The Northern failure at Ream’s Station in late August, 1864 took a personal toll on Northern General Winfield S. Hancock, whose men panicked under the assault by A.P. Hill and Henry Heth. By the end of the day, triumphant Southern troops took captured 12 stands of enemy colors, 9 cannon, 3,100 small arms, and sent Hancock’s two divisions fleeing northward. It was Northern Gen. Nelson Miles who later manacled President Jefferson Davis at Fortress Monroe, by order of Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, a confidante of Karl Marx.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Union Panic Fever at Ream’s Station
“Major-General Henry Heth arrived on the field with two fresh Confederate brigades and assumed tactical control of the operation. He conferred briefly with the stricken [Gen. A.P.] Hill, who told him that he “must carry the position.” With Heth came Colonel William J. Pegram and twelve artillery pieces. While Pegram arranged his cannon to bombard the Federals, Heth deployed a three-brigade assault force aimed at the northwest corner of the enemy perimeter. Pegram opened fire at 5:00 P.M.
Henry Heth moved to signal the advance by calling for a regimental flag to be brought to him. The standard of the 26th North Carolina arrived, along with its young color-bearer. Heth asked for the flag, but the color-bearer insisted on carrying it himself. Heth smiled and took the soldier by his arm. “Come on then, we will carry the colors together,” he said. This was the signal to begin the third assault on Reams Station.
The [Southerners] were blasted from the moment they came into view, and the heavy fire was kept up as the leading Rebel elements scattered the Federal pickets . . . A few more minutes of this punishment, [Gen.] Nelson Miles thought, and the [Confederates] would have to withdraw.
Suddenly, three of his regiments near the northwest angle panicked, and their once neat battle lines dissolved into a welter of fleeing men. At the same moment, triumphant [Southern] soldiers began to clamber over the breastworks. Other units along the upper western section of the [federal] line began to break apart. “This was the turning point of the fight,” one of the frightened Federals later recalled, “and here we failed.”
Rebel rifle fire ripped into the battery covering the gap . . . [and the enemy cannons were captured]. A New York battery posted [nearby] twisted its gun around to fire into the lost lines even as the regiments supporting it began to catch the panic fever. Once their infantry help fled, the gunners had to run as well, leaving their pieces for the enemy.
The Union lines below the Depot Road gave way at about the same time Miles counterattacked . . . Union cannoneers . . . fought their guns to the last, then had to leave them behind as they raced for cover; many of the horses whose task it was to pull the guns out of harm’s way had become early victims of [Southern] sharpshooters.
[With Gen. Wade] Hampton’s cavalrymen and horse batteries pressing the southern face of Hancock’s line, some of the [federals] were in fact getting hit from three sides. Once the western face of the perimeter collapsed, dismounted Confederate troopers poured into [Hancock’s] earthworks.
The possibility of encirclement decided the matter: at 8:00 P.M., [Northern Gen. Winfield S.] Hancock issued orders to withdraw. By 9:00 P.M., the Federals had disengaged and pulled back to the east. In the confusion of this night movement, Hancock’s devoted adjutant and postwar biographer, Francis Walker, was captured when he rode into an enemy picket line.
It had been a hard-won victory for Confederate arms, so much so that A.P. Hill decided not to pursue Hancock’s retreating corps. His troops, and Hampton’s, were kept busy rounding up prisoners and captured weapons. Then nature closed the scene with some artillery of its own: a heavy thunderstorm rumbled across Reams Station, bringing vivid flashes of light in the heavens along with a pelting rain that washed over the weary, wounded and dead alike.”
(The Last Citadel, Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, excerpts pp. 186-189)