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The cavalry fight at Trevilian Station.

by M. C. Butler, Major-General, C. S. A.
In June, 1864, the armies of Northern Virginia and of the Potomac were confronting each other in front of Richmond. Grant, in command of the latter, had ventured to move upon the capital of the Confederacy and take it from the line of the Rapidan and Rappahannock, and every step of his march had been contested by General Lee, in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, until he finally turned the head of Grant's column toward the James River and compelled him to adopt a new line of attack. In the progress of these movements, while the splendid infantry and artillery of these two armies were struggling for the mastery around the Confederate capital, Hunter was moving up the valley at the head of a strong force toward Lynchburg to strike at the rear of Richmond. On the 5th of June Grant detached two divisions of his cavalry under Sheridan toward Gordonsville to destroy the railroad communications between Richmond and Gordonsville and Lynchburg, and possibly to form a junction with Hunter.

My brigade consisted of the 4th, 5th, and 6th South Carolina Cavalry, then recently transferred from the sea-coast of South Carolina, where they had seen little active service in the field; and this, with Young's and Rosser's brigades, constituted Hampton's division. On the evening of the 8th of June we were encamped not far from Atlee's Station, on the then Virginia Central Railroad. I received orders late in the day from division headquarters to have my command in readiness the next morning “:for extended mounted service.” On the morning of the 9th of June we marched up the turnpike toward Beaver Dam Station, and on the following day, the 10th, we passed Louisa Court House, and bivouacked not far from Trevilian Station. Rosser's and Young's brigades, the latter under command of Colonel Wright of the Cobb Legion (General Young being absent, wounded), were in advance of my brigade, and camped higher up the road toward Gordonsville. Besides his own division Hampton had Fitzhugh Lee's, consisting of Wickham's and Lomax's brigades, and this division was in our rear, toward Louisa Court House.

On the night of the 10th my orders were to be prepared the next morning at daylight for action. Accordingly at the dawn of day we were mounted and drawn up in column of regiments, prepared with the usual supply of ammunition, etc., for immediate action. It may be well to state just here that my brigade, about 1300 strong, was armed with long-range Enfield rifles, and was, in fact, mounted infantry, but for our sabers.

General Rosser rode down to my bivouac about sunrise and inquired if I was informed of what we were to do, to which I replied that I knew nothing except the orders above recited, to be prepared for action at daylight, and that I was awaiting instructions. Whereupon he proposed that we ride to General Hampton's headquarters at Netherland's house, about half a mile below Trevilian, and, if possible, ascertain his plans. General Hampton informed us he expected to form a junction with General Fitzhugh Lee at Clayton's Store, where he would engage Sheridan. Rosser returned to his command, and General Hampton and I rode from Netherland's toward Clayton's Store, on a road that I was picketing, for the purpose of reconnoissance.

We had advanced but a short distance from the railroad when we were met by Captain Mulligan's squadron, of the 4th South Carolina, which had been on picket, retiring before the enemy, by whom he had just been driven in. General Hampton then ordered me to bring up my brigade and attack at once, telling me that he was expecting to hear Fitzhugh Lee's guns on my right on his way up by another road from Louisa Court House. I sent in Captain Snowden's squadron of the 4th South Carolina to charge whatever he met, and develop the force in front of us. It was soon ascertained that a heavy column of Sheridan's command was moving on us, and I thereupon dismounted squadron after squadron until my entire command was on foot, except Captain John C. Calhoun's squadron of the 4th South Carolina regiment, and we were soon driving the enemy before us in the very thick woods. I heard firing on my right and expected every moment to form a junction with Fitzhugh Lee. General Hampton also informed me, when I moved in from the railroad, that he would hold Young's brigade in readiness to reenforce my line as the exigency might require. Consequently I went ahead until the enemy had doubled on my left flank, when I sent to the rear for Young's brigade. On the arrival of the head of Colonel Wright's column, dismounted, I directed him to Colonel Rutledge, whose regiment, the 4th South Carolina, was on the left, and paid little attention to my right, where Colonel Aiken was stationed with the 6th South Carolina, as I supposed it was protected by Lee's division. Colonel Wright had some difficulty in the thick undergrowth in finding his position on Rutledge's left, the enemy meantime pounding us with all his might. While we were thus struggling with a superior force in my front, and the stubborn fight had been kept up at close quarters for several hours, I received information from the rear that Custer, with a column, had moved by an open road to my right, around my right flank, and had captured some of my ambulances, whereupon I received orders from General Hampton to withdraw and mount my command. This was easier said than done, for Sheridan was pressing me in front and gradually outflanking my line. I slowly withdrew by mounting one regiment at a time on such horses as we could reach, and fell back to a point not far from the railroad. On reaching a position where the doctors had established a field infirmary under a large oak-tree, I found some ambulances parked and the wounded being cared for. Meantime Rosser had thundered down the Gordonsville road, charged and scattered Custer's forces, and, together with [238]

