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…

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