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The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

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 them.

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 regiments—the 4th and 5th South Carolina Cavalry, temporarily under Colonel B. Huger Rutledge, and the 20th Georgia Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel John M. Millen—belonging 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 warriors.

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 reportedly exclaimed.


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 elements—the North Carolina brigade and three Virginia regiments under Brigadier General John R. Chambliss—pulled 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 maneuver.


(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 fighting forces.

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 to wait.

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)
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