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Sheridan's Richmond raid.

by Theo. F. Rodenbough, Brevet Brigadier-General, U. S. A.
The Army of the Potomac had been hibernating on the left bank of the Rapidan River, when as the season for active operations was about to open (April, 1864) there arrived a lieutenant-general commanding and a chief of cavalry. The one was not unknown to fame; the other was almost an entire stranger to his new command.

During the first two years of the war the Union cavalry lacked the paternal care essential to its proper development. Its first father was General Hooker, who organized a multitude of detachments into a compact army corps of 12,000 horsemen; transforming that which had been a by-word and a reproach into a force that, by its achievements in war, was ultimately to effect a radical change in the armament and use of mounted troops by the great military powers.

The winter of 1863-64 brought little rest to the cavalry. While the artillery and infantry were comfortably quartered, the cavalry was “hutted” three miles in front of the infantry picket lines, and a part was distributed as escorts and orderlies at infantry headquarters. Although the infantry maintained a picket line of its own, where it was useless, the cavalry was compelled to keep up a chain of videttes sixty miles in length, besides the necessary patrol duty and reconnoissances. Upon his arrival, Grant seems to have noted this mal-administration and to have taken steps to correct it. For a chief of his cavalry, he told the President, he “wanted the very best man in the army,” and few will deny that he got that man.

I remember Sheridan's arrival at the headquarters of the Cavalry Corps. We all thought a commander might have been selected from home material. One or two things that he did, however, met with warm approval. He set about reforming the abuses above referred to. On one occasion he was about to send a staff-officer to demand the immediate return to the corps of a small regiment which had been acting as “bodyguard” for an infantry general. The officer, desiring for certain reasons to secure a modification of the order, sounded General Sheridan, who simply turned to him and in a low but distinct tone said: “Give my compliments to General X. and say that I have been placed in command of the cavalry of this army, and by----I want it all.

The 15,000 “paper strength” of the corps was sifted to 12,424 effectives. There were three divisions, subdivided into seven brigades. General A. T. A. Torbert was assigned to command the First Division, with General G. A. Custer, Colonel T. C. Devin, and General Wesley Merritt as brigade commanders; General D. McM. Gregg to the Second Division, with General H. E. Davies and Colonel J. Irvin Gregg to brigades; General J. H. Wilson to the Third Division, with Colonels J. B. Mcintosh and G. H. Chapman to brigades. To each division were attached two batteries of horse artillery, with the same number as a reserve.

Sheridan's lieutenants were well chosen. Torbert had already distinguished himself as an infantry commander; Gregg had come from the regular cavalry and possessed the confidence of the whole corps for good judgment and coolness; Wilson, promoted from the corps of engineers, was very quick and impetuous; Merritt was a pupil of the Cooke-Buford school, with cavalry virtues well proportioned, and to him was given the Reserve Brigade of regulars — the Old Guard. Custer was the meteoric sabreur; McIntosh, the last of a fighting race; Devin, the “Old War horse” ; Davies, polished, genial, gallant; Chapman, the student-like; Irvin Gregg, the steadfast. There were, besides, Graham, Williston, Butler, Fitzhugh, Du Pont, Pennington, Clark, Randolph, Brewerton, Randol, Dennison, Martin, all tried men of the horse artillery.

The campaign was opened May 3d-4th, 1864, [189] with the crossing of the Rapidan River by the army in two columns: one (Hancock's corps), preceded by Gregg's cavalry division, at Ely's Ford; the other (Warren and Sedgwick), led by Wilson, at Germanna Ford. The enemy's pickets were brushed away, the pontoons laid down, and the troops and immense trains were moved to the south side, apparently before Lee had realized the fact. On the second day Warren was attacked and Wilson found himself, for the time, separated from our infantry and confronted near Todd's tavern by a strong force of cavalry under Hampton, which engaged Wilson vigorously and after some fighting began to press him back. The opportune reenforcement of two regiments from Gregg turned the tables, and the enemy was driven beyond Corbin's Bridge. From the start Lee's cavalry was aggressive, and by its ceaseless activity in that densely wooded region reminded one of a swarm of bees suddenly disturbed by strange footsteps. On the 7th a more determined effort was made by Stuart to get on the left and rear of Meade, tempted by the rich prize of four thousand wagons. Torbert and Gregg were pitted against Hampton and Fitz Lee. The fight lasted from 4 P. M. until after dark, the field remaining in possession of the Union force; it was renewed early on the 8th, and after an obstinate struggle, in which the losses were heavy on both sides,--especially in officers,--the Confederates gave it up and retired sullenly. This was a cavalry affair, although in sight of the infantry of both armies. The curious blending of tragic and commonplace elements in war was illustrated during the hottest of the fight on the second day. It was raging about a small farm-house apparently deserted; shells were bursting in the yard, especially around the old-fashioned “pole” well, bullets were pattering on the shingles, dead and wounded men and horses made the place a slaughter-house. As Captain Leoser, 2d United States Cavalry, was advancing his skirmishers near the house, the cellar door was slowly lifted and a harsh-featured woman poked her head out, looked at the well and then at the captain, and threw an empty bucket at him with the curt remark, “Yank, I reckon you kin tote me a pail o‘ water,” and promptly disappeared.

