Grant had just returned to City Point from a trip up north,where he had organized the Union forces confronting the corps Lee had sent into the Shenandoah Valley in June. General Sheridan, a Grant favorite, had been placed in command there and was getting organized.
To buy him some time, and to prevent Lee from sending more against Sheridan, Grant ordered another expedition to Deep Bottom on August 14. Four days of fighting proved no more conclusive than the first Deep Bottom operation. But Lee had once again reacted by transferring troops from Petersburg to Richmond, so Grant believed that an opportunity now existed to wreck the Weldon Railroad. Early on the morning of August 18, he sent the Fifth Corps, commanded by Major General G. K. Warren, out to do the job.
"The men gave out fearfully in the sun," Warren reported, but his four divisions of nearly 20,000 men--reached the railroad near Globe Tavern around 11:00 a.m. The Federal general detailed two divisions to move a short distance toward Petersburg along the Halifax Road for security, while other troops began to tear up the tracks.
The Globe Tavern on the Weldon Railroad
With Lee gone to the North side, responsibility for defending Petersburg lay with General Beauregard. Confederate scouts delivered the faulty intelligence that only a small enemy force was involved, so Beauregard told Lt. General A. P. Hill to send two infantry brigades to evict the interlopers.
The two brigades, moving south along Halifax Road, struck Warren's two security divisions at 3:00 p.m. A couple of Yankee brigades that had advanced ahead of the rest were caught off guard and routed, but the remaining units came up in good order, forcing the Rebels to pull back. Beauregard had scored a tactical success but failed in his strategic objective to drive the enemy away. That he would make another attempt to do so was a forgone conclusion. In the prophetic words of a Massachusetts officer, "It is touching a tiger's cubs to get on that road!"
A distinct difference of attitude seperated General Warren from Grant. Warren thought only of defending his position. " I think. . . it would be safe to trust me to hold on to the railroad," he assured army headquarters on the morning of August 19. Twelve hours earlier, Grant gave expression to his aggressive intent when he informed Meade, "Tell Warren if the enemy comes out and attacks him in the morning, not to hesitate . . .but to follow him up to the last."
The Confederates were not idle this morning either. Another sortie was necessary, so a five-brigade attack force was organized. Two of the brigades would again move down Halifax Road, while the remaining three would hit the right flank of Warrens line. It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get these troops into position, but when the flanking force, commanded by General Mahone, struck at Warrens right flank at about 5:00 p.m., it overran a portion of the Federal line in a sharp little fight. Private Bernard remembered it as " the warmest place (we) were ever in, being subjected to fire from the front, right flank, & rear all at the same time." It was worse for the Yankees, two Pennsylvania regiments were scooped up early in the fight, and when the two Southern brigades coming along the Halifax Road joined in, Warren's entire position seemed in jeopardy.
Once more, however, the Confederates attacked too late in the day with too little. And as the Rebel operation began to lose momentum, Union reinforcements arrived on the scene. Beauregard's men again retired into Petersburg after dark. They had whipped the enemy, but the Union flag still flew over Globe Tavern.
Both sides scrambled to secure the advantage on August 20. Warren now had two Ninth Corps divisions to augment his battered corps. He was a genius at defensive fighting and kept his men busy throughout the day improving their position and tightening his defensive perimeter. He was able to accomplish these tasks because no attack came from Petersburg. It took Beauregard longer than imagined possible to put together a corps sized battle group, and it was dark before everything was ready.
Soldiers digging earthworks near the Railroad
Beauregard's attack on August 21 was a reverse image of the August 19 action. Another force pushed down along the Halifax Road, while this time the second group wheeled around seeking Warren's left flank. But unlike August 19, however, the Federal General and his men were prepared for the Rebel lines, "Fire Low!" Warren erged his troops. "Low! Low!" The Confederates attacked fiercely but were replused at every point. Robert E. Lee appeared on the field as the last attacking wave ebbed back, too late to affect the outcome.
The Federal lodgement on the Weldon Railroad was quickly made part of the larger trench system . Union casualties were about 4,300 to 2,300 Confederates. Lee had lost one of his few remaining supply lines and now had only a single rail route and a roundabout road system to keep his men fed. It was a serious stategic setback. Petersburg was becoming far more difficult to defend, but its fate was linkd to Richmond's, and the Confederate capital had to be held.
Now that he controlled the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg, Grant was determined, as he said,
" to thoroughly destroy it as far south as possible." With both the Fifth and Ninth Corps busy fortifying around Globe Tavern, Grant looked for troops to do the wrecking job. He settled on Hancock's Second Corps, just returned from the second Deep Bottom expedition. It was an opportunistic selection that would have tragic consequences. The Second Corps was seriously worn out by its recent fighting north of the James. Never the less, by midday, August 22, the first of Hancock's units were moving southward along the tracks, tearing them up as they went.
At first Lee thought it was possible only to harass this force with his cavalry, but a report from able Major General Wade Hampton suggested that the Federal raiders were isolated and vulnerable to attack. Lee pondered the risks and finally agreed. Late in the afternoon of August 24, eight infantry brigades moved out of town on a southwest course. Once clear of the Globe Tavern lines, these soldiers pressd east to link up with Hampton's two cavalry divisions. The combined force was commanded by A. P. Hill.
On August 25 this battle group caught Hancock's two divisions curled up in a kidney-shaped earthwork near Reams Station, about five miles below Globe Tavern. The Unionists beat back the first Confederate assaults, but then panic took hold of several of Hancock's regiments due to the Confederates attack, and the position began to collapse. Private Bernard never forgot the sight as he approached the enemy earthworks of seeing "hundreds of Yankees, most of whom
were coming in as prisoners, whilst the remainder were moving up the ditch and getting away." For awhile everything was chaos, until finally the battered Federals regrouped long enough to retreat. The day ended in a complete Southern victory, with Union losses of about 2,600 to Hill's 720.
Hancock, who felt that his men had received inadequate support from the rest of the army, was bitter. "We oughtto have whipped them," he said. Confederate morale received a big boost. "I never saw men so much elated by any fight," declared a North Carolina man.