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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. III
p479
Chapter XXVII

The Loss of the Weldon Railroad

Bloody as had been the repulse of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant at the Crater, Lee expected him to continue mining1 and he pressed the work of driving countershafts.2 While watching this, he learned on August 4 that General Grant was moving troops down James River. "I fear," Lee wrote the President, "that this force is intended to operate against General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early, and when added to that already opposed to him, may be more than he can manage. Their object may be to drive him out of the Valley and complete the devastation they [had] commenced when they were ejected from it."3 The Confederate commander realized Grant had so entrenched himself that he could now send off troops to dispose of Early and still hold his lines. Lee felt that he could release only two divisions, at most, and in doing that would not have a single unit outside the trenches. But he concluded that if it were Grant's intention to overwhelm Early, it would be better to detach troops than to risk the loss of Early's little army and of the Virginia Central Railroad.

Once Lee reached a decision to send reinforcements to any point, he considered that promptness was half of advantage; so, on August 6, he went to Richmond and held a conference with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Davis and General Anderson.4 The conclusion reached at this council was to dispatch Kershaw's division of infantry and Fitz Lee's cavalry to northern Virginia under General Anderson. The plan was that Anderson should not join Early at once, but should take position in Culpeper, where he could menace the flank and rear of the Federals in case they advanced up the Valley against Early.5 The troops moved the same day,6 and when reports p480 multiplied of further detachments from Grant — though Lee was not persuaded that the reports were true as to infantry7 — he prepared to send to Anderson the rest of the cavalry corps, except Rooney Lee's division.8 His hope was that Anderson might employ the troopers north of the Potomac or east of the Blue Ridge, and prevent too heavy a concentration against Early.9 Had Lee been able to carry out this plan the course of the war might have been affected by it, for Sheridan might not then have been free to throw his whole strength against Early.10

On August 11 Lee went across Bermuda Neck, by this time known in the army as the Howlett line,11 in order to observe the Federal activities at Dutch Gap. General Butler was reported to be digging a canal at that point, an operation Lee sought to interrupt, because, if it succeeded, the enemy might turn the left of the Howlett line. Again on the 13th General Lee visited that sector to observe the artillery fire.12 The next day, August 14, the enemy attacked with vigor on the north side of James River. Major General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles W. Field was in actual command there, though General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell headed the department. Field's division of the First Corps and the Chaffin's Bluff garrison occupied an advanced line that ran from the bluff to New Market Heights and thence past Fussell's Mill to the Charles City road. This line, however, was so long that from the mill to the Charles City road the works were merely patrolled by Gary's small brigade of cavalry.


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Sketch of the Confederate defenses on the Drewry's Bluff-Howlett line sector,
showing how the completion of the Dutch Gap canal
might make it possible for the Federal fleet to turn the Howlett line.

The Federals seized the works near Fussell's Mill early on the 14th, but were met by two regiments of dismounted cavalry, and p481 when Field brought up a brigade of infantry, the enemy was flanked and forced to retire.13 The news of this reached General p482 Lee at Violet Bank, as he was preparing to start for church.14 With Kershaw gone and all the cavalry except Rooney Lee's division and Dearing's brigade on the way to northern Virginia, Lee of course had no troops to spare. His judgment told him that the Federal move might be a feint, but after assurance from Field that it was serious,15 he ordered two brigades of infantry from the Petersburg front.16 At the same time, and doubtless with the deepest regret, he directed Hampton to abandon his march to join Anderson and to hurry back to assist Field.17 Once again, the initiative enjoyed by the numerically superior enemy upset Lee's strategy.

Going to Chaffin's Bluff in person on the morning of August 15,18 Lee found that except for some cavalry fighting on the Confederate left19 the Federals had not renewed the action that day, though they were manifestly very numerous and were fortifying.20 The enemy's delay gave Lee time to bring up the troops that had been ordered from the southside, together with a scratch brigade from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's division.21 The infantry were extended somewhat to the left of Fussell's Mill, and Rooney Lee's cavalry took position on the Charles City road. The situation was then about as shown on page 483.22


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Field's line (approximate only) in the affair of August 16, 1864.

