- Hampton Takes Charge
Driving rain pelted the Confederates as they retreated from Gettysburg the night of July 4, 1863. The wagon train of wounded stretched some 17 miles as the army trudged back toward the Potomac River. A soldier guarding the wounded recalled, "From every wagon issued wails of agony. For four hours I galloped. I was never out of the hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Many of them had been without food for 36 hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender wounds. The road was rough and rocky. The jolting was enough to have killed sound, strong men. From nearly every wagon came cries: 'Oh, God! Why can't I die?'"
Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton was among the patients in the wagon train. His chief, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, had to fend off the Union cavalry as the infantry retreated. Obstacles facing him were many, primarily exhaustion of both men and horses. A Union soldier, seeing the Confederate cavalry that night, wrote, "A large number of his men were mounted on shoeless horses whose leanness showed that they had made many a long march through and from Virginia. Or... they had fat horses stolen from the fields and stalls of the invaded states, but, being entirely unused to such hard and cruel treatment, were well nigh unserviceable."
Throughout the night Stuart's cavalry battled various mounted Union units, including those commanded by Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. Fighting was particularly intense at Monterey Pass, where, because of darkness and rain, Kilpatrick's troops battled an enemy they rarely saw in the mountain gap, except when their foes were illuminated by flashing cannons or lightning. Said one Union soldier, "The darkness was so intense that the guns could be of little use, except to make the night terribly hideous with their bellowings, the echoes of which reverberated in the mountain gorges in a most frightful manner. To add to the horrors, the rain fell in floods, accompanied with groaning thunders, while lightning flashed from cloud to cloud, only to leave friend and foe enveloped in greater darkness."
Kilpatrick's force eventually dislodged the Confederates and rushed through the pass. Dashing out into the open, they came upon a moving Confederate wagon train laden with supplies. Union soldiers immediately began capturing wagons and prisoners, storming through the long line of wagons, collecting their bounty until dawn. Later that day, Stuart mounted another defense, pushing the Union cavalry back and forcing the release of many prisoners. The cavalry skirmishing continued for more than a week as Confederate General Robert E. Lee's troops dug fortified positions. The Confederates were stuck precariously north of the Potomac River, forced to delay crossing because of flooding and difficulties in securing a pontoon bridge. Kilpatrick and other Union cavalry leaders repeatedly attacked like angry hornets at the shield posed by Stuart's horsemen, who stubbornly resisted. Cavalrymen from both sides fought almost constantly until they were nearly numb.
While Lee's army was vulnerable near the river, the Union commander, Major General George Meade, hesitated to throw the full weight of his infantry against the Confederates as urged by President Abraham Lincoln. Finally, on the night of July 13, Lee's infantry and wagons began crossing the Potomac. Heavy rains drenched the troops. As the infantry pulled out of the muddy earthworks, Stuart's cavalry, fighting dismounted, filled the void to hold off the Union forces. Kilpatrick's cavalry hit these Confederates hard, opening a hole and bearing down on the infantry crossing the river. Some Confederates, mistaking Kilpatrick's cavalry for their own, allowed the Union soldiers to pass, although they eventually realized their mistake and rebuffed the Federals, who suffered heavy casualties. By July 14, Lee's army at last crossed back into Virginia.
The awful toll from the Battle of Gettysburg continued to become apparent. The Union had lost some 23,000 killed or wounded, the Confederates about 28,000. Beyond the heavy casualties for both sides, the Confederacy had suffered a severe drain in leadership. Before Gettysburg, Lee's army fielded 52 officers above the rank of colonel. Almost one third of these officers were killed, wounded, or captured in the Pennsylvania battle. The less seriously wounded returned to duty almost immediately. Others, including Hampton, faced long recuperations. Many never returned to fight. By the most optimistic projections, Lee had to replace some 20 percent of his officers. The Confederate spirit of invincibility was also wounded, though not destroyed. For the most part, the army still maintained faith in its leaders, especially in Lee.
