Tag Archives: Army of Northern Virginia

The Fall of Petersburg

April 2, 1865 – Federal troops finally broke the Confederate defenses and conquered Petersburg, Virginia, after nine grueling months of siege warfare.

After the Federal victory at Five Forks, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered a general offensive all along the Petersburg line, starting northeast of town at the Appomattox River and stretching south before curving west, ending southwest of Petersburg. From north to southwest, the Federal forces consisted of:

  • Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps from the Army of the James
  • Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s independent command, which consisted of Federal cavalry and V Corps from the Army of the Potomac, held the lines to the far west, threatening the South Side Railroad

Grant ordered Parke, Wright, Gibbon, and Humphreys to come out of their siege lines and capture the Confederate works in their front. Many troops were doubtful of success because every previous assault on these works over the past nine months had ended in failure. But the Federals did not know how fragile the Confederate line truly was.

General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, hurried to prepare a makeshift defense after learning of the rout at Five Forks. From north to southwest:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the lines in front of Richmond
  • Major General John B. Gordon’s corps held the line from east to south of Petersburg
  • Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held the line west of Gordon
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps held the line southwest of Longstreet
  • Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the line west of Hill
  • An isolated force under Major Generals George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee was beyond Anderson’s western flank

At 10 p.m. on the 1st, the Federals opened a massive, 150-gun artillery barrage to weaken the enemy defenses. This continued through the night. Then, at 4:40 a.m., the Federal troops came out of their works and advanced through heavy fog. This was the largest offensive launched since the Federals started laying siege to Petersburg.

The Fall of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The fog partially concealed them from the thin line of Confederate defenders until they were within striking distance. Longstreet, leaving Lee’s headquarters after a meeting, later wrote that “as far as the eye could cover in the field, a line of skirmishers in quiet marched towards us. It was hardly light enough to distinguish the blue from the gray.”

Parke’s corps broke through the Confederate defenses on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Wright’s corps shattered the garrison at Fort Fisher and then wheeled left to push the Confederates toward Hatcher’s Run. The Federals sustained heavy losses in the initial assaults, but, unlike previous battles, the Confederates quickly gave way. They no longer had the manpower to hold the mighty Federal army off.

When A.P. Hill rode between the lines to rally his men near the Boydton Plank Road, nearby Federals shot him dead. Hill and his corps had been instrumental in protecting Petersburg throughout the campaign. Hill’s orderly escaped and notified Lee, who said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” Longstreet took temporary command of Hill’s corps.

The Confederates fell back, with parts of their line disintegrating completely in the face of such an overwhelming onslaught. Gibbon’s corps came up on Wright’s left and hit the Confederates in flank, causing mass confusion. Gibbon’s men then turned right, moved up the Boydton Plank Road across Wright’s front, and attacked Fort Gregg. Just 500 Confederates repelled three assaults by two Federal divisions until finally surrendering. This gave Lee enough time to form an interior line that could protect his inevitable retreat.

Lee confided to a subordinate: “This is a sad business, Colonel. It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.” Humphreys’s corps began pushing the Confederates up the Claiborne Road to Sutherland’s Station on the South Side Railroad. The Confederate line soon crumbled there as well. Lee sent a message to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, received at 10:40 a.m.:

“I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here until night. I am not certain I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw to-night north of the Appomattox, and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line to-night from James River… Our only chance, then, of concentrating our forces, is to do so near Danville railroad, which I shall endeavor to do at once. I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond to-night. I will advise you later, according to circumstances.”

Breckinridge forwarded this message to President Jefferson Davis, who was on his way to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for Sunday services. While in church, Davis received a second note from Lee:

“I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops; and the operation; though difficult, I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed General Stevens to send an officer to your Excellency to explain the routes to you by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Court-House, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.”

Around 3 p.m., Brigadier General Nelson Miles’s division of Humphreys’s corps charged Major General Henry Heth’s Confederates defending Sutherland’s Station. The Federals quickly drove the enemy off in disarray, and the vital South Side Railroad was finally cut. By early evening, Gibbon’s corps controlled Fort Gregg, and Wright’s corps had cut the Boydton Plank Road. This virtually assured the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond. A correspondent wrote, “With that Sunday’s sun the hope of the Rebels set, never to rise again.”

Lee issued orders for his army to start its retreat from the makeshift interior line at 8 p.m. The Confederates crossed the Appomattox that night, with artillery ahead of infantry and wagon trains moving on different roads. The men moved toward a rallying point at Amelia Court House, 40 miles southwest. Only Lee’s orderly withdrawal allowed the army to escape destruction and the Confederate government to avoid capture.

