Battle of Yellow Tavern
There were times when relatively forgotten battles had a major impact on the larger scope of the Civil War. This is one of those battles.
The Battle of Yellow Tavern took place May 11, 1864, just six miles north of Richmond at a crucial crossroads in Henrico County, Virginia. It is the site of the present-day intersection of Mountain Road, Brook Road, and Telegraph Rd.
A column of Confederate Calvary reined their horses to a halt on Telegraph Road. Exhausted, they dismounted in front of an old, ramshackle three-story wayside inn that was abandoned years before. It was still known by locals for the color of its peeling paint: Yellow Tavern.
The Officers, Calvary, and Number of Men in the Battle:
For the Union:
- Major General Philip Sheridan—The Commander
- Brigadier General Wesley Merritt
- Brigadier General David M. Gregg
- Brigadier General James H. Wilson
- General George A. Custer
- The 5th Michigan Calvary
Number of Men:
For the Confederacy:
- Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart, better known as J.E.B. Stuart
- Colonel Henry Clay Pate
- Brigadier General William Henry Fitzhugh (Rooney) Lee
- Brigadier General Lunsford L. Lomax
- Brigadier General William C. Wickham
- Brigadier General James B. Gordon
- Henry McClellan, Officer and Adjutant General
- The 1st Virginia Calvary
Number of Men:
This was a Calvary battle in strictest sense.
A recruiting song from the Civil War, Jine the Calvary, captured the mood of the time. The song’s chorus goes, “If you want to have a good time… jine the Calvary, jine the Calvary. If you want to catch the devil, if you want to have fun, want to smell hell…Jine the Calvary.”
The type of adventurous men who wanted to do all of the above were the horse soldiers who fought on both sides at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.
The whole campaign began when Union General Phillip Sheridan brashly claimed he could whip the Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart if given the chance. So, General Ulysses S. Grant gave him that opportunity by sending him south toward Richmond with three divisions.
Upon discovering Sheridan’s move, Stuart dispatched General Fitzhugh Lee’s division to harass Sheridan’s rear while Stuart rode with his Calvary force, which included Generals Lunsford L. Lomax and William C. Wickham. They traveled night and day, wearing out their horses. They reached Yellow Tavern around 10:00 a.m. on May 11 and formed a blocking position.
Stuart ordered his force into two wings with Wickham taking position west of the Telegraph Road, facing south and Lomax, lined at a right angle to Wickham’s brigade and along the Telegraph Road, facing west.
Within an hour of Stuart’s arrival at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan arrived with his mighty force. They hadn’t ridden as hard or fast as Stuart’s, giving the Federal troops a slight advantage. Their mounts weren’t as exhausted as those of the Confederates.
Without delay, General Wesley Merritt charged Stuart’s left. The Union’s left fought Lomax’s brigade head-on while getting caught in a horrific flank fire from Wickham’s brigade to the north. The Union Calvary skirted around the southern flank causing Lomax to relinquish his position along the Telegraph Road and fall back on Wickham’s line.
Stuart directed Lomax’s men back into position, ordering them to extend Wickham’s left on a straight line facing south. The two Southern brigades were deployed on either side of the Telegraph Road by 2:00 p.m.
The battlefield settled down for about two hours and the Rebels took advantage of the quiet to catch some needed rest.
General George A. Custer positioned his Union brigade on Sheridan’s right. Custer spotted several Confederate cannons on Stuart’s line and planned to seize them by flanking their position. He dismounted half of his brigade in preparation for an attack, while Sheridan readied the rest of his command to assist. A bugler heralded the charge, and the soldiers, now on foot, closed in on the Confederate front.
Custer’s men thundered toward the booming guns, crossing five different fences before they encountered a bridge over the narrow span and up the hill, while Confederates poured down on them from the heights above the creek. The Federal riders pierced Lomax’s brigade and pressed the Confederate’s left flank backward.
The Battle’s Outcome
Seeing the break in his line, Stuart galloped toward it. As always, his commanding presence helped rally the troops and stabilize the 1st Virginia Cavalry’s position, driving the Union troops back.
But then, Private John A. Huff, one of the dismounted Union cavalrymen, a sharpshooter, took aim with his 44-caliber pistol from a range of 10 to 30 yards and fired at Stuart. He fatally wounded the Legendary Confederate commander.
Fitzhugh Lee took command of the field, but Stuart continued to shout orders. It’s said that when he saw some Confederates running away he yelled at them, “Go back! Go back! I had rather die than be whipped!”
However, the Southern Calvary was so massively outnumbered that less than an hour later the rain-sodden Rebels fell back toward the Chickahominy River. As the Confederate cavalry retreated, Sheridan led his troops south to Richmond.
The mortally wounded Stuart was taken from Yellow Tavern to a relative’s home in Richmond, where he died on the evening of May 12. The Confederacy had lost its finest cavalryman.
Robert E. Lee said of Stuart, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.”
The Union Calvary suffered 625 casualties, but they also captured 300 Confederate prisoners and recovered almost 400 Union prisoners.
Once Sheridan reached Richmond, instead of storming the city, he led his Calvary to the town of Bermuda Hundred, just outside of Richmond where he joined up with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James. By the end of the month, and just in time to take part in the slaughter at Cold Harbor, Sheridan rejoined Grant.
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