The Last Campaign
The Last Campaign
The thundering cannonade that erupted from the Union lines at Petersburg in the predawn hours of April 2nd 1865 was the longest and most sustained bombardment the veteran soldiers of either side had remembered. Coming on the coattails of the April 1st victory at Five Forks Ulysses S. Grant was determined to finally break the Confederate hold on the beleaguered City and had ordered an all-out assault on the Rebel positions for the following day.
Just after midnight the bombardment began and was a precursor to a Union infantry attack that would simultaneously occur along the entire thirty-five miles of Confederate trenches that surrounded the City of Petersburg,Virginia.
As Grant had surmised the lateral movement of his armies over the last few months, his continued envelopment of Petersburg, had thinned the Confederate ranks to the breaking point. General Robert E. Lee commanding the Rebels at Petersburg had warned the Confederate authorities in Richmond that a breakthrough was inevitable.
By the spring of 1865 the Federal armies at Petersburg outnumbered the Confederates three to one. This advantage in man-power was coupled with a new exhilaration amongst the Federal troops gained from their success at Five Forks earlier that day. Tens of thousands of Union soldiers had, for nine months, looked on the shell-pocked bitter landscape that was the no-mans-land at Petersburg with dread. But now, the end was in sight, they had momentum on their side and they saw light at the end of the tunnel.
“And then the guns stopped altogether, and there was silence on the battlefield, and in this silence an officer realized that there was a mysterious, pervasive noise that seemed to be the sound of a deep, distant rustling, “like a strong breeze blowing through the swaying boughs and dense foliage of some great forest.” He realized at last that this was the noise made by 14,000 soldiers tramping forward over soft damp ground.” *
The Confederate troops manning the Petersburg defenses fought stubbornly as usual but could not hold back the Union onslaught. After 18 hours of combat Union troops went surging over the parapet of the Rebel defenses and finally achieved their breakthrough at Petersburg.
“Then and there,” wrote a Connecticut soldier exultantly, “then and there the long-tried and ever faithful soldiers of the Republic saw daylight!” And the whole corps looked up and down the Petersburg lines— broken forever, now— and took in what had been done, and caught its breath , and sent up a wild shout which, the Connecticut man said, it was worth dying just to listen to.” *
Many of the Confederate troops manning the trenches were destitute of everything but fought tenaciously and were counted with the thousands of dead and wounded after the battle. Many more thousands escaped, some deserting altogether for home believing the war was over, but some thirty thousand others who managed an organized retreat, marching in ranks through the City of Petersburg and burning the bridges behind them after crossing the Appomattox River and continuing west.
General John B. Gordon, leading the Confederate rearguard wrote,
“As the last broken file of that matchless army stepped from the bridge and my pioneer corps lighted the flames that consumed it, there came to me a vivid and depressing realization of the meaning of the appalling tragedy of the last two days. The breaking of Lee’s power had shattered the last hope of Southern independence.” ***
The Union breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2nd 1865 precipitated the last campaign of the Civil War in Virginia. General Robert E. Lee and what was left of the Confederate Army were retreating west in an attempt to gain time and distance between their pursuers. General Lee hoped to concentrate his remaining forces and eventually turn south for a march into North Carolina to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston. If Lee could reach the Danville/Richmond railroad their way south would be open for a forced march into the Carolinas to defeat Sherman and then he and Johnston could turn and deal with Grant.
Gen. Grant surmised Lee’s goal and intended to block the Confederates way south. Ordering Gen. Gordon Meade west in pursuit Grant also orders Gen. Phil Sheridan and the Union Cavalry to ride south and prevent any attempted move by Lee to reach the Carolinas. Grant intended to box the Confederates in and force a surrender or engage in one last bloody battle to finally destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
“Soon began the continuous and final battle. Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on the flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On and on, hour after hour , from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle.” ***
Grant finally had what he’d been seeking since crossing the Rapidan eleven months back. Lee’s army was out in the open, Petersburg and Richmond had fallen, “but Lee’s army still lived and if it was going to be destroyed it must be first caught.” *
“We had now no other objective than the Confederate armies, and I was anxious to close the thing up at once.” ****
Traveling along the Confederate retreat route in 2015 this still relatively sparsely populated area of Virginia seems to have changed little in 150 years. The rolling terrain interspersed with tracks of forest and broken by cultivated farms dominate. In 1865 its recorded that both armies initially felt elation at finally extracting themselves from the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. Finally marching in the open air again Union troops sensed they were marching on their last campaign and the Confederates inexplicably believed their commander Robert E. Lee would somehow manage to turn the tables on the pursuing Federals.
