Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
Stranglehold on Petersburg
Although Grant’s focus during the summer and fall of 1864 was on cutting off supply routes into Petersburg, he also launched several assaults north of the James River against Richmond. Grant recognized that forcing Lee to defend two fronts would thin the Confederate defenses around Petersburg, thus enhancing the Northerner’s expectations for success. Most of the action south of Petersburg centered on the Weldon Railroad and on the Boydton Plank Road.
After the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18–21, 1864) and the Second Battle of Ream’s Station (August 25, 1864), the Confederacy lost control of a stretch of the Weldon Railroad nearly ten miles south of Petersburg. Southerners had to offload supplies traveling up the railroad from the Carolinas and other parts of the Confederacy at Stony Creek Station and then ship the items north in wagons along the Boydton Plank Road. At the Battle of Peebles’ Farm (September 30–October 2, 1864), Grant tightened his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines south of the city farther to the west, but he could not shut off supplies traveling up the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad.
Federal Assault Against the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad
On October 27, 1864, Grant launched another two-pronged offensive against Petersburg and Richmond. While Major General Benjamin Butler and the Army of the James once again attacked the Richmond defenses around Darbytown Road, a large Federal force, commanded by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, moved to sever the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad south of Petersburg. Hancock’s legion of over 30,000 soldiers comprised two divisions from his own 2nd Corps (13,000 men), Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps (11,000 men), Major General John G. Parke’s 9th Corps (11,000 men), and Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division (2,000 to 3,000 mounted troopers).
Grant devised a complicated invasion plan:
- Parke would march directly west from Peebles’ Farm and strike the Confederate line east of the Boydton Plank Road. If he breached the Rebel lines, Parke would turn north and assault Petersburg’s inner defenses. If not, his corps would continue to pressure the Rebel defenders, serving as a distraction for operations to his south.
- Warren was to march west and support Parke by securing his left flank. If Parke could not crack the Confederate defenses, Warren would move west, attempting to flank the Rebel line and then attacking the Confederate defenses from behind.
- Hancock was to move southwest, across a small stream named Hatcher’s Run, and to secure a position on the Boydton Plank Road. Hancock’s men would then push up the road toward Petersburg as far as White Oak Road, where they would swing west to strike the South Side Railroad.
- Gregg was to protect Hancock’s left flank.
A light drizzle was falling as the Union soldiers moved out at 3 a.m. on October 27. As the morning progressed, the rain increased in intensity, turning the roads to mud that bogged down the operation. By the time Parke reached his objective at nearly 9 a.m., he had lost the element of surprise. Parke discovered that the Confederate line was stouter than expected. Unable to dislodge his adversaries, Parke ordered his men to entrench.
The inclement weather and rougher-than-expected terrain also delayed Warren’s progress. Like Parke, Warren encountered stiff resistance that stymied his movement. When Grant and Meade visited the scene at approximately 9 a.m., they determined that neither Parke nor Warren would breach the Confederate line. Thus, Meade ordered Warren to send a division commanded by Brigadier-General Samuel W. Crawford across Hatcher’s Run to support Hancock’s right flank.
Meanwhile, Hancock’s men forded Hatcher’s Run, easily brushing aside Confederate pickets, and secured a portion of the Boydton Plank Road near Burgess Mill, approximately twelve miles south of Petersburg. Gregg’s cavalry crossed Hatcher’s Run farther downstream only to discover that they were riding into a potential trap. Major General Wade Hampton had deployed two Confederate cavalry divisions south of Burgess Mill, hoping to isolate Gregg. However, upon Hancock’s approach, Hampton ordered most of his cavalry north to secure the intersection of the Boydton Plank Road and White Oak Road. Gregg then moved north along Quaker Road, burning the bridge at Gravelly Run, thus thwarting any attempt by Major General William H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division to strike the Union horsemen from behind.
Confederate General A. P. Hill was quick to respond to the threat posed by Hancock’s advancing divisions. He ordered Hampton’s cavalry, along with two divisions commanded by Major General Henry Heth and Major General William Mahone, to advance and to halt Hancock and Gregg’s combined forces. Hill became ill soon thereafter and turned over field command to Heth.
Just as Hancock was ready to start north, he received a message from Meade, instructing him to remain in position because of Hancock’s exposed right flank. Meade visited Hancock at approximately 1 p.m. and instructed him to extend his lines east, contacting Crawford’s division from Warren’s 5th Corps before proceeding. As this occurred, Grant visited the scene and determined that the Confederate’s defenses were too strong and called off the entire operation.
Following Grant’s orders, Hancock began to withdraw, only to find his crossing at Hatcher’s Run blocked by Hampton’s cavalry. Having failed to make contact with Crawford’s division, Hancock found himself isolated, with Heth and Mahone bearing down on him. Hancock tried to escape over the Dabney Mill Road, which intersected the Boydton Plank Road south of White Oak Road, but Mahone beat him to the spot. Meanwhile, William H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division, which Gregg had impeded earlier in the day, had worked its way north and was now threatening Hancock from the rear. With Heth to his north, Lee to his south, and Mahone to his east, Hancock was now surrounded on three sides with no apparent escape route.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. the Confederates attacked. Gregg held off Lee’s cavalry. Mahone’s success proved to be too easy. He quickly sliced through the Union line, but when the Federals rallied, Mahone found that he was now surrounded on three sides. The Yankees counterattacked, driving Mahone’s men back and opening an avenue for the Northerners’ escape. Hancock’s divisions avoided disaster, but their position was highly untenable. Running low on ammunition, Hancock chose to withdraw during the night, leaving behind nearly 250 wounded Federals.
Aftermath of the Battle
Hancock and Grant later referred to the Battle of Boydton Plank Road as a Union success. The results, however, suggest otherwise. Despite putting nearly three times more men in the field than the Rebels (approximately 30,000 soldiers to 11,600), the conflict cost the Army of the Potomac over 1,750 troopers, compared to 1,300 casualties for the Confederacy. More significantly, from a strategic view, Grant failed in his quest to seize the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. The successful Confederate defense of those two vital transportation routes ensured a continued flow of supplies into Petersburg and Richmond throughout the upcoming winter.