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 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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