Fought on June 28, 1864, the Battle of Sappony Church was part of the Wilson-Kautz Raid during the Petersburg Campaign.
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked by their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant's plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals an estimated thirteen thousand casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee's army head-on. Instead, Grant decided to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and, then, slowly to starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, is located on the south bank of the Appomattox River, roughly twenty miles below Richmond. During the Civil War, the two cities were connected by the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which served as an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. In addition to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy's last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia and points westward. If Grant could cut these rail lines, Lee would be forced to abandon Richmond.
On June 22, Grant and Major General George G. Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) dispatched the Third Cavalry Division of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Brigadier General James Wilson and the Second Cavalry Division of the Army of the James, commanded by Brigadier General August Kautz, on a raid against Confederate railroads southwest of Petersburg. With a combined force of over 5,500 troopers and three artillery batteries under Wilson's overall command, the Yankees destroyed two trains, several stations, and roughly sixty miles of track along the Weldon Railroad, the South Side Railroad, and the Richmond & Danville Railroad while also engaging in several skirmishes with Major General W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's cavalry.
Among Wilson's targets was the Staunton River Bridge—a long wooden structure that spanned the Staunton River near Roanoke Station (present-day Randolph, Virginia), roughly one hundred miles west of Petersburg. On June 25, a small force of just 938 Confederate reserves and local citizens held off Kautz's attempt to destroy the bridge until Rooney Lee's cavalry arrived and drove the Yankees away.
Lee's cavalry continued to pursue Wilson and Kautz as they retreated toward the safety of the Federal lines near Petersburg. By June 28, the Federal raiders had crossed the Nottoway River and were headed north along the Weldon Line toward the Stoney Creek Depot, when Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division intercepted them near the Sappony Baptist Church in Sussex County. While the two sides were engaged, Lee's troopers arrived during the afternoon and joined forces with Hampton. Now outnumbered, Wilson and Kautz withdrew after nightfall, attempting to reach Reams Railway Station to the north. As they fled, the Yankees left behind a large number of slaves who were accompanying them in search of freedom.
The Rebel cavalry captured roughly 800 Union raiders during the Confederate victory. Other casualty totals for either side remain unknown.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Sappony Church included:
2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
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"Battle of Sappony Church," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 23 Aug 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1079>
"Battle of Sappony Church." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 23, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1079