The white-haired man and the young boy sat side by side warming themselves in front of the fireplace. The man turned to the boy. “Robert, did I ever tell you about the time I rustled cattle?”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Grandpa, You were a rustler? I thought rustling cattle was a bad thing.”
“Yep, usually is. But in this case it was a good thing and at the behest of General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.”
“Robert E. Lee, he’s the general I was named for . . .”
“Right and a fine man he was.”
“Behest means an order or command.” The old man smiled, “Let me tell you about it. It was quite an adventure. Way back in the Fall of 1864—more than three years into the Civil War—things were not going well for General Robert E. Lee and our Confederate army. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army had Petersburg, Virginia under siege. By September of that year the siege was in the third month and supplies were short for us Confederate troops. I was one of the troops who had established a ten mile defensive line surrounding Petersburg.”
“Petersburg is on the James River, right. Dad and I fish there sometimes.”
“Yep, good catfish fishin’. Petersburg was important because it had four rail roads and two roads making it the heart of Southern supply lines, especially for Richmond, where the Confederacy was headquartered.
“General Grant’s strategy was to strangle the Southern supply lines—to cut off shipments of food, weapons, ammunition, uniforms, too. Not that the Confederacy had many uniforms to ship. We were a ragtag bunch. At the same time, he was cuttin’ off our supplies, Grant worked to maximize supplies for his own Union troops at the major supply depot and his field headquarters over at City Point, Virginia, that’s where the James and Appomattox rivers come together. It was about eight miles behind Union lines. I’ve been told that 2,900 tons of supplies arrived every day from trains and from ships at the City Point Harbor.”
“Gee! That’s a lot.”
“Yep. You like bread and butter, right?” The boy nodded.
“Well, the City Point Bakery turned out 100,00 loaves of bread each day. All this kept the Union soldiers well fed and well supplied while we Confederates were sittin’ around our campfires with growling stomachs. I remember being really hungry and worried about how to stay warm ‘cause winter was comin’. Sure would have liked some of that bread and butter.
“Needless to say, the food situation was pretty desperate. I remember being on sentry duty on September 5th, when one of our Confederate agents and scouts, a guy named George Shadburne came back from a reconnaissance trip behind enemy lines and reported to General Wade Hampton— he was Commander of the Cavalry Corp. of the Army of Northern Virginia— that there were 3000 cattle—intended to feed Union troops—being held at Coggins Point, just five miles from Grant’s headquarters. I overheard him say that he believed the beeves were guarded by about 120 soldiers and 30 unarmed civilians.”
“That’s a lot of cattle. Those are the one’s you rustled?” The boy’s voice was eager.
The old man patted the boy’s knee. “Don’t get ahead of me now. I’m comin’ to that. General
Hampton recognized an opportunity to harass the enemy and get some food for us. General Lee liked the idea and gave us permission to go after the cattle. Hampton gathered a force of some 3000 of us soldiers including (and I quote) “several certified Texas cattle thieves”. . . or, cattle rustlers as we’d call them. I’d never been a rustler. Valued my neck too much. Didn’t want to swing by it from a tree. But, I was a Texan, so he figured I’d at least know how to handle cattle. We found some shepherd dogs to help as herders.”
“How’d you get past enemy lines?” The boy’s attention was complete.
“Well, on the mornin’ of September 14th, Hampton led us around the Union’s left flank, then turned us southwest toward Wilkinson’s Bridge on Stony Creek, where we cold-camped for the night. Next mornin’ we moved northeast at a quick march to where Cooke’s Bridge had spanned Blackwater Creek—that is, until the Union troops burned it. FIgurin’ the enemy wouldn’t expect an attack from this direction, Hampton ordered our engineers to build a new bridge over the creek. By midnight, we had crossed the creek and were within 10 miles of the cattle at Coggin’s Point.
“Hampton divided us into three groups. Group one, that was my group—under the command of General Thomas Rosser, would launch the attack at Sycamore Church, the central point of the Union camp and the spot closest to the cattle. Group two would go to the left to offer us protection from the Union forces close to Petersburg, while group three rode to the right to provide support for us as we rounded up the cattle and then skedaddled back the way we’d come.
“It was 5:00 a.m. on the 16th when we burst into the Union camp. Sure surprised the troops there! We were surprised, too. There were more than 300 soldiers in camp instead of the 120 the scout had estimated. Took about three hours to get in control of the situation and round up the herd. We captured 304 Union prisoners along with their new Henry repeater rifles. Also rounded up eleven wagons. A bunch of non-combatant Yankee herders changed allegiance and came back with us to help drive the 2,486 cattle we rustled. And can you imagine, all this happened just five miles from Grant’s headquarters?”
“Were you scared?”
“Robert, any time you ‘see the elephant,’ you have some fear.”
“Seeing the elephant means going into battle, right?”
“Yep. Anyway, the march back to our Confederate camp was across the new bridge we’d built over Blackwater Creek. When we’d had crossed with our new wagons, prisoners, and all those beeves, we dismantled the bridge so, any Union troops chasing us cattle thieves couldn’t cross the creek.”
Laughing, the boy said, “Weren’t many left behind to chase you, were there?”
The old man grinned, “Nope. The raid was successful, but we lost ten Confederates, forty-seven were wounded. One of those was my cousin Jack (he recovered), and four soldiers went missing. We lost a few stray cattle on the road back to Confederate territory, so we ended up with a total of 2,468 “Confederate cattle.
“But there was a problem. Wasn’t any fodder to feed the captured herd, so it was necessary to slaughter them immediately and with little or no salt to use as a preservative, we needed to cook and eat two million pounds of meat. There was so much meat in the short term that we Johnny Rebs could eat our fill and have a bit to trade in private exchanges with Union sentries for other items which union troops had and we Southerners didn’t. We had some fun taunting the Union sentries, invitin’ them for a steak dinner or simply “mooing” at them. Couldn’t eat all that beefsteak fast enough and raw beef spoils fast. Before long, our Confederate food shortage was desperate again.
“You know, when President Lincoln heard about our raid, he called it, ‘the slickest piece of cattle stealing’ he had ever heard of. Story is that shortly after our cattle rustling raid, Grant was asked when he expected to defeat Lee. He supposedly said, ‘Never if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.’” The old man chuckled, making new wrinkles on his face.
“Several ‘certified Texas cattle thieves’ and the rest of us who were part of the raid, have stories to tell and braggin’ to do about the great “Beefsteak Raid.” The old man laughed again. It’s a bit of cattle thievery which didn’t justify hanging.
The old man stood. “All this talk has made me hungry. What do you say we go to the kitchen and rustle us up a couple of steaks?”
Jumping to his feet the boy said, “Make my beefsteak rare!”
In a final note:
Prince Georges County, Virginia holds a steak dinner each year commemorating the Great Beefsteak Raid. Want yours rare, medium or well done?