General George Custer’s Report on His Brigade’s Action at the Battle of Yellow Tavern
On May 8th, 1864, shortly after the Overland Campaign began, Major General Phillip Sheridan, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps commander, took the 10,000 men of his three divisions on a raid against the Army of Northern Virginia’s communications. Sheridan wanted to fight General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, and he convinced Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to give him the opportunity to do so. Stuart sent part of his cavalry after Sheridan, (leaving the rest of his command to cover the Army of Northern Virginia’s flanks) hoping to stop the Federals from crossing the North Anna River. But Sheridan arrived at the river crossing first, and his horsemen were across the North Anna by May 10th. They destroyed a supply depot at Beaver Dam station, wrecked railroad cars, and ripped up some railroad tracks.
In order to keep Sheridan from striking Richmond, Stuart’s cavalrymen made a dash for a crossroads about six miles north of the Confederate capitol called Yellow Tavern, reaching that point about 10:00 a.m. May 11th. Stuart’s cavalry was now between Richmond and the advancing Union cavalry, and the Confederate general, though outnumbered, decided to take a stand. At about 4:00 p.m., Sheridan attacked Stuart’s position. With a 2-1 numerical superiority, Sheridan’s attack defeated the Confederates, and in the process, Stuart was mortally wounded.
One of Sheridan’s brigade commanders was Brigadier General George A. Custer. Custer was in charge of an all Michigan brigade consisting of the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th Michigan Cavalry Regiments. Like his commander, Custer was an aggressive fighter. His brigade was heavily engaged at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, playing a key role in the victory. One of Custer’s cavarlymen is credited with mortally wounding Stuart. Here’s Custer’s Official Report on his brigade’s actions in the opening stages of the Overland Campaign and the Battle of Yellow Tavern.
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., FIRST DIV., CAVALRY CORPS,
July 4, 1864.
SIR: In obedience to the instructions of the general commanding the division I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of this brigade, from May 4 to 25, 1864:
On the 4th of May this command left camp near Culpeper and marched to Stony Mountain, where it encamped during the night, picketing from the mountain to the Rapidan. At 3 o’clock on the following morning the march was resumed in the direction of Germanna Ford. The point of crossing was afterward changed to Ely’s Ford, from which point we moved to Chancellorsville, and encamped about 1 mile beyond on the Fredericksburg plank road. At 2 o’clock on the morning of the 6th the brigade moved by the Furnace road to its intersection with the Brock pike, taking a position to hold the intersection. Communication was also opened with General Gregg’s division, which was then at Todd’s Tavern. While in position at the cross-roads an order was received from the division commander directing me to take the First and Second Brigades and move out on the Brock pike for the purpose of harassing Longstreet’s corps, which was reported to be moving on Hancock’s left flank. Before this order could be executed by pickets on the Brock pike, under Captain Maxwell, First Michigan, were driven in, and a large force of the enemy’s cavalry appeared on my front. Most of my command was concealed by the woods, only the pickets and reserves being visible to the enemy. This fact induced the enemy to charge, but the First Michigan, under Lieutenant-Colonel Stagg, charged his advancing column and repulsed him handsomely, killing and wounding a large number of the enemy. My entire line was then thrown forward and advantageously posted in a ravine fronting an extended open country. The enemy made repeated and desperate attempts to drive me from this position, but was defeated each time with heavy loss. Failing to dislodge me by attacking my front he moved a heavy force of dismounted men through the woods on my right, intending to turn my right flank and gain possession of the Furnace road in my rear. Discovering this movement, I sent the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, Colonel Alger commanding, and the Sixth Michigan Cavalry, Major Kidd commanding, to check the advance of the enemy, and if possible to drive him to the open country beyond. About this time Colonel Devin reported to me with the Second Brigade. A section of artillery sent to me by General Gregg also arrived. Eight guns were placed in a favorable position for silencing the guns of the enemy. I directed Colonel Devin to support the battery placed in position with one of his regiments. The Seventeenth Pennsylvania was sent dismounted into the woods on my right to re-enforce the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry, which at this time was hard pressed by the enemy. With the remaining portion of his command Colonel Devin was instructed to protect and hold the left flank. When these dispositions were completed, I ordered the battery of eight guns to fire as rapidly as they could be loaded and aimed, while the three regiments dismounted on my right were ordered to advance. Captain Maxwell, with one squadron of the First Michigan Cavalry, charged the enemy in front. The enemy, after contesting the ground obstinately, was driven from the field in great disorder, leaving his dead and many of his wounded upon the ground. We also captured a considerable number of prisoners, who informed us that we had been engaged with Fitzhugh Lee’s division of cavalry. Orders having been received not to pursue the enemy beyond this point, we remained on the field until near night, establishing communication in the meanwhile with the left of the Second Corps. Just before dark I received orders to withdraw my command and encamp near the Furnace.
