Cavalry battle at Yellow Tavern

As he waited for Phil Sheridan at his headquarters tent, Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade knew an argument with “Little Phil” was inevitable. It was May 8, 1864, early afternoon, and the fiery generals were meeting to discuss that morning’s travesty at Snell’s Bridge, on the road to Spotsylvania. An unexpected convergence of infantry and Sheridan’s cavalry at the key river crossing had essentially grounded the Union army’s effort to outflank Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of three days of bloodshed at the Wilderness. The delay helped Lee outrace the Federals to Spotsylvania, setting the stage for l2 days of further slaughter there in what would be the Overland Campaign’s longest battle.

Although Meade and Sheridan’s meeting was perhaps always doomed to take a nasty turn, it nevertheless was breathtaking how quickly it occurred. Staff members clustered around the headquarters tent and listened in unabashedly to the bickering generals’ antics. “When Sheridan appeared,” recounted Horace Porter, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s personal secretary, “[Meade] went at him hammer and tong.” The “Old Snapping Turtle” would live up to his reputation. In no uncertain terms, he accused Sheridan of myriad blunders, not the least of which was Sheridan’s failure to leave the Snell’s Bridge crossing open for the advance of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s 5th Corps. Meade claimed he had sent Sheridan orders to keep the road clear for the infantry, a directive Sheridan vehemently denied ever receiving.

Bordering on insubordination, Sheridan upbraided Meade for interfering in the inner workings of his command. “His language throughout,” Porter wrote, “was highly spiced and conspicuously italicized with expletives.” The wrathful Sheridan asserted he “could see nothing to oppose the advance of the V Corps…” and that the infantry’s behavior had been “disgraceful, etc., etc.”

“One word brought on another,” Sheridan would write, “until, finally, I told him that I could whip [J.E.B.] Stuart if he would only let me.” At the end of the “acrimonious interview,” Meade went directly to Grant to inform him of the belligerent Irishman’s declaration, drawing only a simple response from the phlegmatic Grant: “Did he say so? Then let him go out and do it.”

Preparing to Ride

Given the go-ahead, Sheridan wasted little time in preparation. At 3 a.m. May 9, 12,000 troopers—three divisions under Brig. Gens. Wesley Merritt, David Gregg, and the relatively untested James Wilson—crossed at Ely’s Ford heading for Richmond. Over the next 15 days, while the Union and Confederate armies clashed in wood-tangled fields around Spotsylvania Court House, Sheridan kept his Confederate counterpart’s vaunted horsemen at bay, reaching the outskirts of the capital city before reversing course and returning toward Spotsylvania. “We will give [Stuart] a fair, square fight,” Little Phil told his subordinates. “[W]e are strong, and I know we can beat him….I shall expect nothing but success.”

Stuart, of course, was one general whom Lee never needed to prod into battle. From the minute the Yankees began moving, he was on them—engaged, according to a Confederate staff officer, “in joyful combat…already fighting back every step of the Federal advance.”

Sheridan’s marching column was as lightly encumbered as possible. The men were issued three-day rations. It would be a different matter, however, for the horses, whose forage was cut to the bone, allowing for only one-half of one day’s ration of grain and meaning the animals would have to depend on whatever they were able to scrounge.

“The night was clear and quiet; the air was soft and refreshing,” recalled James H. Kidd, at the time a major in the 6th Michigan, part of Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 1st Brigade in Merritt’s 1st Division. Sweeping past the left of the infantry line, the cavalry turned southeast where the Telegraph Road crossed Massaponax Creek.

To Custer, “the bright, particular star in that constellation of heroes who rode with Sheridan,” fell the honor of leading the advance through springtime Virginia. Eager for the fray, Custer, accompanied by his staff and escort, pressed up close to Kidd’s 6th Michigan—“in the van at the outset of that historic expedition.” Stretched out behind him came the rest of the Michigan Brigade, followed successively by Colonels Thomas Devin’s and Alfred Gibbs’ brigades, then those of Colonels George H. Chapman, John B. McIntosh and J. Irvin Gregg, and finally stalwart Brig. Gen. Henry E. Davies, guarding the rear.


