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The Battle of Ashland

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THE BATTLE OF ASHLAND happened June 1, 1864.  It involved Hanover Courthouse, Ellett’s Bridge over the South Anna River, and the Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad tracks.  It has largely been ignored by historians until recently, but it was important to those who experienced it.  The larger context of the Battle of Ashland was Federal General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign toward Richmond in the spring and summer of 1864, and in particular, the early June 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor.

Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions and two divisions of General Horatio Wright’s 6th Army Corps were fighting at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864.  About the same time two brigades of Union General James Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division were given the task of destroying the railroad bridges over the Pamunkey and South Anna Rivers to disrupt the supply lines and communication to Richmond.

After destroying the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge over the Pamunkey River north of Hanover Courthouse, Wilson sent Col. George H. Chapman’s brigade northwest to Elletts Crossing where the RF&P Bridge crossed the South Anna River just north of Ashland. On the way there he encountered Confederate forces under General Rooney Lee, Ridgley Brown, and Bradley Johnson.  The Confederate forces retreated south along the RF&P Railroad tracks toward the town of Ashland.

In the meantime, Union Gen. Wilson had sent Col. John B. McIntosh’s brigade toward Hanover Courthouse where Confederate forces had just left on their way toward Ashland.  Union Gen. McIntosh continued on toward Ashland too, and when he got there he set up positions on the north, east, and south sides of the tracks and placed soldiers in and around homes along the tracks.

Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, who had trained at Camp Ashland at the beginning of the war, and Brig. Gen. Thomas L Rosser1 came to the aid of the Confederates on Ashland Road near Ashland by moving north from Atlee Station southeast of Ashland to encounter McIntosh.

Other Confederates under Hampton, who had vacated Hanover Courthouse, positioned themselves south of Ashland on the RF&P tracks.

So McIntosh’s Union brigade was situated in Ashland and boxed in on the North, South, and East by the Confederates.  The only escape route was west, but that would separate McIntosh’s brigade even more from the rest of the Union forces.  It was an unexpected, perfect opportunity for Wade Hamptons’s cavalry to capture McIntosh’s entire cavalry brigade!

The Confederates dismounted and attacked.  There was hand-to-hand combat by the dismounted cavalry on both sides.  Just in time, Federal reinforcements came down from Elletts Crossing, giving McIntosh’s Union forces a northern escape route back toward Elletts Crossing, where he could join other Union forces.  From Elletts Crossing the Union forces regrouped and were back at Hanover Courthouse by the evening.

St. George Tucker Brooke, who had attended prep school in Ashland, recounted an engagement with the enemy at Ashland in the late spring of 1864.  It may well have been the Battle of Ashland that he describes, but it also may have been an engagement on May 11, 1864, just prior to the Battle of Yellow Tavern.  Without the exact date, it is hard to tell, but some of the commanders in his description are those involved in the Battle of Ashland.  Writes Brooke, “During the late Spring of 1864, Gen’l Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade halted on the ‘Telegraph Road’ in the rear of the ball room [of the Ashland Hotel and Mineral Water Company] and the command was given, ‘Prepare to fight on foot; Dismount.’  The brigade dismounted, marched through the woods, perhaps three hundred yards and charged that ballroom which was filled with ‘Yankee’ soldiers.  The ‘Yankees’ bounded out of the front windows and doors as we bounded in the rear windows and doors.  A sharp fight took place in the lawn.  The enemy retreated rapidly from the lawn into the street where we followed them.  A body of enemy’s cavalry, which had been cut off from their main force, charged us while we were on foot in the street.  We poured a volley into them and repulsed them.  I saw a northern soldier shot off his horse just at the corner of Uncle Saint’s yard. [304 S Center Street was the home of Male Academy headmaster St. George Tucker]  My boyhood playground had become a field of battle.” 2

Who won the Battle of Ashland? The Union did succeed in destroying the 2 railroad bridges and tracks in Ashland as well, but they paid a price in heavy casualties.  The Confederates did not capture McIntosh’s brigade, but they did cause heavy casualties, chased the Union out of Ashland, and captured valuable Union horses and supplies as well.  And within days, the Confederates had rebuilt the tracks and bridges.  Both sides thought they had won.  In the end, the Battle of Ashland was not an important strategic battle.  Gordon Rhea writes in his Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, “The battle at Ashland, like most Civil War cavalry engagements, was stirring to participants but represented little more than a sideshow.”  The important battle at Old Cold Harbor, according to Rhea, was to be decided by the Infantry, not the dashing Cavalry that fought at the Battle of Ashland.3

For additional reading on the battles of Ashland and Cold Harbor, see Gordon C Rhea’s Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, especially the chapter starting page 195 entitled “June 1, Grant and Lee Jockey for Position.”  Mr. Rhea included in Appendixes I and II listings of the Union and Confederate forces and their leaders from which the list of units involved in this engagement is taken.

See also John M. Gabbert’s Military Operations in Hanover County Virginia 1861-1865, pages 88-89, available at Bell Book & Candle, 106 1/2 South Railroad Avenue, Ashland, VA 23005-2076, (804) 798-9047.

See also William N. McDonald’s A History of the Laurel Brigade, Chapter IX.

And see Ashland, Ashland: the story of a turn-of-the-century railroad town, published by Brunswick Publishing in 1994. Available at the Ashland Museum and at Bell, Book & Candle in Ashland, VA.

