150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Hatcher’s Run: February 4, 1865

   

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The Battle of Hatcher’s Run Series:

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February 4, 1865: The Eighth Offensive Takes Shape

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

In early February, 1865, 150 years ago this week, the Civil War was rapidly coming to a close.  William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea had culminated in the capture of Savannah, Georgia in late December 1864.  Fort Fisher had fallen in January 1865, closing the port of Wilmington to blockade runners.  The troops from that expedition under Terry were to join another force under Schofield, brought east after the victories over john Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee the previous December.  As Sherman moved north into the Carolinas and Schofield moved inland into North Carolina, Grant was determined to keep the pressure on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia defending Petersburg and Richmond.  And in early February 1865, three Confederate peace commissioners met with Abraham Lincoln on the River Queen in the James River.  After peace talks failed, Grant hoped to move quickly in the relatively good weather to take advantage of any demoralization word of the failed peace talks at the Hampton Roads conference might cause.

After recalling Army of the Potomac commander George Meade on the last day of January 1865 from leave and alerting the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James to be ready at a moment’s notice, Ulysses S. Grant looked for an opportunity to strike.  He found what he thought was a good one on February 4, 1865. Belfield, now the northernmost point of the Weldon Railroad after Warren’s Stony Creek Raid in December 1864, was where the Confederates were unloading supplies into wagons.  Those wagons made the trip to Dinwiddie Court House, and then northeast up the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg.  Grant had heard Butler’s Division of Rebel cavalry had left with Cavalry Corps commander Wade Hampton bound for North Carolina to help combat Sherman’s inexorable advance. This left only the cavalry division of W. H. F. Rooney Lee on the Army of Northern Virginia’s right flank, and they were known to be at Belfield because of a lack of forage nearer Petersburg.

With the brief improvement in the winter weather, Grant thought he might send David McM. Gregg’s Second Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac down the former line of the Weldon Railroad south to Belfield, capturing a bountiful haul of Confederate wagons and further exacerbating Robert E. Lee’s by now dire logistical situation.  The Second Corps under Andrew A. Humphreys would move part of the way to Stony Creek Station, holding the crossing of Stony Creek and the Nottoway River there as a sort of safe haven for Gregg’s cavalry on their way back from the raid.  The whole operation was planned for four days or so.

 

8thOffensiveGrantsOriginalPlanFeb41865

 

George Gordon Meade

Army of the Potomac Commander George Gordon Meade

With that general idea in mind, Grant sent the following orders to George Meade, explaining what he wanted of his trusted subordinate in the coming days:

“I would like to take advantage of the present good weather to destroy or capture as much as possible of the enemy’s wagon train, which it is understood is being used in connection with the Weldon railroad to partially supply the troops about Petersburg. You may get the cavalry [Gregg’s Second Division] ready to do this as soon as possible. I think the cavalry should start at 3 a. m. either to-morrow [February 5, 1865] or the day following, carrying one and a half days’ forage and three days’ rations with them. They should take no wagons and but few ambulances. Let the Second Corps move at the same time, but independent of the cavalry, as far south as Stony Creek Station, to remain there until the cavalry has done the enemy all the harm it can and returns to that point. The infantry may take four days’ rations in haversacks and one and a half days’ forage for the cavalry in wagons. The artillery taken along may be reduced to one battery to each division or one section from each battery, at your option. The Fifth Corps should also be held in readiness to go to the support of the Second Corps if the enemy should move out to attack. Probably it will be well to move the Fifth Corps at the same time with the Second Corps, sending it by a road west of the one taken by the latter, and to go but about half way to Stony Creek, unless required to do so to meet movements of the enemy. They will go out prepared to remain four days.”

