One of the more colorful episodes in the siege of Petersburg, the Great Beefsteak Raid of September 14-17 helped cement Major General Wade Hampton III as a worthy successor to Jeb Stuart in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Learning that a large herd of cattle were being grazed by the Union at Edmund Ruffin’s plantation on Coggin’s Point on the James River, Hampton decided to launch a raid behind enemy lines with 3,000 troopers, capture the cattle and drive them back into Confederate lines to feed the Army of Northern Virginia that was on starvation rations.
Hampton and his men seized the herd on September 16, and got 2,468 of them back into Confederate lines on September 17. Along with the cattle he brought back 304 Union prisoners, having suffered 61 Confederate casualties during the course of the raid. President Lincoln referred to it as “the slickest piece of cattle stealing” he had ever heard of. An exasperated Grant, when a reporter after the raid asked him when he expected to defeat Lee, snapped, “Never, if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.”
In 1966 a heavily fictionalized film on the beefsteak raid, Alavarez Kelly, was released. Here is Hampton’s report on the raid:
HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
September 27, 1864.
COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the troops under my command during the late expedition to the rear of the enemy:
On the morning of the 14th instant I moved with the division of Major General William H. F. Lee, the brigades of Rosser and Dearing, and a detachment of 100 men from Young’s and Dunovant’s brigades, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, Sixth South Carolina Regiment, down the west side of Rowanty Creek to Wilkinson’s Bridge, on that stream, where the command bivouacked that night. The object of the expedition was to attempt the capture of a large herd of cattle, which was reported to be grazing near Coggins’ Point, on the James River. In order to accomplish this it was necessary to pass to the reat of the enemy and to force his lines at some point. I selected Sycamore Church, in Prince George County, as the point to attack, as being the most centra, the nearest to the cattle, and the one where the largest force of the enemy was camped. By dispersing them here I made it impossible for them to concentrate any force in time of interfere with the main object of the expedition. The command left Wilkinson’s Bridge at an early hour on the 15th, and by a rapid march placed itself on the Blackwater at Cook’s Bridge. This bridge had been destroyed, as I was aware, and I chose that route on that account, as the enemy would not look for an approach from that quarter. The command was halted here to rest and feed, whilst the engineer party constructed a new bridge. This was accomplished before night, and a part of the command crossed the Blackwater. All my dispositions for the attack having been made and communicated to the commanding officers the command moved at 12 a. m. General Lee was directed to move by the Lawyer’s road to the stage road, at which point he would encounter the first pickets of the enemy. These he was to drive in, and to move, then, to occupy the roads leading from the direction of the enemy to Sycamore Church. General Dearing was instructed to proceed by the Hines road to Cocke’s Mill, where he was to halt until the attack on the center was made, when he was to dash across to the Minger’s Ferry road, attacking the post on that road and cutting off all retreat, guarding at the same time against an attack from Fort Powhatan. With Rosser’s brigade and the detachment under Colonel Miller, I moved on by-roads direct toward Sycamore Church. General Rosser was charges weigh the duty of carrying the position of the enemy here, and he was directed after accomplishing this to push forward at once to secure the cattle. The three columns all reached the points to which they were ordered without giving the alarm to the enemy, and at 5 a. m. on the 16th Rosser made the attack. The enemy had a strong position, and the approaches to it being barricaded he had time to rally in the roads around his camp, where for some time he fought as stubbornly as I have ever seen him do. But the determination and gallantry of Rosser’s men proved too much for him and he was completely routed, leaving his dead and wounded on the field and his camp in our hands. I beg to refer to the report of Brigadier-General Rosser for the particulars of the affair here and of the subsequent capture of the cattle. As soon as the attack was made at the church, General Lee, on the left, and General Dearing, on the right, attacked the enemy most successfully, and established themselves rapidly and firmly at the points they were ordered to secure. The reports* of these officers are inclosed for the information of the general commanding. The object of the expedition having been attained by the capture of the