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Peeble's Farm

Peebles Farm
by Daniel Moran
 
Major General George Gordon Meade's task was to exploit the weak areas of the Confederate Entrenchments in and around Petersburg, Virginia itself while the main attack of the Army of the James approached the Confederate Capitol. Lieutenant General Grant had banked on the fact that General Robert E. Lee would have to weaken his own lines south of the Appomattox and James Rivers in order to prevent the capture of Richmond, by Major General Benjamin Butler's boys.
 
On 29 September 1864, Meade's first objective was only make a strong show of force before the Petersburg works. Should Confederate Re-enforcements decide to leave Petersburg for the north side of the James River, Meade was to make a rush for Lee's supply lines.
 
At 1:00 am on the 28th of September, General Meade's Chief of Staff, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, ordered Major General John Parke, commanding IX Army Corps, to transfer Brigadier General Robert B. Potter's 2nd Division from it's reserve position behind Hancock's center to Dr. Gurley's house, just south of Globe Tavern. This should have given the Confederates the idea a concentration of troops on the left was openly taking place and kept them pinned down.
 
Lieutenant General Grant simply wished to leave the tactical operation to his subordinate commanders, and left simple instructions: If the enemy made an attempt to strip the defenses to support the attacks north of the James, Meade was welcome to strike at the South side road or for Petersburg itself, whatever he deemed best. As for Thursday, the fighting along the Peninsula to the north would determine what Major General Meade was to do with the Army of the Potomac.
 
All was to remain quite on Wednesday Evening, however about 9:00 pm an outbreak of heavy musketry was heard just west of the Jerusalem Plank Road and now Army Headquarters both from City Point and Globe Tavern were sending couriers off to make it's purpose. It turned out that inexperienced black troops from Brigadier General Edward Ferraro's 3rd Division, IX Corps, had drawn fire while changing out the pickets, and the black soldiers responded more briskly than they should have. As the firing finally died out about 11:00 - 11:30 that night, no more serious battle occurred around the Cockade City.
 
As fighting north of the James River began on the morning of the 29th of September, General Lee had done something that the Army of the Potomac didn't expect. He returned "all" extra duty personnel back to the trenches. This included cooks, clerks, and fatigue details. He furthermore called small detachments and second class troops back to cover the holes his fighting body was about to create by marching north of the James.
 
Looking across at the entrenchments of the Cockade City gave the appearance that the nobody had left the Petersburg entrenchments to support the north side of the James, however listening to the fighting in that direction would lead the Army of the Potomac to believe they were getting help from somewhere. There was to be no fighting for the armies south of the James River, however, both armies would demonstrate to lead the other army opposed into not moving against it.
 
As the Lieutenant General was returning to Deep Bottom, he saw enough evidence that Lee was moving troops north of the James River, however, cautioned Meade that he doubted whether it was advisable to make an advance that evening. Before he was able to finish the message however, he was beginning to receive more intelligence perhaps from Bermuda Hundred that "large forces are moving from Petersburg toward Richmond." He then advised Meade if this continues it may then be well for you to attack this evening (29 September).
 
From General Meade's viewpoint, there was nothing to indicate that Robert E. Lee had weakened anything at all. Meade could only surmise that the troops moving north had to be from Robert Hoke's division which had been accurately reported as being in reserve as early as Wednesday.
 
At 4:00 pm, General Meade had ordered Major General Gouverneur K. Warren to pull in his pickets east of the Weldon Railroad and prepare for action. Brigadier General John F. Hartranft's 1st Division, IX Corps, was then marched west to a position west of the Jerusalem Plank Road, here he joined Potter's Division along with four IX Corps Batteries. 
 
Although the foot soldier was counted on not to bring on battle the 29th of September, the same could not be said for the Federal and Confederate Cavalry. The battle plan was for the Second Cavalry Division under Major General David M. Gregg, to concentrate his forces south on the Weldon Railroad. He was preparing his division as early as Wednesday and then moved them out at 4:00 am on the 29th. 
 