As soon as he read Grant’s dispatch on the afternoon of February 4, Meade had several suggested changes.  First, he didn’t want to send the Second Corps, and he had a really good reason.  The division of Nelson A. Miles was on the front lines holding forts facing Petersburg.  Removing this division from the line would almost certainly attract the attention of the Confederates and alert them prematurely to the coming operation.   Meade suggested instead that Warren’s Fifth Corps move instead to Stony Creek, and the two divisions of the Second Corps not on the front lines would go to Ream’s Station.  This would allow Warren to support Gregg’s raid on Belfield, and Humphreys to support Warren.  Meade had learned the hard way that the Confederates favorite maneuver was to slip into between Federal Corps’ as they moved out on these sorts of offensive thrusts, delivering devastating flanking attacks and capturing ridiculous numbers of Federal prisoners.  He wanted a bridge from the Union left to Humphreys, a bridge from Humphreys to Warren, and bridge from Warren to Gregg.

 

8thOffensiveMeadesFirsttweakFeb41865

 

Grant had no objection to Meade’s tweak, only commenting that he chose the Second Corps because Warren’s Fifth Corps had made the last movement in December.  From the time Meade composed his first tweak to the plan at 1:45 p.m. to the time Grant replied at 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of February 4, he must have been mulling the matter over in his mind.  Shortly after Grants 3:30 message, Meade proposed another tweak to the plan.  Rather than send Gregg’s cavalry due south down the Weldon Railroad to Belfield, he wanted them to move south only a short distance before heading west to Dinwiddie Court House.  Warren’s Fifth Corps would still head south to Stony Creek as a blocking force, but Humphreys and his men, rather than moving to Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, would instead move southwest down the Vaughan Road and take up blocking positions at Armstrong’s Mill and the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.  They could prevent the Confederate infantry defending Boydton Plank Road from moving on Warren or Gregg’s cavalry by the direct route.  The way Meade figured it, Gregg could hit the Confederate supply trains at Dinwiddie Court House just as easily as at Belfield.  An added bonus was that the Confederate cavalry around Belfield would have a greater distance to move in order to intercept Gregg, and the Union infantry would be in even closer supporting distance.  Meade was worried about what the public would think if this movement failed, and asked Grant “Are the objects to be attained commensurate with the disappointment which the public are sure to entertain if you make any movement and return without some striking result?”

Grant replied to this second change of the plan in the affirmative as well, and assured Meade he would protect him and his army from any public dissent over the operation, writing:

“I will telegraph to Secretary Stanton in advance, showing the object of the movement, the publication of which, with the reports of operations, will satisfy the public.”

8thOffensiveMeadesSecondTweakFeb41865

Grant’s approval set in motion a flurry of orders from Army of the Potomac headquarters to Gregg, Warren, and Humphreys, and then down to their subordinates, and so on until all those who needed to know the plan had the necessary information.  Meade’s Chief of Staff and Assistant Adjutant General George D. Ruggles penned the following circular to Meade’s subordinates on the afternoon of February 4:

“The following movements have been ordered for to-morrow, February 5:

  1. Brevet Major General Gregg, commanding Second Cavalry Division, has been ordered to start with his division from his present camp at 3 a. m. to-morrow, to proceed via Reams’ Station to the Boydton plank road, for the purpose of intercepting and capturing any of the enemy’s wagon trains carrying supplies from Belfield, and should an opportunity occur to inflict any injury on the enemy, to avail himself of it.
  2. To support the cavalry, Major-General Warren has been ordered to move his corps at 7 a. m. to a point designated as J. Hargrave’s house, on the road leading from Rowanty Post-Office to Dinwiddie Court-House.
  3. Major-General Humphreys has been directed to hold with two divisions of his corps the crossing of the Vaughan road over Hatcher’s Run and Armstrong’s Mills, keeping up communication with General Warren on his front and our lines in his rear.

Since the remainder of this army may be called upon to move to-morrow, Major-General Parke, commanding Ninth Corps, and Brevet Major-General Getty, commanding Sixth Corps, and commanding officer of the division of the Second Corps left in the line of works by Major-General Humphreys, will hold their commands in readiness to move at short notice, anticipating that the movement to be ordered will consist of the withdrawal of all the troops except the minimum number necessary to maintain the picket-line and the garrisons of the works. The chiefs of staff departments will designate officers to take charge of such trains and property as may be directed to be withdrawn to the intrenchments covering City Point in the event of a movement of the whole army. The officers of the general staff will be prepared to accompany the major-general commanding to-morrow morning at 8 o’clock. The senior officer in command of the Provisional Brigade at these headquarters will hold his command in readiness for orders to move. By command of Major-General Meade.”

