SHERIDAN’S FIRST RAID
Table of Contents
SHERIDAN’S persistency with Meade having secured to him the opportunity of demonstrating the correctness of his views regarding the use of cavalry, he promptly ordered the concentration of his three divisions, under Gregg, Merritt, and Wilson, informing these commanders of his purpose to boldly strike out into the enemy’s coun try, and by the destruction of railroads, bridges, and the like, inflict all the damage possible upon the Confederacy. But, most important of all, he expected to fight and whip Stuart’s cavalry.
He closed with this injunction: ” In view of my representations to Meade I shall expect nothing but success.”The division and brigade commanders heartily sanctioned the project, and as the object of the expedition became known throughout the corps, great enthusiasm prevailed. Early on the morning of May 9, 1864, the whole force, nearly eleven thousand strong, moved out upon the road to Richmond, passing in the rear of Lee’s army. We were well mounted and equipped, and had with us eight, four-gun batteries of light artillery.
In order to have his troops well in hand, Sheridan moved his entire command on a single road. The immense cavalcade, moving in columns of fours, covered a stretch of thirteen miles. In the country through which we passed the first day not having felt much of the devastation of war, the sight of Yankee soldiers was a novelty. The white secesh, on their front porches, looked sullen at us; not so with the contrabands. The old uncles and aunties, from their cabins in their rear, swung hats and fluttered aprons, while the pickaninnies gathered at the roadside and danced with delight. Occasionally an old auntie, as she gazed in wonder at the seemingly never-end ing column, would exclaim, “Lor a massa! whah do all yo-uns come from”
Our column moved steadily forward, crossing in suc cession several small rivers, the Ny, Po, and Ta being among the number, and at about sundown crossed the North Anna at Anderson’s Ford, and pushed on to Beaver Dam Station, where the advance, under Custer, had just captured two trains of cars and released• four hundred prisoners on their way to southern prisons. The joy of these rescued men was unbounded. They kept along with us, our b ys occasionally giving them a ride, until reaching Butler, on the James River.
Just as we reached Beaver Dam, the third train was heard approaching and was easily captured. Our trophies were three trains, 200,000 pounds of bacon, large quantities of flour and meal, and all the medical stores for Lee’s army,- altogether a loss they could bear at that time. The station and ten miles of railroad were also destroyed.
In the meantime, Stuart, learning of our departure, had overtaken and attacked us. Many will remember how rudely he awakened us, early in the morning, by pitching shells promiscuously into our camp, some of which burst not a rod from where a number of us were asleep, filling our faces. with dirt, and causing us to hustle out without waiting for the bugle call. The dragoons went out on the double-quick, and soon put the Johnnies to’ rout. Leaving a small force to annoy our flanks and rear,
Stuart vigorously pushed forward the heavier part of his command to interpose between us and Richmond, concentrating at Yellow Tavern, six miles from the city, where he placed his troops squarely across our path, thus precipitating a fight.
Says Capt. J. N. Flint, in the San Francisco Sunday Call: ” The battle of Yellow Tavern is scarcely known in history; yet, considering the numbers engaged, it was the greatest cavalry encounter of the war. For hours eighteen thousand horsemen, the flower of both armies, engaged in fierce combat. The battle lacked the precision of an infantry engagement, being fought in every way, mounted and dismounted, undercover and in the open country. Forest and field for miles rang with the din of galloping squadrons, the rattle of carbines, clashing of sabers, and screaming of the shell. Custer was in his element, as with a squadron of his brave Michigan lads he rode straight through a troublesome battery, bringing off two of its guns. At Yellow Tavern, Stuart’s star, which had hitherto shone resplendent, sank, never to rise again. The gallant leader was borne from the field mortally wounded, and expired on the following day in Richmond.
“Of all the Confederate cavalry commanders, Stuart was the most distinguished. He was willing to engage only in open and manly warfare, petty thieving and marauding, or the killing of a few pickets on an outpost, being foreign to his nature. He died respected alike by friend and foe. As a result of the battle, the enemy’s cavalry were badly defeated and driven from the field in dis order. Among the Confederates killed were Gen. James B. Gordon, a brigade commander, and Colonel Pate, a prominent proslavery agitator in Kansas, during the Civil war. I have never seen any official report of the battle, and, therefore, am unable to form an estimate of the losses on either side. We spent the afternoon burying our dead, caring for the wounded, and making preparations for a night’s march.`
The following extract is from a long letter dated “Malvern Hill, May 17, 1864,”but only that portion touching this fight is given: –
“The hardest fight thus far of our raid occurred at Yellow Tavern on the 11th. We were about two miles back, when the enemy, from a well-chosen position, opened upon our advance. The sound of the first gun had scarcely reached us before the whole column broke into a gallop, and within ten minutes we wheeled into the line of battle. In less time than it can be written, Colonel Thorp’s ringing command was heard: ‘Dismount, and prepare to fight on foot! Forward, double-quick, march!’ The rebel line was scarcely twenty rods away, and they were throwing the lead about us like hail. while a battery was enfilading us,-‘ Hold your fire,’ was the under stood order; but when about half the distance was covered, word came along the line: ‘ Every man shoots to kill.’ At this, the boys broke into a yell and began pumping the lead from their deadly seven-shooter car bines into that line of gray at such a terrible rate that they broke and ran like a flock of sheep.
