by Joseph W. McKinney
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. Pp. viii, 352.
Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0786499036
The Civil War’s Greatest Clash of Cavalry
McKinney follows up his earlier Brandy Station with this account of the less celebrated cavalry action almost a exactly a year later, that unfold just a few dozen miles to the south, at Trevilian Station. Although, as McKinney points out, both battles are often called “the largest cavalry action of the Civil War,” several infantry brigades supported the Union cavalry at Brandy Station, while Trevilian Station was a purely cavalry fight.
Rather than plunge immediately into the fight, McKinney takes a while to get to the battle, using nearly half his text to set it within the framework of the war in northern Virginia in the Spring of 1864. He opens with the death of Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), then takes a look at Robert E. Lee’s problems in selecting a replacement for the dead trooper, notably whether to promote someone from within the Army of Northern Virginia or pick an outsider, which was in fact what he did, choosing Wade Hampton. McKinney then gives us several chapters on each of the two cavalry corps, discussing their evolution and offering a very interesting analysis of the different problems each faced (e.g., in securing remounts, in officer experience, and so forth).
McKinney also takes a look at the personalities of the senior officers involved, most notably the Confederacy’s Hampton, who arguably was a better cavalryman than the late Stuart, and the Union’s Phil Sheridan. All this background takes up nearly half the book
McKinney then takes us into the battle, covering U.S. Grant’s reasons for ordering Sheridan to raid Confederate rail lines, through the opening moves by each side, and then gets into a highly detailed account of the action as it unfolded. At times getting to a minute-by-minute treatment, of the events, which sprawled over two days and some hundreds of square miles, with the issue see-sawing between the two sides to the extent that some historians have called it a draw, while others have awarded the victory to the Union’s Phil Sheridan. In his conclusions, McKinney makes a good case that the South’s Wade Hampton had the better of his opponent in this fast moving, very complex action.
Trevilian Station is well written, and a lively read, and will be of particular value for those interested in military operations in the East, the mounted arm, or Civil War organization and tactics.
Note: Trevilian Station is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-1-4766-2320-7.