November 7, 1864: A Disruption on Election Day
In the days leading up to November 7, 1864, 150 years ago today, Ulysses S. Grant was concerned about a potential Confederate attack on his lines. November 8 was election day, and Grant assumed Lee might try to take advantage of large numbers of Union soldiers voting while on the front lines. If an attack happened on either flank, Grant was determined to have forewarning. He sent the following to Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade on November 6:
I think it will be advisable to have General Gregg make a pretty strong reconnaissance to-morrow well down the [Weldon] railroad to ascertain if any movement toward our rear is in contemplation. I feel pretty confident an effort will be made at some point Monday night or Tuesday [November 7 or 8, 1864].
Meade, responding to Grant’s instructions, had his chief of staff Andrew A. Humphreys send General Gregg a message instructing him to “make a strong reconnaissance to-morrow [November 7] well down in the direction of the Weldon railroad, to ascertain if any movement toward our rear is going on or about being made…” Humphreys was a bit vague in his orders concerning the timing of the operation, so Gregg asked for clarification. He preferred to wait until around noon of November 7, figuring that way any potential Confederate operation would be well underway. Meade didn’t see it that way, pointing out that he wanted Gregg to head a good distance down the Weldon Railroad, perhaps even past Rowanty Creek. Gregg accordingly prepared his cavalry division to move out on the morning of November 7, 1864 to see if Lee had any plans to break up the election on the Union army’s left and rear.
Grant was also worried about his right flank, manned by the Army of the James. He contacted Alfred Terry, the Tenth Corps commander. Terry was in charge of the Army of the James in Benjamin Butler’s absence. Butler had taken some of the members of his Army of the James to New York City to make sure there were no disturbances during the voting. Grant asked Terry to watch out for his right to the Chickahominy River, scene of much action during the Seven Days’ campaign of two and half years prior:
It will be well for you to push cavalry out to-morrow as far toward the Chickahominy as they can go and as near to the enemy. It is possible there will be an effort made to-morrow night or Tuesday by the enemy. They will not venture on a direct attack, but may attempt to get in your rear with a small force.
Terry made preparations to carry out Grant’s orders, and took other precautions as well.
The Reconnaissance Down the Weldon Railroad
On the morning of November 7, 1864, General Gregg had his cavalry division, 2,400 strong, move down the Weldon Railroad on the expedition Grant had ordered the day prior. The Third Brigade started from Gary’s Church before moving directly to Ream’s Station and then down the Weldon Railroad, looking for any Confederate columns moving from the direction of Rowanty Creek. Gregg accompanied the Second Brigade from “below Gary’s Church” to a road east of Ream’s Station, eventually hitting the railroad four miles south of the station, and rendezvousing with the Third Brigade. This combined force of 1,600 men moved to a point fully six miles south of Ream’s Station, sending scouts another two miles south for good measure. At that point, Gregg took his brigades east to the Proctor House on the Jerusalem Plank Road, where he met the 800 troopers of his Frist Brigade. One of its regiments had been sent to scout in the direction of Freeman’s Bridge on the Nottoway River. The reunited division then moved back north, having engaged in no real skirmishing and losing not a single man. They did kill one Confederate and captured 9 more, but these men were scouts rather than pickets shielding a larger force. Gregg dutifully reported back that his expedition found the Confederate cavalry picketing south of the Rowanty and no enemy forces on the move. If Lee was going to disrupt Union voting the next day, it wouldn’t come from this direction.
The Army of the James Prepares for Battle
After Grant instructed Terry to send cavalry to the Chickahominy on November 7, Terry replied that he had already pushed pickets further out than ever before, fearing the same attack Grant expected. Colonel Robert West of the First Brigade commanded Kautz’s cavalry division temporarily at this time. Terry instructed him to send Spear’s Second Brigade to the Chickahominy prior to daylight, keeping an eye on any possible activity on the Charles City Road and Long Bridge Road in the process, and terminating at White Oak bridge. A second brigade would relieve Spear at noon, and the two brigades would alternate in these scouts until Grant ordered them to stand down.
Before West could get started, however, a force of Confederate infantry, estimated at about 200 strong, attacked Unon avalry pickets at Fussell’s Mill, site of major combat during the Second Deep Bottom Campaign, just after midnight on November 7. Spear, who was supposed to get underway just before daylight, headed out to meet this threat immediately. By mid-day on the 7th, Terry reported to Grant that his cavalry were well out to the right and right rear, with nothing to report yet. In addition, the Official Records correspondence from November 7, 1864 is full of messages back and forth between Terry and various subordinates, all with the goal of protecting against and potentially responding to a possible attack on the far right.
All of Grant’s preparation and scouting was for naught. Lee had no intention of attacking Grant’s lines in early November 1864. By this point, he simply didn’t have enough men to make a serious dent in the Union lines. In addition, Lee knew the weather would cooperate and bring winter weather soon enough, providing his men a respite of sorts from the constant hammering Grant had continued on from May through October 1864. The next day, Grant’s two armies opposite Richmond and Petersburg would vote in the field during a Civil War. Their choice would be either Lincoln and peace with total victory, or McClellan and peace with a qualified victory, or perhaps no victory at all. But that discussion will have to wait until tomorrow, 150 years to the day of this historic election…
For Further Reading…