While in the vicinity of Chaffin's Bluff, during the forenoon of the 16th, Lee heard from Field that the Federal cavalry had driven Rooney Lee's pickets from White Oak Swamp and were moving in force up the Charles City road toward White's Tavern.23 This was ominous news, for Field's line ran at a wide angle to the Richmond defenses,24 and the Federals were thus already in rear of his left and on a direct road to Richmond. Lee at once sent a message to President Davis that the local defense p483 troops be called out to man the outer line around the city, and he prepared to take Field's left brigades and to throw them against the flank of the force on the Charles City road.25 For that purpose Lee rode along the advanced line, toward Field's position near Fussell's Mill. But before he could reach that point, and long before the tocsin was sounded in Richmond, the enemy had approached within fifty yards of the light Confederate works, to the left of the mill. Then, with a rush and a cheer, the Federals charged. Two Southern brigades broke, and a gap was torn in Field's front.26 The situation is shown on page 484.


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Position of the opposing forces
on the Charles City, Darbytown, and New Market roads
in the affair of August 16, 1864.

But most of Field's men were tested veterans of many a battle. At the call of their commander, they shifted to the left and p484 opposed a line to the Federals, who, fortunately, did not realize the magnitude of their advantage. Then, in a quick counterattack, Field's division pushed the Union troops back and speedily recovered the works. A little later, on the Charles City road, more by chance than by fine logistics, the van of Hampton's returning division arrived to support Rooney Lee. Together these troopers ran the enemy across White Oak Swamp.27 The crisis ended as quickly as it had arisen.

In the midst of the pursuit of the Federals, while Lee was giving orders to hurrying staff and couriers, a characteristic incident occurred. One of a group of prisoners came boldly up to him and complained that a Confederate private had taken from him a soldier's most-prized possession, his hat. Lee at once suspended what he was doing, had the Federal point out the man, saw that the hat was returned, and then, without even a shadow of annoyance at the interruption, turned back to his task as if the recovery of captives' headgear were part of his daily duty. "I p485 wondered at him taking any notice of a prisoner in the midst of battle," wrote another Union soldier who was captured that day. "It showed what a heart he had for them."28

As the enemy did not renew the battle on August 17, Lee prepared a cavalry operation for the 18th to clear his left flank along the Charles City road. This was measurably successful,29 but before it was fully developed Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard telegraphed that a Federal column in front of Petersburg was moving toward the Weldon Railroad. Having no reserves outside the trenches, Beauregard asked reinforcements.30 Subsequently, he sent a reassuring message that the column appeared to be small and that he had sent some infantry to support General Dearing's cavalry, who were opposing the enemy's advance.31 Lee, however, did not relish the prospect of having only one brigade of cavalry on the right of the Petersburg sector and he ordered Rooney Lee to proceed to the southside at once.32 By the morning of the 19th it developed that at least three divisions of Federal infantry were on the Weldon Railroad, in the vicinity of Globe Tavern, three and a half miles south of the Confederate right at Petersburg. Beauregard stated that he was moving out against these troops with four brigades of infantry and with the cavalry that Lee was sending. Although he telegraphed, "Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry," he did not renew his appeal for reinforcements.33


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Terrain from Petersburg to Reams Station, to illustrate the operations against the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad.

Later in the day of the 19th indications pointed to a return to the southside of part of the troops that had been operating on Field's front.34 That same afternoon, A. P. Hill struck the enemy's column near Globe Tavern, and captured 2700 prisoners.35 Lee did not gamble on this advantage. In order that Beauregard might have sufficient troops for his offensive, Lee quickly dispatched to the Petersburg sector all the infantry that had been sent to Field's relief.36 The Federals, however, kept their grip on the Weldon Railroad and could not be dislodged with the force that Beauregard had employed.

p486 If the battle was to be renewed, it was plain that still more troops had to be used. Lee urged this on Beauregard.37 On the morning of the 21st he ordered Hampton to move his division south of the Appomattox, and after a time he directed Field to p487 send two of his brigades, if the enemy had reduced force north of the James.38 He decided, also, to go to Petersburg and to see for himself the situation on the Weldon Railroad. He arrived on an excessively hot afternoon,39 in time to witness a gallant but futile attack by Mahone in front of Globe Tavern. During the course of this fight, through misunderstanding on the part of Hill and Mahone, General Hagood threw his brigade into a re-entrant in the Federal lines and had to lead back the survivors under a heavy fire.40 Mahone reconnoitred again and told Lee that if he were given two more brigades he would guarantee to drive the Federals from the railroad. Lee assented and sent for the reinforcements, but when they failed to arrive in time41 he concluded that the enemy had too firm a hold on the railroad to be shaken.42

