The Battle of Yellow Tavern was fought May 11, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).
In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Major General Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him overall command of Union forces. Coming east, he took the field with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac and commenced planning a campaign to destroy General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Working with Meade to reorganize the Army of the Potomac, Grant brought Major General Philip H. Sheridan east to head the army's Cavalry Corps.
Though short in stature, Sheridan was known as a skilled and aggressive commander. Moving south in early May, Grant engaged Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness. Inconclusive, Grant shifted south and continued the fight at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. During the early days of the campaign, Sheridan's troopers were largely employed in the traditional cavalry roles of screening and reconnaissance.
Frustrated by these limited uses, Sheridan bickered with Meade and argued to be allowed to mount a large-scale raid against the enemy rear and Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry. Pressing his case with Grant, Sheridan received permission to take his corps south despite some misgivings from Meade. Departing on May 9, Sheridan moved south with orders to defeat Stuart, disrupt Lee's supply lines, and threaten Richmond.
The largest cavalry force assembled in the East, his command numbered around 10,000 and was supported by 32 guns. Reaching the Confederate supply base at Beaver Dam Station that evening, Sheridan's men found that the much of the material there had been destroyed or evacuated. Paused overnight, they commenced disabling parts of the Virginia Central Railroad and freeing 400 Union prisoners before pressing south.
Armies & Commanders:
- Major General Philip H. Sheridan
- 10,000 men
- Major General J.E.B. Stuart
- 4,500 men
Alerted to the Union movements, Stuart detached Major General Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division from Lee's army at Spotsylvania and led it south to hamper Sheridan's movements. Arriving near Beaver Dam Station too late to take action, he pushed his tired men through the night of May 10/11 to reach the intersection of Telegraph and Mountain Roads near an abandoned inn known as Yellow Tavern.
Possessing around 4,500 men, he established a defensive position with Brigadier General Williams Wickham's brigade on the right west of the Telegraph Road facing south and Brigadier General Lunsford Lomax's brigade on the left parallel to the road and facing west. Around 11:00 AM, less than an hour after establishing these lines, the lead elements of Sheridan's corps appeared (Map).
A Desperate Defense
Led by Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, these forces quickly formed to strike Stuart's left. Consisting of the brigades of Brigadier General George A. Custer and Colonels Thomas Devin and Alfred Gibbs, Merritt's division quickly advanced and engaged Lomax's men. Pressing forward, troopers on the Union left suffered from flanking fire from Wickham's brigade.
As the fighting increased in intensity, Merritt's men began to slip around Lomax's left flank. With his position in jeopardy, Lomax ordered his men to retreat north. Met by Stuart, the brigade was reformed on Wickham's left and extended the Confederate line east by 2:00 PM. A two-hour lull in the fighting ensued as Sheridan brought up reinforcements and reconnoitered the new Confederate position.
Spying artillery in Stuart's lines, Sheridan directed Custer to attack and seize the guns. To accomplish this, Custer dismounted half of his men for an assault and ordered the remainder to conduct a wide sweep to the right in support. These efforts would be aided by the rest of Sheridan's command. Moving forward, Custer's men came under fire from Stuart's guns but continued their advance.
Breaking through Lomax's lines, Custer's troopers drove on the Confederate left. With the situation desperate, Stuart pulled the 1st Virginia Cavalry from Wickham's lines and charged forward to counterattack. Blunting Custer's assault, he then pushed the Union troopers back. As Union forces withdrew, former sharpshooter Private John A. Huff of the 5th Michigan Cavalry fired his pistol at Stuart.
Hitting the Stuart in the side, the Confederate leader slumped in his saddle as his famous plumed hat fell to the ground. Taken to the rear, command on the field passed to Fitzhugh Lee. As the wounded Stuart departed the field, Lee attempted to restore order to the Confederate lines.
Outnumbered and overpowered, he briefly held back Sheridan's men before retreating from the field. Taken to the Richmond home of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer, Stuart received a visit from President Jefferson Davis before slipping into a delirium and dying the next day. The loss of the flamboyant Stuart caused great sadness in the Confederacy and greatly pained Robert E. Lee.
Aftermath: of the Battle
In the fighting at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Sheridan sustained 625 casualties while Confederate losses are estimated at around 175 as well as 300 captured. Having upheld his pledge to defeat Stuart, Sheridan continued south after the battle and reached the northern defenses of Richmond that evening. Assessing the weakness of the lines around the Confederate capital, he concluded that though he could probably take the city, he lacked the resources to hold it. Instead, Sheridan wheeled his command east and crossed the Chickahominy River before proceeding to unite with Major General Benjamin Butler's forces at Haxall's Landing. Resting and refitting for four days, the Union cavalry then rode north to rejoin the Army of the Potomac.