Chapter 4 (continued)
Stuart clutched his side and slumped over. His hat fell to the ground.
"General, are you hit?" came the query.
"You wounded bad?"
"I'm afraid I am."
Soldiers crowded around to lead Stuart on his horse away from the front lines. But the animal, unaccustomed to any hand but his master's, bucked and kicked, forcing grimaces of pain from Stuart, who asked to dismount. Soldiers propped him against a tree while they found a gentler mount. Stuart urged an officer helping him to return to his soldiers. Everyone expected another attack, but Stuart was safely placed in an ambulance before firing resumed. Seeing some Confederate soldiers fleeing the front lines during the lull in fighting as he was taken away, Stuart cried angrily, "Go back, go back and do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back, go back!" After a moment's pause, Stuart added, "I had rather die than be whipped."
The ambulance followed a long and circuitous route toward Richmond, a detour made necessary because the countryside was flooded with Union cavalry. For Stuart, the trip was torture. He gritted his teeth and held his hand tightly over the wound in his side. Finally, late at night, the ambulance arrived at the Grace Street home of Stuart's brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. Doctors concluded that Stuart's liver was damaged and had little hope for his survival. The next morning, Stuart hearing cannon blasts, asked for news. The Confederates were still grappling with Sheridan, he was told. "God grant that they may be successful," Stuart said. The old fire lit up his eyes. Then he turned, sighed, and said, "But I must be prepared for another world."
President Davis arrived and asked, "General, how do you feel?"
"Easy," Stuart said, "but willing to die if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty."
A crowd gathered in a death watch outside the home. Tears stained the faces of many. Throughout the day of May 12, Stuart lingered. Delirious at times, he shouted orders as he fought some imaginary battle; during other moments, he was lucid. During these periods of clarity, he helped apply ice to his side to ease the pain. Several times he asked for his wife who had been sent for, but not arrived. Stuart, asking if he could survive the night, was told death was near. He nodded and said, "I am resigned if it be God's will; but I would like to see my wife."
Two clergymen approached his bedside around 7:00 p.m. They prayed and, at his request, sang the hymn, Rock of Ages. Stuart, in faltering voice, joined in. Then about 7:30 p.m., Stuart said, "I am going fast now. I am resigned; God's will be done." Then he was dead.
Sheridan's thrust toward Richmond gradually lost steam and he withdrew, with the Confederate cavalry following but unable to inflict serious damage on the Union force. Because of the skirmishing, most of the cavalry couldn't attend Stuart's funeral, but President Davis and Bragg were there. Tributes poured in for the fallen cavalry leader, but perhaps the most poignant came from Lee. Still in the midst of desperate fighting at Spotsylvania, Lee received a telegram. He tore it open, then paused, struggling to control his emotions. "Gentlemen," he told assembled officers, "we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded." He paused, struggling for composure. "He never brought me a piece of false information!" Later, when Lee learned that Stuart was dead, he said, "I can scarcely think of him without weeping."
Stuart's legacy was the cavalry leadership he helped train. While the Confederate infantry suffered because of too few capable replacements for slain or wounded officers, the cavalry did not. Stuart had always provided promising soldiers in his command with increasing responsibilities and chances to advance. A number of key Confederate officers who would soon fight at Monroe's Crossroads served with Stuart. Either directly or indirectly, they learned from him.
Replacing Stuart proved hard for Lee. Hampton was an obvious candidate, but had no formal military training, a significant concern. Equally qualified was Lee's nephew, "Fitz" Lee, an 1856 graduate of the United States Military Academy. Unable to decide, the commanding general postponed making an appointment. For the time being, all cavalry division leaders would report directly to him. Along with his other heavy responsibilities, Lee would now command the cavalry corps. He would let future battles determine Stuart's successor.
The awful bloodshed continued. At Cold Harbor, Virginia, near Richmond, the armies clashed in early June 1864 in trench warfare that proved to be a forerunner of World War I devastation. Union soldiers charging Lee's earthworks on June 3 were so sure of dying that they pinned their names and addresses to their uniforms so their corpses could be identified. Men fought nearly nonstop, with some 7,000 gunned down in a matter of hours. At night, the combatants tried to sleep listening to heart-wrenching moans and screams of the wounded trapped in the no-man's land between them.