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln stayed at Grant’s former headquarters at City Point reading the dispatches from the front. Grant wrote to Lincoln at 2 p.m., “All looks remarkably well.” Two and a half hours later, Grant informed him that Fort Gregg had been taken, and “captures since the army started out will not amount to less than 12,000 men and probably 50 pieces of artillery.” Certain that Petersburg would fall, Grant then invited the president to “come out and pay us a visit” in the city the next day.

At 4:40 p.m., Grant telegraphed Colonel T.S. Bowers at City Point: “We are now up and have a continuous line of troops, and in a few hours will be intrenched from the Appomattox below Petersburg to the river above… I think the President might come out and pay us a visit to-morrow.”

Federals entered Petersburg from the west that night, as Brigadier General Oliver Edwards of VI Corps accepted the city’s formal surrender from the mayor. Lincoln saw some fighting around Petersburg and wired Grant at 8:15 p.m.: “Allow me to tender you, and all with you, the nation’s grateful thanks for the additional and magnificent victory. At your kind suggestion I think I will meet you tomorrow.”

The Federals sustained 3,936 casualties, while the Confederates lost over 5,000, most of whom were taken prisoner. Grant wrote his wife that night:

“I am now writing from far inside of what was the rebel fortifications this morning but what are ours now. They are exceedingly strong and I wonder at the sucsess (sic) of our troops carrying them by storm. But they did it and without any great loss. Altogether this has been one of the greatest victories of the war. Greatest because it is over what the rebels have always regarded as their most invincable (sic) Army and the one used for the defence of their capital. We may have some more hard work but I hope not.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 523-24; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 362-63; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 446-47; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18470-80, 18570-80, 18746-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 574-75; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-16; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 538; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 276; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 138; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 663-64; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 175-77, 181; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 236-37, 274, 577-79, 737-38; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 99-100

Petersburg: Both Sides Prepare to Attack

March 30, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee planned a Confederate assault, while Major General Philip Sheridan pleaded with the Federal high command to launch an attack of his own.

By this time, most of the Federal and Confederate manpower involved in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond was concentrated southwest of Petersburg, on the extreme right flank of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee arrived in this sector on the morning of the 30th to inspect positions and confer with his commanders at Sutherland Station.

Lee ordered Major General George Pickett’s Confederate infantry division and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to move west, beyond the right flank, and occupy Five Forks. This was a key intersection that Lee needed to hold if he was going to continue receiving supplies from the South Side Railroad. From Five Forks, Pickett and Fitzhugh were to drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry away from Dinwiddie Court House, five miles south.

To the east, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps was posted on the extreme Confederate right. Anderson’s men held the White Oak Road, including Burgess’s Mill, but there was a four-mile gap between these troops and those under Pickett and Fitzhugh. R.E. Lee worked to plug this gap before the Federals could exploit it.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan’s troopers at Dinwiddie were supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Warren’s corps was the closest to Sheridan, with Humphreys’s corps farther east. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee hoped to not only drive Sheridan away from Dinwiddie, but to isolate him from Warren and Humphreys as well.

The pouring rain continued throughout the 30th and slowed movements to a crawl. Sheridan sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to probe the Confederate defenses, and skirmishing ensued until Merritt finally withdrew. Warren’s men also conducted probing actions which delayed Pickett from reaching Five Forks until around 4:30 p.m. The Confederates deployed along the White Oak Road, and Pickett and Fitzhugh agreed to attack in the morning.

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned to advance on Five Forks the next day, despite the continuing rain. He directed Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division to corduroy the roads so the advance could proceed. However, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, finally gave in to pleas from his staff officers to postpone the action until the rain stopped.

Grant notified Sheridan that it was “impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired.” Therefore, he was to hold his position with a token force and withdraw the rest until the weather improved. Sheridan, believing “that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake,” rode as fast as he could to Grant’s headquarters on the Vaughan Road near Gravelly Run. Sheridan later recalled that upon his arrival:

“General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud, and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside’s army was after the mud march of 1863.”

Sheridan insisted that he could destroy Lee’s right flank if he had infantry support. When a staff officer asked Sheridan how he expected to find forage for 13,000 men and horses, Sheridan snapped: “Forage? I’ll get all the forage I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads, and corduroy every mile of them from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.” Liking what he heard, Grant wrote out new orders for Sheridan:

“If your situation is such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy’s right with the assistance of a corps of infantry entirely detached from the balance of the army, I will so detach the Fifth corps and place the whole under your command for the operation. Let me know, as early in the morning as you can, your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. Orders have been given Ord, Wright and Parke to be ready to assault at daylight tomorrow morning. They will not make the assault, however, without further directions… If the assault is not ordered in the morning, then it can be directed at such time as to come in co-operation with you on the left.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright and Major General John G. Parke commanded VI and IX corps respectively. These two corps had been assigned to hold the Petersburg line to the northeast, and both Wright and Parke reported that the Confederate line across from them was so thin that they could easily break through. They were poised to do so as soon as word arrived that Sheridan had succeeded.

