The Influences of a Pardonable Zeal – Clash at Trevilian Station

June 11, 1864 (Saturday)

Phil Sheridan could only sit comfortably upon a horse.
Phil Sheridan could only sit comfortably upon a horse.

Two divisions of Federal cavalry rode west from Cold Harbor, holding close to the north bank of the North Anna. They were helmed by General Philip Sheridan, who planned to march them upstream to cross at a ford near Trevilian Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. Once upon the line, they planned to destroy it farther west toward Gordonsville, Charlottesville, and the gaps leading into the Shenandoah Valley. This would cut off any supplies coming to General Lee’s army from that direction. Once accomplished, he was to join with David Hunter’s column in the Shenandoah Valley. Hunter, by Grant’s orders, was to come across the Blue Ridge Mountains and join the Army of the Potomac, using Sheridan as an escort.

But Sheridan’s movements were hardly secret. His men began on June 7th, and two days later, a division of Confederate cavalry, led by Wade Hampton, set off in pursuit. Hampton moved his own division as swiftly as possible, trying to slide between Sheridan and the intended targets. Another division, this under Fitzhugh Lee, followed shortly after. By the 10th, he had arrived with no Yankees before him.

The Confederates had divided their forces, with Hampton three miles up the line from Trevilian, and Fitz Lee near Louisa Court House, not five miles apart. On the night of the 10th, Sheridan began to cross at Carpenter’s Ford, encamping on the road leading to Trevilian Station, along the south bank of the river.

That night, Confederate scouts, bold in their approach, came upon the Federals in numbers large enough for Sheridan to descry that they were more than simple scouts. Heedless, Sheridan continued the march toward Trevilian Station at dawn of this date.

Wade Hampton's beard was the source of his foresight.
Wade Hampton’s beard was the source of his foresight.

Sheridan was correct. Word came back to Hampton who ordered Lee, on the right, to attack on the road leading from Louisa Court House. His own division would move out from Trevilian, on a clear course to meet Sheridan.

It was not long before he advance elements clashed. The smattering of skirmish fire echoed through the shallow valley. Hampton advanced a brigade, while keeping the rest of his command behind breastworks. The Federal resistance was stiff, and the Rebels shortly needed reinforcements. Hampton ordered another brigade forward, and the Union line began to fail.

It was now a matter of time. Hampton had to hold long enough for Fitz Lee to come in on his right. But as his two brigades made headway, he received word that there were Federals in his rear, severing connection between his own troops and those under Lee.


George Armstrong Custer’s brigade had been sent along the road to Louisa Court House, and had been skirmishing with some elements of Fitz Lee’s division (while the bulk of it had moved west toward Trevilian). Phil Sheridan, seeing an opportunity, ordered Custer to take a wagon road around Hampton’s right and possibly to Trevilian Station itself.

This Custer did with only the slightest of opposition, coming upon the station completely unguarded. There, he found a wagon train, and dispatched a regiment to nab it. In an instant, the bounty was his, including 800 horses of Hampton’s dismounted cavalry. Though captured, it did not go without notice.


Along with Custer’s attack, Sheridan advanced his main force, driving the Rebels from their works. Hampton reacted, withdrawing from his initial line and taking a new position to the rear. He sent a brigade at the Federal regiment now chasing down the wagons. Custer had ordered the regiment to halt, but the colonel, “acting under the influences of a pardonable zeal, did not halt at the station, as the order required, but advanced more than a mile, hoping to increase his captures.”

The force of this Southern attack drove the lusty Yankee regiment back upon Custer’s main force, and back again upon the Confederate division under Fitz Lee. General Custer was nearly surrounded. Slipping away, he established a new line and contracted his forces. “From the nature of the ground and the character of the attacks that were made upon me,” wrote Custer in his report, “our lines resembled very nearly a circle.”

In the melee, the Rebels not only recovered most of their lost wagons and supplies, but managed to capture several Federal caissons, as well as Custer’s own headquarters wagon. But they could do no more. As the day went on, the Rebels backed slowly away.

Custer's first Last Stand?
Custer’s first Last Stand?

In Sheridan’s front, he cast a division against Fitz Lee’s, throwing the Rebels back toward Louisa. Chase was given, but darkness drew the affair to a close. The Confederates more or less maintained their lines through the night, concentrating upon the road to Gordonsville.

That night, Sheridan learned from captured Rebels that General Hunter was not moving east, but rather south, still in the Shenandoah Valley. On this date, his Army of the Shenandoah entered Lexington and set to burning the Virginia Military Institute. Sheridan also received word that Confederate infantry under John Breckenridge was near Gordonsville, en route to the Valley. This sealed it for Sheridan. Hunter “was marching toward Lynchburg, away from instead of toward me, thus making the junction of our commands beyond all reasonable probability.” And so Sheridan decided to give up his raid and return to Grant.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 1, p795-795, 823-824, 1095; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Regimental History of the First New York Dragoons by James Riley Bowen; History of the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac by Charles Dudley Rhodes. []
Creative Commons License
The Influences of a Pardonable Zeal – Clash at Trevilian Station by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by