THE EXPEDITION TO THE BOYDTON PLANK ROAD, OCTOBER, 1864.1
BREVET BRIGADIER-GENERAL FRANCIS A. WALKER
Read before the Society April 6, 1885
THE EXPEDITION TO THE BOYDTON PLANK ROAD, OCTOBER, 1864.
The Boydton Plank Road Expedition, towards the end of October, 1864, was the last effort made by General Grant to reach the South Side Railroad, and thus compel the evacuation of Petersburg before winter closed in upon the armies confronting each other upon the Appomattox and the James.
On the 25th of October orders were issued from Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,(1) from which the following paragraphs are extracted.
“2d. On the afternoon of the 26th instant (Wednesday), Major General Hancock, commanding 2d Corps, will move the divisions of his corps, now in reserve, to the Vaughan Road just outside the line of rear intrenchments. They will take routes well to the rear, so as to avoid observation of the enemy, and every precaution will be taken during the night to conceal the movement. At 2 A. M. of the 27th, General Hancock will move by the Vaughan Road, cross Hatcher’s Run, pass by Dabney’s Mill, and Wilson’s and Arnold’s steam sawmill, on the Boydton Plank Road, cross the open country to Claiborne’s Road, near its intersection with the White Oak Road, and, recrossing Hatcher’s Run near the Claiborne Road bridge, will take road running northeast from the vicinity of the bridge to the South Side Railroad, and endeavor to seize a commanding position on that road. In this operation General Gregg’s cavalry will form part of General Hancock’s command and will move on his left. General Hancock will probably be able to reach the Boydton Plank Road by the time
(1) 89 W. R. 340.
“3d. General Gregg will concentrate his cavalry on the afternoon of the 26th instant (Wednesday), at some point towards the left convenient for crossing Hatcher’s Run by the first route below that used by Hancock’s infantry, and which shall not disclose the movement to the observation of the enemy. Every precaution will be taken to conceal the movement. His pickets from the vicinity of the Plank Road westward will be relieved in time to accompany him on the morning of the 27th. Upon concentrating his command he will report to Major-General Hancock. General Gregg will move on the morning of the 27th, not later than two o’clock, cross Hatcher’s Run below the 2d Corps, and move on the left of the infantry, probably using the Quaker Road as far as the Boydton Plank. His route must be governed by that of the 2d Corps.
“4th. Major-General Parke commanding 9th Corps will move at such hour on the morning of the 27th as will enable him to attack the right of the enemy’s infantry between Hatcher’s Run and their new works at Hawkes’ and Dabney’s, at the dawn of day. It is probable that the enemy’s line of intrenchments is incomplete at that point; and the commanding general expects, by a secret and sudden movement, to surprise them and carry their half-formed works. General Parke will, therefore, move and attack vigorously at the time named, not later than half-past five, and, if successful, will follow up the enemy closely, turning towards the right. Should he not break the enemy’s line, General Parke will remain confronting them until the operations on the left draw off the enemy.
“5th. Major-General Warren, commanding 5th Corps, will, if practicable, move simultaneously with the 9th Corps, and proceed to the crossing of Hatcher’s Run below the Plank Road bridge, from which point he will support the 9th Corps, and, if the attack is successful, follow up the enemy on the
left of the 9th Corps. Should General Parke fail to break the enemy’s line, General Warren will cross Hatcher’s Run, and endeavor to turn the enemy’s right by recrossing at the first practicable point above the Boydton Plank Road, keeping on the right of Hancock. He will then turn towards the Plank Road and open the Plank Road bridge.
“6th. The ammunition wagons, extra caissons, intrenching tools, medicine and hospital wagons, and forage wagons, allowed with the troops, will not accompany them on the morning of the 27th, but will be left parked at the most secure point near their bivouacs, and will be brought up at such time during the day as may be found best. The ambulances will accompany the troops.
“7th. The troops will take four days’ full rations on the person, counting from Thursday morning, the 27th. Sixty rounds of ammunition will be taken on the person. Forty rounds of infantry ammunition and one half the small arms ammunition of the cavalry will be taken on wagons. In addition to the artillery ammunition carried in the limber chest and caisson, fifty additional rounds will be taken for each 12-pound gun, to be carried in the caissons of the guns in the enclosed works. Not more than one forage and one battery wagon will be taken for every twelve guns. One half the ambulances, with all the stretchers, will accompany the troops, and one medicine and one hospital wagon for each brigade. The intrenching tools will be taken. No baggage or headquarter wagons will be allowed, but, instead, such pack animals as may be absolutely necessary for the rations and tents of officers. In the cavalry each trooper will carry as much grain as practicable. Such forage wagons as are absolutely indispensable for the time of the operation will also be allowed for the cavalry.
