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Weldon Railroad Operations

  • Time Period: June 22- August 21, 1864
  • Area: Weldon Railroad from Petersburg, Virginia to North Carolina
  • Explanation: Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant knew that Petersburg couldn't be taken by an assault but only by a seige. He also knew that the surrounding railroads had to be destroyed to cut off the city from getting supplies. He ordered several army corps to capture and destroy the railroad tracks.

On 4 successive days, June 15-18, the Union Army Of The Potomac launched assaults against Confederate defenses at Petersburg, Virginia. These bungled attacks failed, squandering an excellent opportunity to capture the railroad center and shorten the war. When Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army Of Northern Virginia arrived to man the works, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, directing the Union army, concluded that the city could not be taken by assault. Petersburg would have to be invested by a seige and its vital railroads severed. Grant's decision established the pattern of the 10-month-long Petersburg Campaign.

Grant decided almost immediately to advance on the railroads linking Petersburg to the Southern coast and heartland. The Weldon railroad, connecting Petersburg to North Carolina, lay closet to Union army's line, and Grant ordered an operation against it 4 days after the final Union assault recoiled before the city's defenders. Grant committed a cavalry division and 2 infantry corps toward the success of the movement.

On the 22nd, Maj. Gens. David B. Birney's II Corps and Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps, rimmed by Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson's horsemen, marched against the railroad. The Union infantry corps groped through the heavily wooded terrain, creating a dangerous gap between the 2 units. When Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill learned of the movement, he responded immediately. Discovering the gap between the 2 Union corps, he sent Maj. gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox's division to occupy Wright on the Union left while Maj. Gens. William Mahone's and Bushrod R. Johnson's infantry divisions attacked Birney.

Their attack ripped into the exposed flank of the II Corps, as Maj. Gen. John Gibbon's Union division staggered under the Confederate charge. The Confederates captured 1,600 Federals and shoved Gibbon back on the rest of the corps. The next day, Birney and Wright recovered the lost ground, but the operation failed to sever the railroad. The 2 corps, losing 2,962 men in the 2 days, retained their position across the Jerusalem Plank Road.

Grant suspended efforts against the Weldon Rairoad for 8 weeks. In mid-August, Grant, hoping to draw Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley, ordered joint movements against the railroads north of the James River and against the Weldon. During the night of August 14-15, Maj. Gen. Gouvernuer K. Warren'sV Corps abandoned its position in the Union lines and assembled behind the left, or western, flank of the army.

On the 18th, at 4:00 A.M., Warren's 4 divisions advanced. Confronted only by a Confederate cavalry brigade, the Federals easily seized Globe Tavern on the railroad. While 1 division destroyed the track and another moved farther west, Warren moved Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres's division north toward Petersburg. About 2:00 P.M., Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's Confederate division slammed into Ayres's left flank, wrecking 1 brigade. Ayres regrouped and counterattacked, the 2 divisions fighting stubbornly in the dense woods during a heavy rain. Union casualties amounted to 836 in the action

During the night, both Grant and Lee dispatched reinforcements to the vital railroad. Warren consolidated his position north of Globe Tavern throughout the morning and early afternoon. At 4:30 P.M., Hill hurled 5 infantry and 1 cavalry brigades against Ayres's and Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford's divisions. The Confederate assault pushed the Federals back. Warren rapidly counterattacked, recovered the ground, and the fighting subsided. he then withdrew from 1 to 2 miles to stronger defensive positions.

Skirmishing flared on the 20th as both opponents probed for weakness. The next day, Hill attacked again but was repulsed by the new Union works. Arriving that afternoon, Lee finally stopped the attacks against Warren, who had been reinforced by the IX Corps. The Battle of Weldon Railroad (Globe Tavern) costs the Federals 198 killed, 1,105 wounded, and 3,152 missing, for a total of 4,455 of 20,289 engaged. About 14,000 Confederates were engaged, sustaining an estimated 1,600 casualties. The Federals, holding Globe Tavern, had permanently severed the railroad, an important supply artery for Lee's army and Richmond.

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