* At the beginning of April 1865, a final Union push on Confederate lines at Petersburg broke through the defenses, sending Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in flight to the west. Richmond fell, with Lincoln walking the streets and talking to the citizens. Grant was determined that Lee would not escape, and the Federals pursued the rebel army relentlessly, finally boxing it in at Appomattox. Lee decided to surrender. Although other Confederate armies remained in existence, the war was effectively over.
* The march of Warren's V Corps to help Sheridan near Dinwiddie Court House was a nightmare. The troops were beat-up and exhausted; it was so dark that a soldier could hardly see his hand in front of his face; the countryside was little more than a swamp; and a flooded stream had to be bridged in the dark. Maps were poor, local landmarks difficult to find, orders were unclear, and Warren still had hostile Confederates in front of him. V Corps was supposed to be in place by dawn, but when the sun came up the troops were only beginning to move.
It is hard to believe that anyone could have conducted an effective march under such circumstances, but Sheridan didn't think much of Warren in the first place and was not much inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Where's Warren?!" Sheridan barked at the brigadier general in charge of the first V Corps column that arrived, and when Warren arrived later there was friction.
V Corps wasn't in place until noon. Pickett was long gone, having got wind of the Federal movements during the night and pulled back to his defenses at Five Forks. He was confident of his position, and the fact that the Yankees hadn't attacked during the morning convinced him that things would be quiet the rest of the day. He decided to take the afternoon off and go to a fish bake. However, Sheridan had no intention of sitting still. Pickett's force was still isolated from the Army of Northern Virginia, and Sheridan planned to keep the Confederates distracted by pressure from his cavalry while Warren marched 16,000 infantry into the gap behind Pickett's position, where they could cut the rebels off.
The V Corps, exhausted from the fighting of the day before and the wretched night march, didn't get moving until that afternoon, much to Sheridan's annoyance. When they did get marching, the march went wrong. One of the three divisions, under General Romeyn Ayres, brushed against Pickett's position almost by accident and got into a tremendous fight, but the other two divisions continued their misdirected march north, which took them right out of the battle. Warren galloped out frantically to get the two divisions back in combat. In the meantime, Sheridan rode up to the firing line, to run into General Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was back in the war even though his terrible hip wound was far from perfectly healed. In fact, he'd been hit again at the outset of the current action; the bullet glanced off a leather case and a mirror he carried in his breast pocket, but he was still badly bruised by the impact.
Sheridan said: "By God, that's what I want to see! General officers at the front!" He got a situation report from Chamberlain, put Chamberlain in charge of the fight, and then rode off to stoke the battle. Sheridan was all over, full of adrenalin: "Come on! Go at 'em!" He was so excited that when a soldier near him took a wound in the throat, Sheridan simply shouted at the man: "You're not hurt a bit! Pick up your gun, man, and move right on!" The soldier did so, took a few steps, and then fell over dead -- a drastic but unarguable way of replying that Sheridan was mistaken.
He didn't care who was killed at the time, however, not even himself. As the sun was finally setting, Sheridan charged with his horse Rienzi over the rebel breastworks. The Federals poured through, breaking Pickett's defense for good. The rebels fled, only to run into Warren's other two divisions, which had finally made it around to the Confederate rear. About a thousand Confederates surrendered, with their hands raised in the air all around Sheridan. One of the rebels asked: "Where do you want us all to go?"
Sheridan replied, almost amicably: "Go right over there. Go right along now. Drop your guns, you'll never need them any more. You'll all be safe over there. Are there any more of you? We want every one of you fellows."
Warren sent his chief of staff to Sheridan to report about the hordes of Confederate prisoners falling into Union hands, but Sheridan wasn't pleased with the news. He'd had nothing but trouble from Warren in the last 24 hours, and in reply all Sheridan could do was bark: "By God, sir, tell General Warren he wasn't in that fight!" This was such a shock that the officer had to repeat it again and ask for it in writing. Sheridan barked at him again and told him to write it down. The officer then rode away, and a short time later General Charles Griffin, the ranking division commander of V Corps, rode up to confer with Sheridan. Sheridan immediately told Griffin he was in command of V Corps, and then sent a written order to Warren relieving him of command and telling him to report to Grant's headquarters.
Sheridan remained wound up, getting together with Generals Ayres, Griffin, and Chamberlain to order them: "Get together all the men you can, and drive on while you can still see your hand before you!" He wanted to move on the railway immediately. The three generals were organizing their troops for another push when Warren rode up to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider the order relieving him of duty. Sheridan simply shouted at him: "Reconsider, hell! I don't reconsider my decisions! Obey the order!" Warren left without another word.
