On May 9th, 3 Union cavalry divisions (12,000 troopers) and 32 cannons, riding in a column stretching 13 miles, abandoned the army's lines around Spotsylvania Court House. Ordered by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to pass around Gen. Robert E. Lee's army and attack his cavalry and communications, the commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, marched at a leisurely pace. Sheridan's purpose, as he said, was to whip Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart out of his boots.
Before dusk, the powerful force reached the North Anna River, where 2 divisions camped while a third rode to Beaver Dam Station, Lee's advance supply base on the Virginia Central Railroad. The night sky glowed with the flames of a burning depot, torched by Confederate guards, and 100 railway cars and 2 locomotives destroyed by the Union troopers. The cavalrymen also freed nearly 400 Union soldiers. On the 10th, Sheridan resumed his deliberate pace, halting at night along the banks of the South Anna River.
The confrontation Sheridan sought came the next day when Stuart, who had pushed his horsemen for 2 days, intercepted the Union command at Yellow Tavern, 6 miles north of Richmond. In the swirling engagement, the Confederates stubbornly held against Sheridan's superior numbers and armament. During 1 of the Union assaults late in the day, Stuart was mortally wounded. "Little Phil" finally broke off the engagement, advanced towards Richmond, and passed the capital's outer works that evening.
Sheridan considered attacking Richmond, then abandoned the audacious scheme, swinging eastward. Passing across the peninsula, the Federals reached Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's lines at Haxall's Landing on the 14th. Ten days later, they rejoined the Army south of Spotsylvania. Sheridan';s raid supplied additional proof of the rising superiority of Union cavalry, now augmented by the irreplacable loss of Stuart.