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Civil War Series

The Campaign to Appomattox



The coming of night on the final day of March 1865 found Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant a worried man. For ten grueling months he had personally directed Union operations in and around the strategically important transportation and manufacturing town of Petersburg, Virginia. An attempt to seize the city in June 1864 had instead become a tedious siege that stretched through to spring. One visible result was the miles of trenches, forts, and redoubts that spread like a cancer across the Virginia countryside; another was the seemingly endless series of small but sharp engagements, none of which was decisive, but which cumulatively tightened the Federal vise. Approximately 42,000 Federals fell killed, wounded, or missing in fighting for little more than points of temporary advantage such as Peebles Farm, Hatcher's Run, or the Jerusalem Plank Road.


Throughout it all Grant had held his lines with a tenacious grip, forcing his opponent to do the same. The coming of spring meant that the muddy Southside roads would become firm enough to support a rapid movement of troops. Now Grant worried that the enemy commander, General Robert F. Lee, would somehow find a way to slip out of the ring tightening around Petersburg and escape south to link up with the only other Confederate army in the east, General Joseph E. Johnston's, near Raleigh. If that happened, declared Grant's military secretary Adam Badeau, "a long and tedious and expensive campaign, consuming most of the summer might be inevitable."

Always a man of action, Grant again had ordered armed men into motion as he increased Union pressure against Lee's extreme right flank, which was anchored near Burgess' Mill, five miles southwest of Petersburg. There was fighting there on March 29 as the Federal Fifth Corps pushed across the Boydton Plank Road below the Burgess' mill pond, followed by a day-long combat on March 31, when the Fifth Corps, supported by the Second, probed, but failed to penetrate, the Confederate defensive works. The March 31 fighting alone cost the Union more than 1,800 casualties, while Confederate losses were about 800.



Further south and west this same day, a force of approximately 9,000 bluecoated riders under Major General Philip H. Sheridan battled rain, mud, and angry Rebels in a bold attempt to end run the Confederate entrenchments to cut Petersburg's only rail link to still-functioning supply depots. Sheridan's thrust toward the South Side Railroad was blocked near Dinwiddie Court House by a mixed force of cavalry and infantry under the overall command of Major General George E. Pickett. As night fell, Sheridan held on to his position only through a combination of stubbornness, luck, and a lack of aggressive follow-through by his opposite number. Grant ordered infantry to Sheridan's assistance, and the pugnacious cavalry officer vowed to resume the action in the morning.

A few soggy miles from where Grant chewed on his cigar and his problems, Robert E. Lee pondered again the impossible alternatives facing him. Since assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, Lee had almost never faced a battle without the odds against him, but never did they loom as long as they did this last day of March 1865. The siege of Petersburg had been a death sentence for his once vaunted army, which had suffered about 28,000 casualties. A brutal fall season of steady combat, followed by a winter marked by periods of near starvation and mass desertions, left the forces defending Petersburg and Richmond dangerously weakened, with morale at an ebb point. Any tactical move Lee made along one point of his stretched lines meant that he was risking disaster at another. When his scouts detected the Union buildup against his right flank, he felt he had to act, not only to protect the South Side supply line but to keep the enemy from flanking his entire Petersburg position. So Lee patched together a mobile force to meet whatever it was that Grant was moving against him.

Lee's cavalry, which had been scattered from Richmond to areas south of the entrenched Petersburg perimeter, was ordered to concentrate near the threatened flank under the command of his nephew Major General Fitzhugh Lee. From the Bermuda Hundred area between Richmond and Petersburg, Lee drew out two brigades of Pickett's division, added a third on duty near Petersburg, pushed in two more from the forces at Burgess' Mill, and sent them out to fight alongside the cavalry. More than 10,000 of Lee's precious military assets were being used to thwart the enemy's design.



Events on March 31 augured well for Lee's gamble. His troops posted along the White Oak Road near Burgess' Mill not only repulsed the Yankee probes, but for a few heady moments even ran roughshod over two divisions of the enemy Fifth Corps. Pickett's mobile force stopped Sheridan's riders near Dinwiddie Court House and were pressing him heavily as night fell. But a victory celebration proved premature.