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 520; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 344-46; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-42; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 660; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78-79

Petersburg: Grant Looks to Destroy Lee

March 29, 1865 – Federal troops encircling Richmond and Petersburg embarked on a movement that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and end the war.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By the 29th, the Federals were poised to make their grand movement to the southwest. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to turn the right flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. In so doing, Grant sought to cut Lee’s last major supply lines and block his escape route to the west.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps led the Federal movement. The troopers began moving out at 3 a.m. on the 29th, a day marked by torrential rain. Sheridan later wrote:

“Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads from the winter’s frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a (detour) was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks.”

Sheridan was supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac, led by Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Men from these two corps moved south and west toward the end of the Confederate siege line, which was defended by the lone division of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps. Despite their numerical advantage, the Federals were not overly confident. One private wrote, “Four years of war, while it made the men brave and valorous, had entirely cured them of imagining that each campaign would be the last.”

Meanwhile, Lee received reports that Federals were moving toward Dinwiddie Court House. This was dangerously close to Five Forks, a crucial intersection that Lee needed to hold if he hoped to continue being supplied by the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by transferring all but one brigade of his cavalry to his right flank, led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee. He also transferred Major General George Pickett’s infantry division; Lee chose Pickett’s force because it was scattered, making its movement more difficult for the Federals to discern.

Warren’s leading elements moved up the Quaker Road to its key intersection with the Boydton Plank Road, and they clashed with Anderson’s Confederates near the Lewis Farm. After heavy fighting, the Confederates fell back to a defense line along the White Oak Road. Lee needed this road if he hoped to send troops west to block Sheridan. The Federals seized the Quaker-Boydton Plank intersection, but the Confederate line was not yet broken. Both sides lost about 375 men each.

Back east, Grant and his staff began transferring headquarters from City Point to the Boydton Plank Road. President Abraham Lincoln, still visiting from Washington, would stay behind at City Point. As Grant and his staff boarded the westbound train, Lincoln told them, “Good-by, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.” Grant boarded the train and told his staffers, “I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.” Grant’s chief of staff, Major General John Rawlins, urged him to postpone the offensive until the rain stopped, but Grant refused.

Two of Sheridan’s three divisions reached Dinwiddie Court House in the pouring rain around 5 p.m. This was about four miles west of the end of the Confederate line and five miles south of Five Forks. Sheridan’s third division, led by Brigadier General George A. Custer, stayed about seven miles back to protect the rear. The troopers bivouacked without tents despite the rain.

Sheridan’s original orders were to continue pushing northward and seize Five Forks. But that night, he received a message from Grant:

“I now feel like ending the matter if it is possible to do so before going back. I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s roads at present. In the morning push round the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act altogether as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”

Thus, the plan had changed from cutting off Lee’s supplies and path of escape to destroying Lee’s army. Sheridan recalled, “I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 519-20; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343-44; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 439-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8300; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 659; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5601; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78

Petersburg: The Federal Offensive Begins

March 28, 1865 – Federal forces prepared to move west, around the Confederate right flank southwest of Petersburg, in what Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would be the final offensive of the war.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee conceded that his army’s defeat at Fort Stedman meant that Petersburg and Richmond had to be abandoned. The defeat also ended any hopes Lee might have had to keep Grant and Major General William T. Sherman from joining forces. Now Lee’s only chance was to lead his Army of Northern Virginia southwest to link with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. And even then victory would be nearly impossible; the best that Lee could hope for was to fend off the Federals long enough for northerners to lose patience with the war and demand its end.

The day after the battle, Lee explained to President Jefferson Davis why he authorized the assault on Fort Stedman and the subsequent withdrawal. He stated that as a result, “I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near.”

Lee relayed a report stating that Johnston had just 13,500 effectives in his army, or about 8,000 less than previously reported. Lee wrote, “This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion.” In his own Army of Northern Virginia, Lee counted 1,061 desertions in just a nine-day span between March 9 and 18, not including cavalry or artillery. Lee wrote that “the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

Estimating enemy manpower, Lee guessed that Sherman had about 60,000 men and Grant had about 80,000. This was far greater than the combined total of 63,000 for Lee and Johnston. But reality was even worse: Sherman actually had about 100,000 men and Grant had nearly 131,000. Lee concluded:

“If General Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter, after crossing the Roanoke, has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former, moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies. I have thought it proper to make the above statement to Your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.”

