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NP: June 23, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 15: The Most Sweeping Raid Of All

The Most Sweeping Raid Of All

(The following is the fifteenth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg.)


The June 21-23 [1864] Union infantry extension just south of Petersburg, which was blunted and pushed back, was part of a dual offensive. The other phase was a wide-ranging cavalry raid made by 6,000 troops under General Wilson of the Army of the Potomac and General Kautz of the Army of the James. The fact it lasted ten days may be offered as excuse for avoiding a play-by-play account.

There was nothing new about a cavalry raid. Such expeditions had become familiar in May [1864], well before Grant’s arrival, after Butler began sending out parties to break the railroads. But Wilson’s raid would be able to hold its own identity in history, as more ambitious and more dramatic. The arrival at City Point of hundreds of sets of rail-twisting irons bespoke the purpose of the business at hand.

A century ago today the large party had left camp at Prince George Courthouse and burned the station and torn up tracks at Reams Station, on the Petersburg Railroad. Then the cavalry divided into two parties which, operating at times separately and at times jointly, attacked both the South Side Railroad and the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Dinwiddie Courthouse, Five Forks, Sutherland Station, Ford’s Station and Burkeville—some of them places which would acquire still greater military repute in the months ahead—were on the itinerary.

Tracks, stations, freight cars, bridges, and culverts were of particular interest to Wilson and Kautz. Systematic methods were used to burn railroad ties and heat the rails so that they could be twisted into uselessness. Such details are reminders that the American Civil War, at Petersburg and elsewhere, was very much a railroad war. The damage inflicted was considerable and required some time for repair. All this zeal for destruction could be defended as legitimate business of war, but personal property in houses along the way vied with railroads for the attention of the raiders. The expedition was no picnic, however, for there were moments when the woods of Southside Virginia seemed to be filled with Confederates. At the Staunton River bridge, on the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, on June 25 [1864], the raiders were driven off by militia in a manner reminiscent of the June 9 [1864] defense of Petersburg.

The raiders could have congratulated themselves upon the work of destruction, without knowing that there was more to come. At Petersburg, Lee decided to set a trap for them upon their return, and accordingly he sent a force of infantry, light artillery, and cavalry to Reams Station. Wilson and Kautz expected on their return to find the station operating under Union management, as a result of the anticipated success of the infantry extension just south of Petersburg, but it was not so. They rode into a rout rather than a homecoming.

Attacked in front and on flank, Union cavalrymen who cut their way through the encounter near the station on June 29 [1864] were proud to have escaped. The last of the dispersed force force did not return to their base until July 2 [1864].

Confederates summed up the story by saying that Wilson and Kautz tore up the tracks and then tore down the roads. They took more than a thousand prisoners, the long supply train, many guns, and quantities of such non-military items as silver, clothing, furniture, and vehicles. About a thousand slaves, many of them dressed in the finery of their masters and mistresses and explaining that they had been compelled to accompany the raiders against their will, were abandoned. In the confusion Negro children and parents were separated. In Dinwiddie County there used to be residents who were said not to know their names or places of origin because as babies they had been left behind by the raiders in the first battle at Reams Station and had been reared by families in the vicinity.

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General Fitzhugh Lee asked for additional men to help gather up the recovered loot. Newspapers in Petersburg and Richmond began publishing lists of such personal property as jewelry, plate, and books in order that owners might come forward to claim them. One lot of silver did not require advertising or detective work. It was the communion service of St. John’s Church, Cumberland Parish, Lunenburg County.

It should be recorded that some Union sources, military and civilian, objected to this kind of warfare almost as strongly as did the Confederates. Union generals in the “old army” tradition usually wanted no part of such conduct. Meade raised objections, but he may have been satisfied by Kautz’s explanation that plundering was inevitable when small parties of men were detached for subsistence and forage.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “The Most Sweeping Raid Of All.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 23, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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