The Wilson-Kautz Raid

June 22-July 1, 1864

Petersburg was an important city because two out of the three rail lines that connected Richmond to the rest of the Confederacy passed through the Cockade City: The Petersburg and Weldon RR, which connected Petersburg with Weldon, N.C., and eventually to the port of Wilmington; and the Southside RR, which ran roughly due west out of the city to Lynchburg. The third rail line, the Richmond and Danville, ran southwest close to Petersburg; a fourth line, the Virginia Central, ran north out of Richmond and then west to the Shenandoah Valley.

The Civil War was the first "railroad war." It was impossible to keep the armies in the field without massive supplies of food and ammunition, and it was impossible to maintain these supplies without the railroads (or, where possible, a port on a navigable waterway). Grant's strategy of threatening Petersburg was nothing more than a strategy of threatening Lee's (and Richmond's) supply lines to the rest of the Confederacy. Having failed to seize Petersburg by direct attack, Grant settled in for a long, slow, campaign of strangulation. He would launch the Army of the Potomac on an envelopment of the city, and he would launch a cavalry raid to wreck the railroads. The former effort led to the Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road, discussed elsewhere on this web site; the latter was the Wilson-Kautz Raid.

Prior to the crossing of the James, Grant had launched another cavalry raid, in which Phil Sheridan led two divisions of Yankee Cavalry west along the Virginia Central RR, the objective being to destroy this vital link between Lee and the Shenandoah Valley, then join up with the Federal force under Maj. Gen. David Hunter, which was ascending the Valley.

Although the absence of Sheridan and two divisions left Grant short on cavalry, the Federal commander nonetheless decided, in late June, to launch a similar effort against the Southside RR and the Richmond and Danville RR. The idea was to destroy track and vital bridges on these two lines, then return to the main Federal army at Petersburg. Since most of the Confederate cavalry was in central Virginia chasing Sheridan's two divisions, it was felt that the new raid would meet with little opposition.

Command of the expedition was given to Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, the young commander of the Third Cavalry Division of the Army of the Potomac. Wilson was young, intense, ambitious, energetic, arrogant, and highly assured of his own abilities. He spent the early years of the war as a staff officer, serving as Grant's inspector-general for much of the Vicksburg Campaign. In January of 1864 he was assigned to head up the Cavalry Bureau in Washington, where he is credited with many reforms and innovations, including making the Spencer carbine the uniform weapons issue to the Federal mounted troops. As a reward for this service Grant had him appointed to his first field command, in charge of the Third Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac. Although Wilson would grow into a very competent and energetic officer, he bungled his opening assignment, failing to properly screen his assigned flank of the army during its initial penetration of the Wilderness. He performed well during the Yellow Tavern Raid that resulted in the death of Confederate hero "Jeb" Stuart, and did an outstanding job screening the rear of the army during the crossing of the James in early June.

Planning for what became known as the Wilson-Kautz raid began on the afternoon of June 20th, just two days after the failure of the attempt to take Petersburg by direct assault. After leaving behind a small force to guard the flanks of the armies operating against Richmond and Petersburg, Wilson would command a force of two divisions, his own and that commanded by Brig. Gen. Augustus Kautz, of the Army of the James. The total force would consist of 12 regiments (about 5,500 men) and three artillery batteries (12 cannon). His mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Richmond and Danville and Southside Railroads, with particular attention to the junction at Burkeville and the two bridges at Staunton River (on the Richmond and Danville) and Farmville (on the Southside).

(Kautz is something of an enigma. He served capably in command of the Cavalry Division of the Army of the James through the spring and summer of 1864, but in the fall his performance began to decline and he was transferred to an infantry division in XXV Corps. He was a West Point graduate and had served capably in the pursuit of John Hunt Morgan's raid into Kentucky and Indiana in 1863. He was born in Baden, Germany.)

Wilson expressed some concern about his ability to return to the Union lines, and was assured that while he was gone the Federal infantry would more completely envelop Petersburg, so that he should have no problem getting back. This would turn out to be a bit optimistic.

The combined command set out at about 3 a.m. on June 22nd, heading out of the Union lines towards Ream's Station on the Weldon RR. Kautz's Second Brigade, under Col. Samuel P. Spear, had the advance. The station was reached at about 7:30 a.m., and the depot and associated buildings were burned, along with a train of about 13 platform cars, but it is unclear if any substantial track damage was done. One trooper in Kautz's brigade thought the entire place could be repaired in "ten minutes," and while he clearly was exaggerating, it appears that not much time was spent at Ream's. The most significant event at Ream's was that a force of enemy cavalry was encountered. While this was too small to block the expedition, it did mean that they would be dealing with an active pursuit almost from the start of the raid.

