VIENNA, Va., August 22, 2012 — It was September of 1864 and the fighting around Petersburg, Va. had been going on for some time. The Yankee forces were stretched thin, leaving their rear troop portions vulnerable to attack by the Confederates.
The Southern troops had been camped near the Blackwater River, while the men were very quickly running out of food in their enduring engagement to protect the City of Richmond.
As recent as August, General Robert E. Lee had received word that the men had even depleted the supply of corn, probably the last staple available to them. Something had to be done and done quickly.
After receiving a tip from an “Iron Scout,” Sgt. George D. Shadburne, Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton seized the opportunity and led his men on a 100-mile raid to “acquisition” the 3,000 head of cattle which were located behind the Union lines at the plantation of Edmund Ruffin, barely five miles away from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters. Reportedly there were only 120 men guarding the location; the element of surprise would be the best tool.
Thanks to Shadburne’s advance information, the rounding up of the confined bovines seemed simple, and word also reached Hampton that among his list of 3,000 men selected to assist him in this endeavor, were several “certified Texas horse thieves,” who knew how to take care of the situation. Apparently these “certified” experts were never formally identified, which is a shame.
Gen. Hampton chose to lead his men south of the city area, which ran behind Union lines, on September 14.
At a point on the Blackwater River where Cook’s Bridge formerly stood, Hampton felt no trouble should be expected from this area, so he had his staff engineers reconstruct the bridge, which the enemy had previously destroyed.
Two days later the bridgework was completed, and early on September 16 he ordered a three-pronged attack with the center of the attack right where the cattle were being held.
The instant cowboys performed their duties well, and more than 2000 cattle were rounded up, as well as 11 wagons and 304 prisoners. The rather unwieldy prisoner contingent – quadrupeds and bipeds alike - arrived back at the Confederate lines around 9:00 a.m. on September 17.
Hampton used the division of Maj. Gen. W. H. “Rooney” Lee, as well as the brigade units of Gen. Thos. L. Rosser and Gen. James Dearing, and about 100 men from the brigades of Brig. Gen. Pierce M.B. Young and Brig. Gen. John Dunovant. Dunovant would be killed barely two weeks later in other fighting near Petersburg.
The cattle were penned in a field just east of the Boydton Plank Road, prior to the provisioning for the troops in the trenches around Petersburg.
Part of the victory of the strange raid came from the loss of only 10 Confederates killed, 47 wounded and 4 missing. An official headcount of the cattle reaching the Confederate lines was 2,468. In a later communication, Hampton regretted that some 40 cattle were not collected, and said he hoped to get some men back to complete the operation.
Although it all sounds good on paper and print, the raid was not the ultimate success it might seem. The Union had the necessary resources to replace the cattle, but the Confederates’ slim rations for several months left them with insufficient grain to feed the cows.
Unfortunately, this left them with no other option but to slaughter the cattle almost immediately, and then use it before it spoiled.
Part of the beef ended up being returned to the Yankees since it was used in unauthorized trades with Union sentries for other items the Southerners still could not get hold of, but which were in normal supply to the Yankees.
And with no means of preserving the meat, it had to be eaten as soon as possible, leaving the Confederate troops again hungry once it was consumed.
So much death and destruction is associated with the time around September 14 thanks to the massacre at Antietam or Sharpsburg, this comparatively light piece of soldiering is a welcome respite for the day. One assumes that the ‘midnight requisition’ of hogs might have been next on the list….
Accolades from the enemy are always welcome regardless of the outcome, and President Abraham Lincoln was said to have commented that the raid “was the slickest piece of cattle-stealing” he’d ever heard of.
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