Major-General Thomas L. Rosser, C. S. A. From a photograph.

a charge by Captain Calhoun's squadron, recaptured what he had taken, and besides got possession of Custer's headquarters ambulances and a number of his horses and men. While I was massing my command near this field infirmary I received orders from division headquarters to take the Phillips Legion of Young's brigade and charge the crossing of the railroad. This I did, and drove a part of Custer's brigade in confusion into a field beyond. About the time I had reached the railroad I was recalled to the point from which we had started, and on reaching it discovered a compact line of battle of blue-coats advancing, dismounted. I must mention at this point an act of gallantry and dash I have never seen surpassed. Lieutenant Long, of the 6th South Carolina, had a small mounted detachment acting as a provost guard; I directed him to charge the advancing enemy and check them, while I ordered the removal of the ambulances and led horses. He promptly obeyed, and of course had many of his saddles emptied, but he accomplished the purpose I had in view.

I formed a new line on the crest of a hill running at right angles with the position I had occupied early in the day, and formed a junction with Rosser, and kept up the contest until nightfall.

My command camped that night at Green Spring Valley, two or three miles away, with light rations for the men, and nothing for our distressed and worn-out animals but bearded wheat. General Rosser was severely wounded in the leg late in the afternoon, while we were driving the enemy before us, and had to retire from the field, the command of his brigade devolving upon Colonel Richard H. Dulany, of the 7th Virginia. This day's operations ended disastrously to our arms. I venture to believe that I am not claiming too much for the gallant troops under my immediate command when I say that they bore the brunt of the fight, and but for their stubborn and invincible courage must have been annihilated. In making this claim I do not wish to be understood as disparaging others, for I am confining this narrative to my own command.

The next morning, the 12th of June, General Hampton placed me in command of his division. The command of my brigade devolved upon Colonel Rutledge. Colonel Aiken had been severely wounded in the engagement of the day before. Early in the forenoon I posted the division on the railroad near Denny's house, about a mile above Trevilian Station; Rutledge on the left, Young's, still commanded by Colonel Wright, in the center, and Rosser's on the right. The line formed an obtuse angle on the railroad embankment, and extended off to the right with an open field in front, and to the left along the embankment. Beginning at the railroad, I had thrown up temporary breastworks of fence-rails and such materials as were available. The 6th South Carolina occupied the angle, with the 5th and 4th South Carolina regiments to its left along the embankment, and Young's and Rosser's brigades filling up the space to the right, with two batteries of horse artillery of four guns each — Hart's and Thomson's — stationed at convenient points on the line.

In this position I awaited Sheridan's attack, having kept scouts well to the front to watch his movements. Between 1 and 2 o'clock P. M. I was advised of his advance, and was prepared to receive him. He drove in my skirmishers, and moved promptly upon that portion of his line occupied by Rutledge with my brigade. This attack was repulsed without much effort. The second attack was made with more vigor, and was directed sharply upon the angle above described, where the 6th South Carolina was stationed. This, too, was repulsed; and between then and dark five distinct and determined assaults were made upon us, making seven in all. I had placed two brass howitzers of Thomson's battery just in the rear of our line, not far to the right of the angle, in the open field. As there was no protection to the men who served the guns, they were picked off and shot by Sheridan's sharp-shooters as fast as they could take their positions. I consequently directed Major Chew, commanding the artillery battalion, to have the survivors withdrawn to a place of safety, and had to rely upon Hart's and Thomson's guns stationed farther to the right. The attacking forces would spread out, and at times open fire along our entire front, but whoever was in command of the attacking column, with the eye of a good soldier, selected this angle for his most determined assaults. On the eve of every attack we could hear in the woods preparations for the onslaught, the sounding of bugles, words of command, etc.

