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Civil War Series

The Campaign to Appomattox


Throughout the late hours of April 2 and early morning of April 3, retreating Confederate columns stretched into the darkness, while behind them the night was made day by the glow of fires and explosions as military stores and contraband were destroyed. The flames in Petersburg remained localized to a few warehouses, but those in Richmond roared out of control when mobs of civilians intent on looting made fire control impossible. A substantial portion of the city's business area, still known as the Burnt District, disappeared in the conflagration.


Lee's men were now moving west in four broad streams. The northernmost files of troops came out of the Richmond defenses. Led by the one-legged Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, these units—which included a battalion of C.S. naval personnel whose vessels had been scuttled and a detachment of black Confederate troops—passed through Richmond and crossed the James River to take up routes to Genito Bridge across the Appomattox River. The center stream of soldiers, under Major General William Mahone, came out of the lines dug across the narrow neck of a river peninsula known as Bermuda Hundred. Mahone had been instructed to use Goode's Bridge in his passage over the Appomattox. When his men passed through Chesterfield Court House they found it, as the general later reported, "crowded with. . . women and their children—who had fled mainly from Petersburg."

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Lee's forces were spread over a front of more than 30 miles defending both Petersburg and Richmond. It was necessary for him to first consolidate these scattered units and re-supply them for the hard march to join Johnston. On the night of April 2, all of Lee's men began to move on routes chosen to converge at Amelia Court House, where Lee expected to find much-needed rations. Grant astutely recognized Lee's dilemma. He did not pursue Lee, but instead moved his troops to head Lee off from any chance of turning south. As long as Grant maintained a substantial number of men between Lee and North Carolina, Lee's army was doomed.



The third column consisted of troops that had held Petersburg at nightfall, April 2. The infantry, for the most part, belonged to the corps of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, or Major General John B. Gordon. The mercurial Hill had been killed in the April 2 fighting, so Longstreet commanded his men as well. These troops crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, then turned west along parallel roads, headed toward Bevill's Bridge. Time was the critical factor. Lee had to get his various columns across the Appomattox as rapidly as possible so that they might concentrate and resupply at Amelia Court House with enough lead over their pursuers to be able to make the turn south toward Danville. The men themselves were in a surprisingly good mood. A Louisiana artillery officer, Napier Bartlett, ascribed it to at last "getting rid of some hideous dream in leaving behind the trenches, and once more moving in column on the road." A number of civilians also joined this exodus. According to an officer in the retreat "almost all [were] on foot, but sometimes there were wagons and carriages loaded with them."

South of the Appomattox River and west of Petersburg, the remnants of George Pickett's and Fitzhugh Lee's commands, defeated at Five Forks, along with other forces led by Major General Bushrod Johnson—making up the fourth stream—fell back toward Amelia Court House, hard-pressed by Sheridan's cavalry. These Confederates, under the overall command of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson, moved with heavier hearts. "There were not many words spoken," recalled J. F. J. Caldwell, a South Carolina officer. "An indescribable sadness weighed upon us." Numerous creeks and streams cut across Anderson's route, and his rear guard made brief, stubborn stands at several, including Namozine Creek, Sweathouse Creek, Deep Creek, and Beaverpond Creek. Also passing through this region, along the Richmond and Danville Railroad, were departments of the C.S. government, which had begun to evacuate the capital at nightfall, April 2. The train carrying President Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet moved across Lee's front early on the morning of April 3.



The number of men with Lee remains the subject of some controversy. Southern historians, led by the redoubtable Douglas S. Freeman, put the totals at "28,000 to 30,000." Yet, historian Chris Calkins, working backward from the number of soldiers who were counted when they surrendered at Appomattox, adding known campaign losses, and factoring in a number for desertions, suggests a more likely figure of approximately 57,000.

Union troops entered Petersburg and Richmond shortly after dawn, April 3. U. S. Grant spent a few hours in Petersburg (where he met with President Lincoln, who was on an extended tour of this theater of operations) but soon had his columns marching westward. "I was sure Lee was trying to make his escape and I wanted to push immediately in pursuit," he later wrote. "I hoped to capture them soon."

Sheridan's riders led the way, pressing closely on the cavalry and infantry that had escaped from the collapsed right flank. Supporting Sheridan were foot soldiers from the Fifth Corps, now led by Brevet Major General Charles Griffin in the place of Gouverneur K. Warren, who had been relieved of command by Sheridan immediately after Five Forks. Closing up behind these were the Second and Sixth Corps, also with the Army of the Potomac, along with units from the Army of the James's all-white Twenty-fourth and all-black Twenty-fifth Corps. Taking up the rear was the Ninth Corps, which had orders to garrison Petersburg and to secure the supply lines reaching westward to keep pace with the hard-marching troops.

