‘Great Many Damned Fools in this Army’ – Battle of Burgess’ Mill

October 27, 1864 (Thursday)

Battle of Boydton Plank Road
Battle of Boydton Plank Road

The month of October along the Petersburg lines was mostly uneventful. Early on, the Federals tried to snatch a victory south of the city, and managed to throw back Confederate defenders loosely strung out in their works. Their ultimate goal – the Boydton Plank Road, as well as the Southside Railroad, the two remaining corridors which carried Confederate supplies – were still out of reach.

General Meade, though the reconnaissance of scouts, had learned that since early in the month, the Rebels had scratched out new works, extending their lines westerly. These works, however, were apparently just begun. If he attacked soon, they would hardly be an obstacle at all.

On the 23rd, Meade suggested such a plan to General Grant, who approved it the following day. Then, as was Grant’s style, he more or less took over the planning, laying out which units would take part, and even their role in the coming battle.

They would move in three columns. On the right and center, the Ninth and Fifth Corps would hit the Confederate works running perpendicular and anchored upon Hatcher’s Run. The Second Corps would make up the Union left and hurl itself across the creek and hopefully behind the Rebel lines and seize the Boydton Plank Road. There was also to be a bit of a scrape on the Union right, north of the James River. Grant was keen to do things as such since it pinned Lee down and disallowed him the luxury of moving troops from one end of the Confederate lines to the other.

Come the morning of this date, all was set – 35,000 Federals were ready to pounce upon no more than 12,000 Rebels. At dawn they stepped off and before long, the skirmishers met and it was begun.

The first to hit the enemy’s works was John Parke’s Ninth Corps. These works, reported to be scant and unformed, were quite the opposite. These were the same type of Rebels works faced upon myriad battlefields all through Virginia. There was a half-hearted attack and much probing, but any sort of weak spot was undiscovered and probably nonexistent.

Rebel works near Burgess' Mill (drawn in 1865).
Rebel works near Burgess’ Mill (drawn in 1865).

Meade sent word to Winfield Scott Hancock, helming the Second Corps on the left that Parke had met with no luck but bad. The Ninth Corps was out, and now it was left to Hancock’s, as well as Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps to carry the day. Hancock had already had a hot morning. By 6:30am, his men were in a firefight across a ford along Hatcher’s Run. Two charges were needed to clear the way from a single regiment of Georgia cavalry, but in the end, Hancock made the crossing.

A good portion of Warren’s corps had been caught up by the Rebels works, along with the Ninth. Warren himself did a bit of scouting to see just what he could do against them. Before he could finish, a message came from Meade, ordering him to siddled on up to Hancock’s Corps and go around the Confederate flank. When Warren returned to his headquarters, he found both Meade and Grant waiting for him. The plan was also slightly altered.

Grant, out on a scout of his own, noticed that there was an exceedingly large gap between the Second and Fifth Corps. Before Warren could go forward, he had to close the gap. It wasn’t until nearly noon that one of Warren’s divisions, that under Samuel Crawford, crossed Hatcher’s Run to join Hancock’s column.

Campaign map  with a tiny description of today's action.
Campaign map with a tiny description of today’s action.

By that time, Hancock’s corps had been within sight of the Boydton Plank Road for an hour and a half. There was some fighting, but mostly Hancock was waiting for his tail to reach his head. This was because his path first took him across to the south side of Hatcher’s Run, but he had to loop around and recross to the north side, crossing it with the Boydton Plan Road to the north and the rear of the Rebel lines. At this crossing sat Burgess’ Mill and some formidable Confederate works.

According to Hancock’s original instructions, he was not to cross with the Plank Road, but to follow the stream, moving west toward the railroad. He began to follow these instructions when new orders arrived from Meade for him to halt near the crossing. Here, he waited, forming lines of defense rather than offense, ready to receive an attack rather than give one.

Rather than send another message to Hancock, General Meade arrived himself. While they conversed, the Rebels managed to place a battery of artillery in such a position to enfilade the Plank Road and send Meade and company scurrying for cover. Through his, a division of Hancock’s prepared to cross the bridge.

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Grant, too, had arrived near Hancock’s new headquarters and once more did his own scouting. General Meade’s staff officer, Theodore Lyman recording in his private journal: “Grant (who is noticeably an intrepid man() had ridden along down the road to look a little; got into a hot place, got his horse’s legs tangled in a piece of telegraph wire and ran much risk, man & horse. He returned, quite red, and said sharply ‘Some damned food had thrown telegraph wire in the road.’ ‘Yes,’ quoth Hancock in his high voice, ‘Yes – great many damned fools in this army!’ – (We feel the want of officers severely now; so many disabled or slain, or mustered out on expiration of service.)”

But Grant had learned the true Rebel strength and position and saw it was pointless, determining “to withdraw to within our fortified lines.” The Southside Railroad would have to wait. The Boydton Plank Road, however, might still be held. He ordered Hancock to stay in position until noon the following day. Around 4pm, both Grant and Meade made their egress as word of the Rebel concentration against Hancock reached them. This was of note, but they felt it would be more or less fine since Crawford’s division from Warren’s Fifth Corps was most certainly with Hancock by this time.

By this time, however, Crawford was nowhere to be seen. It was 4pm and Warren himself was trying to hurry them along. But the woods grew thick and the roads grew skinny and wayward soldiers by the score wandered aimlessly about in the tangled wilderness between the two corps. To make matters somehow more confusion, some of Crawford’s men captured a slew of Rebels who told them that they had already whipped Hancock, and that the Fifth Corps was the new Union left.

Crawford's Division escorting Rebel prisoners to the rear.
Crawford’s Division escorting Rebel prisoners to the rear.

Hancock was, of course, still in position, facing the crossing of Hatcher’s Run. And now to his rear came firing. Rebel infantry had uncovered his flank and was moving closer. At first, Hancock believed it to be Crawford, but soon enough he knew the truth. These were men culled from Confederate lines – the same lines that Warren and Parke were to have at least held in place. Even farther in Hancock’s rear, two sides of cavalry clashed, nearly boxing in his isolated corps.

Though the attack came with a roar, there was little to it – certainly not enough to pry Hancock’s corps from their post. What’s more is that the Confederate attacks came in slow secession. The second did not begin until the first was beaten back. This allowed Hancock to move regiments where needed with little effort expended. Soon, darkness flooded the field.

Meade then gave Hancock a choice. If he thought that Crawford could make the connection with him by dawn, he could stay. He’d even be supplied with another division. But if he was not going to make an attack, he could retire back to the main lines. Ultimately, Hancock had no faith in Crawford, and was gloriously bitter with Warren and Parke. By 10pm, he began to withdraw his force, and long before the dawn, all his men had taken their leave of Burgess’ Mill, even leaving many of his wounded scattered along the road.

This affair cost the Army of the Potomac 1,758 in killed wounded and missing. The Rebels suffered around 1,300, though could much less afford such a total. This would be Hancock’s last battle. He would resign his commission in less than a month due to pain from his Gettysburg wound. This would also be the last major action of the year before the defenses of Petersburg. Though both sides had long ago settled into a siege, they would wait for spring before pitching into each other once more.1



  1. Sources: Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwinn Bearss. []
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