Gregg would get a head start on the infantry due to the extra distance he had to go, but the foot soldiers would have plenty of time to get to their supporting positions before Lee could react.  After this circular, Meade issued more specific orders to each of the three principle subordinates involved in the operation, keeping each informed of the movements of the other two.  Note that Gouverneur Warren suggested a slight tweak of his own to the Fifth Corps’ marching orders, asking to move down Halifax Road to Rowanty Post-Office, then to take the direct road to the crossing of Rowanty Creek at W. Perkins’.  He reasoned that this route was shorter than going to Reams’ Station.  Meade assented, leading to a third change to Grant’s original plan.

8thOffensiveWarrensThirdTweakFeb41865

DavidMcMGregg

Union 2nd Cavalry Division Commander David Gregg

Gregg, traveling the longest distance, would start at 3 a.m., his target being Dinwiddie Court House and hopefully many Confederate supply trains:

“The major-general commanding directs that you move with your division to-morrow morning at 3 o’clock, and, passing through Reams’ Station, strike the Boydton plank road at Dinwiddie Court-House. On reaching the Boydton plank road you will move up and down it, to endeavor to intercept and capture any wagon train carrying supplies from Belfield. Should you hear of any trains not on this road, or of any opportunity of inflicting injury on the enemy, other than here directed, you will avail yourself of it without further instructions. Major-General Warren is ordered to support you, taking post at or near J. Hargrave’s, on the Dinwiddie Court-House road, and leaving his camp at 7 a. m., passing through Reams’ Station and taking the road crossing Hatcher’s Run at W. Perkins’. You will leave with General Warren a regiment of cavalry and a supply train, with one and a half day’s forage and your reserve ammunition. This train will accompany General Warren, taking post at J. Hargrave’s. You will notify General Warren of all that occurs, and in the event of an engagement you will take your orders from him. The troops detailed for this expedition will be rationed for four days from to-morrow morning. You will take with you such of your pickets as you may deem it advisable to relieve. Two contrabands have come in to-night and have reported Butler’s brigade, of Lee’s cavalry, has been sent to North Carolina.”

GouverneurKWarren

Union 5th Corps Commander Gouverneur K. Warren

Warren, the link between Gregg and Humphreys, would start at 7 a.m., making sure Gregg had a friendly infantry force to retire to if he found himself in trouble:

“The general commanding directs that you move your corps to-morrow morning at 7 o’clock down the Halifax road to Rowanty Post-Office, then by the road direct to the crossing of Rowanty Creek at W. Perkins’, thence across Hatcher’s Run to J. Hargrave’s on the road leading to Dinwiddie Court-House, taking position at or near that point to support General Gregg’s cavalry. General Gregg, commanding Second Cavalry Division, has been ordered to move at 3 a. m. to-morrow, and, passing through Reams’ Station, to strike the Boydton plank road at Dinwiddie Court-House. He is to endeavor to intercept and capture any wagon trains carrying supplies from Belfield, and to take advantage of any opportunity of inflicting injury on the enemy. Major-General Humphreys has been ordered to move with two divisions of his corps to the crossing of the Vaughan road over Hatcher’s Run and Armstrong’s Mills, to hold these points and the communications with you and with our lines in his rear. General Gregg has been ordered to detach one regiment of cavalry to report to you, and to leave with you a supply train and reserve ammunition, which will accompany you to J. Hargrave’s. He is ordered to notify you of all that occurs, and in the event of an engagement to take his orders from you. You will take with you two batteries, one rifled and one smooth-bore, and the usual amount of ammunition in limbers and caissons. You will be rationed for four days from to-morrow a. m. (three on hoof), with fifty rounds of ammunition on the person and forty rounds in reserve. One-half the usual allowance of ambulances, with one hospital and one medicine wagon to each brigade, together with one-half the intrenching tools, besides the pioneer tools, will be taken with you. Such of your pickers on the rear line as are necessary for the protection of your camps from guerrillas may be left. General Humphreys has been directed to furnish you re-enforcements, should you call for them. A telegraph line will be run to General Humphreys’ headquarters on Hatcher’s Run, and general headquarters will either be here or on the road from here to you.”

