After the Reserves: Disaster at the Weldon Railroad (August 18-21, 1864)


Except for a few pages in Samuel Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, there is no published regimental history for these two units.’ As a follower of the Pennsylvania Reserves, I felt this omission in their continuing history should be corrected.  Because of their origin, and since the two regiments fought side by side throughout their existence, I include both units in only one history. In fact, after the fighting at the Weldon Railroad in August 1864, the remaining members of the two regiments fought as one unit.

Using Bates’ short history as a guide, my unofficial history is simply a compilation of bits and pieces of information about the two units taken from other regimental histories, books written about the battles in which they were involved, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. Unfortunately, at times, I had to rely heavily on only one or two sources to describe an event.

Generals get all the fame and glory but its the privates carrying the rifle who do the work. I’ve included the names of the lower ranks and their circumstances as much as possible but this information also has to be termed unofficial as it was gathered from the same sources as the history information. I can only hope I have made no errors in either case.

Chapter 2 – Disaster at the Weldon Railroad (August 18-21, 1864)

Major General G. K. Warren and staff. Library of Congress.
Major General G. K. Warren and staff. Library of Congress.

August 18 – As part of Grant’s Fourth Offensive, about 5 a.m., General Warren led his V Corps south on the Jerusalem Plank Road from their camp near the Chieves House Gust south of Ft. Warren). Their objective was the Weldon Railroad, one of the last two railroad supply lines for General Lee’s army and the citizens of Petersburg and Richmond.

The rain of the past two days made for a muddy march. Crawford’s troops were the third division in the order of march which added to their struggle as the muddy road was made worse by their preceding comrades. Three miles were covered while the morning became sunny and hot, also adding to their misery. The column then turned west on a side road (Gurley House Road also called the Vaughn Wagon Road) and marched 2½ miles to the Globe Tavern (also known as Yellow House) on the Weldon Railroad. Griffin’s 1st Division crossed the railroad to the west side and formed a line parallel to the railroad. Ayres’ 2nd Division formed their line perpendicular to the railroad, abutting Griffin on his northern flank and running eastward across Halifax Road and the tracks. Crawford’s 3rd Division formed on Ayres’ right flank, extending his line to the east. When the line was completed about 2 p.m., the 190th Regiment moved forward to form a skirmish line to the north of the Union position and east of the tracks.

Artists rendering of "Pickets train captured here [and] Warren with Crawfords div" by Alfred Waud.
Artists rendering of “Pickets train captured here [and] Warren with Crawfords div” by Alfred Waud. Library of Congress

Destruction of the railroad commenced along with a heavy rain while Ayres and Crawford slowly advanced northward in heavy brush and swampy terrain to seize and destroy the railroad as close to the Confederate lines as possible.

General Crawford reported, “So dense and tangled was the undergrowth, and so interspersed with swamps, that it was almost impossible to keep up the connection or to see beyond twenty or thirty feet.”

Adding to their problems, “…we advanced upon the enemy works under a terrific fire from their field batteries, and in the midst of a rain storm, with heaven’s artillery let loose upon us, it seemed as though the wrath of God was conspiring with the fury of man, in wreaking vengeance upon our devoted heads.”

The Union troops slowly pushed Confederate skirmishers northward to the area of the Davis House at the junction of the Halifax and Vaughn Roads.

Meanwhile, the Confederates were not idle. Their cavalry scouts reported to General Beauregard in the late morning about the movement against the railroad. He in turn directed Gen. A. P. Hill to send two brigades of his infantry to recapture the important railroad supply line.

By mid-afternoon, the two brigades of Heth’s Confederate infantry formed north of the Davis House and attacked southward along the Halifax Road, driving back Ayres skirmishers and then some of his main line. The enemy success was short lived because infantry from Griffin and Crawford hit Heth’s flanks while reserve troops and artillery support joined Ayres’ line. This combination forced the Confederates back and secured the Union position.

Henry Heth, Col. 45th Va. Inf., C.S.A.  Library of Congress.
Henry Heth, Col. 45th Va. Inf., C.S.A. Library of Congress.

“I aimed, and shot, he fell and I am glad that that is all I know about the transaction…”  Perhaps it was years later until Sergeant George W. Darby (8th Pa. Res., Co. G, 191st Pa., Co. G) finished his thought. ” ..there is an aversion I believe in every old soldier’s heart to knowing that he killed anybody.”

Crawford’s division again slowly advanced northward but progress was very slow.  When night fell, Crawford had his men dig entrenchments.

August 19 – The Fight at the Weldon Railroad.

Still concerned that the V Corps position was in danger of a heavy Confederate attack, Crawford sent the 191st Regiment forward to the right of the 190th Regiment to form a longer and stronger skirmish line.’

This new line was only 150-200 yards from the enemy fortifications. As such, the Confederate snipers were busy and accurate this morning, hitting several Reserves.

About 1 p.m., an enemy skirmish line probed the 190th and 191st Regiments’ skirmish line but in a short time the Confederates were pushed back to their original position.

