In the summer of 1864, hoping to draw attention away from his own movement across the James River toward Petersburg, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant sent Major General Phillip Sheridan on an ambitious cavalry raid toward Charlottesville. Sheridan hoped to destroy as much of the Virginia Central railroad as possible, interrupting crucial Confederate supply lines, and then press on and join forces with General David Hunter in Charlottesville.
When Robert E. Lee became aware of this Union movement, he sent the cavalry divisions of General Wade Hampton and General Fitzhugh Lee to attack the Federals near Trevilian Station, Virginia. What resulted was the largest and bloodiest all-cavalry battle of the Civil War. On June 11, the two divisions approached the Union position along separate roads, with Hampton’s men coming from Trevilian Station and Lee’s men from nearby Louisa Court House. Hampton’s division clashed with the Union First Division under Brigadier General Alfred Torbert, and vicious dismounted fighting raged while Hampton waited for Fitzhugh Lee’s division to arrive and provide support. However, when Lee’s force encountered Union General George Custer’s men on the road, they fell back after only a brief fight, a dangerous decision that created an opening for Custer to take Hampton’s supply train.
Custer’s men immediately took advantage of this gap, driving a wedge between the two Confederate divisions and capturing essential supplies. However, in their haste to claim the spoils of their momentary victory, Custer’s cavalry allowed themselves to be cut off from the rest of Sheridan’s force. When Confederate reinforcements arrived, they were quickly surrounded. This clash has become known as “Custer’s First Last Stand.” The four Michigan regiments of Custer’s brigade took fire from all sides, and only Sheridan’s arrival to drive back the Confederate force saved the Boy General and his men from capture or death. By the time night fell on the 11th, Union forces held Trevilian Station.
The next morning, June 12, Sheridan’s men tore up several miles of railroad before advancing on Hampton’s position to the west. Hampton’s men had spent the night establishing a strong position, with an angled line anchored on the railroad embankment and, by midday, support from Fitzhugh Lee. Time and time again Sheridan ordered his cavalry to attack this line, and time and time again they were driven back. The men began to refer to the angle in Hampton’s line as their own “Bloody Angle,” referencing the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the month before. Ultimately, Sheridan was forced to abandon his attempts to break Hampton’s line, and he withdrew that night, returning to the Army of the Potomac.
While Sheridan and other Union commanders tried to claim the Battle of Trevilian Station as a victory, most historians describe the battle as either inconclusive or a Confederate victory. Sheridan did succeed in drawing Confederate attention away from General Grant’s movements near the James River, but he failed at to meet up with General Hunter or create any real, long-term disruption of the Confederate supply line. Furthermore, the casualties sustained in this battle and the month-long separation of the cavalry from the rest of the Army of the Potomac had a serious impact on the army’s operations during one of the toughest campaigns of the war. Had Sheridan achieved his goals, Hunter might have been able to capture Lynchburg, cutting off one of Lee’s key supply centers and potentially shortening the war by several months.
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