Tag Archives: James Longstreet

Lee Agrees to Discuss Surrender

April 9, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee was compelled to ask Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant for a meeting to discuss surrendering the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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

At 5 a.m. on Palm Sunday, Confederate infantry under Major General John B. Gordon and cavalry under Major General Fitzhugh Lee advanced as planned. They hoped to break through Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry blocking their escape route to the west while Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held off the Federals closing in from the east.

The Confederates initially drove Sheridan’s troopers back, pushing forward to the crest of a hill near Appomattox Court House. But they did not know that Sheridan was only pulling his men back so the infantry could get into the fight, and beyond the crest lay XXIV Corps from the Army of the James and V Corps from the Army of the Potomac. The Federals surged forward, and Gordon told one of Lee’s aides, “My old corps is reduced to a frazzle, and, unless I am supported by Longstreet heavily, I do not think we can do anything more.”

But Longstreet was busy trying to fend off II and VI corps from the Army of the Potomac, three miles northeast. When the aide delivered Gordon’s message to Lee, he realized he now had no hope of continuing southwest to join with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. His army was surrounded on three sides (with the fourth side useless to them) and outnumbered five-to-one. After four years of fighting, the Army of Northern Virginia now faced annihilation. Lee said, “Then there is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Lee met with Longstreet and Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, army artillery chief. Alexander proposed disbanding the army and allowing the troops to continue the struggle as guerrilla fighters. Lee demurred, arguing that the hungry men “would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never (otherwise) have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”

Lee rode out about 8:30 a.m. to the place where he had proposed meeting with Grant to discuss peace terms. But he soon received a message from Grant telling him that the meeting would not take place:

“I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c. U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General.”

Annoyed by this rejection, Lee told his aide, “Well, write a letter to General Grant and ask him to meet me to deal with the question of the surrender of my army.” It read:

“I received your note of this morning on the picket line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.”

At that time, Grant was riding with II and VI corps coming in from the east. After he left that sector to meet with Sheridan, a courier under a white flag (actually a towel) delivered Lee’s message, where it was received by Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac. Meade forwarded the message to Grant but refused to suspend hostilities: “I have no sort of authority to grant such suspension. General Lee has already refused the terms of General Grant.”

When told that the Federals would attack, Lee wrote a second note to Grant: “I ask a suspension of hostilities pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army, in the interview requested in my former communication today.” Meade was finally persuaded to halt his attack.

Brigadier General John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, received Lee’s message, read it, and handed it to the commander. Grant had been suffering from a migraine, or “a sick headache” as he described it, but “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.” Grant quickly replied:

“Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg roads to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am writing this about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.”

Grant then met with Sheridan and informed him that Lee wanted to surrender. Sheridan was “suspicious about the whole business, feared that there might be a plan to escape, that he had Lee at his feet and wanted to end the business by going in and forcing an absolute surrender by capture.” But Grant had “no doubt about the good faith of Lee,” and both sides ceased firing until Grant and Lee could talk.

Federals and Confederates dropped their guns and started mingling between the lines. A Pennsylvanian wrote that he went to the nearest Confederate regiment and “as soon as I got among these boys I felt and was treated as well as if I had been among our own boys, and a person would of thought we were of the same Army and had been Fighting under the Same Flag.” Another Federal soldier recalled:

“I remember how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years all so stubbornly, so bravely and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were fully at our mercy–it was pitiful, sad, hard, and seemed to us altogether too bad.”

Colonel Orville Babcock of Grant’s staff delivered the general’s message to Lee, who received it near 1 p.m. He dispatched Colonel Charles Marshall of his staff to find a meeting place for the two commanders. Marshall and Babcock rode into the village of Appomattox Court House and met with a resident named Wilmer McLean, who reluctantly allowed them to use the front parlor of his home. Ironically, McLean had moved away from Manassas to escape the war after his home had been damaged during the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. The McLean family settled in this peaceful village, “where the sound of battle would never reach them.”

According to Marshall: “Colonel Babcock told his orderly that he was to meet General Grant, who was coming on the road, and turn him in when he came along. So General Lee, Babcock and myself sat down in McLean’s parlour and talked in the most friendly and affable way.”

Federal officers waited for Grant on the road to Appomattox Court House, including Sheridan and Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James. Grant looked ahead to the village and asked Sheridan, “Is Lee up there?” Sheridan said yes. Grant replied, “Very well. Let’s go up.” A nearby Federal band played “Auld Lang Syne” as the officers rode by.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 541; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 375-80; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 460-69; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 55; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22451-78; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 557; 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 19697-707, 19727-37; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 581; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8768-81, 8825-47; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (William C. Davis, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 284-85; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133-55; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 18-19; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 670-71; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 464; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 217-18, 220; 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. 848-49; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5645; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 735-36; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 377-81; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Appomattox Campaign: Part 2

April 8, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued its grueling westward march while Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued pressing for its surrender.

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

Lee hoped to get his men to Appomattox Court House, where supplies were supposedly waiting. From there, Lee planned to continue west to Lynchburg and then turn south to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. However, the army had dwindled to less than 20,000 men, with troops falling out by the hour from hunger and exhaustion. And over 80,000 Federals were in close pursuit, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry riding ahead to block Lee’s path.

