Slave trader E. H. Stokes placed an advertisement in the August 6, 1864, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, offering a $4,500 reward for nine individuals who “left my farm, Lunenburg [County Virginia] about the last of June, with the Wilson raiding party.” Stokes was not alone in seeking to reclaim lost property. Numerous other citizens placed notices in Petersburg and Richmond newspapers mentioning and describing their possessions—in the form of human beings, animals, and objects—fleeing with or taken by the Federal cavalrymen of Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson and Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz during a week-long raid across several Southside Virginia counties in the summer of 1864.
The objective of the Wilson-Kautz Raid, which was part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Second Offensive at Petersburg, was to wreak havoc on Confederate communication routes previously unaffected by Federal forces. Of particular interest were the Southside Railroad, which ran west from Petersburg to Lynchburg, and the Richmond and Danville Railroad that connected those two important cities. The cavalry raid supplemented Grant’s main effort, which he hoped would result in the capture the Petersburg Railroad (also known as the Weldon Railroad) by the Army of the Potomac’s II and VI Corps.
Grant did not allow his foe much rest between the final First Offensive attacks on Petersburg, which wrapped up on June 18, 1864, and the start of the Second Offensive that began on June 22. The Wilson-Kautz Raid portion of the Second Offensive started from their camps early on the morning of June 22 with about 5,500 cavalrymen and supported by three batteries of artillery. From their location southeast of Petersburg, the raiders first stuck for the Weldon Railroad at Reams’ Station, just a few miles to the southwest. They inflicted damage by burning the depot and some rolling stock parked there. However, they soon moved off to the west toward Dinwiddie Courthouse, where they arrived about mid-day. After a brief rest, the riders pushed on north toward the Southside Railroad. At Ford’s Depot they inflicted more damage and started ripping up rails as they worked their way west.
Many of the counties that the raid coursed through contained large numbers of enslaved people. The 1860 census figures show that just under half of Dinwiddie County’s population were enslaved, numbering 12,774 people. Nottoway County, adjacent to the west, held 6,478 individuals in bondage. Ranked as the state’s highest, Nottoway enslaved 74% of its inhabitants. Along the way and at each stop African Americans seeking freedom followed the raiders however best they could.
While Kautz’s command rode on further west to Burkesville Station, Wilson’s men worked destroying material found at Blacks and Whites Station (modern day Blackstone). After burning a rail car, a water tower, and a supply of cotton, they continuing on. Wilson’s force soon encountered some of Gen. W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s Confederate cavalry and fought a skirmish near Nottoway Courthouse.
At Burkeville Station, where the Richmond and Danville and Southside Railroads intersected, Kautz’s raiders tore up track on both lines. They then headed southwest along the Richmond and Danville line. Wherever they encountered telegraph lines, rolling stock, water towers, bridges, pull-off sidings, warehouses, lumber piles, and anything else that the Confederates might use to their advantage, the Federals destroyed or disabled it in the most complete and efficient way possible. In addition, some of the cavalrymen used the raid to appropriate non-military personal possessions from the area’s citizens.
Three days into the raid the Federal’s horses began to show wear. That day, June 25, the recombined force encountered the Staunton River Bridge on the Richmond and Danville Railroad on the Charlotte County and Halifax County border. Charlotte, like the other counties the raiders traversed included large numbers of enslaved individuals. Charlotte County included over 9,236 enslaved people who made up 65% of its population. At the Staunton River covered bridge a cobbled together Confederate force under Capt. Benjamin Farinholt set up a soild defense.
Farinholt’s Rebels were able to protect the covered bridge after several assaults by the Union cavalrymen. The Southerners’ efforts saved a good deal of their railroad track and rolling stock, in addition to the bridge. Unable to budge the defenders or burn the bridge, and with their horses flagging, Wilson decided to return to Union lines. To do so required heading back east through Mecklenburg (64% enslaved), Lunenburg (62% enslaved) and Brunswick counties (64% enslaved). However, the return trip proved difficult. Confederate opposition, excessively hot days, jaded horses, worn riders, and an ever-growing contingent of African American refugees who followed the riders, all made the second half of the raid particularly challenging.
Receiving valuable intelligence, Fitzhugh Lee, Wade Hampton, and two brigades of Gen. William Mahone’s Confederate infantry from Petersburg worked to get into position at points along the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad in attempt to trap the raiders before they returned to the safety of Union lines. A fight at Sappony Church with Hampton’s horsemen on June 28 and into June 29, encouraged the raiders to divert north to Reams’ Station where they hoped to find Union infantry from the II and IV Corps in control of the Petersburg Railroad. However, as the raiders arrived at Reams’ Station on the morning of June 29, they met Mahone’s infantry and Lee’s cavalry, with Hampton closing on their rear.
A sharp battle developed where the raid kicked off a week before. During the fight, the Confederates broke Wilson’s line and split the Union force. Kautz and his men not captured escaped south then back east. Wilson’s men scattered and fled south taking a much longer route to make their way back to Union lines three days later. At Reams’ Station the Confederates inflicted numerous casualties on the Federals—most being prisoners. Also lost were all of the artillery, most of the wagons and carts filled with provisions and goods obtained along the way, and many of the refugee men, women, and children who were following the raiders. Wilson suffered additional casualties and lost additional captured items crossing a section of Stony Creek due to a bottleneck at the bridge over that stream. Here many of the refugees following Wilson’s force were recaptured or killed by the furious Confederates. Wilson’s remnant made it back into Union lines on July 2.
The Wilson-Kautz Raid covered over 350 miles, and certainly inflicted significant damage on the Confederate rail infrastructure. It took weeks to complete some of the repairs. But perhaps the greatest achievement of the raid was the disruptions that the raiders inflicted upon the Southern civilians’ farms and plantations that they encountered along their route.
We’ll discuss some of those disruptions in our second installment. To be continued….
Tim Talbott is the Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia. He is also the founding member and President of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association. Tim maintains the “Random Thoughts on History” blog and has published articles in both book and scholarly journal format. His current project is researching soldiers captured during the Petersburg Campaign.