The men of the Fifth Corps received a surprise assignment in early February 1865 that broke up the monotony of winter camp life during the Petersburg Campaign. “We had orders to march, leaving our tents ‘in statu quo,’ taking only overcoats, arms, and haversacks,” wrote a Pennsylvania private. Officers hastily rode through the camps reminding the soldiers to leave everything in camp “but absolutely necessary articles.”
Many believed it to be just an exercise until they saw Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, commanding the corps, mounted on his favorite horse for battle – “a sure sign that a fight was on the programme.”
Ulysses S. Grant wanted to slow the supply flow into Petersburg. The Army of the Potomac had seized the Weldon Railroad near Globe Tavern in August 1864 and constructed powerful earthworks–Forts Wadsworth and Dushane–to maintain firm control over the tracks. Yet this direct line south into North Carolina was still so important to Robert E. Lee that he ordered his trains to continue to use it up to Stony Creek. Once the locomotives reached that station, twenty miles south of Petersburg, they offloaded their supplies into wagon convoys who took a circuitous route to Dinwiddie Court House and then up the Boydton Plank Road to reach Lee’s army.
An early December Union raid toward Stony Creek found little success so Grant ordered George G. Meade to strike closer to home. Meade instructed Brigadier General David M. Gregg to lead his cavalry division to Dinwiddie Court House and wreck havoc among the Confederate logistics. Meade detailed Warren’s Fifth Corps to advance past Hatcher’s Run and provide direct support for the cavalrymen. Meanwhile Major General Andrew A. Humphreys would place his Second Corps in a blocking position to keep the Confederate army bottled in their entrenchments, unable to interfere with the offensive.
The strategy reads like a toss sweep straight out of a football playbook. Humphreys the tackle, keeping contain on the defensive lineman in the trenches, with Warren the pulling guard springing Gregg the running back for the end zone.
The Fifth Corps left its camps by 7:00 a.m. on February 5, and followed Halifax Road south from Globe Tavern. “It was a beautiful Sabbath day and the bright sun shone cheerily upon the veteran troops as they measured their footsteps toward the enemy,” recalled a Michigan soldier. Three squadrons of the 6th Ohio Cavalry led the way for Major General Romeyn B. Ayres’ division as they followed the familiar road south. When about a mile north of Reams Station, the Fifth Corps turned west on Stage Road. Three miles further the Ohio troopers ran into Confederate pickets guarding Rowanty Creek from comfortable entrenchments on the opposite side of the stream. It was already the middle of the morning.
As the undermanned cavalrymen exchanged shots with the skirmishers, Ayres halted his infantry a quarter of a mile east of the creek near the Perkins farm to prepare for a passage. “The rebels had rifle-pits on the opposite bank and had slashed the creek full of timber, making it difficult to cross,” realized a member of the lead division. Colonel James Gwyn sent the 190th Pennsylvania forward to force a passage.
The Pennsylvanians followed Stage Road over the ridge but rather than advancing straight for Monk’s Neck Bridge, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Pattee filed them to the right on a farm lane. If he had noticed the bridge knocked out, he did not report it back to Ayres. As the regiment began to enter the farm lane, Pattee ordered them to deploy as skirmishers. “We came around the corner on a run,” recalled Private Robert E. McBride. “As the order was given the men faced toward the enemy, and advanced as they deployed.”
The head of the column had begun the charge, however, before the tail could clear the main road. “They looked like a mob as they broke ranks and went pell-mell over the field, yelling like madmen,” claimed McBride. The reckless Pennsylvanians successfully rushed down the slight ridge before reaching the abrupt descent into the water. The men had believed they could “rush” the rebels from across Rowanty Creek, but instead discovered the water too deep for fording and the enemy well protected on the opposite side.