The Last Campaign in Virginia devolved into a continuous battle broken only by all-night forced marches. After nine months of trench warfare the exertions needed in this tumbling terrain west of Petersburg soon took its toll on the soldiers.
Twenty miles out of Petersburg Union forces caught up with the Confederate rearguard around a small country church in Ford,Virginia. The Battle of Namozine Church occurred on April 3rd 1865 and was one in a series of small battles that came to define the Appomattox Campaign.
The railroads so important to Lee and his army still run through the small towns along the retreat route that were touched by fire in 1865. No longer pedestrian stops the railroads today pass through these small towns hauling freight throughout a country now united.
The Long Road Home
“The end of the war was like the beginning, with the army marching down the open road under the spring sky, seeing a far light on the horizon…Everything had changed, the war and the men and the land they fought for, but the road ahead had not changed….Yet now it was all different, because for all anyone knew the thing they had been marching toward for four years might lie just the other side of the next hill.” *
General Lee and the Confederates would burn the bridges behind them as they marched west in hopes of delaying the Federals in pursuit. Lee’s first order of business would be to get his soldiers some rations. The Confederates defending Petersburg had been without food for days and if their grey haired commander hoped to get them south they would need sustenance to keep them marching.
Gen. Lee had predicted the outcome at Petersburg and had ordered that supplies be ready for his troops when they reached Amelia Courthouse twenty miles to the west . Upon reaching Amelia Courthouse Lee discovers that, through a logistical blunder, the supplies have not gotten through and decides to wait for his columns to close up before moving on. The delay would be fatal as Grant’s troops were quickly closing-in.
Union General Phil Sheridan was in the van of the chase. The Union cavalry commander had employed a cadre of scouts that were riding ahead of the Union armies and infiltrating the Confederates as they were harried west.
“Far out in front, fantastic outriders of victory, went Sheridan’s scouts. Sometimes they rode dressed as Confederate officers or couriers, and sometimes they wore faded jeans and rode decrepit horses or mules with makeshift bridles and saddles, pretending to be displaced farmers or roving horse doctors. Either way, they visited Rebel picket posts, rode blithely through cavalry cordons, ambled alongside Lee’s wagon trains, paused to chat in Confederate camps. Most of them got back alive, and they kept Sheridan informed about where the enemy’s people were and where they were going to be next.” *
It seemed everywhere Lee turned he was met by a Union force. “Two days out of Five Forks Sheridan led his men into a country town called Jetersville, which place was important than for two reasons— it was on the Richmond and Danville Railroad and Lee and his army had not yet reached it.” *
“So here was the Army of the Potomac getting ready to fight its old antagonist, and for the first time in its history its battle line was facing toward the northeast. It had won the race and if Lee was to go any farther south he would have to fight.” *
General Lee realized that his first choice for a route south was now blocked and that evening orders his troops to keep moving west in an attempt to get around the Federals. Discovering the Confederates gone the following morning Grant orders a vigorous pursuit. The Union troops were being pushed to the limit some covering thirty miles a day as they attempted to pen Lee’s troops. The Confederates were exhausted, dragging themselves along and constantly having to turn back to resist Union troops nipping at their heals. The Rebels, now four days out of Petersburg, had still not gotten their rations and were falling-out along the roadside, some dropping their weapons, and giving up.
“On every side there were multiplying signs of Confederate defeat, littering roads and fields like driftwood dropped by an ebbing tide: broken wagons and ambulances, guns with broken wheels, discarded muskets and blanket rolls, stragglers bedded down in fence corners or stumbling listlessly through the woods— and, every so often, “dropped in the very middle of the road from utter exhaustion..” *
Union troops harried the Confederate rearguard in a long succession of savage little fights forcing the Rebel columns to halt, to form a line of battle and fight for their survival.
