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NP: September 14, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 28: Hampton’s Great Cattle Raid

Hampton’s Great Cattle Raid

(The following is the twenty-eighth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. A hundred years ago this morning the great cattle raid, which injected some drama into a tragic and dreary business, was getting under way.)


If Stuart of the plume and sash had been alive in September, 1864, he might have appeared as something of an anachronism. Confederate morale remained much higher than the facts and the prospect would justify, but glamour had become a casualty of war.

Briefly glamour returned in the form of the great cattle raid.

Descriptions of it could be found in the reminiscences of veterans, but general writers on the subject formerly were likely to ignore or briefly dismiss the raid because it did not vitally affect the course of events. In recent years it has been rediscovered, so to speak, perhaps because of the element of dash and because Confederate soldiers were found successfully playing the role of cowboys.

The cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia was riding for beef rather than mere military information.

A scout, Sergeant George D. Shadbourne, had reported the presence of a large and well guarded supply of cattle at Coggin’s Point on the James River below City Point. With a 15-day supply of meat on hand for the army, Lee himself was the source of the suggestion of a raid to change the allegiance of the cattle.

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Some 4,000 mounted troops who had been patrolling in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Courthouse and Stony Creek moved out on the morning of September 14 under General Wade Hampton. Hampton, who fitted so perfectly the description of the southern plantation grandee, had organized and equipped the Hampton Legion of a thousand men. Transferred to the cavalry, he rose to become the successor to General J. E. B. Stuart. In contrast with some of the political generals whose usefulness always was surpassed by their influence, Hampton, despite his lack of formal military training, became an excellent commander.

Moving down the west side of Rowanty Creek, his raiders traveled around the rear of the Union army. Guns were muffled. There were no campfires or singing. They chose a route across the Blackwater where a bridge had been destroyed in order to avoid suspicion. They built a bridge of their own. Since the custodians did not intend to part readily with the cattle, Sycamore Church was chosen as the point of attack. Their keepers turned the cattle loose and fired pistols in the hope of provoking a stampede, but the Confederates proved themselves equal to the task of rounding up the animals. Then the Confederates derided the dispossessed enemy by bellowing.

The raiders brought home more than 2,400 cattle, more than 300 prisoners, most of whom were members of a telegraph construction party, and some not unwelcome blankets and other creature comforts. They burned three Union camps. In the two engagements which were fought they lost 61 men, including 10 killed.

Union gunboats on the James River got their range and fired on them as they started back but did not seriously impede their progress. As for the cattle, they stretched four or five miles, a truly welcome sight in the Confederate States of America in September, 1864.

Considerable official concern had been felt over the return of Hampton’s raiders, but they reached Petersburg on September 17 [1864]. More than a month later the Confederates were still eating beef from the Coggin’s Point supply.

A laconic Union general wrote in his diary on September 16 [1864]: “The Cavalry of the enemy, in large force, made a charge upon the main herd of cattle & drove off about 2,600 head. They escaped scot free.”

At City Point, Nurse [Cornelia] Hancock wrote: “We have about as much as we can attend to, keeping the Rebs from gobbling us up. Last evening they took a herd of cattle and a lot of cavalry men right at our door.”

Viewing a portion of the catch, Dr. Claiborne in Petersburg on September 18 [1864] entered a joyful note in one of his letters: “There is now in the street and on the common below my quarters 1,936 beef cattle—just captured by General Hampton in the rear of the Yankee army. It is one of the greatest sights I have seen during the war—nearly all of the same size and not a female among them. We captured 2,500 in all.”

To be sure, the great cattle raid did not affect the course of the campaign or of the war, but it gave the Confederate forces defending Petersburg a taste of the good things of life which were so abundantly available beyond the lines. More than that, there must have been great cheer in even momentary relief from the defensive role which circumstances had forced upon the Army of Northern Virginia.

The next great shelling of Petersburg was locally attributed to indignation over the loss of cattle. The cattle raid was credited with causing Grant to strengthen the fortifications at City Point and in his rear.

Two months later fate would confer a less abundant supply of cattle. Colonel Lyman of Meade’s staff wrote in one of his letters how cattle in an enclosure near Globe Tavern were seized by panic, burst out of confinement, and went running up the Halifax Road toward Petersburg, 40 strong.

At first the Confederate videttes and picketts [sic, pickets] thought they were being attacked. The next morning the first sight which greeted the Union pickets was “a squad of gray-backs comfortably cutting savory steaks from a fat beef, the quarry of their bow and spear.”1

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


  1. “Hampton’s Great Cattle Raid.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  September 14, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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