More recently, the Great Beefsteak Raid provides an excuse to go out with friends, celebrate annually at a local steakhouse, and raise a glass to one of the many adventure stories our American heroes have published over the years. In this particular adventure – all involved were US compatriots. Some wore blue, some wore grey, and some burned meat on campfires afterward, some not.
The Beefsteak Raid was an incredibly daring adventure that took place September 14-17, 1864 during the US Civil War. Confederate cavalry leader Wade Hampton led 3,000 horsemen 100 miles behind General Grant’s federal lines and stole over 2500 cattle and successfully brought them back to the Confederate lines, where the rebels enjoyed steaks for a few days.
General Grant was in Winchester, Virginia at the time, conferring with General Sheridan. He wasn’t too pleased to learn that his prized herd had been stolen. When a reporter asked him, “General, when are you going to flog Bobby Lee?” Grant replied, “NEVER, if we f’%$king keep feeding his army.”
President Lincoln’s response was a little more printable: “Well, that’s one of the most refined beef rustles I’ve ever heard of.”
This amazing story was re-enacted in the 1966 film entitled “Alvarez Kelly” starring Richard Widmark as Confederate Colonel Rosser and William Holden as Alvarez Kelly, a fictional character thrown into the mix for dramatic effect.
Here’s how the story unfolded:
September 5, 1864 – Major General Wade Hampton, commander of the cavalry of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, received information that the Federals were loosely guarding a herd of cattle capable of feeding the hungry Confederates.
The Confederates were at this time engaged in a siege battle with Northern forces led by General Grant around Petersburg, Virginia. The rebels had to find new ways to feed themselves or starve. General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, ordered Hampton to attack the federal supply base at City Point, eight miles northeast of Petersburg at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. Lee stated, “I guess the enemy at City Point is very open to attack. A sudden blow in that direction could damage him.”
General Hampton sent one of his best scouts, Sergeant George D. Shadburne, behind enemy lines to scout the area. Shadburne reported the following: “At Coggins’ Point (six miles down the James from City Point) are 3,000 bees, escorted by 120 men and 30 unarmed commoners.” Such a catch could feed the Confederate army for weeks. General Robert E. Lee had urged Hampton to engage the enemy’s vulnerable rear, and Hampton saw this as a perfect opportunity to both harass the Union Army and provide much-needed food for the troops. When Hampton briefed Lee on his plan, Lee gave his approval but expressed concern: “The only difficulty I see relevant to your project is your return.” You can imagine what Hampton was thinking: “Yes, with Getting back from behind enemy lines with 2,500 cattle does the trick, doesn’t it?”
Aware of Federal operations, the Confederates waited until Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal Commander-in-Chief, left his headquarters bound for Winchester, Virginia, before striking. The Confederate horsemen moved out at 1 a.m. on September 14.
Her force consisted of 4,000 men in three brigades, including several certified Texas cattlemen and sheepdogs.
Shadburne led them and deceived the Bund scouts by riding southwest across the Bund left flank below Petersburg to the Dinwiddie courthouse.
The Confederates then turned and rode southeast 11 miles before turning northeast toward Coggins’ Point. At the end of the day they reached Wilkinson’s Bridge over Rowanty Creek. Engineers stayed behind to shore up the bridge to support the weight of the heavy cattle on the return journey.
The next day, Hampton’s men drove 18 miles northeast to the Blackwater River, where another group of engineers repaired Cook’s Bridge and stayed there to reinforce it as well.
At midnight, the main body of Hampton’s cavalry crossed the river and prepared to attack federal pickets at Sycamore Church, four miles from Coggins’ Point, at dawn.
At 5 a.m. on September 16, Hampton’s force charged with a three-pronged strike, the center aimed at the cattle and the two outer prongs preventing the Confederate cavalry from interfering with their escape.
Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s brigade led the dawn attack.
They overwhelmed elements of the 1st DC and 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry and then surrounded the cattle before the Federals could stop them.
With the help of sheepdogs and a compliment from experienced Texas cowboys, the Confederates hunted down all 2,500 cattle.
They also set out with 11 wagons filled with supplies and 304 prisoners while losing only 61 men (10 killed, 47 wounded and four missing).
Confederate gunboats were called from City Point but arrived too late to stop Hampton’s men, who were driving the cattle back the same route they had taken to get there. The bridges held and Rosser’s confederates stopped to repel the Confederate pursuers at Ebenezer Church that afternoon. The rest of the Confederates continued to push the herd into a line that stretched nearly seven miles.
After a night’s ride, Hampton’s men dropped off the cattle at 9 a.m. the next day.
This was the largest cattle rustling operation in American history, with nearly two million pounds of beef arriving at a time when Richmond was in dire need of supplies to feed the Confederate army. This greatly helped defenders outside of Petersburg, who taunted the Federals with their own beef across the lines. It also earned Hampton’s cavalry the nickname “The Cowboys”.
So between September 14th and 17th this year, take the time to stop by your local steakhouse or burn some meat on your grill and raise your glass to ‘The Cowboys’ of the Great Beefsteak Raid of 1864.
(Editor’s note: LanceLot Lynk is a pseudonym used by regular contributor John Morgan.)