“This was a regular woods scramble, it being impossible to preserve anything like a line of battle on account of the density of the woods; the result was that we captured a large number of prisoners, and suffered considerable loss ourselves, some of our men being captured and recaptured several times.“
-Lt. Augustus A. McKethan, Co. K, 51st North Carolina
Stalemate at Petersburg
The Siege of Petersburg began in mid-June 1864. The two enemies probed constantly, trying to find a way to break the stalemate. Neither side made much progress. On July 30, the Union made a spectacular attempt to break the Confederate lines. After digging a tunnel below the Confederate works near the center of the Rebel defenses, the Federals set off 8,000 pounds of gunpowder underneath the Rebel trenches. The resulting explosion made a crater 170 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Union troops rushed through the gap created by the explosion, but the defenders reacted quickly and drove the Yankees back with heavy losses. The Petersburg front settled back into the tedium of trench warfare.
Between assaults on the Confederate works, the Union tried to find ways to cut the Confederate supply lines. On August 14, the Union II Corps, supported by a cavalry division, made a feint toward Richmond. Crossing to the north side of the James River at Deep Bottom, the Union force drove the Confederate defenders back. For the next five days, the Federals threatened to advance on the Confederate capital. General Lee brought reinforcements from the Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg lines and eventually forced the Yankees to retreat to the south side of the James.
The Battle of Globe Tavern
On August 18, while II Corps was distracting the Confederates to the north, the Union made another attempt to close the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad, the main supply line for the Confederate defenders. The Union V Corps, under command of Major General Gouverneur Warren, looped southward and struck the rail line at Globe Tavern.[i] Confederate General A. P. Hill sent a force to counter the Union advance. A sharp fight ensued. The Confederates stopped Warren’s corps from advancing farther up the railroad tracks, but they failed to drive the Federals away from Globe Tavern.
That night, General Meade sent IX Corps to support Warren, while General Hill sent reinforcements from the Petersburg defenses. The 51st North Carolina, as part of Clingman’s brigade, was among the Confederate troops sent to counter the Yankee advance. The morning of August 19 was rainy, and frequent skirmishing occurred throughout the day. At 4:30 that afternoon, the Confederates found a gap in the Union line and poured into the rear of General Samuel Crawford’s division.
During the ensuing melee, the Union and Confederate lines became mixed. Regiments became hopelessly disorganized and fought on as individual units. Artillery from both sides fired round after round into the muddled mass of soldiers. One Rebel soldier remembered, “Front and rear seemed to be on all sides. The bullets came from every direction.”[ii]
As the Federal infantry was forced back, the Confederates bagged almost two full brigades of prisoners. In the chaos, some of the prisoners escaped and some fled. General Crawford was captured momentarily, but he managed to get away.[iii]
The Rebels pursued their fleeing enemy for several miles through thick forest. Clingman’s entire brigade became so disorganized that the regiments were ordered back to their camps to regroup.[iv]
By dark, the Confederate attack had been stopped by reinforcements from the Union II Corps. Although the Rebel infantry had inflicted heavy casualties on the Union defenders, they were not able to dislodge the Federals from the railway. Heavy rain the next day prevented the combatants from resuming the fight. The 51st Regiment returned to the Petersburg trenches.
The next morning, the Confederates tried one more time to drive the Yankees away from the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. Rebel infantry assailed the left and center of the Union line. The defenders had spent the previous day preparing for the attack. They easily repulsed the Confederates, inflicting heavy casualties on the Southern troops. The Rebels retreated to their trenches around Petersburg.
A few days later, the Yankees made another move toward the railroad. While Warren’s V Corps continued fortifying its position at Globe Tavern, II Corps marched southward along the railroad, tearing up track as they went. The Confederates met them near Reams Station and defeated the Federal force, driving it back to the Petersburg lines. However, the damage was done. The Yankees had destroyed fourteen miles of track, more than the Confederacy could repair. Supplies would now be delivered to Petersburg via a sixteen-mile wagon road.
51st North Carolina’s Casualties
The 51st North Carolina lost two men killed, two wounded, and twenty-eight captured during the scramble at Globe Tavern. Four of the captured men were wounded before being taken prisoner, and one of them died from his wounds a few days later. General Clingman was badly wounded in the leg during the fight at Globe Tavern; he would not return to command. For the remainder of 1864, Colonel McKethan commanded the brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Hobson assumed command of the 51st North Carolina.
[i] Official Records, Series 1, 42 (part 1): 30-31, 429-430.
[ii] Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, 5 vols. (Goldsboro: Nash Bros., 1901) 1: 124-127.
[iii] Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols. (New York: The Century Co., 1887-1888) 4: 569.
[v] Histories, 3: 213.
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