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It might seem surprising that Sheridan, as Kidd recalled, “…went out with the utmost deliberation. [His] movement was at a slow walk, deliberate and by easy stages. So leisurely was it that it did not tax the endurance of men or horses.” Sheridan had a reason, however, as he was baiting Stuart to make a move.

One river crossing seemed to blend into another. In quick succession, Merritt’s division rode through “the Massaponax creek and swamp, and…the Ni, Po and Ta rivers without opposition,” recounted Major Louis H. Carpenter, “in which we were favored by fortune, as they afforded many advantageous positions where the enemy could have given us trouble.”

Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Williams Carter Wickham, commanding a brigade in Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Division, had been riding desperately through blinding dust to catch the tail end of Sheridan’s ambling column. Rebel progress would be hampered when the Yankees set fire to the fences that lined the road. Marching through the blazing fence line, the resultant dust and smoke was so bad, recalled a 4th Virginia trooper, that it became impossible to see the set of fours to their front.

As reports of Sheridan’s advance gradually increased, Stuart began marshaling his forces. Wickham’s Brigade finally caught up with Davies at Jerrell’s Mill. During Wickham’s opening attack, Sheridan chose to spur back to supervise the rearguard’s deployment, leaving Custer at the head of the column to act at his own discretion. Determined to take advantage of this opportunity, Custer ordered the pace of the march to quicken. His target was Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad.

Even a sudden rainstorm failed to slow Custer. As the thunder rolled across the fields, Major Melvin Brewer and a battalion of the 1st Michigan pushed ahead, encountering short of the station a Rebel force guarding 400 Union prisoners headed for Richmond. “Major Brewer gallantly charged the enemy and succeeded in recapturing all our men and quite a number of their captors,” reported 2nd Lt. Charles Henry Veil.

George Custer and Wesley MerrittBy early 1864, “Boy Generals” was a familiar sobriquet for Custer and Merritt. Though Merritt was 3½ years older, the two graduated from West Point a year apart—Custer part of the academy’s famed June 1861 class. To the war’s end, Custer was rankled Merritt had seniority over him.

Custer’s men found three trains and two locomotives at Beaver Dam Station, “heavily laden with supplies for the [Rebel] army.” That included “bacon, flour, meal, sugar, molasses, liquors, and medical stores,” reported Custer, “…amounting to several millions of dollars’ worth.”

The newly freed prisoners pitched in gleefully as Custer’s men torched the cars. The next day, Noble Preston of the 10th New York passed the scene of the action and saw “buildings, cars, wagons, etc….still smouldering [ sic ] as we passed the place. More than 200,000 pounds of bacon was consigned to the flames here, from which the grease flowed in rivulets.”

Merritt was not amused, however, for he felt that with the cavalry living off the land, Custer should have distributed the supplies to other commands. Destruction of the captured trains led to Custer’s first major confrontation with Merritt. The latter was a stickler for march discipline, and he surely addressed in detail the issue of forage and sustenance while living off enemy territory the night before the movement.

There can be little doubt that Custer and Merritt had harsh words for each other. Neither had the adage “back down from a fight” in his lexicon. The stilted phraseology of Merritt’s official report makes clear that an open argument ensued, and Kidd’s eventual memoir, released in 1908, did contain a spirited defense of Custer’s actions at Beaver Dam Station.

Merritt stated in his report that he had ordered the 1st Brigade, leading the division’s advance along the Telegraph Road, to cross the North Anna, and had then instructed the Michigan Brigade to move on to Beaver Dam Station. Merritt implied that he directed Custer’s movement, but he did not specifically mention any order to keep moving. One must wonder if it was Custer who took the initiative to keep his fatigued horses moving just a little longer and his men alert and eager for the fight.

