Ulysses S. Grant understood the importance of railroad for both sides war efforts. By June of 1864 his forces were systematically cutting the rail lines that supplied Petersburg and Richmond of much-needed daily supplies. As the noose around the twin Confederate strongholds tightened the battles for the Weldon Railroad increased in importance.
The Weldon Railroad had originally been chartered in 1835 as the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad. By 1855 it had been renamed the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. At its completion in 1840 it was considered the longest railroad in the world at 161.5 miles of 4 ft. 8 inch gauge track.
At its terminus in Weldon, North Carolina, it connected with the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (to Portsmouth, Virginia) and the Petersburg Railroad (to Petersburg, Virginia). It also connected with the North Carolina Railroad at its midpoint where the future city of Goldsboro soon sprang up.
The first serious action to cut off the railroad is called the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road. This initial attack against the Weldon Railroad began on June 21st when units from the II Corps skirmished with Confederate cavalry as they moved toward the rail line. The two Federal corps assigned to the attack began to diverge from each other creating a gap.
Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mahone who was very familiar with the area (he had been a civil engineer before the war) realized that he could surprise the II Corps by hiding his men in a deep ravine. At 3:00 PM his force emerged in the rear of Francis Barlow’s Division and surprised them. Barlow’s unit was routed. So, too, was John Gibbon’s Division. However, both units able to rally around some earthworks that had been built the night before. The fighting ended with the coming of darkness.
In the morning the II Corps resumed their advance and retook the earthworks that they had lost the day before. One brigade of Vermont men reached the rail line and started tearing up the tracks. They were caught in a Confederate counterattack and many of them were captured. The general attack collapsed and Meade called off further operations.
The Federals lost almost 3,000 men to the Confederates 572. It wasn’t a total loss for the Federal side. Although the Confederates retained control of the Weldon Railroad, at least a half mile of track was destroyed and the siege lines continued to be pushed to the west straining the Confederate manpower resources.
The second attempt to cut the line was an all-cavalry raid, called the Wilson-Kautz Raid, whose main goal was to destroy as much of the track to the south and southwest of Petersburg. The overall commander was Maj. Gen. James Wilson who was accompanied by Br. Gen. August Kautz. Interestingly, Wilson’s contribution was only 1,300 men while Kautz’s entire division numbered 2,000. The force also included two batteries of six guns each.
Their first objective was Reams Station, about 7 miles south of the city where they destroyed rail cars and track of the Weldon Railroad. Kautz’s force moved west to Ford’s Station where they destroyed rail cars and track of the South Side Railroad.
Wilson’s force moved toward Burkeville where the South Side Railroad intersected with the Richmond & Danville Railroad. At this point they encountered units of Rooney Lee’s Cavalry. While his rear guard fended off the Confederates, Wilson’s main force destroyed about 30 miles of track. One June 24th he moved his force south to Meherrin Station on the Richmond & Danville RR where his force continued to tear up the track.
The combined force continued to move southwest on the Richmond & Danville RR tearing up track all of the way until they reached the Staunton River Bridge. The bridge was defended by about 1,000 men and boys of the Home Guard commanded by Captain Benjamin L. Farinholt. The Federal force was unable to dislodge the Home Guards and being pressed from the rear by Confederate cavalry, retreated east to Reams Station.
Wilson had been assured that this station would be under Federal control. With Confederate units closing in on all sides, they continued to move to the east. The Federal force fought a minor engagement at Sappony Station and was able to continue moving toward Reams Station. They continued to fight a running battle with enemy cavalry units from June 28th until the following day.
On the 29th they arrived back at Ream’s Station only to find it occupied by Confederate infantry. They managed to get a messenger through to Meade who dispatched infantry reinforcements south. Wilson couldn’t wait for them to arrive. He burned his wagons, destroyed his artillery and fled north to the safety of the Federal lines where they arrived on July 1, 1864.
The Wilson Kautz Raid was seen by some as successful but Grant described it as a “disaster”. The combined force had 1,445 casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured). About 60 miles of track were destroyed, which took the Confederates several weeks to repair.
The Union Army made another effort against the all-important supply line on August 18, 1864 when a force of 20,000 Federals under Maj. Gen Gouverneur Warren headed south in an attempt to cut off the Confederate’s lifeline. Warren’s V Corps was supplemented by units from the IX Corps, the II Corps and August Kautz’s small cavalry division.
General A.P. Hill commanded a force of 14-15,000 Confederates under General P.G.T/ Beauregard who was the commander in Petersburg. Lee was off observing the Deep Bottom battle.
Warren’s force advanced south through the rain and over muddy roads. He pushed aside the Confederate pickets and a cavalry brigade. The reached Globe Tavern on the railroad line by about 9:00 AM and started to destroy the track. Warren detailed a brigade from Romeyn B. Ayres’ Division to protect his force from any attack from the north.
