With Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stubbornly
clinging to Petersburg,Ulysses S. Grant decided to cut its
vital rail lines. To perform the surgery, he selected one of
the North’s proven heroes– ‘Hancock the Superb.’
By Bruce A. Trinque
General UIysses S. Grant had hammered and probed the defenses of Petersburg, Virginia, for the past four months, ever since the finish of the bloody Overland campaign that took the Union Army of the Potomac from the tangled woods of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania to the deadly fields of Cold Harbor. Then, in a skillful maneuver in mid-June 1864, Grant had slipped away to cross the James River and strike at Petersburg, through which passed the vital supply arteries that kept alive General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capital at Richmond.
Despite the unaccustomed advantage of surprise, the weary Union soldiers of the Army of the Potomac and their comrades of the Army of the James were unable to overcome the city’s defenses by quick assault. Only once, in late July, when a huge mine was exploded beneath a Confederate salient, did Grant attempt to directly breach the Petersburg lines. But the ensuing Union attack was badly bungled, and the Battle of the Crater ended with a crushing Federal repulse.
Repeatedly, however, Grant sent forces to the south and west in efforts to push past the Confederate right flank and capture
the roads and rail lines that carried the Rebels’ vital food and munitions. Each time, the Army of Northern Virginia struck back hard at the probing Union columns and stopped them before their objectives could be achieved. Yet each failed attempt stretched the Confederate defenses longer and thinner, and gradually the supply lines were cut. Now, as autumn settled over Virginia, only the Southside Railroad and the Boydton Plank Road west of Petersburg remained securely in Confederate hands.
In late October, Grant told Maj. Gen. George Meade, field commander of the Army of the Potomac, to undertake a “formidable movement” to seize the Southside Railroad. Success there would essentially force Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond and would be an added boost to Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for re-election as president in early November, coming as it would on the heels of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek in the Shenan-doah Valley.
Meade quickly put together his plan. The IX Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, was to launch a surprise attack at the right of the Confederate line, where, it was believed, entrenchments were incomplete and lightly manned. These fieldworks were thought to extend southwest to Hatcher’s Run, a long creek that ran mostly northwest to southeast and was crossed at several points by fords or bridges. Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, with his V Corps, would move simultaneously with Parke. If, as expected, the IX Corps broke the Confederate line, Warren was to immediately move on the enemy. If Parke’s attack did not succeed, the V Corps would instead cross Hatcher’s Run, then march farther west before recrossing the run above the Boydton Plank Road bridge to attack eastward and come up behind the defending Confederates.
In either case, the primary strike against the Southside Railroad was in the hands of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who would have two divisions of his own II Corps and one division of cavalry, led by Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg. Meade’s plan called for Hancock to cross Hatcher’s Run at the Vaughan Road ford, then advance several miles west and finally recross Hatcher’s Run to seize the railroad. In addition, north of the James River, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler would put his troops in motion to prevent Lee from dispatching reinforcements to Petersburg.
The Union high command’s notion of local geography was imprecise, with most of their information about Confederate defenses near Hatcher’s Run coming from enemy deserters. Much of the ground over which Parke, Warren and Hancock were to attack was heavily wooded, traversed only by narrow roads unsuited for rapid movement. Parts of the terrain were considered to be even worse than the notorious Wilderness, where Grant and Lee had first met in combat in early May.
Hancock, named after the premier American military hero of the first half of the 19th century (Winfield Scott, who was born in 1786 near Petersburg), deserved his popular sobriquet, “Hancock the Superb.” He had repeatedly demonstrated conspicuous bravery and a cool decisiveness in battle, winning the admiration of both his men and his superiors. He had risen rapidly from brigade to division to corps command, and was widely supposed to be a possible successor to Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac.
Previously in Grant’s campaign against Lee, Hancock and his famed II Corps had been repeatedly called upon to plunge into the very worst of the fighting. Losses had been terrible. At the beginning of May 1864, the II Corps numbered 30,000 officers and men. Casualties since then had topped 26,000 killed, wounded or missing. Massive reinforcements flowed in to make up for some of the losses, but the damage to the II Corps could not be measured by numbers alone. The new men in the ranks were for the most part inexperienced, and many were bounty men or draftees, distrusted by the surviving combat veterans. One of Hancock’s division commanders wrote that the “bravest and the most efficient officers and men were those who fell; it is always so.”
On the Jerusalem Plank Road in late June, a sudden Confederate flank attack on Hancock’s corps had resulted in the capture of more than 1,700 men, taken with little fight. Two months later at Reams’ Station, during an effort to destroy the Weldon Railroad, Hancock was attacked again in an inadequately entrenched position. One division collapsed under the Confederate assault, and another cowered behind its fieldworks, refusing to counterattack to retake the lost trenches. Appalled and shamed by the conduct of his men, Hancock said to one staff officer, “I do not care to die, but I pray to God I may never leave this field.” More than 2,000 II Corps soldiers were taken prisoner. By order of their division commander, with the concurrence of Hancock and Meade, three regiments that had lost their flags–the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, 164th New York Infantry and 36th Wisconsin–underwent the ultimate public mark of dishonor for a Civil War unit: They were forbidden to bear colors until, by subsequent conduct in battle, they should again earn the right.
If Hancock felt any fear for the safety of his command during the proposed maneuver against the Southside Railroad, he expressed it only in his request to change the composition of his force. Meade had directed that his 3rd Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott, be left behind to man the lines in front of Petersburg. Hancock asked that Mott accompany him, keeping Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles’ 1st Division in the trenches instead. He explained that this latter unit contained a “very large proportion of conscripts and new men and fewer experienced subaltern officers,” and that Mott’s division “would perhaps be more effective in the field.” Meade immediately granted Hancock’s request.
Before daybreak on the morning of October 25, Mott’s 3rd Division and the 2nd Division, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Egan, were quietly withdrawn from the trenches. The next day they marched to a point on the Weldon Railroad, ready to head toward Hatcher’s Run and the Southside Railroad early the next morning. Meanwhile, the V and IX corps and Gregg’s cavalry division also made preparations for movement. All troops would carry four days’ rations, along with 60 rounds of ammunition; 40 more rounds were to be transported in ammunition wagons. To limit congestion on the narrow woodland roads, no baggage or headquarters wagons would be taken, and only half the full number of ambulances.
At 3:30 a.m. on October 27, about two hours before daylight, Hancock’s two infantry divisions started out toward the Vaughan Road and Hatcher’s Run. Simultaneously, Parke’s IX Corps began its advance toward the Confederate line of entrenchments. Warren and the V Corps moved out half an hour later in support.
Parke’s troops quickly lost the element of surprise when the accidental discharge of a musket prematurely alerted a Confederate outpost. Soon afterward, the Rebel skirmish line was encountered and driven back into the fieldworks shielding the Boydton Plank Road. Although Meade had expected the IX Corps to move and attack vigorously, Parke now ordered “a careful reconnaissance to be made of the line of the enemy’s works, with a view of finding some weak point where I could attack with reasonable prospect of success.” No weak point was found, and Parke satisfied himself with extending his line to make connections on both flanks before entrenching.
Warren also found progress difficult. He had not wanted to move before daybreak in the first place, but a sharp telegram from Meade ordered him to start out at 4 a.m. In the darkness and with rain beginning to fall, parts of the command soon got mixed up and lost cohesion. Not until it was light enough to see did the V Corps’ column finally begin to move into the woods beyond its entrenchments. Obstructions placed across the road by the Confederates further delayed the advance. Trying to keep to the prescribed route, Warren laboriously cut a new road through a half-mile stretch of timber. Brigadier General Charles Griffin deployed skirmishers and advanced one brigade of his division into the woods east of Hatcher’s Run until they ran into a strongly held line of Confederate entrenchments.
When Grant and Meade arrived on the scene at about 9 a.m., they saw that neither Parke nor Warren would be able to push through the Confederate entrenchments with a direct thrust as they had expected. Meade now ordered Warren to execute the backup plan, sending part of his command westward across Hatcher’s Run to link up with Hancock. At the same time, Warren directed Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford to take his V Corps division across the run at Armstrong’s Mill and follow its bank upstream until he could recross and take the Confederate line from the flank.
Although Hancock was also delayed by road obstructions, his lead unit, Egan’s 2nd Division, was able to press quickly enough along the Vaughan Road to reach the ford across Hatcher’s Run shortly after daylight. A small Confederate fieldwork on the far side of the run guarded the crossing, its approaches made difficult by trees felled in the waist-deep water. Union skirmishers tried to rush the Confederate position, but were halted by fire from a detachment of dismounted Georgia cavalry. Egan hastily deployed Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Smyth’s 3rd Brigade into a battle line and sent it splashing across Hatcher’s Run, capturing the Confederate rifle pits and taking several prisoners. To the amusement of the men of the 12th New Jersey, who were wading through the cold water, their color-bearer was able to dash across the stream dry-shod by running along one of the fallen trees. Standing atop the Rebel earthworks, the color sergeant waved his flag, shouting for the rest of the regiment to hurry up. Egan brought over the rest of his division and pushed farther south along the Vaughan Road.
Gregg’s cavalry division, charged with the protection of Hancock’s left flank, crossed farther downstream. After driving off a small defensive force of South Carolina cavalry, Gregg pushed westward to the Quaker Road, which he expected to follow north to the Boydton Plank Road and a planned junction with Hancock’s infantry. En route, however, Gregg captured enemy couriers and learned that he was in a perilous situation. To his front was Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s crack cavalry division, and on his left was the cavalry division of Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee. Major General Wade Hampton, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry corps, was determined to halt Gregg along the Quaker Road at the bridge over Gravelly Run and then trap the Union cavalry column between Butler’s and Lee’s divisions.
Back on the Vaughan Road, Mott’s 3rd Division followed Egan across Hatcher’s Run. Hancock then turned his column to the west, marching along a narrow track past Dabney’s Mill toward the Boydton Plank Road. The II Corps commander was beginning to feel uneasy because he did not hear firing from Parke’s anticipated attack against the Confederate line. Guns sounded only from Hancock’s left, where Gregg had encountered Hampton. Hancock hoped that he might reach the Plank Road in time to strike the Confederate cavalry, but at Hancock’s approach, Hampton pulled his men from the Quaker Road to take up a new blocking position on the White Oak Road, the Union general’s intended route. Gregg was relieved to find the Quaker Road in front of him suddenly clear. He crossed Gravelly Run and burned the bridge to slow any pursuit by Fitzhugh Lee.
When Egan’s division emerged about 10:30 into the open fields along the Boydton Plank Road, his skirmishers were quickly halted by Confederate cannon and rifle fire. A Federal artillery battery soon silenced the enemy guns on high ground at the Burgess Tavern, near the junction of the White Oak and Boydton Plank roads. Under Hancock’s direction, Egan deployed two of his brigades into a line facing north. Lieutenant Colonel Horace P. Rugg’s 1st Brigade was west of the Plank Road, while Colonel James M. Willett’s 2nd Brigade was to the east. Egan then brought up Smyth’s 3rd Brigade to support Willett, who was ordered to charge and capture the hill at Burgess Tavern.
Willett advanced his brigade of New York regiments in skirmish line formation, driving the enemy through a belt of timber and across a ravine. Re-forming his line quickly on the far side of the ravine, Willett charged the high ground beyond and captured the Confederate position along a barricade on the Boydton Plank Road. Egan wryly noted, “This barricade was erected at a toll-gate, but the Virginia highway regulations were not observed.”
Willett halted, formed a battle line, and threw up breastworks as protection against a possible counterattack. Egan quickly moved his other two brigades to join Willett’s line on either flank. Rugg’s regiments straddled the White Oak Road–which Hancock still intended to march west along to cross Hatcher’s Run two miles upstream–while Smyth faced north toward the Boydton Plank Road bridge. The Plank Road passed over Hatcher’s Run near the Burgess Mill, where a dam backed up the stream to make a pond.
By now, Gregg’s cavalry had joined Hancock from the south. Hancock confidently began preparations to continue his advance. Mott’s division was started toward the White Oak Road, while Colonel Michael Kerwin’s cavalry brigade was sent to take over Egan’s position so that the 2nd Division could follow Mott.
Before the infantry was able to move out, however, a message from Meade arrived at about 1 p.m. Hancock was to halt on the Plank Road. Shortly afterward, Meade and Grant arrived on the field. Meade directed Hancock to extend his right to the east in an effort to make contact with Crawford’s division, which was slowly making its way northwest through the thick woods along Hatcher’s Run.
The Confederate dismounted cavalry and cannons that Willett had pushed off the high ground at the Burgess Tavern had withdrawn several hundred yards toward the mill dam, but had not crossed the run. From their new position they continued to fire on Egan’s men. Smyth’s brigade was ordered to attack the new Rebel position. As they started their advance, Captain Timothy J. Burke of the 164th New York–one of the three regiments deprived of the right to carry battleflags after Reams’ Station–mistakenly thought that the entire division was moving forward. He led 10 New York men along the left of Smyth’s line as it swept over the open field.
A Confederate bullet sliced through the knapsack of Color Sergeant John Hirst, 14th Connecticut, and the sudden unbalanced weight of the pack nearly threw him to the ground. His comrades thought Hirst had been hit and reached for his flag. “But I was all right,” he wrote his family after the battle, “and if they don’t get nearer than that I shall remain so.”
Smyth’s men cleared the enemy rifle pits along the southern bank of the run. The Confederates raced across the bridge, up the hill, and into the tree line on the far side of the stream. Plunging into the woods near the run with his small squad from the disgraced 164th New York, Burke came up behind a Confederate earthwork and captured a 12-pounder cannon and a caisson. Unable to move the artillery piece, Burke broke off the gun carriage axles and threw the cannon into Hatcher’s Run. Burke then dragged back the caisson and happily reported his exploit to General Egan.
Egan sent Willett’s brigade forward to report to Smyth at his new position overlooking the Boydton Plank Road bridge. Smyth, in accordance with Hancock’s instructions, deployed two regiments, the 12th New Jersey and 10th New York, as a single-rank extension to the right in the hope of linking up with Crawford’s division in the woods to the east. Even though the men were stretched out at intervals of 10 paces, there was no sign of Crawford. Still concerned by the gap beyond his right flank, Smyth sent out a small scouting party in a final effort to locate Crawford’s line.
Confederate forces were gathering rapidly to confront Hancock. South of Hatcher’s Run, Hampton deployed Butler’s cavalry division, with several guns, across the White Oak Road and brought up Fitzhugh Lee’s division along the Boydton Plank Road. North of the run, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth assembled his own infantry division and that of Maj. Gen. William Mahone, the Confederate hero of the Crater battle three months before. Cannons in the earthworks above the run pounded Egan’s line.
Grant, Meade and Hancock went forward with their staffs to take a better look. They came under heavy artillery fire. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman, one of Meade’s aides, wrote a note later that day about the calm disregard for danger shown by the assembled officers. “It don’t do to dodge with Hancock’s Staff about,” the colonel wrote. “They would never forgive you.”
Grant galloped down to the Boydton Plank Road bridge with his own aide-de-camp to see the Rebel defenses for himself. When he returned, he said that he had decided to suspend further efforts to capture the Southside Railroad that day. The Confederate entrenchments, extending farther to the west than anyone had expected, were too strong to attack with any assurance of success. With no chance for a quick and easy victory before the presidential election, Grant wanted to avoid any embarrassing reverse. The best that could be hoped for now would be a bloody and unsuccessful Confederate counterattack against the II Corps. Hancock was ordered to hold his ground that night, then withdraw the next morning. Grant and Meade left to return to their headquarters.
Hancock disposed his forces in a rough oval, the long axis lying along the Boydton Plank Road. The northern end of the oval, along Hatcher’s Run near the Burgess Tavern, was held by Egan’s division. Colonel Robert McAllister’s brigade of Mott’s 3rd Division was sent to reinforce Egan, who placed McAllister in a second line behind Smyth. Along the western edge of the oval were Brig. Gen. Regis de Trobriand’s brigade and Kerwin’s cavalry brigade. The rest of Gregg’s cavalry division straddled the Boydton Plank Road, looking south. Mott’s last brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Byron R. Pierce, was stationed on the eastern edge of the oval, facing northward.
In the late afternoon, Hancock determined to improve his position by capturing the high ground north of the run. Smyth sent skirmishers from the 14th Connecticut across the stream east of the Boydton Plank Road to seize a foothold on the northern bank in preparation for an attack on the bridge. In the meantime, the small scouting party from the 10th New York, sent out to the east earlier by Smyth, had returned. Crawford’s division was nowhere to be seen, but a Confederate infantry column was moving through the woods to get into the rear of the Union line. Smyth immediately reported this to Egan, who ordered McAllister to change his front to the rear. McAllister wasted no time on complicated maneuvers. He ordered his men to simply about-face and then marched them to the slope at the rear of Egan’s line.
Reports of Confederate activity to the east also reached Pierce’s brigade, but Pierce dismissed them, believing that the Rebels there were merely stragglers driven by Crawford’s advance. Nonetheless, Mott directed Pierce to strengthen his picket line toward the woods. While this was being done, the sound of firing sharply increased. Pierce ordered a change of front for his main battle line, turning toward the timber where the threat was now obviously more than a few stragglers. Before this could be accomplished, however, a strong Confederate force burst through the woods, overlapping the Union skirmish line on both ends and driving it back.
The attacking column, two full brigades commanded by Mahone, struck Pierce’s main line from the right flank and rear, capturing two cannons and throwing the Union brigade into a confused retreat toward the Plank Road. At the sound of Mahone’s attack, by prearrangement the Confederate forces all around the perimeter of the Union position launched their own assaults. Heth pressed against Egan’s line along Hatcher’s Run with three brigades of infantry and cavalry. The 12th New Jersey found itself simultaneously engaged in front by Heth’s attack and in the rear by Mahone. Hampton sent Butler’s division east, while Fitzhugh Lee attacked up the Boydton Plank Road against Gregg’s cavalry. A second Reams’ Station seemed to be in the making.
Butler’s attack stalled under fierce Union fire. Two of Hampton’s sons served on their father’s staff. One was shot, dying within minutes, his father at his side. Almost immediately, Hampton’s other son was seriously wounded. Lee’s attack along the Plank Road made only slow progress, resisted tenaciously by Gregg’s dismounted cavalry. Heth’s attack across Hatcher’s Run was quickly repulsed; Smyth later singled out for praise the 8th New York Heavy Artillery and 164th New York Infantry, two of the regiments forbidden to carry flags.
Mahone’s initial success proved to be a trap. The hard-driving Virginian quickly pushed forward, only to find himself with Union troops arrayed against him on three sides. Hancock rallied his soldiers along the Boydton Plank Road to halt Mahone’s thrust. McAllister’s brigade, with support from some of Smyth’s men, charged down from the high ground to the north into the Confederate right flank, while de Trobriand’s brigade beyond the Plank Road faced about and attacked Mahone’s front.
Hancock himself went forward to lead the charge. Even part of Gregg’s cavalry division joined in a counterattack on the Rebel left. Along the Boydton Plank Road, one of Hancock’s staff officers led a charge of the 36th Wisconsin–the third disgraced and flagless regiment–and captured more prisoners than the regiment had men. Most satisfying to them, they also took a Confederate battleflag. Mahone’s force collapsed under the multiple assaults and fled back into the woods, losing several hundred prisoners. The triumphant Federal soldiers recaptured their two artillery pieces taken only minutes earlier.
With Mahone’s attack decisively crushed and repelled, Hancock sent reinforcements to Gregg. As darkness fell, Lee gave up the fight and withdrew, ending the Battle of Boydton Plank Road. By a narrow margin, the II Corps had escaped catastrophe.
Meade sent word to Hancock during the early evening that two divisions of the IV Corps had been ordered to join him and that, if Hancock so desired, he could renew his attack on the Confederate lines in the morning. If Hancock thought it best not to attack, he was authorized to withdraw his forces at any time.
Hancock the Superb deliberated only briefly before advising Meade: “I have to say that if I had two fresh divisions and ammunition for my own command, I would attack tomorrow morning, but I consider the chances of these things being here at an early enough hour to be uncertain and the risk considerable. I think the circumstances indicate falling back to be the proper course. I have a frail hold on the roads between me and the Fifth Corps, and if any accident should prevent my receiving the ammunition and troops at an early hour, the result would be a disaster, as the enemy have hemmed me in and pressed me closely. [I] will, therefore, withdraw rather than take the responsibility of disaster. At the same time I regret it, as I have resisted successfully so far.”
During the night, the II Corps pulled back along the track past Dabney’s Mill, while Gregg’s cavalry retraced its own route to the battlefield, slowed by the destruction of the bridge on the Quaker Road. Due to confusion in the darkness and through mismanagement on the part of some officers, not all the Union picket force was withdrawn. Most regrettably, the available ambulances could not carry all the wounded, and more than 250 were left behind in the care of volunteer surgeons.
The Army of the Potomac lost more than 1,750 men during that attempt to turn Robert E. Lee’s right flank, about 1,000 of them soldiers of the II Corps. Confederate casualties exceeded 1,300, a number more nearly equal to Union losses than had usually been the case during the Petersburg campaign. Hancock’s withdrawal left the Boydton Plank Road in Confederate hands, but once again the Army of Northern Virginia had been forced to stretch its lines westward to forestall another strike against the Southside Railroad.
Hancock reported the fight at Hatcher’s Run as “my victory” and wrote to a friend, “We had a hard fight but beat the enemy.” Grant telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the action “proves to be a decided success.” Yet the evidence of the battlefield–hundreds of wounded left behind in Confederate hands–pointed to something less than outright victory. The goal of cutting Lee’s last supply routes remained out of reach. Still, Hancock’s men had held their own, and the battle was not a repeat of the previous humiliations at the Jerusalem Plank Road and Reams’ Station. Any failure was due to the errors of the commanding generals, who had planned an operation over roads too narrow and distances too great, not the soldiers who fought so hard and so well.
Certainly the men of the 36th Wisconsin, 164th New York and 8th New York Heavy Artillery had no doubts about their performance. All three regiments won special mention in the post-battle reports and, most important, the right to carry their regimental flags. Perhaps the most apt assessment of the Boydton Road affair came from Colonel Lyman, one of Meade’s aides: “As the Mine [Crater] was to be termed an ill-conducted fizzle, so this attempt may be called a well-conducted fizzle.” *
Connecticut author Bruce Trinque writes frequently on the Civil War in the East. For further reading, he suggests: Noah Andre Trudeau’s The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864April 1865; or David M. Jordan’s Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life.