* In reality, it was getting too dark for any more fighting, and it wasn't really necessary anyway. The Federals captured over 5,000 rebels and sent the rest running; those that had managed to get away were in no condition to do any real fighting in the near future. Pickett himself escaped capture, though he might have preferred to be taken prisoner than face Robert E. Lee. Through some acoustic freak, Pickett hadn't heard the sounds of the fighting, and he wasn't aware of the assault it was much too late. It was unlikely that Pickett could have done much better if he had been there, since he was so entirely outnumbered and Sheridan's men were aggressive in the extreme, but Pickett was the object of Lee's frosty wrath anyway.
Sheridan finally cooled off and realized that he could take the railroad in the morning, and the men could get a little rest before they pushed on again. With a little time to rest, General Griffin talked things over around the campfire with his division and brigade commanders. They were generally unhappy with the relief of Warren, since he was a popular commander and the circumstances didn't seem to warrant his removal. They then saw Sheridan walking into the firelight, speaking apologetically about the hot way he had acted during the day, saying that he had been determined to fight the battle and "fretted all day until it was done." He thanked all of them for their efforts and returned to the dark from where he had come.
Sheridan's apology did not extend to reconsidering his relief of Warren. Warren later demanded a court of inquiry. Nobody would grant him one, but he refused to give up, and a court of inquiry was finally set up in 1879. The court considered the case for three years and finally exonerated Warren, even going so far as to issue a reprimand against Sheridan, but by that time Warren had been dead for three months. By his instructions, he was buried in civilian clothes and without military ceremony.BACK_TO_TOP
* After the struggle that evening, one of Grant's staff officers who had been watching the fight rode back excitedly to Grant's headquarters to spread the good news of a battle won, a great victory, thousands of prisoners taken. There was cheering and tossing of caps around the campfire, except for Grant, who waited for the excitement to die down and asked the officer: "How many prisoners?" The officer indicated about five thousand. Grant, looking pleased and even a little enthusiastic, went to the telegrapher's tent and spent some time sending out a series of orders. When he was done, he went back to the campfire and announced: "I have ordered an immediate assault all along our lines."
Grant assumed that Lee had to weaken the center of his line to protect his flank. Furthermore, with Pickett's force destroyed, the rail line to the south was essentially in Yankee hands, and there was nothing to prevent the Federals from moving troops into the Confederate rear and bagging the whole lot of them. Lee would certainly be able to see that his defense of Petersburg had just been rendered impossible. If Grant moved quickly, he could keep capture Lee and all his men.
In fact, Grant's luck was better than he knew. For the moment, Lee was unaware that Pickett's force had been effectively wiped out. Had Lee known this, he would have ordered an immediate withdrawal, but he chose to stand instead, shifting forces to meet immediate challenges even though he knew it would leave him greatly weakened elsewhere.
Parke's IX Corps would lead the assault at the northern end of the lines around Petersburg, while Wright's VI Corps attacked farther south, with the divisions that Ord had brought down from the Army of the James to follow up VI Corps. II Corps would push forward at the southern end of the line.
VI Corps would be the spearhead. The fighting spirit of VI Corps, which had participated in Sheridan's successes in the Valley, was very high, but the men were still apprehensive, believing they were being fed into another suicidal massacre. Many of them had pinned papers on their uniforms giving their names and personals so their bodies could be identified for their next of kin. The night was very dark and misty, adding to the sense of doom and gloom.
Before dawn on 2 April, all the Union guns along the line began blasting away in a bombardment that witnesses regarded as the most impressive they had seen during the entire war, what one gunner called "a constant stream of living fire". VI Corps was to go forward under the cover of the bombardment, but there had been a mix-up, and the signal cannon that was to tell them to move out was completely unheard in the chaos. However, the fire finally slackened and fell silent; then thousands of Federals moved forward. VI Corps was blocked by abatis, but there were known paths through the abatis used by rebel pickets, and the spearhead brigades were focused on these paths. Other units had details of men with axes to chop through the abatis.
The Yankees pressed on. A surgeon watching the battle from the rear saw the Confederate defenses lit up in the dark with a twinkling line of musket fire, but then one section went dark, then another, and another, until the whole line disappeared. The defenders fought with determination as always, with Union storming parties having it out with them at close quarters in the trenches, but there were too few rebels and too many Federals. Squads of gunners had been assigned to the assault to take over rebel guns and turn them against their previous owners, but Federal infantry was so enthusiastic they did the job themselves in many cases, setting off guns when they had no primers by the simple measure of firing a rifle down the priming-hole.
Lee had been awakened by the fighting, of course, and was about trying to see what he could do, but he quickly realized the situation was desperate. When he got the time, he dressed in his finest uniform and strapped on his sword, some of his staff concluding that their commander wanted to be looking his best in case he was forced to surrender that day.
By the time the sun came up, VI Corps soldiers were swarming though Confederate camps behind the lines, while on their flanks IX Corps and II Corps were breaking through the rapidly crumbling Confederate defenses. Groups of Union troops pressed forward to the banks of the Appomattox, with one such group killing Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill.
