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.
Forcing Lee to Defend Two Fronts
Although Grant focused on cutting off supply routes into Petersburg during the summer and fall of 1864, he also launched several assaults north of the James River against Richmond. Grant reckoned that he could weaken the Confederate defenses around Petersburg by forcing Lee to defend two fronts. Most of the action south of Petersburg centered on the Weldon Railroad and on the Boydton Plank Road.
Cutting Off Supplies
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 stretches of the Weldon Railroad approximately ten miles south of Petersburg. The 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 and also farther to the west, but he could not shut off supplies traveling up the Boydton Plank Road or on the South Side Railroad. From October 27-28, Grant made another unsuccessful attempt to capture the two prizes at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road. The Confederate supply routes into Petersburg remained open as the two sides hunkered down in their entrenchments for the winter.
February 5, 1865
Federals Launch an Offensive
A mild stretch of mild weather at the beginning of February 1865 prompted Grant and Meade to launch an early offensive against the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. On the morning of February 5, three Federal forces left the Union works near Globe Tavern and headed toward the Confederate lines guarding the Boydton Plank Road.
- Major General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division rode southwest toward Dinwiddie Court House with orders to intercept a large Confederate supply train moving up the Boydton Plank Road to Petersburg.
- Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps marched west to support Gregg’s right flank by blocking Vaughn Road.
- Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s 2nd Corps moved along the north side of Hatcher’s Run to a position above Burgess’s Mill near the Confederate lines.
By 9:30 a.m., the 2nd Corps reached their destination opposite the Confederate defenses The unit dug in near Armstrong’s Mill. Humphreys deployed Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth’s brigade on his left and Brigadier-General Gershom Mott’s division on his right.
Opposing Humphreys on the Confederate side were the Second Corps of Major General John Gordon and the Division of Major General Henry Heth. By 4 p.m., Gordon concluded that Humphreys did not intend to attack and ordered Heth to assault the freshly constructed Union works. The focus of Heth’s advance was a gap in the Federal lines defended by Brevet Brigadier-General Robert McAllister’s 3rd Brigade. McAllister’s Yankees repulsed three Rebel assaults during a one-and-one-half-hour period. At dusk, the Greycoats gave up and retreated.
Successful Federal Raid
To the south, Gregg reached the Boydton Plank Road only to discover that estimates regarding the size of the Rebel supply train he was to attack were exaggerated. Although his raid was successful, he captured only eighteen wagons and fifty prisoners.
Expecting another Confederate attack against Humphreys the next day, Meade ordered Gregg and Warren to move northeast during the night of February 5-6 to support the 2nd Corps. Grant also sent Union reinforcements from the 6th and 9th Corps.
February 6 — Attacks and Counterattacks
The morning of February 6 passed with little activity beyond reconnaissance. That afternoon, Gordon, ordered Brigadier-General John Pegram’s division and Major General William Mahone’s division, supported by Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry, to attack Warren’s 5th Corps near Dabney’s Mill, southwest of Humphreys’s line. The Yankees repulsed the Rebel onslaught and drove the Greycoats back, but a Confederate counterattack halted the federal momentum. A second Rebel attack sent the Bluecoats back to a position along Hatcher’s Run. Pegram perished during the fighting. During the latter stages of the conflict, freezing rain began to fall, adding to the suffering of the wounded left on the battlefield.
February 7 — Federals Regain Lost Ground
Light skirmishing on February 7 enabled the Federals to regain the ground that they lost the previous day near Dabney’s Mill. Those gains allowed Grant and Meade to extend the Union entrenchments to the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.
Aftermath of the Battle
The results of the Battle of Hatcher’s Run were inconclusive. The Union suffered over 1,600 casualties, compared to over 1,100 for the Confederacy. Despite using over two-and-one-half times as many combatants as the Rebels (34,517 to 13,835), the Federals failed once more to sever Petersburg’s last remaining supply routes. Still, the operation enabled Grant and Meade to extend the Union entrenchments three miles closer to the Boydton Plank Road and to the South Side Railroad.