Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
GEN. WADE HAMPTON’S CATTLE RAID NEAR CITY POINT IN 1864.
Dr. William B. Conway, Corporal Co. C, Fourth Regiment Va. Cavalry, Athens, in The Atlanta Journal.
It is sometimes very difficult for us old Confederates after a lapse of nearly 40 years, when relying upon our memories to locate ourselves, or in other words, to remember where we were during the months and years spent in the army with Mars Robert in Virginia, late years I have met but few old soldiers who could not recount to you some harrowing scene, or close call, witnessed by them during the Civil war. Histories are interesting reading to most of us, but personal reminiscences are enjoyed much more keenly by our comrades as well as the reading public generally. The former deals in facts, the location and movements of the army, battles, casualties and so on. But each soldier tells of his toils, sorrows, joys, narrow escapes, prison life, and many other matters of importance to the historian. For many days after a fight or a raid we would gather together in small groups and relate in detail our experiences; producing roars of laughter at times, and again sadness and sorrow. Nearly every company had its wag, and sometimes under the most serious and trying circumstances he was wont to crack jokes and cheer those around him of a nervous temperament. While we were on the firing line near Spotsylvania court house, on the 6 of May, 1864, and under a terrific fire from Warren’s corps our ammunition gave out, just then one of my company came running in from the rear with a new supply of cartridges (we were fighting on foot), and jumping behind a tree on the line he yelled out, “Come on, boys, and draw your blue mass pills.”
Private Smith was always late. When the company bugle sounded “mount,” Smith was always the last man to fall in. On one occasion one of the company asked Smith where he was during the charge. He promptly replied, “My saddle girth came unfastened.”
One afternoon our brigade was down on the York river; I think it was in July, 1864. We were near the white house and could plainly see the gunboats on the river. The intense heat from the sun, together with the muddy water we had to drink, made many of us sick. As we fell back that afternoon towards Richmond the Yankees followed us, keeping up a brisk carbine fire. My company was one among those guarding the rear, and consequently threw us in close proximity to the enemy. I became so sick that I could scarcely ride, and would occasionally dismount, lie down on the grass and rest until I was admonished by Lieut. Carpenter to mount, that the Yankees were upon us. Had it not been for the kindness and protection of the lieutenant, my capture would have been certain.
Did you ever have cholera morbus? Out in the broiling sun, no water and no medicine, you may know I suffered. So much so, indeed, that I thought very little and cared less about a northern prison. We finally came to a stream of water where the lieutenant filled my canteen and we again rested for a short while. After dark we overtook the regiment where it bivouacked for the night. Most of the drinking water procured by us on this march was from wells along the roadside. We would tie on the chain from a long pole or sweep 25 or 30 canteens and the water being drawn from the well so rapidly and in such quantity that it became too muddy and impure for health, and still it was the best and only water we could get.
Our horses often suffered for water. The following day I got permission to go to a hospital in Richmond. I rode into the city some time during the day, having no idea of going to a hospital. In a short time I was with my brother, Catlett Conway, who had been severely wounded in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, and was then doing light duty with Gen Kemper, who was also wounded at the same time and place. I walked bout the city with him, got a good dinner and felt better. At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon I informed my brother that I had a longing desire to go home and that I intended to do so, notwithstanding my weakness. He begged me not to do so, and stated that it would be impossible for me without a pass to get out of the city. I told him that the resources of a cavalryman were many and that I would risk it for the sake of being with my home folks again. It was 90 miles to my home at the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge mountain, and where I knew that the cool breezes and pure water would hasten my recovery. I bade him good-bye and mounting my horse rode out on the Mechanicsville turnpike. Passing the river line of pickets who did not question my right of way, I continued northward. A few hundred yards farther on up the pike I discovered the outer picket post. I had nearly reached them with no pass and no good reason why I should be allowed to pass out. Just then I heard a noise behind me, and glancing backward toward the city I saw eight or ten wagons coming. I let these wagons and teamsters pass me except the last one. I halted him and asked where they were going and if they had a sergeant in charge of the teams. He replied that they were going up into Hanover county for corn, and that the sergeant was on behind somewhere and would be along later. A ten dollar bill brought him to a standstill and I was, for the time, sergeant of the wagon train. I tied my horse to the hind gate of the wagon, jumped in and laid down on the hay. We soon arrived at the picket post and the question was asked, “Is that the sergeant in charge?” The teamster replied in the affirmative, when we drove rapidly ahead, overtaking the other wagons at a large spring up the road a few miles, where we went into camp and spent the night. We sent out into the neighborhood that night and bought milk, butter, eggs and ham and all hands enjoyed a sumptuous supper and breakfast. I left the next morning, flanked the pickets at Gordonsville and about midnight reached home safely, but tired and worn out. After I recovered I hastened back to the command just in time for several small skirmishes and also a severe cavalry engagement at Nance’s shop in Charles City county, Va., on June 24, 1864, where several of the company were wounded. From there we went over on the south side of James river, in the neighborhood of Petersburg.
