May 11, 1864
On May 8, 1864, Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan boasted that if headquarters would stay out of his hair, he and his cavalry could whip Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart out of his boots. General Grant, appreciating Sheridan’s bravery and fighting spirit, said “Let him start right out and do it.”
The next morning, Sheridan set out with the most powerful cavalry force the Army of the Potomac had ever mounted — more than 10,000 troopers with 32 guns. They moved at a walk, four abreast in a column that stretched for 13 miles. Their mission was to move behind Lee’s army (which was locked in combat with Grant at Spotsylvania Court House), disrupt his supply line, threaten Richmond, and strike Stuart. Sheridan was so confident of success that he made no effort to hid his movements.
The column reached Lee’s forward supply base at Beaver Dam Station by nightfall. The Confederate depot guards had set fire to their supplies before the Union troops arrived, but the Union force found other material to destroy: 100 railroad cars and six locomotives — one-fourth of Virginia Central Railroad’s rolling stock. The next morning they ripped up 10 miles of track, pulled down telegraph wires, and freed 378 of their men who had been taken prisoner during the Battle of the Wilderness.
Stuart, told of Sheridan’s force and direction, moved with 4,500 troopers to get between the Union column and Richmond. Union and Confederate forces met at noon on May 11 at Yellow Tavern, an abandoned inn six miles north of Richmond. For three hours the two cavalry forces fought, with the outnumbered Confederate troops stubbornly defending their position until at last the Union force withdrew. Before they departed, however, an unhorsed Union private fired a single shot at a large, red-bearded Confederate officer on a horse 30 feet away. Gen. Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded and would die the next day. Lee had lost his greatest cavalry officer.
“Go ahead, Fitz, old fellow, I know you will do what is right,” wounded Gen. Jeb Stuart told his second in command, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, during the Battle of Yellow Tavern. The cavalry battle between Stuart’s two Confederate brigades of about 3,000 men and Union Gen. Phil Sheridan’s 10,000 men in three divisions had already raged for more than two hours when Stuart was mortally wounded and carried from the field.
Sheridan had hurled his well rested cavalrymen, all armed with rapid-firing seven-shot Spencer carbines, against Stuart’s tired men, who held defensive positions along ridges bordering the road to Richmond. “The dull thud of sabers descending upon hapless heads could be heard amid the rattle of carbines and the cracking of pistols,” remembered a Yankee of the charges that pushed the Rebels back but failed to break their line.
Sheridan continued his attacks on the Rebel position for an hour after Stuart fell, and Fitz Lee did well to keep his command intact as they were slowly forced to give way. Then Sheridan called his men back from “this obstinate contest” and headed south toward Richmond, only six miles away. They reached the outer defenses of the South’s capital before night, and Sheridan was tempted to bust right through. “I could have gone in and burned and killed right and left,” he remembered. “I could capture Richmond, if I wanted, but I can’t hold it,” he told a fellow officer. “It isn’t worth the men it would cost.”
Besides, Sheridan’s real goal had been Stuart all along, not Richmond. Fitz Lee’s troopers, bolstered by infantry from Richmond, slashed at the Yankee horsemen’s rear and flanks as they retreated east and then south across the Chickahominy River to Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Union force on the James River. The Union troopers suffered 625 casualties, but they had captured 300 Rebel prisoners and recovered almost 400 Union prisoners. Their greatest claim of victory at Yellow Tavern, however, was that they had killed the great Jeb Stuart.
Fascinating Fact: As Stuart was carried away, he saw a group of Rebel stragglers. “Go back! Go back!” he shouted to them. “Do your duty as I’ve done mine. I’d rather die than be whipped.”