MAY 28: THE CAVALRY BATTLE AT HAW'S SHOP
Early on May 28, Grant's infantry swarmed across the Pamunkey. The
Second and Sixth Corps crossed at Nelson's Crossing, then moved to block
the approaches from the west. Hancock marched south to assume a
defensive position on a ridge a few miles above the crossroads
settlement of Haw's Shop, and Wright reconnoitered northwest toward
Hanover Court House. Meanwhile, Warren crossed the Pamunkey downriver at
Hanovertown and bivouacked near the settlement. By noon, three Union
corps formed a loosely connected line below the Pamunkey.
Meade dispatched cavalry to scout for signs of Confederates.
Sheridan's horsemen were feeling cocky, having recently mortally
wounded Lee's cavalry chief, Major General James Ewell Brown (Jeb)
Stuart, and decisively whipped his cavalry at Yellow Tavern. They were
confident they could defeat any horsemen Lee might marshal against
ON MAY 28, THE UNION SECOND AND SIXTH CORPS CLAMBORED ACROSS THE
PAMUNKEY AT NELSON'S CROSSING AND ESTABLISHED GRANT'S RIGHT FLANK SOUTH
OF THE RIVER. (LC)|
Lee's mounted arm, however, was in better condition than Sheridan
supposed. Early on May 28, the Southern commander directed Major General
Wade Hampton, a South Carolina planter and politician with a marked
aptitude for leading cavalry, to conduct a reconnaissance in force
toward Grant. Hampton started from Atlee's Station, crossed
Totopotomoy Creek, and headed east toward Haw's Shop. His force
consisted of three veteran brigades and a handful of new
regimentsthe 4th and 5th South Carolina Cavalry, temporarily under
Colonel B. Huger Rutledge, and the 20th Georgia Battalion, under
Lieutenant Colonel John M. Millenbelonging to a new brigade under
Brigadier General Matthew C. Butler. The newcomers wore crisp homespun
uniforms that inspired many a joke from the ragged veterans. Butler
himself had not yet arrived, but Hampton was glad to have at least some
of his men. The regiments were large, and the soldiers hefted long
muzzle-loading Enfield Rifles which promised to make them formidable
ALTHOUGH OUTMATCHED BY SHERIDAN'S SUPERIOR NUMBERS AND FIREPOWER MAJOR
GENERAL WADE HAMPTON WOULD PROVE HIMSELF A COMPETENT SUCCESSOR TO MAJOR
J. E. B. STUART. (BL)|
Around 8:00 A.M., Sheridan set two of his divisions in motion.
Torbert began picketing along Crump's Creek in the direction of Hanover
Court House while Brigadier General David McM. Gregg advanced south to
Haw's Shop, little suspecting that he was on a collision course with
Hampton. On reaching Haw's Shop, Brigadier General Henry E. Davies, Jr.,
of Gregg's division, deployed pickets from the 10th New York Cavalry
west along the Richmond-Hanovertown Road. In short order, the 2nd
Virginia Cavalry, in Hampton's van, sent Davies's pickets scurrying. The
rest of Davies's brigade drew up, and battle lines began to form.
Brigadier General Williams C. Wickham's four Virginia regiments deployed
in woods facing the Federals, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser's
Virginians formed on Wickham's left, and rebel horse artillery
unlimbered in a nearby field. Davies's outnumbered Federals braced for a
fight. "We've got the Yankees where we want them now," Hampton
The 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry counterattacked along the road and
repulsed the rebels, only to be blistered from both sides as
Confederates moved past its flanks.
But before Hampton could attack, Colonel J. Irvin Gregg's brigade
arrived and extended Davies's line to the right. Union horse artillery
rumbled into place, and thundering rounds opened the melee. Gray-clad
horsemen, followed by dismounted troopers, pounded the Union position.
The 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry counterattacked along the road and repulsed
the rebels, only to be blistered from both sides as Confederates moved
past its flanks. The 1st New Jersey dismounted and dashed to assist the
Pennsylvanians but was also driven back.
Following a flurry of back-and-forth mounted clashes, the opposing
lines stabilized perpendicular to the roadway. General Gregg drew up his
two brigades west of Haw's Shop at Oak Grove, the Haw family residence.
