Battle of Old Church
The Battle of Old Church was a cavalry battle fought on May 30, 1864 several miles east of Mechanicsville, Virginia near the banks of Matadequin Creek. With Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign stalled along the Totopotomoy Creek line, Federal cavalry began probing east and south looking for weakness along the flanks. On May 30, a division under Brigadier General Alfred Torbert attacked and defeated a Confederate brigade near Old Church, driving Brigadier General Matthew Butler's troopers south towards Cold Harbor. The Battle of Old Church, though relatively minor, lead the way to the bloody Battle of Cold Harbor the following day.
Grant began his campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee earlier in the month at the Wilderness, and for the next several weeks both the Army of the Potomac and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia slowly made their way south, Grant continually using flanking maneuvers to try to get around Lee. Late in May the infantry of both armies were stalemated during the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek just east of Richmond. On the left flank near the old Haw's Shop battlefield stood the commander of V Corps, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, who was concerned that an unprotected road network through which supplies and reinforcements would pass could fall into the hands of the rebels. Messages sent to cavalry commander Major General Philip H. Sheridan requesting assistance and support were originally ignored, in part due to heated personal issues between the two men. As the situation became more urgent, Sheridan agreed to send Torbert's cavalry division to screen the roads near Old Church Tavern.
Responsibility for the roads was delegated to a brigade under the command of Colonel Thomas C. Devin. Unfortunately, the orders he received were, he assumed, to patrol the Bottoms Bridge Road south towards Old Cold Harbor, rather than to screen the Old Church Road towards the west. Reaching Matadequin Creek, Devin set his brigade in a defensive position, while he sent a unit from the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry across the creek towards the Barker Farm.
Lee was also concerned about the roads on his right flank, for different reasons. If Grant could outmaneuver him, Lee would be faced with the fall of Richmond; he subsequently ordered Brigadier General Matthew Butler to screen the Cold Harbor roads and see whether or not there was a threat to his flank. Butler's brigade departed Mechanicsville on the morning of May 30th, reaching the Barker Farm early that afternoon.
Elements of both sides soon collided; the Confederates deployed in a skirmish line, quickly forcing the Union troopers back towards the creek. This small victory was momentary; Col. Devin quickly sent in more men from the 17th Pennsylvania, pushing back at the Confederates until they once more controlled the Barker Farm. As with the Confederates, this Union victory did not last long, for at 3 PM Butler sent in his main body of troopers, which rolled over the Union pickets and threatened to cross Matadequin Creek against the remainder of Devin's brigade; a well-coordinated delaying action by the Pennsylvanians prevented Butler from doing so.
Torbert by then wisely brought up the remaining men of his division to handle the Confederates, the 6th New York Cavalry Regiment manning the right flank, while the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment relieved the original Pennsylvanians in the center; both of them would push against the 4th South Carolina, which was entrenched behind heavy logs culled from a nearby farm, with no results. On the left a similar situation occurred as the 6th Pennsylvania's attempt to go around the 5th South Carolina was halted by hand-to-hand fighting.
The arrival of Brigadier General George A. Custer's cavalry broke the stalemate. Deploying three units of his Michigan brigade on the flanks, Butler's South Carolinians were soon driven from the field, in no small part due to the fact that the Federals were armed with Spencer repeating rifles, an advantage the Confederates did not have. Butler's men fled nearly three miles to the south, halting at Old Cold Harbor into defensive positions.
- National Park Service, Heritage Preservation Services, American Battlefield Protection Program, Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields, Battle Summary, retrieved April 21, 2011 The battle summaries were researched and written by Dale E. Floyd and David W. Lowe, staff members of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission and historians with the National Park Service.