Battle of Todd's Tavern "A Hunch Pays Off" May 7-8, 1864
On May 4, 1864, in the opening campaign of that year, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 122,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River and started the last of a long series of Union "drives on Richmond". Gen. Robert E. Lee's 66,000-man Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Army of the Potomac on May 5 and 6 and fought it to a bloody standstill in the Battle of the Wilderness. Lee thought Grant's next move would be to try to move the Army of the Potomac around the right of the Army of Northern Virginia and try to get between Lee and Richmond. Acting audaciously on that hunch, Lee began pulling his troops out of the Wilderness lines and starting them on the road to Spotsylvania Court House, a strategic crossroads in what he surmised was Grant's plan. Whichever army won the race to Spotsylvania would have an important edge over the other.
Lee assigned the job of slowing down the Union columns and protecting the Confederates' route to Gen. Jeb Stuart, his cavalry commander. Grant's orders to his cavalry chief, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, were to cut the route the Confederates would take to Spotsylvania and to take and hold the crossroads. On May 7, the two opposing cavalries met at Todd's Tavern at 4:00pm and engaged in a slashing cavalry battle until after dark. The Confederates retired and the Union troopers held the field, but the Southern troopers were accomplishing their mission and the Union troopers were not.
The battle resumed the next morning. It was an obstinate struggle with heavy losses on both sides. The gray soldiers were slowly pushed back upon Spotsylvania. They were just about to have to abandon the crossroads when the first of Lee's infantry arrived, across a bridge Sheridan had ordered his cavalry to destroy. The infantry secured the area for the Confederacy. Tactically, Stuart's troops had lost the Battle of Todd's Tavern; strategically, it was a great victory.
Fascinating Fact: Criticized for his cavalry's performance, Sheridan angrily cried that if Grant would cut him loose from the army, he would battle Stuart and beat him. Four days later Sheridan did just that, mortally wounding Stuart at Yellow Tavern.
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