AndrewAHumphreys

Union 2nd Corps Commander Andrew A. Humphreys

Finally, Humphreys’ Second Corps, the link between Warren and the permanent Union fortifications southwest of Petersburg, would also move at 7 a.m. and take up blocking positions north of Hatcher’s Run.  Humphreys’ goal was to hold the Vaughan Road crossing over Hatcher’s Run as a link to Warren, and to effectively block the Confederate forces on the line in front of Boydton Plank Road from moving against the flank of Warren and Gregg on the most direct route:

“The general commanding directs that you move to-morrow morning at 7 o’clock with the two divisions of your corps not on the line to the crossing of the Vaughan road over Hatcher’s Run and to Armstrong’s Mills. You will hold these two points and the communications with General Warren in your front and our lines in your rear. Major-General Gregg, commanding Second Cavalry Division, has been ordered to move at 3 a. m. to-morrow and, passing through Reams’ Station, to strike the Boydton plank road at Dinwiddie Court-House. He is to endeavor to intercept and capture any wagon trains carrying supplies from Belfield, and to take advantage of any opportunity of inflicting injury on the enemy. General Warren, with a regiment of cavalry from General Gregg, has been ordered to move his corps in support of General Gregg at 7 a. m., passing through Reams’ Station and taking the road crossing Hatcher’s Run at W. Perkins’, and taking position on the Dinwiddie Court-House road at or near J. Hargrave’s. You will take with you four days’ rations (three on hoof) and fifty rounds of ammunition on the person and forty rounds in reserve. One-half of the usual allowance of ambulances, with one hospital and one medicine wagon to each brigade, together with one-half the intrenching tools, besides the pioneer tools, will be taken with you. Such of your pickets on the rear line as are necessary for the protection of your camps from guerrillas may be left; the remainder of the pickets belonging to the two divisions you take with you may be withdrawn. You will take with you two batteries of artillery. General Miles, remaining under your command, will still report directly to these headquarters anything of importance that may occur, independent of his report to you. You are taking position to support General Warren, and should anything occur to render it necessary for him to call upon you for re-enforcements you will furnish them. General Warren is notified of this.”

By 7:45 on the evening of February 4, the plan seemed to be final, but Grant wasn’t quite ready to let go of his hope that Gregg would attempt a move on Belfield.  At 8:30, Grant asked Meade if Gregg might be able to go all the way to Belfield and destroy any supplies accumulated there.  Meade sensibly replied that any supplies accumulated at this terminus of the Weldon Railroad would be stored south of the Meherrin River at Hicksford rather than Belfield to keep them protected.  In addition, Rooney Lee’s cavalry division was reported to be at Belfield.  He nonetheless ordered Gregg to move on Belfield “provided he finds on reaching Dinwiddie Court-House any confirmation of the contrabands report, or obtains any reliable intelligence leading him to believe he can effect anything there.”

The only thing left to do before the troops departed their camps was to inform the government, as Grant had promised Meade he would.  In a dispatch to Secretary of War Stanton late on the evening of February 4, Grant explained what was about to happen so the cabinet wouldn’t be caught off guard when they began to hear word of the operation:

“I have ordered the cavalry to move down the Weldon road to-morrow for the purpose of breaking up the enemy’s wagon train as far as they can, which is being used to draw supplies from Belfield to Petersburg. A corps of infantry goes as far as Stony Creek in support. I telegraph this so that you may know the object of the movement when you hear of it.”

Grant’s original plan had been tweaked multiple times, but soon enough the final orders were given.  How would the Eighth Offensive against Petersburg and Richmond play out?  Stay tuned and check in tomorrow for more…

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