The contingency Lee had anticipated from the time he took up the Petersburg line was at hand: The northern end of the Weldon Railroad from Rowanty Creek to Petersburg was definitely lost. The defense of the capital and the subsistence of the Army of Northern Virginia had now to depend on the full employment of the Southside and of the Richmond and Danville Railroads. There were murmurings in Richmond that the Weldon line need not have been lost if Beauregard had met the first advance with a larger column,43 but Lee knew both the limitations under which Beauregard fought and the inevitability of the capture of the road by the enemy. With the simple assertion that "the smallness of the attacking force prevented it from dislodging" the foe,44 he devoted himself to making the most of the lines of supply left him.

The loss of the Weldon Railroad came, unfortunately, at a time when there was no corn either in Richmond or at the army depots around Petersburg.45 Lee at once set wagon trains to hauling supplies over the twenty miles of road that lay between Petersburg and Stony Creek, which was on the Weldon Railroad line p488 below the point where it had been torn up by the Federals. He believed that by the diligent use of these trains, and of the remaining railroads, with perhaps some importation of grain by way of Wilmington, it would be possible to subsist the army until the Virginia corn crop was harvested.46 In a wider view, with an eye to the presidential campaign in the North, where McClellan was opposing Lincoln, Lee believed that failure of the Federals to drive the Confederates from Petersburg, after so much sacrifice, would have a dispiriting effect on the people of the United States.47 Seddon, seeing the immediate problem, and knowing more of politics, was not optimistic. He felt acute concern because Lee's army and that of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood were now drawing corn from the same territory.48

Four days after Lee decided to abandon the effort to recover the Weldon Railroad, there came a dramatic epilogue. With Rooney Lee's division and his own, now under M. C. Butler of South Carolina, General Hampton was operating west of the railway and in front of the Confederate right. A reconnaissance in force toward Reams Station, some four and a half miles south of Globe Tavern, showed Hampton that the Federals were tearing up the railroad near that point. He found that they were not well placed and he asked the assistance of the infantry in making an attack.49 It was desirable, of course, that the enemy should not be left free to destroy the railroad indefinitely to the southward, for this would increase the distance between Petersburg and that part of the railroad still in Southern hands. In the political situation, also, every defeat would tend to discredit the war party in the North. With these considerations in mind Lee read Hampton's proposal sympathetically and decided to adopt it. But the mistake of attacking with insufficient force was not to be repeated. Two brigades of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth's division, two of Mahone's, and three of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox's were ordered to move for Reams Station; Hampton's old division of cavalry and Rooney Lee's were both to p489 be employed.50 Besides the two brigades that Field had been ordered to bring to Petersburg,51 it would appear that he was now directed to send a third.52


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Disposition of Confederate forces in the action at Reams Station, August 24, 1864.

On the afternoon of August 2453 the infantry brigades were quietly moved beyond the right of the Confederate trenches and were marched by roads that led toward Reams Station from the west. The next morning, with Hampton clearing the way, they advanced eastward through a wooded country. They found Hancock's II Corps in front of some feeble works at Reams Station, entirely separated from the V Corps of Warren, which was farther up the railroad. An assault during the early afternoon by two of the brigades under Wilcox was repulsed. After a brief delay, part of his division and some of Heth's troops attacked p490 farther to the left. They were brilliantly supported by Pegram's artillery and quickly stormed the right of the Federal lines. Simultaneously, Hampton worked his way around to the Federal left and, dismounting his men, threw them against the enemy. The victory was immediate and decisive, for the raw recruits in Hancock's corps behaved badly. Some 2000 of them were captured, along with nine guns, and the attempt of the Federals to destroy more of the railroad was abandoned. The Confederate infantry brought off their wounded, buried their dead, and returned the same night to Petersburg.54

