On May 12, 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered its greatest loss after Stonewall Jackson.
The Union cavalry commander, General Philip Sheridan, took his entire force of 10,000 men from Grant’s front at Spotsylvania. His column was 13 miles long. He rode for Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, to duel with Major General J. E. B. Stuart, our great cousin.
The Union cavalry outnumbered Stuart’s cavalry two to one. Stuart set up a counterattack on the Union rear. Then he stopped by a plantation nearby where his wife, Flora, was staying with their two children.
He did not have time to dismount, but leaned down and kissed Flora, then talked with her a few moments before leaving. As he rode away, silent, he at length told an aide he did not expect to survive the war. He said he did not wish to live in a defeated South.
As the Union cavalry pounded for Richmond, Stuart set up a blocking position at a former stagecoach inn named Yellow Tavern. In mid-afternoon, Stuart led a charge with his reserves.
As the Yankees retreated, a dismounted soldier saw Stuart and fired at him from 30 feet away. The Time-Life volume The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, Va., Time-Life Books 1986), p. 122, describes the result:
Stuart’s chin dropped to his chest and his hat fell off. The shock had come on his right side. He clapped a hand over the spot.
“General,” shouted one of the troopers nearby, “are you hit?”
“I am afraid I am,” he said in a level voice.
Taken by horse-drawn ambulance to Richmond, in great pain, Stuart began to bequeath his possessions to his staff. At dusk, he was told he was dying.
Two clergymen arrived at his bedside as his wife made her way to Richmond. Stuart asked them to join him in singing the hymn “Rock of Ages.” He died at 7:38 p.m. His family arrived too late.
At Spotsylvania, an aide handed a telegram to General Lee. Lee read it but could not speak for a few minutes. Then he said, “Gentlemen, we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.”
Later he told an aide, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.”