“10th. Every man on detached, special, extra, or daily duty, that can be temporarily placed in the rartks for an emer-
On the afternoon of the 26th two divisions — Mott’s and Egan’s —of the 2d Corps, embraced in the foregoing order, in number between 6000 and 7000 men, moved out, the latter leading, along the rear line of our intrenchments, to the Weldon Railroad, bivouacking near Fort Dushane. The intention had been that the corps should bivouac near the Davis house, on the Vaughan Road; but it was found that the troops could move as readily from Fort Dushane to the Vaughan Road over a cross road past Wyatt’s house, situated on the Church Road. The hour of march was also changed from 2 A. M. to 3.30 A. M., at General Hancock’s request, inasmuch as it was known that the Vaughan Road was obstructed, and the crossing of Hatcher’s Run held by the enemy in breastworks, so that confusion would be likely to result from attempting to clear these obstacles in the night. At 3.30 A. M. Egan moved out, closely followed by Mott. Gregg, who had bivouacked near the infantry, moved, at the same hour, on the Halifax Road. The enemy’s videttes were encountered on the Vaughan Road, but did not contest our advance, the only material delay being caused by the obstructions found in the road. Egan pushed forward so energetically that by daylight he was ready to attempt the crossing of Hatcher’s Run. The stream at that point was waist deep. Trees had been felled in it to make the approach to the enemy’s line more difficult. Smythe’s Brigade was deployed and advanced in fine style, carrying the works at a run; but, small as the enemy’s force was, they had such secure cover to fire from that our loss was upwards of fifty men. Among the killed was Lieutenant-Colonel Spalter, 4th Ohio Volunteers, who was commanding the skirmish line on this occasion. As soon as Egan’s Division had crossed the stream, he pushed forward to Dabney’s Mill where his skirmishers captured Major Venable of the staff of the Confed-
erate cavalry. By this time the hour fixed for Parke’s attack had passed, and General Hancock felt some uneasiness at not hearing his guns, knowing that his own small column could affect nothing if the enemy were permitted to concentrate against it, and that he could not even attempt to reach the South Side Railroad unless the enemy were kept busily occupied meeting the attacks directed in the orders from headquarters. Mott followed the Vaughan Road for a mile or so, and then marched by a cross road to Dabney’s Mill. Gregg had pushed the enemy before him rapidly, crossing Gravelly Run against the opposition of both cavalry and artillery; and the welcome sound of his guns was now heard upon the left, growing more and more distinct. The infantry pushed on towards the Boydton Road, arriving in sight of it just as the rear of the enemy’s wagon train was crossing the bridge at Burgess’ Mill. General Hancock, in his official report, remarks that(1) “a small party of good cavalry might perhaps have captured a part of this train, then passing over Hatcher’s Run;” but he adds, “Nothing could be accomplished with the cavalry force I had in my advance.”
The enemy at once opened fire on Hancock’s column, with a section of artillery, from the hill on the south side of the run, near Burgess’ Tavern; while another section opened from the left in the direction of the White Oak Road. The guns in front were soon silenced by Beck’s Battery, C and I 5th United States, which at this point lost Lieutenant Burnes, a valuable officer, mortally wounded.
General Hancock did not deem it prudent to continue his march to the White Oak Road while any of the enemy remained south of Hatcher’s Run; and he accordingly directed Egan to push toward the bridge and drive everything across. Gregg was now coming up by the Quaker Road, and one of his brigades was sent forward to Egan, whereupon Mott with the Third Division was directed to advance towards
(1) 87 W. R. 231.
White Oak Bridge. Before his column was well under way, however, General Hancock received an order from General Meade requiring him to halt at the Plank Road; and a few minutes later Generals Grant and Meade came upon the field, the latter informing General Hancock that Crawford’s Division, 5th Corps, was working its way up the run, and requested General Hancock to extend his line to the right in order to make the desired connection with Crawford’s troops.
Let us now turn back across the run near the bend, and see what had occurred since the time arrived for Parke, according to orders from general headquarters, to attack and break the enemy’s extreme right.
It will have been observed that the text of the orders explicitly states the belief of headquarters that the enemy’s works were not yet extended to Hatcher’s Run; or that if such a line had been marked out, the intrenchments were as yet incomplete. It was here, between Hawkes’ and Dabney’s and Hatcher’s Run, about two miles or two and one-half miles to the southwest, that Parke was to attack.
On moving in the early morning, however, Parke found the enemy’s works extended much further to the south and east than was supposed. Badeau says (iii, 118), “Instead of the Rebel line being unfinished and altogether north of Hatcher’s Run, it was found to extend east of the stream and below the bend nearly to Armstrong’s Mill, a distance of at least two miles.” Badeau’s “two miles” and his “nearly to Armstrong’s Mill” are very dubious. On the map made by the engineers, the enemy’s works do not extend much below the great bend of the stream, while Armstrong’s Mill is far down. Yet it remains true that Parke found the enemy’s line in a very different position from that which had been indicated, and he found it, moreover, thoroughly fortified, with slashing and abatis in front, and well manned. Parke, therefore, came to a stand, all that remained for him, according to the original instructions, being to confront the enemy in their works,
Meade’s alternative plan now came up for execution, though in sooth it was really not a plan upon which Meade was disposed to insist, since, as we shall see, he himself with Grant’s personal concurrence gave the order to put a stop to it, although no disaster or check, except from the nature of the country, had been experienced.
What was this “plan.” It was to leave Parke, as has been said, confronting the newly discovered works and throw Warren across the run, leaving him to hold the Boydton Road and, presumably, to seize the Plank Road bridge, while Hancock upon his left should move out to the White Oak Road and attempt the South Side Railroad.
It will be seen that the enterprise in contemplation was not only much less considerable than that of throwing three corps upon the enemy’s right and into his rear, but that it had much less chance of success; first, because the active force was reduced from three corps to two, and secondly, because so much time had been lost in defining the enemy’s position and in reaching the conclusion that Parke could take no further aggressive action. Hours, every minute of which was precious, had gone by, during which a vigilant and daring enemy was making dispositions to meet the impending blow.
Reduced in scope and possible importance, as was the new enterprise, it was, by the action of General Meade and General Grant in person, soon reduced as we have seen, to almost trivial importance. Instead of pushing Warren as fast as possible across the river with all his force; throwing upon Parke the responsibility of holding the enemy along the whole line east and north of the run; throwing upon Warren the responsibility of holding the whole territory embraced within the angle of the stream, including the bridge at Burgess’ Mill;
and thus leaving Hancock with his two divisions of infantry and Gregg’s cavalry division foot-free to strike at the railroad ; — instead of this, General Meade informed Hancock that one division only, Crawford’s of Warren’s Corps, was to be thrown across the run; that this division was to move up along the run, its right flank resting thereon; that connection was to be made and maintained between Hancock and Crawford; and that further movement to the left was suspended.