Richmond officials began planning to leave town. President Davis would stay behind, but he arranged for his wife Varina and their children to leave. Davis told Varina, “My headquarters for the future may be in the field, and your presence would embarrass and grieve me instead of giving comfort.” When Mrs. Davis asked what she could do to help, Davis said, “You can do this in but one way: by going yourself and taking the children to a place of safety. If I live, you can come to me when the struggle is ended,” but he did not “expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.” Davis also asked her not to take any food because “the people need it.”

On the Federal side, Grant arranged for Rear Admiral David D. Porter to send gunboats up the Appomattox River to protect the supply base at City Point against a potential Confederate attack. Also, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry troopers returned to the Petersburg front after wiping Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Sheridan had spent the last four weeks laying waste to the Valley, which included destroying the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal. After determining that Lynchburg was too strong to attack, Sheridan headed back east. He had been ordered to cross the James and move southeast to join forces with Sherman. However, Confederates destroyed nearby bridges and rains swelled the river. Since Sheridan wanted to stay with Grant and help destroy Lee’s army anyway, he headed back to Petersburg rather than North Carolina. He later wrote, “Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.”

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan hurried back because he feared that Sherman might persuade Grant to give him Sheridan’s command. To Sheridan’s delight, Grant told him that prior messages suggesting that he link with Sherman were a ruse. Sheridan was instead assigned to an independent command of Federal cavalry that would lead the drive to finish off Lee’s army.

The marching orders that Grant had issued on the 24th went into effect as planned, as if the fight at Fort Stedman never even happened. Grant’s goal was to draw Lee out into an open fight. If he could not do that, he would cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last two supply lines. According to Grant’s plan:

  • Sheridan would lead three cavalry divisions south across the James River. They would turn west and move around Lee’s right flank, seizing Dinwiddie Court House.
  • Three divisions from Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James would move out of their trenches in front of Richmond and Bermuda Hundred, and follow Sheridan’s force. Ord’s remaining three divisions would hold the Richmond-Bermuda Hundred line.
  • Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac would come out of their trenches south and west of Petersburg to support Sheridan.
  • Ord’s moving divisions would take Humphreys’s and Warren’s place on the siege line.
  • VI and IX corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and John G. Parke would continue holding the eastern sector of the Petersburg line, looking for any exploitable weakness in the Confederate line.

Sheridan’s cavalry began crossing the James on the 28th. Grant instructed Sheridan:

“Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his intrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us, or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way, and with the full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy, as circumstances will dictate.”

The cavalry troopers were followed by Ord’s infantry, which was embarking on a 36-mile march. Interestingly, Grant placed Ord in overall command of the infantry movement, ahead of Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade.

Meanwhile, Lee planned to withdraw his army along the South Side Railroad to its junction with the Richmond & Danville Railroad. From there the Confederates would follow the Danville line southwest into North Carolina. But the move had to be delayed because troops were still recovering from the Fort Stedman fight, the roads were still too muddy for wagons, and President Davis still hoped to hold Petersburg and Richmond. But whether they were ready or not, the spring campaign was about to begin.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 439; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22413; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17687-97, 17885-95, 17983-18003; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 571; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8272, 8284-300; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-59; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 680

The Battle of Fort Stedman

March 25, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a desperate attack to break out of the siege lines at Petersburg.

By the night of the 24th, nearly half of Lee’s army was situated around Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, a perceived weak point in the Federal line east of Petersburg. The Confederates were commanded by Major General John B. Gordon. The Federals at Fort Stedman belonged to Brigadier General Orlando Willcox’s division of IX Corps.

Fort Stedman | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General John G. Parke, commanding IX Corps, was in temporary command of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac while Meade was at City Point conferring with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant was devising an offensive of his own and did not expect the Confederates to attack.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Confederates came out of their trenches at 3 a.m. on the 25th pretending to be deserters. They quickly silenced the Federal pickets as Confederate pioneers rushed up to destroy the abatis and other works guarding Fort Stedman. This enabled Confederate infantry to rush through and overrun the Federal defenders. Three groups of 100 Confederates charged and took the Federals by complete surprise. Gordon later wrote:

“Although it required but few minutes to reach the Union works, those minutes were to me like hours of suspense and breathless anxiety; but soon was heard the thud of the heavy axes as my brave fellows slashed down the Federal obstructions. The next moment the infantry sprang upon the Union breastworks and into the fort, overpowering the gunners before their destructive charges could be emptied into the mass of Confederates. They turned this captured artillery upon the flanking lines on each side of the fort, clearing the Union breastworks of their defenders for some distance in both directions. Up to this point, the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”

The rest of Gordon’s 12,000 men surged forward, quickly capturing Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 on either side of the fort. Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding a Federal brigade in the sector, directed troops to retake Battery 11, unaware that Stedman was also in Confederate hands. He rode into the fort and later reported:

“Supposing that I had restored the only break in the line, I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving directions with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him, asking his regiment. This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by the rebels, whom I had supposed to be my men, and sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him to Petersburg.”

