August 25, 1864 – Confederates scored a decisive victory that decimated the Federal II Corps, but it did little to affect the Federal siege of Petersburg.
After the Battle of Globe Tavern, Federal forces extended their siege line to the south of Petersburg, Virginia. Troops of V Corps and other elements of the Army of the Potomac under Major General Gouverneur Warren held the Weldon Railroad, which connected Petersburg to the North Carolina coast. The Federals destroyed track on the Weldon so it could no longer be used to supply the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to make the Federal hold on the railroad permanent. He wrote Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, “If we can retain hold of the railroad it will be a great advantage.”
To do this, Grant looked to seize Ream’s Station, which was five miles south of Warren’s Federals at Globe Tavern and seven miles south of Petersburg. Grant selected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps for this mission. The men of II Corps had just finished their grueling operation at Deep Bottom Run, north of the James River.
Hancock’s force consisted of two infantry divisions under Major General John Gibbon and Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, as well as Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division. The troops arrived at Ream’s on the 23rd, exhausted from constant marching and fighting. They occupied the fortifications that had been built during the Wilson-Kautz raid in June, and Gregg’s cavalry guarded the infantrymen as they began wrecking the track.
Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate horsemen clashed with Gregg’s troopers, indicating to Hampton that the Federals were at Ream’s. He quickly passed this news to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army. This would not disrupt Lee’s supply line because he had already arranged to move supplies by wagon train from Stony Creek, farther south on the Weldon Railroad, to Petersburg via the Boydton Plank Road. But the Federal presence at Ream’s threatened Dinwiddie Court House, a possible point of retreat for Lee if he had to abandon Petersburg. Lee therefore resolved to drive the Federals off.
Meanwhile, the Federals continued destroying the railroad between Globe Tavern and Ream’s, and by the end of the 24th, Hancock reported that “the road is destroyed for about three miles and a half beyond Reams’.” That night, Hancock received word that Confederates were approaching from the northwest, “probably destined to operate against General Warren or yourself–most probably against your operations. The commanding general cautions you to look out for them.”
The approaching Confederates consisted of about 8,000 men under Lieutenant General A.P. Hill. As they advanced, Hampton’s cavalry forced Gregg’s Federals back. This prompted Hancock to suspend railroad operations and deploy his two infantry divisions to meet the threat. The Federals formed a U-shaped line, with Miles’s division on the right facing west and north, and Gibbon’s on the left facing west and south. Hancock reported to Meade:
“The enemy have been feeling all around me and are now cheering in my front, advancing and driving my skirmishers. I think they will next move across the road between Warren and myself as they press my lines. Two prisoners taken at different times say that all of Hampton’s cavalry and a part of Hill’s corps, or all of it, are in my front…”
The Confederate infantry crossed Rowanty Creek and moved along the road running northeast to Hancock’s positions. The initial Confederate attack came from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division against Miles’s troops around 2 p.m., but the Federals held their positions. Similar Confederate assaults along the line were also repulsed. Hancock reported:
“There is no great necessity of my remaining here, but it is more important that I should join Warren; but I do not think, closely engaged as I am at present, I can withdraw safely at this time. I think it will be well to withdraw tonight, if I am not forced to do so before.”
Meade told Hancock that he would send him reinforcements and added, “I hope you will be able to give the enemy a good thrashing.” When Meade received word that Hancock had stopped the Confederate advance, he authorized him to “withdraw tonight if you deem it best for the security of your command.”
However, a Confederate artillery barrage around 5 p.m. preceded a massive attack, which threatened Gibbon’s left. The Federals stood their ground until two regiments in Gibbon’s center suddenly fled in panic. The Confederates, surprised by the ease at which they broke the enemy line, exploited the gap while another force attacked the Federal left.
Hancock desperately tried reforming his fleeing men, shouting, “We can beat them yet. Don’t leave me, for God’s sake!” The Federals fell back nonetheless, with many of Gibbon’s green New Yorkers surrendering. One of Miles’s reserve brigades sent in to close the gap in the center “could neither be made to go forward nor fire.” Two Federal divisions were sent to reinforce Hancock, but he withdrew in disgust that night to the Jerusalem Plank Road.
Of the 2,750 Federal casualties, over 2,000 surrendered. The Federals also lost nine cannon, 12 battle flags, and over 3,000 small arms. This fight shattered the famed II Corps, as Hancock’s chief of staff, Colonel Charles H. Morgan, later said, “The agony of that day never died from that proud soldier (Hancock), who, for the first time, saw his lines broken and his guns taken.” Gibbon explained that his men fled because they had lost nine brigade and 40 regimental commanders in four months, but Hancock would have none of it. Gibbon, the former commander of the feared Iron Brigade, ultimately resigned.
In contrast, the Confederates lost just 720 men. This second engagement at Ream’s Station ended in Confederate victory just like the first, but it did little to stop the gradual westward extension of the Federal siege lines around Petersburg. Hill’s Confederates returned to the Petersburg trenches, and Warren’s Federals continued destroying the Weldon Railroad.
Military success was beginning to prove more costly than it was worth for Lee. On the 29th, he reported to President Jefferson Davis that the Confederate army had sustained some sort of combat loss in 100 consecutive days. Lee also informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “Without some increase of strength, I cannot see how we can escape the natural military consequences of the enemy’s numerical superiority.”
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