Reaching the stream, we found it covered with ice, on which we hoped to cross, one of the foremost boys stepped upon it, and it at once gave way, and let him into the water. Just the top of his head stuck out above the fragments of ice. He was fished out as expeditiously as possible, and the idea of crossing in that way was abandoned. Men came down with axes, and proceeded to fell trees across the run on which to cross. While this was going on, we did our best to keep the rebels down behind their works, and render their fire ineffectual. We soon succeeded in this, but not until they had inflicted some loss.
With his first effort slowed, Gwyn detailed the 4th Delaware to force a crossing. As the regiment passed General Ayres bellowed to Major Daniel H. Kent: “You are expected to carry the bridge, if you lose every man!”
The Delaware regiment broke into a double-quick and gave a lusty cheer as they charged down the road. But as they approached Monk’s Neck Bridge they found that the Confederates had destroyed it. Immediately Kent filed his men to the men to the right, just as the Pennsylvanians before them had. Kent waited until all his men cleared the road into the meadow before filling them to the left. Quickly the men snaked their way in this fashion to the water’s edge.
“The ground was slightly rolling and open farm-land, except near the bank of the stream, where a thin skirt of trees bordered the river, affording some cover,” wrote Captain Samuel Rodmond Smith. Major Kent used the protection of these trees to once more file his men to the right to find a suitable crossing point. “There was considerable floating ice in the stream,” observed Captain Smith, who noted that most of the regiment shied away from wanting to cross the deep water.
But the words of his division commander still resonated with Lieutenant David E. Buckingham, who determined: “It was no time to hesitate or turn back.”
The officer bounded on to the ice but found the thin layer unwelcoming. “It broke under my weight and I struck out for the rebel side and was soon beyond my depth, but I swam to the south side, the Minie balls skimming the water all around me.”
Major Kent attempted to swim his horse across after Buckingham. As he entered the Quaker iron-worker was severely wounded in the right arm by the harassing fire of the Confederate pickets. Friendly hands pulled the major out of Rowanty Creek and led back to recover. The rest of the Delaware infantrymen were convinced by the wounding of their commander not to ford at that location. They steadily moved along the creek to the right while engaged in a running firefight with the enemy.
Lieutenant Buckingham clutched onto a root and found himself alone as the regiment moved onward: “The water was icy cold and I did not care to scale the bank, as I was the only man of the command who crossed the river at the bridge, having carried the ford, and the freezing question—not the burning one—was, could I hold it?”
After going about one hundred yards further, Captain Smith noticed some bushes projecting from the water and believed it was shallow enough to cross. He sprang into the stream but, like Buckingham, received a rude surprise. “The water proved to be over six feet deep within that distance from the shore, but I was a strong swimmer, and although encumbered by a haversack belt and cape overcoat, succeeded in reaching a small island in mid-stream, under a heavy plunging fire which splashed the water around me.”
The remainder of the 4th Delaware found sturdier ice and some felled trees further to the right and crossed over to the island. “From thence all hands slid and waded to the opposite shore and we carried the enemy’s entrenchments with a rush, capturing some fifty or sixty rebels,” declared Smith.
“When the enemy discovered they were flanked they beat a retreat and the bridge was ours,” recalled a freezing Buckingham. “I reswam the river and dried my clothes beside a roaring fire which the boys had made while the engineers rebuilt the bridge.”
The Pennsylvania regiments also contributed materially to the effect the crossing. As soon as their pioneers felled trees to cross, a handful crossed while “others kept careful watch on the rebels, and fired rapidly to keep them down.” Private McBride recalled: “At first their fire was lively, but soon they became rattled and would scarcely risk their heads above the pits for a moment.” After fifty men scurried across the logs “every body yelled, and those who had crossed charged the pits, and the rest came crowding over.”
Captain Smith and Lieutenant Buckingham earned the Medal of Honor for their icy plunge under fire into Rowanty Creek.
After the lengthy halt at Monk’s Neck Crossing, the Fifth Corps continued on for their rendezvous in between the cavalry and the Second Corps. By nightfall they would be summoned to Hatcher’s Run, where Humphreys had his own share of combat during the late afternoon.