In reprimanding Custer, Merritt offered a rather mundane criticism that “by lighting fires after the capture of the station the enemy, were informed of our position”—a disingenuous assessment perhaps, given that the approach of Stuart’s cavalry was exactly what was desired and expected. According to Major H.B. McClellan of Stuart’s staff, three brigades of Southern cavalry (4,000–5,000 men) were already descending on Beaver Dam Station.

Despite Merritt’s umbrage, the success of the destruction left him powerless to act. No one—least of all Sheridan, he decried—took notice of Custer’s “gaucherie.” Evaluating these results strictly from a military point of view, Sheridan was ecstatic: “[Custer] destroyed the station, 2 locomotives, 3 trains, 100 cars, 90 wagons, from 8 to 10 miles telegraph wire and railroad, 200,000 pounds bacon, and other supplies, amounting in all to about 1,500,000 rations, and nearly all the medical stores of General Lee’s army.”

Merritt had countered that Custer’s destruction had “lost us some of the fruits of a hard day’s march.” It must have pained him, in light of Sheridan’s glowing words, to preface his report with “a misconception of orders given or some other cause marred the success that might have attended this day’s work.”

Kidd, whose fellow Michiganders were all the while unaware of Merritt’s foul mood apparently, offered another apt defense of Custer in his memoir: “It is…quite certain that the only way to have saved the supplies for issue to the corps would have been to move the division to Beaver Dam that night, “for Stuart was concentrating his force at that point and might have been able to reclaim a portion of them if they had not been destroyed.”

At any rate, Kidd concluded, the argument was moot. “Custer was on the ground and Merritt was not,” he asserted. “Custer’s action must have been approved by his judgment.”

Racing Into Position

On May 10, the Federal cavalry resumed its advance toward Richmond. Relentlessly, though at a moderate pace, the vast column remained on the road, both sides protected by a file of vigilant flankers stationed 500 yards on either side. A thick sheaf of skirmishers covered the front of Sheridan’s van, which would allow a quick response to any sudden movement by pursuing Rebel cavalry.

Union Lieutenant George B. Sanford was one to applaud the prudence, for “as we moved out in the direction of Richmond, we could see occasionally through openings in the woods the long columns of their cavalry evidently straining every nerve to get ahead of us in the race and take up some position of defense in our front.”

Stuart had planned a multi-layered response. Wickham’s Brigade was to continue to snap at Sheridan’s heels as the unwieldy column tried to cross the North Anna River. The other two Confederate brigades, those of Brig. Gens. Lunsford Lomax and James B. Gordon, would cross farther to the west, at the Davenport Bridge, before turning back east to hit Sheridan’s flank. Davies was tasked with holding Wickham in check, but Lomax’s and Gordon’s surprise flanking maneuver nearly succeeded.

Now down to what seemed a final option, Stuart decided to race around the far- flung reaches of Sheridan’s column, pass through Hanover Junction, and ride expeditiously down the Telegraph Road to place himself athwart Sheridan’s line of advance—preferably at Yellow Tavern, a mere six miles north of Richmond’s outer defenses.

Pushing his men hard—as he was prepared to “prosecute his march without a stop”—Stuart reached Hanover at 9 p.m. As Stuart readied to move onto the Telegraph Road heading south, Fitzhugh Lee pleaded for a break, worried that Stuart was asking for the impossible from his command. Although Lee’s men and horses were “thoroughly worn out” from the pursuit, Stuart granted only a four-hour reprieve.

David McMurtrie Gregg and staffBrig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg (seated right) and his staff, in a hand-tinted albumen. Gregg led the 2nd Division during Sheridan’s Ride on Richmond but would resign from the Union Army in January 1865.

The Rebel troopers were back on the road by 1 a.m. When the leading elements of Lomax’s Brigade arrived at Yellow Tavern before dawn, they found no Yankees in sight.