There was other news disturbing to the Confederates. Union General Ulysses S. Grant, maneuvering through Mississippi, had forced the surrender of the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg. Then, following the July 9 surrender of Port Hudson, Louisiana, the United States again controlled the vital Mississippi River. Clearly, President Lincoln was finding more generals who could win.
Soon after Gettysburg, Stuart reorganized the Confederate cavalry. Hampton and Colonel Matthew C. Butler, recuperating from their wounds, were expected to return, and Stuart recommended both for promotion. Hampton was named a major general, while Butler was promoted to brigadier general. Stuart divided the cavalry into two divisions with Major General Fitzhugh "Fitz" Lee, nephew of the Confederate general, commanding one division and Hampton leading the other.
The Confederate and Union cavalries continued skirmishing, with some of the fiercest fighting involving Kilpatrick's troops. During two battles in the fall of 1863, the Confederates appeared to have Kilpatrick's troops penned in from several different directions, but each time they escaped. Kilpatrick was surrounded during a battle on October 11 in Virginia by Confederate cavalry near the village of Brandy Station, the railroad community so severely contested just months before. A Union soldier recalled that Kilpatrick never seemed in the slightest perturbed by his predicament as he calmly formed his forces into three lines and ordered an attack. The Union band struck up marshal music during the advance. They charged and Confederates countercharged.
"For at least two long hours of slaughter these opposing squadrons dashed upon one another... and at times the blue and gray were so confusedly commingled together that it was difficult to conjecture how they could regain their appropriate places...It was a scene of wild commotion and blood," a Union soldier recalled.
Eventually, Kilpatrick extracted his men from the chaos and retreated, aided by Confederate gunners who misdirected artillery fire at their own soldiers. Also in the Union's favor was the panic among some Confederates, surprised by the attack. Their pell-mell retreat halted only when Confederate officers blocked their way, threatening them with pistols.
Kilpatrick again encountered Stuart near Buckland Mills on October 19. A Union soldier explained, "Dripping wet and somewhat stiffened with cold, we were ordered in battle array early in the morning, and the command, about 2,000 strong, advanced."
But Stuart was not yet ready to fight. He slowly withdrew his cavalry, never offering battle, enticing Kilpatrick into a trap. The Union soldiers warily pursued the Confederates until Stuart, secure in a position protected by hills, halted his cavalry and waited. Kilpatrick led his troops directly into the snare. When they were within 200 yards of Stuart's men, other Confederate cavalry tore into the Union rear guard. It was then that Stuart seized the moment to attack them from the front. The ambushed Union forces turned around to escape, fighting through the Confederates behind them. Stuart's cavalry dogged them in a firefight spanning some five miles. Some Union soldiers drowned in a frantic creek crossing, but most survived. Several hundred were captured in the fight that came to be known as the Buckland Races.
Stuart crowed over his victory in his official report, claiming that Kilpatrick was so damaged he would have to cease operations for more than a month, "that time being necessary, no doubt, to collect the panic-stricken fugitives." In fact, Kilpatrick's soldiers almost immediately returned to action.
Also in the fall of 1863, the armies controlled by Lee and Meade maneuvered against each other and sometimes grappled, but the battles didn't significantly weaken either. As fall turned to winter, with both armies huddled in camp, Stuart several times visited Richmond, Virginia, where he was a predictable hit on the social scene. Yet, as young socialite Constance Cary observed, the lightheartedness masked uneasiness. "In all our parties and pleasurings, there seemed to lurk a foreshadowing of tragedy, as in the Greek plays where the gloomy end is ever kept in sight," she wrote.
Indeed, Lee steadily pleaded to the Confederate government in Richmond for more food, shoes, clothes, and other supplies for his army. Disease rampaged through the hut cities serving as the Confederate winter encampments where desertions were increasing. Cavalrymen also faced another problem, horses so hungry that they ate bark from trees. Indeed, most trees near Confederate camps were stripped bare of bark to the height a horse could reach. Because Confederates had to supply their own horses, many cavalrymen took leaves from duty to search for mounts to replace their ruined or dead horses. Some reluctantly gave up the cavalry altogether and joined the infantry.