Major General Wade Hampton, when first taking command of the Confederate Cavalry Corps had at his disposal eight brigades. But with the war heating up in the Shenandoah Valley, he had already lost both Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas Lafeyette Rosser, leaving him with five brigades. On paper, Hampton had some 6,900 horse soldiers to launch against Gregg, however with the war itself taking it's toll on horse flesh, the Confederate General was able to mount about 4,500 soldiers. About thirty five (35) percent of the Confederate Cavalry had lacked horses by this time.
 
It was Gregg's intent to get his cavalry force into the open ground south of Peeble's Farm. By driving in the pickets, he could threaten if not cut off the supply routes from Stony Creek Depot and divert the Confederate attention from Chaffin's Bluff to Dinwiddie Court House. Furthermore, he'd be in a great place to cooperate with the infantry should Meade decide to commit his infantry in this direction.
 
Wade Hampton's Cavalry was strung out from Peeble's Farm to the vicinity of Ream's Station and Malone's Crossing on the Weldon Railroad. It was his mission to to guard the supply lines between Stony Creek Depot and Petersburg itself. The only division that was back in reserve and not along the front line, was that of Major General W.H.F. Rooney Lee. Since it was not, Wade Hampton decided to review it on the 29th of September. With Grant's active campaigning, the days of the old Stuart "Passes in Review" were practically non existent now in the fall of 1864, but a short lived revival of the old ways did wonders for morale within the Confederate camps themselves.
 
Gregg's Second Brigade began by probing west of the Weldon Railroad along the Lower Church Road. Should Gregg not find an opening there, he informed army headquarters (Army of the Potomac, i.e. General Meade), he would demonstrate toward Poplar Springs Church.
 
Meade's Chief of Staff, Andrew Humphrey's already had good intelligence that the infantry division of Harry Heth's was in the vicinity of Poplar Springs Church, and that if Gregg had gone beyond the church resistance would be too strong if he moved beyond it. Gregg was already on the move however before he was duly warned.
 
Gregg would remain behind with the 1st Maine Cavalry in order to cover the right rear of his division, while send forward and west, the 2nd Pennsylvania, 4th Pennsylvania, 8th Pennsylvania, 13th Pennsylvania and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalries.
 
As the main body reached the banks of Arthur's Swamp, they had run into their beligerent foe. The van clashed with some outposts along with troopers of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry. They turned out to be no match for entire Yank Cavalry Brigade advancing against them, however, they only gave up their ground reluctant and slowly. They finally fell back almost an hour and a half later, while Gregg's Second Brigade continued on it's way towards Hatcher's Run.
 
As they came into the Hatcher's Run area, Hampton had used the strong terrain to mount a defensive make it a living hell for the Cavalry of General Gregg. It began with Farley's Foot dragoons, but were soon joined by Jeff Davis Legion, 20th Georgia Cavalry Battalion, and the 7th Georgia Cavalry. Pretty soon, virtually the whole Confederate First Division was there stop check the crossing.
 
It was the orders of the Union Cavalry to simply demonstrate against their lines of communication, but not to provoke a full scale attack. However, what the Yankee's wanted and what they got were a different story altogether.
 
All brigade commanders reported back to General Gregg that they had met strong resistance along the roads heading west. Gregg sent the 1st Maine Cavalry to reconnoiter the Lower Church Road and ran headlong into Joel Griffin's strong picket line. Needless to say, but 1:45 pm, General Gregg was sending word back to General Meade of what his brigades had run into. Meade was further convinced that any advance on this portion of the line would be folly.
 
About 4:00 pm however, General Hampton became concerned about what all this Federal Cavalry in his front meant. At every turn he attempted to bring on an attack, Gregg had backed down. He now sent Major General Matthew C. Butler's division across Hatcher's Run. The weak picket screen of Gregg's had caved in, while Butler's men gave chase.
 
He sent out dismounted sharpshooters to engage the Pennsylvanians. When the engagement started, The First U.S. Artillery, Battery H and I now opened up revealing their hidden position. A section of Captain James F. Hart's Washington Artillery (SC), now unlimbered and replied from the heights above McDowell's Farm. The third shot from this Rebel Battery had arched perfectly landing directly into a Federal Limber Chest. The explosion was deafening and could be heard all the way up the Petersburg line as far as Globe Tavern. It was explosion that tipped off the entire Army of the Potomac that Gregg was engaged.
 
