August 19, 1864 (Friday)
Somehow or another, two Confederate brigades under P.G.T. Beauregard had beaten back three of Gouverneur K. Warren’s divisions the day previous near the Globe Tavern, south of Petersburg. The entire Federal Fifth Corps was astride the Weldon Railroad and something had to be done to remove them.
General Lee, fearing more for holding Richmond than Petersburg, had pulled the body of his army to the north side of the James River. When Beauregard asked for held, all Lee would give was a division of cavalry.
For Beauregard, this would have to suffice. Accompanying the two brigades from yesterday’s fight, and the third held in reserve, would be another, quickly cobbled together, and the cavalry coming from Lee.
“I will endeavor to-day to dislodge him with four brigades of our infantry and the division of cavalry you have promised,” wrote Beauregard to Lee at 8am. “Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry.” Beauregard’s scouts also reported Union reinforcements – at least one brigade – marching toward the field.
As Beauregard readying his command, some of his officers were interrogating a Union captain. When he told his story, they reported it immediately to Beaurgard, who, in turn, reported it to Lee: “Says object of expedition was to break up Weldon railroad and so weaken our forces in front as to increase chances of breaking our lines, intimating use of another move.”
If the captured officer was telling the truth, then the attack on the Weldon Railroad was only a diversion or a tool used in the hopes that the Rebels would reinforce Beauregard, thus weakening some other part of their lines where Grant would then strike. But, on the other hand, if the officer was lying and Beauregard did nothing, the opportunity to defeat an entire Union corps would slip quietly away and the Weldon Railroad would remain in Federal hands.
And so Beauregard decided to strike. He would strip the Petersburg defenses almost bare. This would give him five brigades of infantry. The entire attack would be placed under the helm of A.P. Hill, and the body would be divided into two divisions. The first, the striking force of two brigades, would be commanded by Henry Heth, the other and the rest, by William Mahone.
While Heth’s orders were simple – attack, Mahone would exploit a gap in the Federal lines. There existed gulf of open space between the right flank of General Warren’s line and the Ninth Corps pickets that was simply too tempting to pass up.
Mahone’s three brigades easily swept away skirmishers from Edward Bragg’s brigade, who were moving north to extend the Federal line. Then, instead of continuing south, the Confederates wheeled right and found themselves square on the Union flank. Within minutes, Bragg’s entire brigade was consumed and Mahone began to roll up the flank.
It was at this moment when Heth launched his frontal assault, one brigade on either side of the railroad. The Union skirmishers were dispersed and then they came. Throwing themselves against the hastily-cobbled Union breastworks, the first attack was repulsed. And then the second, then third. It was hellish, but essential that they continue their assaults, pinning the Federals down in their works while Mahone delivered the killing strike.
“In front their advance was checked,” wrote Samuel Crawford, commanding one of Warren’s divisions, “and they were bring repulsed, when the rebel line commenced its advance along our rear. At this moment our artillery opened fire upon friend and foe, the shells bursting among our men, the projectiles striking in the rear of the breast-works, killing some officers and men and wounded many others. Immediately the cry was raised that the enemy were in our rear, and the men began to fall back from teh intrenchments on the left of [Peter] Lyle’s brigade [near the center of the Union line]. In the dense thicket in which they were engaged it was impossible to know the truth.”
But the Confederates came too quickly and cut off Peter Lyle’s line of retreat and they scattered, leaving a hole in the line, as the brigade on their right, under Col. Charles Wheelock, and closer to the attacking Rebels was still holding steady.
It was into Wheelock’s brigade, however, that the Union artillery was firing. Wishing little to be destroyed by his own gunners, Wheelock ordered his entire brigade to leap the breastworks and take cover on the other side. As they did, Mahone’s men were upon them and ordering their surrender. But Wheelock was having none of this, and instead ordered a volley to be fired into the Rebels. Then another, and another. The artillery raining down upon them both caused the Confederates to take cover side-by-side with the Federals they were attacking. Before long, Wheelock ordered them to surrender. Most did, but it was but a small portion of the enemy near him. In fact, he was now surrounded, the general flow sliding round either side. They remained still, not firing a shot, and somehow the tide rolled around them. When the Rebels passed, Wheelock and his brigade made their escape to the rear, near the Globe Tavern.
Mahone’s men flowed west through the space left vacant by Lyle’s untimely retreat, falling now upon the Regulars commanded by Joseph Hays, asride the railroad itself. In short order, they too were surrounded and their line of retreat blocked. Many fell or fell into Rebels hands.
General Romeyn Ayres commanded the small division holding the Federal left. They had been pinned down the Heth’s frontal assaults, but now saw General Crawford’s entire division melt away. And so Ayres ordered a general retreat. In doing so, they could open the line for what remained of Hays’ Regulars.
As they did, Union reinforcements were arriving. Orlando Willcox now commanded a division, half of which – Bragg’s Brigade – had been mauled by Mahone’s Rebels. The other brigade, under John Hartranft, was still fresh, and surged forward toward Mahone’s left flank. Seeing them coming, the Rebels prepared to receive and yet again consume the enemy. Rather, when Hartranft’s Federals attacked, they fell upon them, throwing them back upon their comrades in a nearby woods. This victory might not have lasted, as the Rebels soon regrouped and struck out at their assailants, but all for naught. The blow was muted and Mahone’s wave was cresting.
With a short lull, Hartranft’s brigade was ushered west to the works left vacant by Hays’ Regulars. This made way for yet more Federal reinforcements. General Julius White commanded an entire division from the Ninth Corps and they quickly filed into the ground just fought over by Hartranft. Coming upon the Rebels still in formation before them, “Fire, and give them hell!” was ordered. The battle grew to credendo over the murderous course of thirty minutes.
Into this, General Warren fed Hartranft’s brigade, now returning to near their former position, as well as Lyle and Wheelock’s brigades, now more or less once more ready for battle. This force stemmed the Rebels, throwing them back. The Union troops made some attempt to follow, but the dusk, now falling, and the thickness of the woods into which the Confederates retreated, made for little more than confusion. Before long, the Mahones’s Rebels had returned to their lines, and Heth acted as rear guard, even launching a night assault at 8:30pm. It was, not surprisingly, repulsed.
The fighting died and the darkness was thick over the field. General Warren called it a day, but ordered and “advance at daylight in every direction.”
The Federals had lost 94 killed, 457 wounded, and 2,596 captured, including General Hayes. The Confederates never reported their figures, or, if they did, they are now lost. But it could not have been too bad as the feeling of victory filled the Petersburg lines. The Federals were still before them, still holding the Weldon Railroad, but they had gutted two full divisions. The next day, they vowed, there would be yet another mauling.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p858; Part 2, p310, 1190; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin C. Bearss; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]