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Chapter XXII

  • General Wilson's raid
  • -- destroying railroads -- his discomfiture -- results of his raid -- Remounts -- movement to the North side of the James -- deceiving Lee -- my isolated position -- estimate of Hancock -- success of the cavalry -- their constant duties.

While I was absent on the expedition to Trevillian, the movement of the Army of the Potomac across the James River was effected, and Wilson, whom I had left behind for the purpose, was engaged in the duty of covering its front and rear. Late on the night of June 12 he, with Chapman's brigade, crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, in advance of the Fifth Corps, and by 7 o'clock next morning had driven the enemy's pickets up to White Oak bridge, where he waited for our infantry. When that came up, he pushed on as far as Riddle's Shop, but late that evening the Confederate infantry forced him to withdraw to St. Mary's Church; for early in the morning General Lee had discovered the movement of our army, and promptly threw this column of infantry south of the Chickahominy to White Oak Swamp, with the design of covering Richmond. From St. Mary's Church Wilson guarded all the roads toward White Oak Swamp and Riddle's Shop, McIntosh's brigade joining him on the 14th, by way of Long Bridge, as the rear of the Army of the Potomac passed the Chickahominy. In the performance of this duty Wilson did not have to fight any engagement of magnitude, for the bulk of the enemy's cavalry had followed me to Trevillian. During the 15th and 16th Wilson drew his troops in toward the James River, and next day crossed it on the pontoon-bridge and camped on the Blackwater, near Mt. Sinai Church. Here we remained till the 22d of June--the same day I reached the White House with Gregg and Torbert-when, under orders from General Meade, he set out to cut the enemy's communications to the south and southwest of Petersburg. [240]

His instructions implied that the breaking up of the Petersburg and Lynchburg, and Richmond and Danville railroads at Burkeville was the most important part of his mission, and that when the work of destruction began, it should be continued till he was driven off by the enemy. Wilson's force consisted of about 5,500 men, General A. V. Kaultz, with the cavalry of the Army of the James, having joined him for the expedition. In moving out Wilson crossed the Weldon road near Ream's Station, first destroying it effectually at that point. About fourteen miles west of Petersburg he struck the Southside railroad, and broke it up clear to Burkeville, a distance of thirty miles. Having destroyed everything at Burkeville Junction, he moved along the Danville road to Staunton River, completely wrecking about thirty miles of that line also. At Staunton River he found the railroad bridge strongly guarded, and seeing that he could not burn it, be began his return march that night, and reached Nottoway River, some thirty miles south of Petersburg, at noon of the next day — the 28th.

In this expedition Wilson was closely followed from the start by Barringer's brigade of W. H. F. Lee's cavalry, but the operations were not interfered with materially, his success being signal till he reached the vicinity of Stony Creek depot on his return. At this point General Hampton, with his own and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, got between Wilson and the Army of the Potomac, there being behind them at Ream's Station, at the same time, two brigades of infantry under General Mahone. A severe battle ensued, resulting in Wilson's defeat, with the loss of twelve guns and all his wagons. In consequence of this discomfiture he was obliged to fall back across the Nottoway River with his own division, and rejoined the army by way of Peter's bridge on that stream, while Kautz's division, unable to unite with Wilson after the two commands had become separated in the fight, made a circuit of the enemy's left, and reached the lines of our army in the night of the 28th.

Neither the presence of Hampton's cavalry at Stony Creek depot, nor the possession of Ream's Station by the Confederate infantry, seems to have been anticipated by Wilson, for in the report of the expedition he states:

Foreseeing the probability of having to return northward, I wrote to General Meade the evening before starting that I anticipated no serious difficulty in executing his orders; but unless General Sheridan was required to keep Hampton's cavalry engaged, and our infantry to prevent Lee from making detachments, we should probably experience great difficulty in rejoining the army. In reply to this note, General Humphreys, chief-of-staff, informed me it was intended the Army of the Potomac should cover the Weldon road the next day, the Southside [241] road the day after, and that Hampton having followed Sheridan toward Gordonsville. I need not fear any trouble from him.

