Stony Creek Raid: December 7-12, 1864

   

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Name: Stony Creek Raid

Other Names: Hicksford Raid, Weldon Railroad Raid, Nottoway River Raid

Location: Sussex County

Campaign: Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865)

Date: December 7-12, 1864

Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren [US]; Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill [CS]

Forces Engaged: Corps

Estimated Casualties: <200 (Union) Unknown (Confederate)

Description: In mid-December 1864 G.K. Warren set forth on a raid south down the Weldon Railroad in the direction of Stony Creek, intent on destroying as much of this vital supply line as possible. Trailed by a force commanded by A.P. Hill, Warren’s men were able to destroy large sections of the railroad and destroy other supplies which could have been used by the Confederates. Despite the damage done, the Confederates were able to repair the railroad north to Stony Creek Station by March 1865.

Result: Union victory

Full Summary:

Warren’s Stony Creek Raid: December 7-12, 1864:

Applejack, Ice, and Wrecking a Railroad

Note: Click to see maps of the Stony Creek Raid, which should help you follow along with the action.

December 7, 1864: Day 1

Brief Summary: From December 7-12, 1864, 150 years ago this week, Gouverneur Warren led a major raid down the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, attempting to put it out of commission down to Hicksford , Virginia, well south of Petersburg and Richmond, and 44 miles south of Grant’s headquarters at City Point on the James River.

In the month of November 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was on the lookout for signs that Robert E. Lee was detaching troops to help oppose Sherman’s March to the Sea. He ordered George Meade to send out several cavalry scouts in November and December to probe the Confederate cavalry screen in the direction of their supply depot at Stony Creek on the Weldon Railroad.  Grant also considered ways to proactively prevent Lee from sending troops away.  One of those ways was to have Butler abandon either Bermuda Hundred or the lines he captured north of the James River during the Fifth Offensive.  Those troops would then assume the positions held by Meade’s Army of the Potomac east and south of Petersburg, freeing Meade’s entire army to strike out away from the City Point Supply base, get far into the Confederate rear, and end the campaign.  Grant was hesitant to try this approach, a high-risk, high-reward attempt to end things at one fell swoop.  Army of the James Chief Engineer Peter S. Michie proposed another plan, this time focusing on Bermuda Hundred.  He thought the Confederate Howlett line could be broken, and the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad reached and held.  The plan was simply to break the direct connection between Richmond and Petersburg, interfering with Lee’s ability to quickly move troops and supplies where they were needed most.

In the end, Grant chose none of these options.  In early December, the Sixth Corps began arriving at City Point, fresh from its victories in the Shenandoah Valley under Phil Sheridan.  Grant realized he could get a jump on Lee, using these reinforcements to his advantage before Early’s men could reach the Richmond/Petersburg front.  Ultimately, he did so, shuttling Wright’s Sixth Corps divisions into the lines around Petersburg, freeing up Warren’s entire three division Fifth Corps and Mott’s Division of the Second Corps for Grant’s offensive designs.

The offensive design chosen is the subject of this post: Gouverneur Warren’s Raid to Hicksford.  As is so often the case during the little studied Siege of Petersburg, this raid goes by at least a half-dozen names: Hicksford Raid, Applejack Raid, Stony Creek Raid, Nottoway River Raid, Weldon Railroad Raid, and Belfield Raid.  I’m sure other names were applied to this raid as well, both by the soldiers who participated in it and the historians who have studied it afterwards.  To make matters even more confusing, there is the question of where this raid fits into the larger structure of the Siege of Petersburg.  Richard J. Sommers, author of the classic book Richmond Redeemed, about the Fifth Offensive, considers this raid and attendant skirmishes to be Grant’s Seventh Offensive against Petersburg, with the February action the Eighth Offensive, and everything in March-April to be the Ninth and final offensive.  I have used this approach at The Siege of Petersburg Online. Earl J. Hess, in his excellent book In the Trenches at Petersburg, utilizes a slightly different approach.  The first six offensives remain the same.  Warren’s Raid is considered just a raid, similar to Sheridan’s Trevilian Station expedition, the Wilson-Kautz Raid, or Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid.  The Seventh Offensive is in February, and the March-April operations are considered the Eighth and Ninth Offensives.1 The end result is that we are discussing a raid with at least six names and an uncertain place in the greater Petersburg Campaign.  Keep that in mind if you are interested in studying this action beyond this post.

