In the closing months of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant was eager to put pressure on the Confederate supply and communication lines that he thought were vulnerable. He wanted to choke off Robert E. Lee’s source of men, equipment, and food once and for all. Key among Grant’s targets was the Weldon Railroad. The rail line’s lower southern section ran through North Carolina to Stoney Creek, Virginia. The Stoney Creek Depot was sixteen miles below Petersburg. Here Confederates transferred supplies from rail cars to wagons and brought them north into Rebel lines.
Grant chose Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps, to lead an expeditionary force of 26,000 men to disrupt the Weldon line. Getting underway on December 7, the Union force headed down the Jerusalem Plank Road to Sussex Court House, Virginia. Within a day, Union cavalry and infantry reached Jarratt’s Station on the line and began ripping up the rails and burning the station building. Once pulled from their beds, the rails were heated in fires stoked by the burning rail ties and then twisted so they could not be used again. (Union troops under Sherman in Georgia used a similar technique as they disabled rail lines going in and out of Atlanta. These twisted rails were referred to as “Sherman’s Neckties.”) The sixteen-mile section of track remained out of service until March 1865 when Confederates completed repairs and restored the rail line.
The Union troops were in high spirits during the raid, despite the frigid temperatures, and their exuberance was further fueled by the availability of potent apple brandy – “apple jack” – taken from farms along the expedition’s route. Officially known as “Hicksford Expedition” or “Weldon Raid,” the foray was dubbed “The Apple Jack Raid” by the Union troops.
By December 12, Warren’s expeditionary force had arrived back at their encampment near Petersburg. Warren considered the expedition an unmitigated success. His men had pulled up miles of tracks, rendered the rail line ineffective, and returned to his camp in six days’ time suffering only 300 casualties in his 26,000-man force. Others, primarily Confederates, but even some Union troops, saw the expedition tainted by drunkenness, theft of civilian property, and alleged criminal assault of females along the line of march.
A 155th Pennsylvania Regiment soldier reported on the raid in a December 15, 1864 letter to his sister. George P. McClelland wrote: “I am just recruiting my exhausted energies consequent on the great raid down the Weldon Railroad. We were about six days; marched 80 miles; devastated the whole country on our line of march. Pushed through the mud, slush, rain, snow and hail …. The 5th day the weather was chilling cold and, on that night, (the 11th) everything inanimate was frozen solid … We suffered little damage from the enemy. A few men who had straggled from the column were found with their throats cut and bodies stripped of clothing. One man of my Company is missing.
The men had their Thanksgiving on poultry and Apple Jack in ample quantity. They say that the 5th Corps was on a high old spree and the 6th and 9th Corps looked on us with envy when they saw almost every man with a turkey, chicken, or leg of mutton marching on that raw 12th of December.”
Text based on Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey, University of Missouri Press.
Contemporary drawing of the Weldon Railroad Raid courtesy of the Library of Congress.