Like almost every other Confederate reverse during the investment of Petersburg, the loss of the Weldon raid had its origin in the disparity of forces with which Lee had to defend so long a line. His diminished army was not strong enough to meet quickly all the blows that Grant could deliver by shifting his attack from one side of the James to the other. Then, too, Grant's strategy was far better than it had been at any stage of the operations since he had taken command in the East. His drive against Field on August 14‑16 had not been, as Lee thought, a major attempt to seize Richmond,55 but had been intended primarily to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and in that way to prevent the dispatch of reinforcements to Early.56 As the attack on the northside had developed, Grant's strategy had changed somewhat. He had initiated the advance to Lee's right merely as a flank movement that might afford him an opening for an attack in the vicinity of the lead works,57 and he had not considered that Lee had reduced his force sufficiently to justify any large-scale operation in that p491 quarter. The thrust at the Weldon Railroad had been almost an afterthought and had been undertaken by Grant as a reconnaissance in force, though with the ultimate object of compelling Lee to recall troops from Early, so that Sheridan might strike a blow.58 Throughout the attacks of August, Lee moved his troops skillfully from right to left, with the soundest judgment and the greatest promptness; but Grant was be lucky and successful, not precisely in the manner he had hoped, but probably in a larger measure than he expected. His operation on the northside did not reach the Virginia Central Railroad, but it spelled the doom of Early because it forced Lee to bring back Hampton, then on his way to oppose Sheridan. The move to the Weldon Railroad was very costly in life and it did not compel Lee to summon immediately to Petersburg any part of Early's infantry, but it did place Grant where he could farther extend his left and bring the Confederate line one notch nearer the strangulation of a formal siege. The fortunes of war, which in this case were but another name for numerical inferiority, were running strongly against Lee. He saw plainly that Grant's operations were designed to starve him out,59 and for this last, dreadful struggle he prepared himself as best he could with his ever-dwindling resources.


The Author's Notes:

1 Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 31, 1864, R. E. Lee, Jr., 135‑36; O. R., 42, part 2, p1161.

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2 O. R., 42, part 1, pp883, 884, 887, 888; ibid., part 2, pp1155, 1158, 1162‑63, 1208; Pendleton, 367.

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3 O. R., 42, part 2, p1161.

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4 O. R., 42, part 1, p873; Taylor MSS., Aug. 7, 1864.

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5 O. R., 43, part 1, p996.

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6 History ofº Kershaw's Brigade, 417. No reports of the date of Fitz Lee's departure are available, but Federal reports indicate that he was in northern Virginia not later than Aug. 10 (O. R., 42, part 2, p144).

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7 O. R., 42, part 2, pp1161, 1170; ibid., 43, part 1, p993.

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8 O. R., 42, part 2, pp1170‑71, 1171‑72.

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9 O. R., 43, part 1, p996; ibid., 51, part 2, p1034.

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10 Meade remarked on Aug. 13 that the Army of the Potomac would make an effort the next day to test Lee's strength and force him to recall the troops sent to northern Virginia. "Should this fail," said he, "we will be obliged to go up there and leave Richmond" (2 Meade, 222).

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11 After the Howlett family that had two homes close to the Confederate positions. On this visit, or another during the summer, Lee rode out with General Eppa Hunton and found the Federal pickets very close to the Confederate lines. "Who are those people out there?" Lee asked. Hunton told him. Lee inquired: "What are they doing there? We are in the habit of believing this country belongs to us. Drive them away, sir; drive them away!" That night Hunton did so. (Autobiography of Eppa Hunton, 171).

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12 O. R., 42, part 2, pp1172, 1176; cf. ibid.1160, 1290 ff.; R. E. Lee, Jr., 136; G. Wise: History of the Seventeenth Virginia, 194. Mr. Wise was in error by twenty-four hours as to the date of Lee's two visits.

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13 14 S. H. S. P., 551‑52. This narrative is by General Field and is almost the only adequate account of a very interesting series of engagements.

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14 R. E. Lee, Jr., 136.

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15 O. R., 42, part 2, p1177.

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16 Probably Harris's and Girardey's; see 14 S. H. S. P., 553.

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17 O. R., 42, part 2, p1177.

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18 Taylor MSS., Aug. 15, 1864; Taylor's General Lee, 261; 14 S. H. S. P., 554; Richmond Howitzers Battalion, 271.

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19 O. R., 42, part 2, p1189.

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20 14 S. H. S. P., 552.