With that lengthier than expected aside out of the way, let’s move on to what I’ve chosen to consistently refer to as Warren’s Stony Creek Raid.  Gouverneur Warren was assigned the task of moving down the Weldon Railroad, wrecking it to Hicksford, Virginia, a town about 44 miles south of Grant’s Headquarters at City Point and only 10 miles from the Virginia-North Carolina border.  To accomplish this, he was given approximately 22,000 infantry and 4,200 cavalry.  The infantry consisted of his own three Fifth Corps divisions under Crawford, Griffin, and Ayres and Mott’s Division of the Second Corps. The men were given 60 rounds of ammo and 4 days rations to carry, with 40 more and two more in wagons  One battery of artillery accompanied each infantry division in support.  Much of Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division provided advance scouting and screening duties for the exposed column.

StonyCreekRaidDecember071864

December 7, 1864

Gregg’s Cavalry set out down the Jerusalem Plank road at 4 a. m. on the morning of December 7, 1864, a date shared with a much more famous event in American military history, Pearl Harbor.  Warren’s infantry followed two hours later.   Crawford’s Division was in the lead, followed by Griffin, Ayres, and  Mott in that order.  After marching down the Jerusalem Plank Road, the column crossed the Nottoway River around 5 p.m. at Freeman’s Ford, the same crossing point used by Wade Hampton during his Beefsteak Raid back in September 1864.  By that point, Gregg’s cavalry had already moved ahead several miles south to Sussex Court House.  At the end of this first day, Warren’s column was strung out, divided by the Nottoway River.  Griffin and Ayres were still north of that waterway, with Mott and the supply train just to its south, and Crawford and Gregg in the lead at Sussex Court House.

Luckily for Warren, A. P. Hill’s intercepting force was nowhere near and therefore not in a position to take advantage of Warren’s vulnerable and strung out column.  He had assembled the equivalent of two infantry divisions, with units pulled from all three of the divisions of his Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.  This force settled down for the night in the Burgess Mill area south of Hatcher’s Run, the site of the October 27, 1864 battle during the Sixth Offensive.  Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry was also busy.  Once the South Carolinian found out Warren was headed south with a strong force, he rushed the brigades of Barringer (Rooney Lee’s Div.) and Waring (Butler’s Div.) to Hicksford in an attempt to block the head of Warren’s column.

The raid would continue the next day…

December 8, 1864: Day 2

 

Brief Summary: On day 2 of Warren’s railroad wrecking expedition, the Union troops were up early.  The divisions of Griffin and Ayres north of the Nottoway were aroused at 2 a. m. in order to make sure they reached the Weldon Railroad by the end of the day.  Both divisions had crossed the river two and a half hours later.  Once this occurred, Warren had his pontoon bridge pulled up to prevent any Confederates from following the column from the direction of the Jerusalem Plank Road.

Mott’s Division and the supply trains, already south of the river at the start of the day, slept in a little, first moving at 6:30 and reaching Sussex Court House to the south a few hours later.  Gregg’s Cavalry, leading the column, was aroused around 4 a. m., and cautiously probed the road west from Sussex Court House to the Weldon Railroad.  Griffin’s infantry, leading Warren’s foot soldiers, left Sussex Court House at daylight.  As the sun rose that morning and the day grew warm, many soldiers in the column decided to discard their overcoats and excess clothing.  They would soon regret this move.

StonyCreekRaidDecember081864

Gregg’s cavalry scattered various Confederate pickets of Hampton’s cavalry corps on the move west, reaching Halifax Road and the neighboring Weldon Railroad around 9 a. m.  Hampton’s men had crossed the Nottoway River at Gee’s Ford, and group of 60 men from a Virginia regiment even managed to penetrate between Gregg and the trailing Union infantry before being craven away.  When Gregg reached the Weldon Railroad, the Union cavalry split, with Smith’s Brigade heading north and destroying the railroad bridge over the Nottoway River while the other two brigades turned south.

After learning the Union forces were moving south down the Weldon Railroad, Hampton pulled his pickets back over the Nottoway.  At this point, he learned Lee was sending A. P. Hill with a large infantry force to help intercept Warren’s column.  He moved with the rest of his cavalry, following the brigades of Waring and Barringer to Hicksford.

Ulysses S. Grant was keeping tabs on incoming reports with great interest.  Once he learned that the Confederates were opposing Warren’s raiders, the Union commander wondered, as usual, if Lee had weakened his lines defending Richmond and/or Petersburg.  He asked Meade to order a reconnaissance on Lee’s right southwest of the latter city.  A small group of cavalry made a probe down the Vaughan Road and ran into Young’s Confederate troopers dug in behind Hatcher’s Run.  The report from this recon movement didn’t reach Meade and Grant until late that evening, and it would lead to a larger probe in the same direction the next day.

