May 11, 1864 (Wednesday)
We have now ended the sixth day of very heavy fighting. The result to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy, as well as those of the enemy. We have lost to this time 11 general officers, killed, wounded, and missing, and probably 20,000 men. I think the loss of the enemy must be greater, we having taken over 4,000 prisoners in battle, while he has taken but few, except stragglers. I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. – General Ulysses S. Grant to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, May 11, 1864
General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had withstood the previous day’s piecemeal assaults in fine fashion, mastering even the breakthrough at the Mule Shoe with what he considered small casualties. Grant was overestimating the killing effect his own army was having upon the enemy. But for both main bodies, today was a day of rest, reevaluation and some gentle skirmishing.
To the south, however, not too far above the Confederate capital of Richmond, Union cavalry under Philip Sheridan were on a raid, 10,000-strong. They had been riding since the 9th, and had already captured the bulk of Lee’s supply wagons, putting most to the torch. Now they were screaming south and closer still.
Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, was ordered by Lee to move with three brigades, one under Fitz Lee, the other under Lunsford Lomax, and still another under James Gordon. All told, they numbered around 4,500. They were to strike Sheridan’s Yankees while they were crossing the North Anna River. Near Beaver Dam Station they made such an attempt, but failed, and Sheridan slipped farther south.
The Union troopers had felled trees and laid tangled obstructions along the road they traveled. To avoid the delay, Stuart took a more lengthy route, but with speed, he might beat the Federals to the crossing of the Chickahominy River, some nine miles north of Richmond.
Stuart was not optimistic about stopping Sheridan before he reached the capital. “Should he attack Richmond,” wrote Stuart to Braxton Bragg, President Davis’ military advisor, late the night previous, “I will certainly move in his rear and do what I can; at the same time, I hope to be able to strike him if he endeavors to escape.”
Stuart rested his command, which had been in the saddle for thirty-six hours. Fortunately, Sheridan did the same. But Sheridan had halted after crossing the South Anna at Ground Squirrel Bridge, while Stuart rested his men at Taylorsville, just south of Hanover Junction, and still north of the river.
At the dawning of this date, Sheridan’s men were back in the saddle, 10,000 riders to Richmond. But almost immediately, he rear guard was fallen upon by General Gordon’s Brigade, which had haunted the Yankees since crossing the North Anna. All through the day, they would skirmish, the Rebels backing the Federals farther south.
The parallel roads used by Sheridan and Stuart grew closer until they met at Yellow Tavern, just south of the Chickahominy. He might not be able to stop the Yankees from crossing, but he could hit them once they did, and perhaps even prevent them from entering Richmond, but nine miles south.
Stuart arrived first, around 8am, and established two lines of defense, one before the other, also sending word to Richmond, and a plea for reinforcements. But soon Sheridan’s first division, helmed by Wesley Merritt, appeared before them. They gathered, dismounted and arrayed themselves for battle. Advancing swiftly on foot and seeming like many more than a division with their quickly-firing carbines, Merritt’s men were upon Stuart’s first line, that of Lomax’s brigade.
Lomax lost 200 men almost immediately to capture, as the bulk of his line fled to join the second, under Fitz Lee. And here the battle fell into a lull, as Sheridan waited for his other two divisions to arrive. Stuart, too, waited for whatever reinforcements might be sent forward from Richmond. There were non on the way. Stuart’s messenger had returned from a short meeting with Bragg, who spoke of two brigades of infantry now on their way from Petersburg.
Stuart was delighted, and began to make plans, telling Bragg to send one brigade against Sheridan’s right flank, and the other to himself on what was quickly becoming Sheridan’s left. “If we make a combined attack on the,” wrote Stuart, “I cannot see how they can escape.”
But Sheridan was concentrating, already joined by another division. As Stuart peered from his lines across the half mile gulf to those of Sheridan, with clouds now covering the sky and lightening and rain now falling, he must have known that time was running short. Sheridan now decided to begin the fight anew, launching first a saber charge, carried forward by George Armstrong Custer.
The Federal strike was aimed at Stuart’s artillery, which was now keeping pace with the thunder. Custer’s men came forward. “As soon as our line appeared in the open,” wrote one of Custer’s Wolverines after the war, “indeed, before it left the woods, the Confederate artillery opened with shell and shrapnel; the carbines 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.”
But Stuart’s artillery often overshot the advancing Yankees, and the sharpshooters could not keep pace. The attack came across the whole line, though Custer’s mounted troops played quickly upon Stuart’s left.
“As he always did,” wrote one of Stuart’s aids about the cavalier, “the general hastened to the point where the greatest danger threatened, – the point against which the enemy directed the mounted charge.”
And in quick order, Custer’s men captured the battery, stoving in Stuart’s left flank. He had on hand and around the lost guns around eighty mounted men. It was Company K of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, Stuart’s old regiment. “Bully for old K!” Shouted the general as he joined them in the melee. “Give it to them, boy!” Company K charged in among the Yankees, and soon the enemy was repulsed. When the boys turned around to once more face their commander, Stuart was reeling.
“I am shot,” he said. Then to Gus Dorsey, captain of Company K, he turned. “Dorsey, save your men.” The captain caught him as he began to slump from his horse. Stuart nearly ordered Dorsey to leave him and save his men. But that was not about to happen. Dorsey called two of his men to his side and they bore Stuart to the rear.
“As he was being driven from the field he noticed the disorganized ranks of his retreat men and called out to them:
‘Go back! go back! an do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back! go back! I had rather die than be whipped.'”
The ambulance was slow in coming, and the Federals were once more advancing. Stuart had ordered his men to leave him, but they refused his last order. When the wagon finally arrived, Stuart was placed upon it, and accompanied by a surgeon and Lt. Hullihen, whom Stuart had gifted a strange pet name.
“Honey-bun,” spoke Stuart weakly, “how do I look in the face?”
“General,” replied Hullihen, “you are looking right well. You will be all right.”
“Well,” said he, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die, I am ready.”
James Ewell Brown Stuart, only 31 years old, died the following day. General Lee would feel his loss through the end of the war. The cavalry, however, would discover Wade Hampton’s true calling, and though he would never have the dash and flare of Jeb Stuart, the mounted branch of the Confederacy would be reborn as a more disciplined and practical machine under his command.
After soundly defeating the Rebels at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan continued south, avoiding Richmond, but linking up with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James now at Bermuda Hundred and about to face off against P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate forces.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 2, p627-628; Vol. 51, Part 2, p911-912; The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J. E. B. Stuart by Henry Brainerd McClellan; Personal Recollections by James Harvey Kidd; “Fatal Wounding of General J.E.B. Stuart” by Colonel “Gus” W. Dorsey, as appearing in Southern History Society Papers, Vol. 30-31; The Battles for Spotsylvania by Gordon C. Rhea. [↩]