What might be hoped for from the new dispositions was this: that Crawford, moving energetically up the stream, might touch the enemy’s extreme right and compel the abandonment of the positions held by him on the east bank, in front of Parke and Warren, whose troops or a part of them might then cross and, in conjunction with Hancock, push into the Confederate rear. Whether it was Meade’s intention, in case of success, to take advantage of the enemy’s discomfiture, to push on out to the White Oak Road, or to turn altogether to the right and roll up the Confederate line as far as possible towards Petersburg, does not appear. This might properly be left to a subsequent decision. In this view, of course, everything depended upon Crawford’s prompt advance. There was still a third possibility of the situation, which was that Lee, feeling the heavy hand laid upon his line of supply, the Boydton Plank Road on which Hancock was now established, should assume the offensive and advance to strike the intruding force. This possibility, again, which was made a strong probability by the often and bitterly experienced audacity of the Confederates, rendered it doubly important that Crawford should lose no time in moving far enough forward to make connection with Hancock. On the first supposition, delay upon Crawford’s part might result in losing a chance of victory; on the second, in inviting defeat and disaster.
Promptly on being advised of the change of plan, Hancock opened communication with Crawford, in order to secure the communication and cooperation intended.
At 1.10, Major Bingham of his staff was despatched to find the position of Crawford, whose time of crossing is fixed by Badeau at 11.45, and discovered it to be then about three quarters of a mile from the extreme right of Hancock’s line. General Crawford was at a house which in his conversation with Major Bingham he designated as the Arnold house. General Crawford indicated upon the map a point which he expected soon to reach, whereupon he intended to throw his left around and connect with the right of the 2d Corps.
It will appear, then, that the responsibility of making the communication rested upon Crawford. Hancock, engaged with the enemy at Burgess’ Mill and holding a position of vital importance, was not to retire to join Crawford; Crawford was to come forward from the rear and place himself on Hancock’s right. At the same time Hancock did everything in his power to anticipate Crawford’s movements. He placed a brigade well out on his own right and caused skirmishers to be deployed further towards the right, to cover as much as possible the position where Crawford was already due to arrive.
While these dispositions were being made under apprehension of trouble on our right flank, the enemy, consisting mainly if not wholly of dismounted cavalry, were showing considerable activity on Hancock’s front and left. They dashed forward here and there with great spirit, and at one time sought to carry Beck’s four guns, only retiring when served with canister. To this Hancock was now determined to put a stop, and Egan was ordered to drive the enemy across the run, which was handsomely done by a charge of Smythe’s Brigade. Some of Smythe’s skirmishers from the 1st. Del. Vols., and the 108th N. Y. Vols., even crossed the stream, pushed through a swamp on the further side and reached the crest of the hill beyond, but were compelled to fall back for want of support. In thus pushing the enemy across the run, a gun with caisson was taken by Captain
In the successive advances up the Boydton Road, from the point where the 2d Corps, coming in from Dabney’s Mill, first struck it, Captain A. H. Embler, A. A. A. G. of the 2d Division, had been very conspicuous for the gallantry, intelligence, and address with which he directed the skirmish line.
Egan now held the bridge head and occupied our front with Rugg’s Brigade on the left, Smythe’s Brigade in the centre, and Willett’s Brigade, which had changed positions with Smythe’s during the latter’s charge, upon the right. Such was our front line. On the left, towards the White Oak Road, lay one of Mott’s brigades with a brigade of cavalry. On the right, Egan’s skirmishers were extended, well covering the ground which Crawford was to occupy on his arrival.
Now the enemy’s artillery, having been heavily reenforced, opened a terrific fire, making the whole space occupied by our troops alive with shot and shell. From the high ground across the bridge nine guns, as nearly as could be determined, poured fire upon Egan’s front; while from the left, out the White Oak Road, five more obtained a completely enfilading fire down his line and made use of this advantage with great skill. A little later the entertainment was to be still further varied by a fire directly from the rear up the Boydton Road; but at this time the enemy had not established themselves in Hancock’s rear.
So annoying was the enfilading fire obtained by the battery out the White Oak Road, that General Gregg was directed to capture or drive it away. A preliminary reconnoissance, however, satisfied that officer that the guns were protected by infantry in hastily constructed breastworks, and consequently he did not advance against them. Whether General Gregg’s conclusion was correct is not known positively; but the fact, says General Morgan in his narrative, that the veterans of
Mott’s Division, on picket duty on that part of the field, suffered an unusually heavy loss in their short and persistent skirmishing with the enemy, goes far to confirm Gregg’s impression, for dismounted cavalrymen were not apt to keep our men so busy.
I do not know that anything has subsequently appeared to strengthen General Morgan’s conjecture; while the stubbornness with which the Confederate cavalry had this day contested the advance of Egan up the Plank Road seems to me to rebut the presumption which General Morgan derives from the obstinacy with which the White Oak Road was held. I am disposed, therefore, to think that Gregg encountered only dismounted cavalry; but this cavalry was unquestionably largely superior to his in numbers.
Beck had at this time four of his guns in position to reply to the fire from across the run; and with these he maintained the unequal contest most gallantly, losing ten men, until relieved by Granger’s 10th Massachusetts Battery, to enable him to replenish his ammunition. Lieutenant Smith of the latter battery was first killed, and at a later hour Lieutenant Granger. One section of Beck’s Battery, under Lieutenant Metcalf, had been placed in position upon a secondary ridge, about half way between Mott and Egan, from which position it was able to reach, though at long range, the enemy’s battery towards the White Oak bridge. Pierce’s Brigade of Mott’s Division was in support of this section.
At this time Generals Grant and Meade were with Hancock in front of Burgess’ Mill on the Boydton Road. The appearance and action of the commander-in-chief are thus described by Badeau:(1) —
“Grant rode out into an open field to get a nearer view of the position, his own staff officers and those of Meade, with a crowd of orderlies, following. The number of horsemen made a conspicuous mark for the Rebel batteries, and the
(1) Vol. iii, p. 120.
