Almost the End – Appomattox


Richmond after the fire of April 1865, photo by Mathew Brady, National Archives.
Richmond after the fire of April 1865, photo by Mathew Brady, National Archives.

In late March of 1865, Grant threatens Lee’s supply line to Petersburg, meaning that Lee‘s army is now in danger of being enveloped and starved into submission. Lee characteristically chooses to go on the offensive. At about four in the morning on March 25th, Confederates masquerading as deserters surged out of the darkness before Fort Stedman. Follow-on troops overrun the fort and punch a hole in the Union lines 1000 feet wide. Lee’s ultimate objective is very ambitious – to seize and destroy the Federal supply depot at City Point. But then the attack slows and fizzles, the Yankee artillery pounding the captured fort until a counterattack pushes the Confederates back into their own lines. The breakout lasts just four hours.   Grant loses about 1000 men, Lee about 4000 – this at a time when Lee was already outnumbered about 125,000 to 50,000.

On March 31st Grant goes on the offensive. He severs Lee’s supply line on Boydton Plank Road. The attack cuts off about 10,000 Confederates at Five Forks under General Pickett. Sheridan pounces with cavalry, but his unsupported troopers cannot overcome Pickett’s veterans and are driven back at Dinwiddie Courthouse. But the next day Warren’s corps arrives with infantry and gets behind the Confederate line. It turns into a route. With the Petersburg line about to become enveloped, Lee reports to Jefferson Davis on April 2nd that he will abandon Petersburg and can no longer protect Richmond. The Confederate government evacuates; the final capital will be Danville, then wherever Jefferson Davis lays his head. On April 3rd, Union troops occupy Petersburg and Richmond. Ironically, the mayor actually begs the Yankees to occupy the city to put out the fires set by the retreating army, gutting the downtown area. On April 4th, Lincoln visits the White House of the Confederacy and is cheered by crowds of newly freed slaves. His security team consists of ten soldiers.

Confederate killed in April 2nd breakout at Petersburg, photo by Thomas C. Roche, Library of Congress.
Confederate killed in April 2nd breakout at Petersburg, photo by Thomas C. Roche, Library of Congress.

Lee’s last hope is to make it to Lynchburg, where forts and a supply depot await him. As his army marches towards Lynchburg, Sheridan’s cavalry gets in front of him, while he has the entire Army of the Potomac on his heels. On April 3rd, Custer’s cavalry clashes with Fitzhugh Lee’s rearguard at Namozine Church; Custer loses almost 100 men, but captures over 600 Confederates. On April 4th, there is fighting at Tabernacle Church and Amelia Courthouse. Yankee cavalry has occupied the train stations at Burkeville and Jetersville to deny Lee railway support. On April 5th, there is a skirmish at Amelia Springs following a Yankee raid burning Confederate supply wagons. On April 6th, Longstreet arrives at Rice’s Station to find the tracks blocked by cavalry. The pressure is continuous and relentless. The Yankee cavalry forged in the Gettysburg and Shenandoah campaigns is now being used with game-ending efficiency.

On April 6th, nearly a quarter of Lee’s army is cut off by Yankee cavalry and supporting infantry at Saylor’s Creek near Farmville; Lee loses 7,700 men in a day. As the survivors limp past Lee, he exclaims: “My God, has the army dissolved?” This will prove to be the last major engagement of the war.

On April 6 and 7th, retreating Confederates attempted to block the pursuit by burning the High Bridge over the Appomattox River. The rearguard action costs the Yankees over 800 men, but they put out the fire and cross, leaving Lee’s men no time to consume the rations waiting for them in Farmville. Later that afternoon there is a skirmish at Cumberland Church near Farmville; Lee won, making this his final victory, small though it was.

On April 4th, Lee had telegraphed the quartermaster at Lynchburg to send trains with supplies to Appomattox station. Wire-tapping Yankee cavalry intercept this message; they forward it to the Confederate quartermaster. Custer’s troopers are waiting at the station when four supply trains pull in on April 8th. Then Custer tears up the tracks so the trains cannot flee. At the same time, Lee’s advance units arrive at the station; they are forced to retreat after four hours, losing 25 precious artillery pieces. Then Custer burns three of the trains and shoots the Confederate wagon mules. Skirmishing continues around the village until dusk. But the Yankees now hold the high ground and are blocking Lee’s way to Lynchburg.

That night Lee meets with his remaining generals and determines to attempt a breakthrough the following morning, supposing that he is facing only a cavalry screen which can be brushed aside. What Lee does not know is the Federal line has been reinforced with infantry the same night. The next morning, Lee launches the attack. As expected, the first and second lines of cavalry are easily dispersed. But behind the cavalry at the crest of the ridge is a line of blue coated infantry. The road to Lynchburg is blocked. Checkmate – it is over for Lee. A mere week has passed since the breakout.

In the preceding week Grant had been in touch with Lee trying to convince him to lay down his arms. Now Lee sends a note to Grant as muskets are still popping that he would like a meeting to discuss terms. Grant lets Lee choose the place – the McLean house – and a cease-fire goes into effect. Lee shows up dressed in his best uniform; Grant’s is spattered with mud. The two men had known each other in the Mexican War and they make awkward small talk for a while. Then Lee comes to the point and the papers are signed. Federal generals bargain with McLean to purchase the furniture in the surrender room as souvenirs.   As Lee leaves the house, the Yankees begin to cheer. Grant shuts them down right away, explaining: “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

Grant’s terms are generous. The Confederate officers are allowed to retain their side-arms and horses; the men are allowed to carry off horses and mules for the spring planting. Lee and his generals are not arrested. Grant issues rations to the Confederates he has been starving for the last week. The dead are buried and the wounded cared for. Many units burn, bury or smuggle their colors rather than surrender them as trophies.

On April 10th Lee gives his farewell address; many Confederates are dumbfounded, unaware they are beaten. On April 12th, Lee’s army endures a formal surrender ceremony presided over by Union General Joshua Chamberlain. There are no cheers or jeers and each Confederate unit receives the salute of arms as they pass the Union ranks; they reciprocate, “honor answering honor.” By the end of the day 28,000 Confederates have stacked their arms. Grant’s grace and dignity are brilliant. Not only has he begun to reunite the nation as the vanquished are treated as “countrymen” versus POWs, but he makes surrender palatable for the remaining armies at a time when an endless guerilla war is a real possibility. The way Grant handles the armistice matters.

Even so, almost 200,000 Confederates remain under arms across the South and entire armies have yet to surrender – notably Joe Johnson’s in North Carolina. But the writing is on the wall and Johnson’s army of close to 100,000 lay down their arms on April 26th. Armies in Alabama and Louisiana surrender in May. The last army, that of Cherokee chief Stand Watie, holds out until June after winning the last engagement of the war at Palmito Ranch in May. The Shenandoah is at sea when the war ends and continues to raid Northern shipping until her captain turns her over to the British in November. Nathan Bedford Forrest pursues a guerrilla war of sorts with the Ku Klux Klan. The James and Younger boys, trained under Quantrill, string it out as a lifestyle until the gang is shot to pieces in Northfield, Minnesota in 1877. There is a group that meets down at the American Legion which has still not surrendered.

This month’s cover portrays the Confederate memorial at the intersection of Prince and Washington Streets. The statue’s name is “Appomattox.” The soldier’s back is forever turned on Washington. His arms are crossed in a posture conveying he is unlikely to change views anytime soon: Sic semper tyrannis.

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.    

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