Hill had been trying to round up his men when he and a sergeant had run into a small group of Yankees. The Confederates drew their pistols and told the Federals to surrender, but the Union men were unimpressed and replied with a volley. Hill was shot through the heart. The sergeant rode back to Lee's headquarters and delivered the bad news. Lee, close to tears, told one of his staff colonels to go and get Mrs. Hill and her children out of the area, adding: "Break the news to her as gently as possible." But when the colonel entered the house, Mrs. Hill -- John Morgan's younger sister Kitty -- took one look at him and said: "The general is dead. You would not be here unless he was dead."
* The death of Hill was one of the last straws for Lee, since it proved the Federals were swarming all over his positions. Lee wired a message to Jefferson Davis to tell him to evacuate the government from Richmond at once, and then began to rally his men for a withdrawal under fire. As Lee and his staff rode from the front lines under fire to organize the pullout, he told one of them: "Well, Colonel, it has happened as I told them it would at Richmond. The line has been stretched until it has broken."
There were two partly-completed strongpoints in the rear, Fort Gregg and Battery Whitworth, that could be used to delay the Federal advance. Lee told the several hundred defenders: "Men, the salvation of this army is in your keep. Don't surrender this fort. If you can hold out for two hours, Longstreet will be up." As Lee rode away, somebody shouted after him: "Tell them we'll not give up."
At about 1:00 PM, Gibbon went forward against the strongpoints with two 6,000-man divisions of his XXIV Corps, one against each fortification, only to have them thrown back twice with heavy losses. Lee and Longstreet were in the rear, observing the fight with binoculars. Longstreet thought he saw Gibbon, an old friend, and waved his hat, but "he was busy and did not see me."
Finding that the two strongpoints were hard to crack, Gibbon shifted his forces to concentrate 8,000 men on Fort Gregg and threw all of them in at once. They took serious casualties, but the rebels simply couldn't shoot fast enough to stop them, and the Federals swarmed in over the ramparts. A terrible hand-to-hand struggle followed, the men fighting with bayonets, ramrod staffs, bricks and rocks. One Confederate gunner stood at his cannon, loaded full of canister, in the face of the swarming Federals, his hand on the lanyard. The Federals shouted at him: "DON'T FIRE THAT GUN! DROP THE LANYARD OR WE'LL SHOOT!" He shouted back at them: "SHOOT AND BE DAMNED!" -- and yanked the lanyard, blasting a hole through the Yankee ranks, to then be shot full of lead.
The struggled lasted twenty minutes. Gibbon suffered 714 casualties, while only 30 of Fort Gregg's 214 defenders surrendered unwounded. The fall of Fort Gregg made Battery Whitworth untenable; the garrison withdrew as Federals stormed the place, taking 60 Confederates prisoner who hadn't been quick enough on their feet. The defenders of Fort Gregg and Battery Whitworth had actually held out for three hours, not just two, and they had also drained all the momentum out of the Federal push in that sector for the rest of the day. Lee used the time to arrange a withdrawal, to begin at 8:00 PM that night. All went well with the arrangements, and the troops began pulling out on schedule.
Lee managed to keep his head during the day -- except for one moment, when he received a reply from Jefferson Davis concerning the evacuation of Richmond. Davis implied that he hadn't been given sufficient notice, but said that the evacuation would take place if it were necessary. Lee angrily tore up the telegram, and sent back a reply:
I THINK IT ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY THAT WE SHOULD ABANDON OUR POSITION TONIGHT.BACK_TO_TOP
* Lee's troops were gone by the morning of 3 April. Although the Union troops were very excited at having finally broken Lee's defenses, Grant knew, as most of his army did, that the fight wasn't really over until Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were taken off the chessboard for good. Federal troops began forced marches, the like of which they had never seen, to get ahead of the retreating Confederates. The soldiers complained at the way they were being pushed -- but even they had to realize that, this time, the Union wasn't going to let a victory slip through the fingers.
IX Corps advanced through Petersburg itself that morning, regimental bands blasting out triumphant music to cowed white citizens, who mostly stayed indoors and peeked out through the curtains. The local black folk, amazed or incredulous, lined the streets to watch the soldiers marching. Grant was there, issuing orders in a matter-of-fact way from a doorway, with so little excitement that an officer commented that it seemed "as if the work before him was a mere matter of business in which he felt no particular enthusiasm or care." Indeed, Grant was feeling extremely confident and casual. There were still large numbers of Confederate stragglers in the town who were trying to escape, but later said: "I had not the heart to turn the artillery upon such a mass of defeated and fleeing men." They didn't have a lot of fight in them, and Grant figured he'd pick them all up swiftly enough.
* The day before, that Sunday of 2 April 1865, had begun in Richmond as a peaceful and pretty spring morning, with the citizens attending church in such best clothes as they had after so many years of war. Davis was in church when a messenger brought him the warning from Lee, saying it was time to evacuate the city. The other parishioners notice that he walked somewhat unsteadily out of the church.
