"The Beefsteak Raid:" Rebel Cavalry Captures 2500 Cattle from Union Supply Depot

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"The Beefsteak Raid:" Rebel Cavalry Captures 2500 Cattle from Union Supply Depot

"The Great Cattle Raid at Harrison's Landing," sketched by A.R. Waud,
Engraving from October 8, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 14-17, 1864

Today's military highlight is not the usual, run-of-the-mill battle or profile of a famous leader. It is, rather, something on "the light side of [military] life." It involved Confederate cavalry seeking to help fill the larders of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the siege of Petersburg.


As with a number of well-known officers on both sides of the War Between the States, Wade Hampton III came from a family with a background of military service. His father was an officer of dragoons in the War of 1812, and an aide to Gen. Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. His grandfather was a lieutenant colonel of cavalry in the American War of Independence, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a brigadier general during the War of 1812.

Wade Hampton III, CSA (1818-1902); Photographer unknown
Wade Hampton III, CSA (1818-1902)
Photographer unknown

After the War of 1812, Hampton's father became wealthy from land speculation throughout the in the Southeast. Wade III had an active outdoor life; he rode horses and hunted, especially at his family's North Carolina summer retreat, named "High Hampton." Wade was known for taking hunting trips alone into the woods, hunting American black bears with only a knife. Some accounts credit him with killing as many as 80 bears

Hampton graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1836, and trained for a law career, but never practiced. When his father died in 1858, he inherited his father's vast land holdings. He also became involved in state politics.

At the beginning of the War of Northern Aggression, Hampton opposed secession. But when his home state left the Union, he remained loyal to it. He resigned from the legislature and enlisted as a private in the South Carolina Militia. However, the governor insisted he accept a commission as a colonel.

Unit flag of Hampton's Legion; Image courtesy of http://batsonsm.tripod.com/b/legha.html
Unit flag of Hampton's Legion
Image courtesy of http://batsonsm.tripod.com/b/legha.html

Hampton raised a unit for the Confederate States Army called "Hampton's Legion." It originally consisted of six companies of infantry, two companies of cavalry, and a battery of light artillery. He used his own personal funds to raise, equip, and pay the men of his Legion. Over the course of the war, Hampton recruited reinforcements and replacements. Hampton's Legion participated in nearly every major campaign in the eastern theatre of the war. However, its individual parts were reassigned to other, larger units.

Prelude to the Raid

In late summer of 1864, Hampton's men were involved in the siege of Petersburg, VA. As the Union ring tightened around Richmond and Petersburg (which was the Confederate capital's supply line), the Rebel army began to experience short rations. By September, the Army of Northern Virginia was almost out of food. Then on September 5, a cavalry scout brought a report to Major Gen. Hampton: At Coggin's Point – five miles from Federal commander U.S. Grant's headquarters, a herd of some 3000 cattle were waiting to feed the Union soldiers threatening Richmond and Petersburg.

Within a week, Hampton had hatched a plan to raid the Union supply depot and steal the meat on the hoof intended for the "damned Yankees." With the approval of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Hampton collected 3000 Rebel horsemen – including "several certified Texas cattle thieves." [Another component of the Rebel raiding force was a number of shepherd dogs to help with the cattle herding.] Hampton's expedition was also well-timed; Union commander Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant was in the Shenandoah Valley, conferring with Gen. Philip Sheridan.

"The Beefsteak Raid"

On the night of September 14, 1865, Hampton led his force south of the twin Confederate cities behind Union lines. Within 24 hours, they had reached the Blackwater River, near the site of Cook's Bridge, which had been burned by Union soldiers. Hampton ordered a unit of engineers to rebuild the bridge. At midnight on September 16, Gen. Hampton ordered his cavalrymen over the bridge to surround the Union supply depot at Coggin's Point, on the plantation of Rebel firebrand Edmund Ruffin, who espoused secession years before 1860. [Ruffin is credited with firing the first shot of the War of the Rebellion at Fort Sumter, SC. He served in the Confederate Army despite the fact he was a wealthy Virginia planter, and was in his late 60's. When the war ended with a Union victory, Ruffin committed suicide rather than live in a country ruled by "the perfidious, malignant, and vile Yankee race."]

