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CHAPTER XVIII

RFAMS's STATION.

WE now approach the blackest of all days in the calendar of the gallant commander of the Second Corps. Partly by good fortune, but more by reason of the pains with which his forces were brought into action, and of his own gallantry and address, he had been successful far beyond the usual privilege of commanding officers. Never as yet * had he seen his lines broken, his men driven from their ground, guns and colors taken under his eye. But the day of misfortune was to come to him as to others.

Scarcely had the two small divisions of the Second Corps dragged themselves back to Petersburg from the fatiguing expedition to Deep Bottom, when they were ordered to move beyond the left of the army to destroy the Weldon Railroad, by which Lee had been receiving the bulk of his supplies. General Warren, with the Fifth Corps and a part of the Ninth, had, between the 18th and the 21st of August, carried our arms several miles farther southward, and, after two severe actions, was now strongly intrenched upon the railroad near the Gurley House. Hancock, leaving Mott's division—by far the largest of the corps—in the Petersburg lines, was to move, with Gibbon's and Barlow's divisions, across the rear of Warren and come up on his left. So distressing was this movement, following close upon the all-night march from Deep Bottom, with scarcely time to make coffee, that hundreds fell in utter exhaustion out of the small column. The troops reached their bivouacs, near Warren's command, late in the afternoon, and spent the night in the mud under a pouring rain. On the 22d the First Division was set to destroying the railroad, and by the 24th had torn up the track some distance beyond Reams's Station. To the latter point, which had been intrenched during some previous occupation of it by our army, the troops were drawn back at night. Here the First Division—to the command of which Miles had succeeded in consequence of the deathlike exhaustion of the heroic Barlow, the result of old wounds and of unsparing exertions throughout the campaign—was joined by the Second Division under Gibbon. Here, too, Hancock found Gregg with a small division of cavalry which had been driven in from the Dinwiddie stage road. Indications were not wanting that the work of destroying the railroad was not to proceed without opposition. At half-past ten that night Hancock received a dispatch stating that a column of the enemy, estimated at between eight and ten thousand, had been seen moving Southward along the rear of their intrenchments. The suggestion was made that this column might be directed toward the construction of works which should extend Lee's lines to meet the southward movement of the Fifth and Second Corps. With the large re-enforcements which it was in Meade's power to send forward, it seemed scarcely probable that the enemy would assume the offensive with his depleted forces. Of this, however, Hancock had no means of judging. It was for headquarters to re-enforce or to withdraw him. Headquarters alone knew the numbers and the positions of the Confederate troops; headquarters alone could ascertain how far Lee's lines were being depleted for a hostile expedition. And here appears the first and most important criticism upon subsequent events. Hancock had, at the most, six to seven thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry. Meade could send to Reams's Station twenty thousand men more easily than Lee could send twelve thousand. A battle on open ground, outside intrenchments, was what the whole army had longed for. That opportunity was possibly now offered. With so small a force as Hancock had at command, not much further progress in tearing up the railroad was to be expected in the presence of the powerful Confederate cavalry which might at any time be joined by brigades of infantry. There was no use, therefore, in keeping Hancock any longer at Reams's unless it were to fight a battle. But if he were to fight he should be promptly and handsomely re-enforced. If he were not to fight he should be peremptorily withdrawn. To keep so small a body of troops at such a distance from the rest of the army was to court disaster without any advantage to compensate the risk. At daylight of the 25th Hancock directed Gregg to make a reconnoissance to ascertain if the Confederate cavalry had been re-enforced during the night. Word was soon brought back that the enemy's pickets had been driven in without developing any increase of strength. Thereupon Hancock determined to proceed with the destruction of the railroad, and ordered Gibbon's division forward for that purpose. Scarcely had the troops got well out of the works when our cavalry was rapidly pushed back, and signs of trouble came thick and fast. General Gibbon was at once ordered into the intrenchments by the side of the First Division, and the Second Corps made ready for whatever might be coming. A word concerning these intrenchments: They had, as has been said, been constructed upon some previous occasion of the occupation of Reams's Station by troops of the Army of the Potomac, probably by the Sixth Corps. They were for the purposes of the approaching contest singularly illarranged. Their face, north and south along the railroad, was so short—only seven hundred yards— and the “returns” were so sharp, that every part of them was subject to enfilade by any enemy that should be able to occupy a mile of ground; and, indeed, in the action that followed, the spectacle was exhibited of a brigade climbing over to the outside of the intrenchments, to escape the artillery fire which was being poured into them from the rear across the inclosed space. Through the position at Reams's, from north to south, ran the Weldon Railroad, parallel to the face of the intrenchments and but a short distance from it, constituting, whether by its embankment or by its cuts, a serious obstacle to the withdrawal of batteries placed along the face of the intrenchments. The Halifax road, also, ran into the position from the north, parallel and close to the railroad. Such being the disadvantages of the position, it is not improbable that, even against the superior force which was approaching him, Hancock would have done better to take to the open and fight it out there. Yet it was a moral impossibility to do so. No commander but must have occupied the works thus standing there awaiting him, against an enemy of unknown force unexpectedly coming

* It will be remembered that Hancock was not in command on the 22d of June.

up. Moreover, Hancock felt that after his dis

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