Another consequence of the presence of the enemy at Ream's Station was that the raiders would not have with them any special tools for the destruction of the railroads. Federal engineers had devised a special tool to use in twisting heated rails; application of this device to an iron rail was supposed to render it useless unless re-rolled at a mill, of which the Confederacy had few. Wilson was supposed to be given a supply of these things, but the ship carrying them to the armies at Petersburg ran aground in the Pamunkey River so they did not arrive before the troopers set out. Meade sent a special expedition of cavalry to follow Wilson and deliver the belatedly arriving tools, but when these men got to Ream's Station they found the enemy between them and Wilson, and were unable to get through.

The Yankees passed through Dinwiddie Court House around noon, halted for an hour's rest, then struck north for the Southside RR, which they reached at about 5:30 p.m., at a point about halfway between Ford's and Sutherland's stations. Chapman's brigade of Wilson's division had brought up the rear, and on several occasions had been forced to fend off pursuing Confederates. The command spent the rest of the day destroying track and facilities at Ford's Station and along the Southside Railroad. After only a couple hours sleep, they were back in the saddle at around 3 a.m. of the 23rd, heading west along the railroad, destroying track and facilities as they could. The enemy did not appear to be pursuing them this day. Kautz took his division straight on to Burkeville Junction. Wilson's force reached Black and White's Station at about noon, and pretty much trashed the place. A large quantity of cotton was found here, and burned. Moving on from Black and White's, Wilson's troopers encountered W.H.F. Lee's Confederate cavalry division near Nottoway Court House at about 2 p.m., where there was a sharp fight which, in true Civil War fashion, both sides claimed to have won.

Kautz reached Burkeville Junction at about 3 p.m. Spear's brigade was detailed to destroy the Southside line, and Col. Robert West's First brigade the Richmond and Danville line.

Lee had been able to place his division between the two separate commands of Kautz and Wilson. Declining to force the issue in a combat with Lee, Wilson decided to turn south along the Richmond and Danville RR; this may have been part of his original plan, although it is hard to tell from the reports. Kautz was ordered to rejoin him, which he did late on the evening of June 24th, between Meherrin Station and Keysville. All day long both commands had paused briefly to tear up track and destroy facilities along the railroad (water towers, wood piles, saw mills, etc.). Lee does not appear to have made an effort to harass the column on this day.

The entire day of the 25th was spent in moving southward along the Richmond and Danville, destroying track, bridges, culverts, and facilities. This day saw the beginning of some problems for the raiders, as their horses, worked hard each day since the 22nd, now began to give out at an alarming rate. One trooper in Kautz's command recalled seeing the route of the combined force littered with the corpses of horses that had given out and been shot (to deny them to the enemy). A little before 6 p.m., the command arrived in front of the Staunton River Bridge, one of the main targets of the raid.

Defending the bridge was a motley assortment of Home Guards, militia units, convalescent soldiers, and ordinary citizens, about 938 in all (one account says as many as 1,200), under the command of Capt. Benjamin Farinholt of the 53rd Virginia. Farinholt was no average soldier. He had served in his regiment (part of Armistead's Brigade in Pickett's division) through most of the war, being wounded and captured in Pickett's Charge, supposedly not far from where Armistead fell. He was imprisoned on Johnson's Island, escaped, and made his way back to the Confederacy, where he was assigned to the command of the Home Guard units in Halifax County. (Why he did not return to his regiment is not made clear. It probably was because his wound rendered him unfit for extended duty in the field.)

When Wilson first set out, warnings were sent from General Robert E. Lee, through Brig. Gen. James Kemper, commander of Virginia's reserve forces, for all Home Guard units to prepare themselves to defend vital points in their districts. Farinholt accordingly called up his troops and asked for the assistance from Home Guard units in nearby counties as well as of the local citizenry in preparing to defend the bridge. Earthworks were constructed on both sides of the bridge, and his artillery (six guns of assorted types) was positioned on the high ground on the south side of the bridge.

The tactical problem was not easy for either side. Farinholt had to divide his small force in two, placing some men on the north side of the bridge. These men were at risk of being captured or killed trying to run over the narrow bridge if the Federals were able to overrun their position, but they had to be there to keep the Yankees away from one end of the bridge. Wilson, on the other hand, did not have the numerical advantage that he might be thought of having, for about the time he pulled up in front of Farinholt's position, W.H.F. Lee appeared in his rear (again). Thus Wilson had to use part of his force to fend off Lee and only had part of it to attack the bridge. In addition, the problem of taking a bridge is no easy task if the defenders are present in any strength and are determined to stand.