The Federal troopers had gone into camp at 4:30 p.m. May 10. The day, Merritt reported, “was very hot, and the march, a long one, was made with but little water or rest for our animals.” An early camp was quite welcome. Cooking fires were soon burning, and the unsaddled horses grazed to the limit of their picket line.

Amid this tranquility, Sheridan devised his countermoves. While Gregg would stay back to check any threat from the rear, Merritt and Wilson were to continue advancing down the Mountain Road. Davies, meanwhile, was to cut across the rolling farm country to the railhead at Ashland. (In doing that, Davies reported, his men had “fired the warehouse and destroyed large quantities of stores, tore up six miles of railroad, three culverts, two trestle bridges, and destroyed a locomotive and three trains of cars.” Oddly, that earned no censure from Merritt, who clearly had been unsuccessful in ensuring that “the hasty burning and looting was never repeated.”)

On May 11, it was time for Gibbs’ Reserve Brigade to lead. The booming of artillery was audible as Grant and Lee crashed into each other at Spotsylvania far to the north. The 6th Pennsylvania went first, moving with caution down the Mountain Road, past the Ashland Road intersection, and then along the face of an ominous looking ridgeline to its left.

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At Yellow Tavern, Lomax’s men spread westward from the Telegraph Road into a hilly, wooded area—the 6th Virginia anchoring the left, the 5th Virginia the center and the 15th Virginia the right. Cresting a high ridge, the Rebels crossed the upper reaches of Turner’s Run and concealed themselves just uphill of the Mountain Road. Fitzhugh Lee placed a battery on a little knob of high ground just to the cavalry’s rear. Establishing his headquarters behind the guns, Lomax turned operational command of the line over to Colonel Henry Pate of the 5th Virginia, who moved the regiments closer to the Mountain Road. “Our position was a good one,” gloated one Rebel, “with a deep ditch on each side, making an excellent fortification. Here we laid waiting for the enemy.”

First contact occurred in an open field just to the west of where the Mountain and Telegraph roads intersected. The snarl of carbines from the front of the column was soon joined by the increasing clamor from its rear, where Gordon was trying to cross Ground Squirrel Bridge, which had been burned.

Now aware of the Rebel presence along the Ashland Road, Merritt and the Reserve Brigade spurred ahead to catch up with the 6th Pennsylvania. Gibbs deployed his men on to open ground, swinging his column into line parallel to the Mountain Road. Realizing he couldn’t ignore possible help for Stuart from the defense forces in Richmond, Sheridan ordered Merritt to cover the road with Devin’s force. The 6th New York succeeded in chasing enemy soldiers over the bridge crossing the Chickahominy River and “into the outer works of Richmond.”

Although Devin’s attacking squadrons lost their impetus at the first line of organized resistance, the colonel committed the rest of the 6th New York. His men were suddenly so tantalizingly close, “bells could be heard ringing, locomotives whistling, and general alarm and bustling seemed to prevail in Richmond.”

Dismounting a portion of Gibbs’ and Devin’s brigades, Merritt began to feel out Stuart’s defenses. The Confederate commander had finally inserted Wickham’s Brigade, which moved perpendicularly off the Telegraph Road onto a heavily wooded ridgeline. From this east-west axis, Wickham’s men could fire on the exposed flank of any enemy advancing on Lomax’s position. Stuart himself was out among “the skirmishers, directing their fire, and making his dispositions for the coming battle.”

Custer and Merritt Advance

As Custer’s men arrived on the field, Merritt placed them to Gibbs’ left, covering the Mountain Road’s intersection with the Ashland Road. They were the only part of the command to remain mounted—and would pay the price. The Rebel guns, Custer reported, “concealed from our view by the woods…had obtained perfect range of my position.” Custer’s exposed lines endured a round of heavy fire, and Kidd was convinced that with Merritt and Custer already up with the skirmishers it was going to get only hotter.