Hampton established his position at Enon Church, half a mile west of
Oak Grove. Fighting seesawed along the roadway and through fields and
woods to the north. Then Rutledge's South Carolinians fed into the fight
on Rosser's right, the 4th South Carolina Cavalry forming the lower
Confederate flank. Davies charged, but the novice warriors with their
"Long-Tom" Enfields broke his attack. Davies rode bravely in the thick
of the fighting, minie balls snapping his saber in half and clipping
off his horse's tail.
Gregg petitioned for reinforcements, and Torbert sent two brigades
his way. Meanwhile, Hampton's remaining elementsthe North Carolina
brigade and three Virginia regiments under Brigadier General John R.
Chamblisspulled up. Seizing the opportunity to turn Gregg's flank,
Hampton swung his fresh troopers through the woods, In the nick of time,
Torbert's Reserve Brigade under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt arrived
and extended Gregg's line to the right, thwarting Hampton's flanking
(click on image for a PDF version)
CAVALRY CLASH AT HAW'S SHOP: MAY 28|
Union and Confederate cavalry, scouting the roads between the
armies, collide near Haw's Shop. Throughout the day, battle lines sway
and fighting swirls around the Haw house. In the late afternoon, the
added weight of Custer's brigade breaks the Confederate line near Enon
Church and opens the road to the Totopotomoy.
Around 4:00 P.M., Torbert's other brigade under Brigadier General
George A. Custer reached the battlefield. This was Sheridan's elite
force that had recently defeated Stuart at Yellow Tavern and had rescued
the Union cavalry at Meadow Bridge. Dismounting, the Michiganders
deployed two lines deep along both sides of the road and attacked
Hampton's stronghold at Enon Church. Slammed by a lethal concentration
of musketry and artillery, Custer began taking heavy losses.
On the battlefield's northern sector, a Confederate mistook
dismounted troopers for foot soldiers and informed Hampton that Union
infantry had arrived. Hampton was concerned. If Grant sent infantry to
fight him, he risked being cut off and defeated. Perceiving no other
choice, he began withdrawing toward Totopotomoy Creek. Wickham and
Rosser disengaged, uncovering Rutledge's and Millen's men. Thrusting
troopers ahead to exploit the favorable situation, Custer overran the
20th Georgia Battalion, killing Millen and capturing much of his outfit.
Then Davies and Custer pressed home their attack, and Hampton's line
unraveled. Hampton braved the storm of bullets to help the South
Carolinians escape their costly baptism of fire, By day's end, he had
pulled his cavalry safely west of Totopotomoy Creek and abandoned the
battlefield to the Federals.
During the battle at Haw's Shop, Hancock's corps occupied earthworks
about a mile north of the combatants. Sheridan later claimed that he had
asked Meade for infantry assistance but that Meade had refused to commit
Hancock's troops because they were "weary." Meade and Sheridan had
quarreled earlier in the campaign, and their continuing animosity might
have worked to prevent a decisive Federal victory at Haw's Shop.
Each side claimed success in a fight that ranked among the war's
largest cavalry clashes. Sheridan boasted that he had driven Hampton
from the field, while Hampton gloated that he had held Grant at bay for
seven hours, gained important intelligence for Lee, and restored the
Confederate mounted arm's confidence. Both sides came to recognize the
encounter as a watershed. In contrast to most of the war's earlier
large-scale cavalry engagements, the troopers at Haw's Shop fought
predominantly dismounted and used makeshift earthworks for protection.
Sheridan and Hampton were carving out new roles for cavalry as mobile
As the day closed, Grant consolidated his infantry below the
Pamunkey. Wright held the Federal right on Crump's Creek, Hancock the
center, and Warren the left. Burnside and the army's wagons crossed the
Pamunkey late at night and stopped in Hanovertown. On the far side of
Totopotomoy Creek, near Atlee's Station, Lee contemplated Hampton's
intelligence. Grant had crossed the Pamunkey, but his intended route
remained unclear. Until Grant revealed his hand, Lee saw no option but
BRIGADIER GENERAL GEORGE A. CUSTER WAS ALWAYS A PROMINENT FIGURE ON THE
BATTLEFIELD. HIS BRIGADE LENT THE WEIGHT NEEDED TO BREAK HAMPTON'S LINE
AT HAW'S SHOP. (USAMHI)|
UNION PONTOON BRIDGE AT HANOVERTOWN. (LC)|