The Confederates soon held a 1,000-yard section of the Federal line that included (from north to south) Battery 10, Fort Stedman, and Batteries 11 and 12. Gordon wrote:

“We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlen, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. One of these fell upon the works, pierced through the body by a Federal bayonet, one of the few men thus killed in the four years of war. I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlen by assuming command of Fort Stedman.”

Gordon’s men started enfilading the Federal lines to the north and south, but Battery 9 to the north and Fort Haskell to the south held firm. The three groups of 100 men assigned to seize the railroad in the Federal rear stopped to eat captured Federal rations. And logistical problems prevented many Confederates from reaching the field, thus diluting the assault. Meanwhile, Federal troops were starting to assemble for a counterattack.

Brigadier General John F. Hartranft brought up his division and worked with Willcox to stem the Confederate advance before it reached Meade Station on the City Point Railroad. Meanwhile, Federal gunners trained their fire on the Confederates in Stedman and the surrounding batteries. Gordon informed Lee that the Confederates could not break through as hoped.

As Hartranft prepared to counterattack, he received a message from Parke to delay the action until reinforcements from VI Corps arrived. Hartranft reported: “I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the line to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement.”

The Federals regained all lost ground by 7:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later Lee ordered the Confederates to disengage. Gordon wrote:

“It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw. This was not easily accomplished. Foiled by the failure of the guides, deprived of the great bodies of infantry which Lee ordered to my support, I had necessarily stretched out my corps to occupy the intrenchments which had been captured. The other troops were expected to arrive and join in the general advance. The breaking down of the trains and the non-arrival of these heavy supports left me to battle alone with Grant’s gathering and overwhelming forces, and at the same time to draw in my own lines toward Fort Stedman. A consuming fire on both flanks and front during this withdrawal caused a heavy loss to my command. I myself was wounded, but not seriously, in recrossing the space over which we had charged in the darkness.”

Many Confederates chose to surrender rather than risk death by retreating under heavy artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates suffered about 3,500 casualties, 1,900 of whom were captured. The Federals lost 1,044 men, about half of whom were captured. Despite being surprised, it took less than four hours for a single Federal corps to repulse the largest Confederate attack that Lee could hope to mount.

Grant and Meade concluded that Lee must have moved troops from his own right to launch such a massive attack on Fort Stedman. They therefore ordered an immediate assault on the undermanned Confederate defenders at Hatcher’s Run. This resulted in the capture of almost another 1,000 Confederate prisoners. By day’s end, the Confederates had suffered some 4,800 casualties while the Federals lost about 2,080.

The fighting on the 25th not only gained nothing for Lee, but it cost him vital portions of his outer defenses. This meant that Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Grant hurried to launch his own offensive before Lee escaped.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 336-39; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 434-35; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22328-46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17549-69, 17601-31, 17601-31, 17639-95, 17855-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 709-10; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 844-45; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Petersburg: Lee and Grant Prepare for Offense

March 24, 1865 – Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued preparing to mount his spring offensive, unaware that Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee was preparing to attack first.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Nearly half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia assembled near Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg, on the 24th. Lee hoped to break the Federal siege line and seize the railroad line supplying the Federals from City Point. Fort Stedman was manned by Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox’s division of IX Corps and was not expecting an attack.

Grant, commanding the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg, had long feared that once the muddy roads dried, Lee would escape to the west. He therefore planned a major offensive to destroy Lee’s army before it could get moving. On the same day that the Confederates were making final preparations to attack Fort Stedman, Grant issued orders to his top three commanders (Major Generals George G. Meade, Philip Sheridan, and E.O.C. Ord):

“On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved by our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville (rail)roads.”

Three divisions from Ord’s Army of the James would stay in the lines at Bermuda Hundred and east of Richmond, and IX Corps from Meade’s Army of the Potomac would stay in the lines east of Petersburg. All other Federals would turn Lee’s right flank southwest of Petersburg. Grant warned the commanders that their line could be spread dangerously thin due to the rough ground they needed to cover:

“The enemy, knowing this, may as an only chance strip their lines to the merest skeleton, in the hope of advantage not being taken of it, while they hurl everything against the moving column, and return. It cannot be impressed too strongly upon commanders of troops left in the trenches not to allow this to occur without taking advantage of it… the very fact of the enemy coming out to attack, if he does, might be regarded as almost conclusive proof of such a weakening of his lines.”

Grant was right: Lee’s lines were extremely weak. With only about 25,000 troops, Lee had to hold White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, southwest of Petersburg. This was a distance of about 35 miles, or less than 1,000 men per mile. And these men were poorly fed, clothed, and equipped. Conversely, Grant had over 100,000 troops in the Federal lines who were constantly supplied from the railroad running from their massive base at City Point on the James River.