“The increasing signs that the army was ready for destruction simply made Grant drive his own troops all the harder.” *
The Union soldiers in Grant’s army for the first time didn’t complain about the forced marches…
“This was the road the army had been marching toward from the very beginning, and many thousands of men had died in order that this road might at last be marched on; for this was the road to the end of the war, and on over the horizon to the unimaginable beginnings and endings that would lie beyond that. Also, and more intimately, it was the beginning of the long road home.” *
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek
The pursuing Federals were looking for a way to split-up the retreating Confederates and destroy them piecemeal. They found an opening near a tributary to the Appomattox River along a meandering waterway called, Sailor’s Creek. The relentless march had caused the Confederate units to become separated and were overtaken by Union Cavalry led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek would actually be three separate engagements. The broken elements of two Confederate armies would have to fight back to back during the engagement and only be saved by the arrival of a third Confederate force being led by Lee to the point of danger.
General Lee upon hearing the fighting arrived with reinforcements only to see his forces engaged in a pell-mell retreat after being broken by the Union attack. Lee exclaimed,
“My God! Has the army been dissolved?”
But Lee arrived with veteran reinforcements that surged forward to keep the Union assault in-check. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting occurred as the remaining rearguard gave Confederate Commander the time to extricate what was left of his armies and to continue their flight west.
In the battle Union troops had captured six generals and six thousand exhausted Confederate troops.
“The shattering defeat at Sailor’s Creek had demonstrated that the Army of Northern Virginia could no longer stand and fight, a loss that not only resulted in the capture of a huge part of the army but one that put an end to any Confederate soldier’s belief in the army’s invincibility.” **
Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park in Rice, Virginia preserves some of the crucial ground in this decisive battle. The 18th century Hillsman House sits atop a hill near Sailor’s Creek and was in the line-of-fire. Serving as a field hospital dark bloodstains still mark the floor where surgeons performed surgeries during the battle in 1865.
Sailor’s Creek still meanders through the hilly terrain here. Dense lowland foliage is still severed by the creek and rightly resembles the landscape of 1865. On April 8th 1865 Second Lieutenant George Peck of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry described leading his men down the slope and through a thick “hedge” and then suddenly coming upon the creek.
“I thrust my hands through and into the hedge, spread them apart and found a steam of water a dozen feet wide”.
This approach to the creek is still a tangled marsh today.
On March 28th 2015 a small band of reenactors played out this drama on the same hallowed ground in Virginia.
Reenactors woke to an unseasonably cold spring morning on the battlefield. The living historians ready to give the visiting public an idea of the fighting that occurred here 150 years ago huddled around fires as snow blew through the cold spring air.
Union reenactors would rout the depleted Confederate forces here as they did 150 years ago. Attacking through a belt of woods and splashing across Sailor’s Creek reenactors in Union blue ascended a hill to the waiting entrenched Rebels.
I stood with the Confederates in the mock battle and watched as the Federals surge up the hill and engage in a last hand-to-hand struggle to finally subdued the remaining Rebels. On cue and seemingly out of nowhere Union reenactors on horseback came crashing into the exposed flank of the Confederates. Screaming in their attack with sabers waving about their heads the Federal Cavalry completely breaks the Confederate battle line and finishes the contest.
At the end of the reenactment a pile of “dead and wounded” lay across the hill and surviving Confederates would hold their rifles upside-down, as they did 150 years ago, in a symbol of capitulation.
A few thousand spectators came to watch the sesquicentennial drama unfold across the hills at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield. Within an hour of its end the battlefield park was again empty aside from the living historians encamped along the fridges of the forests there. Wind blows the wood smoke burning in their camp fires across a now silent landscape.