As the day went on, conditions degenerated into a nightmare, with Davis and his government scrambling to get on the last train out of town. Davis's family was not with him, having left for Charlotte, North Carolina, on the evening of 31 March. Another person who wasn't on the last train out of town was Confederate Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, one of the Southern "peace commissioners" that Lincoln had spoken to only weeks earlier. Campbell had made himself scarce and nobody had the time or much inclination to go find him. The government was headed to Danville, near the North Carolina line, which would be the temporary capitol of what was left of the Confederacy. In principle, both Johnston and Lee would converge there to organize the next phase of resistance.
That night, rebel troops pulled out of Richmond's defenses to pass through the city and join what remained of Lee's force, torching everything of military value as they left. Raphael Semmes supervised the destruction of his little fleet of gunboats; just before dawn, the incomplete ironclad CSS RICHMOND blew up in a tremendous thunderclap, and soon after a government arsenal began to brew up, adding its touch to the fireworks.
The sun rose red through the smoke over Richmond on 3 April. There were many deserters and other riffraff in the town: with the authorities in flight and no one left to keep order, they had begun a spree of looting and destruction. The city's mayor, 80-year Joseph Mayo, was waiting when Yankee horsemen approached the city after sunup. He met them in his carriage, flying the white flag and dressed in his best clothes. Mayo not only formally surrendered the city but pleaded with the Federals to hurry up so they could restore order and help put out the fires.
Federal troops, of Major General Godfrey Weitzel's XXV Corps, began to march into the city beginning at about 8:00 AM, led by small cavalry detachments that raised the Stars & Stripes over the Confederate capital. They were followed by infantry detachments, some of them marching to the sounds of regimental bands. The XXV Corps had consolidated the black regiments that had been assigned to the Army of the James and Army of the Potomac. The black men in Union blue were greeted enthusiastically by the black people of the city. Almost all the soldiers were on their best behavior and did what they could to restore order and help the citizens, rounding up troublemakers and extinguishing the fires. By the end of the day the city was quiet again, if much the worse for wear.
* Lincoln had been observing matters with satisfaction from the rear at City Point. Mary Lincoln had gone back to Washington on 1 April, and the President decided to stay on Porter's flagship, the MALVERN, a captured blockade runner. Porter offered his own spacious quarters to Lincoln, but was turned down, and the President spent the night in a berth that was about 4 inches (10 centimeters) too short for him. The next morning, on being asked how he had slept, Lincoln replied: "You can't put a short blade in a long scabbard. I was too long for that berth." The President went to the telegraph office to monitor the progress of his armies by wire, while Porter ordered the MALVERN's carpenter to rebuild Lincoln's stateroom, stretching it out to fit.
All the news Lincoln got was good, and soon General Grant suggested that he come up and "pay us a visit". The President replied that he thought he would. That evening, he returned to the MALVERN and went back to his quarters. The next morning he told Porter that a miracle had taken place overnight: "I shrunk six inches in length, and about a foot sideways."
President Lincoln and Tad went to Petersburg that morning, where the President spoke with Grant at length. Black people gathered around the house to get a glimpse of the visitor. Grant had waited there to meet with him, but the general really needed to be moving forward with his troops and finally had to take his leave and ride off west with his staff.
Grant was a few miles out when a courier brought him a message saying that Richmond had fallen. Grant sent a message to Sherman telling him the news, and instructed him to be prepared to block Lee if the rebels managed to escape in that direction. However, Grant felt confident that Lee wasn't going to get away.
Lincoln returned to City Point, where he found a telegram from War Secretary Stanton, worrying about the President putting himself in harm's way. Lincoln occasionally liked to yank on Stanton's chain, and replied that he had already been to Petersburg and planned to go to Richmond in the morning. Porter was not happy with this idea either, since the situation left him responsible for the President's safety, but Porter wasn't the boss. On the morning of 4 April, Lincoln and Tad went upstream in the MALVERN, making the last stage of the voyage past river obstructions in a boat rowed by a dozen sailors.
The President got out at the riverfront and went into the city, escorted by Tad, Porter, and an armed guard of ten of the sailors. They headed toward the Confederate White House, where General Weitzel had set up his headquarters. The President was loudly and ecstatically greeted by crowds of black people. One old man knelt at Lincoln's feet. The President was embarrassed, and told him: "Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter."
The black people came in masses, Porter saying: "They seemed to spring from the earth." The sailors fixed bayonets and formed a wall around the President to prevent him from being crushed by the mass. Lincoln told the crowd: "You are free, free as air."
Although the white citizens were not in general happy to see him, no one dared threaten him. He finally reached the Confederate White House through the crowds. He sat down in Jefferson Davis's office to rest, to soon be visited by Justice Campbell. Campbell had no authority to speak for the Confederate government, in as much as it still existed; instead, he wanted to talk to Lincoln about the return of Virginia to the Union. Lincoln told Campbell they would speak at length the next day, and then the President, Tad, and Porter took a carriage tour of the occupied city.