After a fight near Ream’s Station1, while my regiment was returning through a dense clump of pines, I noticed a dead horse lying a short distance from the narrow road on which we were passing. Leaving the command I rode to the horse, dismounted, rapidly unbuckled the girth on a brand new number eleven McClellan saddle, discarded my old one, which had served me well for nearly two years, and replaced it with the new one. Our baggage, with the exception of an oil cloth, was very scarce in those days, so I had but little to transfer.
When we bivouacked that night I took an inventory of my Yankee outfit. I found tied up behind the saddle in an oil cloth a nice blanket, two shirts, a razor, soap, hair brush and comb, a pair of patent leather shoes and a small Bible. The shoes fit me to a dot and I danced them out at a few balls during the fall months. The Bible—well, I gave that to my sister, Mrs. James L. Davis, near Raccoon Ford, Culpepper county, Va.
After the death of Gen Jeb Stuart on the 12th of May, 1864, at Yellow Tavern, General Hampton became the commander of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Soon after Gen. James H. Wilson’s raid on the 21st of June, 1864, and the Nance’s shop fight on the 24th, I left the command and did not join them again until Fitz Lee’s division went into the valley, some time in August or September.2
Now comes the “cattle raid.” This raid is familiar to many of Hampton’s old command, but there were other bodies of cavalry not under his immediate command, and I am sure that all of our old soldiers will be glad to have an account of it. Therefore, for the benefit of all who may be interested in this [most] famous of all raids, I shall quote from “Well’s Hampton and his Cavalry in 1864.” This was considered one of the most daring and dangerous raids made by any cavalry commander during the Civil war, and hence deserves more than an ordinary notice. I am sorry that I was not with them. Mr. Edward L. Wells has given us such an accurate and entertaining account of the raid that I therefore reproduce that part of his book and in his own language. He says:
“Near Coggins’ Point, on the James river, less than five miles east of City Point and opposite to Westover, was a large herd of cattle belonging to the Army of the Potomac, and in order to locate these cattle, Hampton employed trusty scouts. On the morning of the 14th of September Hampton moved out upon the expedition from his position south of Petersburg. He took with him W. H. F. Lee’s division. Rosser’s and Dearing’s brigades and 100 men from Young’s and Dunnovant’s brigades. He marched as far as Lilkinson’s bridge and bivouacked for the night. Making an early start the next morning, bearing nearly north, reached during the day Cook’s bridge on the Blackwater river. This brought him south of Coggins’ Point and only about ten miles from where he intended to break through their picket guards. After constructing a bridge, and about midnight, he crossed the river.
Sycamore church was about two miles ahead and the largest detachment of the enemy to the herd of cattle were near it. To the right and left of this point were smaller bodies of Federals. Rosser was assigned the central attack, after accomplishing which he was to proceed to appropriate and carry away the prospective beefsteaks.
“W. H. F. Lee’s division was to drive away the force to the left and it was entrusted the task of holding the roads from City Point. Dearing was near Sycamore church, and when he heard the firing there, was to dash into and demolish a post about three miles from Fort Powhatan on the James, and hold the roads leading to the fort to prevent attack from that quarter.
“At 5 o’clock a. m. General Rosser attacked. The vidette was driven, but the main body, a regiment, the First District of Columbia cavalry, rallied behind barricades in very good style. However, Rosser lost no time, but made short work of them, annihilating the regiment—all not killed, wounded or captured, making off in every direction, spreading consternation throughout the neighborhood and [sic] exaggerated account of the numbers of the raiders.
“As soon as W. H. F. Lee’s and Dearing’s people heard the firing they commenced their part of the programme, dispersing or riding down everything they met. They then held the roads, as directed, thus preventing assistance being sent to the central post, and drove away or took all the couriers whom they could lay hands on. Rosser sent forward a detachment to secure the cattle, which they quickly did, overpowering the guard of 120 men and herdsmen. Many horses were also taken, 11 wagons, three flags and the beeves, numbering 2,468. Three camps were burned, a considerable quantity of valuable stores and blankets carried off, and more destroyed. All this was no easy matter, but it was thoroughly done in a businesslike manner without undue haste yet without loss of time. Everything had been well arranged before hand, and was carried out without a mistake. The troopers became for the occasion amateur cowboys, and good ones, too. The Federal herders of the cattle proved very useful, and served their new masters as well and apparently as readily as if these had been their original employers.