Grant, the overall Federal commander, had written to Lee urging him to surrender. Grant received Lee’s reply on the morning of the 8th, in which Lee asked what terms Grant might offer. While awaiting Grant’s reply, Lee told aides, “I will strike that man a blow in the morning.” When an officer suggested surrender, Lee replied:

“I trust it has not come to that! We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit whereas the enemy does not. Besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would at once regard it as such evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender–and sooner than that I am resolved to die. Indeed, we must all determine to die at our posts.”

Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, asked Lee what he planned to do. Lee replied, “I shall have to be governed by each day’s developments. A few more Sayler’s Creeks and it will all be over–ended–just as I have expected it would end from the first.”

Brig Gen G.A. Custer | Image Credit: claseshistoria.com

That afternoon, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s cavalry division captured four supply trains at Appomattox Station, about a mile from Appomattox Court House. Sheridan reported that his troopers had begun arriving at the courthouse town to block Lee, and, “If the 5th Corps can get up tonight we will perhaps finish the job in the morning. I do not think Lee means to surrender until compelled to do so.” Grant wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I feel very confident of receiving the surrender of Lee and what remains of his army tomorrow.”

The Confederates continued moving, unaware that Federals were now in their front. Lee relieved Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson and Major Generals George Pickett and Bushrod R. Johnson from duty because they no longer had commands after the rout at Sayler’s Creek. As for the remaining Army of Northern Virginia, Major General John B. Gordon’s infantry corps and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry stopped near the town surrounding the Appomattox County courthouse. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps stopped behind Gordon.

Meanwhile, Lee received Grant’s latest message:

“Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon–namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.”

The surrender terms were generous; not only would the troops be allowed to return to their homes, but Lee would be spared the humiliation of surrendering in person. In fact, they were the same terms that Grant had offered Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg. But Lee was not ready to give up. He replied:

“I received at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va., but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va.; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket lines of the two armies.”

Grant received this message in a farmhouse near Farmville. He was suffering from a migraine, and Lee’s reply made it no better. Grant’s staffers were enraged upon reading Lee’s note because Lee tried shifting the topic from surrender to peace negotiation, which Grant had no authority to discuss. Grant did not share their anger; he simply shook his head and said, “It looks as if Lee means to fight. I will reply in the morning.” Grant proposed to meet with Lee nonetheless until his top staffer and trusted confidante General John Rawlins reminded him that President Abraham Lincoln had ordered Grant to only discuss surrender, not peace, with Lee.

As night fell, the situation for Lee was bleaker than ever:

  • Sheridan’s cavalry blocked the road to Lynchburg that Lee needed for his army to survive.
  • Major General John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps was southwest of Lee, poised to join forces with Sheridan.
  • Major General Charles Griffin’s V Corps was coming up behind Gibbon.
  • II and VI corps under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Horatio G. Wright were closing in on the Confederates from the east.

Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, who had come out to inspect the Army of Northern Virginia, reported to President Jefferson Davis at Danville that Lee had been “forced across the Appomattox” River to find “temporary relief” from the Federals in his continuing effort to “move around (the Federals) toward North Carolina. The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable.”

Lee arrived about a mile northeast of Appomattox Court House at 9 p.m. Artillery could be heard in the distance, and Federal campfires were visible to the west. The Confederates were virtually surrounded and outnumbered five-to-one. Supply lines had been cut, denying them any hope for food or reinforcement.

Lee held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitz Lee. They resolved to attack Sheridan’s troopers at 5 a.m. on the 9th, before the infantry could come to their aid. The goal was to break through the Federal line and get to Lynchburg. Gordon and Fitz stated that they could handle the cavalry, but if the infantry came up, they would have to surrender. When one of Gordon’s aides asked Lee where Gordon should stop after the breakthrough, Lee replied, “Tell General Gordon that I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line.”

Both Federals and Confederates bivouacked within striking distance of each other that night. Men on both sides felt that the next day would decide the war.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 539-40; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 581; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 374-75; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 458-60; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22452, 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 556; 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 19590-609, 19355-75, 19657-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 581; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8721-45; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (William C. Davis, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 282-84; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 669-70; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 216-17; 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. 847; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 377-81; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 700; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Appomattox Campaign

April 7, 1865 – After suffering his worst defeat, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee embarked on the final campaign of his military career.

The Confederates who survived yesterday’s Sayler’s Creek rout continued their agonizing march west to collect the rations waiting for them at Farmville. Many starving men had been living on dried corn intended for the horses. They crossed the Appomattox River and burned the bridges behind them, but Federals from II Corps seized a bridge downriver before it could be destroyed. This enabled the Federals to cross and continue their close pursuit.

As the Confederates stopped at Farmville to cook their rations, Lee learned that the Federals had gotten across the Appomattox. He would have to order another forced march to get away, this time to Appomattox Court House, 38 miles west. The exhausted troops were quickly put in motion once again; many had not even had time to eat when the ration train steamed off to safety. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief, later wrote:

“It was very plain that the prospect of being surrendered had suddenly become a topic of general conversation. Indeed, no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant now had us completely in a trap… We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River and the Appomattox, and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!”

