Prelude to the Raid
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 Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert.
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 Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia head-on. Instead, Grant elected to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and then slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. One key to doing so was cutting the rail lines that supplied Richmond and Petersburg, an important commercial center twenty-four miles south of the Confederate capital. Of particular importance were:
- The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a short north-south line that connected Richmond to Petersburg,
- The Weldon Railroad, a lengthy north-south line that connected Petersburg to the vital seaport city of Wilmington, North Carolina,
- The South Side Railroad, an east-west line that connected Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points west, and
- The Richmond & Danville Railroad, a northeast-southwest line that connected Richmond to Danville, Virginia.
If Union forces could cut these rail lines, Grant could force Lee to abandon Richmond. On June 20, 1864, Grant met with Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and began developing plans to do so.
Wilson and Kautz Raid Southern Railroads
After two days of planning, Grant and Meade dispatched the Third Cavalry Division of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Brigadier General James H. Wilson, along with the Second Cavalry Division of the Army of the James, commanded by Brigadier General August Kautz, on a raid against the Weldon Railroad, the Southside Railroad, and the Richmond & Danville Railroad.
The combined force of twelve regiments (roughly 5,500 troopers) and three artillery batteries (twelve cannons), under Wilson’s overall command, departed from Prince George Court House, near Petersburg, at about 3 a.m. on June 22, 1864. They aimed to demolish as much track as possible to delay or prevent supplies from reaching Lee’s army in Richmond. The Yankees reached Ream’s Station, on the Weldon Railroad, a few miles south of Petersburg, by 7:30 a.m. They burned the station and some platform cars. Not spending much time at Ream’s Station, the Federals left the Weldon line and turned west, passing through Dinwiddie Court House near noon, and then headed north. During the ride, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s small Confederate cavalry nipped at the heels of Wilson’s rearguard. The vanguard of the Federals reached the Southside Railroad between Ford’s and Sutherland’s stations at about 5:30 p.m. They spent the rest of the day dismantling the track and burning the station and two trains. The last of the Bluecoats reached the rail line at about 11 p.m.
After a brief respite, at 2 a.m. Wilson sent Kautz and his weary troopers off toward one of their primary targets, Burkeville, Virginia, where the Southside and Richmond & Danville lines intersected. Traveling west along the Southside Railroad, Kautz’s troopers passed through Wilson’s Station, Black’s and White’s Station, and Nottoway Court House destroying track and facilities along the way. Upon reaching Burkeville, at about 3 p.m., Kautz sent one brigade north and one brigade south to destroy track along the Richmond & Danville line. Working until roughly midnight, the Yankees dismantled about five miles of track in each direction.
Meanwhile, following in Kautz’s wake at 3 a.m., Wilson’s division got lost and wasted time having to retrace their path. Discovering the divided Federals, W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division ambushed Wilson’s men near Nottoway Court House at about 2 p.m. A sharp but indecisive clash followed that lasted until dark. Unwilling to let the encounter distract him from his mission, Wilson broke off the engagement, bivouacked overnight, and rode around Lee the next day.
On June 24, Wilson and Kautz reunited their forces along the Richmond & Danville line. They spent the rest of the day unmolested by Rebel troops as they destroyed track and other railroad facilities between Burkeville and Keysville, roughly twenty-five miles to the south. Ending their efforts near midnight, the Federals bivouacked for the night near the rail line.
June 25 — The Battle of Staunton River Bridge
Early the next morning, the Yankees resumed their destruction of the Richmond & Danville line southwest of Keysville. By midday, however, the troopers and their horses began to wither in the blistering summer heat. The demolition slowed as the Federals had to shoot some of their mounts as they collapsed from exhaustion.
At roughly 6 p.m., the vanguard of Wilson’s troops approached 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. The railroad crossed the river over the bridge, which a battalion of just 296 well-entrenched Confederate reserves commanded by Captain Benjamin Farinholt defended. On June 23rd, General Robert E. Lee informed Farinholt that Kautz intended to destroy the bridge. Lee urged Farinholt to “make every possible preparation immediately.”
After Farinholt issued a written request for aid from the local citizenry, 642 reinforcements arrived, only 150 of which were members of the Confederate army. Many of them were old men and boys. When the 5,000 federal cavalrymen approached the bridge on June 25, Farinholt had mustered a force of 938 men and sixteen pieces of artillery to defend the structure. However, he had cleverly run empty trains back and forth from nearby Clover Depot, fooling the Union commanders into believing that the Rebel force was larger than it really was. Farinholt had also used the previous two days to construct well-placed fortifications around the bridge.
When the Yankees approached the bridge Farinholt began an artillery barrage. Kautz responded with his own artillery while his troopers dismounted and began advancing along both sides of the tracks. The Bluecoats halted upon reaching a drainage ditch roughly 150 yards from the bridge. From there they mounted four frontal assaults during the afternoon and evening, all of which the outnumbered but well-fortified Rebel defenders repulsed.
During the fourth charge, elements of Rooney Lee’s cavalry began arriving at the Union rear. Wilson then determined that the Confederate position was “impregnable” and withdrew during the night. He returned to Petersburg, leaving the bridge intact. Under the cover of darkness, Wilson abandoned the rail line and led his men east into the countryside, stopping near Wylliesburg at first light to rest and eat. Aside from failing to destroy the bridge, which was one of the mission’s primary objectives, Wilson lost 116 soldiers (42 killed, 44 wounded, and 30 missing/captured) during the engagement. The Confederates suffered 34 casualties (10 killed and 24 wounded) at what they playfully referred to as “the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.”
As Wilson’s retreat resumed on June 26, the temperature continued to soar, reportedly reaching 105 degrees by midafternoon. As horses and men continued to give out, Wilson mercifully ordered a halt at about 1 p.m. near Christianville. Early the next morning, the Yankees resumed their retreat eastward toward Union lines, now followed by a growing throng of runaway slaves. Largely unmolested by Confederate troops, Wilson erroneously believed that W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee had broken off pursuit.
June 28 — The Battle of Sappony Church
By June 28, the Federals had crossed the Nottoway River near Poplar Hill. Upon reaching the Weldon Railroad, they turned north and headed toward the Stony Creek Depot when Confederate Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division intercepted them. While the two sides were engaged, Lee’s troopers arrived during the afternoon and joined forces with Hampton. Now outnumbered, Wilson and Kautz withdrew after nightfall, attempting to reach Ream’s Station, near where their journey had begun six days earlier. As they fled, the Yankees left behind many of the slaves who were following them in search of freedom. The Rebel cavalry captured approximately 800 Union raiders during the Confederate victory.
June 29–July 1 — First Battle of Ream’s Station
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 had the Bluecoats nearly surrounded.
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 approximately 1,000 of Kautz’s troopers joined Wilson’s men as they retreated south along the Weldon Railroad before turning east on June 30 and reaching 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, on a more direct line than Wilson’s command took.
Aftermath of the Raid
The First Battle of Ream’s Station, and the subsequent Union retreat, marked the conclusion of the Wilson-Kautz Raid. By the time that the raiders returned to Union lines on July 1, they had inflicted moderate damage to Confederate infrastructure in the area. However, the spoilage came at a considerable cost. Wilson and Kautz lost nearly 1,400 troopers, all of their artillery, and many horses during the raid. Despite the losses, however, General Grant considered the raid a success. He later commented that “The damage to the enemy in the expedition more than compensated for the losses we sustained.”