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.
Confederate Supply Lines Severed
After Union victories at 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 approximately ten miles south of Petersburg. Confederates had to offload supplies traveling up the railroad from the Carolinas and other parts of the Confederacy at Stony Creek Station and then ship them north in wagons along the Boydton Plank Road. Attempting to protect his dwindling supply lines, Lee ordered the construction of two new parallel lines of entrenchments between the Boydton Plank Road and the Weldon Railroad.
In late September, General Grant undertook to tighten his grip on supplies coming into Petersburg by extending his lines west from Globe Tavern to the Boydton Plank Road, and, perhaps, as far as the South Side Railroad. To increase his opportunity for success, he ordered Major General Benjamin Butler to launch an offensive against Richmond on September 29. Grant hoped that Butler’s assaults against Fort Harrison and New Market Heights outside of the Confederate capital would force Lee to thin his lines south of Petersburg.
Meade Threatens Lee’s Lines
As Butler’s men were threatening Richmond, Grant ordered Major General George G. Meade to deploy a strong federal force from Globe Tavern toward Lee’s lines protecting the Boydton Plank Road. Meade selected two divisions of the 5th Corps, commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, two divisions of the 9th Corps, commanded by Major General John G. Parke, along with Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division for the operation.
September 30, 1864
Federals Overrun Confederate Defenses
Lee’s outer line of entrenchments paralleled Squirrel Level Road, which ran north and south just west of the Weldon Railroad. At approximately 1:00 p.m. on September 30, Brigadier-General Charles Griffin’s division of the 5th Corp easily overran the lightly manned outer defenses near Poplar Spring Church, sending the Rebels scurrying west toward the next line of entrenchments closer to the Boydton Plank Road.
Hill Reinforces Confederate Line
With the Squirrel Level Road line broken and the Rebel defenders on the run, there was little to prevent Warren’s two divisions from surging on towards the inner line of Confederate defenses closer to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren, however, insisted on securing his newly won position before moving. Consequently, the Federal advance did not resume until after 3:00 p.m. The delay enabled Major General A. P. Hill to deploy reinforcements from Petersburg. By the time the Federals were on the move once more, Hill had bolstered the Confederate defenses with the divisions of Major General Henry Heth and Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox.
Successful Rebel Counterattack
When Parke and Warren’s soldiers finally advanced, they became isolated, and Parke’s men marched directly into a counterattack by Heth’s division. Heth’s soldiers struck between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., scattering the Yankees in several directions. During the ensuing panic, the Rebels took many prisoners, including almost an entire brigade that fled west into the path of Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry. Many of the Bluecoats fled back to the Squirrel Level Road line near Pegram’s Farm, where the day’s fighting ended.
October 1, 1864
Confederate Offensive Stalled
On the following morning. October 1, Heth resumed his frontal attack against the Federals entrenched at Pegram’s Farm, as Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s Cavalry Corps moved down Squirrel Level Road, trying to hit the Yankees from the rear. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s Cavalry Division repulsed Hampton’s troopers, however, and the Confederate offensive stalled.
October 2, 1864
On October 2, Meade made one more attempt to get to the Boydton Plank Road using recently arrived reinforcements from Major General Gershom Mott’s division of the 2nd Corps. As Mott’s men advanced, the Rebels withdrew and gathered at their entrenchments near the Boydton Plank Road. Meade chose not to pursue. The Confederate withdrawal left the Federals in control of the area around Peebles Farm and Pegram’s Farm, including the entrenchments along Squirrel Level Road.
Aftermath of the Battle
The futile attempt to capture the Boydton Plank Road (and possibly the South Side Railroad) cost the Union 2,800 soldiers (including nearly 1,300 captured) compared to 1,300 casualties for the Confederacy. Nonetheless, the Battle of Peebles Farm was a Union victory because Grant tightened his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines south of the city and farther to the west.