General Grant states in his “Memoirs” that on the 8th of May he gave Sheridan verbal orders to start on an independent expedition toward Richmond.1 But he does not mention an incident that may have precipitated that movement. It happened that on the 8th of May Grant, Meade, and Sheridan were together at army headquarters. Meade seemed somewhat anxious about his trains, and said something to which Sheridan took exception. Meade instantly remarked, “No, I don't mean that,” and put his hand, in friendly fashion, on Sheridan's shoulder. The cavalry general moved aside impatiently and replied with spirit, “If I am permitted to cut loose from this Army I'll draw Stuart after me, and whip him, too.” This was the principal object of the Richmond raid; the damage to the enemy was only incidental.

Major-General George A. Custer. From a photograph.

A few hours were spent in preparation. The command was stripped of all impedimenta, such as unserviceable animals, wagons, and tents. The necessary ammunition train, two ambulances to a division, a few pack-mules for baggage, three days rations and a half-day's forage carried on the saddle, comprised the outfit. Torbert being disabled, Merritt assumed command of his division, and Gibbs of the Reserve Brigade. On the 9th of May, 1864, at 6 A. M., this magnificent body of 10,000 horsemen moved out on the Telegraph Road leading from Fredericksburg to Richmond. According to a Southern authority it took four hours at a brisk pace to pass a given point; to those who viewed it from behind barred windows and doors it was like the rush of a mighty torrent.

The column as it stood, “fours” well closed up, was thirteen miles long. It had been moving at a walk for two hours before the enemy caught up, and Wickham's brigade began to harass Sheridan's rear. It made no difference in the progress of the Union column, although numerous little brushes occurred. In one of these the 1st North Carolina Cavalry charged our rear-guard, consisting of the 6th Ohio Cavalry and a section of the 6th New York Battery. In the melee a Confederate officer cut his way through the column to the rear piece; placing his hand on the gun he exclaimed, “This is my piece.” “Not by a d----d sight,” replied a cannoneer, as with a well-planted blow of his fist he knocked the would-be captor off his horse and took him prisoner.

Passing through Chilesburg late in the afternoon, the leading brigade of Merritt's division (Custer's) took the trot and charged into Beaver Dam Station, on the Virginia Central Railroad, at an opportune moment. Two trains of cars carrying wounded [190]

Note.--for an account of the Kilpatrick-Dahigren raid, see p. 95; and of the Trevilian raid, see p. 233.

and prisoners from Spotsylvania were about to start for Richmond. In a moment 378 Union captives rent the air with their cheers; the guard accompanying the trains escaped, leaving their arms behind, together with a large quantity of small-arms from the battle-field. After reserving certain articles, the torch was applied to the trains and buildings, with 1,500,000 rations and medical stores for Lee's army. The railroad track and telegraph were destroyed for some distance, the work being continued throughout the night while the main body rested. By the morning of the 10th Stuart had concentrated a large force, and about breakfast-time he announced the fact by sending a few shells into Gregg's camp. A skirmish ensued, and the march was. resumed to Ground Squirrel bridge over the South Anna River, where all bivouacked. Even during the night the enemy buzzed about us, evidently trying to wear us out. On the 11th, at 3 A. M., Davies moved to Ashland and, not without a severe encounter with Munford's Virginia cavalry, destroyed culverts, trestle-bridges, and six miles of track, besides a warehouse and a number of cars, losing thirty men.

