Lately, when the opportunity has presented itself, I’ve been reviewing primary accounts of the Battle of Trevilian Station. The announcement last week regarding our speakers lineup for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium (early bird rates are still available) prompted me to ask this question: was the battle a turning point? While I continue to mull this over I am certain that the engagement was a launching point for Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton.
A South Carolinian of immense wealth, Hampton raised his own Legion at the outset of the conflict and was wounded at First Manassas. Appointed to brigade command in December, 1862, Hampton received a second wound at Seven Pines. That summer, he transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry division led by Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Hampton fought well at Brandy Station and received a third wound at Gettysburg. During his recuperation, Stuart reorganized the cavalry which included Hampton’s promotion to Major General and an elevation to division command. Stuart’s death in May 1864 left Hampton as the senior officer in Robert E. Lee’s cavalry corps. Lee, however, did not immediately name a successor to Stuart. Instead he elected to have his three mounted divisions report directly to him for orders. This decision would soon be tested on the rolling hills of central Virginia.
Fought to a standstill by Lee’s army at Cold Harbor northwest of Richmond, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to strike out for the logistical hub at Petersburg. As a diversion, Grant decided to send his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alfred Torbert and David Gregg west. Sheridan was directed to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as he moved toward the Shenandoah Valley and rendezvous with Union forces under David Hunter.
On June 8, Hampton received word from his scouts of Sheridan’s movement. Along with Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s division, Hampton and his troopers set out to intercept the Federals. In two days of hard marching, Hampton was able to place his men squarely across Sheridan’s path. As darkness descended across on the night of June 10, Hampton’s division bedded down in the vicinity and just west of Trevilian Station. Lee was several miles to the east at Louisa Courthouse. Sheridan lay a few miles north of the Confederates near the hamlet of Clayton’s Store.
Hampton decided to move out and attack Sheridan the next morning. “General Lee was ordered to attack on the road leading from Louisa Court-House to Clayton’s Store, while my division would attack the road from Trevilian Station to the same point” Hampton wrote. “By this disposition of my troops I hoped to cover Lee’s left and my right flank; to drive the enemy back if he attempted to reach Gordonsville by passing to my left, and conceal my real design, which was to strike him at Clayton’s Store after uniting the two divisions.”
Early on the eleventh, elements of Brig. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s brigade of Hampton’s division started north along the Fredericksburg Road. It was not long before they encountered the advance of Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s brigade of Torbert’s division. As the fighting intensified, Hampton pushed up Brig. Pierce M.B. Young’s brigade, led by Col. Gilbert Wright to reinforce Butler. Torbert, supported by Gregg, added Col. Thomas Devin’s brigade to the Union line and the two sides slammed away at each other in a dismounted fight.
“I hoped to effect a junction with Lee’s division at Clayton’s Store in a short time; but while we were driving the enemy in front it was reported to me that a force had appeared in my rear” Hampton recalled. Inexplicably, Lee had not moved quickly enough and had allowed Brig. Gen. George A. Custer’s brigade to slip through the gap between the two Confederate divisions. If Custer could maintain his position, he would make Hampton’s line on the Fredericksburg Road untenable.
Fortunately, the Confederates had troopers on hand to deal with Custer. Hampton’s uncommitted brigade under Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser moved to engage Custer’s troopers. Rosser was joined by Lee’s division, moving in from Louisa. This combined force soon hemmed in Custer. Still, Hampton had to deal with the Federals moving south along the Fredericksburg Road. Unable to maintain his position, Hampton pulled back and formed a new line to confront the Federals, abandoning the area around Trevilian Station. Eventually, the Confederates withdrew farther to the west and consolidated on property owned by the Ogg family.
Despite having been forced from each line he held on June 11, Hampton remained confident in his ability and the spirit of the men under him. “The two generals had very different ideas about the day’s work; Sheridan supposing the battle was over, and Hampton knowing that it had not been fought yet” recalled a member of Rosser’s brigade. In preparation for the next day, Hampton relinquished command of his division to Matthew Butler.
The following afternoon, while Gregg engaged in the destruction of the railraod, Sheridan dispatched Torbert to engage Hampton. For several hours, combat swirled about the Ogg Farm. Late in the day, after being reinforced by Lee, Hampton launched a flank attack which rolled up Torbert’s right and forced the Federals back to their lines around Trevilian Station. Unable to break through, Sheridan abandoned the expedition and began his return march to Grant’s armies. Hampton pursued and on June 24, attacked and stampeded Gregg’s division near Samaria Church some twenty miles from Richmond.
“I am convinced that the cavalry service will be benefited by having one officer to control its operations” Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis on July 2. “You know the high opinion I entertain of…Hampton, and my appreciation of his character and services. In his late expedition he has displayed both energy and good conduct, and although I have feared that he might not have that activity and endurance so necessary in a cavalry commander, and so eminently possessed by…Stuart, yet should you be unable to assign anyone to the command of the cavalry in this army whom you deem possessed of higher qualifications, I request authority to place him in command.” A little over a month later, Lee issued Special Order No. 189, elevating Hampton to corps command.
Interestingly enough, the battle which served as the catalyst for Hampton’s rise did not begin well. Custer’s movement threatened to trap two of Hampton’s brigades fighting on the Fredericksburg Road. Much of the inability to connect with Hampton’s right rests on the shoulders of Fitzhugh Lee, who never offered a logical explanation for his tardiness. As the senior officer on the field Hampton also shares some of the blame. He did, however, move to rectify the issue with the command structure and handed direction of his division to Butler so he could better direct operations. Throughout the battle, Hampton displayed a quiet resilience which ultimately led to victory.
Hampton continued to impress in the coming weeks during the Siege of Petersburg. He shined again at Second Reams Station in August. Less than a month later, he launched an expedition into the Union rear that captured over 2,400 head of cattle to feed Lee’s army. At the end of October, he helped repulse a Union offensive at Burgess Mill. In response to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s march from Savannah in February, 1865, Hampton received permission to move south and defend his native state. In the Carolinas, Hampton continued to exhibit the same skill and tenacity that had brought him success in Virginia. At Bentonville, his scouting and reconnaissance were crucial in formulating Joseph Johnston’s battle plan. His leadership on what became the last day of the engagement was invaluable in repulsing a Union assault which threatened to cut off the Confederate line of retreat. Arguably, by the end of the war, Hampton’s conduct and record equaled if not exceeded that of his predecessor, Jeb Stuart.