Race Outta Richmond: Meadow Bridge Battle Map

This past weekend I tried following the path of the Union cavalry raid on Richmond during the Overland Campaign. I forgot that the Richmond Raceway was hosting the Toyota Owners 400 Nascar race and found myself stuck in traffic on Meadow Bridge Road for quite awhile. The Union troopers found themselves similarly penned in on May 12, 1864, but managed to break out of the trap set for them in between the Chickahominy River and the Richmond defenses.

At the early stage of the fighting at Spotsylvania, Phil Sheridan took his cavalry on a raid toward Richmond and its railroad connections. On May 11th, the Union troopers defeated their Confederate counterparts at Yellow Tavern. Private John A. Huff mortally wounded Jeb Stuart in the latter stages of that battle. Overnight, Sheridan continued south on the Brook Turnpike toward the Richmond defenses. The troopers easily overran the thinly held outer line of earthworks near Emanuel Church. Despite the temptation of continuing toward the capital, Sheridan wisely chose not to test the intermediate line the next morning. He attempted to skirt in between the Chickahominy River and the intermediate defenses to reach a safe rendezvous on the James River but found that route blocked near the Mechanicsville Turnpike.

James Gordon’s North Carolina cavalry brigade followed Sheridan down the Brook Turnpike and attacked David Gregg’s rear guard from the west. Two Confederate infantry brigades plus an assortment of local defense troops meanwhile ventured forward from the intermediate line to lend their support. Gregg and James Wilson’s divisions kept these attacks at bay but Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry meanwhile attempted to block Sheridan’s only exit at Meadow Bridge on the Chickahominy River. The Virginia Central Railroad paralleled the road and also crossed the swampy Chickahominy near its confluence with Brook Run.

George Custer’s brigade successfully forced their way across and repaired the destroyed bridge. This allowed the rest of the cavalry to safely continue their journey outside Richmond’s network of defenses. This earlier post by Dan Davis discusses the fighting at Meadow Bridge on May 12th that allowed Sheridan’s expedition to continue onward to the James.

The impact of Sheridan’s raid is still debated. Though the Union cavalry were tactically victorious at both Yellow Tavern and Meadow Bridge, they did not necessarily achieve their strategic goals. It perhaps was a morale booster for the north, due to Jeb Stuart’s mortal wounding at Yellow Tavern and the ability of the Union cavalry to match up against their Confederate counterparts. Riding within three miles of downtown Richmond only to have to scamper away may have had the opposite effect. The lack of cavalry around Spotsylvania certainly limited Union opportunity during that phase of the Overland Campaign.

Most of the Meadow Bridge battlefield is now developed. The raceway is located on the position of Wilson’s division. Several portions of the outer line of Confederate earthworks are preserved and interpreted, notably near the Mechanicsville Turnpike and Emanuel Church. Modern-day Laburnum Road roughly follows the Confederate intermediate defenses. The battle is featured on a Civil War Trails wayside exhibit near the modern Meadowbridge Road river crossing.

The ’64 Valley Campaign: Solidifying Lincoln’s Election but Not a Turning Point

TurningPoints-logoIn the midst of our ongoing ‘Turning Points’ discussion last week, someone asked me last week if I thought Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign was a turning point. I gave this very question a lot of thought when Phill Greenwalt and I were working on our book Bloody Autumn: The 1864 Valley Campaign. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that the Valley Campaign of ’64 was not a turning point. 

BloodyAutumnReleasedI do believe there was a danger that if Sheridan failed—or stumbled, for that matter—those events could have offset Sherman’s gains in Georgia, similar to the way Rosecrans’ disaster at Chickamauga and subsequent siege of Chattanooga negating Grant’s victory at Vicksburg.

I do think the victory in the Valley helped reinforce and solidify Lincoln’s re-election, but it was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that really made the difference.

Additionally, for it to be a turning point, I think Sheridan would have had to turn in a great performance. Instead, it’s far below average. He can barely get out of his own way, and what saves him are the Crooks, Custers, Merritts, Gettys and Russells of his army—not really his own performance.

For more on the impact of Sheridan’s victory on the Election of ’64, check out “The Valley Campaign for Memory,” one of the appendices in Bloody Autumn.

SheridansRide-SheetMusic

“Sheridan’s Ride,” a popular poem written in the wake of the battle and which was even set to music, was circulated widely by Lincoln’s supporters in the days before the election. While it bolstered their optimistic outlook and served as great political propaganda, it probably had little significant impact on its own.


Ulysses S. Grant and “The Babies”

Maxwell Eating ToeMy wife recently sent to me a photo of our six-month-old son with his foot in his mouth. That’s a feat I, in adulthood, occasionally still pull off, although in a less envious way and with more embarrassment. However, for babies, it seems a feat of ongoing delight and unending fun.

