August 18, 1864 – Fighting broke out southwest of the Petersburg siege lines when Federals tried moving beyond the Confederates’ flank to sever the Weldon Railroad.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, knew that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had sent part of his force to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant also knew that Lee had reinforced the Confederate defenses in front of Richmond, north of the James River. Based on this, Grant guessed that Lee’s defense line outside Petersburg was weak and vulnerable to attack.
Grant dispatched Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederates’ Weldon supply line running from Petersburg to Wilmington, and to divert attention from the Federal expedition north of the James. This was the first major Federal attempt since the Battle of the Crater to disrupt the Confederate siege lines at Petersburg.
When President Abraham Lincoln learned of Grant’s plan, he sent him an encouraging message: “I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.” Grant laughed upon reading this dispatch and told his staff, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.”
Warren’s Federals set out at 4 a.m. on the 18th, marching through rain and mud before arriving at Globe Tavern five hours later. They were about four miles south of Petersburg, and three miles south of the Confederate defenses. A division began wrecking the railroad while Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres’s division turned north to face any Confederate attempt to stop the operation. Ayres’s men struggled to maneuver in the dense woods and oppressive heat. Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s division came up to support Ayres’s right.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Petersburg defenses while Lee was north of the James, called upon Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the Federals. Hill dispatched two brigades under Major General Henry Heth and another brigade under Major General Robert F. Hoke. Fighting began under heavy rain.
The Confederates initially drove Ayres and Crawford back toward Globe Tavern, but the Federals were reinforced by Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s division on Ayres’s left. They regrouped and advanced, and by nightfall they regained their original positions. Warren notified Crawford, “You have done very well indeed in getting forward through that difficult country. Make yourself as strong as you can and hold on. I will try and re-enforce you…”
Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, dispatched reinforcements from IX and II corps and ordered Warren to hold the railroad “at all hazards.” The Federals lost 836 men (544 killed or wounded, and 292 missing) in the action on the 18th.
The Confederates were reinforced by Major General Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and Major General William Mahone’s infantry division. Beauregard wrote Lee at 8 a.m. on the 19th, “I will endeavor to-day to dislodge him with four brigades of our infantry and the division of cavalry you have promised. Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry.”
Skirmishing took place throughout the 19th as the heavy rain continued. Mahone’s Confederates approached Crawford’s division on the Federal right, concealed by the woods, and launched a fierce attack at 4:15 p.m. The Federals wavered to the point that two brigades nearly surrendered, and Crawford was almost captured trying to rally his men. Meanwhile, Heth attacked the Federal center and left, but Ayres’s men repelled him.
The arrival of Federal reinforcements enabled Warren to stabilize his position in vicious hand-to-hand combat. He lost another 2,900 men (382 killed or wounded and 2,518 missing or captured), but he ordered an “advance at daylight in every direction.”
The Confederates pulled back for the night, and Warren fell back a mile down the Weldon line. The Federals maintained control of the railroad; now only two other lines could feed Richmond and Petersburg: the South Side and the Richmond & Danville railroads.
Beauregard wrote on the 20th, “General Hill reports enemy still occupying part of railroad where he is fortifying. Am endeavoring to make necessary arrangements to dislodge him to-day, if practicable… Every available man who can be spared from (the Petersburg) trenches has been withdrawn. Shall try attack in the morning with all the force I can spare.”
Warren, who initially planned to advance, now reconsidered after seeing the carnage from the previous day’s fight. He wrote Meade, “I do not think with our present force we can hold a line across where I established the picket-line yesterday.” Skirmishing erupted throughout the 20th, as the Federals continued wrecking the railroad while pulling out of the underbrush and forming a new line two miles to the rear that connected to the Jerusalem Plank Road.
President Jefferson Davis expressed concern about the Federal presence on the railroad. Beauregard wrote that night, “Expect to attack early in the morning. No available force shall be left behind.” He hoped to follow up his success on the 19th with a complete victory, but the only force he could muster was Hill’s two divisions and a few more brigades under Heth and Mahone.
The Confederates launched an intense artillery barrage before renewing their assaults at 9 a.m. With ranks three-deep, Mahone struck the Federal left while Heth hit the center, but they could not dislodge the entrenched Federals from the railroad. Hill finally called off the attack, and the Confederates returned to their original siege lines, thus acknowledging they had permanently lost the Weldon Railroad as a supply line.
The Federals did not pursue, which frustrated Grant: “It seems to me that when the enemy comes out of his works and attacks and is repulsed he ought to be followed vigorously to the last minute with every man. Holding the line is of no importance whilst troops are operating in front of it.” In the four-day engagement, the Federals sustained 4,455 total casualties (198 killed, 1,105 wounded, and 3,152 missing) out of about 20,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost some 1,600 from about 14,000.
Without the railroad, the Confederates had to get supplies from Wilmington by unloading them from the railroad at Stony Creek and taking them by wagon train up the Boydton Plank Road running northeast into Petersburg. Even so, a Confederate staff officer optimistically noted, “Whilst we are inconvenienced, no material harm is done us.” After receiving reports of the fight at Globe Tavern, Grant quickly ordered Federal infantry and cavalry to strike the important Confederate supply line at Reams’s Station between Globe Tavern and Stony Creek.
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