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The Campaign to Appomattox


It was the detritus from this battlefield that met the eyes of Robert E. Lee as he rode east from Rice's Station seeking to find out what was delaying the rear of his army. As the extent of the disaster became clear to him, Lee was heard to say, "My God! has the army dissolved?" (A short time afterward, while discussing his intended movements with an officer sent up from the provisional seat of government in Danville, Lee muttered, "A few more Sailor's Creeks and it will be over-ended.)

Lee rode back to Rice's Station arriving there about sundown, and gave orders for the retreat to continue to Farmville, where there would be rations waiting. The troops with Longstreet would move directly from Rice's to that point, while Gordon's battered but intact corps, reinforced by the division under Major General William Mahone, would cross the Appomattox using a spectacular railroad trestle known as High Bridge. This latter option was available to Lee only because a bold attempt by a 900-man Federal raiding party to destroy it (launched out of Ord's command as it approached Rice's Station) had been stopped short of its mission by a cavalry force hastily dispatched by Longstreet. The Federals had all been killed or captured, but the Confederates had paid a high price in the number of senior officers dead or mortally wounded, including Brigadier General James Dearing.


We moved after the enemy at 5:30 A.M. and did not come up with him until we got to High Bridge. We were riding with General Barlow's division near its head, when our skirmishers opened the ball, and we, following them closely, soon came out upon the bluff which overlooked the valley of the Appomattox. The valley was half a mile wide. The river, which was unfordable and not over a hundred feet wide, ran close to our bank. The railroad bridge, called High Bridge, rested on twenty or more piers, each 125 feet high, and thus spanned the valley from bluff to bluff. The valley was clear of trees and we saw everything that transpired in it. At our end of the bridge, where we first came in sight of the valley, was a strong earthen fort with a number of guns which the rebels had injured as much as possible in a brief time; a hundred yards in front the wooden bridge which crossed the river was afire, and the enemy's skirmishers essayed to prevent ours from extinguishing the fire. At the farther side of the valley, the rebel column was climbing up on the bluff and disappearing from sight, and the great railroad bridge was burning furiously at their end. A portion of General Barlow's column hurried down to the small bridge and, forcing a passage, extinguished the flames and saved the bridge, and then our skirmishers deployed on the other side of the river and slowly drove the enemy's skirmishers across the plain, every man in both lines being in plain sight of us, so that we saw each shot and each man drop and every movement, a grander display than it is possible to produce in any amphitheater of these days.

From Days and Events
by Thomas L. Livermore, Colonel of the 18th New Hampshire Volunteers



Lee kept his men moving throughout the night of April 6 and well into the next morning. Gordon's and Mahone's soldiers safely passed across the Appomattox River at High Bridge (actually the site of two bridges—an elevated railroad trestle paralleled on the valley floor below by a wagon bridge). A small rear guard was left behind to watch over the detachment of engineers assigned to destroy the spans.

Exhaustion was taking its toll. As they moved toward Farmville, Lee's weary legions were steadily shedding men.

Exhaustion was taking its toll. As they moved toward Farmville, Lee's weary legions were steadily shedding men. E. P. Alexander remarked: "The road was one sea of mud through which men, horses, ambulances, artillery, & cavalry splashed & floundered & stopped in the darkness & splashed & floundered & stopped again." Operating under Lee's instructions, Longstreet's men entered Farmville, crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, and went into camp, where they enjoyed their first regular issue of rations since leaving Richmond. The cumulative pressure and debilitating series of disasters had stressed Lee to such an extent that his only thought was to find some breathing space for his army. He believed that if he could get all his remaining troops safely over to the north side of the Appomattox and burn the bridges behind him, he would have successfully isolated himself from pursuit—for a while at least. This belief became an obsession that clouded his judgment.

