The Battle of Saint Mary's Church, which was also known as the Battle of Nance's Shop, was an engagement in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign. On June 24, 1864, Confederate cavalry, commanded by Major General Wade Hampton, engaged Union cavalry forces, commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan, near Saint Mary's Church in Charles City, Virginia.
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant's focused on defeating Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of Federal forces during previous Union defeats at Fredericksburg (December 11 to 15, 1862) and Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863). Major General George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, but as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany Meade's army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Grant hoped to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before. Hoping to see history repeat itself, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hastened to engage the Federals before they could escape the Wilderness. On May 5 and 6, the two armies met along the two plank roads that passed through the tangled forest. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome engagements of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, Grant had suffered the same fate as Pope and Hooker before him. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade's army, while suffering only about 7,800 casualties himself. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade's army between Lee's army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania that again resulted in high casualties. On May 12 and 13, a Union attack at a place known as the Bloody Angle nearly split Lee's army in half, but the Confederates regrouped and repulsed the Federals in a fight that continued for nearly twenty hours. Unable to break Lee's lines, Grant disengaged once more and ordered Meade to move his army southeast on May 21.
Lee responded by moving his army in the same direction, and the two armies raced for the North Anna River. Again, the Army of Northern Virginia was quicker and arrived on the south side of the river in time to impede a Federal crossing. Eventually, Meade's army was able to force its way across the river at two places, but they were walking into a trap. Lee had positioned his army in an inverted "V" formation, between the two crossings, with the tip at the river. The formation would enable Lee's army to fight a holding action on one side of the "V" while attacking on the other side. Fortunately for the Federals, Lee took ill, and the trap was never sprung. Upon realizing his tenuous position, Grant had the army temporarily entrench and then march off to the southeast once again.
Grant's next objective was Cold Harbor, where he intended to link up with Union troops from the Army of the James. Again, Lee anticipated Grant's move, and he ordered his cavalry to hold Cold Harbor until his infantry arrived. On May 31, General Philip Sheridan's Union cavalry seized the vital crossroads at Cold Harbor from the Confederates. The next day, Sheridan repulsed a counterattack by Rebel infantry trying to recover the position. By June 2, both armies had arrived at Cold Harbor and were entrenched along a front that extended for seven miles. On June 3, Grant ordered an ill-advised frontal assault on the Confederate lines and lost nearly 7,000 men, compared with 1,500 Rebel casualties. Grant later commented in his memoirs that this was the only attack that he wished he had never ordered. For the next ten days, the two armies continued to confront each other, until Grant abandoned his strategy of attacking Lee's army. On May 12, Grant evacuated Cold Harbor and moved Meade's army across the James River to begin an assault on Petersburg, a crucial supply depot for Richmond and Lee's army, which was located south of Richmond.
To aid Grant's advance on Petersburg, he dispatched cavalry forces, commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan, into Louisa County, Virginia. Grant and Sheridan hoped that Sheridan's western movement would prompt the Confederates to dispatch their own cavalry after Sheridan, allowing Grant to more easily advance towards Petersburg in more easterly Virginia. Sheridan hoped to destroy portions of the Virginia Central Railroad, an important supply line for Confederate forces in Richmond and Petersburg. On June 11, Sheridan's men engaged Confederate cavalry divisions, commanded by Major General Wade Hampton, at Trevilian Station. The Northern forces split the Confederates, but the battle's tide shifted on June 12, when the Confederate cavalrymen dismounted and repulsed several Union assaults. Union soldiers did manage to destroy approximately six miles of railroad track, but they had to withdraw and return east.
On June 24, 1864, Hampton's men intercepted two brigades of Sheridan's cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg, at Saint Mary's Church in Charles City, Virginia as they retreated eastward. The Federals fought a brief holding action, allowing their supply train to safely escape the Confederates. Gregg's men then withdrew, bringing the battle to a conclusion. The engagement produced a combined 630 casualties. The Battle of Saint Mary's Church, also known as the Battle of Nance's Shop, was the final battle of Grant's Overland Campaign.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Saint Mary's Church included:
- 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
- 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
Cite this Entry
"Battle of Saint Mary's Church," Ohio Civil War Central, 2021, Ohio Civil War Central. 17 May 2021 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=198>
"Battle of Saint Mary's Church." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved May 17, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=198
- Abraham Lincoln
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Battle of Cold Harbor
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Nance's Shop
- Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
- Battle of the Wilderness
- Battle of Trevilian Station
- George G. Meade
- Joseph Hooker
- Overland Campaign
- Philip H. Sheridan
- Robert E. Lee
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Wade Hampton