Sunday, May 11, 2014

Battle of Yellow Tavern

In Overland Campaign in Virginia the commander of the Federal cavalry was Major General Philip Sheridan. As the campaign advanced Sheridan became dissatisfied with his role in the campaign. Meade was using the troopers for reconnaissance and shielding the army. That's not what Sheridan wanted to do. He preferred large scale raids instead of the other duties of the cavalry. So on May 8th he went directly to Grant and told him that he could go behind Lee's lines to crush JEB Stuart's cavalry, as well as cutting the Confederate supply line and threatening Richmond. Grant agreed, so the next day Sheridan took his 10,000 troopers around Lee's right.

Sheridan's Raid
Sheridan's over 10 mile long column quickly pressed south, destroying railroad equipment on the Virginia Central Railroad and cutting telegraph lines. Stuart hurried in pursuit with his 4,500, trying to out ride Sheridan and get between him and Richmond. He finally caught up and made a stand at Yellow Tavern, just 6 miles north of Richmond. The Confederates dismounted and occupied a low ridge along the road to Richmond. The battle was desperate, for the Federals not only greatly outnumbered Stuart's men, they also had many times the firepower. Most of the Union troopers carried repeating rifles which the south did not have in large quantities.

A critical moment in the battle occurred when the 1st Virginia successfully counterattacked, driving back advancing Union forces. Stuart was on the front lines, encouraging his men as they drove back the fleeing Federals. As they retreated one of them, probably John Huff of the 5th Michigan, aimed a pistol at Stuart and fired. The general was hit, and reeled in his saddle. Several subordinates, including Captain Gustavus Dorsey, ran to him. Stuart recognized how serious he had been hit, saying, “I'm afraid they've killed me, Dorsey.” However there was a battle still to be fought. The Confederate line was faltering, and Stuart ordered those around him, “Go back to your men and drive the enemy!”

Stuart was escorted from the field and the battle continued until night. The Confederates were unable to halt Sheridan's advance toward Richmond. “Go back!” Stuart shouted to troopers who retreated past him, “Go back! and 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.” Stuart was taken in an ambulance to Richmond. Doctors came to him, but there was little they could do. He died the next day. His final words were, “I am resigned; God's will be done.” He may have been the south's best cavalry commander in the war. This was not just because of his grand raids. He was very skilled in what Sheridan was unwilling to do – shielding the army and gathering information. When Lee received the news of Stuart's death he said with great sorrow, “General Stuart has been mortally wounded: a most valuable and able officer. He never brought me a piece of false information.”
Stuart's grave
Although the Federals had won at Yellow Tavern, they made little more progress. They did not attempt an attack on Richmond's defenses, and returned to Grant on May 24. Other than killing Stuart the raid accomplished little. The Federals would have been better served to have their cavalry with the army during those two weeks of active campaigning.  


Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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