September 2, 1864: A Quick Dash to the Boydton Plank Road…Almost
Early on the morning of September 2, 1864, 150 years ago today, General Gregg ordered his Second Brigade to make a quick dash west of Fifth Corps headquarters to see how well guarded the Boydton Plank Road was on the Confederate far right. The Second Brigade, presumably led by Colonel C. H. Smith, proceeded in a westerly direction from Warren’s headquarters at Globe Tavern around 5 a.m. that morning. Driving Confederate pickets under Colonel J. Frederick Waring of the Jeff Davis MS Legion out of the way in front of Poplar Spring Church, they were soon on the Squirrel Level Road, headed north towards the “dash’s” object, the Boydton Plank Road. They never made it.
Smith’s Brigade, including the 1st Maine Cavalry, had stumbled onto the camp of Confederate Brigadier General James Dearing’s cavalry brigade. After some initial confusion, the Confederates rallied and stood firm with some artillery in support1. Satisfied that the Boydton Plank Road was guarded in force and not wanting to be trapped, the Second Brigade of Gregg’s Division turned around and just as quickly headed back to Union lines, their recon mission accomplished. Gregg was already able to write up a report of the operation by 7:30 a.m. Truly this was a “quick dash” and nothing more.
The map below2 shows the Confederate cavalry pickets as they existed in late September 1864. But based on the available sources, this picket line’s location does not appear to have changed much between early September when this skirmish occurred and late September when the pickets were located as the map depicts.
Gregg’s several reports of the operation are as follows:
OR XLII, P2, page 669: Gregg to Humphreys, 6:15 a.m., September 2, 1864
One of my brigades passed out directly west from General Warren’s headquarters at 5 a.m. Last intelligence it was within three-quarters of a mile of the Petersburg and Dinwiddie plank road. But little opposition encountered. The brigade at this time is certainly on the plank road.
OR XLII, P2, page 670: Gregg to Humphreys, 7:30 a.m., September 2, 1864
The brigade sent to strike the plank road moved at a rapid gait, driving pickets before them and reached a point less than three-quarters of a mile from the plank road, when it was met by two regiments of cavalry and a section of artillery. Skirmishing began when the commander of the brigade learned that a large force of cavalry was camped three miles south of his position. The road upon which the brigade moved strikes the plank road two miles from Petersburg and one mile from the first line of works. The brigade commander, satisfied that is was impracticable to accomplish the object of the expedition, returned with his command, the enemy appearing in his rear and using artillery. The cavalry under my command is now massed in rear of General Warren’s headquarters, where I will await further orders. The roads followed is the same as that leading from Wyatt’s.
OR XLII, P2, page 670: Gregg to Humphreys, 8 a.m., September 2, 1864
Prisoners captured inform me that the whole of Dearing’s brigade was at or in rear of the point where the advance regiments were met; also that at the point where the road followed by my brigade strikes the plank road, and or some distance below, the plank road is defended by earth-works occupied by infantry.
The regimental history of the 1st Maine Cavalry, History of the First Maine Cavalry (1866), page 318, gives an account from that regiment’s point of view:
September second the regiment went on a reconnoissance with the brigade, passing out through the infantry line near the Yellow Tavern, on the Vaughan Road, drove in the rebel pickets and pursued them till they met the enemy in force and fortified on the Boydton plank road, viz., to learn what there was at that point, the force withdrew. This was just a dash into the enemy’s lines, the orders being not to be gone over forty-five minutes, and these were the first troops that went beyond the Weldon Railroad across the Peebles farm. The force ran into the camp of Gen. Dearing’s brigade of rebel cavalry, causing a deal of consternation, and as quickly came out again, losing two wounded, and bringing out as prisoner the old man Peebles.
Colonel Fred Waring of the Jeff Davis Legion provides the Confederate perspective of events in his diary entry for September 2, 1864:
At day-break the Yankees drove in my pickets near Poplar Spring Church. The Yankees dashed by the Church and then up Squirrel Level Road till almost in site of Gen. Dearing’s camp. He opened on them with artillery, when they at once turned and fled. The posts were at once reestablished. Was relieved by the S. Carolina Brigade at 9 A. M. Butler, Dunovant, and Old Gid came out to take a look at the Picket lines…
The September 5, 1864 Richmond Examiner also had this account of the affair:
On Friday morning about four hundred Yankee cavalry rushed into our lines on the Squirrel Level road, from the direction of Davis’ dwelling on the railroad, and succeeded in partially surprising our pickets, some ten of whom they captured. They quickly scattered around, visiting the residences of Messrs. Boswell, Pegram and Robert H. Jones. The house of Mr. William Peebles was also visited, and that gentleman is reported to have been seized and carried off. When within one and a half miles of the Boydton Plank road they were opened upon by Dearing’s cavalry brigade, who also got a favourite howitzer into position and soon caused a hasty retreat. The Yankee horsemen did not stop this side of their strongholds on the railroad. Here they re-formed, and, being heavily reinforced, started up Vaughan’s road, hoping, no doubt, to cross without opposition and reach the Southside railroad in that direction. They had not proceeded far before they ran afoul of a brigade of Hampton’s cavalry, and were again compelled to take the back track.
Grant’s Fifth Offensive, upcoming in later September 1864, would see his left wing move over this same ground. The fighting would be much heavier, and would result in the multi-day Battle of Peebles (or Pegram’s) Farm. But that’s a post for another set of days…
- This artillery was likely from Graham’s Petersburg VA Artillery, which operated with Dearing’s Cavalry Brigsade during the Fifth Ofensive. ↩
- The map was taken from Richard Sommers thesis “GRANT’S FIFTH OFFENSIVE AT PETERSBURG: A STUDY IN STRATEGY, TACTICS, AND GENERALSHIP. THE BATTLE OF CHAFFIN’S BLUFF, THE BATTLE OF POPLAR SPRING CHURCH, THE FIRST BATTLE OF THE DARBYTOWN ROAD, THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE SQUIRREL LEVEL ROAD, THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE DARBYTOWN ROAD” between pages 638 and 639 and modified by Brett Schulte to reflect this skirmish. ↩
- Sommers, Richard J. “GRANT’S FIFTH OFFENSIVE AT PETERSBURG: A STUDY IN STRATEGY, TACTICS, AND GENERALSHIP. THE BATTLE OF CHAFFIN’S BLUFF, THE BATTLE OF POPLAR SPRING CHURCH, THE FIRST BATTLE OF THE DARBYTOWN ROAD, THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE SQUIRREL LEVEL ROAD, THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE DARBYTOWN ROAD”. 1970 Ph.D. thesis. Map between pages 638 and 639. Modified by Brett Schulte to remove some items pertaining to the Fifth offensive and add items pertaining to this recon mission on September 2 1864. ↩