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.