The next morning, 5 April, Justice Campbell visited the President on board the MALVERN, accompanied by a Virginia legislator named Gustavus Myers. The two visitors proposed that Virginia state legislators be called to a session to vote on repeal of the ordnance of secession, returning Virginia to the Union. Lincoln of course liked the idea, all the more so because it put the state government back into operation promptly. Another possibility was that if Virginia came back to the Union, Robert E. Lee might see no motive to continue the struggle and surrender, ending further violence in the state.
Lincoln replied in much the same terms as he had given Campbell a few weeks earlier: the Virginia legislature would have to cease resistance to Federal forces, recognize the authority of the Federal government, and accept the emancipation of slaves. The President said that he would do all in his power to prevent confiscations of property and grant pardons to all Confederate authorities not guilty of actual war crimes. The President suggested that Southern cooperation would make Federal occupation less painful, and Justice Campbell agreed that it would be better to have a settlement that seemed reasonable given the circumstances, instead of resorting to a protracted guerrilla struggle that would only perpetuate misery and hatred. Lincoln gave Campbell a letter detailing his thoughts to take back to other Virginians of influence.
The following morning, 6 April, Lincoln gave instructions to General Weitzel: "It has been intimated to me that the gentlemen who have acted as the Legislature of Virginia, in support of the rebellion, may now desire to assemble at Richmond and take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops and other support from resistance to the General government. If they attempt it, give them permission and protection until, if at all, they attempt some action hostile to the United States, in which case you will notify them and give them reasonable time to leave; and at the end of which time, arrest any who remain. Allow Judge Campbell to see this, but do not make it public."
That same day, Lincoln wrote General Grant about the discussions with Justice Campbell but concluded, a little sadly: "I do not think it very probable that anything will come of this." It would be good if the people of power and influence of the South could assist in the reconstruction of the Union, but matters were now being quickly resolved by the overwhelming weight of Federal force whether they did or not.
* The President had been away from Washington DC for two weeks now, and though he wanted to stay a while longer, news arrived that Secretary of State Seward had been in a carriage when the horses bolted for some reason; Seward had jumped out and been badly injured. However, on the morning of 7 April, War Secretary Stanton wired that though Seward was in very painful condition, his life was not in danger and there was no urgent reason to return. Mary Lincoln also returned to City Point that morning, accompanied by a group of distinguished visitors, including Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Mary Lincoln and her group went to Richmond on 8 April, where Sumner took the ivory gavel of the Confederate Congress back with him as a souvenir. On 9 April, Lincoln went with the group by train to Petersburg to inspect the abandoned battlefield. The guests found the President extremely upbeat, even transfigured.
Everywhere, the news was good. Canby had a good grip on Mobile's defenses and the city's fall was only a matter of time. Grant needn't have worried about Wilson and his cavalry, since all of Bedford Forrest's genius could do little against an adversary who had overwhelming force, plus the brains and determination to use it properly. Wilson took a page from Forrest's own book, sending out a brigade to burn Tuscaloosa as a diversion, and gave the rebels no rest. Forrest's troopers spent two days being thrown back, and Wilson entered Selma on 2 April, even as Richmond was falling. Stoneman was raiding up in the hills and on the road to Lynchburg, in hopes of blocking any escape by Lee in that direction. The war was clearly over except for the mopping-up.
It was time to go back to Washington DC. That evening, Lincoln, Tad, Mary Lincoln, and her guests took the RIVER QUEEN back up the Potomac. Mary and Tad went to the White House, but the President went to Secretary Seward's place to see how he was doing. He was not doing at all well, with his jaw broken on both sides and a dislocated shoulder, but the President took the time to describe the events during the visit to City Point.BACK_TO_TOP
* The news of the fall of Richmond on 3 April came in through the Union War Department telegraph room that same morning. The news was released to the citizens of Washington DC and the whole city immediately turned upside down. Everyone was on the streets, cheering and waving flags, while Union gunners fired salutes and politicians gave speeches. By evening, a good percentage of the population was drunk.
There was a formal celebration the next evening, 4 April, with buildings lit up all over town, and the word UNION lit up in gas jets on top of the Patent Building. Vice-President Andrew Johnson addressed the crowd, and when he mentioned Jefferson Davis, the cry went up: "HANG HIM! HANG HIM!" Johnson picked up on the cry immediately, replying: "Yes! I say hang him twenty times." As for all the rest like him, Johnson felt much the same way: "I would arrest them, I would try them, I would convict them, and I would hang them." Nothing less would do: "Treason must be made odious, traitors must be punished and impoverished."
