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.
After failing to destroy the Staunton River Bridge (June 25, 1864), the raiders began making their way back to the Petersburg lines after encountering the Confederate cavalry divisions of Major General Wade Hampton and Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee at Sappony Church (June 28, 1864).
June 29, 1864 — Clash at Ream’s Station
Yankee Raiders Nearly Surrounded
Kautz approached Ream’s Station, approximately eight miles south of Petersburg on the Weldon Railroad, early on the morning of June 29, only to discover that Brigadier General William Mahone’s Confederate infantry division blocked his path. Wilson’s division joined Kautz later that morning. By the time that the Federals reunited, two Rebel cavalry brigades commanded by General Fitzhugh Lee (not to be confused with W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee) joined Mahone and nearly surrounded the Bluecoats.
Around midday, Mahone’s infantry attacked from the front, while Lee’s cavalry threatened the Union left flank. During the ensuing chaos, the Yankees burned their supply wagons and abandoned their artillery. The federal commands dissolved and about 1,000 of Kautz’s troopers joined Wilson’s men as they retreated south along the Weldon Railroad. After turning east on June 30, the Union troopers reached the safety of Meade’s Petersburg lines on July 1. Meanwhile, nearly 500 of Wilson’s men joined Kautz’s command as they fled through an opening on the Confederate right and escaped to Meade’s lines by June 30, using a more direct route than Wilson’s command took.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Ream’s Station marked the conclusion of the Wilson-Kautz Raid. By the time that the raiders returned to Union lines on July 1, they had inflicted considerable damage to Confederate infrastructure in the area. However, the destruction came at a considerable cost. Wilson and Kautz lost nearly 1,400 troopers, all of their artillery, and many horses during the raid.