Wilson decided to use Chapman's brigade to oppose Lee, and have Kautz's division attack the bridge; McIntosh's brigade would act in reserve. (According to his after-action report, Kautz had with him only 2,414 men, hardly a huge numerical edge on the defenders.) Kautz moved out at about 6 p.m., with one brigade on each side of the railroad, but was unable to dislodge the defenders. Several attacks were made, resulting in a total of about 60 Federal casualties, but to no avail. With Lee pressing from the rear and no other crossing point by which Farinholt's force could be flanked, Wilson was forced to give up the attempt. Under cover of darkness the two cavalry divisions drew off in the direction of Wylliesburg, then to Christianville and Greensborough, then northeast toward the Nottoway River and the Union lines. Except for scattered attacks by local troops, no Confederates molested them during the 26th, 27th, and 28th. Lee had apparently broken off his pursuit.

(Farinholt's defense saved more than the bridge. According to a postwar account he wrote for the Southern Historical Society Papers, almost the entire rolling stock of the Richmond and Danville line had been run south of the Staunton River Bridge for safe-keeping. If the Federals had been able to destroy those cars and locomotives, Lee's supply situation might have been dealt a fatal blow.)

On the afternoon of the 28th, Wilson's division, leading the column, was attacked by four brigades of Confederate cavalry, under the command of Wade Hampton, at Sappony Church, just west of Stony Creek Station on the Weldon Railroad. Unable to dislodge the Confederates, Wilson left part of Chapman's brigade as a rear-guard, and side-stepped Hampton by leading the rest of the column to the west and then north, hoping to reach Ream's Station, where he expected to find Union infantry.

But the intended advance of the Union lines had been thrown back in the Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road (June 22nd-24th). Not only were there no Yankees at Ream's Station, there were in fact a lot of Confederates, for Robert E. Lee had dispatched two brigades of infantry and his third cavalry division to that point to lay a trap for the Federal cavalry.

(The presence of Hampton and Fitz Lee south of the James River meant that Sheridan's raid into central Virginia had not occupied them long enough. This was unexpected on Wilson's part, and on Grant's.)

As bad as the 28th had been for Wilson and his men, the 29th would be much worse. Arriving at Ream's Station late in the morning, the Yankees found Mahone's infantry in their front, Fitz Lee's cavalry coming up on their left, and Hampton's force now pressing their right and rear. Unable to break through, Wilson was forced to make a decision about how to get away. He sent a member of his staff, Captain Whitaker, with an escort of about 60 men, to try and slip around the Confederates and make contact with the Army of the Potomac, in the hope that General Meade could send out some force to relieve them. Whitaker got through, but lost about half his escort in the attempt. The decision was made to burn the wagons and artillery carriages because they could not move as quickly as the rest of the men, and make a run for it. Before the order to withdraw could be given, a Confederate attack broke through Wilson's lines and divided the command. At this point, Wilson led the bulk of his division west and south, hoping to march around the enemy and then come back north on the other side of the Weldon Railroad into Union lines. Kautz saw an opening on the Confederate right and was able to make his getaway on a more direct route to friendly territory. He tried to save his guns but they became mired in a swamp and were spiked and abandoned, but he brought his division, plus some of Wilson's men, in to Federal lines soon after dark on the 30th.

Wilson did not have it so easy. His command was pursued through the Virginia countryside for over 2 days, covering some 125 miles in 60 hours of hard riding, before finally reaching Union lines along the James River on the evening of July 1st.

During Wilson's long ride across Virginia, a large number of slaves had begun following his command, in the hope of thereby reaching Federal lines and freedom. During the wild dash for the Federal lines from Reams Station these unfortunate people were largely left behind, with the result that the Petersburg papers for weeks after the raid carried announcements of runaway slaves being held in the city. Some Federal accounts describe Confederate troopers breaking off their pursuit of the Yankees to follow and then shoot down the fleeing contrabands.

At the same time, serious allegations of plundering were made against Wilson and his men in the Confederate press. The charges were specific enough that Meade called Wilson to account for them, which brought an indignant reply from Wilson and a heated display of Meade's legendary temper in response.