The boozing and partying went on until late that night, fizzling out the next morning in an epidemic of hangovers. The papers wrote up Johnson's call for vengeance; Lincoln was not happy to read of it. When Johnson came down to City Point a few days later, the President did not bother to meet with him.
* Jefferson Davis was not the sort of person to be too impressed by threats to his safety, but certainly he had to be aware that was facing the gallows. Whatever. As far as he was concerned, there was still a war to fight.
The Confederate government reached Danville on the evening of 3 April. There was no news from Johnston or Lee the next morning, 4 April. Raphael Semmes arrived around noon with 400 sailors. Davis promptly gave Semmes the rank of brigadier in the Confederate States Army and assigned him to build up Danville's defenses, in anticipation of the arrival of larger forces.
Then Davis went to his office and composed his final official address, titled "To The People Of the Confederate States Of America". In the address, Davis acknowledged that the cause had taken a severe blow, but called on Southerners to fight on with renewed energy for "the next phase of the struggle", striking at Federal supply lines and harassing the invader until the "baffled and exhausted enemy" gave up his "endless and impossible task" of conquest. Even Davis would later admit that the address was "over-sanguine", but he could not admit defeat even when it was bearing down on him like a landslide.
Robert E. Lee had felt optimistic at first as well, having managed to withdraw his army in the face of the collapse of his defenses under the pressure of a greatly superior force. Many of the men felt optimistic as well, since now they were able to move and fight the way they had done with such good effect in the past. However, there were many others who had been pressed into service as first-line troops who had never been enthusiastic about the lifestyle, and still others who had been roughly handled in the fight for Five Forks. Since a balanced view of the current situation did not do much to inspire hope, some of the troops began to melt away.
As the rebels set out in the dark hours of the morning of April 4, Lee was focused on his opening for an escape. He planned to march northwest along the north back of the Appomattox River for about 25 miles (40 kilometers), using the river as protection against the Federal, then cross the river and go west 10 miles (16 kilometers) to Amelia Courthouse.
Amelia Courthouse was on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, and Lee hoped to link up with the troops fleeing the defenses of Richmond as well as pick up food and supplies. Once he had consolidated and supplied his force, he would then march it southwest 20 miles (32 kilometers) down the railroad to Burkeville, where the soldiers would get on trains and go south to join up with Joe Johnston's army.
Grant's objective was of course to cut the rebels off, and his chances were good for pulling it off. For once, the rebels were marching towards an objective on an arc, while Union forces could reach it on a straight line. Sheridan was leading him men as fast as he could push them across country. Union soldiers could not remember ever marching so hard, moving so quickly that they outran their supply columns. Sheridan's scouts, dressed in Confederate uniforms, probed ahead of the columns, keeping track of rebel movements, and in some circumstances exploiting the confusion to engage in a little plunder.
When Lee reached Amelia Courthouse, the food and supplies he had ordered were not there. Under the circumstances this could be no great surprise, but Lee was under great stress and it showed, witnesses saying he was "completely paralyzed" by the news.
Sheridan halted his force before the rebels, had his troops build breastworks as a precaution -- they never needed much encouragement to do so -- and pressed for an assault as soon as possible. Grant came up to the front lines to supervise. However, Lee wasn't eager for a fight with the Yankees on those terms. He had his men scour the area for such food as could be found, which turned out to be little or none, and wasn't able to get the troops on the road again until the afternoon of 5 April. By this time, there were tens of thousands of Federals on the rail line to Burkeville, and all Lee could do was try to fall back west again.
Grant sent Humphreys' II Corps to pursue the Confederates and put the rest of his army on forced marches. As the Union troops went down the road, they passed over abandoned rifles and guns, decrepit horses, and Confederate stragglers who had all they ever wanted of fighting. A Union soldier said: "Prisoners were pouring into our lines by the thousands." Another later wrote that there were cynics in the ranks who were not inclined to believe in any good news, but "the utter collapse of the rebellion was so near that no one could fail to see it, and the croakers were compelled to cheer in spite of themselves."
There was still some fight in the rebels. On the morning of 6 April, Ord had sent a group of 900 men under Colonel Francis Washburn ahead to burn bridges over the Appomattox and cut off the Confederate line of retreat. Longstreet got wind of the move and assembled a large force of cavalry to block it. There was a nasty clash at about noon, with Washburn killed and most of his command taken prisoner. A Yankee colonel was casual about his capture, however, telling the rebels: "Never mind, boys, old Grant is after you. You will be in our predicament in 48 hours."
That was the last victory of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee's troops were stretched-out and divided, with a massive Yankee force breathing down their necks. Even as Washburn's men were being snapped up, the Federals were falling on the Confederate rear-guard near Sayler's Creek. Sheridan ordered his men: "Never mind your flanks! Go through them! They're demoralized as hell!"