whole herd of cattle (2,486, by official return of the officer charged with the care of them), I withdrew everything before 8 a. m. The different columns were until before reaching the Blackwater, and all dispositions made to protect our captured property. Rosser was sent forward to hold the plank road, followed by General Dearing and Colonel Miller, whilst General Lee brought up the rear. After seeing everything across the Blackwater I moved toward the plank road, but before reaching it was notified by General Rosser of the approach of a heavy force of the enemy down that road. I ordered him to take position at Ebenezer Church, to hold the road there, and at once sent the cattle by Hawkinsville, crossing the plank road two miles in rear of my line of battle. Major Venable, of my staff, was ordered to superintend this movement of the cattle, and, with Major Ryals, provost-marshal, who had been very efficient in conducting it up to this time, to place quickly across the Nottoway River at Freeman’s Ford. These officers discharged this duty admirably, and the successful manner in which the cattle were brought off is due very much to their zeal and enterprise. The enemy had in the meantime attacked Rosser, who held his ground steadily. I sent Miller to him, and soon afterward Dearing. This force held the position so easily that I determined to pass to the rear of the enemy with General Lee’s division, in order to attack him there. Before proper dispositions to do this could be made, however, it became too dark to make the movement advantageously, and I directed General Lee to re-enforce Rosser and to protect our right. These orders were promptly carried out in the midst of an attack from the enemy, who were repulsed along the whole line. Several assaults were made on me, but always with a like result. Major Chew placed his artillery in position, and after a heavy fire of an hour completely silenced the guns of the enemy. Hearing that the cattle were all safely across the Nottoway, and fearing that the enemy might throw a force round my left so as to interpose between the cattle and my command, I determined not to follow the enemy, who were falling back, but to move to Wilkinson’s Bridge, where I could check any flank movement. Leaving four squadrons on picket at the church, I moved the command to their former bivouac, on the Rowanty, halting for the night. I intended to attack the enemy in the morning if he could be found, but he had retreated during the night.
The next day the command returned to their old quarters after an absence of three days, during which they had marched upward of 100 miles, defeating the enemy in two fights, and bringing from his lines in safety a large amount of captured property, together with 304 prisoners.
Of the 2,486 cattle captured 2,468 have been brought in, and I hope [to] get the few remaining ones. Three guidons were taken and eleven wagons brought in safely, several others having been destroyed. Three camps of the enemy were burned, after securing from them some very valuable stores, including quite a number of blankets. My loss was 10 killed, 47 wounded, and 4 missing.
I beg to express my entire satisfaction at the conduct of officers and men. Major-General Lee and Brigadier-General Dearing carried out my orders and wishes most skillfully, protecting the flanks and covering the main attack, thus contributing greatly to the successful issue of the expedition. General Rosser, in the center, displayed his usual skill and gallantry, carrying out my plans there with entire success. In the fight on the plank road the conduct of these officers was equally satisfactory, and I beg to acknowledge my obligations to them. Besides the officers of my staff mentioned above I am indebted to Major Barker for valuable assistance on the field, and also to Captain Lowndes and Lieutenant Hampton. Captain Edelin, who volunteered for the occasion, aided me by acting on my staff, and Captain Henry, assistant quartermaster, was most efficient in assisting in bringing off the captured property. Captain Belcher, who lives on the plank road, volunteered as a guide, and was of great service to me.
I cannot close my report without notice of the conduct of the scouts who were with me. Sergeant Shadburne, of the Jeff. Davis Legion, who gave me the information about the cattle, acted as guide to General Rosser, accompanied the leading regiment in its charge, kept his party always in the front, and acted with conspicuous gallantry. Sergeant Hogan, in charge of Butler’s scouts, also displayed great activity, intelligence, and boldness. Ot the scouts Sergeant McCalla, First South Carolina Regiment, a most valuable man, was killed and three others were wounded.
Referring the general commanding to the inclosed reports for the detailed accounts of the part taken by the different brigades, and asking his attention to the return of captured property,
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,