Since June 15, 1864 the Union army under Major General George Meade and Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant hammered the Confederate defenses around Petersburg. From limited success along the eastern front June 15-18, then a thwarted attack on the Confederate supply line along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad on June 21st and finally the disastrous Battle of the Crater, the Union army was still no closer to its objective. Grant began to rethink his strategy; no longer did he look to head long assaults along General Robert E. Lee’s entrenched lines. Now he looked to cut off his supply lines and use his greatest advantage to do it, numerical superiority.
The Petersburg Railroad was a vital link for Lee’s army and the Confederate capital of Richmond to North Carolina and the Deep South. Wilmington, NC was one of the few harbors left in the Confederacy to blockade runners and this supply route brought valuable goods to the front. On June 21st, a short lived advance by men of the Sixth Corps did cut the railroad until Confederate counter attacks forced them back to the area of the Jerusalem Plank Road. This time, Grant decided to use his superiority in numbers to his advantage. With Lee covering nearly 60 miles of defenses with 60,000 men and Grant facing him with twice that number, Lee could not concentrate his forces in varying places at the same time. Grant proposed two offenses, one a diversionary attack (though he believed substantial Confederate infantry were on their way to the Shenandoah Valley, weakening the defenses around Richmond and possibly creating opportunity for a strike) and the other the primary attack. By attacking in the area of “Deep Bottom” north of the James River, Grant hoped he could hold a bulk of Lee’s men north of the James. Meanwhile he planned his primary attack on the southwestern flank of Petersburg in the area of Globe Tavern, along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad. By cutting this supply line, Grant hoped to further strangle his opponent. Grant attempted his Deep Bottom strategy before, in conjunction with explosion of the mine at Elliott’s Salient. The Battle of First Deep Bottom was successful in pulling away Confederate forces from Petersburg to north of the James. Grant hoped to repeat that strategy in mid-August.
On August 13th Major General Hancock’s Second Corps began to shift from the Petersburg front northward to cross the James River. Working in conjunction with the Tenth Corps, the Federals attacked the Confederate line in the area or New Market Heights. After some minor successes, the Federal attacks were thwarted partly by Major General Charles Field’s infantry and Major General Rooney Lee’s cavalry. After nearly 4,500 casualties combined on both sides, the situation around New Market Road didn’t change. Though Lee was successful in defending Richmond, Grant was also successful in pulling Confederate forces north from Petersburg, leaving his main objective vulnerable – Lee’s southern supply line.
Grant’s plan on strangling Lee’s southern railroad connection was simple. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps and portions of the Ninth Corps worked in concert against the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad in the area of Globe Tavern. The objectives were to extend the Federal line across the railroad and destroy as much track as possible. Also the recent attack at Deep Bottom and now in Petersburg might force Lee to withdraw troops from the troublesome Valley. The next objective was much debated after the battle – should the Federals dig in and build earthworks or push their offensive northward against the weakened Confederate line around Petersburg. On the afternoon of August 17th, Grant write Meade “…moving a single corps by our left; but they might get to the Weldon road and, with the aid of a little cavalry, cut and destroy a few miles of it. You may therefore, start Warren in the morning.”
The Confederate forces in Petersburg were still under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard. At his disposal in the area of Globe Tavern were troops under the command of Lieutenant A.P. Hill. These men were near the Dimmock Line just south of the city, this gave the Federals plenty of time to make a move on the railroad at Globe Tavern (3 ½ miles south of Petersburg). Warren began his march to the railroad on the early morning of August 18th and began tearing up the railroad around mid-morning. The only Confederates in the area were small cavalry vedettes; these men sent word to Beauregard about the massive Federal movement. It took time to get a mobile infantry force to deal with this new threat. As the Confederates prepared to act, Warren put his men to work. The division under Brigadier General Charles Griffin began to tear up the railroad around Globe Tavern while Warren sent elements of Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres’ division northward to protect against and Confederate attack. Around 2pm Confederate infantry under Major General Harry Heth appeared and launched furious attacks against Ayres lines. As Ayres men fell back, Brigadier General Samuel Crawford’s Division arrived and retook the original position of Ayres Division. By nightfall, the situation along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad wasn’t changed; Warren was in place and the vital supply line to Petersburg cut. When Meade reported the news to Grant, his unhappiness with Warren was apparent. True Warren cut the railroad and repulsed the Confederate attack, but Grant expected more. Warren’s recent cautiousness from the Overland Campaign was fresh in Grant’s mind. He informed Meade “Tell Warren if the enemy comes out and attacks him in the morning not to hesitate about taking out every man he has to repel it; and not to stop when the enemy is repulsed, but to follow him up to the last.”
By the afternoon of August 19th, Brigadier General William Mahone’s Division arrived on the field and Hill planned a two pronged attack to remove the Fifth Corps from the railroad. Mahone would attack the right flank of Crawford while Heth would launch an assault on Ayres. The Confederates of Mahone were able to turn the right flank of Crawford’s division putting the whole division in flight. Crawford fought hard to rally his men but to no avail. Nearly 3,000 of Crawford’s division were captured. On Ayres’ front, Heth’s attacks were not successful and Ayres held off Heth. With reinforcements from the Ninth Corps and torrential rains, Mahone was forced to pull back. That night Warren pulled his lines back to new fortifications around Globe Tavern. The next day on the 21st, Heth and Mahone launched reckless frontal assaults on the new Federal entrenchments. Federal artillery had a superb day and rained down an overwhelming barrage into the oncoming infantry. Captain Strayhorn wrote “I hope I may never be called to go through such another fiery ordeal while I live.” With heavy losses, the Confederate attacks were over by noon. That afternoon Hill pulled his men northward, giving Warren control of the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad. Even in victory, Warren and Grant did not see eye to eye. Grant frustrated with Warren’s lack of aggressiveness wired back to Meade and Warren “holding the line is of no importance whilst troops are operating in front of it.” Warren tersely responded “I believe I have fought against the army opposed to me to know pretty well what to do here in the field.”
The Battle of Globe Tavern closed off Lee’s railroad connection to North Carolina, the many charges against the Federal line also cost Lee heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Hill suffered nearly 2,000 casualties, while Warren suffered an estimated 4,000 (of which nearly 3,000 were prisoners). Though Warren captured the railroad, Grant was unhappy with his subordinate. Warren’s star fell fast during the summer of 1864 and his defensive nature around Globe Tavern seemed to anger the aggressive Grant. The Confederates planned on alternative routes of supply via wagons from a more southern station along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad at Stony Creek Station. Not totally satisfied with the accomplishments of the Fifth and Ninth Corps, Grant ordered Hancock and his Second Corps farther south on the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad to further destroy and cut off Lee’s supply line. This led Hancock to a place called Ream’s Station and a desperate day for the vaunted Second Corps.
-The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864 by John Horn
Best volume on the battle, recently updated and reprinted by Savas Beatie (originally printed in 1991).
-Petersburg Campaign, The Eastern Front Battles, June – August 1864, Volume 1 by Edwin Bearss and Bryce Suderow
New comprehensive look at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign, including Globe Tavern.
-The Last Citadel: Petersburg Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Trudeau
Classic overview of the Petersburg Campaign, this is also being updated and reprinted by Savas Beatie in Fall 2014 (originally printed in 1991).