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The Beefsteak Raid



    September 14, 1864: Hampton Sets Out to Rustle Some Cattle

    Note: Here is the best map I could find of Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid.  There are surprisingly few of these out there.

    Brief Summary: One hundred and fifty years ago today, on September 14, 1864, Wade Hampton set out with approximately 3,500 men of his Cavalry Corps from camps southwest of Petersburg on the Boydton Plank Road.  His goal was to capture almost 3,000 head of cattle located on the plantation of fire eater Edmund Ruffin southwest of Coggin’s Point, a spot on the James River southeast of the massive Federal supply center at City Point.

    Scout Shadburne of the Jeff Davis Legion had sent Hampton a detailed report of the area, the cattle, and the Union defenses arrayed to protect them on September 5.  Hampton read the report and planned an operation to extricate the cattle and bring them back to Confederate lines, which he presented to Robert E. Lee in a letter on September 8.  Lee’s reply on the 9th gave Hampton the go ahead, but questioned how Hampton would be able to return if “embarrassed” with wagons and cattle.  He cautioned Hampton to take a circuitous route, watch the Jerusalem Plank Road for the enemy on his return, and keep his flank guards well out to give ample advanced warning.

    Now that Hampton had decided on a plan, he needed to select a force to execute it.  He took W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s entire two brigade division consisting of Rufus Barringer’s North Carolinians and Col. Lucius Davis’ Virginians.  In addition, Rosser’s Brigade from Butler’s Division and the indpependt brigade of James Dearing were also selected to go in their entirety.  Hampton padded out the expedition with 100 picked men from the brigades of Young and Dunovant from Butler’s Division.


    Hampton set out on the Boydton Plank Road southwest of Petersburg early on the morning of September 14, 1864, collecting men as their camps were passed.  Some men didn’t join the moving column until after the sun was up.  Hampton turned slightly left onto the Quaker Road and headed south.  Once the column reached Rowanty Creek, it moved quickly southeast roughly parallel with that body of water.  They crossed Weldon Railroad well to the south of Ream’s Station, almost at Stony Creek, before reaching the Rowanty itself and Wilkinson’s Bridge.  Here the Confederates settled in for the night.  Day one of the raid was a complete success.  Hampton had made his destination without alarming any Federals about what his column intended.

    The raid would continue on September 15…

    September 15, 1864: Crossing the Blackwater and Planning the Attack

    Note: Here is the best map I could find of Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid.  There are surprisingly few of these out there.

    Brief Summary: After bedding down on the night of September 14, 1864 just west of Rowanty Creek, Hampton’s Confederate troopers got an early start on the morning of September 15, 150 years ago today. Hampton’s men crossed Wilkinson’s Bridge and headed past Belsche’s destroyed mill, a site they’d see more of on their return.  After reaching the Jerusalem Plank Road, the column utilized that thoroughfare for a bit before turning off onto the road toward Cabin Point and a destroyed bridge over the Blackwater on the afternoon of the 15th.

    That destroyed bridge, and its rebuilding, was the key to the entire operation.  Hampton had deliberately chosen this route to cross the Blackwater, because he knew that the Yankees knew this bridge had been destroyed and was impassable.  Hampton brought along handpicked “mounted engineers” commanded by Lt. John F. Lanneau, an engineer on Hampton’s staff.  These men were given the appropriate tools prior to the expedition and now set to work rebuilding the bridge over the Blackwater.


    While this bridge work was ongoing, Hampton gathered his subordinates and explained the plan.  Rosser’s Brigade and the handpicked men from Young’s and Dunovant’’s brigades under Lt. Col. Miller of the 6th South Carolina Cavalry would overwhelm the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry at Sycamore Church, then head north to rustle the cattle at Coggins’ Point.  Rooney Lee’s Division would head northwest up Lawyer’s Road and guard the left flank near Prince George Court House.  This was the direction of the main Union army and the supply depot at City Point, and more trouble was expected in this vicinity than any other.  James Dearing’s brigade was to head northeast to Cocke’s Mill and block the road to Fort Powhatan to the northeast.  Fort Powhatan, erected on the James River, was also thought to be a potential, though lesser, source of trouble.  Once Rosser et al had gathered up the cattle and had a good head start, Lee and Dearing would be recalled and the whole force would beat a hasty retreat to the Confederate lines.

    Lanneau’s men worked hard and had finished a suitable bridge over the Blackwater by nightfall.  Hampton’s Confederate troopers crossed this previously impassable waterway and headed northeast.  When the column reached Lawyers Road, they split up.  Lee headed northwest on Lawyers Road towards Prince George Court House to set up his blocking position, while Rosser, Miller’s picked men, and Dearing moved northeast.  They too would eventually split so that Rosser et al faced Sycamore Church in the center, and Dearing faced Cocke’s Mill on the right.


    The 1st District of Columbia Cavalry, about 400 men, guarded Sycamore Church and Cocke’s Mill.  Major J. Stannard Baker led two battalions at Sycamore Church while Captain Will S. Howe and the remaining battalion were camped at Cocke’s Mill.  As Hampton prepared to attack, the sleeping men of the 1st DC Cavalry had no idea what was about to hit them…but that is a story for tomorrow, September 16.

    September 16, 1864: 2,500 Union Cattle Rustled

    Note: Here is the best map I could find of Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid.  There are surprisingly few of these out there.

