Haw's Shop, May 28, 1864
The Battle of Haw's Shop, or Enon Church (May 28. 1864) lasted for over seven hours and was the bloodiest cavalry battle since Brandy Station in 1863. It is often overshadowed by the Battle of Cold Harbor five days later. Confederate Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, newly appointed Confederate cavalry chief after the death of JEB Stuart at Yellow Tavern, attempted a reconnaisance in force of the Army of the Potomac approaching Richmond fielding three veteran cavalry brigades (Fitzhugh Lee, Wm. Wickham, Thomas Rosser), a battery of horse artillery, and three regiments of untried mounted infantry (Matthew C. Butler) newly arrived from South Carolina.
At the time Federal infantry from Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s command were attempting to cross a pontoon bridge over the Pamunkey River erected by the 50th NY Engineers. Maj. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg led his Federal cavalry division probing west toward a major intersection on the Hanovertown-Richmond Turnpike, searching for R.E. Lee’s flank. Three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile beyond the large blacksmith shop of John Haw, called Haw's Shop, Gregg's troopers ran into Hampton’s men near Enon Church, finding the Confederate cavalrymen dismounted in a wooded area behind a swamp. Here the Confederates hastily erected breastworks made of logs and rails between a stream and a mill pond with the approach well-covered by the accompanying horse artillery.
Brig. Gen. Henry E. Davies, Jr., of Gregg's cavalry division deployed skirmishers from the 10th New York Cavalry to Hampton's front, but found it was impossible to turn the flanks of the position. Despite being outnumbered, Gregg chose to launch a frontal assault that the Confederates met with a wall of fire. Gregg's first attack ground to a halt, and a second attack (Col. J. Irwin Gregg’s brigade) also failed to dislodge the Confederates. Hampton's men then moved out from their works and started a series of counterattacks forcing Gregg to send for reinforcements from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who released two brigades from Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert's 1 st Cavalry Division (formerly under John Buford who had been killed). After fighting near the Haw House, including a failed mounted attack in column down the turnpike by the 2nd VA Cavalry, the Confederates fell back a short distance. A brigade under Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt extended Greg's line to the right, thwarting Hampton's attempted flanking maneuver. Sheridan also threw Brig. Gen. George Custer's brigade (4 regiments of Michigan cavalry) into the fight. Due to the heavily wooded terrain, Custer had his brigade dismount and deploy in a long, double-ranked line of battle, as if they were infantrymen. Some of the relatively inexperienced South Carolina infantry mistook a Union shift in position for a retreat and charged after them, only to run into Custer's men, who captured 80 of the Confederates. The enthusiastic S.C. charge near Enon Church caused the Federals to withdraw. Forty one of the Union cavalrymen fell in the attack. Fitzhugh Lee apparently ordered the overall withdrawal because he mistook Custer’s dismounted cavalry for reinforcing Federal infantry.
Since the Confederates withdrew, the battle was technically a Federal victory. Nonetheless, Hampton and his men had delayed the Federal advance for several hours, and Gen. R. E. Lee was able to shift the Army of Northern Virginia to a new position at Cold Harbor (which would be the site of the bloodiest 15 minutes of the Civil War). It should be noted that the South Carolina mounted infantry carried Enfield rifles, which outranged the carbines carried by the Federal cavalry. The Federals were armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines. One Federal trooper estimated that the 200 men in his unit had fired 18,000 rounds. Their carbines got so hot that from time to time the men had to pause to let them cool.
John Haw owned the blacksmith’s shop around which the battle raged. His family lived in a house in an oak grove about a mile from the battle line, and this building was used as a field hospital and Federal horse artillery position during the fight. After the fight Haw’s reported 44 dead horses in and near his home. Union casualties were 256 men in Gregg's division and another 41 from Custer's brigade, including Private John Huff, the cavalryman from the 5th Michigan who had fatally shot Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern. Confederate losses were never tabulated officially, but Union reports claimed they buried 187 enemy bodies after the battle, recovered 40 to 50 wounded men, and captured 80 South Carolinians. Total casualties for both sides were between 700 and 800 killed, wounded, or missing.
The battlefield monument pictured below was placed at the gravesite of 25 men who fell in the battle.
David M. Gregg