The Battle of High Bridge
After the battle at Sailor’s Creek “Lee knew what Grant intended to do, and the realization must have chilled him; Grant would do all he could to get ahead of Lee, obstruct his western escape, and end the war in Virginia . Everything counted on the ability to get across the river, and more importantly, how well the Confederates could destroy those same bridges…Lee knew he faced great odds, as the Union army only needed to use one wing of its army to block the Confederates at their intended destination, and with the other wing, pin the army down north of the river.” **
High Bridge crosses the Appomattox River outside of Farmville and the bulk of Lee’s troops moved in that direction intent on crossing the river valley and burning the lengthy span in their wake. In 1865 there were actually two bridges across the Appomattox at High Bridge. A smaller span bridged the river below the towering railroad trestle and served as an additional escape route across the river.
Both of these bridges were set alight by the retreating Confederates but pursuing Federal troops arrived in time to save the lower crossing. Elements of the Union army secured this crossing and quickly deployed across the river. The failure of the Rebels to completely destroy the bridges outside of Farmville doomed the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates counter attacked and tried to dislodge the Federals from their bridgehead but were unsuccessful…Lee’s last chance for a respite for his force was gone.
What remains of the High Bridge today is now part of High Bridge Trail State Park in Farmville, Va. State officials have converted the miles long railroad bed into a trail that leads to the bridge – now a scenic walkway. Supports from the original Civil War era bridge can still be seen along its length as it towers over the Appomattox River. At the rivers edge below the remains of an old wagon road still leads to the site of the second bridge across the river here. Saved from burning by arriving Union troops, this lower span, no longer in existence, was secured by the Federals and sealed the fate of the Confederates in Virginia.
“While news of the failure at High Bridge made surrender seem inevitable, it would be the arrival of Sheridan and Ord at Appomattox Station that forced Lee to accept it.”**
Moving west General Lee’s last hope was to reach Appomattox Station where supplies for his troops were waiting in trains at the depot. Forty thousand Federal troops were now across the river and in pursuit. This was twice the number of troops left remaining in the Confederates ranks but only half of Grant’s overall force who eventually intended to encircle the Rebels.
After securing High Bridge Grant divided the Union forces into three wings beginning the last all-out envelopment of the remaining Confederates. Attacking the Rebels at Cumberland Church Union troops made numerous assaults on the Confederate rearguard but we repulsed each time.
“The Southerners must have sensed the urgency of the hour, as their lines never broke under the pressure of a series of relentless attacks.” **
While the Confederates kept the Union force at bay at Cumberland Church Lee continued to move his remaining troops west. Appomattox Station was a twenty-mile march from Farmville. The provisions waiting for Lee and his exhausted troops would be critical to their survival. Getting there before the Federals was the key.
Knowing Lee was running out of options Ulysses S. Grant sent the first of a number of communications through the lines to General Lee in an effort to end the fighting. On April 7th 1865 Grant wrote,
“The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.” ****
Reading Grant’s request, General Robert E. Lee hands the dispatch to his most trusted commander, Gen. James Longstreet, who replies simply, “not yet”. Both Lee and Longstreet knew that although weak their soldiers were still a formidable force. With provisions and an open road south they might survive yet.
To their dismay upon arriving at Appomattox Station Confederates found that George Armstrong Custer and Union Cavalry had beat them there. Fierce fighting ensued with the Confederates holding back the raiders until evening fell. Artillery duels and Union Cavalry raids went on through the night. The mounted Federals were no match for the determined Rebels but the early morning arrival of Union infantry sealed the fate of Confederates at Appomattox.
That evening, Lee held his last council of war. Confederate General John B. Gordon relates,
“On the evening of April 8th, this little army, with its ammunition nearly exhausted, was confronted by the forces of General Grant, which had been thrown across our line of retreat at Appomattox. Then came the last sad Confederate council of war. It was called by Lee to meet at night. It met in the woods at his headquarters and by a low-burning bivouac-fire.”
“There was no tent there, no table, no chairs, and no camp-stools. On blankets spread upon the ground or on saddles at the roots of the trees, we sat around the great commander. A painter’s brush might transfer to canvas the physical features of that scene, but no tongue or pen will ever be able to describe the unutterable anguish of Lee’s commanders as they looked into the clouded face of their beloved leader and sought to draw from it some ray of hope.”
It was decided that the next morning the Confederates would make one more attempt at a breakthrough. All the available Confederates troops would be pushed forward in an attempt to break the Federal cordon and escape south.