At 5 A. M. the main column moved on to Glen Allen Station, where Stuart's skirmishers were encountered and pressed back to within two miles of Yellow Tavern. Here a determined stand was made for the right of way to the Confederate capital, distant only six miles. Devin was first engaged, and soon the entire First Division went in. Several mounted charges were made, and two guns [191] and a number of prisoners were taken. A dispatch from Stuart to Bragg asking for reenforcements was intercepted, disclosing the enemy's weakness. Under the circumstances the Confederates are entitled to the greatest credit for the pertinacity and pluck displayed. Finally Wilson with part of his division was put in on Merritt's left, and the line, advancing, broke the enemy's grip and the fight was won. At this moment Stuart received his death-wound by a pistol-shot in the abdomen. Deep in the hearts of all true cavalrymen, North and South, will ever burn a sentiment of admiration mingled with regret for this knightly soldier and generous man. Sheridan had succeeded in his purpose, but he had found a foeman worthy of his steel.

If defeated at this point the enemy was not annihilated. Richmond was awakening to its peril; and, aware of the weakness of the garrison, the Confederate authorities felt very uneasy. As when the Germans approached Paris or when Early menaced Washington, a general call to arms was made. But Nature seemed rather favorable to defensive operations. For three days it had rained more or less, and a little rain in the region of the Chickahominy is known to go a great way toward making a mortar-bed of the roads and meadows. About midnight the column moved forward in the order: Wilson, Merritt, Gregg. Captain Field, 4th United States Artillery (then serving with Fitzhugh's battery), writes of the experience of Wilson's command:

We marched all night, virtually. The halts were frequent and exasperating. It was so dark that we could only follow the cavalry by putting a bugler on a white horse directly in rear of the regiment in front of us, with orders to move on as soon as they did. Finally, whether the bugler fell asleep waiting or we fell asleep while watching the white horse, it happened that we found a gap of unknown dimensions in front of us and started at a trot to close it. I know of nothing which creates such an appalling sense of loneliness as the fact of being left behind in an enemy's country at night. It was a swampy region: the hoofs and the wheels made little or no sound. Once the deep blackness was pierced by a jet of vivid flame, and a sharp explosion on the road showed that we had sprung one of the torpedoes which had been to some extent planted there. While in doubt as to the road, we came upon a man wrapped in a blue overcoat standing near a gate, who told us that General Sheridan had left him to show us the way. Of course we followed his directions and entered the gate. It was evident that we were very near the city, as we could see the lights and hear the dogs barking. The road became less plainly marked and seemed to lead into extensive pleasure grounds, and finally we brought up on the edge of a large fish-pond. At that moment half a dozen flashes came from what seemed to be an embankment, and we found that we were in a regular trap and immediately under the fire of one of the outworks of the city. The guide who had given us the direction was either a deserter or a rebel in our uniform, and had deliberately misled us. He received the reward of his treachery, for Colonel McIntosh, who had from the first suspected him, kept him near him, and when their guns opened blew out his brains with a pistol.

About this time General Sheridan and staff, riding in rear of Wilson's division, hearing the firing, became convinced that the head of the column had passed the point where he had intended to turn in the direction of Mechanicsville. He sent off several of his staff to strike the road, which seemed as easily found as the proverbial needle in a haystack. But Captain F. C. Newhall did find the needle, and Merritt was sent down to Meadow Bridge to cover a crossing. In the meanwhile, as day broke, part of Wilson's command, including Fitzhugh's battery, found itself within the outer line of fortifications and threatened from all sides. South of them lay Richmond and its garrison; on the east a struggle for the bridge was going on between Merritt and an unknown force; while in a northerly direction, in rear of the main column, Gregg was standing off a force under Gordon. It was the tightest place in which the corps ever found itself. Fitzhugh had just ordered his caissons to go down as near the bridge as he could get, as our only avenue of escape appeared to be in that direction, when upon the scene came the sturdy presence of Sheridan. He hailed Fitzhugh, “Hullo, Charley! What are you doing with your caissons?” Fitzhugh explained that if hard pressed he wanted them out of the way. With a hearty laugh Sheridan replied, “Pushed hard! Why, what do you suppose we have in front of us? A lot of department clerks from Richmond, who have been forced into the ranks. I could capture Richmond, if I wanted, but I can't hold it; and the prisoners tell me that every house in the suburbs is loopholed, and the streets barricaded. It isn't worth the men it would cost; but I'll stay here all day to show these fellows how much I care for them, and go when I get ready. Send for your caissons and take it easy.” As Captain Field says, “It was a little thing, but here was the spirit that burned so high at Winchester.”

