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Chapter XX

  • General Wilson's advance toward Hanover Court House
  • -- crossing the Pamunkey -- engagement of Hawe's Shop -- fight at Matadequin Creek -- capture of Cold Harbor -- the fight to retain the place -- movements of General Wilson.

When I rejoined the Army of the Potomac, near Chesterfield Station, the heavy battles around Spottsylvania had been fought, and the complicated manoeuvres by which the whole Union force was swung across the North Anna were in process of execution. In conjunction with these manoeuvres Wilson's division was sent to the right flank of the army, where he made a reconnoissance south of the North Anna as far as Little River, crossing the former stream near Jericho Mills. Wilson was to operate from day to day on that flank as it swung to the south, covering to New Castle ferry each advance of the infantry and the fords left behind on the march. From the 26th to the 30th these duties kept Wilson constantly occupied, and also necessitated a considerable dispersion of his force, but by the 31st he was enabled to get all his division together again, and crossing to the south side of the Pamunkey at New Castle ferry, he advanced toward Hanover Court House. Near Dr Price's house he encountered a division of the enemy's cavalry under General W. H. F. Lee, and drove it back across Mechamp's Creek, thus opening communication with the right of our infantry resting near Phillips's Mills. Just as this had been done, a little before dark, Wilson received an order from General Meade directing him to push on toward Richmond until he encountered the Confederates in such strength that he could no longer successfully contend against them, and in compliance with this order occupied Hanover Court House that same day. Resuming his march at daylight on June 1, he went ahead on the Ashland road while sending Chapman's brigade up the south bank of the South Anna to destroy the bridges on that stream. Chapman having succeeded in [216] this work, Wilson re-united his whole command and endeavored to hold Ashland, but finding the Confederate cavalry and infantry there in strong force, he was obliged to withdraw to Dr. Price's house. Here he learned that the army had gone to the left toward Cold Harbor, so on the 2d of June he moved to Hawe's Shop.

While Wilson was operating thus on the right, I had to cover with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions the crossing of the army over the Pamunkey River at and near Hanovertown. Torbert having recovered from the illness which overtook him in the Wilderness, had now returned to duty. The march to turn the enemy's right began on the 26th, Torbert and Gregg in advance, to secure the crossings of the Pamunkey and demonstrate in such manner as to deceive the enemy as much as possible in the movement, the two cavalry divisions being supported by General D. A. Russell's division of the Sixth Corps.

To attain this end in the presence of an ever-watchful foe who had just recently been reinforced in considerable numbers from Richmond and further south-almost enough to make up the losses he had sustained in the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania-required the most vigorous and zealous work on the part of those to whom had been allotted the task of carrying out the initial manoeuvres. Torbert started for Taylor's ford on the Pamunkey with directions to demonstrate heavily at that point till after dark, as if the crossing was to be made there, and having thus impressed the enemy, he was to leave a small guard, withdraw quietly, and march to Hanovertown ford, where the real crossing was to be effected. Meanwhile Gregg marched to Littlepage's crossing of the Pamunkey, with instructions to make feints in the same manner as Torbert until after dark, when he was to retire discreetly, leaving a small force to keep up the demonstration, and then march rapidly to Hanovertown crossing, taking with him the pontoon-bridge.

At the proper hour Russell took up the march and followed the cavalry. The troops were in motion all night, undergoing the usual delays incident to night marches, and early on the morning of the 27th the crossing was made, Custer's brigade of Torbert's division driving from the ford about one hundred of the enemy's cavalry, and capturing between thirty and forty prisoners. The remainder of Torbert's division followed this brigade and advanced to Hanovertown, where General Gordon's brigade of Confederate cavalry was met. Torbert attacked this force with Devin's brigade, while he sent Custer to Hawe's Shop, from which point a road leading to the right was taken that brought him in rear of the enemy's cavalry; when the Confederates discovered this maneouvre, they retired in the direction of Hanover Court House. Pursuit [217] continued as far as a little stream called Crump's Creek, and here Torbert was halted, Gregg moving up on his line meanwhile, and Russell encamping near the crossing of the river. This completed our task of gaining a foothold south of the Pamunkey, and on the 28th the main army crossed unharassed and took up a position behind my line, extending south from the river, with the Sixth Corps on the right across the Hanover Court House road at Crump's Creek, the Second Corps on the left of the Sixth, and the Fifth Corps about two miles in front of Hanovertown, its left extending to the Tolopotomy.

