In the predawn darkness of May 9, 1864 Sheridan’s entire
corps mounted and set out on their mission to take out J.E.B. Stuart and the
cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Little Phil was taking his entire
force with him, leaving no horse soldiers behind to help Grant at Spotsylvania Court
The corps created quite the spectacle, with a column that stretched
13 miles and took 4 hours to pass. One trooper recalled how “The clouds of
dust, sent up by the thousands of hoofbeats, fill eyes, nose, and air passages,
give external surfaces a uniform, dirty gray color, and form such an
impenetrable veil, that, for many minutes together, you cannot see even your
hand before you.”
The early part of the march was also the most dangerous, as
the Yankee horsemen had to pass around Lee’s army before heading south. Four
small rivers – the Ni, Po, Ta, and Mat – stood in their way, and the thought of
being caught in the middle of crossing one of these streams gnawed away at
Sheridan. When the last trooper rode his horse across the Mat, Sheridan found
that “all anxiety as to our passing around Lee’s army was removed.”
While the corps crossed these streams unmolested, it did not
go unnoticed, and Confederate scouts reported on Sheridan’s movements, with
word reaching Robert E. Lee by 8:00 a.m. Since Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee
were still entangled with the Federal infantry, it fell to Williams C. Wickham
to keep an eye on the Yankees and tentatively pursue. Wickham’s cavaliers tangled with Sheridan’s rear guard at
Jerrell’s Mill and Mitchell’s Shop, but the blue juggernaut kept moving at a
When Sheridan’s column reached Chilesburg, the main body of
Union cavalry camped on the north bank of the North Anna River, while George
Armstrong Custer took his brigade and elements of Devin’s troopers over the
river and on towards Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad.
|Beaver Dam Station as it appeared in the early 20th Century. |
The station was rebuilt in 1866.
Beaver Dam Station was named for the plantation of Col.
Edmund Fontaine, once a president of the Virginia Central. The plantation itself was
named for the creek which bisected it, and it just so happened that Flora Cooke
Stuart – J.E.B. Stuart’s wife – was staying there at the time.
As darkness fell on May 9th, a thunder storm moved into the
area. Custer’s men moved up to the station and encountered a large number of
prisoners who had been captured at the Wilderness and Laurel Hill.
Custer’s men quickly neutralized the guards and liberated 278
prisoners. In addition to the prisoners, the Yankees captured 200,000 pounds of
bacon, 1.5 million rations, and nearly all of the medical supplies for the Army
of Northern Virginia.
After taking everything they could carry, they set fire to
the buildings, derailed the trains, and tore up track for 10 miles in each
direction. While this orgy of destruction was taking place, 150 troopers of the
Confederate 1st Maryland Battalion charged in and rode around, shooting the
place up before withdrawing.
|While Stuart's men swept past Beaver Dam in pursuit of Sheridan, |
Stuart was able to have a quick visit with his wife.
So quick, in fact, that he didn't even get off his horse.
In the morning, Sheridan’s men began to move again. From
Beaver Dam, the route of march ran down to the settlement of Negro Foot and
then on to Mountain Road, which crossed the South Anna and continued to
Telegraph Road 6 miles above Richmond.
Sheridan later touted the importance of taking Beaver Dam
Station: “The possession of Beaver Dam gave us an important point, as it opened
a way toward Richmond on the Negro-foot road. It also enabled us to obtain
forage for our well-nigh famished animals, and to prepare for fighting the
enemy, who, I felt sure, would endeavor to interpose between my column and
Late in the morning of the 10th, Sheridan assembled the corps near
Beaver Dam. As the Federals pulled out, some of Wickham’s men rode in and
rounded up some prisoners – including someunfortunates who had just been
liberated by Custer on May 9th
By this point, Stuart united Wickham, Lomax, and the mounted James B. Gordon's Tarheels below Beaver Dam. Desperate to stop Sheridan before
he reached Richmond, Stuart formulated a plan – he would try to ambush the
Federals near Richmond, where Confederate infantry could theoretically come to
his support. Thus, he divided his force: Gordon was tasked with following
Sheridan and harassing his rear guard while Fitz Lee , with Wickham and Lomax, would
hurry east to Hanover Junction and then descend Telegraph Road to intercept the
main Federal body at the Mountain Road junction.
Fitz Lee later described the situation: “Discovering
Richmond to be the object of the enemy, and knowing the entire absence of
troops in the works guarding the western side, General Stuart determined to
move upon the chord of the arc the enemy were advancing upon, and by
outmarching them interpose our little force in the enemy’s front at some point
contiguous to the city.”
Time was quickly slipping away for the Confederates…