“Our new carbines are terrible weapons in the hands of such bully boys as ours. A rebel lieutenant, whom we wounded, said that he had been in the army since the beginning of the war, but that was the severest fire he was ever under. The boys began to run short of ammunition when I ran back, mounted little Gray, and procured two nose bags of cartridges to distribute on the line.
“The fight kept up, we chased them on foot, over fences, through woods and fields, while off in other directions we could see the Michiganders going in mounted. The battle lasted till dark, when the thoroughly whipped seceshers abandoned the field, leaving us complete vic tors. A detail was made to bring off the wounded and bury the dead, and about midnight we were rushed out, in a great hurry, and started off in the rain and darkness.
“Before going many miles, we were startled by a sudden outburst of cannonading and musketry, a false guide having led the advance into a trap, where the rebel11, within the defenses of Richmond, were waiting to rake us with shell, grape, and canister; while a force of infantry, co-operating with the cavalry, confidently expected to surround and bag us. Torpedoes were planted along the road to be explored by the horses’ hoofs, and we were attacked on every side. Things looked dubious, but somehow Sheridan wormed us out, and at daylight, we were at Meadow Bridge, but still surrounded. They must have been scared nearly out of their wits in Richmond, as their alarm bells were ringing all night.”
Captain Leach, in his personal recollections of the raid,1 gives additional incidents and will tell how we got out of our Meadow Bridge affair.
“Camping the first night out, May 9, 1864, at Beaver Dam Station, about 9-P. .M. I received details to take my squadron,- Co. B, Captain Culbertson, and Co. K,- and go to Davenport Bridge to destroy the bridge, barricade and protect the crossing, and picket for the night.
“As soon as I could saddle up and start, I tried to find a guide to lead us to our destination; but failing in this I visited the headquarters of the brigade and division to get some direction or someone who knew where Davenport Bridge was but could find no one who knew. At division headquarters, General Merritt told me to tell Colonel Gibbs that when he made a detail for a certain duty, he expected it to be done; but could give me no information as to the location of Davenport Bridge.
“I reported back to Colonel Gibbs, after wandering about until about two o’clock in the morning, that I was unable to find anyone who knew where Davenport Bridge was. The Colonel, with the remark, ‘You have done your full duty,’ ordered me to put the squadron in their place with the regiment and go into camp, which I did.
”Just after daylight we were startled by an attack by the Confederates, and a shell landed and exploded just in front of our sleeping men. As we were marching out to form a line of battle, Adjutant-General Emmons rode up to me and asked, ‘ Who relieved you at Davenport Bridge 1 ‘ When I told him I was unable to find the place, he ordered me to get my squadron ready and go to Davenport Bridge, giving me the direction to start, and he would overtake me with further directions.
“At our picket outpost I found a colored man who explained the direction, and I asked him to go along with us, but he protested that the people would kill him, so I ordered a sergeant to take charge of him and bring him along. About five miles out we came to four corners which we found picketed by a squad of Confederate cavalry, which fell back on the road to Louisa Courthouse. Here I was forced to divide my command to protect my rear, so left Captain Culbertson with Co. B to picket these roads, while with Co. K, I turned to the right for Davenport Bridge, about two and one-half miles. I also wrote a dispatch to Colonel Gibbs telling what I had found and asked for support to insure me a safe return.
“About a mile from the bridge I struck a rebel picket, who fired a few shots and retired. Not knowing the force in front and in the woods, I threw out flankers, but not discovering any force, charged down the road, capturing the camp of a company of engineers, a mule team, and a few men.
“Shortly the Fifth Cavalry, in command of Captain Baker, came in response to my request, and he assumed command.
“The Confederates showed much activity, and soon• commenced an attack, firing on my·pickets, and I could see on the bluff across quite a force planting a piece of artillery. I reported this to Captain Baker, who had massed his regiment in a close column of squadrons at the edge of the clearing, and in full view of the Confederates, and advised that we had better get out, or we might suffer serious consequences. He paid no attention, further than to assure me he was in command and ordered me to return and attend to my pickets.
