After the two days of heavy fighting in the Wilderness, General Grant decided to move around Lee’s flank toward Spotsylvania Court House. In order to get there, his cavalry would have to clear the Brock Road and take the crossroads at Todd’s Tavern to cut the Confederate route to Spotsylvania. General Lee, divining Grant’s intent, tasked his own cavalry to protect the Confederate route to Spotsylvania and slow down the Union advance. This would lead to some of the most intense cavalry combat to this point in the war.
Ironically, Major General Sheridan’s Union cavalry had held Todd’s Tavern during the previous two days of fighting in the Wilderness, but withdrew them on the night of May 6th toward Chancellorsville. This allowed General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalry to reoccupy the crossroads and make improvements to earthworks previously constructed by Union forces.
Sheridan planned a two-pronged attack which would meet at the crossroads on May 7th. The First Division would advance south and clear the Brock Road from Catherine Furnace, while the Second Division would advance west up the Catharpin Road. Once the crossroads was seized, the Second Division would continue west and seize Corbin’s Bridge over the Po River, further hindering Confederate efforts to reach Spotsylvania.
General Alfred Torbert required surgery for an abscess in his back, so Brigadier General Wesley Merritt commanded the First Division, while Colonel Alfred Gibbs assumed command of the Reserve Brigade. Major General David McM. Gregg commanded the Second Division.
The Union plan was initially successful. Merritt’s division met Fitz Lee’s Confederates at 3 p.m. about a mile north of Todd’s Tavern. Gibbs, whose Reserve Brigade led the division, dismounted and deployed his lead regiment, the 6th Pennsylvania, as skirmishers to the left of the road. Gibbs’ official report describes the deployment of the rest of the brigade:
“Finding the enemy to be in force, consisting of, it is believed, Fitzhugh Lee’s division of cavalry, the First U.S. Cavalry and First New York Dragoons were deployed as skirmishers, on foot, to the left of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry. The Fifth U.S. Cavalry was deployed similarly on the right side of the road.”
As Merritt engaged the Confederate cavalry, Gregg’s division arrived on their right flank, near Piney Branch Church. Lee conducted a fighting withdrawal to the south. Once Merritt had driven the Confederates south of the crossroads, Gregg advanced as planned toward Corbin’s Bridge. He was met a mile west of the crossroads by Rosser’s brigade of Confederate cavalry from Wade Hampton’s division. In heavy dismounted fighting, Gregg was able to force Rosser back to the bridge, but withdrew to the tavern after Hampton’s remaining two brigades moved to Rosser’s support.
In the meantime Merritt, aided by Davies’ brigade of Gregg’s division advancing on Lee’s right flank on the Piney Branch Road, forced Fitzhugh Lee’s division farther south. Two miles south of the tavern, Lee established a new defensive line in some existing log barricades. Merritt attacked him there in the late afternoon in the deadliest phase of the battle. The Reserve Brigade’s deployment remained the same, adding, “The Second U.S. Cavalry was held mounted on the extreme left, while Williston’s battery came into position on a high ridge in rear, where they did excellent service, silencing the enemy’s battery and killing and wounding several of their men and horses. After a sharp engagement, lasting until dark, the enemy were driven off, leaving many of their dead and wounded upon the field.”
***The map of the fighting taken from Hal Jespersen’s excellent map site at http://www.cwmaps.com/freemaps.html
Merritt succeeded capturing the fortifications at dusk, but withdrew back toward Todd’s Tavern after dark, concerned for the security of his flanks. Fitzhugh Lee lost no time in reoccupying the position. Gregg encamped his division at the crossroads.
General Meade, meanwhile, had begun his army’s advance toward Spotsylvania, with Warren’s Fifth Corps leading the march. Orders to Sheridan to clear the Brock Road all the way to Spotsylvania apparently miscarried, and he reached the tavern about midnight to discover Gregg’s troops encamped there. Furious, he ordered Merritt to finish clearing the road to Spotsylvania Court House and Gregg to seize Corbin’s Bridge and hold it to protect the army’s right flank.
Advancing, Merritt discovered that Fitz Lee’s troops had made good use of the night’s hours to reinforce their position of the previous afternoon. Attacking dismounted on both sides of the road, he eventually forced Lee’s men from the position but was unable to advance further. His men’s carbine ammunition was exhausted, and they were reduced to firing their pistols. The heavy woods prevented the employment of the battery.
General Robinson’s infantry division of the Fifth Corps passed through them and pushed the Confederates back to within two miles of Spotsylvania before they were reinforced by the lead elements of the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederate cavalry had delayed the Union army long enough for Lee to win the race to Spotsylvania.
Losses were heavy, particularly in Merritt’s division. “In this severely contested action our loss in both officers and men was heavy. Ten officers were wounded and 4 taken prisoners, besides 141 enlisted men killed, wounded, and missing,” wrote Gibbs of his brigade. The Reserve Brigade suffered 198 of the 315 casualties in the division, compared to 62 in the First Brigade and 55 in the Second Brigade. The relatively inexperienced 1st New York Dragoons suffered the highest loss of any cavalry regiment in a single engagement during the war, with 20 enlisted men killed in action and 91 total casualties. This was a source of some bitterness during the remainder of their service with the brigade, but the other regiments were hard hit as well. The 6th Pennsylvania had three officers wounded, including their commanding officer, and 31 enlisted casualties. Two of the regular regiments suffered losses of almost 10 percent. The 2nd U.S. lost one officer wounded and 24 enlisted men killed, wounded or missing. The 1st U.S., suffered 45 casualties, including six or the eight officers present for duty wounded. Only the diminished 5th U.S. was relatively unscathed, with one officer killed in action and two enlisted men wounded.
Declaring a victor for the battle is somewhat problematic. Both sides lost heavily. While the Confederate cavalry was forced to yield its positions successively to the Union cavalry, it did fulfill its mission of delaying the Union advance and enabling Lee to reach Spotsylvania first. The Union cavalry’s tactical successes, however, made the race a near thing and denied Lee the opportunity to improve his position before the next battle. They also inflicted heavy casualties on the Confederate cavalry it could ill afford.
OR, Vol. 36, Pt. 1, pages 115, 128, 811-812 and 845-847.
Price, George F. Across the Continent With the Fifth Cavalry, pages 123-124.
Rhea, Gordon. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, pages 30-42.
Rodenbough, Theophilus. From Everglade to Canyon, pages 304-305.
Welcher, Frank, The Union Army, pages 531- 532.