As I make by regular every other week trip down Highway 1 (Boydton Plank Road) to shop for groceries at the Food Lion in Dinwiddie, Virginia, I pass a highway historical marker noting the not-so-well-known Beefsteak Raid.
This often overlooked event during the Union and Confederate actions around Petersburg brought some fresh dietary relief to the earthwork-bound Southerners and a measure of disgrace to the Union commissary near their supply base at City Point on the James River.
When Army of Northern Virginia cavalry commander Wade Hampton received intelligence from a reliable scout that an enormous herd of cattle was being grazed largely unguarded in Union lines, he determined to boldly bring the beeves to his hungry Confederates comrades.
After Hampton passed the information along to Gen. Robert E. Lee, and then received permission to make an attempt at the rustling mission, the South Carolinian and his men started out on September 14, 1864, from their location along the Boydton Plank Road on the Confederate right flank.
Hampton's force consisted of some the army's best horsemen. Along for the ride were Lee's son's (Rooney Lee) division, and Henry Dearing's and Thomas Rosser's brigades. First heading southeast around the Union lines, then northeast toward their target, the Southern horsemen rode as quietly as possible to lessen notice. Hampton's men crossed the Blackwater River at Cook's Bridge,which had been burned and required repairs, and was surprisingly undefended.
At about five in the morning on day two of their mission the cavalrymen made a mad dash for the herd that contained almost 3000 head of cattle. Hampton cogently made sure the roads on either side of the camp were sealed off and sent a force to scatter the First Washington D.C. Cavalry who were charged with guarding the thousands of meals-on-hoof. The surprised defenders fled after a short stand and the Confederates made off with the cattle, backtracking the route they had arrived by. Hampton shrewdly sent Rosser's force ahead to clear any opposition on the way back to Confederate lines
Rooney Lee's men served as rearguard as the necessarily slow moving rustlers received attention from some of Union cavalry under Gen. Henry Kautz, but the Yankees did not reclaim any of the cattle. The hugely successful mission cost the Southerners less than a dozen killed and gained them almost 2,500 beeves that fed the men for weeks. In addition, over 300 prisoners, and more than ten wagons with supplies were nabbed. Hampton's men returned back in Confederate lines on September 19, to raves of mooing men who were eternally grateful for the fresh food.
Alfred Waud sketch courtesy of the Library of Congress.