September 5, 1864 – Major General Wade Hampton, commanding cavalry for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, received information that a herd of cattle capable of feeding the hungry army was loosely guarded by Federals.
The Confederates, still under siege around Petersburg, needed to come up with new ways to feed themselves, or else be starved into submission. General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander, urged Hampton to target the Federal supply base at City Point, eight miles northeast of Petersburg at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers. Lee stated, “I judge that the enemy is very open to attack at City Point. A sudden blow in that quarter might be detrimental to him.”
Sergeant George D. Shadburne, one of Hampton’s top scouts, reconnoitered the area and reported, “At Coggins’ Point (six miles below City Point on the James) are 3,000 beeves, attended by 120 men, and 30 citizens without arms.” Such a catch could feed the Confederate army for weeks, so Lee quickly approved Hampton’s plan to capture the herd.
Hampton waited until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, left his headquarters before striking. The command moved out at 1 a.m. on the 14th, consisting of 4,000 men in three brigades, including “several certified Texas cattle thieves.” Shadburne guided them as they tried confusing Federal scouts by riding southwest, beyond the Federal left flank below Petersburg, to Dinwiddie Court House.
The Confederates then rode southeast for 11 miles before turning northeast toward Coggins’ Point. By day’s end, they arrived at Wilkinson’s Bridge over Rowanty Creek. The next day, Hampton’s men continued northeast for 18 miles to the Blackwater River, where engineers repaired Cook’s Bridge. They crossed the river at midnight and prepared to attack Federal pickets at Sycamore Church, four miles from Coggins’ Point, at dawn.
Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s Laurel Brigade led the dawn assault. They overwhelmed elements of the 1st D.C. and 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, then surrounded the cattle before the Federals could stop them. With help from shepherd dogs they had brought, the Confederates rustled 2,468 of the 2,486 head of cattle. They also made off with 11 supply-filled wagons and 304 prisoners while losing just 61 men (10 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing).
Federal gunboats arrived too late to stop Hampton’s men, who herded the cattle back along the same route they had taken to get there. Rosser’s Confederates stopped to fight off Federal pursuers at Ebenezer Church that afternoon. The rest of the Confederates continued pushing the herd on a line that stretched nearly seven miles.
After an all-night ride, Hampton’s men delivered the cattle at 9 a.m. the next day. This was one of the largest cattle-rustling actions in American history, netting nearly two million pounds of beef at a time when Richmond had just a 15-day supply of meat to feed the Confederate army. This greatly helped the defenders outside Petersburg, who taunted the Federals with their own beef across the lines. It also earned Hampton’s cavalry the nickname the “cowboys.”
Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 110-11, 115; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11734-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 494; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7918; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 569-70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 336-37