October 8, 1864 (Saturday)
As Philip Sheridan’s army marched north, down the Shenandoah Valley, his three divisions of cavalry acted as rear guard, buffering the infantry from their probing Rebel counterparts. Under the command of Alfred Torbert, the three divisions were dispersed in a wide arch.
To the east, in the Luray Valley, was William Powell, while in the west, was Wesley Merritt’s. The center was, of course, all George Armstrong Custer. While Powell’s Division was relatively unmolested, both Merritt and Custer were dogged by Lunsford Lomax and Thomas Rosser, respectively.
While Lomax kept his distance from Merrit, who outnumbered him by about a thousand, Rosser, who had 3,000 troopers to Custer’s 2,500, nipped and pecked at the Federals.
Due to this nipping and pecking, Torbert decided that upon this date George Custer needed a break. He halted Merritt near Tom’s Brook, sending one of his brigades to keep Lomax busy, while the other three swapped places with Custer. This moved Merritt to the front, and Custer a few miles in the rear.
The brigade sent forward was helmed by Col. James Kidd, who moved south toward Woodstock to find the Rebels. As they moved, two regiments quickly found the enemy and pushed them for miles. Seeing that the Confederates had been reinforced, Kidd thought it best to withdraw and wait about a mile from Tom’s Brook.
And then they came, storming and charging on either side of the Valley Pike. Kidd split his forces, sending two regiments a miles back to Tom’s Brook, while the other two fell back slowly to rejoin them. When finally joined as one, the Rebels charged three times and were beaten back each.
But this was only the action of one Federal brigade. In the meanwhile, Custer, who had taken a position of resting and safety to the rear of Merritt’s main line, was attacked. Specifically, it was the 18th Pennsylvania, commanded by Maj. John Phillips, acting as a rear guard for Custer’s Division.
What attacked them was but an advance of the Rosser’s Confederate force, and Phillips needed only his rear battalion to fend them off at first.
“My men fired repeated volleys into the head of the column,” reported Phillips, “and so effectually checked the advance that a flank movement on his [the enemy’s] part because necessary. As soon as I observed this I ordered my men to fall back and take position in the woods, where I learned the Second New York, Major Hull, was formed to assist me. This they did in great confusion, owing to the furious charge made by the enemy.
“He was checked by the charge of Major Hull, but, coming on in vastly superior numbers, we were forced to fall back upon the main portion of the brigade.”
By the time Phillips fended off the Rebels before him, and Kidd rejoined his brigade, darkness was fastly falling. And when it did, the Federals went into camp. Merrit encamped along the Valley Pike at Brook Creek at the foot of Round Top. Custer was about six miles in the rear, along Back Road near Tumbling Run.
For days, the Rebels had pushed the Federal cavalry back and their hopes were high that it was truly a retreat as in the years gone by. Though spirit was their companion, numbers were hardly on their side.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p430-431, 446-447, 460, 540; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer by Frederick Whittaker; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. [↩]