Monday, May 19, 2014

Some Sesquicentennial Food for Thought

Well, tonight at the site of the Harris Farm the commemoration of the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House will come to an end. While I wish I had been able to attend more of the commemorative events, those I did have the pleasure of going to or helping to lead seemed appropriately somber and very well done.

I tend to fall into the camp of folks who believe that battlefields are no more or less hallowed on the anniversaries of when the battle took place versus any other given day. And, being blessed to live so near these fields of honor and horror, I have the privilege of communing with these sites whenever I wish.

Thus, I will leave the analysis of which tours were the best and which events were the most moving to those whose participation exceeded my own.


As some of you know, my other main area of study other than the American Civil War is the First World War, and I recently came across a quote from a book on that tragic topic that resonated with my inner reactions to the photographs that kept showing up on my Facebook page of hundreds of people crossing fields and forests that were once drenched with blood.

I leave this quote not as a criticism of others, but as a caution to myself:

“I fear I’d fallen victim to the exuberant nihilism of the battlefield enthusiast, and that soon I would be whooping with joy at coming across a trench in the forest, or a skeleton behind a barn. There is a sort of macho romance to the futility of war, an attraction to seeing things fall apart, born of the same impulse that makes setting fires or watching the wrecker’s ball such a fun pastime for so many men.” – Stephen O’Shea, Back to the Front:An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

Saturday, May 10, 2014

May 9 & 10, 1864: The War Returns to Beaver Dam Station

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 House.

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 steady pace.

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 Richmond.”

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…

Thursday, May 8, 2014

“Damn Stuart, I can thrash hell out of him any day”: The Origins of Sheridan’s Raid & the Road to Yellow Tavern – 150 Years Ago Today

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.