In one month, nearly 100,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The Union Army alone suffered more than 65,000 casualties, enough to constitute an entire Civil War army. Grant was losing, on average, more than 1,000 soldiers a day, many of them skilled veterans. The general was so devastated by the losses that he was seen falling on his cot and weeping. Nevertheless, unlike other Union commanders who had retreated when faced with severe losses, Grant kept hammering away at Lee. The Union general stumbled and made mistakes, but was relentless in pursuing Lee's army and pushing closer to the capital of the Confederacy. President Lincoln never wavered in his support of his commander, but many of his constituents began to lose heart and resolve. The presidential election was less than six months away.
Grant's weakened army settled into a siege of Confederate forces around Petersburg, Virginia, south of Richmond, in the third week of June. Union and Confederate soldiers were at a stalemate. If there was to be a major Union victory to secure the President's re-election, perhaps Grant would not provide it, but rather it might come from Sherman who was well into a major offensive into Georgia while Grant seemed stymied by Lee.
The Confederates suffered about half as many casualties that June as the Union, but the losses hobbled Lee. Especially crippling was the loss of so many officers and plummeting soldier morale. Desertions mounted, shrinking the army, already diminished because fresh recruits were insufficient to replace the number of dead and wounded. In contrast, the Union Army was steadily reinforced by recruits and draftees, many of them black, eager to fight. And unlike the Confederates, the Union Army had plenty of food, ammunition, and weapons, as well as strong horses.
Confederate soldiers were sorely frustrated by the stagnant, dirty, dangerous life in the trenches. Although small battles erupted daily, there were few opportunities for victory. An army accustomed to bold offensive maneuvers hunkered down, nearly always on the defensive. Still, Lee had confidence the Confederates could continue to hold off Grant, and there were moments when the old spirit of invincibility revived, with Hampton providing the spark. On June 8, 1864, Hampton ordered cavalry units to prepare three days rations. Each soldier could carry only eight ounces of bacon and hardtack for himself and one bag of corn for his horse. They had to travel light and fast because Sheridan had launched another Union raid into Confederate territory. Only a furious response could stop him. Sheridan was heading west into central Virginia toward Charlottesville and then a planned link-up with Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley.
By dawn June 9, Hampton's and "Fitz" Lee's cavalry began the chase. Hampton, as senior officer, assumed command. They rode hard, with little rest, until near midnight, when they stopped briefly, then resumed riding. Hampton, a disciplined leader, tried to avoid exhausting men or their mounts. Still, he used every opportunity to move forward. After another brief rest, the soldiers were riding again before dawn.
Throughout much of the next day, the Confederates pounded forward beneath a merciless summer sun. There had been no rain for sometime. Soldiers toward the rear of the Confederate column could barely see because thick dust kicked up by the horses hung like a heavy cloud. Throats were parched and choked by the dirt. As one cavalryman wrote, "...The only water obtainable for man or beast was from small streams crossed, and this, churned up by thousands of hooves, was almost undrinkable."
By nightfall on June 10, Hampton located a lush valley where soldiers and horses rested in thick, cool grass. While the cavalry slept, Hampton collected reports from his scouts, studied maps, and plotted strategy. He learned from scouts that his force had managed just barely to race ahead of Sheridan's troops. Officers roused the Confederate soldiers before dawn without bugles. Silence and surprise were important to an outnumbered force. The men, as they stretched and yawned, heard the Union buglers nearby playing reveille. The camps were so close that a clash was inevitable. Voices were hushed as the Confederates saddled their horses and prepared to fight. Hampton assigned Butler's brigades to lead the first charge. Confederate forces advanced on two converging roads to meet Sheridan's Union column head on. South Carolina soldiers let out a yell and galloped straight at the Union cavalry, while Hampton dispatched dismounted troops to follow close behind them. They drove the Union forces back until the Federals were reinforced and stopped retreating. Both sides hammered at each other with bullets and artillery shells. Forward movement stopped, and the battle settled into a brutal standstill. Hampton sent the Cobb Legion from Georgia into the fight. Closing in behind them from the east was "Fitz" Lee's cavalry. The tide seemed to be swinging back in favor of the Confederates.
