Battle of Appomattox Station On April the 8th, General Robert E. Lee and the remnants of his once-proud Army of Northern Virginia arrived in Appomattox County. Lee's hope was to reach Appomattox Station on the South Side railroad where supply trains awaited. Having moved ahead of the rest of Lee's army, Gen. R. Lindsay Walker led a detachment of reserve artillery (100 guns) to bivouac near the station. It was not long after their arrival -- around 4:00 p.m. -- that Federal cavalry, riding hard from the south, attacked the waiting supply trains and then assaulted Walker. This cavalry, under command of Gen. Philip Sheridan, was merely a harbinger of the fast approaching Federal columns. Sheridan's horsemen repelled Walker's detachment. Lee's much-coveted supplies were now in enemy hands.
In the meantime, the majority of Lee's forces were setting up a temporary camp one mile northeast of Appomattox Court House, the small town lying between the Confederates and the station. Word of the victorious Federal advance soon reached the camp. The beleaguered Confederates realized that Grant's men had the upper hand. A Confederate trooper reflected: "I felt myself now to be near physical collapse... expecting to go into battle in the morning."
Battle of Appomattox Court House The expectation was validated when, at 2:00 A.M. on the morning of April 9th, Lee ordered General Gordon's 2nd Corps to move into line of battle west of Appomattox Court House. Lee had met with Generals Gordon, Longstreet, and his nephew, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee earlier that evening and decided to throw a portion of his infantry against Sheridan's men. He certainly did not expect to have to fight Federal infantry, believing that he had out marched most of Grant's troops moving west from Farmville.
At 9:00 that morning, as a heavy fog lifted, Gordon's 2nd Corps was ordered forward to break through the Federal cavalry and proceed to the west — with the hopes of recapturing the station. Protecting Gordon's right flank was Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry. Gordon's Corps, "fought to a frazzle" during the previous week, was a mere shadow of its former strength. The combined force of the infantry and the cavalry numbered no more than 9, 000 men. "Fitz" Lee's cavalry spearheaded the advance, and the lines of scattered, grey-clad infantrymen lurched forward; most men were somnolent from their early rising yet nervous with the anticipation that manifests itself before an impending battle. As the line moved up the sloping ridge along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage road, the enemy came into view.
Situated on the crest of the hill and beyond were two cannon of Federal artillery and a brigade of cavalry under General Charles H. Smith. Smith had been ordered by his division commander, Gen. George Crook, to hold his position as long as possible. The Confederates, as exhausted as they were, advanced through the artillery and Smith's men fled in their wake—only to be supported at the last moment by Mackenzie's and Young's cavalry brigades. The combined force once again slowed the Confederate advance, but most of "Fitz" Lee's cavalry skirted the Federals and escaped westward toward Lynchburg.
It now became apparent to Gordon that Lee had underestimated the Federal strength. In truth, Grant had not only positioned more cavalry in front of Lee during the night, but had also force-marched almost three entire corps of infantry along the South Side railroad to arrive at Appomattox Station during the night. Most of the Army of the James (under Gen. Edward Ord)—the 24th and elements of the 25th (United States Colored Troops)—had moved to block Lee's western escape route with the Army of the Potomac's 5th Corps in tow. Gordon and his battle-worn foot soldiers now faced advancing lines of Federal infantry of the 24th and 25th Corps. As Gordon's men began to skirmish with the Federal infantry, two cavalry divisions converged on the Confederate lines alongside infantry of Griffin's 5th Corps. It was only a matter of time before Gordon's men broke. The Confederates withdrew from their advanced positions and General Lee ordered truce flags sent out at about 11:00 that morning.
Meanwhile, back at his camp, Lee was deep in decision. Not only had Gordon been defeated to his front, but Federals of the 2nd and 6th corps had pinned Longstreet's rearguard in from the north. Grant had nearly surrounded Lee on three sides, leaving the northwest as his only unimpeded route. Lee knew that there was no hope of supplying his army by retreating in that direction. He was in "checkmate" and had no other options left. The disconsolate Lee sent word to Grant that he was prepared to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.
Casualties of these two battles have been estimated at more than 700 total dead and wounded.
Did You Know?
Private William Pilcher of the Otey Battery (pictured in an early war artillery uniform)was issued this type III Richmond Depot Shell jacket less than 2 months prior to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Donated by the Pilcher family, the original is exhibited at Appomattox Court House NHP.