In late February 1864, the Union cavalry duplicated a Confederate cavalry tactic and raided deep into Confederate territory, with Kilpatrick leading the main thrust. Union Brigadier General George Custer also participated, riding into central Virginia, leading about 1,500 troopers. Custer's men threatened the picturesque town of Charlottesville on February 29. They were pursued by Stuart, whose force rode through a sleet storm and camped, shivering, in the freezing rain. The next day, Custer's troops, riding fresh horses, managed to rush by them and escape. But Custer's demonstration was only a sideshow. The main event involved Kilpatrick's troops.
Leading a force of about 4,000 soldiers, Kilpatrick rode through the sleet toward Richmond. That night the Union troops built large campfires and tried to stay warm. The next day, Kilpatrick neared the Confederate capital after splitting his force. He sent 500 men, commanded by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, to circle Richmond to attack the city from the south. Dahlgren was supposed to storm a Confederate prison and free Union soldiers, then rejoin Kilpatrick north of the city.
The rest of the force, led by Kilpatrick, rode within five miles of Richmond to wait for Dahlgren. When he failed to appear, they fired artillery toward the Confederate capital for a time, then retreated. Kilpatrick's troops camped that night in more cold, blustery weather, trailed by Hampton who was recovered from his injuries and led a small contingent of Confederates. After dark, the Confederates sneaked near the Federal camp, sounds of their approach muffled by falling snow, and fired artillery shells. Loud booming and flashing lights awakened the Union soldiers, creating chaos as tents blew apart and terrified horses reared. Kilpatrick's men grabbed their guns and darted for cover. Most got away, including Kilpatrick. Still, Hampton's men rounded up almost 100 prisoners, many fresh mounts, and sorely needed supplies and equipment.
Dahlgren, who wore a wooden lower right leg because of injuries received in a clash at Haggerstown, Maryland, had a bumpy ride almost from the moment he left Kilpatrick. A black guide hired to show him the best route into Richmond led the force to a river crossing that proved impassable. Dahlgren was so livid that he hanged the man.
His soldiers did eventually approach Richmond where they met heavy fire from Confederates. Dahlgren escaped temporarily, but soon he and part of his force stumbled into an ambush. As he yelled, "Disperse, you damned rebels!" Dahlgren was shot and killed. Confederate soldiers took his wooden leg for a trophy, as well as documents from the body detailing plans not only to free prisoners, but to torch Richmond and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The papers stirred outrage in the South, with Lee writing to Meade, protesting Dahlgren's purpose. Meade and U.S. government officials denied condoning the scheme.
The ruckus over the Union's failed Richmond raid helped cement Kilpatrick's controversial image. Apparently, no one doubted his valor, but some questioned his judgment and intelligence. One Union officer described Kilpatrick as "a frothy braggart without brains."
Spring 1864 brought new troubles to the Confederacy. Grant assumed command of the Union Armies in Virginia, promising to pursue Lee vigorously. In the Union general, Lee faced a tougher opponent than any before. In May, Grant moved his army, 116,000 strong, into the impenetrable Virginia thicket called the Wilderness north of Richmond. Lee, with 65,000 men, continued to maneuver effectively, inflicting heavy casualties on these Union forces. The horrific bloodshed continued at Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. Stymied by his opponent, Grant unleashed his cavalry to wreak havoc behind the Confederate Army.
Grant chose Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan to reorganize the Union cavalry in Virginia and sent Kilpatrick to join Major General William Tecumseh Sherman who was planning the destruction of Confederate forces in Georgia and the capture of Atlanta.
Sheridan, like Stuart, had a clear vision of what cavalry could do. He concentrated disparate units into a single corps of 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers for a raid toward Richmond. In contrast, Stuart had never used more than 2,000 troops on a raid.
Sheridan also took steps to ensure cavalry horses were fit. While most Confederate mounts were skeletal from hunger and over use, Sheridan saw that Union horses were used sparingly in guard duty and on patrols. And unlike the Confederates, Union troops also had ample food for their horses, even in winter
On May 9, 1864, Sheridan began his raid at dawn toward Richmond. His troops, crossing into Confederate territory, seemed virtually unstoppable. They formed a column 13 miles long, pulling 36 artillery pieces.
