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.
On June 22, Grant and Major General George G. Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) dispatched the cavalry divisions of Brigadier General James Wilson and Brigadier General August Kautz on a raid against Confederate railroads south of Petersburg. With a combined force of over 5,000 troopers and sixteen pieces of artillery under Wilson’s overall command, the Yankees destroyed two trains, several stations, and roughly sixty miles of track along the South Side Railroad while also engaging in several skirmishes with Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry.
Battle of Staunton River Bridge
Among Wilson’s targets was the Staunton River Bridge—a long wooden structure that spanned the Staunton River near Roanoke Station (present-day Randolph, Virginia), roughly 100 miles west of Petersburg. On June 25, a small force of just 938 Confederate reserves and local citizens held off Kautz’s attempt to destroy the bridge until W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry arrived and drove the Yankees away at the Battle of Staunton River Bridge.
June 28, 1864 — Clash at Sappony Church
Confederate Cavalry Attacks
Lee’s cavalry continued to pursue Wilson and Kautz as they retreated toward the safety of the Union lines near Petersburg. By June 28, the federal raiders had crossed the Nottoway River and were headed north along the Weldon Line toward the Stoney Creek Depot, when Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division intercepted them near the Sappony Baptist Church in Sussex County. While the two sides were engaged, W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s troopers arrived during the afternoon and joined Hampton’s forces.
Now outnumbered, Wilson and Kautz withdrew after nightfall, attempting to reach Reams Railway Station to the north. As they fled, the Yankees left behind numerous slaves who were accompanying them in search of freedom.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Rebel cavalry captured roughly 800 Union raiders during the Confederate victory. Other casualty totals for either side remain unknown.