“Never More Certain of Victory”: The Confederate Strike at Rocky Branch, February 5, 1865

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Nigel Lambert

On the morning of Sunday, February 5, 1865, two days after a failed peace conference, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched another offensive around Petersburg. As Union cavalry headed towards Dinwiddie Courthouse, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys, with two 2nd Corps divisions, had to secure the critical Hatcher’s Run crossings on Vaughan Road and Armstrong’s Mill. Accomplished with ease by 10:00 a.m., Humphreys’s bluecoats poured over Hatcher’s Run at Armstrong’s Mill. They formed a battle line west and east of Rocky Branch and passed a relatively peaceful afternoon constructing earthworks. Humphreys summoned reinforcements (Brig. Gen. John Ramsey’s brigade to support his line east of Rocky Branch. Humphreys placed two artillery sections (8th Massachusetts Artillery) near the Armstrong house and threw out a strong picket line.

Grant had caught Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army napping. Lee rushed back from Sunday morning church to meet with senior commanders protecting his Petersburg right flank. Particularly concerning was Humphreys’s battle line less than 1,000 yards from the Confederate works guarding Boydton Plank Road, an essential communication artery. Something must be done. The sun would set at 5:30 p.m.; time was pressing.

Lee ordered the brigades of Brig. Gen. John Cooke, Brig. Gen. William McComb, and Brig. Gen. William MacRae [1] (Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division, Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s Third Corps) to strike the Federals east of Rocky Branch. Brigadier General Clement A. Evans’s division (Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Second Corps) received orders to advance west of Rocky Branch. This force comprised three brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. William R. Terry, Col. William R. Peck, and Col. John H. Baker. The combative Gordon confidentially claimed he “was never more certain of victory” and that he expected to “gobble [the Federals] up.” After a brief artillery barrage, the Confederates launched their attacks around 4:00 p.m. What happened next is frequently depreciated in conventional narratives.

East of Rocky Branch, Heth’s brigades overran the Union pickets. The terrified Yankees plunged into Brig. Gen. Robert McAllister’s brigade (Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott’s division). Excited Rebels followed in close pursuit. McAllister discovered that the rudimentary earthworks didn’t stretch far enough to accommodate all his men. The 8th New Jersey and two regiments (4th Ohio and 12th New Jersey), sent by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Smyth to connect with McAllister’s line, remained exposed.

Confederates attack the Union 2nd Corps position on February 5, 1865

McAllister’s Federals fired into Heth’s advancing Confederates, causing them to falter and lie down. A deadly firefight ensued. Across the stream, Smyth watched the Rebels maul the troops he’d sent to support McAllister. Smyth ordered his two artillery sections to change front and fire across the stream. The enfilading artillery fire helped McAllister’s men force the Confederates back. The 8th New Jersey fighting in the open stood firm. To McAllister’s dismay, the other two exposed regiments broke and fled, thus creating an inviting hole in the Union line.

Heth’s Confederates regrouped and advanced once more, targeting the gap. Again, McAllister’s musketry and the lethal artillery fire proved too hot for the Rebels. Some Confederates panicked, threw down their weapons, and fled. Even the usually inspirational Gen. Lee could not restrain the terrified soldiers. One Rebel screamed at him “great God man, get out of the way, you don’t know nothing!” The exposed 8th New Jersey remained steadfast. McAllister’s 2,000 Yankees had held off Heth’s 4,000 Rebels. To McAllister’s right, Ramsey’s men hardly fired a shot.

West of Rocky Branch, Smyth’s brigades commanded by Col. William A. Olmstead and Col. Mathew Murphy, supported by regiments from Lt. Col. Francis E. Pierce’s brigade, awaited the Confederate assault. In front of Murphy, the 182nd New York [2] served as pickets. After a spirited 15-minute fight, the 200-300 pickets thwarted Evans’s 2,600 Confederates. These defiant pickets then repelled a second Rebel advance. During this attack, Murphy was shot in the knee after inspecting his main line [3]. Brigade command passed to Col. James McIvor, who reported that nothing further of note occurred. The Rebels never broke through Murphy’s picket line. On Olmstead’s front, all remained quiet.

Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon (NPS Portrait Gallery)

With the sun setting, senior Confederate commanders demanded one more attack on the gap to McAllister’s left. Many of Heth’s men were too shattered to undertake a further charge. However, fresh troops had arrived to assist the offensive. Elements of Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s Division [4] and Heth’s other brigade (Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis commanding) supported the final assault. Some in Cooke’s North Carolina Brigade mentioned that Brig. Gen. Philip Cook’s Georgia Brigade (from Gordon’s Second Corps) also featured. Whichever Confederate forces made the third assault, the Federal line remained resolute. Some recalled how Lee “wept like a child” as some of his soldiers repeatedly refused orders to charge. Towards the end, Brig. Gen. George West’s brigade arrived on McAllister’s left to fill the gap.

As darkness fell, the beaten Confederates trudged back to their works, leaving behind many of their dead and wounded. Overnight, significant numbers surrendered to Union pickets. The Federals incurred only 24 casualties west of Rocky Branch. East of the stream, they suffered 87 casualties, 48 of which came from the exposed 8th New Jersey. Humphreys’s thin blue line had successfully repelled repeated attacks from a far larger Confederate force. Precise Rebel casualties are lacking, probably around 300 in total, including desertions.

Brig. Gen. Clement Evans (LC)

Given Gordon’s expectations of victory, what went wrong? Federal officers praised the two artillery sections. McAllister admitted that he wouldn’t have held his position without their fire. Smyth claimed they prevented the Rebels from flanking and capturing his division. The 8th New Jersey displayed exemplary fortitude fighting in the open for over an hour. In such circumstances, regiments could easily panic and flee, as did the two regiments to their left. Had McAllister’s line broken, it would have imperiled the whole 2nd Corps position. Six hours elapsed from the Federals taking the crossings before the Confederates responded. This delay enabled the construction of rudimentary earthworks. McAllister’s four regiments fighting behind these crude defenses suffered only six casualties, showing the value of even hastily formed earthworks.

The key to the engagement lay west of Rocky Branch. Despite having artillery support, Evans’s division failed to penetrate the Union picket line. This enabled the Federal artillery to target their firepower across the stream, effectively blunting Heth’s attacks. Evans’s men had recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, having suffered crushing defeats. Low morale and a reputation for an unwillingness to fight haunted these soldiers. One reporter drily commented, “Gordon’s Valley troops … had attempted to save the Confederacy by the old maneuver of running not fighting.” Gordon did not use tactics successfully employed at earlier Petersburg battles, where sharpshooters targeted Union artillery, diminishing their effectiveness. Also, the Confederate artillery could have countered the Federal cannons and softened up McAllister’s line. Gordon’s and Evans’s memoirs ignored the debacle.

In the late afternoon of February 5, the Confederates missed a golden opportunity to inflict severe damage on the Union 2nd Corps. However, their vigorous attacks gave Grant much to ponder and led to two further days of bloody fighting around Hatcher’s Run [5].

Dr. Nigel Lambert is a retired British academic who lives near Norwich, England. He has published many bioscience and social science articles linked to various medical issues. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, he recently became interested in the battle of Hatcher’s Run. Surprised by the sparse and conflicting literature on the battle, he employed his scientific and qualitative research know-how to advance our understanding of the battle. Working with US experts on the Petersburg campaign, he has created an extensive e-library for the battle. Using this database, he has authored two articles in North &South magazine article and five articles on the “Siege of Petersburg Online” website. A book chapter describing the battle is currently under review.


 

Notes

[1] MacRae was on leave, with Col. John Lane probably commanding.

[2] The 182nd New York had derived in part from the 69th New York State National Guard Artillery, a famed Irish regiment and was frequently referred to as the 69th New York.

[3] The wound developed complications, and Murphy died two months later.

[4] With Mahone absent ill, Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan commanded the division.

[5] I thank Bryce A. Suderow for his support throughout my research.