I doubt that General Meade's letter of instructions1 and Wilson's note2 of the same evening, warrant what General Wilson here says. It is true that the Weldon railroad near Ream's Station was not covered by our infantry, as General Humphreys informed him it would be, but Wilson is in error when he intimates that he was assured that I would look after Hampton. I do not think General Meade's instructions are [242] susceptible of this interpretation. I received no orders requiring me to detain Hampton. On the contrary, when I arrived at the White House my instructions required me to break up the depot there, and then bring the train across the Peninsula as soon as practicable, nor were these instructions ever modified. I began the duty imposed on me on the morning of the 23d, totally in the dark as to what was expected of Wilson, though it seems, from some correspondence between Generals Grant and Meade, which I never saw till after the war, that Grant thought Wilson could rely on Hampton's absence from his field of operations throughout the expedition.

The moment I received orders from General Meade to go to the relief of Wilson, I hastened with Torbert and Gregg by way of Prince George Court House and Lee's Mills to Ream's Station. Here I found the Sixth Corps, which Meade had pushed out on his left flank immediately on hearing of Wilson's mishap, but I was too late to render any material assistance, Wilson having already disappeared, followed by the enemy. However, I at once sent out parties to gather information, and soon learned that Wilson had got safe across the Nottoway at Peter's [243]

Map: Third expedition. Gen. Wilson's raid to Roanoke Station.

[244] bridge and was making for the army by way of Blunt's bridge, on the Blackwater.

The benefits derived from this expedition, in the destruction of the Southside and Danville railroads, were considered by General Grant as equivalent for the losses sustained in Wilson's defeat, for the wrecking of the railroads and cars was most complete, occasioning at this time serious embarrassment to the Confederate Government; but I doubt if all this compensated for the artillery and prisoners that fell into the hands of the enemy in the swamps of Hatcher's Run and Rowanty Creek. Wilson's retreat from the perilous situation at Ream's station was a most creditable performance — in the face of two brigades of infantry and three divisions of cavalry-and in the conduct of the whole expedition the only criticism that can hold against him is that he placed too much reliance on meeting our infantry at Ream's station, seeing that uncontrollable circumstances might, and did, prevent its being there. He ought to have marched on the 28th by Jarreit's Station to Peter's bridge, on the Nottoway, and Blunt's bridge on the Blackwater, to the rear of the Army of the Potomac.

When the safety of Wilson's command was assured, I was ordered back to Light House Point, where I had gone into camp after crossing the James River to rest and recruit my command, now very much reduced in numbers by reason of casualties to both horses and men. It had been marching and fighting for fifty consecutive days, and the fatiguing service had told so fearfully on my animals that the number of dismounted men in the corps was very large. With the exception of about four hundred horses that I received at the White House, no animals were furnished to supply the deficiencies which had arisen from the wearing marches of the past two months until I got to this camp at Light House Point; here my needs were so obvious that they could no longer be neglected.

I remained at Light House Point from the 2d to the 26th of July, recuperating the cavalry, the intensely warm weather necessitating almost an entire suspension of hostilities on the part of the Army of the Potomac. Meanwhile fifteen hundred horses were sent me here, and these, with the four hundred already mentioned, were all that my troops received while I held the personal command of the Cavalry Corps, from April 6 to August 1, 1864. This was not near enough to mount the whole command, so I disposed the men who could not be supplied in a dismounted camp.

By the 26th of July our strength was pretty well restored, and as General Grant was now contemplating offensive operations for the purpose [245] of keeping Lee's army occupied around Richmond, and also of carrying Petersburg by assault if possible, I was directed to move to the north side of the James River in conjunction with General Hancock's corps, and, if opportunity offered, to make a second expedition against the Virginia Central railroad, and again destroy the bridges on the North Anna, the Little and the South Anna rivers.

