April 4, 1865 – As Federals captured Petersburg and Richmond, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia escaped across the Appomattox River. The Confederate lines had finally broken after nearly 10 months of trench warfare, but Lee’s forces were not yet conquered.
After abandoning Richmond and Petersburg, Lee hoped to link his shrinking army with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army in North Carolina. Lee’s forces would move west, cross the Appomattox River, and concentrate at Amelia Court House. From there, they would head southwest to Danville and then turn south to meet up with Johnston.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered most elements of his Armies of the Potomac and the James to pursue Lee’s Confederates along a parallel route to the south. Grant’s goal was to get ahead of Lee and block his path at Burkeville, where the Richmond & Danville Railroad bisected the South Side Railroad. This would force Lee to either fight the numerically superior Federals or surrender.
Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry led the pursuit. On the 3rd, part of Sheridan’s force under Major General George A. Custer clashed with the Confederate rear guard west of Petersburg at Namozine Church, Namozine Creek, and Sweathouse Creek. The Federals took several hundred prisoners before halting their pursuit in the face of gathering Confederate infantry near nightfall. Custer’s brother, Captain Tom Custer, won the Medal of Honor for his role in this engagement.
Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates continued moving along five different routes. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps took the lead while Major General John B. Gordon’s corps formed the rear guard. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps, which had just evacuated Richmond, was expected to join the main army soon. Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry made up the southern flank, moving below the Appomattox.
There were about 30,000 officers and men left in the Army of Northern Virginia to face a Federal force of over 100,000. The Confederates were exhausted and hungry, but Lee had asked the Commissary Department to send food from the 350,000 reserve rations in Richmond to Amelia Court House via the Richmond & Danville Railroad. The Confederates were motivated to continue forward by the promise of food up ahead.
On the 4th, Federal cavalry skirmished with elements of Anderson’s infantry and Fitz Lee’s cavalry at Tabernacle Church and Beaver Pond Creek. Fighting continued until around 10 p.m., when the Federals received orders to fall back. That same day, the exhausted, hungry Confederates on the northern flank reached Amelia Court House, having marched 21 miles on the 3rd.
Lee followed his men into the town, but to his horror, there was no food waiting for them, just war equipment. The confusion of Richmond’s fall had apparently disrupted Lee’s communications with the Confederate government. One of Lee’s aides, John E. Cooke, later wrote that “the failure of the supply of rations completely paralyzed him.” Lee sent Confederate foragers to beg for food carrying a special appeal “To the Citizens of Amelia County,” signed by “R.E. Lee”:
“The Army of Northern Virginia arrived here today, expecting to find plenty of provisions. But to my surprise and regret, I find not a pound of subsistence for man or horse. I must therefore appeal to your generosity and charity to supply as far as each one is able the wants of the brave soldiers who have battled for your liberty for four years.”
Meanwhile, Sheridan’s Federals and elements of Major General Charles Griffin’s V Corps reached Jetersville, just six miles southwest of Amelia Court House. This cut Lee off from the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Lee wired Confederate officials at Danville to send 200,000 rations to his army from there, but the Federals at Jetersville cut the telegraph line.
Lee needed to move fast if he wanted to get around the Federals at Jetersville, but his men needed food, and he had to wait for Ewell to come up from Richmond. So the Confederates waited for both Ewell and the foragers to arrive.
Lee had been one day ahead of Grant on the race out of Petersburg and Richmond, but Grant was now closing in quick. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “The army is pushing forward in the hope of overtaking or dispersing the remainder of Lee’s army… I shall continue the pursuit as long as there appears to be any use in it.” That night, Sheridan reported to Grant: “If we press on we will no doubt get the whole army.”
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