The Reserve Brigade made no headway dismounted, and the view from Custer’s side of the line wasn’t much better. A quick survey revealed to him the strong disposition of the Southerners posted on a bluff protruding above a thin stand of trees. Devin swung behind the Reserve Brigade to face north along the Telegraph Road and advanced the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry through the screening woods on the right.

At Merritt’s command, the 5th and 6th Michigan began their advance, through a maelstrom of bullets, across an open field to a fence line. Stands of timber studded the area, beyond which the Rebel cavalry awaited. Gibbs’ stubborn grind across the field drove Pate’s Virginians from the gully and back to another defensible position on the ridgeline. “Fitzhugh Lee’s sharpshooters were posted in a very strong position indeed,” remembered Kidd.

It helped that Gibbs’ men carried Spencer carbines, and with a hearty yell they began pumping lead from these deadly seven-shot repeaters. The incredible rate of fire soon had the Rebels scrambling back “like a flock of sheep.”

Custer, meanwhile, struck the 15th Virginia hard, doing so again after a brief Southern rally. In the center, the 5th Virginia struggled to stem the onrush, and when Pate was killed the spirited defense went with him. Pressing forward with his advancing troopers, Merritt noted, “The enemy fought with much desperation…but finally his line was cut.”

Spencer carbineThe .52-caliber, seven-shot Spencer Repeating Arms carbine was a game-changer in the war. General Custer’s entire Michigan Brigade was so-equipped at Yellow Tavern, giving his men a decided advantage on J.E.B. Stuart’s troopers.

Like a sandcastle in the grip of a high tide, the Confederate defenses began to crumble with a series of retreats all along the front. Custer’s Michiganders, however, were not prepared for a sudden volley of fire from Wickham on the left. Custer moved in and restored order, driving the enemy back through and out the woods in front.

The Michiganders faced a ruthless blast of cannon fire and musketry as they exited the woods and were quickly withdrawn by Custer. At about 2 p.m., an eerie silence fell over the field. In the lull, the two Michigan regiments began creeping steadily forward. Chapman’s brigade, of Wilson’s division, moved into position to the left of the 6th Michigan, extending the line and providing needed protection to the much exposed flank.

After a couple of hours, Sheridan decided it was time to press the issue and ordered a mounted charge, to be supported by dismounted troopers. He naturally turned to Custer, who examined the ground and decided that, by keeping well to the right, he could successfully charge the Rebel guns. Informing Merritt of his decision, Custer trotted to the front of his command. On his cue, the band struck up “Yankee Doodle,” the sheer belligerence of the tune serving as a tonic to nerves frayed by the incessant booming of the Confederate guns.

“Go back! Go back!”

Custer deployed three regiments on the Telegraph Road, his tried-and-true 1st Michigan in front, a clear indicator of the gravity of the moment. Despite the very vocal objections of fellow brigade commander, Chapman, Custer had also obtained the services of the 1st Vermont—aided, in fact, by Sheridan’s direct intervention.

Before the charge, Sheridan had ridden onto the field. Kidd was among the first to notice his approach. “As they came opposite the regiment, the officer at the head looked back and saw that the flag was hanging limp around the staff…and said to the color bearer, ‘Shake out those colors so they can be seen.’” Kidd saluted and announced, “Men, General Sheridan,” drawing a rousing cheer. Told of Custer’s plan, Sheridan exclaimed, “Bully for Custer, I’ll wait and see it.”

With Sheridan’s eyes upon him, Custer made his dispositions carefully. The 5th and 6th Michigan, already dismounted, were to advance against the Rebel left, laying down a wall of fire with their Spencers and pinning down the enemy. To reach the Confederate positions, Custer would have to cross a creek, which, lined with marshy ground, would force him to take his mounted charge across a small bridge. On the enemy side, two pieces of artillery covered the approach, and as Custer’s men appeared they were met with vigorous fire.

