Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864)

Updated: July 20, 2019

The Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864) was a cavalry engagement during Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.

  • Prelude
  • Grant in Charge
  • Grant Pursues Lee
  • Overland Campaign
  • Battle of The Wilderness
  • Race to Spotsylvania Court House
  • Cavalry Battle at Yellow Tavern
  • Aftermath

Prelude

Grant in Charge

On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked their own timidity, Grant was tenacious.

Grant Pursues Lee

Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s focused on defeating Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.

Overland Campaign

On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany the army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations.

Battle of The Wilderness

From May 5 to May 7, the two armies fought to a standoff at the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the more gruesome engagements of the war. Fought in thick undergrowth, many of the wounded soldiers burned to death during the conflict. When the battle ended, the Federals had suffered the same fate as previous Union forces that had fought in the vicinity. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army, while suffering approximately 11,000 losses. Grant, however, unlike his predecessors, did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to disengage, to march his army around Lee’s forces and to move deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.

Race to Spotsylvania Court House

Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade’s army between Lee’s army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania that again resulted in high casualties.

Cavalry Battle at Yellow Tavern

Hoping to cause confusion among the Southerners during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Grant dispatched Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps on a raid of Southern communication and supply lines near Richmond. Lee immediately sent General James Ewell Brown Stuart’s cavalry in pursuit. On May 11, the Confederates intercepted the Federals at Yellow Tavern, Virginia. Union soldiers outnumbered the Confederates and forced them to retreat following a spirited engagement.

Aftermath

After the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Union officials reported 625 casualties (killed, wounded, captured/missing). The Confederacy lost roughly 300 soldiers (mostly captured).

Perhaps more significantly, during the conflict Union Private John A. Huff dealt the Confederacy a substantial blow when mortally wounded Stuart with his .44 caliber revolver. Stuart died the next day, May 12, 1864, leaving a sizable void in the Army of Northern Virginia’s command structure.

Cavalry units:

2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Yellow Tavern," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 21 Oct 2019 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=468>

APA Style

"Battle of Yellow Tavern." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved October 21, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=468

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