August 25, 1864 (Thursday)
Hancock was alone. Reports had come in that “large bodies” of Confederate infantry were moving around the left flank of the Union Army before Petersburg. It was two divisions of Hancock’s Second Corps – separated by several miles of railroad – that held that flank.
They had been tasked with tearing up the Weldon Railroad at Reams Station, south of the Globe Tavern where the Fifth Corps was entrenched. Though technically behind Union lines, they were greatly exposed to the west and south, and even the east, should the Rebels be so bold.
Through the night, the reports were clarified. There were perhaps as many as 10,000 Rebels moving south from Petersburg. They were last seen before dark, which would place them in Hancock’s front by dawn. Hancock could field maybe 7,000 men, still fairly exhausted from the past week of fighting near Bermuda Hundred. But neither Generals Meade nor Grant seemed to consider ordered Hancock to withdraw. Neither were plans made to reinforce him.
And at 5am, A.P. Hill issued the orders to his Confederates, who had encamped near Holly Point Church. Wade Hampton, leading the cavalry, was to divide his force. One portion was to screen the infantry as they advanced toward Reams Station, approaching it from the west. The other was to swing south and hit the Federals from the south and east.
By 8am, the skirmishers were already clashing near Malone’s Bridge, a few miles southwest of Reams. When they pushed their way across Rowanty Creek, word was sent back to Hancock that the Rebels were advancing in great force. This, Hancock felt, was only cavalry, but still too much for his own to handle. He ordered one of his divisions, under John Gibbon, to postpone their work at wrecking the railroad and meet the Rebel cavaliers head on; to push them back over the Rowanty.
When the first Union infantry brigade arrived, the cavalry was in retreat, leaving them to face down the Rebel threat on their own. But something didn’t feel right to Hancock, still at Reams Station. He had dispatched nearly half of his available force to battle cavalry to the south.
Still, to the front (west) of the Reams Station position was an extra line of entrenchments, so that if a force attacked from that direction, they would have to roll over two Union lines rather than one. But if they came from the south, the entire position would be taken in flank. So through the morning, work had commenced on a souther-facing set of works jutting east from the railroad. The Union position now formed a giant “U” – the base of which lay parallel to the tracks, with two legs projecting east, one facing north, the other south.
Hancock recalled most of Gibbon’s men who were not yet engaged, and filed them into the southern-faced works. One brigade remained near Malone’s Bridge, falling back against the Rebel tide. All around the Federal position, reports were coming in of Rebel cavalry, and Hancock dispatched a regiment here and there to plug a possible gap.
It was around noon when the real threat came. West of Reams the Federal cavalry was overrun by mounted Rebels. At first, it seemed again like only cavalry, but after the Union pickets got a better look, it was seen that the Confederate infantry had arrived.
Unsure what was actually coming, General Nelson Miles, commanding the division holding Hancock’s front and right, sent a regiment west to investigate. They were met by retreating comrades, and things looked grim indeed.
“The enemy have been feeling all around me and are now cheering in my front, advancing and driving my skirmishers,” wrote Hancock to Meade at 2pm. “I think they will next move across the road between Warren [at Globe Tavern to the north] 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 – one prisoner said Heth’s division.”
All this time, Hill’s Rebel infantry had moved from the west, crossing the Rowanty at Monk’s Neck Bridge. The road from there turned northeast, and they followed it until in position. And then they came.
Storming upon the Federal skirmishers, they easily threw them back on their own lines. But the Federals were ready, they were eager, and unleashed a hellish volley of musketry and artillery that decimated much of the Rebel attack. Those who remained were beaten back with bayonets and canister.
Hill was not wounded, but had quickly taken ill. Unable to ride, he had to prostrate himself in the grass, turning over command to Cadmus Wilcox. A lull fell over the field as Wilcox shifted his force a touch to the south.
Hancock now grew increasingly worried that the Rebels would slip between his position and that of Warren’s. “There is no great necessity of my remaining here,” he wrote to Meade at 2:45pm, “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 promised reinforcements and encouragement: “I hope you will be able to give the enemy a good thrashing.”
Through much of the afternoon, small attacks were launched by the Rebels and driven back by Hancock’s men. But something larger seemed to be in store. As the hours slipped by, General Meade was told by a staff officer that Hancock had repulsed the enemy. In light of that, he gave Hancock leave to “withdraw tonight if you deem it best for the security of your command.”
But Meade’s information was faulty, and at 5pm, the Rebel artillery opened. The rumor that Heth’s division was also on the field was true. Fifteen minutes after the bombardment began, the final assault came.
When they emerged from the words before the Federals, the northern guns spoke and again the Rebel attack seemed to be halted. But this was not so. The Rebels did not stop, carrying on and to the Union works. There, three regiments of Federals gave way, retreating to the rear in confusion and panic. This gap was now filled with Confederates.
The Union line was severed in the northwest corner, and the northern leg of the “U” in desperate struggle to remain. A reserve brigade had been stationed nearby, and the order was given to attack into the swirling gap, but it was met with silence and further retreat.
While the northern leg was crumbling, the west-facing portion running parallel to the railroad, however, was holding. There, the fighting devolved into a bloody cauldron of hand-to-hand combat.
“For God’s sake do not run!” shouted Hancock at his fleeing command, as he tried to form them for a counterattack. Seeing that this was impossible, he called upon Gibbon’s troops, holding the south-facing leg, to lend some assistance. Gibbon sent two brigades, but the chaotic fury which had consumed both the Rebels and the retreating Yankees, too consumed the reinforcements.
The tide was not exactly turning, but some units to the north held, or at least were not routed. Some Rebels were turned back, but most merely slowed. Still, it was enough to convince Hancock that some sort of counterattack could be launched just before dark. Just as he was about to give the orders, a message came in from his cavalry to the east. For not much longer could the line of retreat remain open. The entire corps was in serious danger of being wholly enveloped.
And then the order to retreat was given, darkness fell and the battle was over. Hancock’s Corps lost 117 killed, 439 wounded and 2,046 missing – a total of 2,600 out of 7,000. The Rebels, able to field more men, faired better, suffering nearly 800 in killed, wounded and missing.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p482-485; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin Bearss. [↩]