 

Main Sources

Nigel Lambert & Bryce A. Suderow, “The Battle of Hatcher’s Run: A Re-Appraisal,” North & South Magazine (January 2022) Series 2, Vol. 2, No. 5, 35-46.

Robert J. Driver, First and Second Maryland Infantry CSA (Bowie, MD, 2003), 310-13.

Robert McAllister, The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister, James I. Robertson, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ, 1965), 580-88.

Nigel Lambert, Rebel Units, and their Commanders at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, Part 3, Rebel Units and their Commanders at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run: February 5-7, 1865 — The Siege of Petersburg Online (beyondthecrater.com).

OR 46/1:63-69; 191-95; 207-08; 210-26; 235-36; 238-39; 242-50; 393.

OR 46/2:422-23; 499.

Earl J. Hess, Lees Tar Heels: The PettigrewKirklandMacRae Brigade (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002), 284-87.

James A. Graham, “The 27th Regiment,” in Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861-65. 5 vols. (Goldsboro, NC, 1901), 2:450-52.

John A. Sloan, Reminiscences of The Guilford Grays, Company B, 27th NC Regiment (Washington, DC, 1883), 109-110.

John D. Billings, The History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery of Light Artillery in the War of the Rebellion, 18621865 (Boston, MA, 1909), 381-89.

William T. Venner, The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster (Jefferson, NC, 2015), 196-97.

Charles R. Jones, Petersburg Siege Newspapers, “Historical Sketch.” Our Living and Our Dead (Newbern, NC), May 20, 1874.

“Battle of Hatcher’s Run,” Atlanta [GA] Weekly Intelligencer, April 12, 1865.



14 Responses to “Never More Certain of Victory”: The Confederate Strike at Rocky Branch, February 5, 1865

  1. Thanks for this well written piece exploring the opening of the Petersburg Campaign’s most neglected offensive. Looking forward to reading future articles.

    1. Thanks Tim.
      Yes, it’s strange how this 3 day battle between the AoP and ANV has been largely overlooked. That story is as interesting as the battle itself. The entire offensive instigated by Grant was ignored in his memoirs.

  2. Good to read your article on this overlooked engagement. Looking forward to seeing the next one.

    1. Thanks Bob for your comments and your longstanding support of my research. Hope you enjoy the other articles.

  3. This article suggests quite strongly that quite a few Confederate soldiers knew, and accepted, that they and their cause were beaten. Lee had to at least suspect as much, given what is reported here. But, he and they soldered on.

    1. Thanks Douglas for your insightful comment.
      Desertion within the ANV was rife since the turn of the year, John Horn’s book on the Petersburg siege gives some detailed numbers. Lack of food and clothing during a harsh winter were big factors. Not being paid and the view that the war was lost also encouraged desertions. And many Carolina soldiers were worried about their families as Sherman’s army advanced. Desertion increased substantially after the bloody Hatcher’s Run battle. Lee was well aware of the issue as new policies towards deserters arose. Lee sent a terse message to Richmond pleading for better supplies. Davis sacked the procurement official and things did subsequently improve. Lee also had to send precious troops to the NC border to round up and prevent deserters. But for sure many Confederates stuck it out, many regiments held pledge meetings to emphasise their loyalty to the cause and to see the war through to the bitter end.
      It’s a significant topic for sure. I have created (unpublished) some referenced text describing the subject.

  4. Nigel: Thank you for contributing an excellent analysis and narrative that improves the understanding of an important, but previously poorly documented engagement.

    1. Thank you David. I hope these brief pen-pictures whet people’s appetite. Such a lot of fascinating stuff happened that day.

  5. Excellent article Nigel. Anything with 1865 is so hard to find sources for and you did a wonderful job of it!

  6. Really great information and insight here, Nigel. Thank you for providing even more fascinating detail around a very important (but neglected) engagement. Certainly helps in my research around the Confederate Officer’s sword I found in that general vicinity (on private property and with written permission). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your other articles related to the Feb ‘65 battle at Hatcher’s Run and appreciate your writing style. Looking forward to more!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!