The enemy had torn up the bridge, and were in some force on the opposite bank. Merritt dismounted all but; three regiments, and Custer charged his men over the railroad bridge to cover the reconstruction, driving the enemy back some distance. As soon as the flooring was down the mounted force under Colonel Gibbs crossed. Gregg and Wilson covered the crossing of the ammunition and ambulance trains, and after a brisk affair with a brigade of infantry and cavalry under General Gordon, followed Merritt, to their common satisfaction. A small but enterprising Virginia newsboy had managed to slip into our lines with the morning papers, full of the alleged barbarities of the vandal horde. He seemed utterly indifferent to the horrors of war, crossed the bridge with the cavalry, and found his first Yankee customer in Lieutenant Whitehead, who eagerly exchanged a quarter for a Richmond Inquirer, which he sent to General Sheridan.

As soon as the head of our column turned toward the James it lost interest as an objective for the enemy. They were glad to watch us at a respectful distance, now that their beloved capital was once more safe. By way of Bottom's Bridge the corps moved to Malvern Hill and Haxall's, where much-needed supplies were procured from Butler's army; many of us exchanged our mud-stained garments for blue flannel shirts from the gun-boats lying in the James, and for the nonce became horse-marines. On the 21st Sheridan, continuing his march to rejoin Grant, crossed the Pamunkey near White House, on the ruins [192]

Henry E. Davies, Jr. D. Mom. Gregg. Philip H. Sheridan. Wesley Merritt. A. T. A. Torbert. James H. Wilson. Sheridan and some of his Generals. Fac-Simile of a photograph taken in 1864.

of the railroad bridge, after six hours work at repairing it, two regiments at a time working as pioneers. The only incident of the crossing was the fall of a pack-mule from the bridge, from a height of thirty feet. The mule turned a somersault, struck an abutment, disappeared under water, came up and swam ashore without disturbing his pack. On the 23d the corps encamped at Aylett's, and at 5 P. M. I was sent with my regiment, 2d United States Cavalry, accompanied by Captains Wadsworth and Goddard of the staff, to open communication with the army, the sound of whose guns had been heard early in the day. After a forty-mile night march we had the good fortune to find General Grant near Chesterfield Station, where on the 25th the Cavalry Corps also reported, having fully performed its allotted task. It had deprived Lee's army, for the time, of its “eyes and ears,” damaged his communications, destroyed an immense quantity of supplies, killed the loader of his cavalry, saved to our Government the subsistence of ten thousand horses and men for three weeks, perfected the morale of the Cavalry Corps, and produced a moral effect of incalculable value to the Union cause. Sheridan's casualties on the raid were 625 men killed or wounded, and 300 horses.

The Cavalry Corps returned in time to take part in an important flanking movement by the army, which in the meantime had fought the battle of Spotsylvania and had moved by the left to the North Anna River. On the 26th of May the army was posted on the north bank of that stream, with our left resting near Chesterfield bridge. [See map, p. 136. ] Our infantry was now cautiously transferred from the right by the rear around the left of the line south of the river, crossing by Hanover Ferry. Sheridan, with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions, was to precede the infantry on the left, while Wilson's division threatened the enemy's left at Little River. On the 27th Torbert crossed at Hanover Ferry after some resistance by the [193] enemy's cavalry, and pushed on to Hanover Town, where he bivouacked, having captured sixty prisoners. Having secured the desired position, Grant directed Sheridan to regain the touch with Lee's main army. To this end Gregg was sent in the direction of Hanover Court House, but was opposed at Hawes's Shop by the enemy's dismounted cavalry (including a brigade of South Carolina troops with long-range rifles) in an intrenched position. General Gregg writes:

In the shortest possible time both of my brigades were hotly engaged. Every available man was put into the fight, which had lasted some hours. Neither party would yield an inch. Through a staff-officer of General Sheridan I sent him word as to how we stood, and stated that with some additional force I could destroy the equilibrium and go forward. Soon General Custer reported with his brigade. This he dismounted and formed on a road leading to the front and through the center of my line. In column of platoons, with band playing, he advanced. As arranged, when the head of his column reached my line all went forward with a tremendous yell, and the contest was of short duration. We went right over the rebels, who resisted with courage and desperation unsurpassed. Our success cost the Second Division 256 men and officers, killed and wounded. This fight has always been regarded by the Second Division as one of its severest.

