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.
Stretching the Rebel Lines
Grant and Meade began extending the Union line south of Petersburg to the west in late June when they gained control of the Jerusalem Plank Road. In August, they once again stretched their line, when Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps captured and maintained control of a section of the Weldon Railroad near Globe Tavern, about six miles south of Petersburg.
Grant Aims to Destroy the Weldon Railroad
After Warren’s victory at the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18–21, 1864), Grant prepared to destroy the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg as far as practicable. Grant and Meade assigned the task to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps, whose 8,500 men were spent from taking part in the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 14–20, 1864). The two generals also ordered Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division to support the operation.
Gregg’s troopers began clearing Rebel pickets from the Weldon Railroad’s tracks south of Globe Tavern on August 22. Following a forced march, Hancock’s men reached the railroad and began destroying tracks soon thereafter.
Yankees Occupy Earthworks at Ream’s Station
Early on August 23, a division of Hancock’s men, commanded by Brigadier General John Gibbon, arrived at Ream’s Station, approximately six miles south of Globe Tavern. Upon their arrival, the Federals occupied earthworks that Union cavalrymen had constructed during the Wilson-Kautz Raid in June. Hancock’s men found the horseshoe-shaped entrenchments, and they made little effort to improve them.
Federals Destroy Rail Lines
By August 24, the Yankees destroyed three miles of track south of Ream’s Station, leaving just five miles remaining to reach their goal of disabling the railroad as far as Rowatny Creek. They planned to finish the job the next day, but Confederate General Robert E. Lee had other ideas.
The possibility of being further isolated at Petersburg by the complete loss of a major supply route forced Lee to contest Hancock’s destruction of the Weldon Railroad south of Globe Tavern. Thus, he ordered Lieutenant General A. P. Hill to lead a force of 8,000 to 10,000 Confederate soldiers south to stop the destruction.
August 25, 1864 — Clash at Ream’s Station
Two Unsuccessful Rebel Assaults
On the morning of August 25, Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry challenged Gregg’s cavalry south of Ream’s Station and drove them back to the perceived safety of their meager fortifications. Meanwhile, Hill’s main infantry force advanced down the Dinwiddie Stage Road and assaulted the northern leg of the horseshoe at approximately 2 p.m., with little success. A second Rebel assault also failed to dislodge the Bluecoats.
Yankees Retreat After Third Assault
As Confederate reinforcements from the divisions of Major General Henry Heth and Major General William Mahone arrived later in the day, the Rebels mounted a third assault at 5:30 p.m. This time the Greycoats broke through the northwest corner of the horseshoe after two Union regiments panicked and ran, which opened up a gap in the Union lines. Hancock rallied his forces enough to accomplish an organized retreat at approximately 8 p.m., but only after the Rebels had captured nearly 2,000 Yankees.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Confederates scored a tactical victory at the Second Battle of Ream’s Station. They suffered only 814 reported losses, compared to about 2,747 Union losses (140 killed, 529 wounded, and 2073 captured). Still, the triumph was shallow. It came too late to prevent significant destruction to the Weldon Railroad south of Globe Tavern. With his lines at Petersburg depleted by the deployment of Hill’s force, Lee could not hold the ground the Rebels had won or repair the tracks.
For the rest of the campaign, the Confederacy had to transport supplies by wagons up the Boydton Plank Road through Dinwiddie Court House to Petersburg. More importantly, the loss of the Weldon Railroad enabled Grant to turn his attention to the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last rail link to the rest of the Confederacy.