On this day in 1864, at the Second Battle of Ream’s Station, Virginia, Confederate troops secure a vital supply line into Petersburg, Virginia, when they halt destruction of the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad by Union troops.
The railroad, which ran from Weldon, North Carolina, was a major supply line for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. For more than two months, Lee had been under siege at Petersburg by General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Grant had tried to cut the rail line in June and again in August. On August 18, his troops succeeded in capturing a section of the track, but the Confederates simply began to stop the trains further south of Petersburg and haul the supplies by wagon into the city.
Grant responded by ordering his troops to tear up the track and move further south. Soldiers from General Winfield Hancock’s corps tore up eight miles of rail, but Lee moved quickly to halt the operation. On August 25, General Ambrose P. Hill’s infantry and General Wade Hampton’s cavalry were ordered to attack the Federals at Ream’s Station, and they drove the Yankees into defensive positions. The Union earthworks, hastily constructed the day before, were arranged in a square shape that was too small and so Confederate shells easily passed over the top. The green troop in Union General John Gibbon’s division was unnerved by the bombardment, and a Confederate attack broke through the Yankee lines. The Union force retreated in disarray.
Hancock’s corps lost 2,700 men, most of whom were captured during the retreat. Hill and Hampton lost just 700. The battle was a stinging defeat for Hancock’s proud Second Corps, which had held the Union line against Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was considered among the best in the Army of the Potomac. Gibbon and Hancock blamed each other for the disaster, and both soon left their positions in the Second Corps.