The river barrier was more imagined than real, and the position it would place his forces in was, in many ways, more dangerous than if he had remained south of it. James Longstreet was quick to point out that even with both the Farmville bridges burned, the river alone would not stop the enemy. Said Longstreet afterward "I reminded him that there were fords over which his [i.e., the Federal] cavalry could cross, and that they knew of or would surely find them." When E. P. Alexander, one of Lee's most trusted junior officers, had a chance to look at a map and see the route Lee intended for his columns, the young artilleryman was appalled. "The most direct & shortest road to Lynchburg from Farmville did not cross the river as we had done, but kept up the south side near the railroad." Alexander saw at once that the route Lee planned to use took the troops away from the railroad (and their supplies) and would not allow them to angle back toward the south until they reached the headwaters of the river, near a place called Appomattox Court House. By remaining south of the river, Lee would have a far shorter march to reach that same point. When he dared suggest this to Lee, the weary response was: "Well there is time enough to think about that."


As if to mock Lee's decision, word arrived that the troops retreating over High Bridge had failed to destroy the spans sufficiently to do more than briefly delay the Yankee pursuit. Worse, enemy infantry had already crossed in some force. The time Lee had hoped to purchase by moving north of the river had evaporated even before he had it in his hand. He showed a rare flash of anger toward those who had allowed this to happen. As the chief of artillery for the Second Corps, A. L. Long, later wrote, "He spoke of the blunder with a warmth and impatience which served to show how great a repression he ordinarily exercised over his feelings." Among the last actions completed before abandoning Farmville, Lee's commissary general ordered the undistributed rations in railroad cars sent off to the west, expecting that the Confederate army would be able to catch up with them further along the line.

The Federal pursuit this day was concentrated in three columns. One, consisting of the Second Corps troops that had battled Gordon on April 6, reached High Bridge about 7:00 A.M. Portions of both the railroad and wagon bridges were in flames when the bluecoated troops rushed forward, drove off the Rebel rear guard, and managed to save the lower structure. A few sections of the towering railroad span collapsed, but the damage was limited and was soon made good by U.S. military engineers. By 9:15 A.M. Andrew Humphreys had his men across the river and moving west.

Approaching Farmville from Rice's Station were infantry from the Army of the James (under Ord), preceded by George Crook's cavalry division. This force fought its way through several roadblocks and by 11:00 A.M. was poised on the hills just south of Farmville. There was a brief cavalry melee in the streets before the last Confederate defenders pulled back to the north side of the river and the two bridges were set afire.

The third principal Yankee force in motion consisted of the other two divisions of Sheridan's cavalry, which marched on a westerly heading to Prince Edward Court House, where the riders prepared to block any attempt by Lee to move toward Danville.

Falling back before the Federals that had crossed at High Bridge, the troops under Gordon and Mahone began around 2:00 P.M. to take a defensive position along a ridge of high ground near Cumberland Church. At the same time, Longstreet's men, aided by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, took station off to the west, both to cover Gordon's right flank and to screen the remaining supply wagons as they slowly hauled off to the northwest. A Union cavalry brigade that had managed to ford the Appomattox (as Longstreet had warned) made a dash at the train but was neatly ambushed. In the resulting fight, which began around 4:00 P.M., the Federal officer in charge, Brigadier General J. Irvin Gregg, was captured.


Even as this was happening, Andrew Humphreys's Second Corps approached along the north side of the Appomattox. Two of his divisions angled in a northwesterly direction hoping to cut off the Confederate retreat, while a third moved directly along the railroad. Just north of Farmville, this lone division struck Lee's rear guard, and in the ensuing skirmish one of the Federal brigade commanders, Brigadier General Thomas Smythe, was mortally wounded. He would linger until April 9, becoming the last Union general to be killed as a direct result of a combat action.

The rest of Humphreys's command ran into Rebel resistance about 1:00 P.M. and spent the next few hours maneuvering into a position facing the Cumberland Church line. Then, starting around 4:00 P.M., the Federals launched a series of attacks that tested but never seriously threatened the Confederates here. The fighting ended at dark, with Union losses numbering about 571 killed, wounded, or missing. Confederate casualties were uncounted, though a Farmville resident later recalled that the "moans of the dying could be heard for hours after the battle. A number of Confederate soldiers were buried just north of Cumberland Church."

