By Andy Mateja

 

During Lt Gen Ulysses S Grants 1864 Spring Offensive to confront and defeat Gen Robt E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Petersburg Virginia was put at the top of the list of desirable Union “objectives”.

After suffering a stinging defeat at Cold Harbor, Grant swung the Army of the Potomac to the south of the Chickahominy and James Rivers to capture Petersburg while Lee’s army was still concentrated around Richmond. Grant however needed a diversion. By dispatching his cavalry westward toward the Shenandoah Valley, Grant surmised that he would draw Confederate cavalry after it, and perhaps do further damage to the Confederate supply lines being sent to Lee’s Army from the valley which was widely considered the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”.

The man Grant put in charge of this venture was none other than Maj Gen Phillip H Sheridan, who was always spoiling for a fight with the Confederate Cavalry. Since JEB Stuart was a casualty of the previous time he battled the Rebels (at Yellow Tavern in May), Sheridan was confident of success against the newly appointed Confederate Cavalry Leader: Wade Hampton.

Dividing the cavalry into two parts,  Sheridan left the smaller amount for cover Maj Gen George Meade’s Army of the Potomac while he proceeded with 2/3rd of it about 70 miles west of Cold Harbor to destroy as much of the Virginia Central Railroad in the area, including at Trevilian Station.

Sheridan began his move on June 7 with Confederates in mild pursuit and continued every day thereafter to inflict damage on the railroad, reaching the area around Trevilian Station around June 10th, only to be halted by the Confederate quick response and determination.

Confederate Cavalry Commander Wade Hampton was just like Phil Sheridan – eager for a fight with the opposing enemy. He was planning to box Sheridan in between Rebel cavalry forces but Sheridan struck first. When the fighting erupted the coordination between the Confederate forces was slow in occurring, which caused Hampton to slowly withdraw, thereby opening elements of the Virginia Central Railroad to further Union destruction.

The Michigan Brigade under Brig Gen George A. Custer led the attack only to be caught in a trap when the “absent” Confederate forces arrived on the field.  It appeared that Custer’s four regiments were about to be captured in total. Despite being personally wounded, Custer fought his men tenaciously out of the trap.

Unfortunately, Sheridan could not unite with Union forces in the valley that he intended to and his cavalry just continued to tear up lots of Virginia Central track. For the next few days Sheridan continued to demolish the train tracks while he attempted to move forward…… which regrettably for him, Hampton’s Confederate troopers were not willing to allow. Sheridan’s cavalry ultimately returned to their original starting point by backtracking across the North Anna River while leaving 113 wounded Union troopers and many Confederate prisoners behind.

Phillip Sheridan fulfilled his objective of providing a diversion for Grant for his move on Petersburg. However it wasn’t until June 20th (6 days later) when his cavalry finally reached the Union army’s partially abandoned supply line at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River.

The Union forces suffered about 600 casualties, which were quickly replaced….. whereas the Confederate cavalry losses were not. Sheridan DID however prevent Lee with a sufficient amount of rebel troops from blocking Grant’s advance from Cold Harbor to Petersburg in time.

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