Between sunset and dark, when the dusk of the evening was still further shrouded by the smoke of the battle, and after six assaults had been repulsed, we heard the usual preparation for another, and, as I concluded, the last desperate effort. Now [239] that the dusky atmosphere would in a measure protect the cannoneers from the sharp-shooters, I directed Major Chew to reman the two howitzers and double-shot them with canister, as I believed the enemy would emerge from the woods a little more than a stone's-throw in our front, cross the fence (which they had not previously done), and rush for our line. They did just as I had anticipated, and came charging out of the woods in the open field and into the railroad cut immediately in our front. Before the canister and still steady fire of our carbines and rifles the enemy fell back for the last time before the deadly aim of our troops.

At one time during the progress of the fight, one or two of Sheridan's guns — as we were informed, of Pennington's battery — got in a position to enfilade my line along the railroad embankment and were playing havoc with my men. I called Captain Hart's attention to it, and directed him to concentrate the fire of the six guns to our right, and endeavor to silence Pennington's enfilading fire. This was done with great promptness and efficacy, and the enemy's guns were silenced. At another time, Sheridan's sharp-shooters effected a lodgment in the houses just across the railroad in our immediate front, and kept up a destructive fire upon us from their sheltered position. I directed the guns to be turned upon them, and in a short time they set fire to the house where the greatest number of the enemy's sharp-shooters had assembled, and it was consumed by fire. Sheridan must have begun his retreat soon after his last charge, about dark. Pursuit by my command was out of the question. We had been engaged in this bloody encounter from its beginning without food or rest for either men or horses, in the broiling sun of a hot June day, and recuperation was absolutely necessary. As it was, I was not relieved and did not withdraw from my lines until 2 o'clock on the morning of the 13th, and in the meantime had to care for the wounded and bury the dead.

Sheridan's forces consisted of two divisions, the First commanded by General A. T. A. Torbert, and the Second by General D. McM. Gregg. The First Division was composed of the Reserve Brigade, 1st, 2d, and 5th U. S. Cavalry (Regulars), 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 1st New York Dragoons, commanded by Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt, the First Brigade consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan Cavalry, commanded by Brigadier-General G. A. Custer; the Second Brigade, 4th, 6th, and 9th New York Cavalry and 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanded by Colonel T. C. Devin. The Second Division, commanded by General David McM. Gregg, was composed of two brigades, the First, commanded by General H. E. Davies, consisted of the 1st Massachusetts, 1st New Jersey, 10th New York, and 1st Pennsylvania. The Second Brigade was commanded by Colonel J. Irvin Gregg, and consisted of the 2d Pennsylvania, 4th Pennsylvania, 8th Pennsylvania, 13th Pennsylvania, and 16th Pennsylvania, making twenty-two regiments in the two divisions.

Sheridan had four batteries of horse artillery, Batteries H and I, 1st United States (Regulars), Battery D, 2d United States, and Battery M, 2d United States. The returns of May 31st, 1864, show 450 officers and 9889 men “present for duty” in the First and Second divisions, making a total of 10,337 officers and men.1

Hampton's command consisted of, as I have stated, Butler's brigade, the 4th, 5th, and 6th South Carolina; Rosser's brigade, 7th, 11th, and 12th Virginia, and White's battalion of two companies; Young's brigade, Cobb's Legion, ten companies; Phillips Legion, six companies.; Jeff Davis Legion, four companies; 7th Georgia Cavalry, ten companies, and Millen's Georgia battalion, four companies. Fitzhugh Lee's division was composed of Wickham's brigade, the 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Virginia; Lomax's brigade, the 5th, 6th, and 15th Virginia, making for the two divisions, thirteen regiments and three battalions. The horse artillery, with Hampton at Trevilian, were three batteries, Hart's South Carolina, Thomson's Virginia, and one other Virginia battery. The strength of Hampton's forces cannot be given accurately, but is estimated at about 5000 all told.

Waiting for his breakfast. From a War-time sketch,

1 Sheridan estimated his effective force in that fight at 8000.--editors.

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