Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Battle of Trevilian Station

After the defeat of the June 3 attack on the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, Grant decided to change his plans. Through the Overland Campaign he had tried to crush Robert E. Lee, and after each failure he would move around the Confederate right, edging closer to Richmond. But unlike previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac, his end goal was not the capture of Richmond, but the destruction of Lee's army. He decided that he next step would be another move around Lee's right, but this one more drastic. He would cross the James River and aim to capture Petersburg, an important railroad junction south of Richmond.

To cover this movement, Grant sent his cavalry under Major General Philip Sheridan on a raid against the Virginia Central Railroad. Just as he was about to set out, news came of David Hunter's victory in the Shenandoah at the Battle of Piedmont. Grant ordered that Hunter join Sheridan near Charlottesville so that the united forces could pose a major threat to Lee's left.

Sheridan's men set out early on the morning of June 7. The weather was hot and the movement was slow. Many horses fell by the wayside, still not recovered from the hard riding the previous month that culminated in the Battle of Yellow Tavern. The Confederate cavalry, now under Wade Hampton, received of this movement the next day, and he assembled his division at 2 am on the morning of June 9th to head after Sheridan. Fitzhugh Lee's division would follow not far behind. Although the Yankees had nearly a two day start, the Confederate troopers were more familiar with the country and had the shorter inside track.

Map of Day 1
Both Union and Confederate forces camped near Trevilian Station on the Virginia Central on the evening of June 10, and the next morning Hampton told his brigade commanders that he planned to fight. He devised a plan to surprise Sheridan's men. He placed one division on each side of the crossroads, hoping the surprise the enemy and crush them in between the two groups of Confederates. As the battle began, Fitzhugh Lee did not arrive where Hampton wanted him, and in heavy fighting in the thick brush he was forced back by Sheridan's larger numbers. The situation worsened for the Confederates when Union commander George Custer led his brigade right down the road to Trevilian Station, and found Hampton's baggage and many of his men's horses left complete unguarded. He joyfully secured these, but the situation turned sour. Hampton redirected his men to met this surprise threat from Custer, and the Union commander found his men attacked on three sides. As he retreated with his spoils he found a Confederate battery directly in his escape route. With his force surrounded, Custer believed he was about to be overrun, so he pulled his flag down from its staff, and hid it in his coat. Disaster was finally averted when Sheridan led two brigades in a charge, driving Hampton's men to the west. Another brigade hit Lee's flank and he fell back to the east. Custer had lost hundreds of men, but he had been saved from complete disaster. When Sheridan asked him if he had lost his colors he triumphantly pulled them out of his coat and proclaimed, “Not by a d--- sight!”

Map of Day 2
That night Lee moved his men to the south and joined Hampton. Sheridan received several pieces of news that caused him to order a retreat. He head that Confederate infantry were nearby and that David Hunter was not – he had marched to Lynchburg instead. The next day, while some of his men wrecked Trevilian Station, he sent Torbet's division west where they encountered Hampton and Lee in an L-shapped position, well dug in. The Federals attacked again and again, but they were unable to break through this line. Instead they were met with a heavy counter attack from Lee. That night Sheridan withdrew and began a leisurely march back towards Cold Harbor.

In this battle Sheridan had lost just over 1,000 – 102 killed, 470 wounded and 435 missing and captured. The Confederates lost about 830. It was the largest and bloodiest cavalry fight of the entire war. On the first day of battle the Federals had clearly successfully, but they were unable to continue this on the second day. The campaign was also not an unmitigated success. It may have done something to distract Lee from Grant's movement across the James and Sheridan did destroy a section of the Virginia Central, but the Confederates were able to get the railroad up and running again in short order, and since Hunter did not join Sheridan there was no serious threat to Lee's flank. All in all this battle did little for the Union cause.  


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