“Officers of Meade and Hancock now came up to report the situation at the bridge; several of Grant’s own aides-decamp were sent to reconnoitre; and Hancock, who had been at the extreme front, also explained what he had seen. But the reports were conflicting; and it seemed as if no eyes but his own could ascertain exactly what Grant wanted to know. Calling to Colonel Babcock of his staff, he bade the others to remain where they were, and galloped down the road to within a few yards of the bridge, exposed not only to the enemy’s sharpshooters, but to the cross-fire of two Rebel batteries. The telegraph wires had been cut and the feet of his horse became entangled. Babcock was obliged to dismount and free them while the officers at the rear looked on in suspense and thought how many campaigns depended on the life that now was endangered. But the chief and his aide-de-camp rode on, till Grant could clearly discern the Rebel line, the condition of the country, the course of the stream, and the nature of the banks.”
The result of General Grant’s personal observations and the conclusion at which he arrived with reference to the situation as he discerned it are thus stated by Badeau, in immediate continuation of the paragraph just quoted:(1) “The Rebels were evidently in force north of the creek, with strong defences. Their intrenched line extended far beyond the point at which it had been supposed to turn to the north, and when the national army advanced, Lee had simply moved out and occupied the works already prepared. The contemplated movement was thus impracticable. The Rebel position could perhaps be carried, but only with extreme difficulty and loss of life, a loss which the advantage to be gained would not compensate, while, in the event of repulse, disaster might be grave, stretched out as the army
(1) Vol. iii, p. 121.
“Any serious rebuff or loss was especially to be deprecated at this crisis; the presidential election was only ten days off’, and the enemies of the nation at the north were certain to exaggerate every mishap. Success at the polls was just now even more important than a victory in the field, and it would have been most unwise to risk greatly on this occasion.
“Accordingly, when Grant returned from the bridge he gave orders to suspend the movement. Hancock was directed to hold his position till the following morning, and then withdraw by the same road along which he had advanced. This was at four o’clock, and Grant and Meade rode back to Armstrong’s Mill, supposing the connection between Hancock and Crawford to have been made.”(1)
I have given this long extract without abridgment, in order that it may be seen how completely it was due to General Grant’s own judgment that the further progress of the movement was suspended. Up to this time, certainly, no cause of complaint had been given by any of the officers concerned in the expedition. Hancock had moved with great promptness, and it had even been necessary to halt him, to allow other troops having a shorter distance to march to come up. Parke and Warren, on their part, had indeed taken much time to develop the enemy’s real line, and to obtain the information on which Grant and Meade could act; but it is not intimated that more time had been consumed in this way than was fairly involved in the nature of the country in which the operations took place. So that it comes to this, that the contemplated expedition to the South Side Railroad, October
(1) This statement is somewhat doubtful. A despatch from General Humphreys, chief of staff, to General Hancock, dated Hd. Q. A. of P. 4 1/2 P. M. says: “The road between here and your Hd. Quarters is still infested by small parties of the enemy’s cavalry or guerillas. Please have it heavily patrolled now and during the night.” (89 W. R. 380.) This looks as if it were understood that the connection with Crawford did not exist.
27, was really and virtually abandoned on the discovery that the enemy’s line was not incomplete between Hawkes’ and Dabney’s at the northeast and Hatcher’s Run on the southwest. It is true that, even after this discovery, tentative operations were initiated for turning the enemy’s right, by a movement across the run and up the course of the stream; but it is also true that this movement was voluntarily abandoned by General Grant. So that it may fairly be said that the expedition of October 27 was set on foot upon the belief of headquarters that the enemy’s line was not completed to Hatcher’s Run; and that, upon the discovery that this belief was erroneous, the expedition was abandoned.
And thus, so far as the designs and expectations of headquarters were concerned, the movement was at an end by four o’clock of the afternoon, Hancock’s withdrawal in the morning having been definitely ordered. But the events were yet to occur which should give the 27th of October a place, though not a chief place, among the red letter days of the war, since the vigilant and daring enemy, finding Hancock’s hand heavy upon his throat, was preparing behind dense woods to take the initiative, trusting to a single furious blow, of the sort so well known to the Army of the Potomac, to disconcert the intruding column and drive it back in disorder and disgrace.
It has been related that, upon receipt of the information that Crawford had been ordered to cross the stream and move up to Hancock’s support, the latter officer had, at 1.10 P. M., sent Major Bingham of his staff to open communication with the turning column, and that this officer had brought back the intelligence that Crawford was then about three quarters of a mile from Hancock’s right with the expressed intention of moving up and making close communication with the 2d Corps.
Meanwhile, being now in possession of the views of his superior officers, General Hancock deemed it important, for the security of his position, to seize the high ground beyond the run, and for this purpose directed General Egan (whose
division occupied the crest of the hill near Burgess’ Tavern) to make the necessary preparations for the assault, sending McAllister’s Brigade of Mott’s Division to him as a support. General Egan had everything in readiness for the attack; a section of Granger’s Battery had been thrown forward and had opened fire, and the advance of the assaulting party had already pushed down to the bridge, when a terrific volley of musketry, upon the right opposite Pierce’s Brigade, told that something startling was about to happen, and for the time put a stop to Egan’s movement.
Let us now explain the cause of this interruption. For an hour or more there had been firing at some distance upon the right, attributed to Crawford’s advance, yet of a nature to excite General Hancock’s apprehension; and, as a precaution, General Pierce had been instructed to send two regiments into the woods towards the firing to ascertain the cause. The regiments despatched were the 5th Michigan and the 93d New York, subsequently reenforced by the 105th Pennsylvania. The 1st United States Sharpshooters were still further deployed towards the right to reach out towards Crawford.