After this probe was repulsed, Confederate Gen. William Mahone had his troops form just in the rear of the earthworks, near division headquarters, out of the enemy’s view, and then it moved up a deep ravine which ran across the open field in our front, thereby keeping out of sight until protected by the woodland.”

Sergeant George W. Darby, Co. G, 8th Pa. Reserves and Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.
Sergeant George W. Darby, Co. G, 8th Pa. Reserves and Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.

Lt. Col. William H. Stewart (61st Virginia) continued his description, “…we were thrown in line of battle and moved forward during a rain storm, which made marching through the bushes very disagreeable, but our soldiers pressed on, hastily gathering and eating ripe whortleberries, that were plentiful along the route.”

By about 4 p.m., Mahone’s troops, working their way through the thickets and swamps, located and discovered that Crawford’ flank was still unprotected because the IX Corps had not arrived. Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Clingman’s brigade (8th, 31st, 51st, 61st North Carolina regiments) surprised and attacked the Pennsylvanians before the Union troops realized the Confederates were there.”

Back to the Union side, from General Warren, “My line was so extended that the two regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves Veterans of General Crawford’s Division were all on as a skirmish line, and the enemy passed quite in their rear.”

General Crawford reported, “The brigade under Colonel Hartshore, while attacked in front, was also attacked in the rear by the Rebels, who swept round and drove them at the point of the bayonet hurriedly to the rear, after a short but determined fight, they (Reserves) destroyed their rifles by breaking them against the trees, and a large number were made prisoners.”

It was a startling and remarkable fact, that this entire rebel brigade, in broad daylight, had been marched to the rear of our lines, formed in line of battle and deployed skirmishers without opposition or discovery.

Sergeant George W. Darby, Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry

Private Crocker described his capture. “Sometime in the afternoon word was passed along our line that we would be relieved at 4 o’clock, and that we would move directly to the rear when our relief should come. We were posted in thick woods and could not see men very far, so when at what I believed to be about time for our relief I heard quite a racket, as of men marching and shouting in the bushes over on my right. I slung my knapsack and prepared to lumber to the rear,’ glad of the chance to get needed rest. I had not slept a wink the previous night, and was completely worn out with the 30 hours of steady marching and watching, by the time I was ready to move the tumult had reached my post, and looking around at the supposed relief my surprise may be imagined when I saw they were clad in gray, and I was greeted with ‘throw down your gun and fall in here.’ The whole line was captured in this manner, unable to run or fight.”

Sgt. Thomas Springer (8th Pa. Res, Co. G, 191st Pa., Co. G) wrote in his diary, “About 5 p.m., we received orders from the Maj. to fall back. The line fell back about ¼ mile and found we were surrounded. As near as we can judge the whole line was taken prisoners.”

Not all of these surrounded troops believed the situation was hopeless. Pvt. Michael Coleman (11th Pa. Res, Co. E, 190th Pa., Co. C) described his run to freedom. “I heard men call ‘Halt! Halt!’ on every side, but I looked neither to the right nor to the left, and went ahead.”

Lithograph of the Battle of Weldon Railroad, August 18-19, 1864.
Lithograph of the Battle of Weldon Railroad, August 18-19, 1864.

Capt. Richard Birkman (11th Pa. Res, Co. C, 190th Pa., Co. A) also made his escape by running but Pvt. David Steen (11th Pa. Res., D, 190th Pa., Co. C) was shot in the chest and killed on his try. Later, after the V and IX Corps made a counterattack and drove the Confederates back to their former position, Private Steen’s comrades buried him on the battlefield where he fell.

From the Confederate side, Lt. Col. Stewart described the capture of Col. W. Ross Hartshorne (1st Pa. Rifles, F&S, 190th Pa., F&S) “by Robert R. Henry, the gallant division courier, (which) was a dashing feat worthy of record.

“General Mahone sent Henry to find General A. P. Hill and request him to direct General Heth to form a junction with him. Henry rode down a cart path, in the direction in which he supposed General Hill to be.

“The road ran through a dense thicket of undergrowth which was impossible to penetrate on horseback, but he soon came to a large clearing, and there saw, not more than one hundred and fifty yards away, what seemed to be two batteries of artillery, supported by infantry with a train of ambulances. The artillerymen were whipping their horses and otherwise urging them to pull the guns through the mud, on the up-grade.

“Henry, seeing that he would be captured if he attempted to cross their path, turned back to report the situation to his general. When he had gone back to a sharp turn in the path about one hundred yards from the place he left General Mahone, he suddenly came upon a Federal officer and another mounted man. They seemed to be bewildered, evidently lost. The surprise was mutual, but Henry had the most nerve, and drawing his Remington revolver, demanded their surrender, which they did without even attempting to draw their arms.”

It is unknown if Colonel Hartshorne ever learned that Henry’s pistol was broken, not capable of firing, or that Henry used the Colonel’s horse for his courier duty until it was later shot from under him. IS

A few minutes earlier, some of the 191st Regiment almost returned the favor as they tried to escape. ” ..we soon encountered a line of rebel skirmishers whom we captured and disarmed. Among our captives was a mounted officer to whom one of our men said, as he threateningly raised his gun, ‘Get down off that horse, you rebel son of a b—h! or l’ll blow your brains out,’ and the reb dismounted without parley.” In a few minutes the small Union group was surrounded and they became the prisoners. General Mahone then took back his horse and remounted.