I started out on the afternoon of the 26th and crossed the Appomattox at Broadway landing. At Deep Bottom I was joined by Kautz's small division from the Army of the James, and here massed the whole command, to allow Hancock's corps to take the lead, it crossing to the north bank of the James River by the bridge below the mouth of Bailey's Creek. I moved late in the afternoon, so as not to come within the enemy's view before dark, and after night-fall Hancock's corps passed me and began crossing the pontoon-bridge about 2 o'clock in the morning.

By daylight Hancock was across, the cavalry following. Soon a portion of his corps attacked the enemy's works on the east side of Bailey's Creek, and, aided by the cavalry moving on its right, captured four pieces of artillery. This opened the way for Hancock to push out his whole corps, and as he advanced by a wheel, with his left as a pivot, the cavalry joined in the movement, pressing forward on the New Market and Central or Charles City roads.

We did not go far before we found the enemy's infantry posted across these two roads behind a strong line of intrenchments on the west bank of Bailey's Creek. His videttes in front of Ruffin's house on the New Market road were soon driven in on their main line, and the high ground before the house was immediately occupied by Torbert and Gregg, supported by Kautz's division. By the time the cavalry line was formed the Confederate General Kershaw, with his own division of infantry and those of Wilcox and Heath, advanced to attack us. Directing the most of his troops against the cavalry, which was still mounted, Kershaw drove it back some distance over the high ground. When it reached the eastern face of the ridge, however, it was quickly dismounted, and the men directed to lie down in line of battle about fifteen yards from the crest, and here the onset of the enemy was awaited. When Kershaw's men reached the crest such a severe fire was opened on them, and at such close quarters, that they could not withstand it, and gave way in disorder. They were followed across the plain by the cavalry, and lost about two hundred and fifty prisoners and two battle-flags. The counter attack against the infantry by Torbert and Gregg re-established our line and gave us the victory of Darbytown, but it also demonstrated the fact that General Lee had anticipated the movement around his left flank [246] by transferring to the north side of the James a large portion of his infantry and W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry.

This development rendered useless any further effort on Hancock's part or mine to carry out the plan of the expedition, for General Grant did not intend Hancock to assault the enemy's works unless there should be found in them but a very thin line of infantry which could be surprised. In such event, Hancock was to operate so that the cavalry might turn the Confederates on the Central or Charles City road, but the continually increasing force of the enemy showed this to be impracticable. The long front presented by Hancock's corps and the cavalry deceived General Lee, and he undoubtedly thought that nearly all of Grant's army had been moved to the north side of the James River; and to meet the danger he transferred the most of his own strength to the same side to confront his adversary, thinning the lines around Petersburg to reinforce those opposing us on the Central and New Market roads. This was what Grant hoped Lee would do in case the operations of Hancock and myself became impracticable, for Grant had an alternative plan for carrying Petersburg by assault in conjunction with the explosion of a mine that had been driven under the enemy's works from the front of Burnside's corps.

Now that there was no longer a chance for the cavalry to turn the enemy's left, our attention was directed to keeping up the deception of Lee, and on the afternoon of the 28th Hancock's corps withdrew to a line nearer the head of the bridge, the cavalry drawing back to a position on his right. From now or, all sorts of devices and stratagems were practiced-anything that would tend to make the Confederates believe we were being reinforced, while Hancock was preparing for a rapid return to Petersburg at the proper time. In order to delude the enemy still more, after night-fall of the 28th I sent one of my divisions to the south side of the James, first covering the bridgeway with refuse hay to keep the tramp of the horses from being heard. After daylight the next morning, I marched this division back again on foot, in full view of the enemy, to create the impression of a continuous movement of large bodies of infantry to the north side, while at the same time Kautz was made to skirmish with the enemy on our extreme right. These various artifices had the effect intended, for by the evening of the 29th Lee had transferred all his infantry to the north bank of the James, except three divisions, and all his cavalry save one.

