The last 10 days of the war: Richmond to Appomattox

Gregg Clemmer

If anything marked Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s demeanor in the spring of 1865, it was his determination to stretch Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, which was entrenched around Petersburg, Va., to the breaking point.

Here, for 10 months, the Blue and the Gray had battled to no conclusion. Yet, after his initial June 1864 assaults and his epic, but disastrous, Battle of the Crater on July 30, Grant began a war of attrition, seeking to isolate the Confederates before him, cut their railroad supply lines, and ultimately wear down their will to war.

Four days after Lee’s final offensive of the war — a desperate attack on Fort Stedman meant to split Grant’s army in half and gain time for Lee’s army to join Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s men in North Carolina — Grant again seized the initiative. Marching against Lee’s western flank, he aimed to seize the Boydton Plank Road and ultimately sever the South Side Railroad.

Two days of steady rain slowed the advance, but on March 31, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry drove toward the strategic intersection of Five Forks. Lee had already dispatched Confederate Gen. George Pickett to this very spot with orders to “hold Five Forks at all hazards.” And for 24 hours, Pickett, who had finished last in his West Point class and is best known for that fateful Gettysburg charge that bears his name, had done just that, driving Sheridan’s riders back to Dinwiddie Court House.

Confederate ‘Waterloo’

But late during the afternoon of April 1, a reinforced Sheridan hit Pickett’s dug-in Confederates, collapsing their line in chaos and capturing nearly a third of Pickett’s 10,000-man force. As Confederate cavalry commander Thomas Munford would remember, Five Forks became the “Waterloo of the Confederacy.”

Lee immediately telegraphed Confederate President Jefferson Davis: “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight.”

The Union’s breakthrough on April 2 — centered in and around today’s Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier — drove Confederate forces back from Hatcher’s Run and along the Boyden Plank Road where Confederate Gen. A. P. Hill would be killed trying to rally his troops.

Lee’s abandonment of Petersburg made Richmond untenable. Davis and his cabinet evacuated the Confederate capital with as many government records as possible, heading west on the Richmond & Danville Railroad while looters scoured the city, igniting fires.

With a day’s lead over Grant, Lee ordered his army to gather at Amelia Court House to resupply. But arriving there, the Confederates would find only trains with ammunition. Forced to scavenge for food, Lee’s men lost their one-day marching advantage on their Union pursuers, retreating westward at night to stay ahead of the enemy.

The next day, Sheridan’s cavalry drove into a gap between two of Lee’s corps, forcing the Confederates into battle at Sailor’s Creek. Outnumbered and flanked on two sides, Confederate forces surrendered en masse. After losing more than one-fifth of his army, Lee would exclaim, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” That evening, he would tell a Davis’ courier, “A few more Sailor’s Creeks and it will all be over.”

Hearing the news from Sheridan, Grant wrote President Lincoln from Burkeville: “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.” On reading this, Lincoln wired back, “Let the thing be pressed.”

At Farmville, Lee finally received some good news: His men had successfully defended strategic High Bridge, an enormous elevated railroad trestle 4 miles east of Farmville. The next morning, Lee’s ravenous remnants arrived in Farmville to find 40,000 rations of bread and 80,000 meal rations aboard train cars in the depot.

But Grant was closing in, approaching Farmville now from two fronts. Marching his men 3 miles north,

Lee dug in around Cumberland Church to protect his wagon train. Subsequent Union attacks failed to break Lee’s line, but did keep the southerners at bay, forcing them again to continue their retreat into the night.

Aiming to get the army to Campbell Court House, just east of Lynchburg, Lee planned to halt for more rations and supplies at Appomattox Station. But, Grant’s way west gave him an 8-mile advantage over Lee, and on the evening of the April 8, Gen. George Custer’s Union cavalry galloped into Appomattox Station, seizing three long trains from Lynchburg bearing more than 300,000 rations. Attacking later that evening, Custer’s cavalrymen captured more than two dozen Confederate cannon and a thousand prisoners.

Learning that Union cavalry had him blocked, Lee pondered a breakout attack at dawn on April 9 to clear the way to Lynchburg. But just as his cavalry seemed poised to drive the Federal horsemen from their front, blue-clad infantry emerged from the western woods and sealed the Confederate army’s fate. Resplendent in a new uniform, Lee realized his options had vanished. “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Events marking the war’s conclusion

New exhibits, tours, reenactments, and other activities will take place from Richmond and Petersburg to Appomattox, March 20–April 12, marking the events leading to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

On March 28, you can experience the last major battle of the war in Virginia during the reenactment at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Historical Park, in addition to participating in other activities at the park. (virginiastateparks.gov)

On March 29, reenactors will march to High Bridge and proceed to Farmville for rations as they did in 1865. Take a guided tour of the trail and Confederate earthworks. (virginiastateparks.gov)

On April 2–4, The Future of Richmond’s Past, a consortium of cultural and history institutions, marks the final days before the fall of Richmond with a series of special events, exhibits, and reenactments that will commemorate the burning of the city, emancipation, and occupation by Union forces. Admission to the sites is free and shuttles operate between them. Among the locations are Virginia Capitol Square, Museum and White House of the Confederacy, and Historic Tredegar.

From April 8–12, the American Civil War Museum in Appomattox offers extended hours, 10:00am-8:00pm, and will host a series of reenactment events and scholarly talks. Meet nationally known Civil War authors at morning coffees, attend a reception at a Civil War plantation home (tickets required), and hear local schoolchildren in concert. (moc.org)

To learn more about the events currently planned for the Appomattox area, including living history and real-time ceremonies in various locations such as the National Park Service sites, visit appomattoxcountyva.gov and click on “Civil War 150.”

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