Hampton formed his men into three columns: The smallest force would take up a blocking position at Cocke's Mill to guard against any Yankee interference from the east. The largest unit would scatter the Yankees camped around Prince George (County) Court House and guard against any probes from the west. The last column would move north and capture the cattle herd. By 5 a.m., all three columns were in position and the attack commenced.

Hampton's Great Beefsteak Raid, September 14-17, 1864; Image courtesy of http://www.wadehamptoncamp.org/beefsk-map.jpg
"Hampton's Great Beefsteak Raid," September 14-17, 1864
Image courtesy of http://www.wadehamptoncamp.org/beefsk-map.jpg

The Union depot was guarded by a ridiculously small force; 250 men of the 1st D.C. Cavalry Regiment, and an additional 150 horsemen of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Despite their small numbers the Union cavalrymen fought doggedly, delaying the Confederate raiders until possible reinforcement could arrive. Finally after three hours' fighting, the outnumbered Federal horsemen retreated. The raiders burned Union quarters, took needed supplies, and captured 11 wagons full of other usable objects (according to Hampton's after-action report, they included blankets). Shortly afterwards, Hampton's force was on the road bringing its ill-gotten provisions back to Southern lines. By 10:00 am, the Confederates were back at Cook's Bridge.

Somehow, word of the audacious Rebel raid reached Army of the Potomac headquarters. By 2:00 pm, a Union force of about 2800 horsemen were riding hard to intercept the Confederates. However, Hampton had already placed a number of units along his line of retreat to stop any Union cavalry interference. After a sharp fight between Confederate and Federal cavalry, the Rebel horsemen fell back to a prepared position to continue to oppose the Yankee horsemen. Without sufficient strength to fully assault the Confederates, the Union forces skirmished with the Rebels.

Early in the morning of September 17, the Union cavalry tried to outflank the Confederate position, but ran into Rebel cavalry pickets anticipating just such a move. After driving off the gray-clad pickets, the Union commander learned that the cattle herd had already left the area, and were likely in Confederate lines. Any further Union pursuit was called off.


Hampton's raiders returned to the Confederate lines on the evening of September 17. They had suffered 10 men killed, 47 wounded, and 4 missing. They had captured 2468 beeves, along with 11 wagons of supplies, and 304 Union prisoners. (Around 18 cattle were re-captured by Union horsemen).

The major drawback for the success of the Beefsteak Raid? The Confederates did not have sufficient feed to sustain the vast herd of cattle. Therefore, they were almost immediately butchered and served to the hungry Rebs before the meat spoiled. When the cattle were all gone, the Confederates were still as deprived of food supplies as before the raid.

Footnote #1: Below is a Virginia historical marker commorating the Beefsteak Raid. This is a replacement for the original marker, the replacement was paid using federal TEA-21 funds.

Historical marker for the "Cattle (Beefsteak) Raid"; Located in Dinwiddie County (VA), near intersection of U.S. Route #1; and Virginia State Route #613; Image courtesy of http://www.markerhistory.com
Historical marker for the "Cattle (Beefsteak) Raid"
Located in Dinwiddie County (VA), near intersection of U.S. Route #1
and Virginia State Route #613
Image courtesy of http://www.markerhistory.com

Footnote #2: When President Lincoln received reports of the raid, he called Hampton's gambit the "slickest piece of cattle-stealing" he'd ever heard of. Gen. Grant's reaction was equally tart. Soon thereafter a reporter asked Grant when he would take Petersburg. "Never," said the Union commander, "if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle."

Footnote #3: The 1966 film Alvarez Kelly dramatized a portion of the Beefsteak Raid. The film starred Richard Widmark, William Holden, and character actors Janice Rule, Roger C. Carmel, Patrick O'Neal [no, not Ryan O'Neal! Google is your friend…], and Harry Carey, Jr.

Footnote #4: The Prince George County (VA) Historical Society holds an annual steak dinner on the anniversary of the Beefsteak Raid to commemorate the event.

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