    Brief Summary: In the early morning hours of September 16, 1864, two of Hampton’s three wings of Confederate cavalry planned to slam into the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry at Sycamore Church and Cocke’s Mill.  Their goal was the large Union cattle herd at Coggin’s Point, currently grazing on the grass and clover of fire eater Edmund Ruffin’s plantation.

    In the darkness, George Shadburne, the scout from the Jeff Davis Legion who had originally reported on the cattle to Hampton back on September 5, proposed a plan to quietly use a ravine to swing around the Union camp at Sycamore Church  and capture the 1st DC Cavalry in their beds.  Tom Rosser had other ideas.  He convinced Hampton to let him charge straight into the Union camp and surprise them before they could offer any resistance.

    One squadron from the 11th Virginia Cavalry led the way, but they drew fire from the Union picket on the road and had some trouble with the reserve picket line.  Eventually, weight of numbers and the advantage of surprise won the day, and Rosser’s men bagged Major J. Stannard Baker from the 1st DC Cavalry as well as many men from the two battalions he led at Sycamore Church.


    Rosser’s attack was heard by the right and left wings, letting them know it was time to play their roles as well.  Dearing’s men on the right overwhelmed the remaining battalion of the 1st DC Cavalry at Cocke’s Mill, taking up a blocking position against Fort Powhatan to the northeast.  These Union troopers retired in the direction of what they thought was safety at Sycamore Church, not knowing Baker’s men had already been overwhelmed.  They too were captured.  On the left,  Rooney Lee’s division moved to the intersection  of Lawyer Road and the Stage Road near Wilkin’s farm and, after a short recon  mission toward Prince George Court House, they dug in.  Their mission was to block any Union advance coming from the direction of the main Union lines to the west or the Union supply base at City Point to the northwest.

    This left one more item on the agenda, the capture of the cattle by Rosser’s Brigade and a picked group of one hundred men from Butler’s Division.  Facing them were less than one hundred civilian herders and a portion of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry under Capt. Henry Gregg, the brother of cavalry division commander David McM. Gregg.  After the Federals refused to surrender, White’s 35th Virginia Battalion scattered Gregg’s men quickly, at which point Rosser’s men rounded up the cattle and headed back toward Sycamore Church.

    At this point the raid changed to a race for the Confederate lines, at least as far as cavalry can “race” when burdened with almost 2,500 cattle. Hampton sent couriers to his right and left wings to recall them to Sycamore Church.  Rosser and the cattle would head out first, followed by Dearing, with Rooney Lee’s Division bringing up the rear and attempting to hold off any Union incursions.

    The Union cavalry started out on a two pronged pursuit.  Kautz led the 3rd New York Cavalry back to Sycamore Church, but the Confederates were long gone.  In addition, the 2nd Cavalry Division of the Army of the Potomac, temporarily under the command of General Henry Davies, pursued down the Jerusalem Plank Road, just as Robert E. Lee had predicted when Hampton brought the idea of the raid to his attention.


    As the cattle continued towards the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers, Rosser’s Brigade threw up a blocking position near Ebenezer Church on the Jerusalem Plank Road on the afternoon of September 16.  Davies struck this position in an attempt to get to the cattle, but after several attacks he called things off.  Hampton tried to surround Davies, but he had already withdrawn north several miles.  One last abortive attempt to find the cattle by Davies’ men south of Reams’ Station to the east was attempted.  Davies called off the pursuit for good after this.


    Hampton, meanwhile, continued on to the south and west, eventually camping just west of Wilkinon’s Bridge over Rowanty Creek, the same spot the Confederates had spent the night of September 14.  The cattle spent the night of September 16 just west of Freeman’s Ford over the Nottoway River south of Ebenezer Church.

    After multiple skirmishes and the successful rustling of the cattle on September 16, all that was left for the Confederates on September 17 was to make the final portion of the trek back to Confederate lines. Up the Boydton Plank Road.  Would they make it….?

    September 17, 1864: Beefsteak for the Confederate Army

    Note: Here is the best map I could find of Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid.  There are surprisingly few of these out there.

    Brief Summary: After an eventful September 16, 1864, Hampton had a relatively easy time on September 17, the last day of his beefsteak raid.  On this day 150 years ago, Hampton’s men shepherded almost 2,500 stolen Yankee cattle back into Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg.  The Federals failed to mount a concerted, or even determined, pursuit.


    At the cost of just over 60 casualties all told, Hampton had captured hundreds of Yankee troopers, embarrassed the Federal high command, and most importantly, had secured 2,468 cattle for the nearly starving Confederates in Lee’s trenches.

    Meade had feared just such as attack when two of his cavalry divisions had been sent with Phil Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley.  Gregg’s remaining division from the Army of the Potomac as well as Kautz’s understrength division from the Army of the James simply could not hold all of the key points they needed to in enough force to dissuade the Confederates from just such an attack.

    Despite Confederate post-war claims of the herd feeding Lee’s army “for two months” or “to the end of the campaign,” in reality they only provided rations for several weeks.  Lee’s supply issues were too great for the raid to make a major, game changing difference.  It was one of the last hurrahs for the proud Army of Northern Virginia.

    Meanwhile, Grant was already planning to tighten the noose around Petersburg and Richmond even more at the end of the month…

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