June 11-12, 1864
The Battle of Trevilian Station was the largest all-cavalry battle
of the Civil War. In June 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered
Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to make a raid along the Virginia
Central Railroad, destroy the road at the crucial junction town of
Gordonsville, and then march to Charlottesville, destroy the supply
depot there, and rendezvous with the army of Maj. Gen. David Hunter.
The combined force would then march east, where it would join the
Army of the Potomac at Petersburg.
Sheridan marched on June 7, taking two divisions of cavalry and four
batteries of horse artillery, about 9,000 men. Maj. Gen. Wade
Hampton, leading two divisions of Confederate cavalry pursued the
next day, and by utilizing shorter, interior routes of march,
Hampton, along with the division of Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, got
across Sheridan's route of march at Trevilian Station, a stop on the
Virginia Central six miles west of Louisa and six miles southeast of
Gordonsville, on June 10.
The battle, ranging over
7,000 acres, raged for two days.
In order to capture Petersburg the
Union army had to cross to the south side of the James River in the face
of General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army. To draw off Lee's cavalry
and thus blind the Confederate commander as to his intentions, Grant
sent General Philip Sheridan and two divisions of cavalry on a
diversionary raid toward Charlottesville. Sheridan had orders to tear up
as much of the Virginia Central Virginia Railroad as came within his
grasp, then push on to Charlottesville and unite with Hunter. Together,
the two men would advance on Richmond from the west, while Grant
enveloped the city from the south.
Sheridan left the Army of the Potomac
on June 7th and headed west up the North Anna River toward Trevilian
Station, a stop on the Virginia Central Railroad. He took with him the
mounted divisions of Generals Alfred Torbert and David M. Gregg,
totaling 8,000 men, 24 guns, and 125 wagons.
Lee sent the cavalry divisions of
Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee in pursuit of Sheridan on June
9th. Hampton had overall command of the 5000-man force. Traveling by a
shorter route than that used by Sheridan, Hampton reached the Trevilian
area on June 10, one day ahead of the Union column. Fitz Lee bivouacked
at Louisa Court House, a few miles east of Trevilian. Rather than take a
defensive position, Hampton planned to attack the Federals at their
camp, located at Clayton's Store. Two roads ran from Clayton's Store to
the railroad: one struck the railroad at Trevilian Station, the other at
Louisa Court House. Thick woods lay between them. Hampton took the first
road, and Fitzhugh Lee the second.
Early on June 11th, Hampton engaged
portions of Alfred Torbert's division and in stubborn dismounted
fighting pushed him back up the Trevilian Station Road toward Clayton's
Store. At the same time, Fitz Lee encountered General George A. Custer's
brigade on the Louisa Court House road, a few miles to the east. Lee
fell back after establishing contact with Custer, creating a dangerous
gap between himself and Hampton. Custer exploited this gap and captured
Hampton's wagon train, 800 horses, and three caissons parked behind the
CWT Battlefield Maps
Map of Day One Action (Courtesy of CWT)
When Hampton learned that Custer had gained his rear, he acted decisively, ordering General Thomas Rosser's brigade to attack Custer. Rosser's swift and powerful charge sent the Union horsemen reeling. Other Confederate brigades joined the attack, compelling Custer to relinquish his spoils and take up a defensive position around Trevilian Station. To the young general, it seemed as though the forces of Hampton and Lee had surrounded him, which indeed they had. He later wrote that "From the
nature of the ground and the character of the attacks that were made upon me our lines very nearly resembled a circle."
This later came to be known as 'Custer's First Last Stand'. To relieve Custer's hard-pressed brigade, Sheridan attacked Hampton, compelling the Confederate general to retreat to a point several miles west of Trevilian Station. Fitz Lee meanwhile fell back to the east, to Louisa Court House.
the original painting by Mort Künstler, “Charge at Trevilian Station”. ©1997 Mort
The first day battle belonged to the Union, but not the second. During the night of the 11th, Hampton posted his division in an angled line covering the railroad west of Trevilian.
The railroad embankment covered his left flank, while open ground in front of his position offered an excellent field of fire. Fitz Lee joined Hampton by noon the next day, reinforcing his right flank.
Map of Day Two Action (Courtesy of CWT)
Sheridan spent the morning on June 12 destroying some five miles of the railroad track. Only then did he move out to attack Hampton's strong position west of the station. Time and again the dismounted Federals charged the Confederate line only to be repulsed. Federal soldiers took to calling Hampton's position their own "Bloody Angle," in reference to the recent battle at Spotsylvania Battlefield Court House. However, Hampton's situation was becoming critical. His ammunition was nearly exhausted, Union artillery raked portions of his line, and Union sharpshooters picked off officers and enlisted men from the vantage point of a barn situated near the front. However, the Confederate persevered. By late afternoon additional ammunition reached the front. At the same time, Confederate artillery silenced the offending Federal battery and set fire to the barn that housed the annoying sharpshooters. An attack by Fitzhugh Lee against Sheridan's right flank late in the day brought the battle to a close.
General Hampton reported :
"At 3:30 p.m. (12th) a heavy attack was made on my left, where Butler's brigade was posted.
Being repulsed, the enemy made a succession of determined assaults, which were all handsomely repulsed. In the meantime General Lee had, by my direction, reenforced my left with Wickham's brigade, while he took Lomax's across to the Gordonsville road as to strike the enemy on his right flank. This movement was successful, and the enemy, who had been heavily punished in front, when attacked on his flank fell back in confusion. I immediately gave orders to follow him up, but it was daylight before these orders could be carried out, the fight not having ended until 10 p.m."
General Sheridan reported this day's fight as:
"by far the most brilliant one of the present campaign. The enemy's loss was very heavy.
My loss in killed and wounded will be about 575. Of this number 490 were wounded. I brought off in my ambulances 377 - all that could be transported. The remainder were, with a number of the rebel wounded that fell into my hands, left behind. surgeon and attendants were detailed and remained in charge of them. I captured and have now with me 370 prisoners of war, including 20 commissioned officer. My loss in captured will not exceed 150."
At 10 p.m. Sheridan broke off the fight and returned to the Army of the Potomac, having failed to unite with Hunter or to inflict any permanent damage to the railroad. Sheridan lost 735 men in the two-day battle; Confederate losses, though not precisely known, probably numbered near 1,000.