A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 14

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In the spring of 1864, Gen. Grant was placed at the head of all the Union armies; Gen. Sheridan was called to command the cavalry corps in place of Gen. Pleasonton; and Custer with his brigade was transferred to the First division under Torbert.

In May, the Army of the Potomac once more advanced to the Rapidan and crossed it. In the battle of the Wilderness, owing to the character of the field, the cavalry were compelled to remain almost idle spectators, but subsequently, at Spottsylvania C.H., Torbert's division was seriously engaged.

On the 9th of May, Gen. Sheridan started out on his first great cavalry raid toward Richmond. At Beaverdam Station he inflicted great damage on the railroads, destroyed much property, and liberated 400 Union prisoners on their way to Richmond. Continuing his march, he found, at Yellow Tavern a few miles north of Richmond, Stuart's cavalry drawn up to oppose his passage. A spirited fight ensued, resulting in the death of Stuart and the dispersion of his troops. Our cavalry pressed on down the road to Richmond, and Custer's brigade attacked and carried the outer line of defenses, and took 100 prisoners. The second line of works was too strong to be taken by cavalry, and Sheridan was obliged to retreat. Beating off assailants both in front and rear he crossed the Chickahominy, pushed southward to Haxall's Landing on the James River, and then leisurely returned by way of White House and Hanover C.H. to Grant's army, arriving in time to be present at the sanguinary battle of Cool Arbor.

On the 9th of June, Custer accompanied Sheridan on a raid around Lee's army. They struck the railroad at Trevilian's, drove off a large force of the enemy and broke up a long section of the road. Retracing their steps to Trevilian's, they had there a spirited contest with Fitz Hugh Lee, and then drew off and rejoined Gen. Grant. During this raid Sheridan lost over 700 men, and captured 400 prisoners.

In the autumn of 1864, two divisions of cavalry under Torbert were with Sheridan's army operating in the Shenandoah Valley. Custer's brigade was in the First division, commanded by Merritt. Averill commanded the Second division.

Having received from Gen. Grant the order, "Go in"—the only instructions which Grant deemed it necessary to give—Sheridan, Sept. 19th, attacked the Confederate forces at Opequan Creek. The artillery opened along the whole line, the columns moved steadily forward, and Gen. Early soon discovered that Sheridan was in earnest. Early's position was a strong one, and he stubbornly held it until the cavalry bugles were heard on his right, as the firm-set squadrons bore fiercely down. Rolled up before the impetuous charge, the rebel line at length crumbled into fragments, and the whole army broke in utter confusion and was sent "whirling through Winchester," followed until dark by the pursuing cavalry. 3000 prisoners were taken.

Three days later Sheridan attacked Early at Fisher's Hill—a strong position to which he had retired—and again forced him to retreat with a loss of 1100 men taken prisoners. The cavalry pursued so sharply and persistently, that Early left the valley and took refuge in the mountains where cavalry could not operate.

On the 26th of Sept., Custer was transferred from the command of the Michigan brigade in the First division to the head of the Second division; but before he was able to reach his new command, he was placed at the head of the Third division, with which he had formerly been connected under Kilpatrick.

When Sheridan moved back through the valley from Port Republic to Strasburg, sparing the houses, but burning all the barns, mills and hay-stacks, and driving off all the cattle, his rear was much harassed by the rebel cavalry under Gen. Rosser—a class-mate of Custer's at West Point; and on the night of Oct. 8th, Sheridan ordered Torbert to "start out at daylight, and whip the rebel cavalry or get whipped himself." Accordingly on the next morning the cavalry, led on by Merritt and Custer and supported by batteries, swept boldly out to attack a larger force drawn up in battle array. At the first charge upon them Rosser's men broke and fled, but subsequently rallied, and were again pushed back and utterly routed. Rosser lost all his artillery but one piece, and everything else which was carried on wheels, and was pursued to Mt. Jackson, 26 miles distant. Of this affair, Gen. Torbert reported:—

"The First Division captured five pieces of artillery, their ordnance, ambulance, and wagon trains, and 60 prisoners. The Third Division captured six pieces of artillery, all of their headquarter wagons, ordnance, ambulance, and wagon trains. There could hardly have been a more complete victory and rout. The cavalry totally covered themselves with glory, and added to their long list of victories the most brilliant one of them all, and the most decisive the country has ever witnessed."

On the 15th of Oct., Sheridan started on a flying visit to Washington, leaving his army encamped on three ridges or hills. The crest nearest the enemy was held by the Army of West Virginia under Crook; half a mile to the rear of this was the second one, held by the 19th Corps under Emory; and still further to the rear, on the third crest, was the 6th Corps under Gen. Wright, who commanded the whole army during Sheridan's absence. The cavalry under Torbert lay to the right of the 6th Corps.

Gen. Early, having resolved to surprise and attack the Union army, started out his troops on a dark and foggy night, and advanced unperceived and unchallenged in two columns along either flank of the 6th Corps. The march was noiseless; and trusty guides led the steady columns through the gloom, now pushing through the dripping trees and now fording a stream, till at length, an hour before day-break, Oct. 18th, Early's troops, shivering with cold, stood within 600 yards of Crook's camp. Two of Crook's pickets had come in at 2 a.m. and reported a heavy, muffled tramp heard at the front; but though some extra precautions were taken, no one dreamed that an attack would be made.