It is difficult to assess the results of the raid. On the positive side, substantial railroad facilities had been destroyed along two vital arteries. Some sixty miles worth of track was torn up, and it was not expected to have it all repaired in less than a month. (One source, Confederate Col. Isaac M. St. John, in charge of ordnance supplies in the Richmond-Petersburg area, said that it was a full nine weeks before any trains came in over the lines attacked by Wilson). Still, the vital bridges at Farmville and Staunton River had not been destroyed. In addition, some of the track damage was poorly done. Without proper tools, all the cavalry could do is rip up the rails, pile the ties to make a fire, and lay the rails on the pyre of ties to bend of their own weight as they heated up. Some stretches of track were "destroyed" by the simple expedient of burning the ties were they lay under the rails; others simply had the rails removed from the ties and thrown aside. The Confederates were able to continue some shipment of supplies by impressing wagons and using wagon trains on ordinary roads to get around the damaged areas. Still, the entire commissary reserves in Richmond and Petersburg were consumed before the trains were able to run again.

On the negative side, two Federal cavalry divisions had been badly beat up. Total casualties, mostly missing men captured at the end of the raid, approached 1,400 men plus all the artillery and wagons, and uncounted numbers of horses. For a brief period of time, while Kautz and Wilson refitted their divisions, Lee had the advantage in cavalry around Petersburg.

What went wrong? Like most military ventures that come short of full success, the failure came from several factors. If Sheridan had been able to occupy the bulk of the Confederate cavalry for longer, then it is likely that Wilson would have returned without wrecking his command. If the rail twisters had arrived on time to be given to the command, they could have done a more complete job of destroying the railroads. But, fundamentally, the most important issue was the stand by Captain Farinholt at Staunton River Bridge. If Wilson had been able to destroy that bridge, it would have put a severe hurt on Lee's supply situation and justified all of the damage to the two Federal cavalry divisions.

A secret sidebar to the Wilson-Kautz Raid

There is a little-known, almost secret episode of the Wilson-Kautz Raid, which was brought to my attention by Mr. Brian Hogan, a friend in the Tennessee Valley CWRT who has an interest in the Wisconsin regiments of the Iron Brigade. What follows is based on Brian's research.

Lt. Edward P. Brooks was the adjutant of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, and in June, 1864, he had the temerity to write directly to Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant, proposing that a party of 30 men be sent out to destroy vital railroad bridges in the Confederate interior. While Grant appreciated the young man's initiative, the idea was put on hold until after the crossing of the James. On June 18, Grant ordered that Brooks be "detailed for special service," and on June 20 Grant asked Meade to have Wilson take Brooks along "until the proper time for cutting loose." This apparently happened on the first day of the raid, as Brooks and his men proceeded south from Dinwiddie Court House while the main body of the raid went north to the Southside Railroad. What happened next is revealed in a couple of Confederate newspaper articles.

On the evening of June 22, the same day on which they started out, Brooks and his party reached the community of Red Oak, in Brunswick County, Virginia. At the house of a Mrs. Nancy Mason, the Yankees captured a Confederate officer, one G.D. White, a captain, who was Mrs. Mason's grandson. Brooks wanted to bring him along but did not have a spare horse, so he demanded that Capt. White be paroled, but the rebel declared that he would not honor any such parole. With no real choice, Brooks left the man behind and moved on.

The next morning Capt. White gathered up a half dozen neighbors and went after the raiders. Armed only with shotguns, they surprised Brooks and his men at their breakfast camp and demanded that the Yankees surrender. Convinced that White commanded a far larger force, the Federals surrendered, only to become mortified upon realizing they had been taken by such a tiny force. Thus ended Lt. Brooks's bold bid to destroy the Confederate supply lines. Most of the men were eventually imprisoned in Andersonville. At least six died in captivity or shortly after being released, and several others supposedly had their health permanently broken. Brooks escaped from the prison camp in Columbia in December, 1864, and was honorably discharged on January 7, 1865. After the war he lived in Washington, DC, until his death at the age of 50. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson

Col. John B. McIntosh

Col. George H. Chapman

Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz

Col. Robert M. West

Col. Samuel P. Spear

Maj. Gen. W.H.F. Lee

Capt. Benjamin L. Farinholt

Click here to see a map of the raid.

In addition to the general sources cited in the bibliography, this article has benefited greatly from the following:

Starr, Stephen Z., "The Wilson Raid, June, 1864: A Trooper's Reminiscences," Civil War History, vol. XXI (1975), pp. 218-241;

Bolte, Philip, "An Earlier Bridge Too Far," North & South, vol. 3, no. 6 (2000), pp. 26-32.

The drawing of Ford's Station and the portrait of Captain Farinholt were taken, with permission, from North & South.

Kautz's troops destroy the facilities at Ford's Station along the Southside Railroad; from Harper's Weekly.

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