“Concealing my reserves behind a barn, I went along my picket line giving the men instructions to rally at the edge of the clearing at the bugle call, or if they heard a cannon shot. As I returned to my reserves, the Confederates, who had brought up three pieces of artillery, sent a shell screeching past us, striking just in front of the Fifth Cavalry, who, without ceremony, piled upon their horses and started at a gallop up the road, when all three pieces then opened fire, killing quite a number of men and horses. “Having stationed my buglers at each end of my line, I gave the order to sound the recall, and the pickets came back and joined the reserve. I conducted them into the woods, so as to not be a mark for the artillery, and we escaped without loss.
“At Beaver Dam we found everything burning, and trees fell across the road, evidently to delay pursuit. This cut us off from our army, which had advanced without recalling us.
“Captain Baker ordered me to bring up the extreme rearguard, so leaving Captain Culbertson in command of the two companies, I took charge of the rear guard. Just afterward a very lively attack was made upon the head of the Fifth Cavalry, the Confederates having got between them and the rear of the advance. Captain Culbertson and I led our men diagonally across an open field toward a piece of wood through which the road ran, and in doing so passed between the rear of the Fifth Cavalry and the advancing enemy, keeping up a running fight to delay them. We had just reached the wood, when a squad of Confederates came charging down the road, and would have headed us off had not Captain Rodinbow with the Second Regulars come charging back to our rescue. They had heard the fight, and Colonel Gibbs hurried Captain Rodinbow, with his regiment, back at a gallop; and in a gallant charge, they saved us from capture. I believe Co. B had three men slightly wounded, and Co. K two; but as to the Fifth Cavalry, I never learned of their loss, and I never heard of Captain Baker again.
“After this, I don’t recall anything out of the routine until we reached Yellow Tavern, where a brisk and stubborn fight ensued. At Yellow Tavern, May 11, 1865, the First New York Dragoons were deployed upon a road with a battery of artillery on our right. In front of our line, some eighty or one hundred rods away was a farmhouse with the usual outhouses and negro quarters, and approached by a lane formed on each side by an ordinary rail fence; the buildings being upon a little elevation and hiding us from the Confederate line of battle. General Sheridan, coming along our line, asked me if I could reach those buildings and occupy them; see what the Confederates were doing, their number, etc., and if anything special, report to him.
“I took some twenty men, directing them to keep behind the fences so as not to attract attention, while I went up the lane. Arriving at the house, the Confederate line was plainly in view, occupying the fields along with a piece of woods, and a few were working toward the buildings, evidently intending to occupy them; but a few shots sent them skeltering back to their lines.
“While I was viewing their lines, my men called my attention to a rider upon a white horse, evidently an officer of a rank, who was riding along their lines, seemingly superintending their formation. One of my men, Shedrick L. Pealer, called my attention to him particularly, and said, ‘I will try him a shot;’ and resting his carbine across the corner of one of the huts, elevated the sights, and fired. The officer fell, and created general confusion, which could be plainly seen from our position; and that part of their line moved back into the woods and out of sight.
”I reported what I had seen to General Sheridan in person, the men were soon recalled, and the fight ceased.
“I afterward learned that Gen. J. E. B. Stuart rode such a white horse, and was killed that day, and it was reported through Confederate sources that Stuart was struck by a ‘ chance shot; ‘ but I have always believed that it was the shot of Pealer that killed him. As further confirmation, it is well known that he was killed in front of our line, and killed by our regiment. Other members of my squad fired at this same officer, but none seemed so deliberate as this, and the fall was noticed immediately]y after the shot. I was certain at the time that that shot killed the officer, but I did not realize or even know then that it was Stuart, the famous cava]ry leader, as I had not learned that he rode a white horse. It is certain that thereafter we saw no more of a conspicuous officer on a white horse.1
“Shedrick L. Pealer was killed at Cold Harbor, May 31, 1864, and we lost one of the bravest and best of soldiers.
“Arriving at Meadow Bridge, May 12, 1864, the First New York Dragoons were held to ‘fight mounted; ‘ and the reason we heard at the time was that as we had always been on foot, we should have a rest. We soon found that while that might have been a good reason, there was one stronger reason why we were to be mounted on that day: there was an extra job on hand, and it was well known in the cavalry that the First New York Dragoons could be relied upon for those extra jobs. So noted was it that whenever the Dragoons were ordered forward, it was a common saying among the other regiments: ‘Another fight, boys, there go the Dragoons;’ and sore enough, it would come.