Crook's troops, slumbering on unconscious of danger, were awakened at daybreak by a deafening yell and the crack of musketry on either flank; following which, charging lines regardless of the pickets came immediately on over the breastworks. The surprise was complete, and after a brief struggle the Army of West Virginia was flying in confusion toward the second hill occupied by the 19th Corps. Emory attempted to stop the progress of the enemy, but they got in his rear, and his command soon broke and fled with the rest toward the hill where the 6th Corps lay.

Gen. Wright formed a new line of battle, and repulsed a tremendous charge of the enemy, thus obtaining time to cover the immense crowd of fugitives that darkened the rear. A general retreat was then begun and continued in good order till 10 a.m. when, the enemy having ceased to advance, Wright halted and commenced reorganizing the scattered troops. The cavalry, being at the rear and extreme right, had not suffered in the first assault on the Union army, but they were subsequently transferred to the left flank, and did brave service in covering the retreat of the infantry.

Meanwhile Sheridan, returning from Washington, had slept at Winchester 20 miles distant, and in the morning rode leisurely toward his army. The vibrations of artillery at first surprised him, and he soon became aware that a heavy battle was raging and that his army was retreating. Dashing his spurs into his horse he pushed madly along the road, and soon left his escort far behind. Further on he met fugitives from the army, who declared that all was lost. As the cloud of fugitives thickened he shouted, as he drove on and swung his cap, "Face the other way, boys; we are going back to our camp; we are going to lick them out of their boots." The frightened stragglers paused, and then turned back.

On arriving at the front, where the work of reorganization was already well advanced, Sheridan inspired his men with new courage by his appearance and words. For two hours he rode back and forth in front of the line, encouraging the troops; and when the order was given, "The entire line will advance, etc.," the infantry went steadily forward upon the enemy. Early's front was soon carried, while his left was partly turned back; and after much desperate fighting, his astonished troops turned and fled in utter confusion over the field.

"As they streamed down into the Middletown meadow," says Headley, "Sheridan saw that the time for the cavalry had come, and ordered a charge. The bugles pealed forth their stirring notes, and the dashing squadrons of Custer and Merritt came down like a clattering tempest on the right and left, doubling up the rebel flanks, and cleaving a terrible path through the broken ranks. Back to, and through our camp, which they had swept like a whirlwind in the morning, the panic-stricken rebels went, pellmell, leaving all the artillery they had captured, and much of their own, and strewing the way with muskets, clothing, knapsacks, and everything that could impede their flight. The infantry were too tired to continue the pursuit, but the cavalry kept it up, driving them through Strasburg to Fisher's Hill, and beyond, to Woodstock, sixteen miles distant."

After the battle of Cedar Creek and during the winter of 1864—5, Sheridan's army, including Custer's division, remained inactive, occupying cantonments around Winchester.

On the 27th of Feb., Sheridan started out on his last great raid, taking with him Gen. Merritt as chief of cavalry, the First and Third divisions of cavalry under Generals Devin and Custer, artillery, wagons, and pack-mules. The raiding column, including artillerymen and teamsters, numbered 10,000 men.

Moving rapidly up the Shenandoah Valley over the turnpike road, they passed many villages without halting or opposition, and on the 29th, approached Mount Crawford, where Rosser with 400 men disputed the passage over a stream and attempted to burn the bridge; but Col. Capehart of Custer's command, which was in advance, by a bold dash drove Rosser away and saved the bridge.

Custer now pushed on to Waynesboro' and finding Early intrenched there, immediately attacked him. The result, as told by Sheridan, was as follows:—

"Gen. Custer found Gen. Early in a well chosen position, with two brigades of infantry, and some cavalry under Rosser, the infantry occupying breastworks. Custer, without waiting for the enemy to get up courage over the delay of a careful reconnaissance, made his dispositions for attack at once. Sending three regiments around the left flank of the enemy, Custer with the other two brigades, partly mounted and partly dismounted, at a given signal attacked and impetuously carried the enemy's works; while the Eight New York and the First Connecticut cavalry, who were formed in columns of fours, charged over the breastworks, and continued the charge through the streets of Waynesboro', sabring a few men as they went along, and did not stop until they had crossed the South Fork of the Shenandoah, (which was immediately in Early's rear) where they formed as foragers, and with drawn sabres held the east bank of the stream. The enemy threw down their arms and surrendered, with cheers at the suddenness with which they had been captured."

Sixteen hundred prisoners, 11 pieces of artillery, 200 loaded wagons, and 17 battle-flags were captured single-handed by Custer at Waynesboro', while his own loss was less than a dozen men. Vast amounts of public property were subsequently destroyed. The prisoners were sent to Winchester under guard.

Pushing on across the Blue Ridge in a heavy rain during the night after Early's defeat, Custer, still in the van, approached Charlottesville the next afternoon, and was met by the authorities, who surrendered to him the keys of the public buildings as a token of submission. The balance of the column soon came up, and two days were spent in destroying bridges, mills, and the railroad leading to Lynchburg.

Sheridan now divided his command, and sent Merritt and Devin to destroy the canal from Scottsville to New Market, while he and Custer tore up the railroads as far west as Amherst C.H. The columns united again at New Market on the James River; and as the enemy had burned the bridges so they could not cross to the south side, they moved eastward behind Lee's army, destroying bridges, canals, railroads and supplies, thus inflicting a more serious blow to the confederate cause than any victories by land or sea gained during the last campaign. Then they swept around by the Pamunkey River and White House, and joined Grant's besieging army in front of Petersburg, March 27th. They encamped on the extreme left of the lines, close to their old comrades of the Second Division of cavalry, (now under Gen. Crook) who here again came under Sheridan's command.