The idea for Federal forces to go on the offensive one more time before winter descended upon the siege lines around Petersburg originated with Maj. Gen, George Meade. On the evening of October 23, 1864, he discussed his plan with Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant. It was similar in design to the strategy of attacking both flanks simultaneously that had been used with mixed results throughout the summer and early fall, but the force employed would be larger, and the attack on the western front would cover a wider section of the Confederate line. Intelligence Meade had gathered from Confederate prisoners indicated that the entrenchments west of the Union line at Fort Cummings were poorly constructed and there were but few defenders.
The map above was drawn in 1865. Fort Cummings is marked in bright red and in October 1864, no Federal fortifications had been built to the south and west. Fort Cummings was the end of the line. Meade’s strategy was simple. While Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler demonstrated against the Confederate lines east of Richmond with the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac would assault the weak Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg with three corps of infantry—about 35,000 men. The three corps were the Second under Maj. Gen Winfield S. Hancock, the Fifth under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, and the Ninth under Maj. Gen. John Parke. The Fifth and Ninth were to drive hard against the Rebel works and be ready to instantly exploit the breakthrough that was sure to come. It was the Second Corps’ job to march hard for the Boydton Plank Road and, once it was securely in Federal hands, strike northward toward the South Side Railroad. To the left (south) of the Second Corps, Gen. Gregg’s division of cavalry guarded the flank.
At about 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 27, the three columns of infantry moved out. Things went poorly from the start. Parke’s Corps moved slowly westward. Light rain and mist made the way slippery with mud. Officers didn’t know the roads and sporadic Confederate sharpshooting hindered their progress. When they finally did come upon the main Confederate line, it proved to be much stouter and more heavily manned than they had been told. No further progress was made and with the day but half spent, Parke’s men dug in.
Warren’s Corps fared little better. They lost their bearings in the dark and when they finally did get headed in the right direction, they ran into Confederate resistance north of Armstrong’s Mill. Pushing on a little farther, Warren’s men also discovered that Federal intelligence was wrong. A strongly enemy line of entrenchments lay across their line of advance. Warren, who was an engineer before the war, stopped and analyzed the situation.
Hancock’s Second Corps had marched farther than either of the other two corps to take part in this assault on the Boydton Plank Road, and again on this day they would be required to march the farthest. I drew the route of the Second Corps, which included the two hundred or so members of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, on the map above. After marching south on Halifax Road, they turned west toward Hatcher’s Run where they came upon resistance. Sgt. John Hirst (Co. D) wrote, “There was one regiment from Georgia that tried to hold the works, but it was broken and scattered through the woods.”
Once across Hatcher’s Run, the corps turned northwest an marched along a very narrow road past Dabney’s Mill. As the column approached the Boydton Plank Road, Confederate artillery opened up on them. Sgt. Hirst again describes the action, “Our skirmishers on one side and our cavalry on the other soon outflanked them and they had to fall back. In the meantime our artillery came up and opened fire, under cover of which we got possession of the road.”
Another of Gen. Lee’s vital supply routes was now in Federal hands, but Confederate forces were rushing to face this new threat. The Second Corps was once again dangling unsupported at the end of the line, just as it had when the Confederates had almost destroyed the corps at Ream’s Station. Hancock had been personally humiliated then and his confidence in his men was shaken. Next week, we’ll see if the once superb Hancock had one more great fight left in him.