Federals from II Corps and Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry clashed with a Confederate holding force at Cumberland Church on the afternoon of the 7th. The Confederates repelled two charges, capturing Brigadier General John Irvin Gregg and mortally wounding Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth in the process. Smyth would become the last general to die in the war. Darkness ended the fighting, and the Confederates soon began another grueling night march.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

That night, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, rode into Farmville with Sheridan. Grant rode ahead of his baggage and had no clothes other than the mud-stained uniform he was wearing. Sheridan had written that Lee might surrender if pressed, and Grant forwarded this message to President Abraham Lincoln, who was still monitoring developments from the Federal supply base at City Point. Lincoln replied, “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”

Sheridan reported that his cavalry was riding hard for Appomattox Court House, where the Federals learned that supplies were being sent for Lee’s army. Sheridan also reported that Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, the Confederate corps commander who had been captured at Sayler’s Creek, had told his captors, “Our cause is lost. Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.” Grant said, “I have a mind to summon Lee to surrender.” Grant went into the town hotel serving as his headquarters and wrote a letter to be sent to Lee under a flag of truce:

“The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Meanwhile, Lee’s troops continued heading west. Many dropped out due to hunger, sleep deprivation, or sheer hopelessness. Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, bluntly told Lee:

“This army is hopelessly whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men have already endured more than I believed flesh and blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.”

Lee asked, “What would the country think of me, if I did what you suggest?” Wise snapped, “Country be damned! There is no country. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men… You know the game is desperate beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man, or government, or people, will gainsay your decision.”

A courier delivered Grant’s message to Lee around 10 p.m. Lee read the message and then handed it to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, his most trusted corps commander. Longstreet read it and said, “Not yet.” Lee responded to Grant:

“GENERAL:–I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 538; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 372-73; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 455-56; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555-56; 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 18973-83, 19355-65, 19531-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 580; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8653-65; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 550-51; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 281; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 119-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 668-69; 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. 847; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Battle of Sayler’s Creek

April 6, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia sustained its worst defeat of the war while trying to elude Federal pursuers west of Richmond.

On the night of the 5th, Lee’s forces began moving west out of Amelia Court House in heavy rain. The army had dwindled to about 25,000 hungry, exhausted, and desperate men. The troops headed toward Farmville, where Confederate Commissary General I.M. St. John arranged to have 80,000 rations waiting for them via the South Side Railroad. From there, Lee hoped to continue west to Lynchburg and then turn south to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

The Confederates were under pursuit by some 80,000 Federals, led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps was in the lead, followed by three corps from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and a corps of Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James. The Federals were highly motivated by the prospect of destroying Lee’s army and ending the war.

The Federals were mostly south and east of Lee’s Confederates. Early on the 6th, Grant discovered that Lee was moving west, around the Federal left flank. He therefore directed Sheridan’s cavalry to ride northwest and block the Confederate advance while Federal infantry closed in from behind. Meade had planned to advance on Amelia Court House, but when he learned that Lee was no longer there, he wheeled left and joined Sheridan in the pursuit.

The opposing forces moved along parallel roads, with the Confederates on the northern route and slightly ahead. Along the way, Federal troops came across abandoned guns, broken down wagons, starving animals, and Confederate stragglers ready to surrender.

On the morning of the 6th, elements of Sheridan’s cavalry rode into a gap that had formed between the Confederate corps of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet and Richard H. Anderson. Longstreet was unaware that Anderson had been stopped and thus continued west to Rice’s Station. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, moving behind Anderson, sent his wagon train north with Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederates to prevent its capture.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Ewell positioned his corps on a ridge facing northeast, overlooking the Hillsman farm and Little Sayler’s (or Sailor’s) Creek. Gordon was to his left (north), and Anderson was to his right rear (south). Major General Horatio G. Wright’s Federal VI Corps formed on the opposing ridge and gunners opened fire around 5 p.m. The infantry advanced soon after.

The Confederates waited for the Federals to cross the swollen creek and then unleashed a deadly volley. Ewell ordered a charge, but it was repulsed with heavy loss. The Federals countercharged, and the men engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. According to one of Ewell’s officers, “the battle degenerated into a butchery and confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts.”

The Federals ultimately overwhelmed Ewell’s undersized command and forced Ewell to surrender; he lost 3,400 of his 3,600 men. Both his division commanders, Major Generals Joseph B. Kershaw and George Washington Custis Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee) also surrendered.

Ewell later reported:

“As shells and even bullets were crossing each other from front and rear over my troops, my right was completely enveloped. I surrendered myself and staff to a cavalry officer who came in by the same road General Anderson had gone out on.”

Ewell, the commander who had helped “Stonewall” Jackson mystify Federals in the Shenandoah Valley and who had lost a leg at Second Bull Run, was shipped to the Federal prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The naval forces that had been formed into an infantry unit after abandoning Richmond were among the last to surrender. Federal Colonel J. Warren Keifer rode ahead to accept their surrender before they had actually done so, and some Confederates trained their guns on him. But their commander, John R. Tucker, stopped them from killing the colonel. Tucker surrendered his sword to Keifer, who returned it to Tucker after the war.

To Ewell’s right rear, three Federal cavalry divisions attacked and overwhelmed Anderson’s men at a crossroads near the Harper and Marshall farms. The Confederates broke and fled into the woods; those who did not escape were taken prisoner. Anderson lost 2,600 men but managed to escape.

To Ewell’s left, Gordon fended off Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps while fleeing west. However, the Confederates were forced to make a stand on the high ground at the Lockett farm when their vital wagon train got stalled in mud. Humphreys’s 16,500 Federals gradually pushed Gordon’s 7,000 men back until they had to use the wagons for protection.

When the Federals began swinging around the Confederate left flank, Gordon ordered a retreat. Some 2,000 Confederates were captured, along with over 200 wagons that they could ill afford to lose. Confederate survivors straggled west toward Longstreet’s waiting forces at Rice’s Station.