General Grant adds:

But our troops had to bury the dead, and found that more Confederate than Union soldiers had been killed.

A number of prisoners were taken by Gregg. On the 29th of May a reconnoissance in force was ordered to locate the enemy's line. We could easily find his cavalry,--too easily sometimes,--but the main Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have hidden itself, and Grant's infantry moved cautiously to the left and front. Sheridan was charged with the protection of our left while the general movement lasted. On the 30th Hancock and Warren discovered the enemy in position. Torbert was attacked by the Confederate cavalry near Old Church, at 2 P. M., and fought until 5 P. M., when he succeeded in pressing the enemy toward Cold Harbor. Wilson had been sent to the right to cut the Virginia Central, and occupied Hanover Court House after a sharp skirmish with Young's cavalry. On the 31st Torbert saddled up at 2 A. M.; he moved toward Old Cold Harbor at 5 A. M., found the enemy's cavalry in position, and drove them three miles upon their infantry. Retiring leisurely in search of a suitable camping-ground, Sheridan was directed by Grant to return to Cold Harbor and “hold it at all hazards.” So at 10 P. M., weary and disgusted, having been on duty for eighteen hours, we moved back and reoccupied the old riflepits — at least, part of the force did. The remainder were massed in rear, lying down in front of their jaded horses, bridle-rein on arm, and graciously permitted to doze. At 5 A. M., as things remained quiet in front, coffee was prepared and served to the men as they stood to horse. Officers' packs appeared in an adjoining field, and the mess-cooks managed to broil a bone, butter a hoe-cake, and boil more coffee, and although the command remained massed the surroundings seemed more peaceful. My fourth cup of coffee was in hand when a few shots were heard in front,, causing a general pricking up of ears. Soon skirmishers' compliments began to come our way and drop among the packs. Our line in the rifle-pits was at once reenforced. An amusing scene met the eye where the pack-mules had been standing: the ground was covered with the debris of officers' light baggage and mess-kits, mules were braying and kicking, and drivers were yelling, when, suddenly, jackasses, mules, and contrabands made for the rear, encountering on the way the corps commander and staff, who only by turning into a convenient farm-yard escaped the deluge.

The center of the line was occupied by the Reserve Brigade (Merritt's): six hundred dismounted men of the 1st and 2d United States, 6th Pennsylvania, and 1st New York Dragoons, armed with Sharps breech-loading carbines-excepting the 1st New York, which had Spencer magazine carbines (seven-shooters). The brigade was posted on the crest of a ravine, with timber in front and rear, excepting opposite the regiment on the left where there was a clearing, and on the right which rested on a swamp. The enemy kept up a desultory fire until 8 A. M., when a compact mass of infantry, marching steadily and silently, company front, was reported moving through the timber upon our position. This timber consisted of large trees with but little undergrowth. Our men were not aware of the character of the force about to attack us. But the morale of the corps was so good and their confidence in Sheridan so great that when the order “to hold at all hazards” was repeated they never dreamed of leaving the spot. Foreseeing a great expenditure of ammunition, some of the cavalrymen piled even their pistol-cartridges by their sides where they would be handy. On came the gray-coated foe, armed with Austrian muskets with sword-bayonets. These, flashing through the trees, caught the eye of a little Irish corporal of the 2d Cavalry, who exclaimed in astonishment, “Howly mother! Here they come wid sabers on fut!”

For a moment the skirmishers redoubled their fire, the enemy took the double-quick, and as they charged us the rebel yell rang through the forest. Then a sheet of flame came from the cavalry line, and for three or four minutes the din was deafening. The repeating carbines raked the flank of the hostile column while the Sharps single-loaders kept up a steady rattle. The whole thing was over in less than five minutes; the enemy, surprised, stunned, and demoralized, withdrew more quickly than they came, leaving their dead and wounded. We did not attempt to follow, but sent out parties to bring in the badly wounded, who were menaced with a new danger as the woods were now on fire. From prisoners we found that the attack was made by part of Kershaw's division (reported to be 1500 strong), and that they had advanced confidently, being told that “there was nothing in their front but cavalry.” The tremendous racket we made hastened the approach of the Sixth Corps on its way to relieve us. To them we cheerfully gave place, having taken the initiative in what was destined to be, before the sun went down, the bloody and historic battle of Cold Harbor.

1 “Memoirs,” Vol. II., p. 153.

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