Haw’s Shop: The seven-hour buzz saw

haw's shop battlefield

For all the notoriety of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg, the American Civil War featured hundreds of smaller battles and skirmishes, many all but unknown except to students of the 1861-65 conflict. One such clash was the battle of Haw’s Shop, which took place in Hanover County, Va., 150 years ago today.

It marked the first action for the 4th, 5th and 6th South Carolina Cavalry regiments, which made up Butler’s Brigade, part of Hampton’s Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The battle is important because it marked an increased emphasis in a new style of cavalry tactics in which troopers would often use their horses to speed to the scene of battle, then dismount and fight from improvised fortifications, much like infantry.

Not coincidently, Haw’s Shop also marked the changing of the guard for the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps as Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton unofficially began his eventual succession of J.E.B. Stuart, killed earlier in the month at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

The 4th South Carolina had only reached Virginia a few days earlier after spending the previous 2-1/2 years defending the South Carolina coast, as had the 5th and 6th South Carolina.

Just four days after finally arriving in Richmond after a six-week trek north, the 4th and 5th South Carolina, along with the 20th Georgia Cavalry Battalion and the regiments that made up Brig. Gen. William C. Wickham’s Virginia Brigade were dispatched to track the movement of Grant’s army and to counter Union cavalry commanded by Philip Sheridan.

Robert E Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the opposing military leaders, were trying to discern each other’s intentions. Both sides relied on their cavalry to try to establish contact with enemy.

Lee, fearful that Grant might get around him and break through to Richmond, sent Hampton on a mission to locate the Union force. Grant, seeking a way to get around Lee’s army and into the Confederate capital, turned to Sheridan in a bid to determine Lee’s plans.

The two cavalry forces met on the morning of May 28, 1864, near Haw’s Shop, named for a large blacksmith shop owned by local resident John Haw.

The action began about a mile west of Haw’s Shop, near Enon Methodist Church, which still stands today. After a series of charges and countercharges by opposing cavalry forces, the conflict turned into a dismounted battle, with Union troopers from Brig. Gen. David McMurtie Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division battling Hampton’s forces in the woods near Enon Church.

Gregg would later write, “In the shortest possible time both of my brigades were hotly engaged. Every available man was put into the fight, which had lasted some hours. Neither party would yield an inch.” Hampton formed a defensive line with Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser’s troops on the left, Wickham’s men in the center and Butler’s South Carolinians on the right.

Once in position, Confederate troopers scooped out shallow rifle pits and erected barricades using fence rails. Hampton’s plan was to funnel Union cavalry into the sturdy center of the Southern line. Gregg’s 2nd Division took the bait, and eight Union regiments were committed to the attack.

The fight quickly degenerated from a cavalry action into a brutal infantry-style affair, with both sides scrambling for cover and firing at anything that could be glimpsed on the opposing side through the smoke.

Marker to the unknown Confederate dead buried at Haw's Shop.

Inscription on monument to the unknown Confederate dead buried at Enon Church killed in the Battle of Haw’s Shop.

The battle, one of the stiffest cavalry clashes of the war, lasted more than seven hours as neither side was able to break the other.

The fighting resembled that of the recently concluded action at The Wilderness rather than a typical cavalry dustup.

Men were less than one hundred feet from their foes, but it was difficult to spot targets due to smoke from rifle fire.

“Most of the shots had to be snaps, fired at faces only for a second thrust from behind a tree, or peering round a bush, or at the rifle flashes, which were sending the lead zipping and singing through the air like devil’s bumblebees,” one member of the 4th South Carolina wrote later.

Around 4 p.m., a massive influx of Federal troopers arrived from Brig. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert’s 1st Cavalry Division and went into action beside and behind Gregg’s men. At the same time, Union Brig. Gen. George A. Custer sent dozens of dismounted sharpshooters from his Michigan brigade forward along both sides of the road.

The Southerners resisted as best they could, but with Union troopers outnumbering Confederate defenders and the latter running low on ammunition, Custer’s men threatened to overrun some sectors of the line.

At this point, with Hampton having secured the intelligence Robert E. Lee needed, it was decided to pull the Confederate cavalry back. However, in doing so a domino effect began: As Confederate units moved back piecemeal, other units were left exposed.

In the end, a squadron of the 4th South Carolina, the 20th Georgia Battalion and some of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry Regiment didn’t get the order to pull back with the rest of Hampton’s Division and found itself isolated.

As the Union forces rushed in like “an entering tide,” they opened a fierce fire on the remaining Southern troops.

Finally, Hampton himself took to the woods, putting himself at personal risk to help open an escape route. Employing a calm, cool attitude, Hampton managed to lead the majority of endangered Confederate horse soldiers to safety.

In the end, both sides suffered approximately 375 casualties apiece, although losses varied greatly by brigade: Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss lost 25 men, Rosser, 31; and Wickham, 86.

The troops in Butler’s Brigade suffered most heavily. Of the 400 men that the 4th South Carolina took into battle, it suffered 127 killed, wounded or captured. One company lost 19 of 47 men, or slightly more than 40 percent. In addition, the 5th South Carolina tallied 31 killed, wounded and missing, and the 20th Georgia Battalion suffered approximately 85 casualties.

On the Union side, Gregg’s 2nd Division lost 30 officers and 220 enlisted men; while Custer’s Brigade lost six officers and 109 men. Among the Federals killed was Private John Huff of the 5th Michigan, who fatally shot J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern.

The casualties for the 4th South Carolina were even more staggering when one considers that although the war was three years old at this point, the regiment had not suffered a single combat death until the Battle of Haw’s Shop. It was the military equivalent of walking into a buzz saw.

Despite the heavy casualties, the men of Butler’s Brigade had made an impression on their Union foes. Custer said after the battle that, “Our loss was greater than in any other engagement in the campaign.”

Hampton would eventually assume command of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps and continue to employ many of the dismounted cavalry tactics seen at Haw’s Shop throughout the remainder of the war.

Butler’s Brigade would see serious action two days later on May 30, 1864, at Matadequin Creek, and on June 11-12, 1864, at Trevilian Station. Within the first two weeks of arriving in Virginia, it would suffer irreplaceable losses, and by year’s end, the brigade’s strength would be reduced by more than 70 percent.

(Top: Site of the Battle of Haw’s Shop, Hanover County, Virginia.)

8 thoughts on “Haw’s Shop: The seven-hour buzz saw

  1. All these small actions,passing almost without notice in the big broad brush histories, were so important to the overall progress of a war.
    I remember the stories my father told me of his time in the International Brigade…but not until his latter days…the small actions, but so important in the scale of the war itself.

      • No….he only started to talk about his experiences very late in life, not only about the Brigade but about his life in general.
        It’s an interesting story, but has never seemed appropriate for the blog..a mix of politics, social observation, violence and study and I don’t have enough background – testimony from friends, family, etc. to make it into a book.

      • And good luck trying to make heads or tails of the Spanish Civil War. What a mess. I can understand his reluctance to talk about that particular aspect of his life. I recently read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and was struck by the utter chaos of the entire affair. Killing and destruction – at least on the part of the Fascists – for the simple sake of being able to do so. One would have thought that after that mess the world would wised up and done what it could to avoid the far bigger calamity of 1939-45.

  2. He knew Orwell…and didn’t think much of him!
    He also knew Tito….of whom he thought a lot…

    We exchanged our house in France for one in Spain very near to one of the places where he fought…it’s possible he marched past the house….not something I thought about until after the purchase.

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