Wade Hampton and his cattle-rustling Rebels find the beef.
Since ancient times, men have stolen each other’s cattle. They’ve done it for various reasons: greed, hunger, adventure and—as in the case of the old border Scots—prestige. In the Old West, cattle rustling was elevated to a fine art, involving brand manipulation and “mavericking”—the proverbial “long rope and a hot iron.” In Wyoming Territory, it precipitated a murderous invasion of cattle barons, with the support of the Army and the president of the United States behind them. But rarely has anyone shone a more blatant display of nerve, skill and determination as General Wade Hampton and his force of Rebel rustlers.
Wade Hampton, the third in as many generations to bear the name, was descended from an illustrious military family. His father, a wealthy South Carolina planter, had served with distinction as Andrew Jackson’s aide during the Battle of New Orleans; his grandfather was a lieutenant colonel of cavalry during the Revolutionary War and a brigadier general in the War of 1812. In his youth, Wade III was reputed to go off bear hunting armed only with a knife—legend has it he slew some 80 bears in this manner.
As a young man, he followed another family tradition and won a seat in the state legislature. When his state seceded, Hampton enlisted as a private in the South Carolina militia, but the governor commissioned him a colonel. He raised his own unit—Hampton’s Legion—with six infantry and four cavalry companies as well as a battery of artillery. By the war’s end, he had served as J.E.B. Stuart’s senior subordinate, and as commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia upon Stuart’s death. Known for his behind-the-lines raids, he built a reputation as one of the South’s boldest and most brilliant cavalrymen.
By September 1864, things were going badly for the South. The ugly war of attrition that saw 30 miles of Union trenches stretching from Richmond to Petersburg was in its third month—supplies of every type were running low and the army was hungry. Then on September 5, a Confederate scout, Sergeant George D. Shadburne, mentioned in his report that some 3,000 cattle—destined for consumption by Union troops—were penned at Coggins Point, Va., a mere five miles from Ulysses Grant’s headquarters, and guarded by only 120 soldiers and 30 unarmed civilians. General Robert E. Lee had been pressuring Hampton to attack the enemy’s vulnerable rear, and Hampton saw this as a perfect opportunity to both harass the Yankees and provide much-needed food for the troops. When Hampton informed Lee of his plan, Lee gave his approval, but voiced his concern: “The only difficulty of importance I see to your project is your return.”
The plan would take Hampton almost completely around the Union forces—a ploy used successfully by his late commander, Stuart. Hampton assembled a force of some 3,000 troops, including Maj. Gen. W.H.F.“Rooney” Lee’s division, Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser’s and Brig. Gen. James Dearing’s brigades and “several certified Texas cattle thieves.” He also reportedly brought along some shepherd dogs to help herd the cattle.
Hampton led off on the morning of September 14, riding southwest around the Union left flank on the Boydton Plank Road toward Dinwiddie Court House, then swinging southeast toward Stony Creek Station and Wilkinson’s Bridge on Rowanty Creek, where the troops camped for the night. Early next morning, they quickly swung northeast past Ebenezer Church to where Cooke’s Bridge had once spanned Blackwater Creek. The Yankees had burned the bridge, and Hampton accurately predicted the enemy would not expect a force from this direction. He ordered the bridge swiftly rebuilt, and by midnight his force had crossed the creek and come to within 10 miles of Coggins Point and the cattle.
At this point, Hampton divided his force in three. As he later wrote, he “selected Sycamore Church…as the point to attack, as being the most central, the nearest to the cattle, and the one where the largest force of the enemy was camped. By dispersing them here I made it impossible for them to concentrate…in time to interfere.” He sent Lee off to the left to provide protection from the Union forces closest to Petersburg; Dearing was to ride to the right, “proceed to Cook’s [Cocke’s] Mill” and await the center column’s attack on the cattle camp. Rosser was ordered to drive up the middle to Coggins Point, neutralize any Federal resistance, and capture the herd.
At 5 a.m., Rosser moved out first, surprising troops of the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry under Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz. The Union soldiers were armed with new Henry repeating rifles but were caught off guard. Rosser captured more than 300 men—including “the greater portion of the officers of the regiment”—and commandeered their fancy new rifles. He then encountered stiffer resistance from the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, who were guarding the herd, but blew past them as well, and— pressing into service some non-combatant drovers—rounded up the herd and began the drive back to the Confederate lines.
Within three hours it was all over. Hampton had planned well; Lee’s and Dearing’s men provided cover for Rosser and the cattle as they retraced their route around the Union Army. Once they had gathered their wits, the Yankees gave chase, but despite a worthy effort were too few to accomplish much, aside from reclaiming “some fifty head of cattle left on the road.” After re-crossing the bridge over the Blackwater, Hampton’s men disassembled it, further foiling Union pursuit.
The raiders, meanwhile, were delighted with their recent acquisitions—the civilian drovers as well as the cattle. “The Federal herders of the cattle proved very useful,” wrote one of the Rebels, “and served their new masters as well and apparently as readily as if these had been their original employers. When the oxen became troublesome, showing an inclination to stray into the fields and make delay, the herders, cracking their long lashes, sounding like pistol-shots, would quickly bring them back, though it must be confessed a trooper always rode alongside…to insure loyalty.”
“The command returned to their old quarters after an absence of three days, during which they had marched upward of 100 miles, defeating the enemy in two fights, and bringing from his lines in safety a large amount of captured property, together with 304 prisoners,” Hampton summarized in his report to Robert E. Lee. “Of the 2,486 cattle captured 2,468 have been brought in, and I hope [to] get the few remaining ones. Three guidons were taken and eleven wagons brought in safely, several others having been destroyed. Three camps of the enemy were burned, after securing from them some very valuable stores, including quite a number of blankets. My loss was 10 killed, 47 wounded, and 4 missing.” Hampton took one of the Henry repeaters for his own use, carving his name in the stock.
Shortly after the raid, a reporter allegedly asked General Ulysses Grant when he anticipated defeating General Lee. “Never, if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle,” Grant replied. Grant later referred to the raid as “a fair capture,” and noted the cattle “were sufficiently needed by the Confederates.” President Lincoln reportedly called it “the slickest piece of cattle stealing” he had ever heard of.
In 1966 Hollywood produced a film based on the Beefsteak Raid. Alvarez Kelly starred Richard Widmark as the Rosser character and featured William Holden as a Mexican-Irish rancher forced to help the Rebels rustle the Yankee cattle. Despite its dramatic plots and subplots, the movie is a pale imitation of the actual raid, which not only supplied the Southern troops with much-needed food, but boosted Southern morale as well. For months to come, Rebel soldiers would taunt the foe across the picket lines by offering them beefsteaks—or simply mooing.
Historian Ron Soodalter is also a flamenco guitarist, scrimshander and folklorist.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.