Nevertheless, Lee hoped that capturing Fort Stedman would force Grant to contract his line to protect his supply base, thus leaving an opening to the southwest for Lee to escape. And if he escaped, he might be able to prolong the war long enough for the northern public to finally demand a ceasefire. The assault, set to begin before dawn on the 25th, was to be led by Major General John B. Gordon. The result could potentially decide the fate of the entire Confederate war effort.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 429, 432-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 550; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Petersburg: Lee Targets Fort Stedman

March 23, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee approved a desperate plan for his Army of Northern Virginia to break the Federal siege line east of Petersburg, thereby opening an escape route to the south.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee met with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond in early March to discuss the army’s dire situation. Lee conceded that it was only a matter of time before he would have to abandon Petersburg, which meant that Richmond would fall as well. However, Lee needed time for the muddy roads to dry and his starving horses to regain strength.

Lee suggested that the army withdraw along the railroad line to Danville, and the Confederate government should therefore gather food and supplies at the depots along the way to sustain the men and animals. From Danville, Lee hoped to turn south, join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina, quickly defeat the Federals under Major General William T. Sherman, and then turn back north to confront Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s armies at Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee argued that defeating Sherman would boost southern morale enough for more men to join the cause, and it could isolate Grant’s Federals in hostile Virginia. But such a plan could only succeed if Sherman was defeated before Grant could reinforce him. This required speed, but Lee could not withdraw according to his timetable because he was desperately short on supplies. While visiting his family on Franklin Street, Lee fumed to his son Custis about the problem:

“Well, Mr. Custis, I have been up to see the Congress and they don’t seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco while my army is starving. I told them the condition we were in, and that something must be done at once, but I can’t get them to do anything, or they are unable to do anything. Mr. Custis, when this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it; and now… And now they will repent.”

Lee returned to his Petersburg headquarters on the 5th, where he received word of the defeat at Waynesboro. This meant that Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals were free to leave the Shenandoah Valley and reinforce Grant on the Petersburg-Richmond line. Moreover, Lee learned that Johnston had made no progress in stopping Sherman’s advance through North Carolina.

Concluding that Johnston could hope for no “marked success” without help, Lee began developing a plan to attack Grant’s Federals east of Petersburg before Sheridan could arrive. This could force Grant to constrict his siege line and give Lee enough time and space to withdraw to the west. However, this desperate plan threatened to play right into Grant’s hands because he had been hoping for Lee to come out from behind his defenses and attack him ever since he launched his Virginia campaign last May.

Even so, Lee explained to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge that the condition of the Confederate armies “is full of peril and requires prompt action. Unless the men and animals can be subsisted, the army cannot be kept together, and our present lines must be abandoned.” But Lee assured Breckinridge that “I do not regard the abandonment of our present position as necessarily fatal to our success.” The success or failure of the cause would depend on the southern people.

On the 10th, Lee discussed the situation with one of his corps commanders, Major General John B. Gordon. Lee directed Gordon to move his troops from southwest of Petersburg to east of the city. Gordon spent the next two weeks reconnoitering the Federal fortifications and developing a plan of attack. In the meantime, Lee applied to the Confederate government for the maximum quota of black troops under the new law authorizing black military recruitment. Lee declared, “The services of these men are now necessary to enable us to oppose the enemy.”

Gordon presented his plan to Lee on the 23rd, later writing, “I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting point for attack.” Stedman was similar to the other forts on the Federal line, except that it was less than 200 yards from the Confederate trenches and there were no abaits in its rear. This made it especially vulnerable.

Gordon explained to Lee that the fort could be captured by a night attack, “and a sudden, quick rush across ditches, where the enemy’s pickets are on watch, running over the pickets and capturing them, or, if they resist, using the bayonet.” However, it would not be easy, as Gordon reported:

“Through prisoners and deserters I have learned during the past week all about the obstructions in front of General Grant’s lines. They are exceedingly formidable. They are made of rails, with the lower ends deeply buried in the ground. The upper ends are sharpened and rest upon poles, to which they are fastened by strong wires. These sharp points are about breast-high, and my men could not possibly get over them. They are about six or eight inches apart; and we could not get through them. They are so securely fastened together and to the horizontal poles by the telegraph wires that we could not possibly shove them apart so as to pass them.”

To solve this problem, Gordon proposed sending his best axe men forward to cut down the abatis and enable the infantry to push through. The Confederates had little chance to succeed, but if they did, they could hold Stedman and seize the Federals’ City Point Railroad, the world’s first railroad built exclusively to supply military forces in the field.

The idea of attacking Fort Stedman appealed to Lee because it could force the Federals to transfer troops from the left (southwest) sector of their line to shore up their right, leaving an escape route in that sector for Lee to break out of Petersburg and join forces with Johnston.