A. P. Hill’s large infantry force started their day in the vicinity of Burgess Mill.  They presumably got an early start, and marched south to Dinwiddie Court House, taking the road south of that town four miles, where they camped in the vicinity of Stony Creek that night.  They were still out of striking distance of Warren’s column.  One more day of marching would put them in the fight.

The most important event of the day happened after the sun went down.  Warren’s infantry had followed Gregg’s cavalry west, the first men of Griffin’s Division reaching the Weldon Railroad at noon.  As Warren’s men continued to arrive, they spread out up and down the Weldon Railroad from the Nottoway River south to Jarratt’s Station.  The last men were in place by 6 p. m., and they thoroughly wrecked the railroad until midnight, finally bivouacking for the night where they were positioned along the ruined roadbed.

 

December 9, 1864: Day 3

 

Brief Summary: On December 9, 1864, 150 years ago today, the main purpose of Warren’s expedition to Hicksford continued: destroying the Weldon Railroad.  This day’s target was the section of road from Jarratt’s Station south to Hicksford.  As the infantry moved south wrecking the railroad, Gregg’s cavalry moved south in advance, trying to push aside any Confederate opposition.   He faced little in the way of Confederate resistance until he reached Three Creek around 10 a.m.  There he found Confederate about 200 Rebel cavalry supported by a howitzer barring the way, the railroad bridge on fire. The 10th New York Cavalry was sent across one remaining timber of the Halifax Road bridge, and managed to force the Confederate force to retreat.

While Warren’s infantry was destroying the Weldon Railroad south of Jarratt’s Station and Gregg was pushing south to Three Creek, Wade Hampton was preparing a warm reception for any Yankees who managed to reach the Meherrin River and Belfield/Hicksford. Hampton had reached Hicksford early on the morning of December 9, bringing more of Butler and Rooney Lee’s cavalry divisions with him to reinforce the brigades of Waring and Barringer and the more permanent infantry garrison there.  The town of Belfield was just north of the Meherrin River, with Hicksford to the south.  Hampton left most of his forces in three redoubts behind the Meherrin River in Hicksford.  But he also sent the 5th North Carolina Cavalry across the river into Belfield to prop up the reserve infantry forces stationed there.

StonyCreekRaidDecember091864

As Warren’s force slowly approached Belfield and Hicksford, A. P. Hill’s large pursuing force of infantry started about four miles south of Dinwiddie Court House on the morning of the 8th.  He pushed his men south on the Dinwiddie Court House road as fast as possible, eventually crossing the Nottoway River on the twin bridges near Wyatt’s Mill.  After reaching a crossroads just to the south, Hill weighed his options.  Mahone wanted to split the infantry in half, with Hill moving to Warren’s support at Hicksford and Mahone striking due east to Jarratt’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, hoping to hit the Federals in the flank and cut them in two.  Hill decided against this aggressive course, instead continuing to move southeast in the direction of Hicksford. The Third Corps commander and his infantry ended the day without having done any fighting, bivouacking at a point six miles southwest of Jarratt’s Station and six miles northeast of Belfield.

Grant had Meade busy back at Petersburg continuing to look for weak spots in Lee’s lines.  Meade again sent a force to probe the Confederate defenses along Hatcher’s Run near the Vaughan Road, but this time it was much larger.  Rather than a bit of cavalry, Meade this time sent three fourths of Miles Division from the Second Corps.  I covered this December 9-10 reconnaissance to Hatcher’s Run in another post today.

The Confederates defending Belfield and Hicksford didn’t have long to wait before Gregg’s lead elements showed up around 3 p.m.  Gregg probed with several feeble attacks, but at no point was a serious effort made to force a crossing.  As the cavalry probed at the Confederates in Belfield, the Union infantry continued to wreck railroad, ultimately tearing up the track almost all the way to Hicksford, sixteen to seventeen miles in all over the course of the raid.  The Federals found abundant Apple Brandy, or “Applejack,” in houses all along the route. Many Union soldiers got completely drunk, and some behaved very badly as a result.  Around this time Warren learned that Confederate infantry was on its way.  He was also worried that bad weather might trap him well south of the Union lines with the Nottoway River as a major obstacle.   These pieces of information combined with the fact that his infantry had accomplished the main goal of the operation led him to the decision to reverse direction the following morning.

