On May 9, 1864, Sheridan gathered his entire corps of 10,000 horsemen and directed them from Spotsylvania Court House due south on the Telegraph Road toward Richmond. The column, including thirty pieces of artillery, stretched for thirteen miles. Confident in his ability to defeat Stuart, Sheridan made no attempt to veil his movements, and the Confederate cavalry—numbering only about 4,500 men—was soon in hot pursuit.
Stuart placed his two brigades, under the commanders Lunsford L. Lomax and Williams C. Wickham, in a "Y" formation along the intersection of the two roads. Wickham and his 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Virginia regiments took up position on a ridge perpendicular to the Telegraph Road, while Lomax's 5th, 6th, and 15th Virginia regiments sat parallel to it. By eleven o'clock, Sheridan's troops appeared in fields to the southwest. They were ready to fight and fully armed with rapid-firing, seven-shot Spencer carbines.
On the Confederate left, Lomax's men engaged the Union brigades of Thomas C. Devin, Alfred Gibbs, and George A. Custer, and after intense fighting were driven back to the same ridge line occupied by Wickham. There, Lomax reoriented his men to lengthen the Confederate line to the east. A midday lull in the fighting provided Stuart with the opportunity to hear from Confederate general Braxton Bragg that the Richmond defenses were in order and that reinforcements were on the way. But before they could arrive, Sheridan renewed his attack. His men, both mounted and dismounted, charged amid the roar of a sudden thunderstorm. Custer's men aimed for the center of the Confederate line and the position of the Baltimore Light Artillery.
Confederates on all sections of the line noted Stuart's sudden appearances at the front throughout the day. As Stuart made his way toward the Baltimore Light Artillery a little after four, Union troops charged across Turner's Run—a stream that bisected and ran perpendicular to the Telegraph Road—and up the ridge to the Confederate position. Witnessing the devastating break in his line, Stuart immediately galloped to the position of his old command, the 1st Virginia Cavalry. His presence helped stabilize the line, driving the Union troops back.
One of the soldiers driven away was Private John A. Huff of the 5th Michigan Cavalry. Formerly a member of one of Hiram Berdan's famed sharpshooters' regiments, Huff took aim and fired a single shot at the mounted cavalier, inflicting a mortal wound to Stuart's side. Fitzhugh Lee took command of the field, but Stuart continued to shout orders. The sight of some retreating Confederates left him outraged: "Go back! Go back!" he yelled to them, "I had rather die than be whipped!"
Within the hour, the vastly outnumbered and rain-soaked Confederate cavalrymen fell back toward the Chickahominy River.
With the Confederate cavalry in retreat, Sheridan's troops moved south to Richmond. They were tempted to storm the city that same evening, but Sheridan thought better of it and instead marched around Richmond and joined Benjamin Butler's Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. By the end of the month, and just in time to participate in the slaughter at Cold Harbor, he would rejoin Grant.
Meanwhile, the mortally wounded Stuart was taken from Yellow Tavern to a relative's home in Richmond, where he slowly succumbed to his wounds. He died at seven thirty on the evening of May 12. On August 11, Confederate general Wade Hampton assumed command of the Confederate cavalry corps. Though Hampton competently led the horsemen in the war's final year, the Army of Northern Virginia had lost its finest cavalryman. Robert E. Lee later remarked, "I can scarcely think of him without weeping."
May 11, 1864, 2:00 p.m. - H. B. (Henry Brainerd) McClellan, an aide to J. E. B. Stuart, returns from Richmond to the Yellow Tavern battlefield with news that the capital city's defenses are in order and reinforcements are on the way. Before they can arrive, however, Union general Philip H. Sheridan renews his attack.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Herrmann, A. E. The Battle of Yellow Tavern. (2011, April 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Yellow_Tavern_Battle_of.
- MLA Citation:
Herrmann, Allison E. "The Battle of Yellow Tavern." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 25, 2010 | Last modified: April 12, 2011