Seeing Maxwell with his toe in his mouth made me think of Ulysses S. Grant. 

The story involves Mark Twain, and it’s one of my favorite episodes from Twain’s and Grant’s friendship.

In 1879, following his successful two-year world tour, Grant and his wife, Julia, traveled from San Francisco eastward toward their new home in New York. All along the way, the Grants were celebrated and feted. As part of the string of festivities, Grant “was to be feasted in Chicago by the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee—the first army over which he had had command . . .” Twain reported in his own autobiography.

The toast committee telegraphed me and asked me if I would be present and respond at the grand banquet to the toast to the ladies. I telegraphed back that the toast was worn out. Everything had been said about the ladies that could be said at a banquet, but there was one class of the community that had always been overlooked upon such occasions and if they would allow me I would take that class for a toast: “The Babies.”

The committee agreed and asked Twain for a title for his toast. Twain replied, “The Babies. —As they comfort us in our sorrows, let us not forget them in our festivities.”

The speech, Twain recalled afterwards, “was granted the perilous distinction of the place of honor. It was the last speech on the list, an honor no person, probably, has ever sought. It was not reached until two o’clock in the morning.”

He expected the speech to go off well—“and it did,” he admitted— but there was “one thing in it I had fears about, and that one thing stood where it could not be removed in case of disaster. It was the last sentence of the speech.”

In a letter to William Dean Howells on November 17, 1879, Twain told his literary friend that “Gen. Grant sat at the banquet like a statue of iron & listened without the faintest suggestion of emotion to fourteen speeches which tore other people all to shreds, but when I lit in with the fifteenth & last, his time was come!”

As Twain stood for his toast in those wee morning hours, speaking to a room well-lubricated by alcohol, he began with a nod to the topic he’d originally been asked to address. “We have not all had the good fortune to be ladies,” he said. “We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.”

Twain continued:

It is a shame that for a thousand years the world’s banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn’t amount to anything. If you will stop and think a minute—if you will go back fifty or one hundred years to your early married life and recontemplate your first baby—you will remember that he amounted to a good deal, and even something over. You soldiers all know that when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters you had to hand in your resignation. He took entire command. You became his lackey, his mere body-servant, and you had to stand around too. He was not a commander who made allowances for time, distance, weather, or anything else. You had to execute his order whether it was possible or not.

Of course, for me, as the father of three kids—one of them currently still very much a baby—Twain’s words hit close to home! But his toast then spoke to the Army of Tennessee veterans directly:

You could face the death-storm at Donelson and Vicksburg, and give back blow for blow; but when [the baby] clawed your whiskers, and pulled your hair, and twisted your nose, you had to take it. When the thunders of war were sounding in your ears you set your faces toward the batteries, and advanced with steady tread; but when he turned on the terrors of his war-whoop, you advanced in the other direction, and mighty glad of the chance, too.

Twain even worked in a nod to Philip Sheridan, who’d fathered twin girls two years earlier. “As long as you are in your right mind, don’t you ever pray for twins,” Twain said. “Twins amount to a permanent riot. And there ain’t any real difference between triplets and an insurrection.”

As he continued, Twain pictured “the America of fifty years hence, with a population of two hundred million souls, and was saying that the future President, Admirals, and so forth of that great coming time were now lying in their various cradles, scattered aboard over the vast expanse of this country,” he later summarized,

and then said, “And now in his cradle somewhere under the flag of the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeur and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth—something, meaning no disrespect to the illustrious guest of this evening, which he turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago.”

This sudden reference to Grant—the “illustrious guest of this evening”—caught the room off-guard. “And here, [as] I had expected, the laughter ceased and a sort of shuddering silence took its place—for this was apparently carrying the matter too far,” Twain reported.

“I waited a moment or two to let this silence sink well home.

“Then turning toward the General I added: ‘And if the child is but the father of the man there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.’”

Grant, breaking his stony reserved, guffawed. “Which relieved the house,” Twain wrote, “for then they saw the General break up in good-sized pieces they followed suit with great enthusiasm.”

In his letter to Howells, he elaborated. “I shook him up like dynamite & he sat there fifteen minutes & laughed & cried like the mortalest of mortals,” Twain recounted in a self-congratulatory tone. “But bless you I had measured this unconquerable conqueror, & went at my work with the confidence of conviction, for I knew I could lick him. He told me he had shaken hands with 15,000 people that day & come out of it without ache or pain, but that my truths had racked all the bones of his body apart.”

You can read Twain’s full speech, “The Babies,” courtesy of the University of Virginia. And as you do, consider the toe-mouthing Maxwell and all the other babes—the future presidents and generals and admirals and other great men. “If the child is but the father of the man,” Twain said. I delight to wonder what he’ll someday become.