By this time, Lee had learned that Sherman had joined forces with Major General John Schofield in North Carolina, and he presumed that Sheridan had joined forces with Grant. If the Confederates were going to attack, they had to do so immediately. Lee committed the three divisions of Gordon’s Second Corps plus elements of First and Third corps to the attack. The force would total about 12,000 men, or nearly half the entire Army of Northern Virginia.

Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote in his diary: “The dread contingency of which some intimation has been given is at hand. No one can say what the next week may bring forth, although the calamity may be deferred a while longer. Now is the hour when we must show of what stuff we are made.” Lee told Gordon, “I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 516-18; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22302-28, 22346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 564; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8145, 8225, 8237-49; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 649-50, 656-58; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Grant’s Spring Offensive Takes Shape

March 6, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued preparing to launch the spring offensive, which looked promising considering the growing number of Confederate desertions.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James had held General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last summer. Grant hurried to mobilize these armies and destroy Lee before he could escape to the southwest and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

Grant also planned to launch offensives in other theaters of operations to prevent Lee from being reinforced. In North Carolina, separate Federal armies were joining forces to keep Johnston away from Virginia. Major General E.R.S. Canby and Brigadier General James H. Wilson were moving into Alabama to seize the important factory town of Selma and the port city of Mobile. And Major General George Stoneman was leading a cavalry force into eastern Tennessee.

Grant also needed help from the navy to protect his supply base at City Point, on the James River. Grant sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 4th: “The James River is very high, and will continue so as long as the weather of the past week lasts. It would be well to have at once all the ironclads that is intended should come here.”

Welles quickly responded by directing Captain Oliver S. Glisson at Hampton Roads to bring ironclads up from Wilmington. Glisson responded early on the 5th: “Your telegram was received at 15 minutes after midnight; blowing a gale of wind at the time, U.S.S. Aries sailed at daylight this morning. The monitors are expected every moment from Cape Fear, and I shall send them up the river immediately.” Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was notified to send two ironclads from his command north to City Point as well.

Another part of Grant’s preparation was to bring Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, fresh off their resounding victory at Waynesboro, back to the Federal armies outside Richmond and Petersburg. With the Shenandoah Valley now firmly in Federal hands, Sheridan marched unopposed and arrived at Charlottesville on the 3rd.

Grant had urged Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, which was one of Lee’s main supply lines. The Federals spent two days finally getting this done before heading south toward the James River. Sheridan planned to wreck the James River Canal and then move east to join the spring offensive.

Sheridan’s Federals moved through Goochland Court House, Beaver Dam Station, and Hanover Court House on their way back east. Sheridan reached White House, on the Pamunkey River, on the 19th. Grant arranged for him to pick up fresh horses and supplies, and he wrote to Sheridan that once his force was ready, “Start for this place as soon as you conveniently can.”

Grant explained that he planned to move on Lee’s southwestern flank with 50,000 troops, and Sheridan’s men were needed to destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. Once that was done, Sheridan was to “then either return to this army or go on to Sherman (in North Carolina), as you may deem most practicable.” Whichever option Sheridan chose, “I care but little about, the principal thing being the destruction of the only two roads left to the enemy at Richmond.”

The next day, Grant sent Sheridan a more urgent message:

“I do not wish to hurry you. There is now such a possibility, if not probability, of Lee and Johnston attempting to unite that I feel extremely desirous not only of cutting the lines of communication between them, but of having a large and properly commanded cavalry force ready to act with in case such an attempt is made… I think that by Saturday next you had better start, even if you have to stop here to finish shoeing up.”

Grant also reported on the progress of the other offensives starting this month:

“Stoneman started yesterday from Knoxville with a cavalry force of probably 5,000 men to penetrate southwest Virginia as far toward Lynchburg as possible.… Wilson started at the same time from Eastport toward Selma with a splendidly equipped cavalry force of 12,000 men. Canby is in motion, and I have reason to believe that Sherman and Schofield have formed a junction at Goldsboro.”

Sheridan later wrote:

“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”

Meanwhile, to further hamper the Confederate war effort, the Federal high command encouraged enemy desertions by offering to pay deserters for bringing their rifles into Federal lines. Grant had asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to enact this program, and Stanton replied, “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full and fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”

Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James around Bermuda Hundred, wrote how his troops promoted the program: “On the Bermuda front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.” One of Ord’s corps commanders, Major General John Gibbon, asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”

Grant wrote to Stanton on the 19th, “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters. A great many are coming in now, bringing their arms with them.” Three days later, Chief Ordnance Officer F.H. Parker issued a directive: “It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm…”

Desertions in the Army of Northern Virginia totaled 2,934 between February 15 and March 18, or nearly 10 percent of Lee’s whole army. Some deserted for the money, but most left to ease the suffering of loved ones at home. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote to Grant, “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning. The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.”