The volley we have mentioned resulted from the unexpected encounter of the 5th Michigan and 93d New York with a large force of Confederate infantry, which, under the command of General Harry Heth, had been despatched to meet Hancock’s column, now threatening Lee’s communications. A portion of this force, consisting of two brigades under Mahone and of McRae’s North Carolina Brigade, all under the personal direction of General Heth,(1) had crossed the run, be-
(1) General Heth in letter to General Hancock says: “I crossed just where my right rested on a dam I had previously built to back up the water towards the bridge at Burgess’ Mill; and, following an old blind wood-road, reached the point from which my attack on you was made, the result of which you know. I had no artillery in this attack; could not have gotten guns over the road referred to without much trouble and cutting away trees and brush.” Heth gives his force (attacking across the run) at “probably not less than 4500; certainly not exceeding 5000.”
Thus assailed, Pierce’s regiments stood up handsomely against the enemy in their front, but were speedily overlapped on both flanks and run over by superior numbers, so that they came back in confusion upon the remainder of the brigade, closely followed by the exulting enemy. The attack was made in such force and came so suddenly, that Pierce’s Brigade had no time to change front in order to make head against it, but was forced back to the Plank Road before it could reform. Lieutenant Metcalf had time to fire but a few rounds from his section before the enemy were upon him; he was himself wounded and captured with his guns. Flushed with this success, the Confederates made no delay, but rushed forward at the double quick towards the Plank Road, and as soon as their right had crossed it, faced to the left (south) and opened fire. The sight that now met their gaze must have been a pleasing one, for it promised a rich harvest.
The clearing in the angle between the Plank Road and the line of march of the Second Corps was filled with ambulances, led horses, artillery, and other impediments. But the victory was not to prove as easy as it promised. General Hancock, close at hand, exerted himself, with his staff, to form a line which should hold the enemy at the point they had gained, and as soon as possible to set a fire in their rear. Under his orders, De Trobriand’s Brigade which was so placed as to be in the most effective position for that purpose, advanced against Heth, while Pierce rallied his men along the Plank Road, and Roder’s Battery, extricating itself from the mass of ambulances, wagons, led horses, etc., came into action and opened fire, quickly supported by Beck’s remaining four guns, which had received some ammunition since being relieved by Granger. Colonel C. H. Smith’s cavalry brigade
was dismounted in haste and moved sharply up to take its place in line with De Trobriand’s, and Colonel M. Kerwin’s cavalry brigade, also dismounted, came handsomely into position on the other flank. Hancock threw himself with his staff between the two lines of battle to lead the charge. But while these preparations were making, a strange confusion was observed in the enemy’s ranks, some of their men facing about and firing to the rear, and in a moment more it was evident that their visions of spoils had faded, for they were making frantic efforts to escape. The cause of this sudden reverse is now to be explained.
At the first sound of the enemy’s attack on Pierce, General Hancock sent his senior aide-de-camp, Major Mitchell, to General Egan to direct him to abandon the assault against the heights on the north bank of the stream, and to face about and assail the enemy with his whole force.
When Major Mitchell reached General Egan, he found that gallant officer, with the instinct of a true soldier, already in motion to attack the force of the enemy in his rear. It was quite evident that in taking position on the secondary ridge and opening against Mott, the enemy were oblivious to the presence of Egan’s troops, and when he burst upon their right and rear with Smythe’s and Willett’s Brigades of his own division and McAllister’s Brigade of Mott’s Division, it must have been to them like a bolt from a clear sky. Egan swept down upon their flank in irresistible force and drove them in great confusion from the field, capturing two colors and nearly one thousand prisoners. When Major Mitchell attempted to return to General Hancock after having delivered his message to General Egan, he found the enemy in possession of the Boydton Plank Road. Hastily turning back and putting himself at the head of the 36th Wis. Vols., from Rugg’s Brigade of the Second Division, Major Mitchell advanced upon the enemy and drove them from the road, capturing about 200 prisoners and one color. The remainder
As soon as it was apparent to General Hancock that Egan had commenced his attack, he pushed forward De Trobriand’s Brigade of Mott’s(2) Division and Kerwin’s Brigade of dismounted cavalry. The repulse was assisted by a regiment of Mott’s Division led by Major Willian, Division Inspector, which advanced from the extreme right of our lines. It is evident, however, that Egan’s attack alone, under the circumstances, would have resulted in the complete overthrow of the enemy, and Egan well earned the brevet of major-general, which he received for that battle. He was seconded by two very reliable and excellent brigade commanders, Smythe and McAllister. The two guns of Beck,(3) under Lieutenant Metcalf, which had been run over and temporarily captured in the headlong rush of the Confederates from the woods,
(1) Colonel Rugg states the matter as follows: “Major Mitchell desired me to move my whole brigade in this charge, but I did not do it for the following reasons: 1st. I had just received orders, by a staff officer from General Egan, to hold the position I was then in, at all hazards. 2d. The enemy were continually threatening our left flank and front. 3d. The enemy on the road were not in force, but a disorganized body, and I considered that one good-sized regiment, charging down the road in line, would be as effectual as the whole brigade.” Lieutenant-Colonel Rugg was tried and convicted by court-martial and dismissed the service for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. (G. C. M. O. No. 45, A. of P. Nov. 17, 1864.) January 26, 1865, his disability, consequent upon dismissal, was removed. He did not, however, reenter the service.
(2) The regiments especially mentioned by General Mott are the 40th N. Y., 20th Ind., 99th and 110th Pa. The 17th Maine had previously been despatched to anticipate any movement of the enemy to seize the Boydton Road further down on the line of our communications.
(3) The temporary capture of these two guns, which were almost immediately retaken, and the rout of the Confederate column, is magnified in General Lee’s despatches to the Confederate Secretary of War into the capture of six guns which “could not be brought off, the enemy having taken possession of the bridge.” There was another reason why the only two guns which the enemy touched during the day were not brought off, viz.: that Heth’s three brigades, in order to get away from Egan’s troops, had to run faster than was consistent with hauling off cannon.
Nearly simultaneously with the enemy’s attack on Pierce, they commenced pressing heavily upon our left where Mott’s skirmishers were very sharply engaged, and a number of men and several valuable officers were lost. Egan had hardly succeeded in breaking the lines charged by him when General Hancock was obliged to send all of the dismounted cavalry (which had as before stated been used in assisting to repel the attack in front) back to General Gregg, who was attacked by cavalry under General Wade Hampton reported to number five brigades. Gregg met this attack with great resolution and succeeded in “standing off” Hampton, although he did not effect this until after dark.
General Hancock desired to send some infantry to aid Gregg but could not do so, as he momentarily expected a renewal of the fight in his front. The attack was not renewed by the enemy, nor did General Hancock assume the aggressive, although General Lee’s despatch to the Confederate Secretary of War, on the 28th, says:(1) “In the attack subsequently made by the enemy, General Mahone broke three lines of battle.” It is easy to conjecture who is responsible for the very large amount of poetry infused into General Lee’s despatches regarding the Boydton Road, namely the highly imaginative officer just mentioned. No such attack was made, and there were not three lines of battle in the Union front to be broken. It deserves to be stated that one of Gregg’s regiments, the 1st Maine Cavalry, Major S. W. Thaxter, was under orders to proceed home to be mustered out of service, but went into action voluntarily and behaved most handsomely.
Matters were a good deal mixed up on the field, at the period now reached. The enemy was in force in Hancock’s front, and their artillery was firing upon his troops from three
(1) 87 W. R. 853.
directions, in fact, from all directions excepting the narrow road on which the corps had marched from Dabney’s Mill and the Quaker Road, while Hampton had pushed so far up the Plank Road in our rear that his shot passed entirely over Gregg’s line into our front line of infantry, which was engaged in an opposite direction. Renewed efforts were made at this time to reach General Crawford’s right, by extending our skirmish line, but without success. Colonel Rugg’s Brigade, excepting certain regiments on the skirmish line, was drawn over to the right of the Plank Road, the infantry being mainly concentrated on that side in two lines of battle, in anticipation of a renewal of Heth’s attack from the woods which Crawford had been expected to occupy.
About five P. M. General Hancock despatched Major Bingham of his staff to communicate, if possible, with General Warren or Crawford, to explain the situation on the field and to state that, unless the 5th Corps moved up and connected with him he could not be responsible for the result. Unfortunately, Major Bingham was captured by the enemy, and thus, although he escaped immediately after dark, he failed to deliver his message. Strange to say, the firing at Boydton Road was not heard by General Warren, owing probably to the dense wood intervening and the skirmishing on his own front. About half-past five P. M. General Hancock was informed by General Meade that the signal officers reported the enemy still concentrating against him, and that his orders to remain until the following morning were unchanged.
General Meade was at that time unaware of the action which had taken place since he had left the field. The question of remaining all night or withdrawing had now become very important, and General Hancock’s soldierly feeling caused him to leave the decision of that matter to the army commander. Having moved in the morning by order without his reserve ammunition (which had been directed to be placed on pack mules to await the movement- of the 9th and 5th
Corps, in case of success, to be sent to General Hancock on the South Side Railroad), the conflicts of the day had so drained the amount on hand with the troops, as seriously to cripple them. This was particularly the case with the cavalry and artillery. The only communication with the main body of the army was by the one narrow road through Dabney’s Mill, and this was not only seriously threatened by the enemy, but the rain was rapidly rendering it almost impassable, so that it became a question of doubt whether the ammunition (which was thirteen miles in the rear) could possibly be brought up and issued in time for a fight in the morning.
Before the return of his staff officer, General Hancock was authorized by General Meade to withdraw during the night if he thought proper to do so, but was informed that Ayres’ Division of the 5th Corps had been sent to his support and was halted for the night at Armstrong’s Mill. General Meade further informed General Hancock that if he could attack successfully in the morning with the assistance of Ayres’ and Crawford’s Divisions, it was desired that he should do so.
It is evident that these instructions only added to General Hancock’s embarrassment and made him feel more reluctant to abandon his position. On him, however, was thrown the whole responsibility of deciding whether the reinforcements could be gotten up, and the needed supplies of ammunition for his own troops be brought up and issued in time for a battle at daylight; and yet these were matters which were in no degree under his control, and which, in the nature of the case, he could not even influence by any action he might take between night and morning. Certainly if no greater energy were to be displayed in getting ammunition and reenforcements during the night than had been displayed in pushing Crawford during the day, Hancock had reason to expect but little from this source. Moreover, General Meade sent word to General Hancock (by one of the latter’s staff) that if the principal part of the fighting the next morning was to be done
by Ayres and Crawford, it was not desired that they should be ordered up. Now it was quite certain that until the ammunition of General Hancock’s command could be replenished, Ayres and Crawford would be the main reliance, and as they would occupy the road leading back to the army all night, while moving up they would cause additional delay in the procurement of ammunition. Yet so much did General Hancock’s soldierly pride rebel against leaving the field without positive orders to do so, and especially after reinforcements (on paper) had been placed at his disposal, that he now decided to remain. He felt that General Meade had all the information necessary for him to decide the question, and that, if he would not assume the responsibility of directing him to withdraw, he (General Hancock) would remain on the field. He knew that if disaster overtook him in the morning, either through failure of Ayres and Crawford to get up in season, or because ammunition could not be procured, it might be said he was authorized to withdraw and that the mistake of not doing so was his; but, on the contrary, if it afterward appeared that the position could have been held, General Hancock might have been reflected upon for leaving the field. It is far from our design to charge or insinuate that General Meade sought to evade any part of his just responsibility in the matter. We are only endeavoring to show that General Meade was better able to form an intelligent opinion as to whether or not General Hancock’s outlying force could hold its position; and that in calling upon the latter to decide between the widely different lines of action where success or failure depended upon matters much more within the control of General Meade than of General Hancock, e. g. on the forwarding of ammunition and the march of the 5th Corps, he was placing the latter in a position of unusual embarrassment. General Hancock was, in short, called upon to make a very heavy sacrifice of that pride as a soldier, which he possessed in an eminent degree, by abandoning his dead and some of
his wounded and a portion of the fruits of his victory, or to assume the responsibility of staying upon the field to meet as he best could the almost certain attack of the enemy at daylight the next morning, in superior numbers, and at great disadvantage from lack of ammunition. As we have stated, he was for a long time unable to bring himself to the first course, but finally was forced to adopt it because, when Gregg’s conflict with Hampton was so far decided that Gregg could come back for conference, the commander of the cavalry force reported that he was nearly out of ammunition, and that, owing to intermingling of his regiments in the woods, together with the heavy rain and extreme darkness of the night, he could not issue ammunition(1) before daylight even should it arrive on the field before that time. This information coming from an officer so reliable and trustworthy as General Gregg, determined General Hancock to withdraw from the field without delay. He had then under his command the entire cavalry force of the Army of the Potomac, and he considered the risk of sacrificing it the next morning (for want of ammunition) too great to be assumed when such a disaster could be avoided by quitting the field that night.
