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Sheridans Raid on Richmond
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Raids
Philip Sheridan had failed to follow orders and Major General George Meade was not happy about it. After Sheridan's men cleared Confederate cavalry on the Union left at the battle of Todd's Tavern, Meade charged that Sheridan's men "...had impeded the march of the Fifth Corps by occupying the Spotsylvania road."
This triggered a shouting match between the two generals on the morning of May 8, 1864, with Sheridan charging that Meade did not understand cavalry. During the tirade, Sheridan also said, "I could whip Stuart if you (Meade) would only let me." Following this exchange, Sheridan proceeded to Ulysses S. Grant to tell him of the incident, carefully including the statement about Stuart. Grant reacted as Sheridan knew he would, going to Meade and asking "Did he say (he could whip Stuart)? Then let him go out and do it." It did not take Meade long to issue the following order:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
May 8th, 1864 1 P. M.
Commanding Cavalry Corps.
The major-general commanding directs you to immediately concentrate your available mounted force, and with your ammunition trains and such supply trains as are filled (exclusive of ambulances) proceed against the enemy's cavalry, and when your supplies are exhausted, proceed via New Market and Green Bay to Haxall's Landing on the James River, there communicating with General Butler, procuring supplies and return to this army. Your dismounted men will be left with the train here.
A. A. HUMPHREYS,
The advance towards Richmond, Virginia began the following day, May 9, 1864. Sheridan wanted to demonstrate his command of non-traditional cavalry tactics developed by Jeb Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but the well-supplied force, armed with breechloading Spencer Carbines and outnumbering the Confederate cavalry 2-to-1, failed to pull off the impressive coup that Sheridan had hoped for in spite of mortally wounding Stuart at the battle of Yellow Tavern.
The effect of this advance was almost immediately felt by the Army of Northern Virginia. Leaving on the Plank Road, then turning south at Telegraph Road, Sheridan stumbled on Lee's advance supply base at Beaver Dam on the evening of May 9. On the Virginia Central Railroad, Beaver Dam seemed as though it would be well-protected, but neither Lee or Stuart expected the Union cavalry to make this kind of advance.
There is significant differences in the Union and Confederate versions of what happened at the Beaver Dam depot, with General George Armstrong Custer claiming he "...destroyed the station, two locomotives, three trains of cars, ninety wagons, from eight to ten miles of railroad and telegraph lines, some two hundred thousand pounds of bacon and other supplies, amounting in all to about a million and a half of rations, and nearly all the medical stores of General Lee's army..." while Confederate guards claim to have set the rations on fire as ordered if a superior Union force appeared. Confederates did not list the medical supplies.
Over the next 16 days Sheridan fought battles at Yellow Tavern, Mattapony Church, Jones' Bridge, Haxall's, White House Landing and Hanover Court House. Marching in a column reported to be 13 miles long, Sheridan knew Stuart was behind him, hoping to find a way to defeat this massive army. Stuart reasoned that if Sheridan was advancing on Richmond, the garrison at the Confederate capital could hold his advance while Stuart attacked his rear echelons and if Sheridan was just looking to destroy infrastructure, he could try to prevent their return to Union lines. Sheridan's raid brought Stuart close to home, so the Confederate general took some time to visit his wife. Returning to his men, Stuart confided in his assistant that he did not want to survive the war if the South were conquered.
On May 11 Stuart received a report that Sheridan had crossed the South Anna River, putting him less that 20 miles north of Richmond. Advancing around his flank, Stuart decided to concentrate his forces at Yellow Tavern, some 11 miles north of Richmond, in advance of the lead units of Sheridan's column. After a brief skirmish that saw the Confederates drive off some bluecoats, a Union straggler pulled a pistol and shot Stuart. The struggle around Yellow Tavern continued as Stuart was whisked away to Richmond in an ambulance. President Jefferson Davis visited before the cavalry officer died the next day.
Meanwhile, at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan's advance was slowed by Stuart's men, giving the garrison at Richmond time to prepare additional defenses. General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the city defenses had not only Phil Sheridan to worry about, but Ben Butler as well. Sheridan's goal was to cross the James and join up with Butler's force, which he accomplished on May 14. After three days of resupplying, caring for his wounded, and leaving Confederate prisoners, Sheridan began the return to the Army of the Potomac.
One major problem facing Sheridan on the return trip was finding the Army of the Potomac. A second problem was the destruction that he had brought upon the land. With many railroad and pedestrian bridges out of commission, Sheridan's raiders did not have the ability to cross rivers. At one point Sheridan's men were forced to rebuild a bridge they had destroyed the week before, just to return to their lines. On May 24 the Union cavalry returned to the main force, meeting General Meade at Chesterfield Station.
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Sheridans Raid on Richmond was last changed on - May 19, 2007
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