General Lee watched the action with Major General William Mahone’s division (under Longstreet). As the Confederates fled, Lee cried, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” Mahone replied, “No General, here are troops ready to do their duty.” Lee said, “Yes, there are still some true men left. Will you please keep those people back?” Mahone’s men helped cover the retreat across the Appomattox River.

The Confederates lost about 8,000 men, mostly captured, including six generals. This was roughly one-third of the remaining Army of Northern Virginia, and it was the largest number of Americans ever taken prisoner in battle up to that time (it was later surpassed by Bataan, 77 years later). This was Lee’s worst defeat of the war, and Confederates would remember it as “Black Thursday.”

But even though Lee had less than 20,000 men left in his army, the Federals had failed to block his escape path to the west. Lee therefore continued on toward Farmville as planned, now moving only with those who had either escaped from or avoided the Sayler’s Creek rout. After dark, the Confederates crossed the Appomattox and burned the bridges behind them.

Meanwhile, Sheridan reported to Grant:

“I attacked them with two divisions of the Sixth Army Corps and routed them handsomely, making a connection with the cavalry. I am still pressing on with both cavalry and infantry. Up to the present time we have captured Generals Ewell, Kershaw, Barton, Corse, DeBose and Custis Lee, several thousand prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery with caissons and a large number of wagons. If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender.”

This message enraged Meade because it made no mention of VI Corps’ contribution to the victory. He fumed, “Oh, so General Wright wasn’t there?” Nevertheless, the Federal high command was now confident that Lee’s army was finally on the verge of collapse.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 531-32; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 369-71; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 452-54; 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 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555; Floyd, Dale E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 248-49; 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 18963-83, 19305-15, 19335-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 579-80; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8642; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 278-81; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-15, 120-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 223-24; Ward, Burns, Burns, The Civil War, p. 376-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 667-68; 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. 847; Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 659-60; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 376-77

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.”

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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

Lee Proposes a Military Convention

March 2, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee proposed to meet with Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the possibility of “a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention…”

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

In late February, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of Lee’s First Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, met between the lines with Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Grant’s Army of the James. Longstreet and Ord were meeting ostensibly to discuss the illicit trading that was going on between the lines. Having been friends before the war, other topics were brought up, among them the subject of peace. The two men agreed that since the political leaders had failed to reach a peace agreement, maybe the military leaders could negotiate a settlement. According to Longstreet:

“(Ord) thought the war had gone on long enough; that we should come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little. He suggested that the work as belligerents should be suspended; that General Grant and General Lee should meet and have a talk; that my wife, who was an old acquaintance and friend of Mrs. Grant in their girlhood days, should go into the Union lines and visit Mrs. Grant with as many Confederate officers as might choose to be with her. Then Mrs. Grant would return the call under escort of Union officers and visit Richmond; that while General Lee and General Grant were arranging for better feeling between the armies, they could be aided by intercourse between the ladies and officers until terms honorable to both sides could be found.”

Longstreet presented this idea to Lee, who forwarded it to President Jefferson Davis. Lee warned Davis that Grant “will consent to no terms unless coupled with the condition of our return to the Union. Whether this will be acceptable to our people yet awhile I cannot say.” Davis had consistently refused any peace agreement that meant reunion, but with the Army of Northern Virginia on the brink of collapse, Davis wrote:

“If you think the statements of General Ord render it probably useful that the Conference suggested should be had, you will proceed as you may prefer, and are clothed with all the supplemental authority you may need in the consideration of any proposition for a Military Convention, or the appointment of a Commissioner to enter into such an arrangement as will cause at least temporary suspension of hostilities.”

Lee wrote to Grant on the 2nd:

“Lieut. Gen. Longstreet has informed me that, in a recent conversation between himself and Maj. Gen. Ord, as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a Military Convention, General Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject, you would not decline, provided I had authority to act.

“Sincerely desirous to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of War, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that, upon an interchange of view, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a Convention of the kind mentioned. In such event I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to the proposition I would suggest that, if agreeable to you, we meet at the place selected by Generals Ord and Longstreet for their interview at 11 a.m. on Monday next (the 6th).”

Grant received Lee’s letter during dinner on the night of the 3rd. He read it and then forwarded it to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with a covering note: “I have not returned any reply but promised to do so at noon tomorrow. I respectfully request instructions.”

Stanton brought the messages to President Abraham Lincoln, who was at the Capitol signing bills into law before Congress adjourned. Lincoln and Stanton concluded that allowing a military convention to take place would not only undermine the terms Lincoln had given for peace at Hampton Roads, but it would indirectly recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. Thus, Stanton responded:

“The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.”

Grant then responded to Lee:

“In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been intrusted to me.”

Thus, neither political nor military leaders would negotiate an end to the war. The end would only come on the battlefield.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 500-01; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 423-24; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; 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 16923-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-27; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 645-47

Battles at Fair Oaks and Hatcher’s Run

October 27, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces moved to assault both ends of the Confederate siege line stretching from Richmond to Petersburg.

After failing to dislodge the Federals from north of the James River, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, warned his top officers, “We must drive them back at all costs.” The Federal forces, under Grant’s overall command, continued trying to extend the ends of their line both east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg. Lee notified Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that if Grant stretched the Confederate defenders any further, “I fear it will be impossible to keep him out of Richmond.”