Sheridan was absolutely correct. The fight went on to the evening, but the rebels were outmatched. The Federal VI Corps inflicted about 7,500 casualties on the Confederates, and Custer's cavalry division destroyed much of their wagon train. The remnants of two Confederate corps were obliterated. Eight generals were among the thousands of prisoners, including peg-legged Dick Ewell. His captors found him despondent, everything drained out of him. Lee watched the disaster from a distant hilltop and could only comment: "That half of our army has been destroyed."
Still, Lee was not ready to quit. He got the rest of his dwindling force on the road, falling back to Farmville on the Appomattox River that evening. They managed to pick up supplies, move north across the river, and burn the bridge to keep the Federals from snapping at their heels for the moment. Sheridan knew he had the Confederates on the run, and wired Grant a report that evening that concluded:
IF THE THING IS PRESSED I THINK LEE WILL SURRENDER.
Lincoln, still at City Point, got a copy the next morning and sent a reply that concluded:
LET THE THING BE PRESSED.
That evening, a group of Union troops came on wagons that had been loaded up with paper currency from the Confederate Treasury. The soldiers divided the money among themselves and began to gamble with it, betting with tens or hundreds of thousands of worthless rebel dollars.
* By the morning of 7 April, Lee was nearing exhaustion. All he could hope to do is continue upstream to Appomattox Station, where he hoped to pick up more supplies, but his army was dissolving away by the minute. Men who had endured years of fighting were finally reaching the end of their endurance, and fading out of the ranks to head back home.
That evening, Grant sent a courier through the lines to Lee to demand surrender. Lee asked for terms, and Grant replied that the rebels should simply lay down their arms and make war no more. Lee replied the next day, 8 April, that he didn't believe that there was any reason at the time to surrender his army, but did want to discuss the ending of hostilities in broad and general terms. One of Grant's staff officers judged Lee's response as motivated by "a sudden, vagrant hope of last-minute deliverance." Grant simply shook his head, and tried to sleep off a pounding headache that had come on him during the day.
* On the morning of Sunday, 9 April 1865, Sheridan reached Appomattox Station, seizing the trains full of supplies. The rebels were now cut off. The two forces met and there was a little hot fighting until midmorning, but the Confederates were now in a hopeless situation. A Union soldier described Lee's position: "He couldn't go back, he couldn't go forward, and he couldn't go sideways." On being informed of circumstances, Lee told his staff: "Then there is nothing left me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths." Lee sent a courier across the lines with a white flag, indicating that he wanted to surrender.
One of Lee's officers had suggested that instead of surrendering, the army should simply disperse and head from the hills, where they could hide out and emerge to harass the Federals in hit-and-run raids. This scenario was precisely the nightmare plaguing Lincoln and other senior Union officials, but Lee rejected the idea immediately and conclusively.
Lee knew that a protracted guerrilla conflict would not be in the South's interests. It would reduce the rebel cause to mere banditry, turning soldiers into gangs of uncontrolled marauders who would be forced to raid and steal just to stay fed; having been reduced to thievery, they would become increasingly enthusiastic and unselective about it. Being bandits instead of soldiers, any of Lee's men captured by the Federals would face the noose immediately. The Federals would terrorize the citizenry in attempts to hunt down the guerrillas, and if the scorched-earth policies of Sherman and Sheridan had been barbaric, they had at least made sure that absolutely everyone in the South had not the slightest doubt the Union Army would take extreme measures to deal with insurgents.
To be sure, if Southerners wanted to keep on fighting, they could make the Union military occupation of the South a very nasty and difficult business, but such a guerrilla war would create hatred for generations, reducing the entire South to the terrors and brutalities that had afflicted Missouri from before the war had begun. The interests of Southerners would be much better furthered under the current circumstances by accepting reunion and seeking advancement through political means. After all, they would have been better off to have worked with politics in the first place.
Lee told the officer that he was too old to go bushwhacking, and it seems likely he would have had no taste for it had he been much younger: he was a soldier, not a skulking bandit. Whatever anyone else did, Lee had decided to surrender himself to General Grant. The officer who brought up the suggestion wrote later that Lee had explained things "from a plane to which I had not risen" and said nothing more of the notion. Jefferson Davis might have been a bitter-ender, but Lee was not, and it was fortunate for the future of the United States that in the end Lee's influence was greater than that of Davis.
Grant had originally insisted on unconditional surrender but had agreed to talk. Lee worried that Grant would be inflexible, but Grant's old friend Longstreet told Lee that he believed Grant would be inclined to be reasonable. Lee sent a messenger across the lines to call a truce and arrange a meeting.
It was done, but misunderstandings led to a farce. George Custer went to John Gordon's headquarters and demanded that the Confederate general unconditionally surrender. Gordon knew that Lee and Grant were already discussing surrender and that Custer was exceeding his authority; Gordon's reply was curt and negative. Custer was undiscouraged and demanded to speak to Gordon's corps commander, Longstreet. Gordon had him escorted to Longstreet. Longstreet took one look at Custer -- 25 years old, cocky, long blonde hair, a flashy uniform with, as one witness said, "the largest shoulder-straps of a major general I ever saw" -- and immediately found him obnoxious. Custer proclaimed: "In the name of General Sheridan, I demand the unconditional surrender of this army!"
