The Battle of Trevilian Station (also called Trevilians) was fought on June 11 and June 12, 1864, in Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan were defeated in their objectives by Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gens. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. It was the largest all-cavalry battle of the war.
On the days leading up to June 5, 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant attempted to destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which would lead to the capture of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Grant began to feel political pressure from Washington, D.C., which was soon to hold presidential elections. He felt he could not split his forces or make any serious changes to his command structure without serious thought to its political effects. However, Grant needed a victory to boost his army's morale after its hard fighting at Spotsylvania and most recently its devastating defeat at Cold Harbor, which were within tantalizingly close distance (14 miles) to the Confederate capital.
Grant now devised a plan to take both his targets. He was to march his 100,000-man army to the south across the James River to take the rail hub of Petersburg, while his cavalry units, under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, were to strike north at the Virginia Central Railroad in Louisa County, Virginia. This plan had two objectives: first, to draw the Confederate cavalry away from Grant's main army so that they could move secretly into position; second, to tear up the Virginia Central towards Richmond, cutting off Lee's army from the much needed food supplies carried from the Shenandoah Valley. Furthermore, Grant learned of Maj. Gen. David Hunter's Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley against Maj. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones; Hunter could now travel east to meet Sheridan so that they could threaten Lee's army from the west. Thus the battle at Battle of Trevilian Station was all but a diversion.
On the morning of June 7, Sheridan and his two cavalry divisions, led by Brig. Gens. Alfred T. A. Torbert and David McM. Gregg, left Cold Harbor and headed north to follow the North Anna River, hoping to then cross the river to strike the railroad. They marched for two days as the heat of the midsummer Virginian sun left their horses exhausted; many even had to be shot by the rear guard. By June 10, Sheridan had camped barely three miles north of Trevilian.
Sheridan had little resistance during his march, but as it grew heavier on June 10 and turned out to be cavalry skirmishers, Sheridan realized he had been beaten to Trevilian. Lee had learned of Sheridan's movements on June 8 and sent his cavalry to intercept it, consisting of two divisions under Maj. Gens. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee; Hampton was given the command. The Confederates reached Trevilian a full day before Sheridan, being able to ride straight there, whereas Sheridan had to move stealthily to avoid detection. At dawn on June 11, 1864, the tables were set.
At dawn, Hampton was awakened by his aides to the sound of bugles stirring the enemy. Asked what to do, he answered, "I propose to fight!"
Immediately Hampton set out his defensive plans for the railroad. He knew from Sheridan's position, which was at a crossroads, that there were two roads to the station, both through thick woods. One road led to Trevilian Station and the other to Louisa Court House. Hampton devised a bold plan in which he would split his divisions on each road and push upward to converge on the enemy at the crossroads, meaning one division would be on the enemy's flank, thus pushing Sheridan back to the North Anna River. Hampton took two of his brigades with him from Trevilian with his third far on his left to prevent flanking; the other division under Fitzhugh Lee would advance from Louisa Court House, making up the right flank.
While the Confederates began their advance, Sheridan started his. Two of Torbert's brigades began to advance down the road to Trevilian Station while his third, led by Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, advanced with one of Gregg's brigades down to the Louisa Court House. It was on the Trevilian Road that the first clash occurred. When one of Hampton's brigades clashed with Torbert's skirmish line, Hampton dismounted the men and held fast, managing also to drive the enemy forward, expecting Fitzhugh Lee to arrive on his right any minute from where he could hear rifle fire. Hampton was, however, severely outnumbered and soon he was forced back. Eventually the second of Hampton's brigades joined in the close-quarter fighting in the thick brush, but they also were pushed back within sight of Trevilian Station.
Fitzhugh Lee also had problems. Barely after setting out from Louisa Court House, he had run into two Federal brigades and, hopelessly outnumbered, he chose to instead head straight for Trevilian Station. Meanwhile Custer and his brigade seemed to have disappeared, only to reappear at the actual Trevilian Station. This was a huge blow to the Confederates—Fitzhugh had unknowingly allowed Custer to take a small trail, now open on his right, straight to the station. Custer was now not only behind, but also in between the two Confederate divisions.
