“I immediately hunted for cover, which I was so fortunate to find in a deserted rifle-pit a short distance to the rear.” Sgt. Henry Lydall, Company F, Fourteenth Connecticut Vol. Inf., regarding the fight at Ream’s Station, August 25, 1864.
The Weldon Railroad was the only railroad link from Petersburg to the only open Confederate port on the eastern seaboard—Wilmington, NC. In the Battle of Globe Tavern (Aug. 18-21), Lee’s troops, under Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill, tried again and again to drive the Union Fifth Corps, from the railroad near Globe Tavern. Hill’s attacks only forced Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren to draw his lines back a short distance along the railroad, but the Federals never gave up possession of the vital link. In the end, Hill was forced to admit defeat and withdraw north toward Petersburg.
The Union Second Corps, under Maj. Gen. W. S. Hancock had left the north side of the James River August 18th and had marched all the way around the Petersburg siege lines to the western end on the Union entrenchments at Globe Tavern. It was a distance of about thirty-five miles, but the roads were muddy from summer storms. The going was hard and no period for extended rest was given. The men were exhausted when they finally arrived in support of the Fifth Corps.
The Fifth Corps remained at Globe Tavern working to extend the Union trenches to secure the railroad while the Second Corps, now only two divisions strong (about 9,000 men), moved slowly south down the railroad. With Miles Division on the lead they tore up the rails and heated them to glowing red over piles of flaming ties so that the rails were unusable. But the movements of the Second Corps had not gone unnoticed. Understrength and detached from the rest of the army as they were, the two divisions of Hancock’s Corps (1st – Miles and 2nd – Gibbon) made a tempting target.
It was a great risk for Lee send a strong assault force ten miles south from the safety of the Confederate lines. He would have to strip thousands of defenders from his Petersburg defenses, but it was a risk Lee had to take. He assembled a force of eight infantry brigades and two cavalry divisions and sent them south to “punish the enemy.” (Click here for a Civil War Trust map of the Battle of Ream’s Station.)
Despite their weariness the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut spirits were high the evening of the 24th. They had reached a small depot called Ream’s Station and they had helped to destroy the railroad for a distance of about six miles. And, for the first time since their first battle at Antietam almost two years ago, all ten of the company captains were present and fit for duty.
At about 11:30 that night, Gen. Hancock received a message from Gen. Meade’s headquarters informing him that a large force of enemy infantry was marching in his direction. Hancock arranged his defensive position in the shape of a pointed horseshoe, with the open end toward the east. The north and south sides of the horseshoe were only about two hundred yards apart, with Miles’ Division protecting the north and Gibbon’s Division the south. Hancock positioned most of his artillery at the closed western end along the railroad.
The first Confederate assault came shortly after noon on August 25th, from the northeast against the western end of Hancock’s horseshoe. Federal artillery quickly stopped the attack and drove the Rebels back to the cover of the woods. A few hours later the Confederates rushed forward again, this time from the southwest, and again heavy fire from their front and sides forced them to fall back. At about 5:30, a third assault was launched, this time led personally by Gen. Henry Heth. At first, it appeared that it would end as the previous two assaults had, but just as it seemed to Gen. Miles the day would be won, one of his brigades on the northwest portion of the horseshoe panicked and started a stampede for the rear.
The words of Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Co. I, 14th CT) describe the utter confusion that followed: When at last the railroad line gave way, we were called from our line to this side to repel the charge, and facing about we countercharged over the little “V” shaped battle ground to meet the oncoming foe. In the tempest of conflict that followed, organizations almost disappeared. When near night the attempt was made to reform a part of the line and fill up a gap in what had been our original line, General Smyth (the brigade commander) called for the One Hundred and Eighth New York and the colonel responded, “I am here, General, but I have no regiment.” To the call for the Fourteenth Connecticut, perhaps ten of us answered “here.” In obedience to the order, with perhaps a score of others, we dashed into the gap, to be swept as quickly out of it by the enfilading fire which the enemy at that moment poured in from the toe of the horseshoe.
Amid the blinding flashes of a terrible thunderstorm in one of the darkest nights I think I ever saw, both sides retreated and we lost, besides a great number of men, all our artillery but one single gun that a little party, of which I was one, pulled out by hand in that driving storm. These were the first cannon that the Second Corps ever lost and it is said that General Hancock sat at the root of a tree beside the road that night, the picture of distress over the disaster.
(Excerpted from History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry by Charles D. Page.)