Ayers met the Confederates about 1:00 PM and Warren sent Samuel Crawford’s Division to strengthen his right. They tried to outflank the Confederate attackers. About 2:00 PM three Confederate brigades attacked the combined Federal force and began to push it back to within a mile of the Weldon Railroad and Globe Tavern. Warren counterattacked, regained the lost ground and entrenched for the night.
During the night both armies were reinforced. The Federal IX Corps arrived on the field and Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and three infantry brigades from William Mahone’s Division reinforced the Confederates.
The next day saw limited action due to the heavy rain. However in the late afternoon, Mahone found a hole in the Federal line and his men poured through it to the enemy’s rear area. General Crawford attempted to rally his panicked men and was nearly captured. However, almost two full brigades of his men were captured.
At the same Henry Heth launched a frontal assault against the Federal left and center that was easily repulsed by Ayers. The IX Corps counterattacked and the fighting was hand-to-hand until darkness ended it.
On August 20th heavy rains curtailed any activity. On the night of August 20-21 Warren pulled his units back about 2 miles to a new line of fortifications that were tied in to the main Federal line along Jerusalem Plank Road.
On the 21st the fair weather returned and the Confederates attacked at about 9:00 AM. Mahone struck the Federal left and Heth the Federal right. Both assaults were unsuccessful with heavy Confederate casualties. By 10:30 AM the Confederates withdraw leaving several miles of the Weldon Railroad in Federal hands.
Federal casualties were heavy with 251 killed, 1148 wounded and 2,897 missing/captured. The Confederates suffered 211 killed, 990 wounded and 419 missing/captured, including Brig. Gen. John C.C. Sanders of Mahone’s Division.
More importantly, the Confederates were forced to move their supplies 30 miles by wagon because of the break in the Weldon Railroad. The Federals extended their siege lines to Globe Tavern and achieved their first clear victory of the siege.
Grant wasn’t completely satisfied with Warren’s victory and he delegated Winfield Hancock and the II Corps to extend his control further south. Hancock’s objective was to destroy an additional 14 miles of track from Globe Tavern as far south as Rowanty Creek. This engagement is called the Second Battle of Ream’s Station.
Hancock had a force of 9,000 men which included David Gregg’s cavalry division. He faced A.P. Hill and Henry Heth with their force of between 8-10,000 men.
On August 22nd Gregg’s Cavalry and Barlow’s Division, under the command of Brig. General Nelson A. Miles while Barlow was on leave, drove off the Confederate pickets and destroyed the tracks to within 3 miles of Ream’s Station.
Hancock’s other infantry division under the command of John Gibbon moved forward the next day and occupied fortifications left from the Wilson-Kautz Raid in June. The positions were somewhat degraded but Gibbon’s men didn’t bother to improve them.
Meanwhile, Lee realized that if the Federal captured Dinwiddie Court House his possible retreat route out of the Richmond and Petersburg would be cut. He ordered A.P. Hill to drive the Federals from their positions. Hill, who was ill, delegated tactical command to Henry Heth with an order to carry the position. The Confederate force included Heth’s own division, Cadmus Wilcox’s Division, Wade Hampton’s Cavalry and part of Mahone’s Division.
By the 24th Hancock had arrived at Ream’s Station. The Federals had destroyed 3 miles of track south of Ream’s Station (images) but the following day Hancock recalled them when he received word that the Confederate cavalry was approaching.
Gregg’s cavalry was pushed back by Hampton’s cavalry with the Confederate column advancing down the Dinwiddie Stage Road. On the north side of the battle Wilcox’s three brigades assaulted Miles’ fortified position about 2:00 PM but were repulsed. Gibbon’s Division blocked Hampton’s cavalry in the south.
Confederate reinforcements arrived in the afternoon and Heth ordered an all-out assault against Miles’ position at about 5:30 PM. The six Confederate brigades were personally led by Heth. His men broke through the Federal fortifications and Miles’ men disintegrated under the assault. Neither Miles nor Hancock was able to rally the men.
In the south Gibbon’s Division began to give way under the pressure of a surprise dismounted attack from Hampton’s Cavalry. Many of Gibbon’s men either fled or surrendered. This allowed Hampton to flank Miles and complete the rout. However, Hancock ordered a counterattack which allowed the Federal force to beat an orderly retreat to the Petersburg lines.
Hancock lost 117 killed, 439 wounded and 2,046 missing/captured with the cavalry suffering an additional 145 casualties. Confederate casualties were 814 (Hampton’s cavalry lost 16 killed, 75 wounded, 3 missing; Hill’s infantry 720 total).
However, it was only a partial Confederate victory. They may have saved Dinwiddie Court House but they lost the use of the Weldon Railroad and continued to bring in their supplies by wagon. The noose around Petersburg was tightening.