As the armies of
Grant and Lee fought bitterly in the trenches around Spotsylvania Court House, Major General Philip Sheridan took his cavalry on what
appeared to be a raid on the Confederate Capital. Sheridan however was instead baiting the Confederate cavalry into a fight, knowing
that if he threatened Richmond, Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart would follow. In a heated discussion with Union Major General
George Meade about the role of the cavalry, Sheridan would say, "If I am permitted to cut loose from this army I'll draw Stuart
after me, and whip him, too."
Sheridan would have his way as General Stuart did
pursue the Union cavalry, telegraphing Richmond of the danger. He would tell General Braxton Bragg, military advisor to President
Jefferson Davis, that the "...enemy (was) advancing on Brook Turnpike 9 miles out, at Yellow Tavern, supposed 9,000 strong."
General Stuart would position his men near Yellow Tavern, a rundown abandoned structure that soldiers had at times stripped for
firewood and prepare for the collision to come.
Major General Fitzhugh Lee, who served with General Stuart, would describe the ensuing conflict and the event of his commander's death.
"...Pretty soon from the enemy came lively volleys whistling through the trees and starting the dust in the road. In a few minutes
I saw two horsemen approach from the Confederate side. As they drew near I recognized General Stuart and Colonel Walter Hullion. They
halted near by in the road, and Stuart, taking out his field-glass, deliberately watched the manoeuvres of the enemy, though balls were
whizzing past him. ...The firing continued to increase, and many squadrons were in sight. The enemy, awake to their superior numbers,
seemed about to make a general advance, while our men were availing themselves of the character of the ground to repel their
attack...The disparity of numbers between the opposing forces was very great, to judge from appearances. Our men seemed aware of their
inferior strength, but were not dismayed. The enemy confidently pressed forward with exultant shouts, delivering tremendous volleys.
The Confederates returned their fire with yells of defiance.
Stuart, with pistol in hand, shot over the heads of the troops, while with words of cheer he encouraged them. He kept saying:
"Steady, men, Steady. Give it to them." Presently he reeled in his saddle.
His head was bowed and his hat
fell off. He turned and said as I drew nearer: "Go and tell General Lee and Dr. Fontaine to come here. I wheeled at once and
went as fast as I could to do his bidding. Coming to the part of the line where General Lomax was, I told him Stuart was hurt and that
he wanted General Fitz Lee. He pointed to the left and told me to hurry. Soon I found General Lee, and delivered the message. He was
riding a light gray, if I remember, and instantly upon receipt of the news went like an arrow down the line. When I returned, Stuart
had been taken from his horse and was being carried by his men off the field. I saw him put in an ambulance and I followed it close
behind. He lay without speaking as it went along, but kept shaking his head with an expression of the deepest disappointment.
He died the next day, May 12th."
The men in blue and gray recognized the severity of the clash that took the revered cavalryman's life. Union Brigadier General
Wesley Merritt would say of this fight, "The enemy fought with much desperation..." Union General George Armstrong Custer
would add that the withdrawing Confederate Cavalry left "...a large number of dead and wounded in our hands." He would also
state, "I have every reason to believe that the rebel General J. E. B. Stuart received his death wound."
Confederate General William Nelson Pendleton would call it "a severe conflict."
Along with the entire South, the Union soldiers recognized the importance of the loss of General Stuart. Union
Brigadier General J. H. Wilson observed of the outcome of Yellow Tavern, "The rebel cavalry leader, J. E. B. Stuart, was killed,
and from it may be dated the permanent superiority of the national cavalry over that of the rebels."
Respected North and South, Union General Rodenbough would say of the loss of Stuart, "At this moment Stuart received his
death-wound by a pistol-shot in the abdomen. Deep in the hearts of all true cavalrymen, North and South, will ever burn a sentiment
of admiration mingled with regret for this knightly soldier and generous man. Sheridan had succeeded in his purpose, but he had
found a foeman worthy of his steel."