Yellow Tavern is an engagement that continues to interest me. Although much of the battlefield has been obliterated by modern development, traces of it still remain and like many other battles, so do unanswered questions. The regimental alignment of Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade on the final Confederate line is still open for debate. Correspondingly, the identity of the Union cavalryman who fired the fatal shot that wounded Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart also remains a mystery.
Stuart’s mortal wounding is fascinating for a number reasons. First, Stuart was the second corps commander lost to Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in less than a week. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet had been wounded by friendly fire on May 6 in the Wilderness. Stuart’s loss deprived Lee of perhaps his most reliable subordinate at a critical time in the Overland Campaign. It was not until August that Lee formally named a successor, Wade Hampton. Hampton, however, would go on to become just as much as a scourge to his enemies as his predecessor had been. Also, Stuart was not the only corps commander who was killed or wounded in the history of Lee’s army.
After pursuing Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry corps south from Spotsylvania for two days, Stuart planned to intercept the Federals near the convergence of the Mountain Road, Brook Turnpike and Telegraph Road above Richmond. The battle began around mid-morning on May 11, 1864 when the brigades of Cols. Thomas Devin, Alfred Gibbs and Brig. Gen. George A. Custer attacked Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax along the Telegraph Road. Heavily outnumbered, Lomax’s line soon folded, his three regiments retreating to a ridge to the north. There, Stuart reformed Lomax to the left of Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade.
Following a brief lull, Sheridan attacked the ridge. While elements of Col. George Chapman’s brigade along with the 5th and 6th Michigan occupied Wickham’s right and center, the main assault took place at the juncture of the two Confederate brigades. Under the direction of George Custer, the 1st Michigan, 7th Michigan and 1st Vermont launched a mounted charge up the Telegraph Road. The Union troopers crashed into the Confederate line between Wickham’s left and Lomax’s right near the position of the Baltimore Light Artillery. Although the Federals initially gained a toe hold on the ridge, reserve companies from the 1st Virginia counterattacked and pressed the blue troopers back. It was during the brief aftermath of this counterattack that Stuart received his wound.
“As they retired, one man who had been dismounted in the charge, and was running out on foot, turned as he passed the general, and discharging his pistol inflicted the fatal wound” wrote Maj. Henry McClellan of Stuart’s staff. Stuart was evacuated from the ridge shortly before the weight Custer’s attack broke the Confederate line, leaving the Federals in control of the field. The Confederate cavalier died the following evening in Richmond.
Nearly two months later when Col. Russell Alger, the commander of the 5th Michigan penned his official report, he claimed his very own John Huff was the man who shot Stuart. Alger stated Huff opened fire on an officer “accompanied by a large staff and escort, carrying a battle flag.” George Custer took his subordinate at his word and repeated the claim in his own report of the campaign. Further credence was given to these claims since Huff was a former member of “Berdan’s Sharpshooters” and considered a crack shot. Such assertions, however, pose problems.
First, Stuart was alone when he was shot. His staff was off performing other duties along the battle line. Further, the 5th Michigan was not one of the units employed by Custer to spearhead the main attack. The regiment launched their attack to the right of Stuart’s location and outside of the general vicinity where he received his wound. Stuart was struck in his left side, the bullet passing through his stomach before exiting his back. Unfortunately, Huff did not provide any clarity to the contentions made by his superiors. He died of wounds received a little over two weeks later at the Battle of Haw’s Shop.
Based on the location of Custer’s regiments on the field, it is more likely that a trooper from the 1st Michigan rather than the 5th Michigan inflicted the wound. Additionally, it may also be fair to conclude that the unknown Wolverine did not know who he was aiming at when he pulled the trigger. Perhaps we will never know the identity of the soldier who brought down Stuart. After the war, a trooper from the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry who fought at Yellow Tavern best summed up the circumstances surrounding the event: “It seems rather strange to me that so important an occurrence, if the facts were definitely known, should have remained unwritten history all these years.”