The potential of winter weather was not an idle worry for Warren.  The temperature plummeted as evening wore on, and sleet fell all night long.  The Union soldiers who had tossed their overcoats carelessly aside early in this march would suffer greatly on the return trip.  The Confederates, many of them barefoot, would have an even tougher time of it.

That night, A. P. Hill rode ahead of his exhausted infantry to Hicksford to meet with Wade Hampton.  The two generals conferred and agreed that Hill’s men would march northeast to Jarratt’s Station the following morning while Hampton tried to get around the Federal left, or eastern, flank.  Would Hampton and Hill be able to trap Warren in a vise between them, or would the Federal expedition escape the trap?  December 10th would tell the tale and the winter weather would play a role, but that’s a story for tomorrow…

 

December 10, 1864: Day 4

 

Brief Summary: On December 10, 1864, 150 years ago today, Gouverneur Warren was in a tight spot.  He was 40+ miles south of Grant’s headquarters at City Point, with Hampton’s Confederate cavalry on his front and A. P. Hill’s column of Confederate infantry lurking dangerously close to his right flank.  If Hill could beat Warren to Jarratt’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, he might also beat him to Sussex Court House, blocking his escape route across the Nottoway River.

Warren started around 7 a. m. on the morning of the 10th, a somewhat surprising late start given the circumstances.  He put one cavalry brigade in the lead as he headed norh up the now destroyed Weldon Railroad.  His infantry followed, Griffin first, then the supply train, and then Mott, Ayres, and Crawford.  The remaining two brigades of Gregg’s cavalry division brought up the rear.  This was not going to be an easy march for either side.  Sleet had fallen all night as the temperatures plunged.  Blue and Gray alike woke up to an ice covered landscape and a tough road to travel.  After moving north a few miles, Warren split his forces into two columns, most of the cavalry moving north to Jarratt’s Station, and then west to Sussex Court House, and the infantry taking a more direct route northeast to the Sussex County seat.

StonyCreekRaidDecember101864

Hampton and Hill followed their agreed-upon plan from the night before, with Hill moving northeast to Jarratt’s Station and Hampton harrying the retreating bluecoats from the south.  Neither was fast enough, despite Warren’s late start.  Rear guard actions occurred all day long, with two of the biggest occurring at Three Creek and Jarratt’s Station.  The Federals prepared multiple local ambushes to further retard the Confederate pursuit.

Slaves swarmed to the retreating Federal columns, and some told the Union soldiers about their comrades who had been murdered along the route by guerrillas.  Once the Union soldiers found this to be true, they began burning every building along the retreat route.  The applejack they had pilfered from Southern homes wouldn’t have helped to calm their mood either.  The pursuing Confederates were appalled at the destruction applied to personal property in the middle of a bitterly cold winter day.  Ultimately, Warren’s two wings reunited a few miles south of Sussex Court House and bedded down for the night.  Hill and Hampton were still on their heels.

While the raid was reaching its apex and receding, Robert E. Lee performed a reconnaissance of his own on the north side of the James River.  James Longstreet took Field’s Division and Gary’s Cavalry Brigade to probe the Union lines on New Market Heights to see if they had been weakened to beef up Warren’s Raid or Butler’s troops earmarked for the first Fort Fisher expedition.  Longstreet found the Federal lines north of the James thinly manned by cavalry but declined to attack in the nasty weather and against strong fortifications.  His reconnaissance in force retired back to the Confederate lines guarding Richmond.

Grant and Meade had every right to be worried about Warren’s predicament on the morning of December 10.  Grant had the Army of the James probe the Confederate defenses near Richmond in front of Fort Holly, a work on the Federal lines near Fussell’s Mill north of the James River.  Miles’ probe down the Vaughan Road had failed to cross Hatcher’s Run, and his nearly division sized force withdrew back the way they had come back into the Union fortifications southwest of Petersburg.  In addition, Grant and Meade sent Robert Potter’s Ninth Corps division south down the Jerusalem Plank Road with orders to march all night to reach Warren.  Would this relief column be needed the next day?  Only time would tell, and that story will indeed be told tomorrow, 150 years to the day after the fact…

 

December 11, 1864: Day 5

 

Brief Summary: On December 11, 1864, 150 years ago today, Warren’s Stony Creek Raid on Hicksford was coming to an end.  Warren simply had to reach the Nottoway River, bridge it with a pontoon bridge, and cross before Wade Hampton’s cavalry and A. P. Hill’s infantry interfered.

