J.E.B. Stuart mortally wounded

Yellow Tavern: As Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's cavalrymen pressed close to Richmond, they encountered, defeated and killed one of the South's leading generals.


May 21, 1999|By Michelle Lawyer | Michelle Lawyer,Special to the Sun

The cavalry portion of the re-enactment of the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness next month will feature the encounter between Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and Confederate Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern, Va.

The tavern stood at the intersection of Telegraph and Old Mountain roads among fields, its weathered exterior an eyesore on the grassy Virginia landscape.

This worn-down empty building had once been a hostelry, but not until 1864 did it receive true recognition. It was known as Yellow Tavern, located just six miles from Richmond, Va. And, in the chipped paint and broken glass of its outside walls, resided a story of a battle, a man and his death.

The man was James Ewell Brown Stuart. Born on Laurel Hill Plantation in Southwest Virginia, Stuart grew up with the makings of a great Confederate cavalryman. His hometown boasted well-bred horses and, after only a few years, he was considered a masterful rider.

After being recruited by Robert E. Lee, Stuart amazed the Confederate cavalry with his military strategy and leadership abilities as he fought effectively in early battles. However, his presence in the Confederate cavalry was not nearly as glorious as many expected. His triumphs turned to catastrophes when, because of his negligence and miscommunication, the battle at Gettysburg ended in bloody defeat. More powerful than ever, the Union was steadily gaining valuable ground.

On May 11, 1864, Stuart fought his last battle for the confederacy in what came to be known as the Battle of the Yellow Tavern.

After hearing the news that Sheridan was on his way to Richmond with thousands of troops in an attempt to take the capital, Stuart rode to Yellow Tavern, only a short distance away from Richmond. When he arrived at 10 p.m., he found that he was ahead of the enemy. But, instead of taking position in front of them, he remained at the tavern, a choice that cost him his life.

By four o'clock a.m., Stuart's fate had been sealed.At that time the battle began to get serious. The Union cavalry attacked the full Confederate line all at once and Stuart had no choice but take his position of leadership to the center of danger.

What happened next is the reason we remember that old, run-down house.

Maj. Henry B. McClellan recorded the events in the Southern Historical Society Papers, stating, "The enemy's charge captured our battery on the left of our line, and drove back almost the entire left. Where Captain Dorsey was stationed -- immediately on the Telegraph Road -- about eighty men had collected, and among these the general threw himself, and by his personal example held them steady while the enemy charged entirely past their position.

With these men he fired into their flank and rear as they passed him, in advancing and retreating, for they were met by a mounted charge of the 1st Virginia Cavalry and driven back some distance. As they retired, one man who had been dismounted in the charge, and was running out on foot, turned as he passed the general an discharging his pistol inflicted the fatal wound."

After he took the wound, Stuart implored all those who tried to help him to return to the men, scattered about the battlefield in confusion, and push back the enemy. As he was being taken from the field, Stuart caught sight of his men retreating and called after them, "Go back! Go back! And do your duty, as I have done mine, and our country will be safe. Go back! Go back! I had rather die than be whipped," McClellan recorded.

But Stuart's men could not retaliate and the battle claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers.Although it appears small, the Battle of the Yellow Tavern was very important to the outcome of the Civil War, claims Craig Beachler, a Civil War re-enactor with the United States Volunteers.

"This battle was one of the first of many bitter defeats to fall upon the Confederate cavalry on its own Virginia soil," claims Beachler. "Up to this time the U.S. [Union] Cavalry had to settle for a draw, or worse, a defeat. As a result of casualties, the Confederate cavalry continued to grow smaller."

Beachler, who is chief of cavalry and commanding officer of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Company A. in the upcoming Lee-Grant re-enactment featuring the Yellow Tavern, contends that this battle was quite significant in terms of cavalry as well.

"For the first time in U.S. Civil War history, the cavalry was consolidated as a large independent combat force led by Philip Sheridan. Prior to this time, cavalry had been assigned to infantry organizations and the U.S. Army allowed only much smaller independent cavalry operations. I think that at this point the U.S. Army began to appreciate fully the capabilities of a large mounted combat force."

But, for many, the real story of this battle lies in the death of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart who fought to the end, striving to prove his worth. When President Davis asked Stuart how he felt during his last moments of suffering, he replied, "Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty."

A short while later, Stuart took his last breath, resigning from battle and life forever, only to live through stories and letters. Now there is new earth where this bloody battle took place, new soil, new grass. It is almost as if nothing ever happened.

But beneath that earth lies stories of men who fought and men who died for a cause in which they desperately believed. And, just like the old, deserted building at the intersection of Telegraph and Old Mountain roads, they will not be forgotten.

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