There was now much uncertainty in General Grant's mind as to the enemy's whereabouts, and there were received daily the most conflicting statements as to the nature of Lee's movements. It became necessary, therefore, to find out by an actual demonstration what Lee was doing, and I was required to reconnoitre in the direction of Mechanicsville. For this purpose I moved Gregg's division out toward this town by way of Hawe's Shop, and when it had gone about three-fourths of a mile beyond the Shop the enemy's cavalry was discovered dismounted and disposed behind a temporary breastwork of rails and logs.

This was the first occasion on which, since the battle of Yellow Tavern, the Confederate troopers had confronted us in large numbers, their mounted operations, like ours, having been dependent more or less on the conditions that grew out of the movements in which Lee's infantry had been engaged since the 14th of May. On that date General Lee had foreshadowed his intention of using his cavalry in connection with the manoeuvres of his infantry by issuing an order himself, now that Stuart was dead, directing that the “three divisions of cavalry serving with the army [Lee's] will constitute separate commands, and will report directly to and receive orders from the headquarters of the army.” The order indicates that since Stuart's death the Confederate cavalry had been re-organized into three divisions, that were commanded respectively by General Wade Hampton, General Fitzhugh Lee, and General W. H. F. Lee, the additional division organization undoubtedly growing out of the fact that General M. C. Butler's brigade of about four thousand men had joined recently from South Carolina.

When this force developed in Gregg's front, he attacked the moment his troops could be dismounted; and the contest became one of exceeding stubborness, for he found confronting him Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's divisions, supported by what we then supposed to be a brigade of infantry, but which, it has since been ascertained, was Butler's brigade of mounted troops, part of them armed with long-range rifles. The contest between the opposing forces was of the severest character and continued till late in the evening. The varying phases of the fight [218] prompted me to reinforce Gregg as much as possible, so I directed Custer's brigade to report to him, sending, meanwhile, for the other two brigades of Torbert, but these were not available at the time-on account of delays which occurred in relieving them from the line at Crump's Creek-and did not get up till the fight was over. As soon as Custer joined him, Gregg vigorously assaulted the Confederate position along his whole front; and notwithstanding the long-range rifles of the South Carolinians, who were engaging in their first severe combat it appears, and fought most desperately, he penetrated their barricades at several points.

The most determined and obstinate efforts for success were now made on both sides, as the position at Hawe's Shop had become of very great importance on account of the designs of both Lee and Grant. Lee wished to hold this ground while he manoeuvred his army to the line of the Tolopotomy, where he could cover the roads to Richmond, while Grant, though first sending me out merely to discover by a strong reconnoissance the movements of the enemy, saw the value of the place to cover his new base at the White House, and also to give us possession of a direct road to Cold Harbor. Hawe's Shop remained in our possession finally, for late in the evening Custer's brigade was dismounted and formed in close column in rear of Gregg, and while it assaulted through an opening near the centre of his line, the other two brigades advanced and carried the temporary works. The enemy's dead and many of his wounded fell into our hands; also a considerable number of prisoners, from whom we learned that Longstreet's and Ewell's corps were but four miles to the rear.

The battle was a decidedly severe one, the loss on each side being heavy in proportion to the number of troops engaged. This fight took place almost immediately in front of our infantry, which, during the latter part of the contest, was busily occupied in throwing up intrenchments. Late in the afternoon I reported to General Meade the presence of the enemy's infantry, and likewise that Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's divisions were in my front also, and asked, at the same time, that some of our infantry, which was near at hand, be sent to my assistance. I could not convince Meade that anything but the enemy's horse was fighting us, however, and he declined to push out the foot-troops, who were much wearied by night marches. It has been ascertained since that Meade's conclusions were correct in so far as they related to the enemy's infantry; but the five cavalry brigades far outnumbered my three, and it is to be regretted that so much was risked in holding a point that commanded the roads to Cold Harbor and Meadow bridge, when there [219] was at hand a preponderating number of Union troops which might have been put into action. However, Gregg's division and Custer's brigade were equal to the situation, all unaided as they were till dark, when Torbert and Merritt came on the ground. The contest not only gave us the crossroads, but also removed our uncertainty regarding Lee's movements, clearly demonstrating that his army was retiring by its right flank, so that it might continue to interpose between Grant and the James River, as well as cover the direct route to Richmond.