The morning of the 30th had been fixed upon to explode the mine and assault the enemy's works, so after dark on the evening of the 29th Hancock hastily but quietly withdrew his corps to the south side to take part in the engagement which was to succeed the explosion, and I was [247] directed to follow Hancock. This left me on the north side of the river, confronting two-thirds of Lee's army in a perilous position, where I could easily be driven into Curl's Neck and my whole command annihilated. The situation, therefore, was not a pleasant one to contemplate, but it could not be avoided. Luckily the enemy did not see fit to attack, and my anxiety was greatly relieved by getting the whole command safely across the bridge shortly after daylight, having drawn in the different brigades successively from my right. By 10 o'clock on the morning of the 30th my leading division was well over toward the left of our army in front of Petersburg, marching with the purpose to get around the enemy's right flank during the operations that were to succeed the mine explosion, but when I reached General Meade's headquarters I found that lamentable failure had attended the assault made when the enemy's works were blown up in the morning. Blunder after blunder had rendered the assault abortive, and all the opportunities opened by our expedition to the north side were irretrievably lost, so General Meade at once arrested the movement of the cavalry.

In the expedition to Deep Bottom I was under the command of Major-General Hancock, who, by seniority, was to control my corps as well as his own until the way was opened for me to get out on the Virginia Central railroad. If this opportunity was gained, I was to cut loose and damage Lee's communications with the Shenandoah Valley in such manner as best suited the conditions, but my return was not to be jeopardized nor long delayed. This necessitated that Hancock's line should extend to Bottom's bridge on the Chickahominy. The enemy's early discovery of the movement and his concentration of troops on the north side prevented Hancock from accomplishing the programme laid out for him. Its impracticability was demonstrated early on the 27th, and Hancock's soldierly instincts told him this the moment he unexpectedly discovered Kershaw blocking the New Market and Charles City roads. To Hancock the temptation to assault Kershaw's position was strong indeed, but if he carried it there would still remain the dubious problem of holding the line necessary for my safe return, so with rare judgment he desisted, zealously turning to the alternative proposition — the assault on Petersburg — for more significant results. This was the only occasion during the war in which I was associated with Hancock in campaign. Up till then we had seldom met, and that was the first opportunity I had to observe his quick apprehension, his physical courage, and the soldierly personality which had long before established his high reputation.

On the 1st of August, two days after the mine explosion, I was relieved from the personal command of the Cavalry Corps, and ordered [248] to the Shenandoah Valley, where at a later date Torbert's and Wilson's divisions joined me. Practically, after I went to the valley, my command of the Cavalry Corps became supervisory merely. During the period of my immediate control of the corps, I tried to carry into effect, as far as possible, the views I had advanced before and during the opening of the Wilderness campaign, i. e., “that our cavalry ought to fight the enemy's cavalry, and our infantry the enemy's infantry” ; for there was great danger of breaking the spirit of the corps if it was to be pitted against the enemy's compact masses of foot-troops posted behind intrenchments, and unless there was some adequate tactical or strategical advantage to be gained, such a use of it would not be justified. Immediately succeeding the battles of the Wilderness, opportunity offered to put this plan into execution to some extent, and from that time forward — from the battle of Yellow Tavern-our success was almost continuous, resulting finally, before the close of the war, in the nearly total annihilation of the enemy's cavalry.

The constant activity of the corps from May 5 till August I gave little opportunity for the various division and brigade commanders to record its work in detail; so there exists but meagre accounts of the numerous skirmishes and graver conflicts in which, in addition to the fights mentioned in this narrative, it engaged. A detailed history of its performances is not within the province of a work of this nature; but in review, it can be said, without trespassing on the reader's time, that the Cavalry Corps led the advance of the Army of the Potomac into the Wilderness in the memorable campaign of 1864; that on the expedition by way of Richmond to Haxall's it marked out the army's line of march to the North Anna; that it again led the advance to the Tolopotomy, and also to Cold Harbor, holding that important strategic point at great hazard; and that by the Trevillian expedition it drew away the enemy's cavalry from the south side of the Chickahominy, and thereby assisted General Grant materially in successfully marching to the James River and Petersburg. Subsequently, Wilson made his march to Staunton bridge, destroying railroads and supplies of inestimable value, and though this was neutralized by his disaster near Ream's Station, the temporary set-back there to one division was soon redeemed by victory over the Confederate infantry at the battle of Darbytown.