On the morning of the 7th we reoccupied the ground we held the day before. Upon arriving at the intersection of the Furnace road and Brock pike, the First Michigan was thrown forward to hold the road leading to Todd’s Tavern. The enemy was encountered in heavy force about three-fourths of a mile beyond the cross-roads. A portion of the First Michigan was dismounted and advanced through the woods on both sides of the road, while the remainder of the regiment, under Captain Brevoort, moved up the road mounted. After a short but severe engagement the enemy were driven back to Todd’s Tavern, which point was soon after occupied by our forces, under General Gregg, whose right flank connected with my left. But little fighting occurred on my front during the remainder of that day.
On the 8th we moved from Todd’s Tavern to Silver’s, a point on the Fredericksburg plank road, where the entire corps was massed. At daylight on the morning of the 9th the corps started on the Richmond raid, this brigade being in the advance. After a short halt at Chilesburg, where this division was massed, we moved on the road leading to Beaver Dam Station, on the Virginia Central Railroad. Just before reaching the North Anna River the advance guard reported a train of the enemy’s ambulances to be in sight. Major Brewer, of the First Michigan Cavalry, with one battalion of his regiment, was ordered to push forward and capture them, after which he was to move rapidly upon Beaver Dam Station, the remainder of the brigade to follow closely in support. Before reaching the station the advance encountered a considerable force of the enemy, conducting upward of 400 Union prisoners to Richmond. Major Brewer gallantly charged the enemy, and succeeded in recapturing all our men and quite a number of their captors. Among the recaptured men of our army was 1 colonel, 2 lieutenant-colonels, and a considerable number of captains and lieutenants, all belonging to infantry regiments, and had been captured during the battles of the Wilderness. Pressing on, we obtained possession of Beaver Dam Station, where we captured three trains and two first-class locomotives. The trains were heavily laden with supplies for the army. In addition, we captured an immense amount of army supplies, consisting of bacon, flour, meal, sugar, molasses, liquors, and medical stores; also several hundred stand of arms, a large number of hospital tents, the whole amounting to several millions of dollars’ worth. After supplying my command with all the rations they could transport, I caused the remainder to be burnt. I also caused the railroad track to be destroyed for a considerable distance. The enemy made frequent attempts during the night to drive me from the station, but were unsuccessful. On the following day this command moved with the corps to the south bank of the South Anna, crossing at Ground Squirrel Bridge.
On the 11th the enemy’s cavalry, under Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, was met at Yellow Tavern, near the intersection of the Telegraph road with the Brook pike. The Second and Reserve Brigades were first engaged. Afterward this brigade was thrown in on the left of the Reserve Brigade, connecting on my left with the right of the Third Division. The enemy was strongly posted on a bluff in rear of a thin skirt of woods, his battery being concealed from our view by the woods, while they had obtained perfect range of my position. The edge of the woods nearest to my front was held by the enemy’s dismounted men, who poured a heavy fire into my lines until the Fifth and Sixth Michigan were ordered to dismount and drive the enemy from his position, which they did in the most gallant manner, led by Colonel Alger, of the Fifth, and Major Kidd, of the Sixth. Upon reaching the woods I directed Colonel Alger to establish the Fifth and Sixth upon a line near the skirts of the wood and hold his position until further orders. From a personal examination of the ground, I discovered that a successful charge might be made upon the battery of the enemy by keeping well to the right. With this intention I formed the First Michigan Cavalry in column of squadrons under cover of the wood. At the same time I directed Colonel Alger and Major Kidd to move the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry forward and occupy the attention of the enemy on the left, Heaton’s battery to engage them in front, while the First charged the battery on the flank. The bugle sounded the advance and the three regiments moved forward. As soon as the First Michigan moved from the cover of the woods the enemy divined our intention and opened a brisk fire from his artillery with shell and canister. Before the battery of the enemy could be reached there were five fences to be opened and a bridge to cross, over which it was impossible to pass more than 3 at one time, the intervening ground being within close range of the enemy’s battery. Yet, notwithstanding these obstacles, the First Michigan, Lieutenant-Colonel Stagg commanding, advanced boldly to the charge, and when within 200 yards of the battery, charged it with a yell which spread terror before them. Two pieces of cannon, two limbers, filled with ammunition, and a large number of prisoners were among the results of this charge.