General Lee reported this battle to his Government as a Confederate victory, but his despatch was sent early in the day, long before the fight ended, and evidently he could not have known the final result when he made the announcement, for the fight lasted until dark. After dark, our own and the Confederate dead having been buried, I withdrew, and moving to the rear of our infantry, marched all night and till I reached the vicinity of Old Church, where I had been instructed to keep a vigilant watch on the enemy with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions. As soon as I had taken position at Old Church my pickets were pushed out in the direction of Cold Harbor, and the fact that the enemy was holding that point in some force was clearly ascertained. But our occupation of Cold Harbor was of the utmost importance; indeed, it was absolutely necessary that we should possess it, to secure our communications with the White House, as well as to cover the extension of our line to the left toward the James River. Roads from Bethesda Church, Old Church, and the White House centred at Cold Harbor, and from there many roads diverged also toward different crossings of the Chickahominy, which were indispensable to us.

The enemy too realized the importance of the place, for as soon as he found himself compelled to take up the line of the Tolopotomy he threw a body of troops into Cold Harbor by forced marches, and followed it up by pushing a part of this force out on the Old Church road as far as Matadequin Creek, where he established a line of battle, arranging the front of it parallel to the road along the south bank of the Pamunkey; this for the purpose of endangering our trains as they moved back and forth between the army and the White House.

Meanwhile I had occupied Old Church and pushed pickets down toward Cold Harbor. The outposts struck each other just north of Matadequin Creek, and a spirited fight immediately took place. At first our pickets were sorely pressed, but Torbert, who was already preparing to make a reconnoissance, lost no time in reinforcing them on the north side of the creek with Devin's brigade. The fight then became general, both sides, dismounted, stubbornly contesting the ground. Of the Confederates, General Butler's South Carolinians bore the brunt of the fight, [220] and, strongly posted as they were on the south bank of the creek, held their ground with the same obstinacy they had previously shown at Hawe's Shop. Finally, however, Torbert threw Merritt's and Custer's brigades into the action, and the enemy retired, we pursuing to within a mile and a half of Cold Harbor and capturing a number of prisoners. Gregg's division took no part in the actual fighting, but remained near Old Church observing the roads on Torbert's flanks, one leading toward Bethesda Church on his right, the other to his left in the direction of the White House. This latter road Gregg was particularly instructed to keep open. so as to communicate with General W. F. Smith, who was then debarking his corps at the White House, and on the morning of the 31st this general's advance was covered by a brigade which Gregg had sent him for the purpose.

Torbert having pursued toward Cold Harbor the troops he fought at Matadequin Creek, had taken up a position about a mile and a half from that place, on the Old Church road. The morning of the 31st I visited him to arrange for his further advance, intending thus to anticipate an expected attack from Fitzhugh Lee, who was being reinforced by infantry. I met Torbert at Custer's headquarters, and found that the two had already been talking over a scheme to capture Cold Harbor, and when their plan was laid before me it appeared so plainly feasible that I fully endorsed it, at once giving directions for its immediate execution, and ordering Gregg to come forward to Torbert's support with such troops as he could spare from the duty with which he had been charged.

Torbert moved out promptly, Merritt's brigade first, followed by Custer's, on the direct road to Cold Harbor, while Devin's brigade was detached, and marched by a left-hand road that would bring him in on the right and rear of the enemy's line, which was posted in front of the crossroads. Devin was unable to carry his part of the programme farther than to reach the front of the Confederate right, and as Merritt came into position to the right of the Old Church road Torbert was obliged to place a part of Custer's brigade on Merrltt's left so as to connect with Devin. The whole division was now in line, confronted by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, supported by Clingman's brigade from Hoke's division of infantry; and from the Confederate breastworks, hastily constructed out of logs, rails, and earth, a heavy fire was already being poured upon us that it seemed impossible to withstand. None of Gregg's division had yet arrived, and so stubborn was the enemy's resistance that I began to doubt our ability to carry the place before reinforcements came up, but just then Merritt reported that he could turn the enemy's left, and being directed to execute his proposition, he carried it to a most successful issue with the First and Second regular cavalry. Just as these two regiments [221] passed around the enemy's left and attacked his rear, the remainder of the division assailed him in front. This maneouvre of Merritt's stampeded the Confederates, and the defenses falling into our hands easily, we pushed ahead on the Bottom's bridge road three-fourths of a mile beyond Cold Harbor.

