February 5, 1865 (Sunday)
“I would like to take advantage of the present good weather,” wrote General Grant to General Meade on the day previous, “to destroy or capture as much as possible of the enemy’s wagon train, which it is understood is being used in connection with the Weldon railroad to partially supply the troops about Petersburg.”
The action about Petersburg had lulled, for the most part, since October. This had allowed Meade’s Army of the Potomac to gather themselves after a season of near constant battles and marching. By this point, they were the Army of old, stronger and more certain than ever before. But the lull had also allowed the Confederate to consider their fate. The war, thought many, was all but over. Desertions were hemorrhaging men from the army, and morale was pitiable. The news of the return of the Peace Commissioners actually helped in this regard, and for a short time, those who remained were filled with a renewed vigor. This would not last long, but it might serve them well while it lasted.
Through the autumn, the General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates had supplied themselves via the Weldon Railroad. But in December, the Fifth Corps saw to its destruction, and for forty miles, the tracks were torn and sundered as if these were the men of Sherman’s own army. Lee could not, of course, retaliate, but used an alternate route to bring in supplies – the Boydton Plank Road. And it was here that Grant wished for Meade to strike.
“You may get the cavalry ready to do this as soon as possible,” Grant continued. “I think the cavalry should start at 3am either tomorrow or the following day, carrying one and a half days’ forage and three days’ rations with them. They should take no wagons and but few ambulances. Let the Second Corps move at the same time, but independent of the cavalry, as far south as Stony Creek Station, to remain there until the cavalry has done the enemy all the harm it can and returns to that point.”
Grant had ceased pretending that Meade was still actually in command of his own Army of the Potomac. At best, Meade was now a Wing Commander, and Grant made no allusion to him being anything but. He even dictated how many batteries would be brought along for each division (one per), and how many days’ rations for the infantry (four days). He also strongly suggested that the Fifth Corps should move by a parallel road as support.”
This did not mean, however, that Meade couldn’t make changes where he felt they were necessary, and if Grant gave his approval. For instance, moving the Second Corps, thought Meade, would tip off the enemy to the movement. And so he wanted to instead send the Fifth Corps in its place, and use two divisions of the Second Corps which were not on the line. “Your arrangement for moving troops is satisfactory,” came Grant’s reply. He really didn’t care who made the tramp, just so that it was made.
Before he could receive Grant’s reply, Meade began to question the mission. “Are the objects to be attained commensurate with the disappointment which the public are sure to entertain if you make any movement and return without some striking result?” It was, after all, not a foregone conclusion that they would meet with victory.
“The objects to be attained are of importance,” came Grant’s reply. He told Meade that he would wire Washington the objectives and reasons for the move, and the public will be satisfied. “When do your troops start out?”
General David Gregg’s cavalry had started at 3am, and by dawn had made their way west to Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad. Now moving south, the riders would shortly turn west again toward Dinwiddie Court House. It was there they found a division-sized Confederate camp, just abandoned that morning. They skirmished slightly at a bridge crossing, but made their way to the Court House by noon.
On the march, the two corps of infantry moved along roads which were as parallel as possible. The Second, staying closer to the main lines to shield the Fifth Corps, snaked their way toward the Plank Road, hoping to cut it near a couple of mills and a tavern. The Fifth Corps followed the cavalry, though more slowly and on their right. The crossing of various creeks was contested by the Rebels against both corps, and both corps met with simple victory.
It was near noon when the Fifth Corps arrived with the cavalry near Dinwiddie, and slightly earlier when the Second came upon the Confederate rifle pits guarding the desired Plank Road. Now came the waiting. The Second had no orders nor desire to attack, and the Fifth and the Cavalry were well to the south. And so General Andrew Humphreys, commanding the Second, ordered his men to dig in, and to expect soon an attack.
General Lee, by this time, had been informed of the movement, and knew that Henry Heth’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps was in the trenches. Still, he understood that he would have to strip the main lines to sure up his right, upon which the Yankees were now operating. A few hours slipped by, and with the sun westering, the Rebels were ready to make their strike.
At 4pm they came, not screaming, but steady. Firing as they moved, and stopping no closer than 100 yards before the hastily-constructed Union works. An hour and a half passed, and the sides were stood still, loading and reloading. For a time, it seemed as if some of the Federal regiments might break, but above the noise of battle grew a strain as one regiment and then another began to sing “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” This was the sustenance needed, and with dark now falling, the attack withered and soon was no more.
Three times had the Rebels tried to charge, and never once could they find immediate victory. But a success of sorts came when Grant, apprehensive over the Confederate showing, ordered Meade to draw the Fifth Corps and the cavalry back, away from the Plank Road upon which they now were situated.
But Grant also saw this as an opportunity. “If we can follow the enemy up,” he wrote that night to Meade, “although it was not contemplated before, it may lead to getting the South Side [Rail]road, or a position form which it can be reached.”
The next morning, Meade would try again.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p367-368, 390; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2 by Edwin Bearss. [↩]