The fighting along the White Oak Road was ended by strong Union reinforcements forcing Lee's men back into their entrenchments, with little to show for their efforts. And early on the moming of April 1, Lee learned to his horror that the victorious Pickett was withdrawing his mixed force from the Dinwiddie area. Informed too late to halt this retrograde movement, Lee nevertheless insisted that Pickett make a stand at the strategically important road crossing known as Five Forks.

Pickett's move had been caused by the slow approach of the infantry reinforcements Grant had ordered to Sheridan—Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's entire Fifth Corps. The path of Warren's advance put some of his troops squarely on Pickett's left flank and rear so the Confederate officer felt he had no option but to retreat from such an exposed position. Both commanders—Grant and Lee—now waited to learn what the events of April 1 would bring.

Twenty-four hours later, just after darkness had settled in, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, one of Grant's most trusted aides, pushed his way along the sloppy trails from Five Forks to army headquarters. "The roads in places were corduroyed with captured muskets," Porter recalled. "Ammunition trains and ambulances were still struggling forward for miles; teamsters, prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway." Porter's orderly could not hold back the news the two carried, and he shouted to a group of soldiers along the way that a great Union victory had been won this day at Five Forks. Instead of a cheer, one of the soldiers in the group derisively thumbed his nose and yelled, "No, you don't—April Fool!"

Minutes later, Porter was at Grant's headquarters, shouting the glad tidings: in a battle that had begun late in the afternoon, troops under Sheridan and Warren had attacked Pickett's men at Five Forks and, in little more than two hours of combat, had soundly routed the defenders. Of the approximately 10,000 men under Pickett at Five Forks, nearly a third were killed, wounded, or captured. "It meant the beginning of the end," Porter enthused, "the reaching of the 'last ditch.'" Grant listened to his excited aide, then calmly stood up and walked into his tent. When he emerged a few minutes later he clutched a fistful of dispatches for transmission to the various commands around Petersburg. Said Grant with no emotion: "I have ordered an immediate assault along the lines."


It took time for Grant's orders to work their way through the various levels of command, and it was not until dawn, April 2, that the troops facing the Petersburg lines were ready to go. The action against the enemy's fortified positions was concentrated along the axis of the Jerusalem Plank Road and against the lines snaking southwest of the city that shielded the Boydton Plank Road. The assault against the first was made by the Union Ninth Corps, which fought a bloody but inconclusive battle lasting throughout the day. Against the other target, however, the Federal attack by the Sixth Corps succeeded in punching a gaping hole in the thinly stretched C.S. defenses. Prompt follow-up attacks by the Federals then rolled up Lee's lines as far south as Burgess' Mill. It took a suicidal last stand by a handful of defenders in a pair of detached forts near the city—Whitworth and Gregg—to prevent the Yankee formations from entering Petersburg itself.

While Sherman's 90,000 men watched Johnston's 37,000 men in North Carolina, the Union armies under U.S. Grant moved to break the stalemate at Petersburg. Using Sheridan's cavalry just arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, Grant struck at Lee's extreme right flank. Sheridan's victory at Five Forks cut Lee's last supply line, the South Side Railroad, and forced him to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee's only hope now was to move south to link-up with Johnston.

Robert E. Lee was a constant presence along this front as his men fought desperately to buy enough time to save his army. Only the last-minute arrival of reinforcements summoned from Richmond allowed Lee to stabilize his lines when darkness ended the fighting. It was during this day that Lee learned the fate of Pickett's force and that the enemy had cut the South Side Railroad, eliminating the only military reason to hold Petersburg. Once it was evacuated, Richmond too must fall. It was a little after 10:00 A.M., April 2, when Lee dictated the message to Jefferson Davis that signaled a decisive downturn in Confederate fortunes: "I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight."



More than a month earlier, Lee had anticipated such a circumstance and issued a series of contingency orders. The April 2 assaults had two serious effects on Lee's calculations. First, they initiated combat that resulted in the loss (mostly through capture) of many of the veteran troops posted along the lines struck by the Sixth Corps. Second, they forced events to happen much more rapidly than had been anticipated in Lee's planning, which, in turn, strained the Confederate command system to the breaking point. Messages went astray, and critical orders failed to reach their destinations. Perhaps the most serious breakdown occurred when Lee's urgent request for the C.S. Commissary Department in Richmond to send all available food rations to Amelia Court House was delayed.

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