In the campaign we were almost always on the march, night and day, often unable to care properly for our wounded, and obliged to bury our dead where they fell; and innumerable combats attest the part the cavalry played in Grant's march from the Rapidan to Petersburg. In nearly all of these our casualties were heavy, particularly so when, as was often the case, we had to engage the Confederate infantry; but the [249] enemy returned such a full equivalent in dead and wounded in every instance, that finally his mounted power, which from the beginning of the war had been nurtured with a wise appreciation of its value, was utterly broken. [250]


HEADQUARTERS Army of the Potomac, June 21, 1864-9:20 A. M.
Brigadier-General Wilson, Commanding Third Division Cavalry Corps.
The major-general commanding directs that you move your command at 2 A. M. tomorrow, the 22d instant, in execution of the duty assigned you of destroying certain railroads. Despatches received from the White House state that Hampton's cavalry was before that place yesterday evening, and that General Sheridan had also reached there, hence it is desirable that you should march at the earliest moment. In passing Petersburg you will endeavor to avoid the observation of the enemy, and then move by the shortest routes to the intersection of the Petersburg and Lynchburg, and the Richmond and Danville railroads, and destroy both these roads to the greatest extent possible, continuing their destruction until driven from it by such attacks of the enemy as you can no longer resist. The destruction of those roads to such an extent that they cannot be used by the enemy in connection with Richmond during the remainder of the campaign is an important part of the plan of campaign. The latest information from Major-General Hunter represents him to be a few miles west of Lynchburg. He may endeavor to form a junction with this army; you will communicate with him if practicable, and have delivered to him verbally the contents of the following copy of a communication from Lieutenant-General Grant to the major-general commanding this army. Lieutenant Brooks, who will accompany your expedition part of the way, should be informed where General Hunter will probably be found.

The success of your expedition will depend upon the secrecy with which it is com- menced, and the celerity with which its movements are conducted; your command will, therefore, have with it the lightest supplies and smallest number of wheels consistent with the thorough execution of the duty, the supplies of the section of country you will operate in being taken into account. Upon the completion of the work assigned you, you will rejoin this army.

The chief quartermaster was directed yesterday to supply you with the implements and material for the destruction of railroads obtained for General Sheridan.

[Signed] A. A. Humphreys, Major-General, Chief-of-Staff,


HEADQUARTERS cavalry forces, Mount Sinai Church, June 21, 1864-6 P. M.
Major-General Humphreys, Chief-of-Staff.
The instructions of the major-general commanding, of this date, are received. I shall march in obedience thereto at 2 A. M. tomorrow. Before starting I would like to know if our infantry forces cover the Weldon road.

I propose striking the Southside road first at Sutherland Station, or some point in that vicinity, tearing up the track sufficiently to delay railroad communication ten or twelve hours. At this place I shall detach a force to strike the Richmond and Danville road, by a rapid march, at the nearest paint, tearing up the track at every practicable point between there and Burkeville.

From Sutherlands I shall move the main body of my command by the Great road (breaking the railroad at every convenient point) directly to Burkeville, which, if we succeed in capturing, wiil afford us the opportunity of prosecuting our work with great advantage. As soon as I have made dispositions for communicating with Hunter and done all the damage possible, I shall move with all possible rapidity for Danville and Grenboroa.

Circumstances must, however, in a great degree control our movements after leaving Burkeville.

If Sheridan will look after Hampton, I apprehend no difficulty, and hope to be able to do the enemy great damage.

The ammunition issued to my command is very defective. The implements for destroying roads have not yet arrived, but I learn from General Ingalls that they will certainly be here early tomorrow.

[Signed] J. H. Wilson, Brigadier-General Commanding.

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