The massive casualties taken by the Army of the Potomac since the beginning of Grant’s drive on Richmond had destroyed the combat effectiveness of many units in the Army, with large numbers of veteran troops either killed or in hospital to recover from wounds and the ranks filled up with hastitly trained recruits. This decrease in combat capability was dramatically demonstrated at the Second Battle of Reams Station. On August 24, Grant sent Hancock and his II corps south along the Weldon railroad to destroy as much of the rail line currently in Confederate hands as he could, to increase the difficulties of the Confederates in transporting supplies from the portion of the Weldon railroad they stilled controlled to Petersburg and Richmond.
All went well initially with Hancock’s corps destroying three miles of track. However on the afternoon of the 25th a Confederate attack routed the II corps, with Hancock being forced to withdraw to the Union fortified lines. Union casualties were 2,743 to 814 Confederate. 2073 of the Union casualties were prisoners, many of whom surrendered after only brief resistance. Hancock’s reaction to all this, no doubt remembering the days when his troops were considered the elite of the Army, was to remark in despair to an aide as he was unable to rally his retreating troops: “I do not care to die, but I pray God I may never leave this field.”
However, the operation was overall a Union success, the Confederates now having to transport supplies by wagon for thirty miles from the portion of the Weldon railroad left in their hands. Additionally General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was correct when he wrote this:
“These frequent affairs are gradually thinning both armies, and if we can only manage to make the enemy lose more than we do, we will win in the long run, but unfortunately, the offensive being forced on us, causes us to seek battle on the enemy’s terms, and our losses are accordingly the greatest, except when they come out and attack, as recently, when they always get the worst of it.”
Both armies were losing combat effectiveness, but the Army of the Potomac had a two to one advantage over the Army of Northern Virginia, and quantity has a quality all its own.