Leaving the meeting Gordon sent an aide back to ask Lee where his troops should bivouac for the night. General Lee, realizing the hopelessness of their situation responded in jest, “Yes; tell General Gordon that I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line.” ***
Lee’s last bivouac site sits in a small tract of woods just outside the National Park at Appomattox Court House. Walking the well-worn trail to this humble site a feeling came over me in the woods there. It’s quiet and somehow permeated with a sensation of expectation. A small cast iron plaque marks this lonely spot where Lee made his final decision to surrender himself and his army.
The Last Battle
On the morning of April 9th 1865 the last vestiges of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia gathered their forces outside of the Village of Appomattox for their final attempt at a breakout of the Federal cordon. Federal troops had erected breastworks across the Confederates intended line of march and were waiting for the inevitable.
Despite their exhausted condition the Rebels attacked and overran the Union position…but Federal reinforcements were near at hand.
“As the last of them left the field the way seemed to be open, and the Confederates who had driven them away raised a final shout of triumph—and then over the hill came the first lines of blue infantry, rifles tilted forward, and here was the end of everything: the Yankees had won the race and the way was closed forever and there was no going on any farther…The blue lines grew longer and longer, and rank upon rank came into view, as if there was no end to them.” *
“A Federal officer remembered afterward that when he looked across at the Rebel lines it almost seemed as if there were more battle flags than soldiers. So small were the Southern regiments that the flags were all clustered together, and he got the strange feeling that the ground where the Army of Northern Virginia had been brought to bay had somehow blossomed out with a great row of poppies and roses.” *
The sight of tens of thousands of fresh Union troops was the nail-in-the-coffin for the remaining Confederates. General Gordon sends a dispatch to Lee telling of his progress and that the Yankees had blocked their way, “General Lee I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet’s corps.”
What remained of General Longstreet’s troops were now hopelessly separated and cut-off from Gordon…the Army of Northern Virginia had fought its last battle.
Upon receiving Gordon’s dispatch General Robert E. Lee makes the fatal decision saying,
“There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.” ***
The desperate situation the Confederates faced was plain to both armies now and this only fueled the blood lust in General Phillip Sheridan. The Union Cavalry commander was in berserker mode and saw that his chance to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia had finally come. The surrounding Union armies paused within sight of the remaining Confederate battle line, the fire slackened and nearly stopped altogether.
“Many times in the past these armies had paused to look at each other across empty fields, taking a final size -up before getting into the grapple. Now they were taking their last look, the Stars and Bars were about to go down forever and leave nothing behind but the stars and the memories, and it might have been a time for deep solemn thoughts.” *
No solemn thoughts for Sheridan. The cavalry commander was screaming his head off getting his army into line so they could make a final crushing assault on the Confederates.
“Then Sheridan’s bugles sounded, the clear notes slanting all across the field, and all of his brigades wheeled and swung into line, every saber raised high, every rider tense; and in another minute infantry and cavalry would drive in on the slim Confederate lines and crumple them and destroy them in a last savage burst of firing and cutting and clubbing”
Then, “out from the Rebel lines came a lone rider, a young officer in a gray uniform, galloping madly, a staff in his hand with a white flag fluttering from the end of it.” *
The white-flag bearing Confederate messenger was taken off to see Sheridan and the Union soldiers notice across the way that the Rebels had pulled back their guns and the soldiers were stacking their rifles as if there would be no more fighting. It seemed the last final destructive battle of the war had been averted.
“All up and down the lines the men blinked at one another, unable to realize that the hour they had waited for so long was actually at hand…Yet the fact of peace and no more killing and an open road home seems to have been too big to grasp, right at the moment, and in the enormous silence that lay upon the field men remembered that they had marched far and were very tired, and they wondered when the wagon trains would come up with rations.” *
That afternoon Ulysses S. Grant would ride with a small escort to Appomattox Courthouse for a planned meeting with General Robert E. Lee. What would transpire between the two old soldiers that afternoon would determine not only the end of the war but the future of the United States of America.
* “A Stillness at Appomattox” – Bruce Catton
** “The Appomattox Campaign” – Charles River Editors
*** “Reminisces of the Civil War” – General John Gordon
**** “Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant”