By August 1864, Grant had decided to conquer Petersburg by targeting the various rail and wagon roads leading into the city, rather than by risking frontal assaults. None of these lines was more important to Lee's supply system than the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, which connected the Cockade City with the functioning port at Wilmington, North Carolina, through Weldon, a village ten miles south of the Virginia state line.
The new Confederate cavalry commander, Major General Wade Hampton, shadowed Hancock's force and reported to Lee that the isolated Union troops were vulnerable. Unwilling to concede more of the Petersburg Railroad, Lee authorized an infantry strike force under Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill to march south and attack Hancock around Reams Station.
Hill quietly led about 13,000 infantry toward Hancock on the night of August 24. Union forces occupied a shallow line of badly eroded fortifications dug in June and forming a narrow horseshoe that would be vulnerable to enfilade fire from either flank. Hampton's cavalry began the assaults on the morning of August 25, striking one of Hancock's divisions south of Reams Station and forcing the Union troops into their inadequate works. Hill's initial infantry assault, however, met a stern repulse. The Confederate corps commander then fell ill and turned command over to Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox.
Hancock reported the attack to Meade and received the army commander's promise of reinforcements. Faulty communications would deprive Hancock of those fresh troops, setting the stage for disaster.
Union forces turned back a second assault in the afternoon but at five o'clock a third attack breached the northwest angle of Hancock's defenses. The once-proud Second Corps, exhausted by weeks of constant marching and fighting and demoralized by flanking fire, broke precipitately and the Confederates poured into the Union lines. Hancock managed to mount a holding action until eight o'clock that evening, when he ordered a wholesale withdrawal, leaving the battlefield in Confederate hands.
The tactical scale of the Union defeat can be measured by the casualty figures. Hancock lost 117 men killed, 439 wounded, and 2,046 captured. Hill and Hampton suffered 814 total losses. Nevertheless, the victory proved hollow. Lee realized that he could not hold the railroad around Reams Station and ordered Hill and Hampton to return to the Petersburg lines the next day. Lee would never regain the Petersburg railroad in its entirety. Hancock suffered humiliation at his lopsided loss, and whatever chance he had to gain the Democratic nomination for U.S. president evaporated on the field at Reams Station. (His fellow general, George B. McClellan, was the nominee instead.)
In a larger sense, Reams Station did little to halt the slow strangulation of Petersburg. In little more than a month, Grant would commence his fifth offensive, and the noose around the Cockade City would grow ever tighter.
August 2, 1864 - Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant places his cavalry commander, Philip H. Sheridan, in command of Union forces facing Confederate troops under Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley.
August 7, 1864 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee sends reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia toward the Shenandoah Valley, prompting Union general Ulysses S. Grant to plan an offensive to halt further detachments.
August 12, 1864 - The Union Second Corps marches from Petersburg to City Point. Their movement is part of a campaign designed to prevent Confederate forces from reinforcing Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley, while also opening an attack on Robert E. Lee's supply line in front of Petersburg.
August 13, 1864 - The Union Second Corps boards boats and steams down the James River to deceive Confederates of its intentions; the Union Tenth Corps prepares to cross the river at Deep Bottom. Their movements are part of a campaign designed to prevent Confederate forces from reinforcing Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley.
August 14–16, 1864 - Union forces are defeated at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom on the James River. They are successful, however, in drawing most of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's infantry north of the river and away from entrenchments in front of Petersburg.
August 18, 1864, 5:00–9:00 a.m. - Union troops successfully distract Robert E. Lee from reinforcing Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah by luring him away from entrenchments at Petersburg. This leaves Lee's supply line at Petersburg vulnerable. On this morning, the Union Fifth Corps moves west and wrests the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad from a small body of Confederate cavalry.
August 18, 1864, 9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. - Having lured Confederates under Robert E. Lee north of the James River and away from their supply line at Petersburg, the Union Fifth Corps moves north along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, destroying tracks and burning ties.
August 18, 1864, 3:00–5:00 p.m. - Confederates launch a counterattack against the Union Fifth Corps, which had lured Robert E. Lee's troops north of the James River and away from their Petersburg supply line, the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad. They manage to stop the Union troops' advance but fail to drive them from the railroad.
August 19, 1864 - In previous days, Confederate forces have been lured north of the James River and away from their Petersburg supply line, the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad. This afternoon, they launch a second counterattack against the Union Fifth Corps' right flank, routing a division and capturing 2,500 soldiers. Union reinforcements halt the Confederate advance.
August 20, 1864 - In an attempt to recover the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, a critical line of supply to Confederate troops at Petersburg, Confederate generals Pierre G. T. Beauregard and A. P. Hill plan a major assault on Union lines. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren uses the day to strengthen his defenses.
August 21, 1864 - Beginning at 9:00 a.m., Confederate forces under the generals Pierre G. T. Beauregard and A. P. Hill attack the Union troops that have taken the critical Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad. By noon the Confederates are repulsed everywhere and fall back to their main line of defense, ending the Battle of the Weldon Railroad.
August 22, 1864 - After defeated Confederate forces retire to their Petersburg defenses, Union general Winfield Scott Hancock is ordered to destroy the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad south to Reams Station. The railroad is an important line of supply to Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces at Petersburg.
August 23, 1864 - Union general Winfield Scott Hancock is ordered to continue his work destroying the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, an important line of supply to Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces at Petersburg. His troops make it as far as Rowanty Creek, five miles south of Reams Station.
August 24, 1864 - Union forces under Winfield Scott Hancock continue their work of destroying the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, a critical line of supply to Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops defending Petersburg. They make it south of Reams Station when Lee authorizes A. P. Hill to attack Hancock.
August 25, 1864 - Union general Ulysses S. Grant's attempt to expand destruction of Robert E. Lee's supply line on the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad ends with defeat at the Battle of Reams Station. The defeat is tactical only, however. In fact, Union forces control the railroad for the rest of the war, forcing Lee to reroute his supply lines.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Greene, A. W. Battle of Reams Station. (2012, February 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Reams_Station_Battle_of.
- MLA Citation:
Greene, A. Wilson. "Battle of Reams Station." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 1, 2009 | Last modified: February 6, 2012
Contributed by A. Wilson Greene, the president of Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg, Virginia. He is the author of Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (2006) and The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (2008).