‘The Commanding General Cautions You To Look Out for Them’

August 24, 1864 (Wednesday)

“If we can retain hold of the railroad it will be a great advantage,” wrote General Grant to General Meade on the morning of August 21st. And after days of fighting between Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps and the Rebels south of Petersburg, it appeared as if their position would hold. The next day, Grant was convinced of this, and told Meade not to attack. If Warren could stand his ground, there was no need to throw his men against an entrenched foe.

Group of Federal generals: Winfield Scott Hancock (seated), with division commanders, Francis Channing Barlow, (left), David Bell Birney, and John Gibbon
Group of Federal generals: Winfield Scott Hancock (seated), with division commanders, Francis Channing Barlow, (left), David Bell Birney, and John Gibbon

And if they held, Grant had another idea. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps had been in a week-long battle at Deep Bottom, between Richmond and Petersburg. With that scrap dying down and with other available units able to take their place, he ordered the entire corps several miles south of Warren’s position with the same purpose in mind – to destroy the railroad.

Though the Confederate infantry had faded back and away from the railroad, the cavalry was still around in thick numbers. They sent their Northern counterparts scurrying for cover on the afternoon of the 23rd. The Federal troopers were from Hancock’s Cavalry, and Meade was none too pleased to learn that they had actually charged the enemy near Ream’s Station.

During the fight, Confederate General Wade Hampton had gotten a good look at what Hancock’s men were about. When Hampton returned to his camp that night, he wrote General Lee, telling him that the Federals were in a precarious spot, and if he had some reinforcemens, he might be able to dislodge them. Though it would not be soon enough to save the railroad. By nightfall of the 23rd, it had been completely gutted from Globe Tavern south to Ream’s Station.

Hancock’s infantry, under the screen and protection of the cavalry, were to tear up track and bend the rails the following day. However, Hancock informed on of his division, that if the fighting came in earnest, they were to reinforce the cavalry and fight it out. “You had better send back for ammunition if you are likely to need more,” concluded the message.

By 9am the next morning, the 24th – this date – General John Gibbon’s division joined their comrades at Ream’s Station. All around the station, the constructed breastworks and rifle pits. Most, however, were taking turns on the rails, heating them and twisting them into pretzels.

And by the end of the day, as Hancock reported, “the road is destroyed for about three miles and a half beyond Reams'” While the fist division, under General Nelson Miles, remained behind the entrenchments, Gibbon’s was to continue the work come dawn, though three or four miles to the south.

Thinking ahead, Hancock concluded that Gibbon’s men could, “in case of need, fall back on the plank road, if the enemy should appear in force on some of the roads between him an Reams’.”

But it was also around that time when Hancock received the news from signal officers reporting “large bodies of infantry passing south from their intrenchments by the Halifax and Vaughan roads [slightly to the northwest of his position]. They are probably destined to operate against General Warren or yourself – most probably against your operations. The commanding general cautions you to look out for them.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 2, p358, 430, 448-449; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin C. Bearss; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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‘The Commanding General Cautions You To Look Out for Them’ by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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