August 21, 1864 (Sunday)
At 2am of the 21st of August the brigade was aroused,” wrote General Johnson Hagood, “and, moving out at half-past three, followed the column destined for the day’s engagement.”
P.G.T. Beaurgard had taken all of the day previous to gather a stronger force and plan his attack against the entrenching Federal troops near Globe Tavern, south of Petersburg. His attack on the 19th had met with great initial success, and, he believed, that with more troops, they could carry the day and dislodge the Union troops from the vital Weldon Railroad.
The plan for this morning mirrored the one from two days ago. One division, still under Henry Heth, would launch a frontal attack against the enemy line, while the other, still under William Mahone, would fall upon the left. Though the troops rose early and stepped off before dawn, it wasn’t until 9am when they were in position to make the assault. It was then that the atillery broke the silence, speaking with deathly effect.
And then they came, gray shadows through the clinging smoke and mists of morning. Mahone’s division hit first, to fall upon the Union left. The flags fell and were picked up just as quickly. There was a volley upon volley of fire, and a violent desperation seldom seen as they groped blindly for the enemy’s left flank. But it was not there.
The Rebels had moved on the word of a scout given the previous evening. But over the span of hours, the Union commander, General Gouverneur K. Warren, had refused the left division, drawing it nearly perpendicular to their old position, and nearly parallel with the railroad.
Mahone was convinced as he drove his division forward that they had already turned the flank, just as easily as he had turned it two day prior. He was mistaken. Just as his men thought the same, they dashed themselves against the Federal breastworks and melted away with bloody loss.
It was not until then when Heth finally launched his own attack. The Federal artillery, no longer occupied with Mahone, found them and stopped them cold.
But as they wavered and as Mahone’s men retreated, General Hagood’s brigade, which had been kept by Mahone as reserve, was still marching forward driving a line of skirmishers mistaken for the line of battle.
“With one accord a battle-yell rang out along our line, and the men, as if by command, broke into double-quick in pursuit. At the same moment General Hagood discovered that the line in front of us had only been an intrenched skirmish line, though so heavy as to have deceived his skirmishers into the notion that it was a line of battle, and that two hundred and fifty yards beyond was a strongly intrenched line, crowded with men and artillery, extending right and left as far as he could see, and the five Confederate attacking brigades of which General Mahone had spoken nowhere visible….
“Immediately to the right of where we struck their line a small bastioned work for field artillery was thrust forward, and our line of advance was oblique to the enemy’s general line and towards its junction with the flank of this work. Thus, in fact, we were going into a re-entering made more by the vicious direction of our advance than by the actual construction of the enemy’s work. The flank fire from the bastioned work we could not have avoided, but from our oblique attack we had also more or less of a flank fire from the straight line, which was an infantry parapet of fully five feet, with an exterior ditch eight or ten feet wide, and artillery at intervals.
“Perceiving at a glance the hopelessness of assault under such circumstances, General Hagood, stopping himself, shouted again and again the command to half; but the crash and rattle of twelve or fifteen pieces of artillery and probably twenty-five hundred rifles, which had now opened upon us at close range, drowned his voice, and the fury of battle was upon his men.”
Seeing his men charging and unable to halt them, Hagood decided that he must charge with his brigade. And as he surged forward, officers all around him fell. When he finally reached the Union works, he cheered his men on, “success now being their only hope of safety.”
Quickly, the Federals came out of their works on either side of his brigade, attempting to surround it and cut off the line of retreat. There were calls by a Federal staff officer to surrender, but Hagood “called to the men to shoot him and fall back in retreat.” But again, his voice could not be heard over the melee, and many began to surrender. Fearing that this capitulation would engulf his whole command, Hagood cried out for all to retreat. When his words were yet taken by the battle, he demanded the colors from the enemy staff officer who was himself demanding surrender, telling him that he was free to go back to his own lines.
The staff officer, Captain Daly, decided that now was a fine time to argue the point. “Hagood cut him short and demanded a categorical reply – yes or no,” recalled an observer. In reply to this abrupt demand the rider raised his head proudly, and decisively answered No! Upon the word, General Hagood shot him through the body, and he reeled from the saddle upon one side sprang into it from the other.” A Confederate orderly seized the flag before it fell. There was no thought of surrender now.”
They pressed forward at a run, led by Hagood himself and the captured flag. “The line melted before our charge; but the fire was terrific.” The Rebels broke through, or nearly, but they found the enemy too numerous, and the attack faded. Many were killed, many more were captured, and the rest managed somehow to retreat.
And though it was only 10am, the battle was through. General Warren was boastful in his victory, but General Grant wondered why these repulses were not followed by a counterattack. For the most part, the battles for the Weldon Railroad were at an end. The Federal forces remaining were there to stay and there seemed to be nothing that could be done to drive them away.1
- Sources: Memoirs by Johnson Hagood; The Military Operations of P.G.T. Beauregard by Alfred Roman; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin Bearss; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]