Civil War Profiles: Fighting their last battle: The Delaware regiments at Ream’s Station


Following the Union Army of the Potomac’s nightmare at Cold Harbor, Va. on June 3, 1864, where thousands of men became casualties in less than an hour of fighting, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant continued to pursue the strategy he had adopted at the outset of this campaign. He pushed on further south toward the James River in an attempt to capture the town of Petersburg and cut the Weldon Railroad, a vital supply line for the Rebel army.

Thus would begin an effort to pin Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces within the defenses of Richmond, and conduct a siege that could end in the rout or surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee knew that, under such circumstances, the chances of survival were slim — especially given a steadily decreasing access to the means and sources of ordnance and provisions for his army.

As the opposing armies marched southward, clashes occurred at various points. Toward the end of August, the Union Second Corps with Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in command moved south of Petersburg toward Ream’s Station to tear up railroad track.

Lee countered with Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps that broke through Hancock’s lines, and at least temporarily brought a halt to destruction of the railroad. The Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War states that Hancock was forced back to Petersburg after suffering over 2,000 casualties.

As part of Hancock’s corps, the remnants of the 2nd Delaware sustained its last casualties of the war, with one man wounded and six missing or captured. The 2nd Regiment had been reduced to just two companies following the mustering out of the men who had signed up for three years in 1861.

John Pickett’s regimental history relates the melancholy but proud ending for the gallant 2nd Delaware. Of the original 926 members, only 12 officers and 160 men remained to muster out. Demonstrating their commitment to the cause, more than half of these heroic stalwarts reenlisted for the duration of the war.

Before it reached the end of its enlistment, the 1st Delaware was also engaged in the action around Ream’s Station. As recorded in its regimental history, the Delaware unit, as part of the First Division, Second Corps, found itself in the center of the attack by A.P. Hill’s corps, and took a number of casualties. This list included Pvt. Nathan Rash who was killed, and two others who died from their wounds. In earlier clashes, Sgt. John Meacham, Cpl. James McIntyre, and Pvt. Henry Parvis were mortally wounded.

As the two most prominent Delaware units, the 1st and 2nd Regiments had earned appreciation and recognition for their selfless service over the previous three years. In her diary, Wilmington resident Anna Ferris offered a paean to these brave men. When the 1st Delaware arrived home on furlough several months earlier, Miss Ferris, writing about the 1st but applicable to the 2nd Regiment as well, noted:

“There is but a ‘skeleton’ left of the fine regiment that went out with full ranks, in the fervor of enthusiasm with which the war began, & they only deserve the arch of triumph & the feast of fat things that have been prepared to welcome them home. They joined the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula & have been in every battle since, & have acquitted themselves with distinction & won the bloody honors of war.”

In the fall of 1864, the former 2nd Delawareans joined with like-minded members of the 1st Delaware, also three-year men recently mustered out, to form the 1st Delaware Veteran Volunteer Regiment with Maj. John T. Dent and later Col. Daniel Woodall in command. As recorded in the Civil War Official Records, Volume 46, the flag of this reconstituted unit was emblazoned with the battles in which the 1st and 2nd Delaware had shed their blood: Fair Oaks, Gaines’ Mill, Peach Orchard, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg,Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottom, Reams’ Station, and Boydton Road.

Taking stock, General Grant was pleased that a major objective had been accomplished with the cutting of the railroad that supplied Lee’s army despite A.P. Hill’s efforts to stop it. In his memoirs, Grant wrote, “the Weldon Railroad never went out of our possession from the 18th of August [1864] to the close of the war.”

As General-in-chief of the army, Grant was also overseeing the efforts of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman operating in Georgia, and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley — as well as other military forces engaged against the Confederates.

The war would continue. More sacrifice would be required of the reorganized 1st Delaware Veterans Volunteer Regiment. This combat unit, however, already had gained admiration for refusing to lay down its arms until the mission was fully accomplished.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.