Custer found Trevilian Station totally unguarded, held only by the Confederate supply wagons and caissons, containing ammunition, food, and hundreds of horses. He immediately attempted to capture the lot, resulting in a short chase that left Custer cut off from Sheridan. Hampton now learned of this threat and pulled out his far left brigade protecting his flank and sent them to the station, where Lee approaching from Louisa Court House also appeared. Suddenly Custer found his luck had run out as he was pressured from both left and right flanks at the station. Custer pulled out and headed along the Gordonsville Road, taking his burdensome spoils with him. However, he failed to note the Confederate horse artillery battery on a hill north of the station, which opened fire as soon as his men were in range, obliterating Custer's front forces. At this point his right flank was further overwhelmed by Hampton's charging brigade.
Custer was now surrounded, his command in an ever shrinking circle, as every side was charged and hit with shells (a stance remarkably similar to his famous last stand at Little Big Horn). Custer, suspecting that his command would soon be over-run and concerned that his flag would be captured, tore it from its staff when the flag-bearer was hit and hid it within his coat. Sheridan at this point heard the firing from Custer's direction and rightly thought he needed help. He charged his two brigades on Trevilian Road at Hampton's inferior line, pushing them back all the way to the station, while the last brigade on the road to Louisa Court House was ordered to swing into Fitzhugh Lee's exposed right flank, thus pushing him back. Hampton fell back to the west, Lee to the right, and the battle ended with the Federals in clear possession of Trevilian Station. Sheridan asked Custer if he had lost his colors. Custer then pulled them from his coat and exclaimed, "Not by a damned sight!"
On July 12, Sheridan's forces began tearing up the railroad with Trevilian Station as a midpoint, Gregg's division tearing up to the east, and Torbert to the west. Custer then found Hampton's entire force behind some log breastworks two miles west of Trevilian. Fitzhugh Lee had joined him after marching in a huge half circle around the Federals the previous night. Custer was repulsed with heavy losses and Sheridan, hearing that a whole infantry corps was heading for nearby Lynchburg, chose to withdraw, having suffered heavy losses and being low on ammunition.
The results of the Battle of Trevilian Station were mixed. Union casualties were 1,007 (102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 missing or captured). Confederate losses were reported as 612, but those records are incomplete and 1,000 is a better estimate. As a diversion, it was a complete success; it was not until Grant began attacking the weak forces at the Petersburg trenches that General Lee finally understood where Grant was planning to attack. However, in terms of disrupting the Virginia Central Railroad, the battle was less favorable. Within two weeks the track was repaired and the planned meet up between Sheridan and General Hunter failed completely, as Hunter was defeated at the Battle of Lynchburg in the Valley and was pushed far into Maryland by General Jubal Early.
- Davis, William C., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg, Time-Life Books, 1986, ISBN 0-8094-4776-2.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Urwin, Gregory J. W., "Battle of Trevilian Station", Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Heidler, David S., and Heidler, Jeanne T., eds., W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 0-393-04758-X.
- Wittenberg, Eric J., Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Potomac Books, 2002, ISBN 1-57488-548-0.
- National Park Service battle description
- Wittenberg, p. 39.
- Eicher, p. 694; Urwin, p. 1975, reports 735 Union casualties, including 416 in Custer's brigade; Wittenberg, p. 39, lists Union casualties of 1,307 out of 9,216 engaged and Confederate as 813 out of 6,700.
- Wittenberg, Eric J., Glory Enough For All: Sheridan's Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station, Brassey's, Inc., 2001, ISBN 1-57488-468-9.
- Swank, Walbrook Davis, Battle of Trevilian Station, Burd Street Press, 1994, ISBN 0-942597-68-0
- Wellman, Manly Wade, Giant in Gray, Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1988, ISBN 0-89029-054-7
- Trevilian Station Battlefield Organization
- The Battle of Trevilian Station: Maps, Histories, Photos, and Preservation News (CWPT)
- Trevilian Station: Custer & His Wolverines - animated slideshow
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