” This time it proved that there had to be a long mounted charge across a narrow causeway and along the Chickahominy swamp, with a battery of artillery at the further end. A bridge had to be built across the Chicka hominy, and men from the regiment were detailed to assist, while the regiment dismounted and held their horses ready to mount as soon as a crossing- could be made. The causeway was perfectly straight, and the workers were constantly under the fire of the Confederate guns.
(footnote added so indentation needed here) 1 That the credit of Stuart’s death belongs to the First New York Dra• goons, there Is little doubt. The writer never heard of the contrary until seeing It In the”Life of Custer, “and In “Michigan In the War.”There Is also In Custer’s book the astonishing statement that at this battle be (Cusster) “bore the brunt of the fighting, and drove the enemy from the field.”Custer was a brave fighter, as were also his splendid Michigan brigade; but It Is nevertheless a fact that his ambition to rise led him, on more than one occasion, to claim for himself the Hon’s share of honors. 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. General Sheridan says that as Custer charged mounted, Gibbs and Devin, with their dismounted troops, moved forward, and drove the enemy’s center and right from the field, giving us control of the road to Richmond.
”It was here that I first heard the peculiar noise caused by pieces of railroad iron being thrown from the guns. I was standing a short distance from the workers when I heard a noise I had never heard before, and something struck about thirty or forty feet from where I stood. When I went to see it, I found it to be a piece of iron rail about two and a half feet long.
“As soon as the bridge was passable, the regiment mounted and led by Major Scott, dashed across that long roadway at a furious gait, the Confederates withdrawing as we advanced. Coming to the open field, the regiment swung into line on the run, and charged across the field. Coming to a nine-rail fence, staked and rider, too high to be cleared by our horses, and too strong to be easily thrown down, Major Scott, in his gallant manner, gave the command, ‘Fight on foot! ‘The men rolled off their horses and over the fence, men vying with each other to be first, and officers scrambling to be in advance of the men; and when over, the line was almost as straight a1:1 if on dress parade. Then commenced the advance at double quick, working their seven-shooting carbines, and making a perfect hailstorm of leaden bullets. It was one of the prettiest sights I saw while in the service, as we11 as one 9f the most exciting.
“We captured a few prisoners, who laid down to escape the bullets. One of them declared that he knew we were those.‘d-d Dragoons, who loaded Sunday and fired all the week.’ ,
“I believe this ended our fighting on this raid, and nothing further of interest occurred except that as we came out of the woods at Malvern Hill, our gunboats opened fire upon us, thinking we were Confederates but did no damage as far as I could ascertain.
“After a rest at White House Landing, and drawing supplies sent up the York River, we returned to the Army of the Potomac, joining it near the North Anna River. We afterward took part in its advance, with almost constant fighting, until at Cold Harbor, May 31, 1863, in that desperate charge through the woods, I was very severely wounded, a ball striking just below the shoulder joint, and coming out at the back. As a consequence of this wound. I have never recovered the use of my arm. Dr. Kneeland dressed the wound, and came with some of my men to bid me goodbye, as he reached me with his hand, with tears streaming down his cheeks and his voice trembling, he said: ‘Good-bye, Captain, I shall never see you again.’ To which I replied (not very politely, as I didn’t feel very well): ‘Go to hell, Doctor. I don’t want you to talk to me in that way. I will be back in three months.’ The Doctor said, ‘That’s a good way to talk, but I don’t believe it.'”
The Captain has overlooked a lively battle occurring just after crossing Meadow Bridge, in which the First New York achieved an important success without the loss of a man. One of the regular regiments in advance of us met the enemy just beyond Mechanicsville, and being repulsed, fell back, closely pursued by the exultant foe.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thorp, observing the situation, gave that command, so familiar to us: “Dismount, and prepare to fight on foot.”The men went forward upon the run, firing their carbines rapidly, and shouting vociferously. The enemy, surprised at the suddenness of the onset, hastily retired with a loss of fifty prisoners.
Two days later, after a march of nearly forty miles, having recrossed the Chickahominy at Bottom’s Bridge, we reached Haxall’s Landing. Leaving there for White House Landing, we marched all night and all the next day with but one shortstop. Many were so worn and sleepy, that they slept on their horses. Some, the instant they touched the ground, dropped asleep, and could scarcely be aroused even by rough handling.
During this expedition, both men and horses suffered from hunger. Passing over a portion of the country repeatedly desolated, no forage could be obtained. This was one of the few instances in which we really suffered from hunger, living four or five days on parched corn. After drawing rations at the White House, and another long, dusty march via King William’s Court House, the command rejoined the Potomac army at Chesterfield Station, on May 25.
On this raid the corps lost several hundred horses from heat a1id overwork, the animals dying with what was called the “flutters, “probably a violent palpitation of the heart.