Then a courier, racing full speed, jolted to a stop at Hampton's side to deliver startling news. A major Union force was approaching from behind. At first, Hampton didn't believe the intelligence. How could this be happening? He had so carefully choreographed every move, considered every contingency. But reconnaissance proved the courier accurate. Union cavalry commanded by Custer had slipped in behind the Confederates at Trevilian Station and captured many of Hampton's support wagons and 800 of their horses belonging to troops now fighting dismounted.
Faced with disaster, Hampton fired off new orders. His troops withdrew from the battlefront, seemingly bowing to a stunning Union victory. In fact, the Confederates were about to tear into Custer's cavalry. Suddenly, Custer was being attacked on three sides. The Union troops fought furiously and managed to escape, but not without heavy losses. Hampton's men took back all the wagons and horses they had lost earlier in the day and captured Union vehicles as well, including Custer's headquarters wagon, filled with his papers and plans.
Sheridan broke off all attacks and didn't pursue the Confederates until the following afternoon, and by then, Hampton's forces had erected breastworks. Sheridan, who threw waves of dismounted troops at the Confederate barriers to no avail, withdrew. The Union suffered many killed and wounded, stinging Sheridan so badly that he dropped all plans for further movement west. With ammunition dwindling and rations depleted, he turned his force around and returned to Grant and the protection of the infantry. Neither side recorded a strict tally of the casualties in these battles near Trevilian Station, Virginia. Hampton probably lost about 1,000 men killed or wounded, according to historian Douglas Southall Freeman. No estimate of Sheridan's losses is available, although during the three months in which these battles occurred he suffered almost 5,000 killed or wounded.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1864, Hampton continued to win skirmishes and make shrewd decisions in the heat of battle. He even managed a raid in September that netted the Confederacy 2,000 badly needed cattle. Hampton's record prompted Lee to place him in charge of all of Lee's cavalry. Butler also took on greater responsibility, commanding Hampton's cavalry division.
On October 27, 1864, Union forces attempted to break the deadlock around Petersburg. Grant, determined to push the Confederates out of their trenches, ordered his infantry to advance against both the north and south flanks of Lee's lines. Confederate troops commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet quashed attacks on the left flank, north of the James River, while to the south near the Boydton Plank Road, Hampton's cavalry joined infantry units in repulsing the Union thrust.
Hampton had scored another victory, but at great cost. His son, Frank, fell wounded during the battle, and another son, Wade Hampton Jr., was shot rushing to help his brother. Hampton rode to his sons, arriving in time to see Frank die and Wade Hampton Jr., gasping for air. Hampton kissed his dying son good-bye and yelled to nearby soldiers to care for Wade. Then he had to ride away to continue directing his forces. Afterwards, Hampton reflected on the horror of those moments with his sons. He decreed that Wade Hampton Jr., who survived, would never again serve in a unit he commanded. "The agony of such a day, and the anxiety and the duties of the battlefield - it is all more than mere man can bear," he said. Nonetheless, Hampton continued to lead the cavalry effectively, inspiring loyalty in his men, though he lacked his predecessor Stuart's flamboyance. There was also another, more significant difference between the two. Observed a cavalryman, "'Jeb' would attempt any necessary task with whatever force he had at hand, and sometimes he seemed to have a delight in trying to discharge his mission with the smallest possible number of men; Hampton believed in superiority of force and exerted himself to concentrate all the men he could at the point of contact."
Hampton's fame grew even as the Confederacy's fortunes faded. Privately he agonized over the destruction he saw and yearned for hostilities to cease. As he wrote his sister, "We gain successes but after every fight there comes in to me an ominous paper, marked 'Casualties,' 'killed' and 'wounded.' Sad words which carry anguish to so many hearts. And we have scarcely time to bury the dead as we press on in the same deadly strife. I pray for peace. I would not give [up] peace for all the military glory won by Bonaparte...."