Major General Gregg's boys having been carrying both breech-loading carbines and a few repeaters, gave him confidence that his men could hold out against the Rebel Force pressed against them, however, he still welcomed any news from General Humphrey's that infantry support was on it's way.
 
Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, commanding 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac was ordered as early as Wednesday Night that if Gregg needed the infantry support, that he was to provide it. He thus pulled Edgar M. Gregory's Second Brigade, First Division out of their fortifications and marched them down the Halifax Road toward the battlefield at about 5:00 pm.
 
Likewise, Hampton began feeding the fight by counter-manning Army Headquarters orders to send the Third Cavalry Division under Rooney Lee to the Peninsula, but kept it in the vicinity of the Boydton Plank Road in a place where it could move in either direction swiftly. Now, about the time the 5th Corps began moving south towards McDowell's, Hampton called for Rooney Lee's Division to the same place.
 
In the gathering darkness however, Rufus Barringer's fresh troops made a charge against Gregg's line again. The line of the 4th and 13th Pennsylvania Cavalries had crumpled and the Confederates had walked away with Major James Peale, the commanding officer of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
 
The day of raiding and fighting, reconnoitering and probing, demonstrating and bluffing was coming to an end. As the soldiers bedded down for their needed sleep, the field commanders on both sides prepared for what tomorrow was going to bring along.
 
 
The master of the Offensive Campaign no longer possessed the necessary manpower to wage war on the open ground on the attack. General Robert E. Lee would have to settle on allowing Grant to run the strategic operations about Petersburg and simply meet whatever attacks may arise.
 
The truth behind the bluff, was that General Lee did in fact weaken his line before Petersburg. What General Meade read was simply a fasade, but on the Confederate Right Flank, in reality, The Army of Northern Virginia could only muster one soldier for every three paces.
 
The battle north of the James River at Chaffin's Bluff only threw Richmond into mortal peril, it's impact had uncovered the army's communications south of the river as well. Butler's breakthrough made Robert E. Lee fear for the safety of Petersburg, Virginia as a whole.
 
General Pierre Gustave Tutant Beauregard at this point in the Petersburg Campaign had been commanding the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. But Beauregard felt uncomfortable with this subordinate role and left the south side of Petersburg on 20 September to inspect the defenses of Charleston. He never returned. On 3 October, he was re-assigned to command the Military Division of the West. His position on the south side of Petersburg was then given to the III Army Corps Commander in his absence, Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill.
 
The Lieutenant General moved himself into General Lee's headquarters located up on Dunn's Hill, taking command of both the artillery brigades and all fifteen infantry brigades defending Petersburg.
 
By 11:30 pm the night before, Lieutenant General Grant was still unsure as to how he wanted the Army of the Potomac to proceed. His normal start time (4:00 am) for the would have to be delayed for all corps involved and directives were passed that his army should be ready to move out at 8:00 am. It had taken so long for the these new orders to filter down through the chain of command that elements of John Parke's IX Corps still mustered hours before they needed to.
 
Certain elements of the V Corps were already on the extreme left of the line, the remainder could be pulled along the entrenchments at Petersburg could be pulled back into mobile reserve.
 
The Army of the Potomac south of the James River would march two corps, along with Major General David Gregg's cavalry, a strike force of about 24,000 men. Their mission was to find a weak point on the southern portion of the line and if practicable reach the Boydton Plank Road, cutting off the Army of Northern Virginia's supply lines.
 
The two Infantry Corps Commanders, both Warren of the V Corps and John Parke of the IX Corps performed admirably as corps commanders under the direct supervision of an army commander. In this case, George Meade would stay behind and allow his corps independent command on this campaign.
 
One of the shortcomings of Gouverneur K. Warren was hesitency to coordinate, he was high strung and often times would tell seniors just how they ought to conduct the operation. Major General John Parke since the early days in the North Carolina campaign of 1862, would long be associated with the Burnside's IX Corps, but serving as it's Chief of Staff. Only on a brief few occasions had he taken command, and his combat experience under such circumstances remained virtually untested.
 