Panicked Confederate officials hurriedly conscripted all able-bodied men in Richmond and forced them into the fortifications outside the city. Citizens loudly protested this as an act of tyranny, and the press reported that most of the “involuntary soldiers” deserted as soon as they could.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates gave up trying to take back Fort Harrison and built fortifications closer to Richmond that minimized the fort’s usefulness to the Federals. On the 13th, the Federal X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry (Major General David B. Birney had relinquished corps command due to illness and died later this month) advanced and discovered these new defenses. Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Confederates inflicted heavy losses on the Federals north of the Darbytown Road and drove them off.

Both sides settled back into the tedium of the siege outside Richmond and Petersburg. Lieutenant General James Longstreet returned to active duty as Lee’s top corps commander. Longstreet had been severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, which partially paralyzed his right arm and forced him to learn to write with his left hand.

Longstreet resumed command of the First Corps, which had since been commanded by Anderson. These troops defended the siege lines north of the James River. Lee gave Anderson command of a new Fourth Corps, which consisted of two divisions. Its duty was to guard Petersburg against a direct assault should the siege lines be broken.

The siege lines now stretched from north of the James (southeast of Richmond), southward around the east and south of Petersburg, and then curled to the southwest below the city. The Federals had not been able to cut either the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad, which entered Petersburg from the southwest and west to supply the Confederates.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac besieging Petersburg, suggested to Grant that the Confederate right on the Boydton Plank Road was vulnerable to attack. And if the road was captured, the Federals could continue moving and seize the South Side Railroad. Grant approved Meade’s request to attack and developed a plan:

  • II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock on the Federal left would cross Hatcher’s Run on the Vaughn Road and then move north to seize the Boydton Plank Road.
  • IX Corps under Major General John G. Parke on the Federal right would attack the Confederates defending the road north of Hatcher’s Run.
  • V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren and a cavalry division under Brigadier General David M. Gregg would support Parke.

The attack force consisted of 43,000 Federals, while the Confederate defenders numbered no more than 12,000. To gain an even greater advantage, Grant planned to strike the other end of Lee’s defense line at the same time. He directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler to lead elements of X and XVIII corps to the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks, east of Richmond.

The Federals moved out against Lee’s left (southeast of Richmond) and right (southwest of Petersburg) on the 27th. When news of these movements reached Richmond, Confederate officials put their last reserves on the defense lines. Longstreet’s troops held Lee’s left as Butler’s Federals moved along the Darbytown Road and north toward Fair Oaks.

Confederates under Major Generals Charles W. Field and Robert F. Hoke repelled the Federal attackers and neutralized Fort Harrison in just a few hours. This was the easiest Confederate victory in this sector of the siege line to date. Butler lost 1,103 men, including about 600 taken prisoner, and 11 battle flags. Longstreet lost just 451.

Meanwhile, the Federal force southwest of Petersburg moved out at 7:30 a.m. in heavy rain. Hancock advanced as planned and seized the road near Burgess’ Mill by noon. Per his orders, Hancock waited there until Parke and Warren joined him. But Parke met strong resistance from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Confederates, and Warren’s men struggled over the rough terrain before being repulsed by Wilcox south of Hatcher’s Run.

Federals attack works at Hatcher’s Run | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 412 (19 Nov 1864)

The failure of Parke and Warren to achieve a breakthrough left Hancock isolated. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill directed a counterattack led by Major General Henry Heth’s infantry and Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. They came upon Hancock’s flank, which Warren had not come up to protect. Hancock managed to fend off the assaults, and Meade let him decide to either fall back or hold firm until Warren and Parke reinforced him. Having no faith in either Warren or Parke, Hancock withdrew that night, relinquishing the road.

The Federals sustained 1,758 casualties (166 killed, 1,028 wounded and 564 missing). The Confederates lost about 1,000 men, a much greater proportion of those engaged (8 percent versus the Federals’ 4 percent). Confederate losses included two of Hampton’s sons, Lieutenants Wade (wounded) and Preston (killed).

On the morning of the 28th, the Confederates discovered that Hancock was gone and took back the Boydton Plank Road. This ended combat operations on the Richmond-Petersburg lines for the year. The works now stretched nearly 35 miles, with both sides spending the fall and winter patrolling, picketing, sharpshooting, and continually strengthening defenses.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475-76, 479; 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 13231-41, 12023-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509-10, 514-15; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975-88, 8000-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 584, 589-90; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 179-80, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 95-96, 204-05

The Battle of the Wilderness: Day Two

May 6, 1864 – Fighting raged a second day as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant learned that General Robert E. Lee would not be an easy foe to overcome.

The battle between Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (under Grant’s overall direction) and Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had been terrible on the 5th. Since then, the battlefield had split into two sectors:

  • In the southern sector, Grant expected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to attack and destroy Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s weakened Third Corps at dawn.
  • In the northern sector, VI and V corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Gouverneur Warren would attack Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, preventing Ewell from helping Hill.
  • In the center, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s reserve IX Corps would come up and attack Hill’s left flank and rear.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Lee expected Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to be up on Hill’s right at dawn, but the troops had gotten lost in the brush and would be delayed. Ewell renewed the battle at 4:45 a.m. by assaulting Sedgwick’s and Warren’s Federals as they were preparing to launch an attack of their own. After Ewell made no progress, the Federals counterattacked. The Confederates held their ground, but Ewell could spare no men for Hill on his right.

