September 30, 1864 (Saturday)
Following the previous day’s loss of Fort Harrison between Richmond and Petersburg, General Lee was quickly pulling entire brigades from the southerly Petersburg lines to retake the works. Their removal began the evening past, and with their egress came the discovery by Federal cavalry.
General Meade correctly deduced that the troops that had been reportedly moving toward Richmond, and likely toward Fort Harrison, were from a reserve division under Robert Hoke. This meant that while the Rebels were down several brigades, they were still at full strength along the lines south of the city. These were the lines General Grant wanted Meade to attack.
Come the dawn of this date, Grant was ready for Meade to make his move. “You may move out now and see if an advantage can be gained,” wrote Grant to Meade. “It seems to me the enemy must be weak enough at one or the other place to let us in.”
And so Meade set out in two columns, marching west from near Fort Wadsworth. Leading was the Fifth Corps, commanded by Gouverneur K. Warren. Their objective was the line of fortifications guarding the Boydton Plank Road, one of the few remaining thoroughfares from which the Rebels drew their supplies.
The previous day’s reconnaissance had taught them that the Confederate Fort Archer, located near Peebles Farm, wouldn’t fall so easily. With this in his mind, General Warren halted his corps, arrayed them for the attack, lining them along Squirrel Level Road, and waited to be joined by John Parkes’ Ninth Corps. Hours would slip slowly by.
It was over these same hour that Lee was assembling his own strength to recapture Fort Harrison. It would more or less be under the command of Charles Field and Robert Hoke, though coordination was sorely lacking. Though they would attack, little would come of it. It was a disorganized representation of everything that had become of Lee’s forces. No longer could Lee simply point to a spot and order it to be taken. Those who could interpret such orders were dead or shuffled off to some other theater. The fort would not fall.
And even before Lee’s men stepped off, Warren launched his attack. Though he had assembled two corps, it was undertaken by one division, that of Charles Griffin. They sprang through the yard of Poplar Springs Church and scrambled toward Fort Archer, quickly devouring the earthen work. As the fort was the foundation of the Confederate left, the line around it began to crumble, and the Rebels were in quick retreat to a second line of defenses nearer the Boydton Plank Road.
Warren dressed his lines and occupied the fort, counted the dead and the captured Rebels. He reported his victory, and assured Meade he was not willing to simply rest on his laurels. “I will push up as fast as I can get my troops in order toward Petersburg on the Squirrel Level road,” he wrote at 2:20pm. But he waited again for Parkes’ Corps, which was steadily moving in on his left. Before 3pm, Parke was pushing “straight for the pike.”
But on the other side of the pike, the Rebels were not simply running. They were not even simply resting. Generals Henry Heth and Wade Hampton were planning to strike the Federals and retake Fort Archer. As Hampton advanced his cavalry, Heth dispatched three brigades in a seeming line of defense, ready to receive the coming foe. Upon the order to advance, however, the true intent was understood.
It was not long before they encountered the Federal skirmishers. But they had moved with speed and stealth and when the Rebel Yell finally tore through the air, the Federals were blindsided. It sent most of Warren’s Corps into a retreat, throwing them back upon Parkes’, which was still sorting themselves out behind them. Soon the chaos spread and even the Ninth Corps was disintegrating. Soon, all of Meade’s troops might be swept from the field.
Heth pushed southerly now, focusing his strength upon Parke. For nearly a mile the Rebels pushed them, but the men had become exhausted in their victory. There was little order and almost no energy remaining for another thrust. Darkness was at hand and the battle ground to its slow and bloody halt.
For Warren and Meade, this was still a victory and would be remembered as such from that day. But he had Warren and Parke withdraw to more secure positions and wired Grant of the news. Previously, he had informed the commander of Warren’s great success. Now, however, things had changed.
“About 4pm General Parke was advancing to the Boydton plank road when he was vigorously attacked by the enemy, said by prisoners to have been two divisions of Hill’s corps,” wrote Meade to Grant. “The fighting for some time till after dark was very severe, and after the Ninth Corps rallied and Griffin attacked it is believed the enemy suffered heavily.”
In reply Grant informed Meade that he “need not advance tomorrow unless in your judgment an advantage can be gained, but hold on to what you have, and be ready to advance.”
Grant then explained his current thinking: “We must be greatly superior to the enemy in numbers on one flank or the other, and by working around at each end, we will find where the enemy’s weak point is.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 2, p1093, 1118, 1121, 1131; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2 by Edwin Bearss. [↩]