Grant had made a critical decision during his few hours in Petersburg. He would not have his troops cross to the north side of the Appomattox River to follow the retreating Confederate forces; rather, he would move as rapidly as possible on a course parallel with Lee's men to prevent them from heading south. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, protested this plan, but Grant overrode him. The race was on to overtake Lee's columns before they could make the critical turn toward a linkup with Johnston's army. The only problem was that Lee's men had a twelve-hour head start.

After personally supervising the withdrawal of his rear guard from Petersburg, Robert E. Lee rode west following the lines of Longstreet's and Gordon's men. Some 22 miles along this route he received a not unwelcome dinner invitation from Judge James H. Cox to come with his staff and other officers to the Cox home, Clover Hill. The offer was accepted and the house soon crowded with uniformed men eager to forget, if only for an hour, the perils facing them. Judge Cox's daughter Kate paid special attention to the guest of honor.



"General Lee," she assured him, "we shall still gain our cause; you will join General Johnston and together you will be victorious."

"Whatever happens," Lee replied, "know this—that no men ever fought better than those who have stood by me."

It was well Lee enjoyed this brief respite, for soon after leaving Clover Hill troubles began to pile onto his shoulders. He learned that Bevill's Bridge, intended to be used by Longstreet's and Gordon's men was flooded out. This left these troops no option but to angle northward to Goode's Bridge, already crowded with Mahone's soldiers. There would be delays; some of the precious lead would be lost. Compounding this crisis, Lee was also told that the materials intended to shore up the Genito Bridge so that Ewell's men might use it had not arrived. Unless Ewell could find another way across the Appomattox, he too would have to use the Goode's span. (Fortunately, Ewell's men were able to plank over the Mattoax Railroad Bridge and cross by that means, though the process was a slow one.)

After a short rest at Hebron Church, Lee passed over Goode's Bridge a little after 7:30 A.M. and rode on to Amelia Court House, which he reached before midday, April 4. Here he discovered that the supplies he had expected to be waiting for his men had not been sent. As one of his officers, E. P. Alexander, later put it, "We should have gotten rations here, but in all the crash we had come through many plans had been sure to miscarry, and the plan to have rations here for us had been one of them." It was a terrible blow to all of Lee's calculations. "No one who looked upon him then," an artillery officer later recorded, "as he stood there in the full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written upon his features." John Esten Cooke, a staff officer, was even more explicit, claiming that the "failure of the supply of rations completely paralyzed him."



Lee had hoped to pause at Amelia Court House only long enough to provision his troops and to allow the tail end of his strung-out columns to catch up before turning south, through Jetersville and Burkeville, toward Johnston's army. Instead, he would have to wait here until quartermaster details could fan out into the surrounding countryside to fetch all the food and forage that might be found. In a proclamation issued that day to the "Citizens of Amelia County, Va.," Lee asked for "meat, beef, cattle, sheep, hogs, flour, meal, corn, and provender in any quantity that can be spared."

Adding urgency to these appeals was the steady crack of carbine fire that could be heard to the south. Up to this time, the Federal pursuit had been more expectation than fact, with the Appomattox providing an effective screen for Lee's left. But once over the river at Goode's Bridge, Lee lost that shield, so the Yankee cavalry could swing up to strike at the exposed column wherever an opportunity could be found.

U. S. Grant's decision to use Phil Sheridan's cavalry as his turning force at Petersburg had the added result of placing this mobile striking force in the van once the operation turned from assault to pursuit. In Philip H. Sheridan, Grant had an aggressive, hard-driving combat leader who was not likely to allow the enemy any slack. Almost from the moment the Confederate retreat began, Sheridan divined that Lee's goal was the Richmond & Danville Railroad and took steps accordingly. Even as two of his divisions went yapping on the heels of Richard Anderson's retreating command, Sheridan ordered his third (with a hustling Fifth Corps in support) to take up a blocking position across the railroad near Jetersville.



Still not satisfied that he was doing all that he could to bring the enemy to bay, Sheridan galloped ahead of his troops and approached Jetersville late in the afternoon of April 4, accompanied only by his 200-man personal escort. "I at once deployed this handful of men to cover the crossroads till the arrival of the [Fifth] corps," Sheridan wrote. Hardly had they begun to take up defensive positions when a Rebel courier was captured coming down the road from Amelia Court House, just six miles away. Taken with the messenger were duplicate dispatches from Lee's commissary general urgently requesting that rations be sent to Burkeville. Seeing an opportunity for some covert action, Sheridan turned these messages over to his resourceful chief of scouts, Major Henry H. Young.