President Abraham Lincoln had been anxiously awaiting news from the battlefield all day on the 5th. He finally received a dispatch from Grant on the morning of the 6th, but it simply read, “Everything pushing along favorably.” Throughout the day, Grant sat and smoked his cigar as he whittled pieces of wood, awaiting reports from the field.

In the southern sector, Hancock launched his attack at 5 a.m., pushing Hill’s Confederates back toward Lee’s headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm. The Confederate guns at the farm continuously fired canister into the oncoming Federals to no avail. Hancock told a courier, “Tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully!”

Grant had expected Burnside’s IX Corps to come up between Warren and Hancock by dawn. But Burnside was running late, which did not surprise Meade, who had previously served under him. Hancock continued pushing the Confederates back without waiting for Burnside’s troops. Hill’s line eventually broke as the Federals closed in on the Tapp house.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Suddenly, Brigadier General John Gregg’s Texas brigade, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps, arrived on the scene around 6 a.m. Lee, who had been anxiously awaiting Longstreet’s arrival, asked them, “What brigade is this?” When told they were the Texas brigade, Lee said, “I am glad to see it. When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.”

Then, in a rare display of excitement, Lee raised his hat and urged them forward, shouting, “Texans always move them!” Lee began advancing with the troops, but when they saw this, they began hollering, “Go back, General Lee, go back!” They stopped Lee’s horse and refused to proceed until Lee went back to safety. Lee complied, and the Texans charged furiously into the stunned Federals.

Soon after, Longstreet arrived with the rest of his two divisions. They, along with Gregg’s men, replaced Hill’s Confederates and counterattacked. The fighting was vicious and confused in the tangled brush and vines of the Wilderness. Gregg lost 550 of his 800 Texans, but the momentum began shifting as the Confederates slowly pushed the Federals back.

Around 10 a.m., Longstreet learned from commanders familiar with the area that the bed of an unfinished railroad lay south of the Orange Plank Road, hidden by the brush. This was an excellent spot from which to assault Hancock’s left flank. Longstreet directed his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrell, to lead four brigades in an attack that began at 11 a.m.

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals wavered under this sudden assault, which Hancock later said rolled up his flank “like a wet blanket.” Longstreet renewed the main attack on Hancock’s front, adding to the pressure and pushing the Federals back to the Brock Road. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, commanding a Federal division, was mortally wounded.

Longstreet and his aides followed their advancing troops along the Orange Plank Road. To their right, Sorrell’s Confederates suddenly appeared and, mistaking them for Federals, fired on them. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, commanding a brigade, was killed. Longstreet was severely wounded when a bullet passed through his throat and lodged in his right shoulder.

Coincidentally, Longstreet was just four miles from the spot where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire almost exactly one year before. The surviving aides helped Longstreet from his horse, and his doctor pronounced the wounds “not necessarily mortal.” Longstreet would survive, but rumors of his death spread through the ranks and demoralized the troops. A lull fell over the battlefield.

Lee temporarily took over Longstreet’s corps and looked to renew the attack. Grant had ordered Hancock to counterattack at 6 p.m., but Lee hit Hancock’s line with an attack of his own at 4 p.m. Brush fires came up between the armies, forcing the Federals back to their breastworks along the Brock Road. The Confederates could not dislodge them, and the fight ended in stalemate.

In the center, Burnside finally arrived around 2 p.m. to fill the gap between Hancock and Warren. But instead of flanking Hill as planned, he now ran into the survivors of Hill’s corps who had shifted to the center to fight alongside Longstreet’s men. The Confederates held firm against Burnside’s assaults.

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

Back in the northern sector, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, commanding a brigade in Major General Jubal Early’s division, saw that Sedgwick’s right flank was vulnerable and urged Early, and then Ewell, to approve an attack. After several hours of vacillation, Gordon sought permission directly from Lee, who approved. Gordon’s men finally attacked at 6 p.m., overwhelming the Federals just as Gordon hoped.

The Confederates captured two Federal generals, 600 other prisoners, and nearly cut the Federal supply line. However, the advance was stopped by darkness. Gordon later asserted that had his plan been approved earlier, his men would have destroyed the Federal right. Instead, “the greatest opportunity ever presented to Lee’s army was permitted to pass.”

News of this unexpected flank attack caused panic at Federal headquarters. One brigadier told Grant, “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant angrily replied:

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Elsewhere on the field, opposing cavalries skirmished lightly at Todd’s Tavern, as Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen met the Federals under their new commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, for the first time.

Fighting gradually ended all along the line as night fell. Troops began scrambling to rescue wounded comrades before they burned to death in the raging forest fires. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that the Federal advance, “thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed.”

The Federals knew they had gotten the worst of this battle. An army half their size had nearly routed both VI Corps on the right and II Corps on the left. In fact, the Federals had been more thoroughly defeated here than at Chancellorsville a year ago:

  • Joseph Hooker only had one flank turned last year, but this time Grant had both turned
  • Hooker had nearly surprised Lee last year, but this time Lee surprised Grant
  • Lee lost 13,000 men last year, but this time he lost just over half that amount

The Federals sustained 17,666 casualties (2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 missing) while the Confederates lost about 7,500. These totals were more one-sided than any other battle except Fredericksburg. With Lee scoring such a decisive tactical victory, most Federal troops believed that Grant would do what his predecessors had done and retreat.

