The Appomattox Campaign - Events from Petersburg to Appomattox
March 29 - April 9, 1865
What was to become the final campaign for Richmond began when the Federal Army of the Potomac crossed the James River in June 1864. Under Lieutenant General U.S. Grant's command, Federal troops applied constant pressure to the Confederate lines around Richmond and Petersburg. By autumn, three of the four railroads into Petersburg had been cut. The South Side Railroad remained as the only means of rail transportation into Confederate lines, and once severed, the Army of Northern Virginia would have no other choice but to evacuate the capital city.
However, General Robert E. Lee's concern stretched beyond the Confederate Capitol to Federal actions elsewhere in the South. By February of 1865, two Federal armies, one under General William T. Major Sherman and the other under Major General John M. Schofield, were moving through the Carolinas. If not stopped, they could sever Virginia from the rest of the South, and if they joined Grant at Petersburg, Lee's men would face four armies instead of two. Realizing the danger, Lee wrote the Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge on February 8, 1865: "You must not be surprised if calamity befalls us."
By the time he wrote this letter, Lee knew he would have to leave the Petersburg lines, the only question was when. Muddy roads and the poor condition of the horses forced the Confederates to remain in the trenches throughout March.
Once again, Ulysses S. Grant seized the initiative. On March 29, Major General Philip H. Sheridan's cavalry and the V Corps began moving southwest toward the Confederate right flank and the South Side railroad. On the 1st of April, 21,000 Federal troops smashed the 11,000 man Confederate force under Major General George Pickett at an important road junction known locally as Five Forks. Grant followed up this victory with an all-out offensive against Confederate lines on April 2.
With his supply lines cut, Lee had no choice but to order Richmond and Petersburg evacuated on the night of April 2nd. Moving by previously determined routes, Confederate columns left the trenches that they had occupied for ten months. Their immediate objective was Amelia Court House where forces from Richmond and Petersburg would concentrate and receive rations sent from Richmond.
Once his army was reassembled, Lee planned to march down the line of the Richmond and Danville railroad with the hope of meeting General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. Together, the two armies could establish a defensive line near the Roanoke River, and assume the offensive against Sherman.
The march from Richmond and Petersburg started well enough. Many of the Confederates, including Lee, seemed exhilarated at being in the field once again, but after the first day's march signs of weariness and hunger began to appear.
When Lee reached Amelia Court House on April 4, he found, to his dismay that the rations for his men had not arrived. Although a rapid march was crucial, the hungry men of the Army of Northern Virginia needed supplies. While awaiting the arrival of troops from Richmond, delayed by flood condition, Lee decided to halt the march and send wagons into the countryside to gather provisions. Local farmers, though, had little to give and the wagons returned practically empty. The major result of this effort was a lost day of marching. This delay allowed the pursuing Federals time to catch up and proved to be the turning point of the campaign.
Leaving Amelia Court House on April 5, the columns of Lee's army had traveled only a few miles before they found Union cavalry and infantry squarely across their line of retreat at Jetersville. Rather than attack the entrenched Federal position, Lee changed his plan. He would march his army west, around the Federals, and attempt to supply his troops at Farmville along the route of the South Side railroad.
The retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia was under constant Federal pressure. Union cavalry attacked the Confederate wagon train at Painesville destroying a large number of wagons. Tired from lack of sleep (Lee had ordered night marches to regain the day he lost) and hungry, the men began falling out of the column, or broke ranks searching for food. Mules and horses collapsed under their loads.
As the retreating columns became more ragged, gaps developed in the line of march. At Sailor's Creek (a few miles east of Farmville), Union cavalry exploited such a gap to block two Confederate corps under Lt. Generals Richard Anderson and Richard Ewell until the Union VI Corps arrived to crush them. Watching the debacle from a nearby hill, Lee exclaimed, "My God! Has the army been dissolved?"
Nearly 8,000 men and 8 generals were lost in one stroke either by death, capture, or wounds. The remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in Farmville on April 7 where rations awaited them. However, the Union forces followed so quickly that the Confederate cavalry had to make a stand in the streets of the town to allow their fellow troops to escape.
Blocked once again by Grant's army, Lee once more swung west hoping that he could be supplied farther down the rail line and then turn south. Just north of Farmville, Lee turned west onto the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. The Union 2nd and 6th Corps followed. Unknown to Lee, the Federal cavalry and the 5th, 24th, and 25th Corps were moving along shorter roads south of the Appomattox River to cut him off.
While in Farmville on April 7, Grant sent a letter to Lee asking for the surrender of his army. Lee, in the vicinity of Cumberland Church, received the letter and read it. He then handed it to one of his most trusted corps commanders—Lt. General James Longstreet who tersely replied, "Not yet."
As Lee continued his march westward he knew the desperate situation his army faced. If he could reach Appomattox Station before the Federal troops he could receive rations sent from Lynchburg and then make his way to Danville via Campbell Court House (Rustburg) and Pittsylvania County. If not, he would have no choice but to surrender.
On the afternoon of April 8, the Confederate columns halted a mile northeast of Appomattox Court House. That night, artillery fire could be heard from Appomattox Station, and the red glow from Union campfires foretold that the end was near. Federal cavalry and the Army of the James -- marching on shorter roads -- had blocked the way south and west.
Lee consulted with his generals and determined that one more attempt should be made to reach the railroad and escape. At dawn on April 9, General John B. Gordon's Corps attacked the Union cavalry blocking the stage road just west of the village. After initial success, Gordon sent word to Lee around 8:30 a.m. "...that my command has been fought to a frazzle, and unless Longstreet can unite in the movement, or prevent these forces from coming upon my rear, I cannot go forward."
Receiving the message, Lee replied, "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Last updated: February 25, 2016