These scouts—disguised in either official Confederate uniforms or otherwise nondescript clothing—infiltrated Lee's retreating columns to gather information or to sabotage that movement whenever possible.

Although one of the smaller commands engaged in the Appomattox Campaign (Sheridan later acknowledged its strength as "thirty or forty men"), Major Young's band had an influence far out of proportion to its size. Operating singly or in small groups, these scouts—disguised in either official Confederate uniforms or otherwise nondescript clothing—infiltrated Lee's retreating columns to gather information or to sabotage that movement whenever possible. One Confederate cavalry officer never forgot the C.S. quartermaster major, whose dogged insistence that each wagon team be watered at a certain stream held up that wagon train for hours. Only later, when as a POW he saw this "major" conferring with his Yankee colleagues, did the cavalryman realize that he had been duped.

Now Major Young decided to have his men continue the captured messages on their way. With Federal troops astride the Danville line, any supplies sent along it would be sure to fall into their hands. As a further refinement, Young sent out two pairs of his scouts in different directions each bearing a copy of the original orders. One duo continued south along the rail line hoping to reach a station still in telegraphic connection with Danville while the other struck west, intending to get the same message through to the C.S. supply depot at Lynchburg. In summing up the activities of Major Young's unit, Sheridan wrote that the "information gained through him was invaluable."


As the war unfolded there became a need for reliable information on the strength and location of the enemy. Early in the war General George B. McClellan used the Pinkerton Detective Agency to gather information on Confederate strengths. The Confederate army also utilized spies; some of the best reported to Colonel John S. Mosby. In October of 1864, while in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, General Phillip H. Sheridan organized a group of scouts under the command of 22-year-old Major Henry Harrison Young.

Sheridan and his troops were operating in the Winchester area in the fall of 1864 having chased Jubal Early's Confederates back into Virginia from Maryland, where they had threatened the capital of Washington. Sheridan needed to gather information on the activity of the rebel cavalry as it operated in the vicinity of his army. Young volunteered to join Sheridan's staff and was promoted to major on Octoher 12 with the title of chief of scouts. Young was given the authority to select one hundred men from Sheridan's army, of whom he was to have the sole command. They had freedom to go wherever they wanted and acted entirely according to Major Young's discretion. These men dressed in Confederate uniform, spoke with southern accents, and could infiltrate rebel camps to gain firsthand knowledge of strengths and movements. Known as "Jessie Scouts" by the Federals, they devised hand signals to let their fellow soldiers know it was them when in the presence of the unknowing Confederates.

During the Appomattox Campaign the scouts proved to be of invaluable assistance to General Sheridan and the Federal cavalry. They began the campaign by capturing General Rufus Barringer, a Confederate cavalry commander from North Carolina, and his staff as they were looking for a comfortable camp for the night near Namozine Church. The scouts then proceeded to capture a dispatch from General Robert E. Lee requesting supplies to be sent to his army at Amelia Court House. Sheridan had the scouts send the message, but his cavalry were to capture the supplies for themselves. The scouts, even though they worked in groups of three or four, were responsible for leading numerous rebels to capture.

One of the final acts of the scouts would lead directly to the surrender of Lee's army. On the afternoon of April 8, Sergeant White of Young's command reported to General Sheridan that there were trains loaded with supplies for the rebels at Appomattox Station on the South Side Railroad. Sergeant White had been one of the scouts responsible for sending the captured dispatch from Lee and he had been on the lookout for the supplies since then. Sheridan dispatched his lead division under George A. Custer to capture the trains, which they did, taking away much needed supplies for the rebel army. This also placed Custer, and the rest of the Union cavalry, solidly in front of the Confederate advance. Surrounded by Federal troops, Lee would surrender the following day.

For the gallant and meritorious conduct of his men and himself, Henry Young was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on July 18, 1865.

Throughout the afternoon of April 4, Sheridan's full attention was on holding the blocking position near Jetersville. He sent messages off to his three cavalry divisions to join him and also requested heavy infantry reinforcements. There were some tense hours while Sheridan's small command waited for the first of these to arrive. It was late afternoon when the leading infantry elements came on the scene. The veteran foot soldiers knew exactly what to do. Remembered one in the 155th Pennsylvania, "The Fifth Corps immediately occupied the cavalry works, and in a short time with pick and shovel had them thick and high." "As the enemy was within striking distance no fires were lighted, and the corps was kept in readiness for battle," added a Maryland comrade. "We seem to have cut the rebels off," a Maine infantryman noted in his diary. This observation echoed one Sheridan had made earlier in the day in a message to U. S. Grant: "If we press on we will no doubt get the whole army."

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