From Richmond and Petersburg to Appomattox

Winter weather and its effect on a bad road system stymied Grant's steady probing westward toward the railroads through the war's last winter. The only major operation through that period unfolded on 5-7 February 1865 in the Battle of Hatcher's Run. Once again the Federals hoped to seize and hold the Boydton Plank Road; and once again they coveted the invaluable South Side Railroad, which ran just beyond the road. A strong Federal force moved into the area. It included II Corps, now under General Andrew A. Humphreys (long-time, much-admired corps commander Hancock had left the army), and Warren's V Corps returning to familiar ground.

On 5 February, Humphreys battered Confederates who had hurried out from Petersburg. The next day, further Southern units swarmed over Warren and inflicted serious damage, but without lasting results. On the 7th, Lee concluded that he could not evict the Federals from their new perch, so both sides once more went back to entrenching. This latest extension of the line left Lee with 35 miles (56km) to defend. About 1,500 Federals had fallen, and 1,000 Confederates.

General Pegram

General John B. Gordon entered service in 1861 without any military training or background whatsoever, but advanced steadily on merit until by the war's end he was among Lee's most important subordinates. Gordon designed and led the desperate attack on Fort Stedman on 25 March 1865. (Public domain)

Among the Southern casualties was General John Pegram. One contemporary remembered him fondly, if oddly as 'a delightful & artistic whistler.' The handsome young officer had been married in Richmond at St Paul's Church on 19 January to Hetty Cary, a widely admired belle - 'the most beautiful woman I ever saw in any land,' enthused a Confederate officer. Five days later John celebrated his thirty-second birthday. Two more weeks and he was back at St Paul's in a casket.

By mid-March, Lee's options had all but vanished. He accepted a desperate scheme hatched by the innovative General Gordon, back with the main army after leading the secret march at Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah valley. Gordon would marshal as many men as could be spared from the

Confederate General John Pegram married a young woman acclaimed as among the most beautiful in the South, then was killed a few days later at Hatcher's Run. (Public domain)

Hatcher Run

Federals stand in review as their defeated foemen march past at Appomattox, en route to surrendering their arms. (Painting by Don Troiani, www.historicalartprints.com)

attenuated lines and lead them in a late-night assault against the Federals at Fort Stedman, not far from the Crater and on precisely the ground where the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had been slaughtered the preceding June.

Careful planning and steady bravery brought Gordon initial success. Picked troops silently removed the defensive obstructions in front of the Confederate works opposite Stedman, then crawled up a ravine toward their enemy. Small detachments of volunteers silenced Federal pickets and deftly opened a corridor through the enemy obstacles near the fort. Storming parties followed and burst upon their surprised foe, capturing the fort and spreading down the line on either side. More Southern infantry followed, Gordon in their midst, to exploit the breakthrough.

A major Federal supply depot only a mile (1.6km) behind Fort Stedman must have seemed to some of the starving Confederates

Federals stand in review as their defeated foemen march past at Appomattox, en route to surrendering their arms. (Painting by Don Troiani, www.historicalartprints.com)

to be the quintessential prize. Daylight brought stunning reality, however, as Federals farther down the lines on both sides brought artillery to bear. By 8.00 am Yankees were swarming back toward Stedman. 'The whole field was blue with them,' a dismayed Southerner wrote. In the succinct summary of a disappointed North Carolinian, the fleeting success resembled a 'meteor's flash that illumines for a moment and [then] leaves the night darker than before.'

The Confederate horizon would darken even further during the next fortnight, then flicker out permanently. The advent of early spring gave Grant the chance to push west and southwest again. Lee obviously could not hold out much longer in Petersburg and Richmond, but the Federal commander feared that his wily adversary might find a way to slip away through the lines and head for North Carolina to join forces with another retreating Confederate army there.

Before Lee could attempt such a stratagem, his thinly manned lines snapped. Fighting by Union cavalry around Dinwiddie Court House on 31 March went well for Confederate General George E. Pickett, but to Lee's dismay Pickett fell back north to the invaluable Five Forks intersection on the White Oak Road. On 1 April, Pickett, ever the dilettante, played host at a fish fry. Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Tom Rosser joined him at what became infamous as 'The Shad Bake.' While the generals enjoyed the respite from winter's short rations, Warren's diligent V Corps crashed into the exposed Confederate left and completely shattered it. Instead of applauding Warren's coup, Sheridan, commanding on the field, relieved him from command and assumed the mantle of the hero of Five Forks.

With Five Forks in Unionist hands, there remained nothing to keep them from the long-sought South Side Railroad. The next morning Grant ordered attacks all along the line and ended the siege of Petersburg. Horatio Wright's VI Corps rolled through A. P. Hill's troops almost at will. In a random encounter in the woods, two Federal enlisted men met Hill, who ranked behind only Longstreet among Lee's subordinates, accompanied only by a courier. After a nervous exchange of challenges, one Yankee fired a bullet that went through Hill's thumb and into his heart.

Farther northeast, closer to Petersburg, a tiny Confederate detachment held desperately to Fort Gregg to buy time for Lee to knit together a new line, and for the Confederate government to evacuate Richmond. Fort Gregg's defenders counted only two Mississippi regiments, one section of Louisiana artillery, and a handful of artillerists pressed into service as infantry - perhaps 300 men in all. The entire fresh Federal XXIV Corps attacked across an open field against the small work. Although it seemed to one witness that the Federal flags created 'a solid line of bunting around the fort,' the

Southerners repulsed the first assault. Another fell back in confusion, leaving a bloody wake behind. Attacking Northerners wrote of 'withering fire' that 'mowed down our men most unmercifully.' Finally the defenders collapsed under an overwhelming assault from all sides. They had shot more than 700 Federals. Only a handful of unwounded Southerners survived to be captured.

The sacrificial stand in Fort Gregg bought Lee time to protect Petersburg by means of a hastily connected interior line, but that night he had to abandon the city that for so long had been a focus of military operations in Virginia. For six days, 3-8 April 1865, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia wove a weary trail westward, hoping against hope to find a means of escape. Federal detachments, both infantry and cavalry, darted in and out of the desperate Southern columns, snaring prisoners and disrupting the retreat. Lee hoped to find rations for his men near Amelia Court House and Farmville; there were none. On 6 April the last pitched battle of the war in Virginia broke out on the banks of Sayler's Creek. The fighting did not rage hot or long. Federals closing in from three sides captured about 8,000 men, including eight general officers. Lee fought off pursuit at Cumberland Church on 7 April and kept heading west.

On the night of 8 April, near Appomattox Court House, Lee found the enemy directly in his path as well as closing in from all sides. The next day he surrendered to Grant. The ceremony took place in the home of Wilmer McLean. By remarkable coincidence, four years earlier McLean had moved to Appomattox from his farm along Bull Run, to get away from the war that the Battle of Manassas had brought to his property. Not coincidentally, and entirely characteristically, Grant did not even invite Meade to the ceremony.

With four years of bloodshed at last ended in Virginia, other Confederate forces across the South faced imminent surrender. It now remained for Northerners to implement their hard-won victory, and for Southerners to find the means of sustenance in a destroyed country.

Portrait of a soldier

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