Before we get to that, though, let’s see how Robert Potter’s Ninth Corps division, the so-called “relief column” for Warren, had fared.  Marching through the night, they reached the north bank of the Nottoway River in the morning.  He didn’t have long to wait before he saw Warren’s column trudging up to the river about noon.  Meade’s ADC Theodore Lyman must have been snickering when he wrote:

“Poor General Potter! He had a frightful night march and was doubtless buoyed up by the feeling that he had a separate command and could distinguish himself if there was a fight, and slam in on Hill’s left flank, and win a great name for himself. What then was his disgust to see, about noon, the head of Warren’s column trudging peaceably back, on the other side of the river! There were two decent-sized armies staring at each other, across the stream, each wondering what the other meant by being there; and both wondering why so many men were concentrated against nobody. General Potter philosophically shrugged his shoulders, gave the word to face about, and put his best leg forward for home, where he arrived a little after dark.”

StonyCreekRaidDecember111864

As you’ve probably already guessed, December 11, 1864 proved to be an anticlimactic end to a successful raid for Warren and Gregg.  But not before a little more controversy occurred.  More murdered Union stragglers were found in Sussex Court House.  The enraged Federals questioned several suspicious characters in the area, and when they didn’t provide a good response, they were hanged as guerrillas in the town square.  Sussex Court House suffered badly at the hands of the Union troops, with even a church near the center of town being put to the torch despite the protest of some Yankee soldiers.  The war at this point was a brutal one, and sometimes innocents were caught in the crossfire.  The citizens unfortunate enough to live along Warren’s retreat route on December 10-11, 1864 learned that lesson personally.

Warren reached the Nottoway at noon, as Lyman described, and quickly had two pontoon bridges laid at Freeman’s Ford.  A. P. Hill gave up the pursuit early in the day with his infantry and headed back to the Confederate entrenchments southwest of Petersburg.  Wade Hampton had more bulldog in him.  He pursued the Federals all day, even sending one regiment all the way to the Nottoway, but the Federals had too much of a head start and Hampton couldn’t do much without Confederate infantry backing him up.  Warren crossed his men, pulled up the pontoon bridges, and spent the night just north of the Nottoway with Potter.

The final day’s march and the results of the raid will have to wait until tomorrow…

 

December 12, 1864: Day 6

Brief Summary: On December 12, 1864, 150 years ago today, the Stony Creek Raid to Hicksford wound down to a conclusion.  Wade Hampton, stymied by the Nottoway River, gave up his pursuit of the Union raiding column.  Warren and Potter’s “relief column” spent the day marching back to their camps near Petersburg.  A. P. Hill did the same with his infantry on a parallel course miles to the west.

When the raid was all said and done, Warren’s force had destroyed 16-17 miles of the Weldon Railroad from the Nottoway River to the Meherrin River.  The Confederates got to work on repairs immediately, but it would be months until the railroad was back in operation to Stony Creek in March 1865.  For all of this damage, Warren lost only 300 or so men. Confederate casualties are unknown, but were almost certainly less.  In his book The Last Citadel, Noah Andre Trudeau called the damage to the Weldon Ralroad “serious though not fatal blow.  It exacerbated a difficult food situation and contributed greatly to the hardships that Lee’s army would face in the coming months.” [Trudeau, 284-285]

In the end, Grant had used the arrival of the Union Sixth Corps before Early’s Confederates could return to his advantage.  These troops were used to man the lines near Petersburg, freeing up a mobile striking force of four infantry divisions and a cavalry division.  The always cautious Warren actually did a pretty solid job in this chance at independent command.  Grant’s original expectations were to destroy the Weldon Railroad to Hicksford, and Warren had done just that with trifling losses.  For Lee, this was, as Trudeau writes, a serious blow.  The distance Confederate wagon trains had to move in order to reach the Boydton Plank Road had just effectively doubled.  This put a further strain on the horses and mules expected to haul these supplies over such a distance in winter time.  Grant’s noose tightened one notch further.  He was slowly squeezing the life out of Lee’s veterans defending Richmond and Petersburg.

At this point, operations in the area settled down for a lengthy period of time, the first such break the armies had seen since the 1864 Overland Campaign began in May.  Christmas was coming, and men on both sides welcomed the break.

 

Bibliography:

First Person Accounts:

Siege of Petersburg Documents Which Mention This Battle:

Source:

  1. Hess, Earl J. In the Trenches at Petersburg (UNC Press: 2009), pp. xvii-xxi.

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