While it is impossible to mention the names of all the officers of the First Michigan Cavalry who distinguished themselves by their gallantry in this charge, I cannot forbear from referring specially to the conduct of Major Howrigan, of this regiment, whose bravery on this occasion rendered him conspicuous. He was the first to reach the rebel battery, and doing so received a wound on the arm. Lieutenant-Colonel Stagg, who commanded the First Michigan in the charge, deserves, with the officers and men of his command, great credit for the daring manner in which the rebel battery was taken. The assistance of the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry, by engaging the attention of the enemy in front, was also most important. After the enemy was driven across a deep ravine, about a quarter of a mile beyond the position held by his battery, he rallied and reformed his forces and resisted successfully the farther advance of the First Michigan. The Seventh Michigan, commanded by Major Granger, was ordered forward at a trot, and when near the enemy’s position was ordered to charge with drawn sabers. Major Granger, like a true soldier, placed himself at the head of his men and led them bravely up to the very muzzles of the enemy’s guns, but notwithstanding the heroic efforts of this gallant officer, the enemy held their position, and the Seventh Michigan was compelled to retire, but not until the chivalric Granger had fallen, pierced through the head and heart by the bullets of the enemy. He fell as the warrior loves to fall, with his face to the foe. The united efforts of the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Michigan, assisted by Heaton’s battery, and the First Vermont, under the gallant Colonel Preston, proved sufficient, after a close contest, to rout the enemy and drive him from his position. His defeat was complete. He fled, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands. Among the dead was found the body of the notorious Col. Henry Clay Pate. From facts obtained on the battle-field and from information derived since, I have every reason to believe that the rebel General J. E. B. Stuart received his death wound from the hands of Private John A. Huff, Company E, Fifth Michigan Cavalry, who has since died from a wound received at Haw’s Shop.
After the enemy had been driven across the upper Chickahominy this command remained upon the battle-ground until after midnight, when it moved in rear of the other portions of the command toward Meadow Bridge by way of the Brook pike. On arriving near the bridge, this brigade was ordered by the major-general commanding the corps to take the advance and open the way across the Chickahominy at this point. The enemy, after destroying the bridge, had taken a very strong position upon the opposite side, from which they commanded the bridge and its approaches by artillery, infantry, and dismounted cavalry. The Fifth Michigan, under Colonel Alger, was dismounted and crossed the river on the railroad bridge a short distance below. The Sixth Michigan, under Major Kidd, also crossed the same bridge dismounted. These two regiments advanced far enough to protect the pioneers while building the bridge. This being done, the Seventh Michigan, two regiments from Colonel Devin’s brigade, and two regiments from General Merritt’s brigade crossed the bridge to the support of the Fifth and Sixth. The enemy had improved the natural strength of their position by heavy breast-works. After a hard contest, from which we suffered severely, the enemy were driven from his position, leaving his dead and wounded in our hands. His retreat was so rapid that pursuit by dismounted men was impossible, and the First Michigan, supported by two regiments of the Reserve Brigade, commanded by Colonel Gibbs, were sent forward and drove the enemy for 2 miles, returning with many prisoners. In this engagement the enemy lost heavily in officers, among others General Gordon, mortally wounded. From this point the entire command moved to Gaines’ Mill, this brigade being in advance, where the entire command encamped for the night.
The following morning, May 13, we marched to Bottom’s Bridge and encamped. May 14, arrived at Malvern Hill, and opened communication with General Butler’s forces. May 17, about dark, started on our return to the army. May 18, crossed the Chickahominy at Jones’ Bridge, and about 2 p.m. reached Baltimore Cross-Roads, where we encamped until the 20th, when this brigade was detached from the corps for the purpose of destroying the Richmond and Fredericksburg and Virginia Central Railroads at their crossing of the North Anna. On the evening of the same day reached Hanover Court-House, where we burned two trestle bridges over Hanover Creek, and destroyed about 1 mile of the railroad at that place, capturing some commissary stores at the station. Not deeming it advisable to encamp at that point, we moved back to Hanovertown. The next morning returned to Hanover Court-House, where we ascertained that a brigade of rebel cavalry had occupied the town that night, and had retired in the direction of Hanover Junction. A heavy force of the enemy, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was also reported at the railroad bridge over the South Anna. Leaving the Sixth and Seventh to hold the cross-roads at Hanover Court-House, the First and Fifth were ordered to move in the direction of the South Anna and ascertain the strength and position of the enemy. They had not proceeded beyond 2 miles, when the enemy was discerned in strong force in front, while a heavy column of his was reported to be moving on our left flank. Not desiring to bring on an engagement at this point, and having accomplished the main object of the expedition, the command was withdrawn, and rejoined the division the following day at White House, where we crossed the Pamunkey about dark, and encamped about 1 mile from the river. May 23, marched to Herring Creek, and encamped about 2 miles from Dunkirk. The following day marched to near Milford Station. May 25, we rejoined the army.
G. A. CUSTER,
Capt. A. E. DANA,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., First Division, Cavalry Corps.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. XXXVI, Part 1.
Though the Confederates were defeated at Yellow Tavern, they did buy time for additional troops to arrive and reinforce Richmond, and Sheridan did not attack the city. The death of Stuart was a major blow to the Confederate leadership, and the elimination of the Army of Northern Virginia’s top cavalry general was the most important accomplishment of the raid for the Union side. As Custer reported, Private John A. Huff of the 5th Michigan Cavalry is believed to have been the soldier who shot Stuart. The general died in Richmond on May 12th. Huff was a 48 year old former member of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, elite units of top marksman, before he joined the Cavalry. He only outlived Stuart by a couple of weeks and was killed at the Battle of Haw’s Shop on May 28th.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
by James McPherson
Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War by J.H. Kidd
Staff Ride Handbook for the Overland Campaign by Curtis S. King, William Glenn Robertson, and Steven E. Clay
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