At 8:25 am, Lieutenant General Grant had returned from his meeting at Deep Bottom and with his assessment of movements north of the James River sent the following to General Meade: "General Butler's forces will remain where they are for the present moment, ready to advance, if found practicable. You may move out now and see if an advantage can be gained. It seems to me the enemy must be weak at one or the other place to let us in."
 
General Warren is now ordered to move down the Poplar Spring Church Road and endeavor to secure the Squirrel Level Road. He then moved the IX Corps out across the swamp in the vicinity of Miss Pegram's below Poplar Springs Church and to post on Warren's left. Major General Gregg would move his cavalry out to the Wilkenson place and screen the left of the federal troops.
 
The marching columns had been so long from start to finish, that the tail of the infantry did not move from it's starting point until three hours after the head of it left.
 
The terrain reminded the common soldier of only four months earlier groping through the Wilderness. The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters expect any moment to pull back and branch from a tree and find the mighty grey host in their front.
 
As Warren's V Corps had approached the property of Peeble's Farm, the foliage surrounding the area had caused him to be very cautious in his approach on attacking the enemy here. They had certainly run into the greycoats here, but were unable to tell in just what kind of strength. General Warren took another two hours at mid-day to complete his dispositions in the attack.
 
Sometime around 1:00 pm, sources say the fight got underway by antsy troops who could no longer take the delay. They had been under fire now and few regiments simply broke into a charge, drawing the remainder of the division in after them, other accounts state that the charge was in obedience to orders.
 
The 20th Maine Infantry was sent forward to towards the blueclad skirmishers and coming up on the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry found them reluctant to move out of the depression they were hiding in. So they swept on by this regiment in a charge. The sight of one regiment charging launched a series of other regiments to join in and with it most of the 3rd Brigade, 44th New York, 16th Michigan and some others started at a run.
 
The defensive position at Fort Archer answered to the charge, and the crackling of musketry from Joel Griffin's dismounted troops. Graham's battery of four guns opened up on the blue troops sending solid shot and canister into their advancing line. It was enough to stagger the advance of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry and the 83rd Pennyslvania Infantry, now seeking shelter in a swale in the field, but General Griffin's main body just kept right on coming.
 
The bluecoats streamed through or around the obstructions and jumped into the moat. All troops clambering up the slopes, among the first banners raised were those of the 83rd and 155th Pennsylvania Infantries. The first to cross the parapet was the 20th Maine on the extreme left of the brigade.
 
Colonel William E. Welch, commanding the 16th Michigan had gotten himself separated from his main force during the disorderly advance. When he reached the crest of the unfinished ramparts, he turned shouting "Forward, men! A commission to him who first mounts this parapet with me!" Before his comrades were able to reach him, however, a small body of defenders within the fort planted two shots in the colonel's head and his dead body fell back into the moat.
 
It was all over for Fort Archer however. Within minutes, this fortification like Harrison to the north was no longer defendable and the Confederates gave it up to the storming V Army Corps.
 
Colonel Gwyn, the 3rd Brigade Commander's horse had slipped scaling the slopes of Fort Archer causing him to fall and the horse to roll over top of him. He was then forced to relinquish command of the 3rd Brigade to Major Ellis Spear of the 20th Maine Infantry. (Hooray!)
 
Brigadier General Charles Griffin then rode out before a whirlwind of cheers from the men of his division. He began congratulating them just before Major General Gouverneur K. Warren had ridden out from his post back in woods watching the assault. He also, was greeted by thousands of cheering soldiers. However, like Fort Harrison north of the James River, this small victory would be about all that Griffin and his men were able to accomplish.
 
By 1:30 pm, the Army of the Potomac's 5th Army Corps had done what they were ordered to do. They had punched a hole in Robert E. Lee's outer defenses and had an open road all the way to the Boydton Plank Road. All that was needed now were fresh troops to exploit the breach.
 
The assaults at this junction practically ground to a halt. Major General John Parke had the fresh troops to march for the Boydton Plank Road, but were too busy manning the defensive works along Poplar Springs Church. Griffin's men presently satisfied with their small victory over Fort Archer, stood on the defensive along the Church Road.
 