(click on image for a PDF version)
As long as Lee remained south of the Appomattox he maintained a slight lead over Grant, though he was subject to constant attack by the enemy cavalry. At Farmville, Lee crossed to the north side hoping for respite from the relentless Union pursuit. His relief was short-lived, for Federal troops under Humphreys, using a wagon bridge, were also on the north side. Humphreys struck Lee at Cumberland Church in a sharp but inconclusive fight. Union cavalrymen made a dash at Lee's supply train but were ambushed and repulsed. After rejecting Grant's first communication requesting his surrender, Lee marched off to the west. Grant sent one wing of his force after Lee, while the other moved to cut him off.

U. S. Grant entered Farmville just about the time all this fighting was getting under way. He set up headquarters in the Randolph House, where he was soon receiving messages from his commanders in the field. While he was there, both the Army of the James troops under Ord and the Sixth Corps under Wright took position in town along the south side of the river. Shortly before 5:00 P.M., Grant remarked to Major General John Gibbon, "I have a great mind to summon Lee to surrender." Not long afterward, Grant's adjutant general Seth Williams was given the dangerous task of carrying Grant's message to the Confederate picket line. Trigger fingers were itchy this night, and before he could establish the purpose of his mission, Williams came under a fire that killed the orderly riding with him. He at last managed to hand the message over, and it was delivered to Robert E. Lee around 10:00 P.M. The note was typical of Grant, straight and to the point:

"The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate army known as the Army of Northern Virginia."

Lee showed the note to one of his staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Venable, who suggested he just ignore it.

"Ah," Lee said, "but it must be answered."

Other officers offered their opinions. Longstreet's response was succinct. "Not yet," he said. Lee wrote the following reply.

"I have rec'd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va.—I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender."

The message was brought out to the picket line and turned over to Seth Williams for delivery to U. S. Grant. Taking no chances, Williams rode back the way he had come (via High Bridge), not arriving in Farmville until early in the morning of April 8.


Even as the Federal staff officer was in transit, Lee began pulling his men out of their positions around Cumberland Church. With the wagons safely ahead of him, Lee was able to fill several roads with his columns. Gordon's corps, accompanied by the cavalry, would travel only a short distance south before turning north and west onto the Lynchburg Stage Road. Longstreet's corps had further north to go before swinging west onto a plank road that ran parallel to the stage road. Lee's next problem would occur a few miles along that westward leg, at a place called New Store. Here the two roads merged into one, making a natural bottleneck that would slow everything to a crawl.

Many of his men were moving in a dull fog, barely conscious of their surroundings. A cavalryman assigned to straggler patrol was aghast at the sight of the soldiers "who had thrown away their arms and knapsacks [and were] lying prone on the ground along the roadside, too much exhausted to march further, and only waiting for the enemy to come and pick them up as prisoners."

Once at New Store, Lee adjusted the order of march. Gordon, who had overseen the army's rear guard since Amelia Court House, would now take the lead, followed by Longstreet, with Fitzhugh Lee's troopers covering the rear. He also accomplished a bit of military housekeeping by relieving Richard H. Anderson, Bushrod Johnson, and George E. Pickett of their commands. It was likely that Lee was approached by his artillery chief, Brigadier General William N. Pendleton, who had a difficult matter to discuss. Several of Lee's subordinates had talked together during the night and decided that the time had come to see what terms the enemy was willing to offer. They believed that by suggesting such a course for Lee, they would go on record as having proposed the idea and thus save him from any blame. Lee listened quietly while the dignified Pendleton explained all this.




"I trust it has not come to that!" Lee said after Pendleton had finished. "We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit, whereas the enemy does not. And, besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would at once regard it as such an evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender—and sooner than that I am resolved to die. Indeed, we must all determine to die at our posts."

Pendleton's reply was that "every man would no doubt cheerfully meet death with him in discharge of duty, and that we were perfectly willing that he should decide the question." Nevertheless, it was the first tremor of capitulation ever to shake the Army of Northern Virginia.

