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.
Hancock Threatens Richmond
In mid-August, following two months of mostly fruitless engagements in the Richmond-Petersburg area, Grant ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to lead the Union 2nd Corps, 10th Corps, and Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division north across the James River. Hancock’s assignment was to threaten Richmond, forcing Robert E. Lee to send troops away from his defenses at Petersburg, while Grant attempted to cut the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg.
August 18, 1864 — Warren Advances to Globe Tavern
While Hancock was demonstrating in front of Richmond, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren left the Union lines southeast of Petersburg and advanced his 5th Corps west through the rain toward the Weldon Railroad on August 18. Encountering only mild resistance, the Federals reached their destination near Globe Tavern by 9 a.m. Warren ordered Brigadier General Charles Griffin’s division to destroy the railroad tracks, while Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres’ division deployed to the north to block any Confederate resistance from the Petersburg lines.
When alerted of Warren’s advance, General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the Petersburg defenses, ordered Major General A. P. Hill to dispatch two brigades commanded by Major General Henry Heth, and one brigade commanded by Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, south to stop the Yankees’ destructive acts.
Attack and Counterattack
When Hill’s troops encountered Ayers’ division at approximately 1 p.m., Warren deployed Brigadier General Samuel Crawford’s division to the right of Ayers’ position, hoping to get around the Confederate left flank. At 2:00 p.m., Hill’s soldiers attacked Ayres and Crawford, driving them back close to Globe Tavern. Warren counterattacked, halting the Rebel advance and then entrenched for the night.
Reinforcements on Both Sides
During the night, the Union 9th Corps, commanded by Major General John G. Parke, reinforced Warren’s Corps. On the Confederate side, Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division, plus three infantry brigades, commanded by Major General William Mahone, reinforced Hill’s troops.
Mahone Exploits a Gap in the Federal Lines
Heavy rains limited the fighting the next morning (August 19), but when the weather improved in the afternoon, Mahone attacked the Union right, while Heth struck the center of Warren’s lines. Heth could not budge his Yankee adversaries, but Mahone exploited a gap in Crawford’s lines, capturing nearly two brigades of Yankee soldiers. Warren ordered a desperate counterattack that plugged the gap by dusk when the fighting ended.
Heavy rains returned to the area on August 20, limiting the fighting. The letup bought time for Warren to establish new lines south of Globe Tavern that stretched east to the main Union lines at Jerusalem Plank Road. When the weather cleared on August 21, Hill’s troops assaulted new Union defenses. The Rebel advance failed, and Hill withdrew leaving the Federals in control of the Weldon Railroad around Globe Tavern.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union lost over 4,000 soldiers (251 killed, 1,148 wounded, and 2,897 missing/captured) during the Battle of Globe Tavern, compared to approximately 1,600 casualties for the Confederacy (211 killed, 990 wounded, and 419 missing/captured).
Despite the casualties, the engagement was a Union victory, because the Yankees established control of the area near Globe Tavern. For the rest of the campaign, the Confederacy had to forego the use of the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg and ship supplies to the Army of Northern Virginia on wagons over the Boydton Plank Road.