Cold Harbor was now mine, but I was about nine miles away from our nearest infantry, and had been able to bring up only Davies's brigade of cavalry, which arrived after the fight. My isolated position therefore made me a little uneasy. I felt convinced that the enemy would attempt to regain the place, for it was of as much importance to him as to us, and the presence of his infantry disclosed that he fully appreciated this. My uneasiness increased as the day grew late, for I had learned from prisoners that the balance of Hoke's division was en route to Cold Harbor, and Kershaw near at hand, interposing between the Union left near Bethesda Church and my position. In view of this state of affairs, I notified General Meade that I had taken Cold Harbor, but could not with safety to my command hold it, and forthwith gave directions to withdraw during the night. The last of my troops had scarcely pulled out, however, when I received a despatch from Meade directing me to hold Cold Harbor at every hazard. General Grant had expected that a severe battle would have to be fought before we could obtain possession of the place; and its capture by our cavalry not being anticipated, no preparation had been made for its permanent occupancy. No time was to be lost, therefore, if the advantages which possession of Cold Harbor gave us were to be improved, so at the same hour that Meade ordered me to hold the place at all hazards the Sixth Corps was started on a forced march, by Grant's directions, to aid in that object, and on arrival to relieve my cavalry.

The moment Meade's order was received, I directed a re-occupation of Cold Harbor, and although a large portion of Torbert's command was already well on its way back to the line we held on the morning of the 31st, this force speedily retraced its steps, and re-entered the place before daylight; both our departure and return having been effected without the enemy being aware of our movements. We now found that the temporary breastworks of rails and logs which the Confederates had built were of incalculable benefit to us in furnishing material with which to establish a line of defense, they being made available by simply reversing them at some points, or at others wholly reconstructing them to suit the circumstances of the ground. The troops, without reserves, were then placed behind our cover dismounted, boxes of ammunition distributed along the line, and the order passed along that the place must be held. All this was done in the darkness, and while we were working away at [222] our cover the enemy could be distinctly heard from our skirmish-line giving commands and making preparations to attack.

Just after daylight on the 1st of June the Confederate infantry under General Kershaw endeavored to drive us out, advancing against my right from the Bethesda Church road. In his assault he was permitted to come close up to our works, and when within short range such a fire was opened on him from our horse-artillery and repeating carbines that he recoiled in confusion after the first onset; still, he seemed determined to get the place, and after reorganizing, again attacked; but the lesson of the first repulse was not without effect, and his feeble effort proved wholly fruitless. After his second failure we were left undisturbed, and at 9 A. M. I sent the following despatch to army headquarters:

headquarters cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. Cold Harbor, Va., June 1, 1864-9 A. M.
Major-General Humphreys, Chief-of-Staff.
General: In obedience to your instructions I am holding Cold Harbor. I have captured this morning more prisoners; they belong to three different infantry brigades. The enemy assaulted the right of my lines this morning, but were handsomely repulsed. I have been very apprehensive, but General Wright is now coming up. I built slight works for my men; the enemy came up to them, and were driven back. General Wright has, just arrived.

P. H. Sheridan, Major-General Commanding.

About 10 o'clock in the morning the Sixth Corps relieved Torbert and Davies, having marched all night, and these two generals moving out toward the Chickahominy covered the left of the infantry line till Hancock's corps took their place in the afternoon. By this time Gregg had joined me with his two brigades, and both Torbert and Gregg were now marched to Prospect Church, from which point I moved them to a position on the north side of the Chickahominy at Bottom's bridge. Here the enemy's cavalry confronted us, occupying the south bank of the stream, with artillery in position at the fords prepared to dispute our passage; but it was not intended that we should cross; so Gregg and Torbert lay quiet in camp at Bottom's bridge and at Old Church without noteworthy event until the 6th of June.

As before related, Wilson's division struck the enemy's infantry as well as W. H. F. Lee's cavalry near Ashland on the 1st of June, and although Chapman destroyed the bridges over the South Anna, which was his part of the programme, Wilson found it necessary to return to Price's Store. From this point he continued to cover the right of the [223]

General James H. Wilson.

[224] Army of the Potomac, on the 2d of June driving the rear-guard of the enemy from Hawe's Shop, the scene of the battle of May 28. The same day he crossed Tolopotomy Creek, and passed around the enemy's left flank so far that Lee thought his left was turned by a strong force, and under cover of darkness withdrew from a menacing position which he was holding in front of the Ninth Corps. This successful manoeuvre completed, Wilson returned to Hawe's Shop, and on the 4th went into camp at New Castle ferry, in anticipation of certain operations of the Cavalry Corps, which were to take place while the Army of the Potomac was crossing to the south side of the James.

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