ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac moved against Lee by the left flank in order to force him to abandon his trenches along Mine Run. Sheridan’s 10,000 cavalry was divided so that Gregg’s and Wilson’s divisions preceded the Second and Fifth Corps, while Torbert’s division, of which the Second Cavalry formed a part, remained in the rear of the army to protect the trains.
The regiment crossed the river at Ely’s Ford May 4, 1864, and moved toward Gordonsville. From now until the 7th it was guarding the trains as the army moved south. On this date the army advanced toward Spottsylvania Court House, while the trains moved to Piney Branch Church, which was found occupied by the enemy. The Reserve Brigade was placed on Spottsylvania Road and was supported on its left by Gregg’s division. After some severe fighting, especially in Merritt’s front, the Confederates gave way and were pursued nearly to Spottsylvania Court House.
After the regiment came in contact with the enemy May 8, it was found that he was in great strength. In the severe fighting which followed, the men exhausted their rifle ammunition without being able to renew the supply. From this time until relieved by the Fifth Corps about 8:00 a.m., they amused themselves by firing at the Rebels with their pistols.
After considerable protest as to the way Meade was using his cavalry, Sheridan was given permission to break loose from the army and defeat Stuart. After assembling at Aldrich’s, Sheridan started with the cavalry corps May 9 on the raid around Richmond. With 10,000 cavalrymen in a column thirteen miles long, he succeeded in passing around Lee’s army without being discovered. Sometime later in the day he was overtaken by Stuart’s cavalry, who attacked the rear guard which was Davies’ brigade. Refusing to stop the main body for this combat, Sheridan moved on across the Ny, Po, and Ta Rivers and encamped that night at Anderson’s Ford on the North Anna, with the Second Cavalry as a part of Merritt’s division on the south side of the river and the other two divisions on the north side. Soon after halting here Custer’s brigade was detached to the railroad a short distance ahead and proceeded to tear up that line for several miles, destroyed an enormous amount of property, and released 375 Union prisoners.
At daybreak on the 10th the enemy began shelling the troops in camp, while the Second and Third Divisions crossed the river. They were protected from the south by Merritt’s Division, which had crossed the evening before. This command in turn became the rear guard for the day. When the Confederates attacked the rear again on the 10th, they used the same tactics as the day before. As the Second Cavalry was in Merritt’s force, it took part in a spirited affair at Beaver Dam Station. Since the commander knew that Sheridan intended to push on, he soon broke off this affair and continued with the main column. Later Stuart detached Fitzhugh Lee’s division from the Confederate cavalry, and by a forced march reached a point in front of the Union Cavalry on the road to Richmond. Sheridan continued his march to the South Anna where he went into camp at Ground Squirrel bridge. He sent out Davies’ brigade that evening to destroy the railroad for several miles near Ashland Station.
The morning of the 11th was inaugurated by an artillery bombardment by the Confederates. Sheridan pushed on south until he arrived at the Glenn Allen station on the Fredericksburg railroad, where he destroyed several miles of track. At this time word came that the Confederate cavalry was concentrated at Yellow Tavern between Sheridan’s force and Richmond. The Second Cavalry, as a part of the Reserve Brigade under Colonel Gibbs, met the enemy first near the intersection of the Telegraph road and the Brook turnpike, six miles from Richmond. They dismounted, sent their horses to the rear, and attacked in a most gallant manner. The Second Brigade of this division soon was placed on the right and the combined attack caused Merritt to gain possession of the Brook road leading to Richmond. The Confederates were dismounted behind temporary breastworks on partly wooded hills and the line threatened Sheridan’s flank if he advanced. In this attack the Confederates fought with desperation, until in one regiment, the Fifth Virginia, only three officers were not killed or wounded. The First Brigade of the division under Custer came up and took position on the left of the Reserve Brigade. Merritt ordered them to drive the enemy from the woods on the bluff, which they did most gallantly. Custer then made a mounted charge against the enemy artillery which was unsuccessful. It was during this charge that the General J. E. B. Stuart of the Confederate force, while rallying his men, received his mortal wound.
Meantime, Gregg’s division had been engaged all day with Gordon’s brigade during the time the former was destroying the railroad toward Ground Squirrel bridge. As Gregg withdrew in the direction of Yellow Tavern, his force was soon united with Sheridan, which left Gordon fighting the rear of the Union force. The Federals finally, in a spirited charge, defeated Gordon’s brigade, driving it to the rear, and during this last attack the Confederate commander was killed. Gibbs’ (which included the Second) and Devin’s brigades now forced the enemy’s right and center and the battle was won. The road was now open to Richmond.
After making arrangements concerning the prisoners and wounded, Sheridan moved through the outer defenses of Richmond about midnight. Instead of attacking the city, he turned to the left and took the Mechanicsville road with the intention of supporting Butler, who was supposed to be coming up the James River from the south end of the peninsula. At daylight of the 12th the Confederates attacked from the inner works of the city only a short distance away and this made it impossible for the Federals to follow the Chickahominy River on the south side. At this juncture Sheridan decided to cross the river to the north side on the Meadow bridge. He sent Merritt’s division to the rear to repair the bridge, but it was found that Fitzhugh Lee’s division was already on the north side of the river to dispute the crossing. While Merritt’s men, including the Second Cavalry, were busily engaged in repair work in the face of great difficulties, the Confederates came out from Richmond and attacked the other two divisions. Sheridan was undoubtedly in a precarious position at this time, but soon the First Division forced a crossing below and drove back the Confederates far enough to permit the men to work on the bridge. It was soon repaired and they began to cross, driving the Rebels before them. It was a well-laid plan to destroy the Union force between the bridge and the defenses of Richmond, but it failed because of the good judgment of Sheridan and the cool conduct of the men.
The command now moved to Mechanicsville unmolested by the enemy. After leaving this place, the Reserve Brigade was attacked vigorously by the Confederate cavalry but the attack was repulsed and the whole force camped for the night at Gaine’s Mill. In the fighting since the 11th the corps lost four officers killed and 167 men killed, wounded, or missing. On the 14th the command reached a point opposite Bermuda Hundred, where were General Butler and his headquarters, and went into camp.
On the evening of May 17 Sheridan broke camp and after an all-night march reached Jones’ Bridge on the route back to Grant’s army. He rested here two hours and pushed on during the 18th to Baltimore Cross Roads, where he encamped. Gregg and Wilson were sent with the Second and Third Divisions to Cold Harbor to demonstrate toward Richmond. Custer’s brigade was sent to Hanover Court House to destroy the railroad. Merritt’s division was set to work repairing the bridge over the Pamunkey at White House. With only local materials available the First Division worked on the bridge for nearly twenty-four hours. The division crossed the Pamunkey on the evening of the 22nd and the other two divisions, having returned, crossed the next morning. Marching up the Mattapony River until the 24th, Sheridan received word that the main army was at Chesterfield Station. The next day he made contact with it and went into camp at Polecat Creek.
This raid demonstrated the self-reliance of the cavalry in the enemy’s country. A large mounted force operated in rear of Lee’s army, greatly hampering its efficient functioning, destroying railroads and millions of dollars’ worth of property. In addition, the Confederate cavalry was eliminated to a large extent as an important factor in the war. The casualties were comparatively small, being 625 altogether.