150 years ago today, the violent explosion of two of the biggest tempers in the Army of the Potomac led to a massive mounted raid that, among other things, killed the talented Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart.
After a month in charge of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, 33-year-old Philip H. Sheridan reached a boiling point with 48-year-old Army of the Potomac commander George Gordon Meade. The dispute arose over the proper use of the army’s mounted forces and had been simmering beneath the surface from day one of Sheridan’s tenure in command of the Cavalry Corps.
|Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan|
When Sheridan took command of the cavalry in late March of 1864, he immediately took issue with the way it was being utilized. The feisty young Irishman was dismayed at the poor condition of the horses, which were tired out from conducting extensive mounted patrols. Within weeks, Sheridan told Meade that this use of the cavalry was “both burdensome and wasteful” and suggested his troopers “ought to be kept concentrated to fight the enemy’s cavalry.”
Meade did not appreciate the free advice and used the cavalry as he pleased when fighting broke out in the Wilderness. He had assigned two of Sheridan’s three divisions to guard the trains that accompanied the army, and after a disappointing performance at Todd’s Tavern, both generals were ready to brawl. The “goggly-eyed snapping turtle” was angry at Sheridan’s failure to clear Brock Road while Little Phil was angry at Meade for not supporting Wilson’s Division when it was the lone occupant of Spotsylvania Court House.
Before noon on May 8th, the time was ripe for the two men to unleash their pent up fury. Sheridan burst into Meade’s headquarters tent and lit into Meade. Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman gives the following account:
11:40 A.M. … Sheridan came now to Headquarters – we were at dinner. Meade told him sharply that his cavalry was in the way, though he had sent him orders to leave the road clear. S[heridan] replied that he never got the order. Meade then apologized, but Sheridan was plainly full of suppressed anger, and Meade too was in ill temper, S[heridan] went on to say that he could see nothing to oppose the advance of the 5th Corps; that the behavior of the infantry was disgraceful &c. &c.
Sheridan went on to tell Meade that “such disjointed operations as he had been requiring of the cavalry for the last four days would render the corps inefficient and useless before long.” When Meade mentioned the danger posed by J.E.B. Stuart’s fabled Confederate horsemen, Sheridan brushed this off by boasting “Damn Stuart, I can thrash hell out of him any day.”
Sheridan stomped out of the tent, still steaming, and Meade figured he had better report the conversation to Grant. When Grant heard Meade recount Sheridan’s boast of being able to best Stuart, he gave his friend from the Western Theater permission to take his entire corps out to give it a try.
The orders were issued at 1PM and stated in part that “the major-general commanding directs you to immediately concentrate your available mounted force, and with your ammunition trains and such supply trains as are filled proceed against the enemy’s cavalry.” In addition to thrashing Stuart, Grant was also hoping that Sheridan would live off the land and ease the burden of supply on his army.
That evening, Sheridan summoned his division commanders – Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg, and Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson – to the Alrich Farm in Spotsylvania. He told them: “We are going out to fight Stuart’s cavalry in consequence of a suggestion from me. We will give him a fair, square fight. We are strong, and I know we can beat him, and in view of my recent representations to General Meade I shall expect nothing but success.” Initially, Merritt, Gregg, and Wilson were startled – it was virtually unheard of for the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry to go on the offensive! They soon bought into the idea when their new commander laid out his plan.
Sheridan planned to head south for Richmond, knowing that Stuart would have to follow him if he threatened the Confederate capital. When his supplies gave out, he planned to resupply from the Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. His main goal in all of this was to draw Stuart into a battle that would wreck the Confederate mounted arm.
That night the troopers prepared for their great raid – each trooper was given 50 rounds of ammo and 18 pistol rounds. Three days' rations of coffee, sugar, and hardtack were issued. One days' ration of beef and five days' worth of salt were also issued. Wagons were kept to a minimum and only ammunition was taken.
James Avery of the 5th Michigan Cavalry recalled, “That night we got little rest for the rumble and rattle of wagons and artillery as they passed along the stony street, disturbed our slumber, and besides this, the band struck up around twelve o’clock, which added to the din.” The troopers would be awakened and moving south before daylight.
The next day J.E.B. Stuart would learn of the raid and when he found out which direction they were heading, he took about 2,500 of his finest troopers on a hell-for-leather ride to intercept them.
It was a ride from which Stuart would not return.