Longstreet was not noted for a quick temper, but Custer was too much; he blew up, angrily telling the long-haired Yankee that he was far out of line. Custer replied that Longstreet would "be responsible for the bloodshed to follow." Longstreet shot back: "Go ahead and have all the bloodshed you want!" Custer left.
* Lee and Grant met early that afternoon in a house belonging to a citizen named Wilmer MacLean at Appomattox Courthouse, a few miles from Appomattox Station. Lee was dressed in his finest, upright and impassive, while Grant was muddy and rumpled. Lee was concealing his pain, but Grant, usually a man of few words, was surprisingly if understandably upbeat and excited, becoming such a chatterbox that Lee had to politely suggest they get on with it. Grant took the hint and got down to business immediately.
Grant indicated that the rebels were to give up their arms for collection, and then they would be allowed to go home on parole. At Lee's suggestion, Grant began to write up the terms, adding as an afterthought that the officers would be allowed to keep their personal sidearms and other property.
Lee then told Grant that many of the rebel cavalrymen and artillerists were the actual owners of the horses they were equipped with, and asked if Grant would agree to allow the men to take the horses home with them. Grant refused at first, saying the terms of surrender did not allow it, but then quickly changed his mind. He would not change the terms of surrender, but he would issue orders so that the defeated rebels would be able to take their horses home with them and use them to bring in crops. Lee was relieved: "This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people."
Lee had an aide write up a letter of acceptance. While that was being done, Lee told Grant that he needed to arrange the return of Federal prisoners in his custody, saying that he had no food for them -- and in fact had no food for his own men. Grant agreed to provide 25,000 rations.
The documents were signed at about 4:00 PM, with a formal surrender ceremony set for Wednesday, 12 April. The two commanders then left, and then the Yankee officers who remained all but ransacked McLean's house for souvenirs, carting off furniture and other items. The officers tried to pay him, but he refused to accept it, so they just threw the money at his feet.
Union troops began firing salutes in celebration, but Grant ordered it stopped, not only because the rebels were still armed and might think they were being attacked, but because it was inappropriate. Grant told his staff: "The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again."
Lee went back to his men. They were apprehensive: "Are we surrendered?" He replied that they were, they were to go home on parole. They were shocked, even though it was the obvious truth. One said: "Give the word and we'll fight 'em yet!" Lee did not give the word, though he might have wanted to; he was obviously "in one of his savage moods", as a staff officer wrote later, and his own people left him alone for the moment. Some incautious Federals tried to approach him, but he simply stood erect, dignified, and glared at them until they thought the better of it and left. Grant's promised rations began to arrive that evening, and Lee was then able to go to a more private location, out of sight of unwanted visitors.
* The next morning, Monday, 10 April, Grant came to see Lee, but rebel pickets held Grant up until Lee came out to meet him. They spoke as a cold rain came down, with Grant asking Lee if he could use his influence to ensure that the fighting stopped elsewhere. Lee replied that further fighting was useless, but that such a matter was the responsibility of Jefferson Davis, and Lee could do nothing without his approval.
They parted, with Grant heading back to Washington DC at noon to begin the process of demobilization. Before he left, he ran into his old friend Longstreet, and the two men chatted amicably enough. Grant wanted to play a game of cards with Longstreet, but there wasn't time, and so he settled by giving Longstreet a cigar, which was received with much appreciation.
Lee had a reunion of his own, running into his old friend George Meade. Lee was finally in a more hospitable mood, but he did not recognize Meade at first. When he did, Lee asked: "What are you doing with all that gray in your beard?" Meade replied in good humor: "You have to answer for most of it." They spoke for a while in Lee's tent. When Meade left, Lee turned to necessary paperwork, directing his staff to help write up a report for Jefferson Davis and a farewell message to the army. The report would require some work, but the farewell message was quickly finished, and went out to the troops that evening:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF N. VA. APRIL 10, 1865
GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9
After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.
I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes, and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.
With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all and affectionate farewell.
R.E. Lee General.
Lee spent Tuesday working on his final report. There was fraternization between the two sides that day, the Federals upbeat and friendly, the Confederates civil but aloof. There were occasional exchanges of harsh words when an incautious Yankee stepped on the toes of a touchy rebel, but there was no violence.
The report was finished the next morning, Wednesday, while rebel regiments laid down their arms in a formal ceremony, presided over by Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, recognized as heroic by both armies. Then the disarmed soldiers headed off for home in groups. Lee rode with two of his staff officers, running into Longstreet that evening to share a final campsite that night, before they parted ways in the morning.BACK_TO_TOP