“when the oxen would become troublesome, showing an inclination to stray into the fields and make delay, herders, cracking their long lashes, sounded like pistol shots, would quickly bring them back, though it must be confessed a trooper always rode alongside with a handy weapon to insure loyalty.
“But everything ran smoothly and the sight would have gladdened the heart of a Highland chieftain of the olden time, but his best lift would have been insignificant compared to this. While all of this was going on in the most cheerful manner for the raiders, the greatest consternation and bewilderment were prevailing at Federal headquarters.
“By pre-arrangement with General Lee a demonstration was made along the line of his army, bodies of troops were moved about as though a general attack would be made.
“Federal headquarters made the wires hot with telegrams and couriers were sent galloping for dear life with dispatches. General Grant was temporarily absent at Harper’s Ferry consulting with Sheridan, then in the Shenandoah Valley, but he had a very unpleasant quarter of an hour. And poor Kautz, such of his cavalry as had been met by Hampton having been demolished and sent scurrying in all directions. Kautz sent a message that he has information Hampton’s force is 14,000(!) strong. ‘Trusty citizens’ report and [sic] immense force. Meade estimates 6,000. Humphries chief of staff, informs Kautz that he can reinforce him with a division of infantry and a battery of artillery, but by that time the bird had flown. The alarm really became almost pathetic.
“Hampton retired toward the Blackwater river and before reaching the stream had reunited all the portions of his command and then quietly crossed. Rosser held the Jerusalem [p]lank-road about 13 miles south of Petersburg. Here he was attacked by Gregg and Kautz, but easily repelled them. So he held the road and cattle were sent 2 miles in the rear to the south and were safely got across the Nottoway river at Freeman’s ford and all brought ‘home.’ That night, and for many a day afterwards, there were plenty of sardines and other canned food, pickles and many things esteemed luxuries by poor fellows who had eaten nothing but bacon and flour, and too little of that, for months past. They had marched 100 miles in three days. The prisoners captured amounted to 304 and Hampton’s losses were 10 killed and 47 wounded and missing.
“Grant in a dispatch to Meade calls the capture ‘a rich haul,’ and so they were. Those 2,468 beeves were a Godsend to the army—“Hampton’s Steaks,” as they were termed. They were fine, large oxen.
“On returning to his headquarters Hampton received a note from General Lee in which he writes:
“I have received your report of the result of your operation and beg to express my high appreciation of the skill and boldness you have displayed, and my gratification at your handsome and valuable success. You will please convey to the officers and men of your command my thanks for the courage and energy with which they have executed your orders , by which they have added another to the list of important services rendered by the cavalry during the present campaign.’
Mr. Wells gives the credit of locating the beeves to Sergeant Shadbourn [sic, Shadburne], of the Jeff Davis Legion. Sergeant Hogan, in charge of Butler’s Scouts also did excellent service.
As long as the beef lasted I am sure that our men enjoyed the fresh meat. Now, let’s see about how long it lasted, allowing one pound of beef per day to the man. For the sake of round numbers, say that there were 2,500 cattle at 1,000 pounds to the steer, which gives us 2,500,000 pounds of meat, and at 10 cents per pound you can see that Uncle Sam furnished the Confederates the sum of $25000. Assuming that General Lee had 50,000 men around Petersburg, and dividing 2,500,000 pounds by 50,000 it gives us fifty days in which to consume all of the beef at one pound per day to the man, making nearly two months that our troops enjoyed Hampton’s beefsteak. In my last article, in speaking of Sherman’s wanton destruction of property in South Carolina, I inadvertently wrote Charleston, when I intended Columbia.3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The First Battle of Ream’s Station occurred on June 29, 1864. Conway could be talking about this battle, or he could also be referring to one of many skirmishes which occurred in the vicinity of Ream’s Station throughout the early portion of the Siege of Petersburg. He’s not detailed enough here to know for sure. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Fitz Lee’s cavalry division left Lee’s army on August 8 and reached the Shenandoah Valley on August 18, 1864. ↩
- “Gen. Wade Hampton’s Cattle Raid Near City Point in 1864.” The State (Columbia, SC). October 5, 1902, p. 5 col. 1-3 ↩