Everything was on the move at Farmville on April 8 as the Federals took up the chase. The Sixth Corps had crossed to the north side of the Appomattox during the night while, further north, the Second Corps returned to the Cumberland Church battlefield, buried its dead, and set out after Gordon's command. The man leading the corps was as anxious as any in his ranks to close the gap and finish the thing. One amused staff officer recalling seeing Andrew Humphreys this day "wearing much the expression of an irascible pointer, he having been out ahead of his column, and getting down on his knees and peering at foottracks, through his spectacles, to determine by which the main body had retreated." Once the Second Corps passed off to the west, the Sixth Corps followed the route taken by Longstreet's men.

U. S. Grant received Lee's reply that morning in Farmville. Though it dodged the question he had asked, Grant thought it was "deserving another letter." Before departing Farmville, he composed this response:

"Your note of last evening in reply of mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received."



After seeing the note on its way, Grant and his staff mounted, crossed to the north side of the river, and followed after Humphreys's and Wright's troops. The sun was out, and the weather was pleasant, but Grant was not in condition to enjoy it. By afternoon he was suffering from such a blinding headache that he could no longer ride. Headquarters were soon established at "Clifton." There Grant tried some home remedies hoping to cure his pounding temples, but to no avail. He climbed into the only bed in the house, trusting that a little sleep would do what foot soaks and a wrist poultice could not.

The burden of action against the Confederacy this day was carried by the cavalry under Sheridan. Starting out from several encampments located around Prospect Station (eight miles west of Farmville), the Yankee riders were formed into a northern and southern striking force, the former under Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt, the latter under George Crook. Following the South Side Railroad line, Crook's troopers galloped into Pamplin Station around noon, where they captured the supply trains sent out from Farmville on April 7. Meanwhile, Sheridan, on a course toward Appomattox Station, learned that one of his resourceful scouts had successfully conned loyal Southern railroad engineers into bringing their supply trains up from Lynchburg to Appomattox Station, where they waited for Lee's hungry foot soldiers. If the Union cavalry could reach there first, a great blow would have been struck against Lee's designs.

Even as these eager columns of blue-coated riders pushed toward that place, other long files of infantry trudged in their wake. Marching hard in Sheridan's dust were white and black soldiers of the Army of the James under Ord and the Fifth Corps under Griffin from the Army of the Potomac. Victory lingered just beneath the horizon, and General Ord was determined that his men would be in at the kill. He prowled along the toiling rows of sweating men, driving them forward with fierce encouragement. "I promise you, boys, that this will be the last day's march you will have to endure," he yelled to one group of weary foot sloggers. "One good steady march, and the campaign is ended," he shouted to another bunch.



As the day's shadows began to lengthen, the leading elements of General Merritt's wing drew near to Appomattox Station. The first squad on the scene captured one of the several trains waiting at the depot, while behind these riders, the rest of the regiment began to spread out to gather in others. Colonel Alanson M. Randol, the officer directing this deployment, felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see General Custer next to him. "Go in, old fellow, don't let anything stop you," Custer said with rising excitement, "now is the chance for your stars. Whoop em up; I'll be after you."

More dusty blue riders scattered among the stopped trains and before long jubilant Yankees were running the captured engines back and forth, "with bells ringing and whistles screaming."

More dusty blue riders scattered among the stopped trains and before long jubilant Yankees were running the captured engines back and forth, "with bells ringing and whistles screaming." Their celebration was cut short by a salvo of cannon shells that burst among them. It turned out that most of Lee's surplus artillery pieces, marching well ahead of the slower infantry columns, had gone into bivouac just outside the station area and were now belching fury at the Yankee interlopers. Supporting the cannoneers were a scratch force of military engineers and a small cavalry brigade.

After several piecemeal attempts to rush this position were blasted back, Custer finally organized an all-out charge. Sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 P.M., the Yankee cavalrymen advanced to the attack. The fighting was bitter but brief. It ended with the Union troopers in possession of the field but most of the Rebel artillery pieces safely away, many withdrawn through the village of Appomattox Court House to meet the leading files of Gordon's corps. A few Federal cavalrymen pressed the retreating cannoneers right into the town, only to be gunned down by Gordon's pickets. One gut-shot Yankee sergeant writhed in terrible agony, begging to be killed, until death came to release him.


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