Unfortunately, the troubles continued for Colonel Hartshorne who “was hailed by an officer while we were marching on the railroad, and told that General Mahone ordered him to give up the rubber overcoat he was wearing. The colonel refused to give it up. Soon after the same officer came up and said to the colonel that General Mahone said he wanted it for his own use and must have it. The colonel still refused to give it up. The officer returned again, stating that if he did not give up the coat, the general would come and take it himself. The colonel finally gave it up.”

Crawford’s 3rd Division lost 33 officers and 711 men during this day, mostly prisoners.  For these men the fighting portion of the war was over, but perhaps, the hardest part of their war experience was yet to come.

(author’s note: Their experiences will be told in a future chapter. From available records, I have only learned 176 names captured in the 190th regiment and 189 in the 191st regiment for a total of 365 which is only about half of Crawford’s number.) 

Casualties (other than captured) north of the Globe Tavern along the Weldon Railroad:

August 18, 1864

Pvt. George Brunnermer (11th Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa., Co. C) – WIA

Pvt. Adam Garner (12th Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa., Co. H) – KIA 

Pvt. Hiram A. McPherson (9th Pa. Res., Co. F, 190th Pa., Co. K) – KIA

August 19, 1864

Pvt. David Steen (11th Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa., Co. C) – KIA

Pvt. Wallace M. Moore (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. E, 190th Pa. Co. E) – WIA, by rifle fire from sharpshooters

Pvt. Henry L. Stock (6th Pa. Res., Co. B, 191st Pa., Co. C) – KIA

Cpl. George W. Cole (6th Pa. Res., Co. F, 191st Pa., Co. D) – WIA & DOW 

Sgt. Norman Grist (6th Pa. Res., Co. I, 191st Pa., Co. E) – WIA, by rifle fire from sharpshooters

Pvt. Earl W. Freeman (6th Pa. Res., Co. C, 191 Pa., Co. E) – KIA, by sniper fire 

Pvt. William Cornhill (8th Pa. Res., Co. I, 191st Pa., Co. H) – WIA & DOW

Pvt. David O. Stewart (10th Pa. Res., Co. I, 191st Pa., Co. K) – WIA

August 20 – The late afternoon nightmare of the nineteenth was over. While their unfortunate comrades were heading for Richmond prisons, the survivors of the two regiments tried to pick up the pieces and assess what was left.

Colonel Joseph Pattee, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves and later 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.
Colonel Joseph Pattee, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves and later 190th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.

The July 26 muster roll reported these two regiments had 1295 troops present for duty. Subtracting Crawford’s reported losses, this left approximately 551 men for duty: 190th Regiment, Company B, had six men left and Company C only 10 men. There were only four officers available for duty in the 190th regiment: Col. Joseph Pattee (10th Pa. Res., Co. B, 190th Pa., F&S). Adj. Ernest Wright (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. F, 190th Pa., F&S), Capt. Richard Birkman (11th Pa. Res., Co. C, 190th Pa., Co. A) and 2nd Lt. William R. Peacock (12th Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa., Co. E).

Not all of these survivors managed to escape capture by running into the Union lines.  Just before the Confederate attack, a large detail was sent to the rear for supplies.

Over the next few weeks, the ranks swelled some what by returning wounded and sick from the hospitals and by men who were on leave. The results of the fall presidential election confirmed their continuing depleted ranks.  In the 190th Regiment, 150 men voted Republican, 55 voted Democratic; the 191st Regiment voted 122 Republican and 70 Democratic.  That’s only 397 men in the two regiments plus some who probably didn’t vote.

Adjutant Ernest Wright, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles.  Courtesy of Ronn Palm's Museum of Civil War Images.
Adjutant Ernest Wright, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles. Wright was one of the handful of officers left in the 190th Regiment. Courtesy of Ronn Palm’s Museum of Civil War Images.

Until the war was over, these two units were barely shadows of a regiment and served, for the most part, as one unit.

August 21 – The remnants of the Pennsylvania Reserves were transferred to the 1st Brigade as the 3rd Brigade was disbanded.  On September 12, in another re-organization, they were transferred to General Ayres’ 2nd Division, 3rd Brigade, commanded by Col. Arthur Grimshaw, where they stayed until the end of the war. Other units in the brigade were the 157th Pennsylvania, 3rd and 4th Delaware.

(author’s note: Colonel Pattee was away from the unit recovering from the wound received on June 17, 1864. He returned in September and commanded the combined unit until the end of the war. The remnants of the 157th Pa. Regiment unofficially fought as part of the 191st Regiment until the end of the war, being officially assigned to the unit on April 28, 1865. Until that date, all three units fought as one regiment but were never formally combined.  For ease of descriptions, the three regiments will be referred to as the Combined Regiment. I have also seen a reference that the remnants of the two Delaware regiments were combined into one regiment. I am guessing that the combined strength of these five regiments did not equal the strength of one regiment at the beginning of the war.)

For the next month, it was back to the activities and routine of siege warfare.

Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.