Meanwhile, Grant continued planning his offensive, which would start as soon as the Virginia roads were dried enough for his men, horses, and guns.

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 517; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 429; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 542, 546-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17835-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561, 563-67; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8134; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47, 654-55

From Luther Rice Mills, 26th Virginia

Letter from 2nd Lieutenant Luther Rice Mills of the 26th Virginia Volunteer Infantry

Trenches Near Crater

March 2nd, 1865

BROTHER JOHN:

confederate-flagSomething is about to happen. I know not what. Nearly everyone who will express an opinion says Gen’l Lee is about to evacuate Petersburg. The authorities are having all the cotton and tobacco moved out of the place as rapidly as possible. This was commenced about the 22nd of February. Two thirds of the Artillery of our Division has been moved out. The Reserved Ordnance Train has been loaded up and is ready to move at any time. I think Gen’l Lee expects a hard fight on the right and has ordered all this simply as a precautionary measure. Since my visit to the right I have changed my opinion about the necessity for the evacuation of Petersburg. If it is evacuated Johnson’s Division will be in a bad situation for getting out. Unless we are so fortunate as to give the Yankees the slip many of us will be captured. I would regret very much to have to give up the old place. The soiled and tattered Colors borne by our skeleton Regiments is sacred and dear to the hearts of every man. No one would exchange it for a new flag. So it is with us. I go down the lines, I see the marks of shot and shell, I see where fell my comrades, the Crater, the grave of fifteen hundred Yankees, when I go to the rear I see little mounds of dirt, some with headboards, some with none, some with shoes protruding, some with a small pile of bones on one side near the end showing where a hand was left uncovered, in fact everything near shows desperate fighting. And here I would rather “fight it out.” If Petersburg and Richmond (are) evacuated–from what I have seen and heard in this army–our cause will be hopeless. It is useless to conceal the truth any longer. Many of our people at home have become so demoralized that they write to their husbands, sons and brothers that desertion now is not dishonorable. It would be impossible to keep the army from straggling to a ruinous extent if we evacuate.

I have just received an order from Wise to carry out on picket tonight a rifle and ten rounds of cartridges to shoot men when they desert. The men seem to think desertion no crime and hence never shoot a deserter when he goes over–they always shoot, but never hit. I am glad to say that we have not had but four desertions from our Regiment to the enemy… Write soon.

Yours truly,

L.R. Mills

—–

Source: Tapert, Annette (ed.), The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 229-30

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run Ends

February 7, 1865 – The fighting in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines ended inconclusively, which by this time meant Federal victory because the dwindling Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could no longer afford to just hold off the enemy.

By the 7th, heavy fighting in the woods around the Boydton Plank Road had driven Federal forces back. Most of the Federals belonged to Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps, with some under Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division. The Federals held the road, but they were south of Hatcher’s Run.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “The ignorance I am under of the exact moral condition of Warren’s corps, and his losses from stragglers has restrained me from giving him positive orders to attack; but I have directed him to push out strong reconnaissances,” and Warren would decide “whether to attack or not.”

Meade then directed Warren to send one of his divisions out to renew the attack on the Confederates. In bitterly cold, wet weather, the Federals probed but found no substantial opposition. The ensuing skirmish resulted in the wounding of Confederate Brigadier General Moxley Sorrel. The Federals abandoned their vulnerable position on the Boydton Plank Road and moved southwest to occupy the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.

Fighting involving Warren’s corps | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 426, 25 Feb 1865

Warren reported at 5:30 p.m. that “we have regained most of the ground we held yesterday, and drawn the artillery fire from the enemy’s works, and we can hold the south side of Hatcher’s Run toward Dabney’s Mill so long as may be required.” In this three-day fight, the Federals sustained 1,512 casualties (170 killed, 1,160 wounded, and 182 missing) out of some 35,000 engaged; the Confederates had about 14,000 engaged with casualties unknown.

Like all Federal offensives during the Petersburg campaign thus far, this ended with a Confederate repulse. However, the Federals were now three miles closer to the South Side Railroad, the last railway supplying the Confederates in Petersburg. This meant that the Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, now had to defend 37 miles of trench lines with only 46,398 men “present for duty.” And this number included many who were too sick for active service. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge on the 8th:

“All the disposable force of the right wing of the army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher’s Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet.

“I have directed Colonel Cole, chief commissary, who reports that he has not a pound of meat at his disposal, to visit Richmond and see if nothing can be done. If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment. Our cavalry has to be dispersed for want of forage… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Civil War Trust: Battle of Hatcher’s Run; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 529; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16422-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8098; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 24-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635-36; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350, 577-79; Wikipedia: Battle of Hatcher’s Run