour, we resumed our march, and as the column proceeded sounds of artillery were heard in the direction of the White House, which fact caused us to quicken the pace. We had not gone far when despatches from General Abercrombie, commanding some fragmentary organizations at the White House, notified me that the place was about to be attacked. I had previously sent an advance party with orders to move swiftly toward the cannonading and report to me by couriers the actual condition of affairs. From this party I soon learned that there was no occasion to push our jaded animals, since the crisis, if there had been one, was over and the enemy repulsed, so the increased gait was reduced to a leisurely march that took us late in the afternoon to the north bank of the Pamunkey, opposite Abercrombie's camp. When I got to the river the enemy was holding the bluffs surrounding the White House farm, having made no effort to penetrate General Abercrombie's line or do him other hurt than to throw a few shells among the teamsters there congregated.
Next day Gregg's division crossed the Pamunkey dismounted, and Torbert's crossed mounted. As soon as the troops were over, Gregg, supported by Merritt's brigade, moved out on the road to Tunstall's Station to attack Hampton, posted an the west side of Black Creek, Custer's brigade meanwhile moving, mounted, on the road to Cumberland, and Devin's in like manner on the one to Baltimore crossroads. This offer of battle was not accepted, however, and Hampton withdrew from my front, retiring behind the Chickahominy, where his communications with Lee would be more secure.
While at the White House I received orders to break up that depot wholly, and also instructions to move the trains which the Army of the Potomac had left there across the peninsula to the pontoon-bridge at Deep Bottom on the James River. These trains amounted to hundreds of wagons and other vehicles, and knowing full well the dangers which would attend the difficult problem of getting them over to Petersburg, I decided to start them with as little delay as circumstances would permit, and the morning of the 22d sent Torbert's division ahead to secure Jones's bridge on the Chickahominy, so that the wagons could be crossed at that point. The trains followed Torbert, while Gregg's division marched by a road parallel to the one on which the wagons were moving, and on their right flank, as they needed to be covered and protected in that direction only.
The enemy made no effort to attack us while we were moving the trains that day, and the wagons were all safely parked for the night on the south side of the Chickahominy, guarded by General Getty, who had relieved Abercrombie from command of the infantry fragments before we started off from the White House.
To secure the crossing at Jones's bridge, Torbert had pushed Devin's brigade out on the Long Bridge road, on the side of the Chickahominy where, on the morning of the 23d, he was attacked by Chambliss's brigade of W. H. F. Lee's division. Devin was driven in some little distance, but being reinforced by Getty with six companies of colored troops, he quickly turned the tables on Chambliss and re-established his picket-posts. From this affair I learned that Chambliss's brigade was the advance of the Confederate cavalry corps, while Hampton discovered from it that we were already in possession of the Jones's bridge crossing of the Chickahominy; and as he was too late to challenge our passage of the stream at this point he contented himself with taking up a position that night so as to cover the roads leading from Long Bridge to Westover, with the purpose of preventing the trains from following the river road to the pontoon-bridge at Deep Bottom.
My instructions required me to cross the trains over the James River on this pontoon-bridge if practicable, and to reach it I should be obliged to march through Charles City Court House, and then by Harrison's Landing and Malvern Hill, the latter point being held by the enemy. In fact, he held all the ground between Long Bridge on the Chickahominy and the pontoon-bridge except the Tete de pont at the crossing. Notwithstanding this I concluded to make the attempt, for all the delays of ferrying the command and trains would be avoided if we got through to the bridge; and with this object in view I moved Torbert's division out on the Charles City road to conduct the wagons. Just beyond Charles City Court House Torbert encountered Lomax's brigade, which he drove across Herring Creek on the road to Westover Church; and reporting the affair to me, I surmised, from the presence of this force in my front, that Hampton would endeavor to penetrate to the long column of wagons, so I ordered them to go into park near Wilcox's landing, and instructed Gregg, whose division had been marching in the morning along the road leading from Jones's bridge to St. Mary's Church for the purpose of covering the exposed flank of the train, to hold fast near the church without fail till all the transportation had passed Charles City Court House.
Meanwhile, General Hampton, who had conjectured that I would try to get the train across the James by the pontoon-bridge at Deep Bottom, began concentrating all his troops except Lomax's brigade, which was to confront the head of my column on the river road, in the vicinity of Nance's Shop. This was discovered by Gregg at an early hour, and divining this purpose he had prepared to meet it by constructing hasty cover for his men before receiving my instructions. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon Hampton got his force in hand, and with Fitzhugh Lee's division assailed the whole front of Gregg's line, and his left flank with Chambliss's and Geary's brigades. For two hours he continued to attack, but made little impression on Gregg—gain at one point being counterbalanced by failure at another. Because of the evident strength of Hampton, Gregg had placed all his troops in line of battle from the first, and on discovery of the enemy's superior numbers sent message after message to me concerning the situation, but the messengers never arrived, being either killed or captured, and I remained in total ignorance till dark of the strait his division was in.
Toward night it became clear to Gregg that he could maintain the unequal contest no longer, and he then decided to retreat, but not until convinced that the time won had enabled all the trains to pass Charles City Court House in safety. When he had got all his led horses fairly on the way, and such of the wounded as could be transported, he retired by his right flank-in some confusion, it is true, but stubbornly resisting to Hopewell Church, where Hampton ceased to press him.