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21 Loehr, 53.

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22 It is impossible to draw the line with accuracy, especially on the Confederate left beyond Fussell's Mill, as the works northeast of that point were much changed after General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet returned to duty in October. The sketch in the text has, however, been corrected on the ground by Kenneth A. Tapscott of the United States Park Service and is believed to be substantially accurate.

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23 O. R., 42, part 2, p1180.

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24 Field said (14 S. H. S. P., 551) that the lines were perpendicular, but this could only have been an approximation.

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25 O. R., 42, part 2, p1180.

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26 14 S. H. S. P., 553‑54.

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27 14 S. H. S. P., 554; O. R., 42, part 2, pp1180, 1181, 1189.

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28 John E. Davis to Charles Marshall, n. d., 17 S. H. S. P., 242.

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29 O. R., 51, part 2, pp1035‑36.

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30 O. R., 42, part 1, p857.

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31 O. R., 42, part 1, p857.

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32 R. L. T. Beale, 141.

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33 O. R., 42, part 1, p858.

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34 O. R., 42, part 2, p1190.

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35 O. R., 42, part 1, p940.

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36 14 S. H. S. P., 554‑55.

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37 Lee's messages of Aug. 20 are missing, but their purport can be gathered, in part, from Beauregard to Lee, O. R., 42, part 2, p1192.

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38 O. R., 42, part 2, pp1192‑93.

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39 1 N. C. Regts., 680.

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40 O. R., 42, part 1, pp858, 936. Hagood, 288 ff.; W. V. Izlar: Edisto Rifles, 84‑85; History of McGowan's Brigade, 164‑65; 4 B. and L., 568 ff.; McCabe, 524 ff.; Mahone and Hill manfully assumed responsibility for the disaster to Hagood.

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41 W. Gordon McCabe in 2 S. H. S. P., 296 n.

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42 O. R., 42, part 2, p1194.

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43 O. R., 42, part 2, p1198.

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44 O. R., 42, part 2, p1194.

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45 O. R., 42, part 2, p1195.

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46 O. R., 42, part 2, p1195; Lee's Dispatches, 289. Cf. Taylor MSS., Aug. 28, 1864: ". . . and really whilst we are inconvenienced by [the loss of the railroad], no material harm is done us (cf. 2 Davis, 647).

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47 O. R., 42, part 2, p1195. In this reference "unsuccessful" is manifestly a lapsus pennae for "successful."

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48 O. R., 42, part 2, pp1195, 1198, 1199.

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49 E. L. Wells, 277; U. R. Brooks: Butler and His Cavalry, 303 ff.

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50 Cf. 19 S. H. S. P., 114.

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51 O. R., 42, part 2, p1193.

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52 This is inferential and is based on the fact that Lee's orders (O. R., 42, part 2, p1193) covered only two brigades, whereas Field stated subsequently that he sent three (14 S. H. S. P., 555).

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53 Wilcox's MS. report, 55.

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54 There are no detailed Confederate reports of the battle of Reams Station except that of Hampton (O. R., 42, part 1, p942) and that of Wilcox, in MS. The Federal reports appear in O. R., 42, part 1, pp222 ff. Perhaps the best Confederate narrative is that of Charles M. Stedman in 19 S. H. S. P., 113 ff. See also E. L. Wells, 277 ff., and U. R. Brooks: Butler and His Cavalry, 303 ff.; History of McGowan's Brigade, 180‑81. The Federal casualties, prisoners included, were 2742 (O. R., 42, part 1, p131). The Confederate losses are not reported fully but in Wilcox's command they amounted to "over 300" (Wilcox's MS. report, 61), and in the cavalry corps they were 94 (E. L. Wells, 283). The total, on this basis, could hardly have exceeded 600.

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55 O. R., 42, part 2, p1194.

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56 These reasons are set forth much more explicitly in O. R., 42, part 2, pp132 and 148, with their reference to O. R., 40, part 3, p437, than in 2 Grant's Memoirs, 321.

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57 O. R., 42, part 2, p411. The lead works were located on the Halifax road, just beyond the southeastern end of the city, about three-fourths of a mile northwest of Battery Pegram (see the map p486).

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58 O. R., 42, part 2, p244.

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59 O. R., 42, part 2, p1194.


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