About 2:00 pm General Warren wrote to Meade stating: "I will push up as fast as I can get my troops in order towards Petersburg on the Squirrel Level Road." Parke too was hesitant to move. Both commanders felt an uneasiness that things were going too smooth, feared committing their troops too quickly, and both expected a Confederate Counter Attack. The strike force was paralyzed for one crucial hour after the fall of Fort Archer.
 
Had Warren or Parke been in command overall of this strike perhaps it's advance may have been coordinated better. The individual hesitancy has hurt the strike considerably. Perhaps as the assaults were now in it's second stage, General Meade or maybe his Chief of Staff, Andrew Humphrey's should written out and taken overall command, but this didn't happen either.
 
It was about 3:00 pm or so when Major General George G. Meade had started for the front. He contented himself with issuing orders to his two subordinate commanders from Fort Archer. It was about 4:15 pm when he notified Lieutenant General Grant that Major General Parke and his IX Army Corps were now in motion and moving across Pegram's Farm. Although he reassured Grant of the IX Corps movements, he did nothing to revitalize the Corps or get the V Army Corps to cooperate with it.
 
Just as Parke had begun to launch his attack across Pegram's Farm Major General Cadmus Wilcox arrived to counter the effort.
 
This was timely, because earlier Wilcox had already been moving in support of Lee north of the James River. It's unclear whether it was notification of the fall of Fort Archer had sent them counter marching back to their original position or not. But now, John Parke had Confederate Troops himself to contend with and their defensive more tenacious.
 
General Wilcox had acted more or less on his own initiative. Sending word back to A.P. Hill of the Federal Breakthrough at Pegram's, he rushed to the vicinity vice waiting for a reply. In the meantime, Hill receiving Wilcox's communication quickly began finding re-enforcements not to simpy defend against the Federals but to throw them back.
 
Lieutenant General A.P. then fed Henry Heth's division into Pegram's along with anywhere between 3,200 to 3,700 cavalry under Lieutenant General Wade Hampton. The aggregate force that John Parke was about to meet was roughly 9,000 Confederates.
 
A lack of understanding occurred within the structure of the Second Brigade. While it had moved out to meet the enemy, the extreme right two companies of the 35th Massachusetts had obeyed orders and moved, however, the extreme left two companies remained in place creating a hole in the line. Furthermore the soldiers of the 17th Vermont had mistook their own brigade for Secessionists and opened up on them. The regimental colonel saw the situation and tried to stop it, but the soldiers refused to listen.
 
The soldiers under Wilcox took advantage of the breach and began driving the Federals back. There could be no stopping the momentum. They had caught the soldiers of the 17th Vermont in the woods fixing bayonets, driving them along with the remainder of the federal line, mortally wounding Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cummings, their commander.
 
They then ran headlong into the 35th Massachusetts, probably one of the weakest regiments of the bunch. Most of their manpower was made up of German immigrants just off the boats from Europe. The New Englander's despised these new troops and suggested their name be changed from the 35th Massachusetts to the 1st Hamburgers. The Confederate Cavalry under Wade Hampton had dashed in behind his infantry and before the majority had an opportunity to escape he had rounded up 124 of them for prison camp.
 
Wilcox's counter attack struck the Union Flank and swept it clean from Jones' House to Arthur's Swamp all in about a half hour. Rooney Lee's dismounted 9th and 10th Virginia Cavalry came in from the northwest and delivered the coup de grace.
 
The Union Line now found themselves surrounded on all three sides and their military cohesion crumpled. More than 600 Union soldiers became prisoners here, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Gregg, Major John Wright, and Major Everett Horton, all regimental commanders, captured.
 
By the end of this day's fighting, the Confederate Infantry under Cadmus Wilcox had succeeded in driving the Union Line back over the Jones Farm property both IX and V Corp withdrew. Charles Griffin's stand on the Pegram Farm had prevented the Confederates from regaining their losses of early afternoon. The last line of defense had held. And this episode of Poplar Springs Church was over.
 
The Federals had tried again on the following day to reach the Boydton Plank Road but it availed nothing. The delays and uncoordinated attacks, gave the Union soldiers fruitless victories, and the Squirrel Level Line would hold, Richmond would not fall for another six months and the war and casualties would continue on until then.

Peeble's Farm written by Daniel Moran.
Copyright © 2001 Daniel Moran