MURDER ON THE WELDON RAIL ROAD
By Chris Piering
While the title of this article may sound like a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot novel, it bespeaks a real event far more chilling for the Regulars of the V Corp.
In the spring of 1864, General Grant accompanied George Meade's Army of the Potomac southward into Virginia, starting a new and deadly phase in the War of the Rebellion. In the thirty days following Grant's first tangle with Lee, the union had lost over fifty thousand men, half as many as it had lost in the three previous years of the war.
This led northern newspapers to brand Grant a butcher and fueled anti-war sentiment throughout the country. Even Mary Lincoln complained that he had ".. no regard for life... I could fight an army as well myself."
After the horrors of Cold Harbor perhaps even the haggard commander realized that the sacrifices were too great. On June 12th, the union army sidestepped Lee and marched fifty miles toward the soft underbelly of Richmond, Petersburg.
Petersburg sat at the junction of vital rail links, arteries that kept the confederacy alive. One of these, the Norfolk and Petersburg, had been severed by the union advance, making the Weldon from North Carolina and the Southside from the interior even more important. After months of trench warfare, including the failed Battle of the Crater, General Grant sought to extend the already thin line of the rebel by extending his lines from the east to the west, curling around the defenses of Petersburg.
On August 18th, the V corps under General Goveneur Warren was directed to make a reconnaissance in force toward and beyond the Weldon Railroad. This included the depleted Regular Brigade, reduced to 1526 rifles from the standard minimum of 4000.
Warren, reinforced by a division of cavalry, collided with Heth's division of Hill's corps at Globe Tavern, a yellow-painted hospitality house on the wagon lane next to the rail line. The Regulars of the second brigade under Brig. Gen. Joseph Hayes straddled the tracks while the first brigade under Gen. Charles Griffin tore up the tracks. The 12th U.S. and the 140th N.Y. were deployed as skirmishers into the thick woods to the east of the rails where they offered combat to superior numbers of confederates.
The 12th was forced to retire after running low on ammunition, but not before driving the rebels and taking one of their guns. Fearing for the unprotected flanks, only the railroad embankment prevented a deadly flanking fire from further decimating the Regulars' thinned ranks. As the day wore on, the situation was stabilized by the ever steady Gen. Romeyn Ayers.
The night of the 18th saw the lines pulled back to a better position, and breastworks were erected for the work ahead on the 19th. To the rear, the troops continued the job of tearing up track while pickets of both sides felt each other out.
During the fight of the 18th, Meade had pushed up troops of the II and IX corps who would play an integral part in the battle of the 19th. In the early afternoon, scouts had detected movement of heavy columns of gray troops moving on the union right. After repelling frontal assault by Heth's men at four P.M., things started to go bad for the Regs. A.P. Hill had himself shown up to direct a massive attack that included the firing of thirty massed artillery pieces. The rebels drove into a gap on the right of the regulars that had failed to be plugged by the remnants of the famed Iron Brigade, now part of Bragg's third division.
Hancock himself tried to stem the tide at Ream Station, some five miles down the tracks, but was thwarted when three green N.Y. regiments (bounty men) refused to fight. Hill drove his corp into the breach crumbling the union line in on the Regulars position.
Commenting on these soldiers at a later date, Hancock lamented, "I could have beaten Hill, but some were green and all were worn out with labor."
A sudden avalanche from the Light Division descended on the Regulars' front, flank, and rear. Each regiment was left to slug it out in knots with the 12th U.S. and 14th ordered to hold their breatworks to the last man, sacrificed to buy minutes as had been the case in too many battles before.
Two rebel brigades smashed into the 12th U.S. in a pincers movement of hand to hand combat. The desperate survivors broke for the rear, among them Lt. August Thieman of co. B. Seeing the color guard shot down, he seized both regimental flags and slashed his way through anyone brave enough to try and stop him. He planted the colors at supporting batteries where the remnants of the 12th could rally.
In the melee at the barricades, Capt. Samuel Newbury was wounded and taken prisoner. While being herded to the confederate rear, his captor turned and saw the 187th Pa. closing in on them. The rebel officer, rather than lose his prize, cocked his pistol and fired point blank into Newbury's chest. The shocked Pennsylvanians rushed to his aid and Newbury lived just long enough to recount the story of his own murder.
|The regs were not the only notable casualties of this battle. Warren's V corps lost 4500 men and the second corp lost 3000 rifles, nine guns, 2000 prisoners and a dozen battle flags. The defeat broke Hancock's spirit and both he and Gibbon soon left the army. Gibbon soon returned, but Hancock was never again to see battle.|
In the aftermath of this "raid" 173 of the 12th found their way to Richmond, not at the right of an advancing line of battle, but as prisoners of war.
To the rear, troops of the II, IX, and the remainder of the V corps held the line and the Weldon was cut, further thinning the rebels' defensive line.
Although the Regulars continued to exist in name, seeing further action at Chappell House and Boynton Plank Road, August 19th might be considered the end of the Regular Brigade. General Ayers said of the Regulars after the war, "...the Regulars had been buried. I had Regulars--what were known as the Regular Division before I went into the battle of Gettysburg. I left one half of them there, and buried the rest in the Wilderness. There were no Regulars left."
Last Updated on 3/29/04
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