Gregg's losses were heavy, and he was forced to abandon his dead and most seriously wounded, but the creditable stand made ensured the safety of the train, the last wagon of which was now parked at Wilcox's Landing. His steady, unflinching determination to gain time for the wagons to get beyond the point of danger was characteristic of the man, and this was the third occasion on which he had exhibited a high order of capacity and sound judgment since coming under my command. The firmness and coolness with which he always met the responsibilities of a dangerous place were particularly strong points in Gregg's make-up, and he possessed so much professional though unpretentious ability, that it is to be regretted he felt obliged a few months later to quit the service before the close of the war.
Gregg's fight fully satisfied me that we could not get the trains up to the pontoon-bridge, for of course Hampton would now throw all his cavalry in my front, on the river road, where it could be backed up by Lee's infantry. Meanwhile, General Meade had become assured of the same thing, and as he was now growing anxious about the fate of Wilson's division—which, during my absence, had been sent out to break the enemy's communications south of Petersburg, by destroying the Southside and Danville railroads—he sent ferryboats to cross me over the James. During the night of the 24th, and next morning, the immense train—which ought never to have been left for the cavalry to escort, after a fatiguing expedition of three weeks—was moved back through Charles City Court House to Douthard's landing, and there ferried over the river, followed by my troops in like manner. When General Hampton discovered this, he moved to Drury's Bluff, and there, on the morning of the 27th, crossed the James by the Confederate pontoon-bridge.
GENERAL WILSON'S RAID—DESTROYING RAILROADS—HIS DISCOMFITURE —RESULTS OF HIS RAID—REMOUNTS—MOVEMENT TO THE NORTH SIDE OF THE JAMES—DECEIVING LEE—MY ISOLATED POSITION—ESTIMATE OF HANCOCK —SUCCESS OF THE CAVALRY—THEIR CONSTANT DUTIES.
While I was absent on the expedition to Trevillian, the movement of the Army of the Potomac across the James River was effected, and Wilson, whom I had left behind for the purpose, was engaged in the duty of covering its front and rear. Late on the night of June 12 he, with Chapman's brigade, crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, in advance of the Fifth Corps, and by 7 o'clock next morning had driven the enemy's pickets up to White Oak bridge, where he waited for our infantry. When that came up, he pushed on as far as Riddle's Shop, but late that evening the Confederate infantry forced him to withdraw to St. Mary's Church; for early in the morning General Lee had discovered the movement of our army, and promptly threw this column of infantry south of the Chickahominy to White Oak Swamp, with the design of covering Richmond. From St. Mary's Church Wilson guarded all the roads toward White Oak Swamp and Riddle's Shop, McIntosh's brigade joining him on the 14th, by way of Long Bridge, as the rear of the Army of the Potomac passed the Chickahominy. In the performance of this duty Wilson did not have to fight any engagement of magnitude, for the bulk of the enemy's cavalry had followed me to Trevillian. During the 15th and 16th Wilson drew his troops in toward the James River, and next day crossed it on the pontoon-bridge and camped on the Blackwater, near Mt. Sinai Church. Here he remained till the 22d of June—the same day I reached the White House with Gregg and Torbert—when, under orders from General Meade, he set out to cut the enemy's communications to the south and southwest of Petersburg.
His instructions implied that the breaking up of the Petersburg and Lynchburg, and Richmond and Danville railroads at Burkeville was the most important part of his mission, and that when the work of destruction began, it should be continued till he was driven off by the enemy. Wilson's force consisted of about 5,500 men, General A. V. Kautz, with the cavalry of the Army of the James, having joined him for the expedition. In moving out Wilson crossed the Weldon road near Ream's Station, first destroying it effectually at that point. About fourteen miles west of Petersburg he struck the Southside railroad, and broke it up clear to Burkeville, a distance of thirty miles. Having destroyed everything at Burkeville Junction, he moved along the Danville road to Staunton River, completely wrecking about thirty miles of that line also. At Staunton River he found the railroad bridge strongly guarded, and seeing that he could not burn it, he began his return march that night, and reached Nottoway River, some thirty miles south of Petersburg, at noon of the next day—the 28th.
In this expedition Wilson was closely followed from the start by Barringer's brigade of W. H. F. Lee's cavalry, but the operations were not interfered with materially, his success being signal till he reached the vicinity of Stony Creek depot on his return. At this point General Hampton, with his own and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, got between Wilson and the Army of the Potomac, there being behind them at Ream's Station, at the same time, two brigades of infantry under General Mahone. A severe battle ensued, resulting in Wilson's defeat, with the loss of twelve guns and all his wagons. In consequence of this discomfiture he was obliged to fall back across the Nottoway River with his own division, and rejoined the army by way of Peter's bridge on that stream, while Kautz's division, unable to unite with Wilson after the two commands had become separated in the fight, made a circuit of the enemy's left, and reached the lines of our army in the night of the 28th.
Neither the presence of Hampton's cavalry at Stony Creek depot, nor the possession of Ream's Station by the Confederate infantry, seems to have been anticipated by Wilson, for in the report of the expedition he states:
"Foreseeing the probability of having to return northward, I wrote to General Meade the evening before starting that I anticipated no serious difficulty in executing his orders; but unless General Sheridan was required to keep Hampton's cavalry engaged, and our infantry to prevent Lee from making detachments, we should probably experience great difficulty in rejoining the army. In reply to this note, General Humphreys, chief-of-staff, informed me it was intended the Army of the Potomac should cover the Weldon road the next day, the Southside road the day after, and that Hampton having followed Sheridan toward Gordonsville, I need not fear any trouble from him."