A side note:  The Richmond Dispatch, reporting on the Battle of Ashland the next day, described the Union troops as “mostly negro troops.”  I have not found another account making that claim, but in the interest of including information on African-American participation in the Civil War, I include this quote.4

(The foregoing was summarized from Gordon C Rhea’s Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee and from Rosanne Groat Shalf’s Ashland Ashland and other research)

THE UNITS AND INDIVIDUAL COMMANDERS INVOLVED IN THE BATTLE OF ASHLAND

Federal Cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan

  • 3rdDivision under Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson
    • 1stBrigade under Col. John B. McIntosh
      • 1st Connecticut Cavalry
      • 3rd New Jersey Cavalry
      • 2nd New York Cavalry
      • 5th New York Cavalry
      • 2nd Ohio Cavalry
      • 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry
    • 2ndBrigade under Col. George H. Chapman
      • 3rd Indiana Cavalry
      • 8th New York Cavalry
      • 1st Vermont Cavalry

 

Confederate Cavalry corps under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton

  • Hampton’s Division
    • Young’s Brigade under Col. Gilbert J. Wright
    • Rosser’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser
      • 7th Virginia Cavalry
      • 11th Virginia Cavalry
      • 12th Virginia Cavalry
  • William H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s Division (see Endnote #2)
    • Chambliss’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss
      • 9th Virginia Cavalry
      • 10th Virginia Cavalry
    • Gordon’s Brigade under Col. John A. Baker
      • 3rd North Carolina Cavalry
      • 5th North Carolina Cavalry
  • Horse Artillery
    • South Carolina Battery under Maj. James F. Hart
  • Breckenridge’s Division
    • Maryland Line under Col. Bradley T. Johnson
      • 1st Maryland Cavalry
  • Baltimore Light Artillery

________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 Dispatch, Richmond, VA,

2Brooke, St. George Tucker, Memoirs, Virginia Historical Society, Mss2 B7906a1, p. 16. A note of explanation here:  Major Gen. W.H.F. Lee, known as Rooney Lee, was Robert E. Lee’s son. Fitzhugh Lee was Robert E. Lee’s nephew.  Fitz and Rooney were cousins.  The two were frequently confused when participants recounted their experiences in battle.  That’s why they went by nicknames Fitz and Rooney.  It may be that St. George Tucker Brooke, who mentions Fitz Lee, meant Rooney Lee instead.

3Rhea, Gordon C, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26 – June 3, 1864, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2002, pp 195 to 223.

4 Richmond Dispatch, June 2, 1864.

Dedication of Mural of Old Ashland

1953 Speech by Robert Lancaster at the dedication of the Mural of Old Ashland at the War Memorial.

In years Ashland is young—it is growing—its future holds great promise and those of us whose roots are deeply imbedded in its soil are proud of its past. We look backward to its beginnings and its accomplishments and from then gain confidence for the future and strength to face tomorrow…” – November 29, 1953

Slash Cottage

Edwin Robinson amd the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Railway Company developed Slash Cottage as a mineral springs resort on land that is now occupied by Randolph-Macon College.  This 1854 lithograph of Slash Cottage mineral springs resort shows the hotel, ballroom, cottages, bathhouses, bowling alley, well, bar, kitchen and an octagonal gas house for lighting the buildings and grounds with acetylene gas.  What was called by many “The Hotel,” or “The Cottage,” was actually about 17 buildings. An 1860 plat of the resort recorded in the Hanover County Deed Book 4 corroborates the existence of most of the buildings in the lithograph. None of the buildings of the resort have survived to the present day.

Quote from English tourist traveling by train through Ashland in April 1861, describing Ashland and the Slash Cottage hotel:

We passed the village of Ashland, ‘the birthplace of Henry Clay.’…It presented the most singular collection of fairy lodging-houses any one can imagine.  There was a small fanciful hotel, built of wood, gaily painted, and decorated with abundance of Brussels lace borders of carved work, with little gables, little pinnacles, little colonnades, and little columns to match.  On the opposite side of the road was a long shed, also decorated with Brussels lace in wooden edgings; containing a table of corresponding length, and rows of seats all round, fenced in with trellis-work…Around a sort of green or common, dotted with ‘shade trees’ and seats, and everywhere else you looked, were scattered the strangest assemblage of little dolls’ houses and summer dwellings…all painted in rainbow hues, with tiny piazzas, trellises, dormer windows, steps, and cupolas, and abundance of wooden trimmings, all open and airy, and all intended for the out-of-doors life…

(From Life in the South: From the Commencement of the War by Catherine Cooper Hopley, Volume I 1863, pp 235-236, Augustus M Kelley publishers, NY, 1971)

The hotel at Slash Cottage showing “abundance of wooden trimmings, all open and airy” (circa 1854-1863).

Why would the company choose Slash Cottage for the name of a mineral springs resort? A slash, according to the understanding of the time, was a damp, lowland forest, sometimes having been logged and cut down.  But for Hanoverians and Richmonders, slash called up pictures of the birthplace of their native son, Henry Clay, whose biographer had called him “millboy of the slashes.”

For the history on the name change from Slash Cottage to Ashland, see the article titled “How Did Ashland Get Its Name?“.

Note: Henry Clay was not born in Ashland. He was born about 2 or 3 miles east at his family home, Clay Spring.