Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWELVE

THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 1865 

ON THE ROAD TO FARMVILLE, VIRGINIA 

AFTERNOON

As the battle for High Bridge commences, Union general George Meade’s infantry finally finds the tail end of the Confederate column about ten miles away from the High Bridge fight. A hard rain falls. In the first of what will be many firefights on this day, small bands of Union soldiers begin shooting at the Confederate rear guard. The movement is like a ballet, with skirmishers pushing forward through the trees and craggy ground to engage the rebels. The instant they run out of ammunition, these skirmishers pull back and another group races forward to take their place. And all the while, other infantrymen capture artillery pieces, burn wagons, and force the rebels to turn and fight—and sometimes even dig in, separating them further from Lee’s main force.

Confederate general John Gordon’s force falls behind first. The ferocious Georgian understands that he is being cut off. In fact, Lee’s entire Confederate army is being separated. No longer is it a single force; it has been broken into four separate corps. Under normal conditions, the cavalry would plug these gaps or, at the very least, chase away the Union skirmishers, but the cavalry have their hands full at High Bridge.

Meanwhile, in Rice’s Station, Lee rises from his nap and assesses the situation. Hearing the ferocity of the firing from High Bridge, he assumes that the Union force is much bigger than the 800 men who galloped past him a few hours ago. If Lee had any cavalry at his disposal, they would act as his eyes and ears, scouting ahead and returning with the truth. But he doesn’t. Lee can only guess at what’s happening—and he guesses wrong.

Fearing that the Union general Sheridan has already leapfrogged out in front, Lee holds his entire corps in Rice’s Station. At a time when it is crucial to be on the move, Lee chooses to remain in place.

As Lee waits, Sheridan’s three divisions of cavalry are searching high and low for the Army of Northern Virginia. His three commanders are Generals George Armstrong Custer, Thomas Devin, and George Crook. Custer is the youngest and most aggressive, the blond-haired dynamo who roomed with Thomas Rosser at West Point. Custer has a flair for the dramatic. He is the sort of man who rides into battle wearing a flamboyant red kerchief around his neck and accompanied by a brass band.

That kind of display will make George Custer famous. Eleven years later, it will also kill him. As Sheridan holds back to plot strategy, it is Custer who leads the Union cavalry on their search-and-destroy mission against the Confederate column. At midmorning he discovers the heart of the column, perhaps six miles from High Bridge. Custer does not hesitate. His division attacks. But upon meeting resistance, the young general stalls, allowing another cavalry division to attack. In this way, Custer slowly works his way up the Confederate line, riding closer and closer to the very front, toward Sam Grant’s objective of getting out in front of Lee.

The pace is cruel. By noon Custer’s horses are thirsty and in need of rest. They stop at a small stream. Custer’s aide approaches, bringing news that scouts have found a gap in the Confederate line. Now Custer sets aside all thoughts of getting out in front of Lee. He excitedly gives the command to mount up. Without waiting for the other two divisions (a habit that will seal his doom at the Little Bighorn), his cavalry race toward the gap, hoping to drive a permanent wedge between the Confederate divisions.

General George Armstrong Custer

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Custer succeeds. By two P.M. Custer’s division pours into the small town of Marshall’s Crossroads, where they are met by a lone artillery battalion. The Confederate cannons are no match for Custer’s horsemen. He captures the small force and sets the rebel guns ablaze. But then another Confederate force counterattacks, pushing Custer out of the town. The Confederates dig in immediately, knowing that more fighting is imminent. The rebels hope to hold on long enough for Lee’s main army to reinforce them.

George Custer, however, is not to be denied. He dismounts his men and orders them to assume an infantry posture. Then he scribbles a message to Crook and Devin, requesting help. Within an hour, their divisions are on the scene.

All afternoon, the three Union divisions initiate mounted and dismounted cavalry charges against the dug-in rebels. In the absence of artillery, the bluecoats boldly ride their horses up and over the Confederate breastworks. The Confederates cower in their trenches to avoid being trampled to death. The alternative is to run. Those who do are chased and cut down with sabers.

Even so, the rebels hold fast, repelling each and every charge. The general in charge, “Fighting Dick” Anderson, is a brilliant tactician, placing his limited resources in just the right place to repel the cavalry.

Finally, as daylight turns to evening, Custer assembles his men for one final charge. He orders the regimental band to play, hoping to strike fear in the enemy. Seeing the assembled cavalry, Confederate officers call an immediate retreat. Their goal is to reach Lee at Rice’s Station.

Custer and the Union cavalry ride fast and hard into Anderson’s lines before they can retreat. By now Sheridan has sent word, saying, “Go right through them. They’re demoralized as hell”—an order that the Union cavalry take to heart. Anderson’s Confederate corps breaks, the men dropping their weapons and running for their lives.

Of about 3,000 rebels, only 600 escape Custer. But the general is still not satisfied. He orders three Union cavalry divisions to give chase, cutting men down as they run. In a rare act of lenience, those who make it into the woods are allowed to live. Later they will be rounded up as prisoners of war. For now their confinement is the woods itself; those who try to fight their way out are promptly driven back inside.

More than 2,600 Confederates are captured, among them the one-legged General Richard Ewell. As he surrenders to Custer, he knows that a portion of his men are trapped on a grassy hillside a few miles up the road, above a swollen stream known as Sayler’s Creek. These men are spoiling for another fight, a battle that will go down as the most barbaric and ferocious of the entire war.

General George Custer has seen much ferocious fighting in his young life, but he has never seen anything like Sayler’s Creek.

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