Battle of Trevilian Station, June 1864
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"A campaign within a campaign" was how Colonel James Falkner described these events, in his talk at the meeting at the National Army Museum on 2 October 1999.
During the Overland Campaign, Grant's master plan prior to the siege of Petersburg was to tie up all of the enemy's armies. Grant had Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley and Butler east of Richmond. For his part, Grant with his Army of the Potomac, progressed from the Wilderness, past Spotsylvania. Held up at the North Anna, Grant was faced with the choice of either having to move west towards Piedmont or east towards Cold Harbor. He chose the latter.
After his repulse at Cold Harbor, Grant was, in Col. Falkner's opinion, off balance. He nevertheless got across the James River efficiently. Of vital importance to his opponent Lee, was the Virginia Central Railroad, since it linked Lynchburg and Shenandoah Valley.
Grant, who wanted Sigel's successor Hunter to envelop Richmond from the west, ordered part of Sheridan's cavalry to link up with Hunter and to tear up the vital railroad.
Sheridan's cavalry corps, under Talbot and Gregg, set off on 7 June. Lee ordered Wade Hampton to counter Sheridan's cavalry, so as to save the railroad. Following 'Jeb' Stuart's death, Wade Hampton was then made de facto Cavalry Corps Commander by General Lee.
Sheridan's troops moved west, and by the night of 10 June, having crossed the North Anna, were in close proximity to Wade Hampton at Trevilian Station. Sheridan had about 8,000 men; Wade Hampton had about 5,000.What followed was an encounter battle.
Wade Hampton pushed two brigades north along the Clayton - Trevilian Station Road. Heavy fighting in woods produced conflicting reports. While George Armstrong Custer slipped his brigade between two Confederate divisions, Gregg was making no headway against Fitzhugh Lee who had been slow in getting into position.
Tom Rosser's brigade, in reserve, was then sent to Trevilian Station. A brigade from Fitzhugh Lee moved west. Custer, in the Confederates' horse park, found himself encircled and in trouble. On the brink of destruction Custer managed to pull his wrecked brigade back to Clayton's Store. By nightfall it was stalemate, Custer losing 437 men. Sheridan was not able to come between Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. The latter swung south to join up with Wade Hampton, west of Trevilian Station.
Bearing in mind Sheridan's instructions - to tear up the railroad and meet up with Hunter - the events of 12th June were puzzling. Gregg's cavalry tore up 6 miles of track (quickly repaired) while Talbot headed west towards the Confederate cavalry. By this time Fitzhugh Lee had joined up with Wade Hampton. Talbot launched six attacks, which got nowhere. A seventh and final assault by Davis' brigade also failed. At a late stage, the Confederates tried to envelop the Federal line. Sheridan, with nothing more to be gained, pulled back to the north-east and the field was held by the Confederates.
Although he had achieved part of his mission - his troops tore up railroad tracks - Sheridan played down that part which had manifestly failed, the joining up with Hunter. Why else would Talbot attack on 12th June, if not to link with Hunter and in the process break through the Confederate lines to do so?
Federal losses amounted to 1,014 (including 530 prisoners), whilst Wade Hampton's losses were heavier, about 1,100. Lee though had achieved a significant tactical setback for Grant. There was no link up with Hunter; Lee was able to send a third of his forces to the Shenandoah Valley (resulting in Early's raid on Washington). Grant, on the other hand, sent his cavalry to tear up tracks south of Petersburg suggesting he was not confident yet of taking the place.
Col. Falkner concluded that there were three important outcomes: Lee's maintenance of the link with the Shenandoah Valley; Sheridan's failure to develop the role of Cavalry Commander (at least until 10 months later), and Wade Hampton's adoption of the role of Cavalry Corps Commander.
© ACWRT (UK) 1999 & 2001