August 18, 1864 (Thursday)
General Grant knew Lee was weak. He knew that the Army of Northern Virginia had sent at least two divisions north to reinforce Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. Additionally, Lee had pulled several divisions back to the north bank of the James River. Was he, wondered Grant, abandoning Petersburg to hold Richmond?
Knowing that he could handle almost whatever number Lee could muster, he had stabbed with the Second Corps near Deep Bottom, between the two cities, in the hopes that the reinforcements for Early would be recalled. Philip Sheridan in the Valley was already overtaxed, and Grant was doing whatever he could to relieve the pressure. But Lee wasn’t biting, and Grant had to come up with something else.
This ‘something else’ was the Weldon Railroad, running south out of Petersburg. “This road was very important to the enemy,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. “The limits from which his supplies had been drawn were already very much contracted, and I knew that he must fight desperately to protect it.”
For the undertaking, Grant selected the Fifth Corps, commanded by Gouverneur K. Warren. They had been withdrawn from the Petersburg lines on the 14th. Since this was still technically the Army of the Potomac, George Meade was still technically calling the shots. When he received word that only three Confederate divisions remained to defend Petersburg – the rest having been pulled back to the James – Meade decided that Warren should attack.
But Grant wasn’t so sure about this, and canceled Meade’s plans until more could be learned. From interviews with captured Rebels, Grant’s mind was soon made up, though not to Meade’s liking.
From the prisoners, Grant learned “that all the cavalry, or nearly so, south of Petersburg has been withdrawn, and also three brigades of infantry have been sent north of the river. There may have been a further reduction of the infantry force, but there is no evidence to show it. Under these circumstances no decisive result could be expected from moving a single corps by our left; but they might get to the Weldon road and, with the aid of a little cavalry, cut and destroy a few miles of it.”
And that was everything. Warren’s Fifth Corps would not be attacking. They would simply move a bit west and destroy the railroad. “His movements should be more a reconnaissance in force, with instructions to take advantage of any weakness of the enemy he may discover.” This was not an allowance to give battle. “I do not want him to fight any unequal battles nor to assault fortifications.”
The plan remained unchanged. The reason for Warren’s movements was the same as the reason for Hancock’s a few days earlier: “I want, if possible, to make such demonstrations as will force Lee to withdraw a portion of his troops from the Valley, so that Sheridan can strike a blow against the balance.” Meade acquiesced, and simply followed instructions. This was how things worked now.
All through the 17th, Warren prepared his men to step off at 4am on this date. But things changed toward evening. From further interigations of Rebel prisoners, Grant learned that a full division and a brigade had been pulled to the north bank of the James. “This leave the force at Petersburg reduced to what it was when the mine was sprung. Warren may find an opportunity to do more than I had expected.” This was news indeed, and Meade forwarded it on to Warren – it he found any weak point, he was to attack it.
Come the pre-dawn, Warren’s men were up, though unable to leave their camps until 5am – an hour late. They marched south and away from Petersburg. After an already-war three mile march, Warren halted, turned his 10,000 men to the west and deployed his first brigade into line of battle, throwing skirmishers to the front. An hour later, the held the railroad and the consummation began in earnest.
Meanwhile, in Petersburg, P.G.T. Beauregard had been left in command of the city, while General Lee oversaw things on the north side of the James. Around 10am, he received word that the Weldon Railroad had been captured. Unsure of just how many Yankees were buzzing around his supply line to the south, he sent a message to Lee if some cavalry couldn’t be spared to assist him. South of Petersburg was held only by James Dearing’s cavalry, which might quickly fall back.
It was 11am when Warren sent Romeyn Ayres’ division north through an array of tangled undergrowth and pine. The Rebel sharpshooters and artillery took notice and fired away at the advancing lines. The advance was incredibly slow, and over the course of three hours, the division advanced hardly a mile. Skirmishers from both sides abandoned formations and line, instead firing where they could and crawling from cover to cover.
The greatest contributor to the slugging move was the heat. Many were falling with sun stroke and many more were exhausted. Still, the day had to continue, and Warren deployed a second division – Samuel Crawford’s – to come in on Ayres’ right with the railroad between them.
It was noon, and Beauregard had been again updated. The enemy was now moving north in great force. Beauregard dispatched two brigades from A.P. Hill’s Corps to chase them away and return to their lines before nightfall. They were helmed by Henry Heth. As Heth’s men were marching south, Dearing reported that his cavalry had stopped the Federal advance. In fact, it didn’t seem to be an advance at all, but merely a feint. With what little resistance he could apply, the entire Yankee force was at rest.
Nevertheless, when Heth arrived on the scene, he deployed his two brigades and ordered them to attack at once. They came screaming out of the woods, a shocking horror, and plowed into the formed blue lines. A brigade east of the railroad was hurled back exposing Ayres’ right flank, crumbling that as well. More Rebels came quickly and the entire corps seemed about to collapse.
Ayres called upon his reserve brigade and reinforcements from Warren. The Fifth Corps had deployed two divisions (which had been crumbled by two Rebel brigades), but another division, that of Lysander Cutler, remained. Cutler had but two brigades and sent one to bolster Ayres on the Union left. By 4pm, they were hotly engaged with the remnants of Ayres’ Division still melting around them.
But there still remained a gap between Ayres’ and Crawford’s Divisions, and into this Cutler threw his remaining brigade. In hopes that most of the troops had regained their composure, Warren ordered Ayres, Crawford and Cutler to attack. It was a slow and arduous affair, and darkness was now quickly falling as the Federal troops crept forward. But the pace was not quick enough to keep the Rebels from starting impromptu breastworks. If the Northern troops could fully attack now, the defense would hardly matter. But if there was pause, it might be impossible to crack.
General Crawford was of this mind and sent a message to Warren. “You have done very well indeed in getting forward through that difficult country,” came a message from Warren before Crawford could send his along. “Make yourself as strong as you can and hold on. I will try and re-enforce you by [Edward] Bragg’s brigade in the morning, and establish direct connection with the Ninth Corps pickets. We are going to hold on here.”
Meade wasn’t incredibly excited with how the day ended and vowed to get Warren 6,000 reinforcements from the Ninth Corps as soon as he could find troops to replace them along the lines. It would be dawn before anything would come of it.
The Confederates, too, were reinforcing their lines. Heth had been given another brigade, but had not sent it into the battle. From prisoners, Heth learned of the force before him and was confident that with a few more units, he could sweep the field of the enemy. But Beauregard had nothing left to give – Heth had all three of his brigades. And so the victorious Rebels were ordered back to their entrenchments, two and a half miles north of Warren’s lines.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 2, p244-245, 278; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Life and Letters by George Meade; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin C. Bearss; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]