It may be stated here that General Hancock’s advance at Boydton Road was within three and one half miles of the bridge on the South Side Railroad, and that that point could have readily been seized by Hancock’s troops had the 5th and 9th Corps carried the enemy’s works, or even held him in check during the day, as it was supposed they would do. The battle at Boydton Road occurred after the hour which would have allowed General Hancock ample time to reach the South Side Road had he not been halted by positive orders; but, as matters turned out, he certainly would have been overwhelmed had he proceeded to the railroad, since the
(1) It is to be noted also, as a matter of importance, that the cavalry were supplied with several different kinds of arms, which made it almost impossible to issue ammunition at night except under altogether favorable conditions.
General Hancock having decided to withdraw from the field, no time was to be lost to insure the safe execution of the movement. All the available ambulances were laden with the wounded, one hundred and fifty-five being removed, but as it was impossible for the ambulances to return to the field by the one narrow wood road on which the troops were to march, it was unavoidable that some of the wounded should be left behind.(1) So far as possible, in the darkness of the night, they were gathered into houses and barns, and a competent surgeon detailed to remain with them. At ten P. M. the order was given for the withdrawal to commence, and Mott moved out first, Egan following. The latter halted at Dabney’s Mill till after daylight to protect the withdrawal of Crawford’s Division of Warren’s Corps. He then joined Mott’s Division, which had massed and waited for him after crossing Hatcher’s Run, when both divisions returned to the lines in front of Petersburg. The pickets were withdrawn about one o’clock A. M. on the 28th, under the direction of General De Trobriand, corps officer of the day. By some oversight a force of about seventy men, comprising a detachment from the 1st Minn. Vols., Captain J. C. Farwell, commanding, and a detachment of the 36th Wis. Vols., Captain G. A. Fake, commanding, were left on the picket line until
1 Badeau (iii, 126) assails General Lee for reporting the capture of 400 prisoners. “Hancock,” he says, “distinctly declared that he lost no prisoners in battle.” I find no such statement in Hancock’s report, while the appended list of “missing” (87 W. R. 328 (BTC Editor’s Note: Should read 87 W. R. 238)) considerably exceeds the number of prisoners claimed by Lee. Many of the missing were doubtless killed or wounded; others, doubtless, turned up at a later date; but Lee’s claim appears, on the face of the record, not unreasonable. It would have been a wonder, indeed, if some prisoners had not been taken from Pierce’s Brigade as well as, in smaller proportions, from other brigades of infantry and from the cavalry, during the numerous movements and actions of the day.
the following morning. Though moving for some miles in the presence of the enemy, and frequently engaged with cavalry, this body of men got safely back to camp through the skill and bravery of the officers commanding and the discipline and good conduct of the soldiers.
Gregg marched off the field by the Quaker Road about half-past ten o’clock. General H. E. Davies’ Brigade, which had during the day, even when Gregg was hardest pressed, been held in reserve at the junction of the Quaker and Boydton roads on account of the vital importance of protecting our communications via the Dabney’s Mill Road, became the rear guard. General Lee, who was at Chaffin’s Bluff on the James, and appears to have obtained his information very roundabout, gives the following account of the cavalry withdrawal in his despatch to the Confederate Secretary of War, October 29:(1) “General Hampton followed the enemy on his withdrawal from Rowanty Creek, driving his rear guard across and pursuing the cavalry behind the line of the infantry. Several hundred prisoners were captured and the enemy burned some of their caissons and ambulances.” The closing statements are in every respect erroneous if they relate to anything done on the 28th, as they appear from their connection to do. They may, perhaps, be taken as highly colored statements regarding the 27th, one caisson having been abandoned, not burned but broken up, by Beck, on account of the loss of the horses. As to the withdrawal of our cavalry, the whole despatch is apocryphal. General Davies, who commanded the rear guard, says that he “retired without molestation;” had no engagement; sustained no losses; and did not even think it worth while ever to submit an official report of his “very small part in the action.”(2)
It is now known that the Confederates remained on the battlefield all night and heavily increased their force, with
(1) 87 W. R. 854.
(2) See 87 W. R. 629. — Ed.
the intention of attacking General Hancock on the morning of the 28th. It is evident, therefore, that had Hancock not withdrawn he would have had his hands full, even with replenished ammunition, and with Ayres’ and Crawford’s Divisions of the 5th Corps possibly on the ground.
It must be confessed that the general plan for seizing the South Side Railroad completely failed; and it is not difficult to see the cause for the failure of this and similar plans involving a threat against the enemy’s works by the bulk of the army and a flanking movement by a comparatively insignificant force. Experience was not necessary to demonstrate that any such movement was virtually making the identical arrangements which would have been made by the enemy could they have controlled the movements of both armies. It enabled them to realize the full worth of their intrenchments, by holding superior numbers in check with a comparatively small force, while they concentrated against the flanking column a sufficient force to buffet it back, or at least to cripple its advance.
