April 5, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia reached Amelia Court House, but Federal forces closing in on them meant they had no time for rest.
By the 5th, Lee’s Confederates were concentrating at Amelia Court House. They had expected food there, but there was none, so Lee sent out foraging parties to scour the countryside. They returned with hardly any sustenance, despite Lee’s personal appeal for civilian aid. So the famished troops settled in under a cold rain.
Federals reached Jetersville, six miles southwest of Amelia Court House, thereby blocking Lee’s path along the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry and Major General Charles Griffin’s V Corps arrived first, soon to be joined by II and VI corps under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Horatio G. Wright. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, arrived with Humphreys and Wright.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wanted foremost to destroy Lee’s army before it could join with General Joseph E. Johnston’s in North Carolina. Grant wrote to Major General William T. Sherman, whose Federals opposed Johnston: “Let us see if we cannot finish the job with Lee’s and Johnston’s armies. Rebel armies now are the only strategic points to strike at.”
Sheridan agreed. He dispatched Brigadier General Henry E. Davies’s troopers to scout Confederate movements north of Amelia Court House. During this assignment, the Federals attacked a Confederate supply train near Paineville, a few miles north of Amelia Springs. They seized and burned nearly 200 wagons filled with food and other vital supplies; most of Lee’s official papers were also destroyed. The Federals captured 11 flags and over 300 prisoners. Sheridan reported:
“The whole of Lee’s army is at or near Amelia Court House, and on this side of it. General Davies, whom I sent out to Painesville on their right flank, has just captured six pieces of artillery and some wagons. We can capture the Army of Northern Virginia if force enough can be thrown to this point, and then advance upon it. My cavalry was at Burkesville yesterday, and six miles beyond, on the Danville Road, last night. General Lee is at Amelia Court House in person. They are out of rations, or nearly so.”
Lee believed that only cavalry blocked his path at Jetersville, and he therefore resolved to break through it and continue moving down the Richmond & Danville line. But when he and Lieutenant General James Longstreet reconnoitered the area, Lee realized there were too many Federals to contend with.
Having lost his one-day jump on Grant, Lee’s only chance was to force his tired, starving troops to conduct a night march west, around the Federal left flank, to Farmville, 23 miles away. Once there, the Confederates could be supplied from Lynchburg via the South Side Railroad. They could then turn south and continue for Danville and into North Carolina beyond. The Confederate commissary general assured Lee that 80,000 rations would be waiting for Lee at Farmville.
Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps, which had been moving west from Richmond, arrived at Amelia Court House on the 5th. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was now united and ready to continue the grueling march. Confederate officers received Lee’s instructions near nightfall and then delivered what they considered to be “the most cruel marching order” they had ever given.
Longstreet’s corps and the remainder of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps led the march. Behind them was Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s small corps, Ewell’s reserve corps, and the wagon train. Major General John B. Gordon’s corps served as rear guard. Lee told Gordon, “I know that the men and animals are much exhausted. But it is necessary to tax their strength.” Many Confederates fell out due to exhaustion and were captured.
Sheridan wanted to continue pursuing, but Meade, the ranking commander on the field, wanted to wait until his entire army was up and attack on the 6th, moving by the right flank to get into Lee’s rear. Sheridan feared this would allow Lee to get past the Federal left and escape. He appealed to Grant, who was headquartered 16 miles away at Nottoway Court House: “I wish you were here yourself. I feel confident of capturing the Army of Northern Virginia if we exert ourselves. I see no escape for Lee.”
A scout disguised as a Confederate colonel was assigned to deliver the message. Sheridan wrote the note on tissue paper, which the scout folded into tinfoil, wrapped into tobacco, and stashed into his mouth. When Grant read the message, he quickly collected a cavalry escort and made a risky night ride through dark woods and enemy territory before reaching Sheridan around 10:30 p.m.
Sheridan explained the situation to Grant, who agreed with his assessment. Grant later wrote:
“We then together visited Meade, reaching his headquarters about midnight. I explained to Meade that we did not want to follow the enemy; we wanted to get ahead of him, and that his orders would allow the enemy to escape, and besides that, I had no doubt that Lee was moving right then. Meade changed his orders at once.”
Grant then sent orders to Major General E.O.C. Ord, whose Army of the James was following Meade in pursuit: “I am strongly of the opinion that Lee will leave Amelia tonight to go south. He will be pursued at 6 A.M. from here if he leaves. Otherwise an advance will be made upon him where he is.” Confederates captured the messenger delivering this order and sent it to Lee, who now learned that the armies of both Meade and Ord were pursuing him. His situation was becoming more desperate by the hour.
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