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Two cavalry Chieftains. [New Orleans Picayune, August 12th, 1888.]

The other day, when the great soldier who commanded the United States army had closed his mortal career and had passed over the dark river to the silent encampment whither so many of his late companions in arms and so many of those against whom he had fought had preceded him, old soldiers all over the country, without regard to the flag under which they had served, eulogized the distinguished general and recalled incidents of his splendid career, of which they happened to have knowledge. Among these was a recital by Senator Plumb, of Kansas, himself a gallant soldier, who related an account of an interview he had once had with General Sheridan in regard to his celebrated cavalry raid on Richmond on the 11th of May, 1864. Colonel Plumb's story has been printed before, but it is worth repeating:

I always think of Sheridan in connection with a conversation I had with him. “General,” I said, “you were in the West before you came East. What was your opinion of the Army of the Potomac?” You remember it was characterized about that time as not doing its share of the work.

“Oh, the army of the Potomac was all right,” said Sheridan, “the trouble was the commanders never went out to lick anybody, but always thought first of keeping from getting licked.”


continued the Senator,

came East when the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was not in good condition, and Grant [452] gave him the task of reorganizing it and raising its efficiency. He had worked some time when General Meade sent him over the Rappahannock on a reconnoissance. Sheridan came back and, in making his verbal report, alluded to a brush he had with Stuart's cavalry. “Never mind Stuart,” said Meade, interrupting, “he will do about as he pleases anyhow. Go on and tell what you discovered about Lee's forces.”

That made Sheridan mad and he retorted: “Damn Stuart, I can thrash hell out of him any day.” Those were times, you know, when men's utterances, like their deeds, were not fashioned upon the models of these days of peace. Meade repeated the remark to Grant, who asked, “Why didn't you tell him to do it?”

Not long after, Sheridan got an order to cross the river, engage Stuart and clean him out. “I knew I could whip him,” said Sheridan, “if I could only get him where he could not fall back on Lee's infantry, so I thought the matter over, and to draw him on, started straight for Richmond. We moved fast and Stuart dogged us right at our heels. We kept on a second day straight for Richmond, and the next morning found Stuart in front of us, just where we wanted him. He had marched all night and got around us. Then I rode him down; I smashed his command and broke up his divisions and regiments and brigades; and the poor fellow himself was killed there. Right there, Senator, I resisted the greatest temptation of my life. There lay Richmond before us and there was nothing to keep us from going in. It would have cost five hundred or six hundred lives and I could not have held the place, of course. But I knew the moment it was learned at the North that a Union army was in Richmond, then every bell would ring, and I should have been the hero of the hour. I could have gone in and burned and killed right and left. But I had learned this thing—that our men knew what they were about. I had seen them come out of a fight in which only a handful were killed, discontented, mad clear through, because they knew an opportunity had been lost or a sacrifice, small as it was, had been needlessly made, and I have seen them come out good-natured, enthusiastic and spoiling for more when they had left the ground so thickly covered with dead that you could have crossed portions of the field on the bodies alone. They realized that notwithstanding the terrible sacrifice, the object gained had been worth it. They would have followed me, but they would have known as well as I that the sacrifice was for no permanent advantage.”

Senator Plumb was not an eye-witness of the battle of Yellow [453] Tavern, and his story, while in the main correct and not intentionally inaccurate, is, nevertheless, not wholly consistent with actual events. Here is Governor Fitzhugh Lee's account of that battle in which he participated. His narration was made in an address delivered on the 18th of June of the present year when a monument, erected on the spot where General Stuart fell, was dedicated. He said:

Probably the Confederate capital was never in such danger of capture, from the moment it was first beleaguered by the hosts of the enemy to the time of its final fall, as it was on the day of the fierce battle at Yellow Tavern. At that time Lee was confronting Grant and his powerful army near Spotsylvania Courthouse. General Butler was pressing close upon the lines near Petersburg, while Richmond nearly stripped of troops, depended chiefly for defense upon the local forces, composed of the employees in the government offices and workshops. It was at this critical moment that General Grant sent out a strong force of cavalry under Sheridan, whose reputation as a cavalry commander was already at its highest, to march rapidly upon Richmond and capture it before the city could be reinforced.

On the 8th of May, 1864, the Federal cavalry corps was concentrated near Fredericksburg, and on the morning of the 9th marched by Hamilton's Crossing to the Telegraph road, and moving to the right of General Lee's right flank, marched to Beaver Dam station on the Newport News and Mississippi Valley railroad, and from that point by the Louisa or ‘Old Mountain Road,’ via Glen Allen, a station on the Fredericksburg railroad, to the Yellow Tavern. His command consisted of three divisions under Generals Merritt, Wilson, and Gregg, numbering, according to the official returns of the Federal army, dated May 1, 1864, 9,300 men in the saddle. His brigade commanders were Custer, Devins, Gibbs, Davies. J. Irvin Gregg, McIntosh, and Chapman.

General Stuart followed these seven brigades of Sheridan with the three brigades of his command, viz: Lomax's and Wickham's of Fitz Lee's division, and a North Carolina brigade under General Gordon, making a total effective force of some 3,000 troopers. On the morning of the 11th General Stuart intercepted, at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan's line of march, and succeeded in interposing his small force between Richmond and the Federal cavalry. The battle was desperate and bloody, but it resulted in the saving of the Confederate capital at the cost of many a precious life. General Stuart was mortally wounded during the last part of the fight and died the [454] next day. General Sheridan, repulsed and defeated, abandoned his raid and escaped down the Chickahominy.

The battle commenced early in the forenoon, and continued with much charging and counter charging until late in the afternoon, for General Stuart did not fall until about 4 o'clock. If General Sheridan had not been intercepted and so vigorously repulsed by Stuart's greatly inferior force, he might have ridden into Richmond in the morning, but opportunity was offered by the delay of many hours created by Stuart's force, and successful opposition, for infantry to be concentrated in the formidable works on that side of the fateful capital where the battle was fought, and then it was scarcely possible for cavalry to have entered the city. Richmond was entirely surrounded by a ditch and embankment, impassable for cavalry, and after the works were properly manned by infantry, as they were on that occasion, it is safe to say that it would have been extremely imprudent for General Sheridan to have attempted to ride into the city, and he evidently thought so too. The Northern people would almost have deified ‘Little Phil’ had he occupied the Confederate capital even for an hour-even long enough to have burned it.

If people could only know beforehand what they subsequently learn, many signal failures would have been converted into magnificent successes. Richmond was impregnable for four years against all assaults, because the Generals who were sent to capture it lacked the power and the knowledge requisite to the accomplishment of so great an enterprise. They saw their mistakes only when too late. It was the same way with the Confederates. These post mortem views are valuable to the student, but they are thoroughly worthless as a basis for the fame of any soldier who might have succeeded had he known how.

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