In Grant’s less than impressive debut in the Eastern Theater, he learned that unlike most of the western commanders he faced, Lee would take the fight to him. Grant retired to his headquarters that night and wept, but when he was done, he emerged with a new resolve. He told a Washington correspondent preparing to return to the capital, “If you see the president, tell him, from me, that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 457, 459; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 448, 453, 456-57; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400-01; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10637; 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 3929-39, 3968-87; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 429-30; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6880-92; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 73-81; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 268-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 493-95; 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. 724-27; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 288-90

The Battle of the Wilderness: Day One

May 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia caught the Federal Army of the Potomac in the forbidding Wilderness, and a chaotic battle opened the spring campaign.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, had begun moving around Lee’s right the previous day before stopping in the Wilderness, an uninhabitable forest of undergrowth, brush, vines, trees, and ravines. The Federals resumed their march at 5 a.m., as Grant was anxious to get out of the Wilderness and into open ground, where he could use his superior numbers and artillery to attack the Confederates.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates moved to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. The Federal cavalry did not warn of Lee’s approach mainly because Meade had dispatched most of the troopers eastward to confront Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen operating in the Fredericksburg area. The rest of the Federal troopers were not adequately deployed because Grant did not expect Lee to rush forward and meet him. By early on the 5th, Lee’s three corps were on the move:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northeast along the Orange Turnpike
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved along the parallel Orange Plank Road, farther south
  • Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, stationed back at Gordonsville, was to join Ewell and Hill via the Brock Road

As Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Federal V Corps moved southeast, one of his divisions on the Orange Turnpike was suddenly stopped by Ewell’s Confederates to the west. Warren reported this to headquarters, unaware that Ewell’s entire corps was approaching. Grant instructed Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee’s Army do so without giving time for disposition.” At 7:30 a.m., Meade ordered Warren to attack, and the first major battle of the year between these armies began.

The Federals advanced slowly, as men got lost in the thick brush, officers could not convey orders, signalmen could not convey signs, and gun smoke obscured vision. By 9 a.m., Ewell had deployed his entire corps on either side of the Orange Turnpike, and Warren directed his remaining three divisions to come up and reinforce the one facing the Confederates.

Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved to come up on Warren’s right (north). Meade informed Grant, “Warren is making his dispositions to attack, and Sedgwick to support him.” Grant approved and called for Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, held back in reserve, to cross the Rapidan River and join the action.

Fighting in the Wilderness | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Warren’s Federals nearly broke Ewell’s line, but as Ewell’s men fell back behind breastworks, they began overlapping Warren’s right flank. Warren asked Meade for permission to suspend the attack until Sedgwick could come up. Meade consented, thus giving Ewell time to bring up reinforcements. When Sedgwick still had not arrived by 1 p.m., Meade ordered Warren to resume the assault without him.

The Federals advanced, but as Warren feared, they quickly wavered under enfilade fire from the right. Some units made progress against the Confederate line, while others were repulsed. The famous Federal Iron Brigade, now filled with raw recruits after losing most of its veterans at Gettysburg, broke and ran for the first time.

The fighting turned chaotic as the dense brush of the Wilderness disoriented the combatants. Many soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Gaps in the lines went unexploited because the enemy could not see them. Officers tried using compasses to determine which direction they were facing. Sparks from the guns caused brush fires, and men too wounded to move were burned to death.

Sedgwick’s Federals arrived on Warren’s right around 3 p.m. and attacked Ewell north of the turnpike in an effort to turn Ewell’s left. The Confederates repulsed the effort, and fighting surged back and forth for about an hour before both sides disengaged to build defenses.

On Warren’s left, the Confederates repelled several attacks and captured a section of a Federal artillery battery. However, the Confederates were soon pinned down by fire from Federal reinforcements, and by nightfall, the fighting in this sector of the field ended in stalemate.

To the south, Federals spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates advancing up the Orange Plank Road. Lee directed Hill to seize the intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock roads, since Longstreet was expected to come up via the Brock. Meade also needed the crossroads to continue his southward advance out of the Wilderness, and so he detached Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division from Sedgwick’s corps to hold it.

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Intense fighting took place at close quarters in dense brush, with the smoke causing mass confusion and disorientation. The Federals finally repelled the initial attack and forced the Confederates back west. Meade ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, in the Federal vanguard marching out of the Wilderness, to come back north and reinforce Getty. Hancock’s troops began arriving around 4 p.m.

The Federals attacked, but Confederates from Major General Henry Heth’s division soon pinned them down. Hancock told a courier, “Report to General Meade that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Hancock then sent another division forward, nearly breaking the Confederate line until it was reinforced by Hill’s reserve division under Major General Cadmus Wilcox.

The brutal fighting ended at nightfall with the Federals controlling the Brock Road. Lee sent orders to Longstreet to come up using the Orange Plank Road instead. Longstreet later wrote, “The change of direction of our march was not reassuring.” Elsewhere, opposing cavalry forces under Federal Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Confederate Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser also fought to a stalemate on the southern end of the field.

President Abraham Lincoln received no news about the battle because Grant had barred the reporters from using the military telegraph. A witness at the War Department saw Lincoln “waiting for despatches, and, no doubt, sickening with anxiety.”

Grant recognized that Lee’s right had been weakened and issued orders that night to concentrate on destroying Hill’s corps the next day. Warren and Sedgwick were to continue their assaults on Ewell to prevent him from aiding Hill, and Burnside’s IX Corps would come up between the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road to attack Hill’s flank and rear. After Hill was destroyed, the Federals would then turn to destroy Ewell.