A similar movement in the following February, in which Humphreys and Warren were engaged, failed for the same reasons. The grand turning movement inaugurated in the last days of the following March, and which terminated in the surrender of Lee, was based on much better reasoning and was in every respect a different operation. Instead of a small division of two thousand cavalry, Sheridan was there with what remained of the 10,000 sabres he had brought from the Valley, Gregg’s Division of the Army of the Potomac, and the cavalry of the Army of the James under McKenzie. Two entire corps of the Army of the Potomac were engaged in the turning manoeuvre, and the left was further strengthened by three divisions from the Army of the James. The 6th Corps also had at that time returned from the Valley.
But the relative proportions of the opposing armies, in the fall of 1864, was such that had the flanking column on the
Even as it was, had Crawford made any progress between the time he was first found by Major Bingham and the hour of Heth’s attack, the force thrust over the run could scarcely have escaped annihilation. Crawford, had he been on hand, would have had only to arrest them as prisoners. As it was, some two or three hundreds of Heth’s men, participating in the assault, strayed into Crawford’s hands.
It must be remembered that the attacking force, small as it was, comprised no inconsiderable fraction of Lee’s actually available infantry, so depleted was his long suffering army.
If we suppose Heth’s interposed column annihilated, as it should have been in the position in which it was caught, can we doubt that Meade would have concentrated enough troops on the Boydton Road during the evening and the night to have held the position against any force Lee could have brought against him; perhaps, even, have won a Five Forks victory in October, 1864, instead of April, 1865?
Why was Crawford not up on Hancock’s right? The excuse he gives is the nature of the country. I have not, in writing, the advantage of the text of Crawford’s own report;(1) but Badeau, who seems less disposed to Rhadamanthan severity in dealing with the officers conducting the Boydton Road expedition than is his wont when explaining the reasons for the successive failures or repulses of 1864, states the matter thus: —
“The denseness of the woods and the crookedness of the run caused great delay, as well as breaks in the line, and frequent changes of direction. There could be no guide to the movement but sound, and at one o’clock the troops on the eastern bank were ordered to fire, to show the position of the enemy’s line. Crawford, also, lost time by mistaking a branch of the stream for the creek itself, and he found great
difficulty in crossing the branch on account of the fallen timber cut by the enemy. His line of march had by this time led him into a very different position from that which he was expected to assume; the forest was of great extent; the men were losing themselves in all directions; and whole regiments, unable to find the remainder of the division, went astray. In this emergency, Warren ordered Crawford to halt, while he went back in person to consult with Meade.”(1)
This is Badeau’s explanation. As I have intimated, this usually remorseless judge of eastern officers is for some reason very tender on this occasion, and seems determined to blame no one, a most excellent principle of action, in general, where brave men may fairly be assumed to be doing their best, however many blunders they may commit through misadventure or misconception.
It may be interesting to pass to the Confederate side and see how the operations of the 27th of October were viewed there. I have in my possession a letter from Major-General Heth, commanding one of A. P. Hill’s divisions, and actually in command of all the troops opposed to Parke, to Warren, or to Hancock during the day. “The grave error of the day committed on your side, in my opinion,” says General Heth, “was that after crossing Hatcher’s Run and starting to march up, Crawford permitted himself to be stopped in [within] certainly half a mile or less of my right flank. Hearing a force was moving up the run on the west side, I hurriedly set about 50 or 75 sharpshooters to find out definitely what this force consisted of, and to delay it as long as possible. Mind: all this occurred in dense woods. Crawford, not knowing the smallness of the force opposed to him, formed line of battle, and, I was informed, commenced to intrench. Had he pushed on, my flank would have been completely turned and I would have been compelled to evacuate my works.
“About this time, or soon after Crawford’s movement was
(1) Badeau, iii, 119, 120.
checked, Mahone reported to me with two brigades of his division. Convinced now that Parke would make no serious assault, and Crawford remaining quiet, I withdrew one brigade, McRae’s, from my lines, and uniting it with Mahone’s two brigades, I crossed over the river with this force,” etc., etc.
While the 2d and 3d Divisions of the 2d Corps were engaged in the operations which have been described upon the Boydton Road, the 1st Division, under General N. A. Miles, was not idle. That enterprising and intrepid officer was not content to stand inactive, and although holding a line of works about three and one half miles in length, formerly occupied by Hancock’s three divisions, he sent a storming party against the enemy’s line near the “Crater” on the night of the 27th, capturing a small work, with two field officers and a number of men. The storming party consisted of a portion of the 148th Pa., Vols., led by Captain Jerry Brown of that regiment, and a gallant young lieutenant, Price, of the 116th Pa. Vols., then Acting Assistant Adjutant-General of Mulholland’s Brigade. Lieutenant Price was killed in the assault. The work was held for some time, but, as the movement was only intended as a diversion, the troops engaged were not strengthened, and when the enemy concentrated against them, they were obliged to retire. Captain Brown was recommended for a brevet for his fine conduct in this affair. A second attack on this same night resulted in the capture of a portion of the enemy’s picket line on the Jerusalem Plank Road. The attacking party in this instance was gallantly led by Colonel Burke of the 88th N. Y.
In concluding this description of the movement against the South Side Railroad, it is proper to state that when it was inaugurated General Hancock was informed that a force of 20,000 infantry would be given him for the operation, to be composed of troops from General Butler’s army in addition to those of his own corps; but when the final orders were issued
The following tabular statement(1) shows the casualties occurring to the cavalry, infantry, and artillery engaged at Boydton Road under General Hancock, and to Miles’ Division of 2d Corps engaged the same day in front of Petersburg.
(1) 87 W. R. 238.
(2) Effectives in battle : —
Union, 42,823, excluding 1st Division 2d Corps. Confederates, 20,324. Union loss, 1194 killed and wounded, 564 missing. Confederate loss not recorded. N. & L. 130. —Ed.
- Walker, Francis A. “The Expedition to the Boydton Plank Road, October, 1864.” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pp. 319-350 ↩