June 22, 1864 (Wednesday)
The plan resembled an incredibly large wheeling movement. The Second and Sixth Corps, under Winfield Scott Hancock and Horatio Wright, were already parallel to the Weldon Railroad, running south from Petersburg. They were to advance west to the rails themselves and then wheel north, effectively boxing the Confederates into the city, their backs against the Appomattox River.
By noon, the cavalry vanguard, itself totaling over 7,000 men, had reached the line, severing it seven miles south of Petersburg at Reams Station. But whatever fortune came with the morning, left with the afternoon. The two corps had to hold close to each other. If a gap should form between them, it could easily be exploited with only ruination to follow.
The movement was incredibly slow. This was no gallant advance across an open plain. The ground was rough and pitted, with thick undergrowth across it. There were swamps and farms, and visibility was little. Together, the two corps advanced, the Second on the right, the Sixth on the left. But as they morning went on and the time came to begin the pivot to the north, it was found that the Sixth Corps was still moving west, and then they were not moving at all.
As it turned out, this was the doing of General Meade, who had ordered the Second Corps to advance independently of their comrades on their left. If there had been no opposition, this would hardly have mattered. But before the Sixth Corps there appeared Confederate skirmishers, and then infantry. What little movement had been in the Sixth, was now sapped.
These were troops under Confederate General Cadmus Wilcox from A.P. Hill’s Corps. With this force before them, Wright’s Federals began to entrench, following the procedures that had become all too typical in General Grant’s army. The Second Corps, meanwhile, continued on, enlarging the gap between the two corps.
It was William Mahone, commanding the Confederate division facing the Second Corps, that first saw the gap, but he was not alone. General Lee, too, noticed it and ordered that something be done to exploit this advantage. Mahone had been a railroad surveyor before the war, and had been responsible for much of the ground south of Petersburg, including the ground over which he was about to fight. Quickly, he took advantage of a ravine through which he could pass a column of troops, landing them squarely between the two Federal corps.
With three brigades, he swiftly began to move, sending a message to Wilcox to press upon the Sixth Corps so that one Federal line could not assist the other. Without notice, they strode into position, and when Mahone believed his men to be upon the Federal flank, they bellowed the Rebel yell and screamed forward through the thickets.
While they received a killing fire from some of the Federal troops, they plowed into the flank of a division, which melted into blind panic. This division fled north into the ranks of another, it too falling victim.
Robert Goldthwaite Carter described the scene in his own regiment:
“Colonel R. McAllister, of the Eleventh New Jersey, commanding the brigade, is reported to have shouted when he saw his command break: ‘Stand fast, men! Rally round the flag, men!’ But when he saw that to remain longer in that position meant certain capture or annihilation, he sang out at the top of his voice: ‘Run boys, run! Run like the devil!'”
The Rebel attack came not only on the flank of two divisions, but actually behind another, already in entrenchments. It was soon every regiment for itself, and all order was lost in the smoke of battle and chaos. Two entire regiments were swallowed whole, as was a battery of artillery.
General Mahone called upon Wilcox to join the battle. And though Wilcox was worried about the Sixth Corps in his front, he dispatched two brigades for the task. So many prisoners had the Rebels taken that the momentum of the assault dwindled and finally ceased. Wilcox’s two brigades arrived, though too late.
Darkness was falling and the Second Corps was now taking refuge in the breastworks of the night previous. There was a stumble forward by the Sixth Corps, but the terrain more than the Rebels threw them back. In all, the Second Corps lost 650 killed and wounded, with another 1,742 captured. The Sixth Corps suffered 150 casualties. Less than 600 Rebels fell across the lines.
The following day, they would try again, and while some track was destroyed, Horatio Wright would refuse to advance, and in the end, the Weldon Railroad would remain in Confederate hands.1
- Sources: Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Four Brothers in Blue by Robert Goldthwaite Carter; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]