Stuart, through his extensive network of lookouts and spies, knew almost immediately of Sheridan's presence. He rounded up available men and began pursuit, with most of Hampton's cavalry staying behind to protect the infantry. The Confederates rode all night and into the next day, trying to catch Sheridan, but in the midst of the pursuit Stuart lost precious moments visiting his wife. He was concerned because she was staying with friends in an area where Sheridan's force had just traveled. Stuart, finding her well, stayed only long enough to confirm that she was safe. The cavalry leader seemed uncharacteristically subdued as they resumed the chase after Union forces, recalled a fellow officer. When Stuart broke his silence, he revealed that he never expected to outlive the war, and if the Union conquered the Confederacy, he didn't wish to live anyway.
Their weakened horses slowed the Confederate cavalry hunting Sheridan. The soldiers were also weary, but kept pushing forward, spurred on by Stuart's iron will and encouraging words. Finally, about 9:00 p.m. on May 10, an officer persuaded Stuart that the troops could go no farther. Everyone needed rest, if only for a while. They stopped briefly, but were on the move again by 1:00 a.m.
Stuart split his force of about 4,000 troopers in two, sending brigades from North Carolina to hit Sheridan's cavalry from the rear. He led the rest toward the head of the Union column, now closing in on Richmond. By hard riding into the next morning, Stuart managed to beat the Union force to an intersection six miles from the Confederate capital. He telegraphed Confederate General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederate defenses around Richmond, to prepare for an assault. Describing their foe Sheridan, Stuart wrote, "His force is large, and if attack is made on Richmond it will be principally as dismounted cavalry, which fight better than enemy's infantry.
By midmorning on May 11, Stuart's cavalry was waiting behind defensive positions near an old roadside building, Yellow Tavern, when Union scouts and other lead troops appeared and were quickly followed by many more Federal troops. The Union juggernaut of more than 10,000 men bore down on Stuart's few thousand men. The Confederate attack at the rear of Union forces had been too small to deter Sheridan's advance, although casualties were heavy. Now Stuart faced the full fury of the Union cavalry.
Stuart and his men were accustomed to being outnumbered, but never so drastically. Yet, as he deployed his troops, Stuart seemed typically unconcerned and confident, an attitude reflected among his soldiers. Many prepared to fight dismounted, while their horses were held for them in the rear.
Union horse soldiers from New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere made several thrusts at the Confederates, who held their positions. Then, about 2:00 p.m., masses of Michigan cavalry attacked, led by Custer, dressed in a black velvet uniform, his long, blonde hair waving in the wind. Face to face, the Confederates and Union troops fought for a time. Then Union forces withdrew. A lull settled over the battlefield.
Union troops slowly began advancing again about 4:00 p.m., firing carbines and Colt's pistols. Stuart rode his horse along the Confederate line, whistling nonchalantly as bullets flew by, until he reached an artillery post particularly hard hit. Dead horses and men lay everywhere. To the beleaguered soldiers still standing, Stuart said he was proud of their bravery and knew they could continue to hold their ground. At least two Confederates implored Stuart to seek cover, requests the general ignored as he rode on. One officer begged him to see that Confederates nearby who were hiding behind stumps and fences were being shot, while Stuart was riding in the open, an easy target.
Stuart responded, laughing. "I don't reckon there is any danger."
As the attack intensified, Stuart rode to a fence defended by Maryland soldiers from the 1st Virginia Cavalry who stood behind the barrier, firing their carbines. Stuart guided his mount between some of the soldiers until his horse's head stuck out over the fence. Union bugles sounded for a charge, and the Michigan cavalry rushed forward, storming by within 10 feet of Stuart. He and the soldiers near him held their position, while other nearby Confederates grudgingly gave ground, retreating some 400 yards.
The retreating Confederates found cover in a ravine, while other Confederates on horseback mounted their own charge, forcing Union troops to turn and withdraw. As the Union men rode back toward Stuart, he yelled to his soldiers, "Steady, men, steady." Then, "Give it to them!" He emptied his pistol as the Union soldiers neared.