Lee retired to his headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm, about a mile to the rear of his army and just four miles south of Grant’s headquarters. It became immediately apparent to Lee that Grant, unlike his predecessors, would not commit his forces piecemeal. From this point on, the Confederates would face the full power of the Army of the Potomac.

Nevertheless, Ewell had held firm, and Hill, despite having just 15,000 men and being scattered like “a worm fence, at every angle,” also held with Longstreet coming up to reinforce him. Lee permitted Hill’s men to rest, expecting Longstreet to come up next morning on Hill’s right (south). Hill would then close with Ewell to form a more compact line. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon at 11 p.m.:

“The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two Corps of this army moved to oppose him–Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults… By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men.”

Both Grant and Lee ordered hostilities to resume early next morning.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 449, 452; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 443-44, 446; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10637; 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 3514-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 268-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492-93; 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. 724; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 288-90; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

The Army of the Potomac Moves Out

May 4, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac moved out to begin its long-anticipated offensive, now with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command.

This was just one part of Grant’s simultaneous offensive against all major points in the Confederacy. Two other Federal armies began mobilizing in Virginia: Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s east of Richmond and Major General Franz Sigel’s in the Shenandoah Valley. Another army was to move against Mobile, Alabama, and a combined force of three Federal armies was about to advance against the Confederates in northern Georgia.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant planned to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac around the right (east) flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rapidan River. Grant had considered moving around Lee’s left, but the Federals could be resupplied much easier via the waterways on the right. However, the movement involved traversing the Wilderness, where dense woods, ravines, and undergrowth could offset the Federals’ numerical superiority.

Federal wagons began taking their places around 12 p.m. on the 3rd; the wagon train eventually stretched over 60 miles. Confederate scouts observed the movements along with smoke clouds, which indicated that the Federals were burning all the supplies they could not bring with them.

That night, Grant met with his subordinates at his Culpeper Court House headquarters, where he announced, “I shall not give my attention so much to Richmond as to Lee’s army, and I want all commanders to feel that hostile armies, and not cities, are to be their objective points.”

Grant stated that if the Federals defeated Lee, the Confederates would have to take refuge in the Richmond defenses. Standing beside a large map of Virginia on the wall, Grant circled the area between Richmond and Petersburg with his cigar and declared, “When my troops are there, Richmond is mine. Lee must retreat or surrender.”

The Federals began leaving their winter quarters on schedule. Grant reported, “Soon after midnight, May 3d-4th the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign.” This began an unprecedented movement designed to maintain relentless pressure upon Lee until he surrendered. That pressure would be applied for nearly a year.

Across the Rapidan, Lee had three infantry corps:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the Confederate right, which was closest to the Federal advance.
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the center, near Orange Court House.
  • Two divisions of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps held the left near Gordonsville.

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

Lee also had his invaluable cavalry command, led by Major General Jeb Stuart. Near midnight, Lee’s signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain flashed the awaited message: “General Ewell, have your command ready to move at daylight.” Around 9:30 a.m. on the 4th, the signalmen notified Ewell, “From present indications everything seems to be moving to the right, on Germanna and Ely’s Fords roads, leaving cavalry in our front.”

Grant crossed the Rapidan wearing a new dress uniform. He was accompanied by Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, his political benefactor who had sponsored the law bestowing the rank of lieutenant general upon him. Grant reported, “The crossing of the Rapidan effected. Forty-eight hours now will demonstrate whether the enemy intends giving battle this side of Richmond.” Grant was relieved that Lee had not contested the crossing, but he did not know that Lee was waiting for the Federals to get across before attacking them in the forbidding Wilderness.

As Grant set up headquarters in a farmhouse, a correspondent asked, “General Grant, about how long will it take you to get to Richmond?” Grant replied, “I will agree to be there in about four days. That is, if General Lee becomes party to the agreement; but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.” Later that day, Grant received word that Ewell was advancing. He said, “This gives just the information I wanted. It shows that Lee is drawing out from his position, and is pushing across to meet us.”

Ewell’s Confederates led the march along the Orange Turnpike, followed by A.P. Hill along the parallel Orange Plank Road. Longstreet remained back for the time being, guarding the line from Gordonsville to Richmond in case Grant sent a force around the Confederate left. Ewell halted for the night near Mine Run, while Hill camped at New Verdiersville.

When it became clear that the main Federal threat was on the right, Lee called Longstreet’s men forward. Longstreet urged Lee to move around to the Federal rear, but Lee directed him to move north to Orange Court House, and then follow Hill’s corps along the Orange Plank Road.

Stuart’s cavalry scouted near Fredericksburg amid rumors that the Federals might turn east. Stuart soon discovered that the Federals were actually turning west, moving between the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. Lee planned to attack them before they could get out of the Wilderness and into the open, just as he did against Joseph Hooker last year.

As the Confederates moved, President Jefferson Davis notified Lee that the armies of Butler and Sigel were also on the move in Virginia. Lee relied on General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates southeast of Richmond to handle Butler, while Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley were tasked with facing Sigel.

The Federals stopped for the night in the Wilderness so the wagon train could catch up. Many camped on the old Chancellorsville battlefield, where skeletons had been unearthed by weather. This macabre scene foreshadowed things to come as the armies bivouacked within two miles of each other.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 446-48; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 446; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20197-214, 20232; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399; 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 3069-88, 3108-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6761; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 618-19; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 57-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 285-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551