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NP: December 7, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 34: A Raid Down The Railroad

A Raid Down The Railroad

(The following is the thirty-fourth in a series of articles pertaining to the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. Today—in addition to being the anniversary of a much more recent and momentous event [Pearl Harbor]—is the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of a bitter if minor episode in the Petersburg campaign.)

In early December, 1864, there was a Union raid down the Petersburg Railroad (usually and not quite accurately called the Weldon Railroad, now a link in the Atlantic Coast Line) which is memorable chiefly because it demonstrated in so many ways the misery of war. The military results were negligible.

Grant in June [1864], a few days after failing to take Petersburg by four days of frontal attacks, had made an unsuccessful attempt to break the vital line a few miles below Petersburg. In August [1864] he accomplished that purpose, but the Confederates were still able to bring supplies to Stony Creek by rail and then on to Petersburg by wagon trains traveling country roads and the Boydton Plank Road.

To the Union high command it seemed to be a good idea to knock out more of the line. Then there were reports that a rail connection was being constructed between the Confederate end of the line and the east-west South Side Railroad. In view of the acute shortage of all railroad supplies in the Confederacy, the rumor was flattering.

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In any case, a force of 25,000 men—Warren’s V Corps, a division of the II Corps, and Gregg’s cavalry—started down the line on December 7 [1864] on a mission of destruction. Moving by an easterly route, they made a surprise attack on Stony Creek, where they took some prisoners and destroyed railroad property. In addition to the usual burning of ties and bending of rails, there was a “general smashing”, as one officer described it, of anything in sight. The raiders found enjoyment by tying down the safety valve of a locomotive and building a fire under it in order to blow it up.

The work of destruction continued to the Meherrin River, but opposition there prevented the raiders from crossing the river or destroying the bridge so they turned back. By December 10 [1864] the line had been put out of commission between Petersburg and the present Emporia.

There was some cavalry skirmishing, including yet another small-scale battle at much embattled Reams Station, but the Confederate infantry did not come to grips with the raiders. At Reams Station the Confederates had the satisfaction of capturing some supplies.

While the raids were in progress there were diversionary demonstrations along the lines at Petersburg. One of them, in the Hatcher’s Run area, materialized in a sharp skirmish. Union troops got within sight of the Boydton Plank Road and captured an unlucky Confederate mail carrier.

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No account of the December [1864] raid is likely to omit descriptions of the weather. Bad weather turned worse, into snow, sleet, rain and raw wind. Soldiers were drenched when the heat of their fires melted the sleet on the trees above them. A Florida Confederate made his companions more miserable by insisting upon talking about oranges, lemons, figs, and bananas.

On the Union side there were rumors that some stragglers had been killed, and their bodies mutilated, by people living along the way. There seems to have been no proof or documentation, but the rumors plus the discovery of supplies of applejack touched off an orgy of house-burning. Buildings in the vicinity of Hawkinsville were the worst sufferers. This has been described as the sharpest outbreak of sheer hatred in the whole Petersburg campaign. If the materials were available, the story would make an interesting case history in the nature and power of rumor.

Recording the suffering inflicted upon civilians, a Union officer, [Fifth Corps artillery chief] Colonel [Charles S.] Wainwright, wrote in his diary: “If this is a raid, deliver me from going on another.”

As far as the military result was concerned, Union forces did not carry the destruction as far down the line as they had hoped to do; the Confederates were disappointed that they had not stopped the expedition short of the Meherrin River or handled the enemy more roughly on the return trip.

And the lower portion of the Petersburg Railroad continued to run trains as far as possible.1

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


  1. “A Raid Down The Railroad.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  December 7, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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