At 4 p.m., the 1st Michigan rode out at a smart trot from the woods it had used for cover. High on the ridge, 1st Lt. TheodoreGarnett of Stuart’s staff had a sweeping view of the terrain and had the Baltimore Light Battery unleash shell and canister as soon as the Wolverines appeared.

Needing to funnel into lines of three to cross the Turner’s Run bridge, the Federal troopers withstood repeated blasts of canister at close range, as well as musketry from the 6th Virginia crested on a ridge. The column staggered and reeled before quickly renewing the attack.

There was never a doubt Custer would personally lead the 1st into the hail of bullets and artillery fire. Once over the span, he reformed the command for a continuance of the charge. With his golden locks and red cravat streaming behind him, Custer sabered his way into the Confederate lines, seemingly disappearing in a cloud of dust and battle smoke. Exultant cheers broke forth from the men following his lead.

The 1st Michigan’s surge galvanized the rest of the cavalry line. Elements of Wilson’s division rushed the 2nd and 4th Virginia on Stuart’s right flank, and Devin moved to outflank the remnants of Lomax’s Brigade on the left. As dusk fell over the area, a heavy rain began to pour. One minute it had been clear and the next the Michiganders were soaking wet, their ponchos still strapped to their saddles. The low rumble of thunder served as an ominous background to the thrumming of hooves and the sharp sounds of combat.

J.E.B. Stuart being shot on horsebackThe particulars of J.E.B. Stuart’s mortal wounding remain in dispute. Dismounted trooper John A. Huff of the 5th Michigan usually gets credit for firing the fatal shot, but Huff, killed at Haw’s Shop a few weeks later, could never claim so for the record.

Stuart’s troopers began scrambling off the ridge, some seeking a defensive position in a ravine 500 yards to the rear, and two Confederate cannons were captured. That left only the 1st Virginia clustered around Stuart.

Calmly straddling his horse, Stuart watched the 1st Michigan closing in and began blasting away at the enemy troopers with his famed LeMat revolver. Suddenly, in the murderous swirl of the mêlée, the meaty thwack of a bullet hitting flesh was heard and Stuart staggered from what turned out to be a mortal wound. Even as he was carried off the field, the commander exhorted his retreating troops to rally: “Go back! Go back! And do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back! Go back! I had rather die than be whipped.”

Fitzhugh Lee assumed command, but, conceding the hopelessness of the situation, ordered Wickham to pull out, handing Custer and Chapman possession of the ridge. Sitting astride his horse at the top of the hill, his faced flushed with joy, Custer asked the 7th Michigan to administer a coup de grâce. Pointing his saber toward the road at the base of the hill, he ordered Major Henry Granger to charge.” The 7th struck like a thunderbolt, forcing another Confederate retreat. Granger would fall, however, struck by three bullets and killed instantly.

Sheridan praised Custer in his report, calling the charge “brilliantly executed.” It had been a tactically flawless operation, for by this time the brigade had mastered the one-two punch of dismounted troopers keeping the Rebels occupied in front while Custer led the rest of the brigade in a mounted attack.

James Wilson, however, took umbrage at Custer’s Yellow Tavern report, sneering, “While my men were pressing the enemy Custer halted to gather up the spoils and to sound pæans of victory.” Reading the newspaper accounts, Wilson groused, it seemed as if “Custer’s brigade did all the fighting and was entitled to all the credit.”

Wilson was quick to laud the actions of his own command, and especially praised the part played by “the modest Chapman,” whom he felt was not given his full share of the credit for the success. Wilson’s opinion was shared by others, among them the regimental historian of the 1st New York Dragoons. Scathingly, he wrote for posterity, “Custer was a brave fighter, as were also his splendid Michigan brigade….That he bore the brunt of the fighting, and drove the enemy from the field, is an unwarranted stretching of the truth. He did his part well, and so did the others.”

This article first appeared in America’s Civil War magazine

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