Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Dates: 1-9 April, 1865

Union: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander-in-Chief of the Union Armies, and Major General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: For the past nine months, the Army of the Potomac had kept the Army of Northern Virginia pinned in the city of Petersburg, forcing them to endure siege conditions as the Federals extended their lines to the west, cutting rail lines as they went. The object was not only the rail lines, but also the over extension of the Confederate lines to the point of where it could be broken.

Grant had time on his side, with millions of tons of supplies stockpiled at City Point, a small river port on the James River where he made his headquarters, as well as being able to draw on manpower reserves to keep the Army of the Potomac well manned. Despite several setbacks such as the Battle of the Crater (30 July, 1864) and difficulties encountered in extending his lines, Grant felt that the time was fast approaching for the final act in a war that has cost the nation 650,000 lives on both sides.

Lee, on the other hand, knew that time was running out. He was in charge of a defensive line stretching from the Confederate capital of Richmond south to Petersburg. Supplies are short and getting shorter by the day, some of his men have resorted to picking out undigested corn from horse droppings in order to eat that day. Others have had enough of the war and deserted. As April 1865 approached, Lee commands fewer than 50,000 men. He faces a Union army of 125,000.

If Lee has any hope of continuing the fight, he must get his army out of the area and hopefully join with General Joseph Johnston’s army, presently in North Carolina and facing the onslaught of Major General William Sherman’s forces. The only other Confederate army in the field was General Edmund “Kirby” Smith’s army in the Trans-Mississippi, but they were too far away to be of any help. Lee decides to make what would be one last attempt to break through the Federal lines and escape.

March 25, 1865: A small group of Confederate soldiers approach Fort Steadman, a Union strong point. A Federal sentry spots them:

“Halt, who goes there?”

“Don’t mind us, Yank. We just gathering some corn. Food is mighty scarce here.”

“Go ahead, we won’t shoot you while you are drawing your rations.”

The Confederates were actually clearing away obstacles for three divisions led by General John Gordon. As dawn began to approach, Gordon’s troops assaulted the fort, seizing it and clearing a space 1000 yards wide. Federal troops on both sides of the gap were able to close the gap and retake the fort after sunrise. Gordon was forced to withdraw.

After recovering Fort Steadman, Grant decides that it’s time to extend his lines further. He decides to seize the road junction of Five Forks, which would deny Lee any easy chance for escape.

Lee also felt that five Forks was important, he sends a division under Major General George Picket and cavalry led by his nephew, Major General Fitzhugh Lee to secure the cross roads.

March 27, 1865: As Grant is preparing his next move, he attends a meeting aboard the steamer River Queen with President Abraham Lincoln, Admiral David Porter, and Sherman in attendance. The main discussion was the terms that would be given to the Confederates when they surrendered. Lincoln favored a softer approach than the more radical members of the Republican Party wanted. All three military leaders were in agreement.

In order to carry out the plan to extend his lines, Grant selected V Corps, under Major General Gouverneur Warren, II Corps under Major General Andrew Humphreys, who replaced Major General Winfield Hancock when the wound he suffered at Gettysburg developed complications, and a cavalry detachment led by Major General Philip Sheridan to seize Five Forks.

30 March, 1865: II and V Corps head west to Five Forks, hitting the confederate line at Hatcher’s Run and Gravelly Run. They are delayed by heavy rains. Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt reached Five Forks but is halted by a line of Confederate entrenchments.

31 March 1865: Another group of Sheridan’s cavalry is repulsed at Dinwiddie Court House but Pickett’s troops are forced to pull back as Federal infantry begin to arrive. Pickett falls back on Five Forks but the main confederate line is now beyond the breaking point.

1 April 1865: Five Forks, VA. Sheridan’s cavalry is positioned on the left and V Corps is on the right as the Federal force approaches the cross roads. Pickett has his forces spread out on the White Oak Road, running east and west from Five Forks. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry was placed on the Confederate right. The thing was, both commanders were not there. They were three miles back having a shad bake alongside a creek when the battle started!

Sheridan hits the Confederate center and left while V Corps was to swing around and hit the Confederate left. Problem was Warren was perceived to be taking his time doing it. Sheridan was given total command over the force earlier by Grant, even authority to relieve corps commanders if necessary. Sheridan ordered V Corps to move forward, relying on officers like Major General Joshua Chamberlain, once the commander of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg and now a division commander, and smash the Confederate left. As success was being realized, Sheridan yelling “By God, tell Warren he was not in the fight!”

As Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were returning from their lunch, they finally heard the sounds of the battle. It is believed that the site of the shad bake was in an acoustic shadow, which masked the sounds from three miles away, but the battle was probably heard in Petersburg. The commanders raced to their lines to rally their men, but it was too late. The Confederate line collapsed and 5000 men were killed, wounded, or captured.

Later on that day, Sheridan relieved Warren of command of V Corps, replacing him with Major General Charles Griffin. Warren demanded a court of inquiry in order to clear his name. That court would clear his name, but Warren dies before the verdict.

Grant has his wish, Lee is now in a box with no easy way out to the south. The time has come for a general assault.

2 April, 1865: Dawn: Grant launches his assault with a heavy artillery bombardment, followed by infantry. Grant’s strategy has worked, the overstretched Confederate lines are shattered. During the battle, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, one of Lee’s corps commanders is killed during the frantic defense.

Lee has no choice, he orders a general evacuation to Amelia Court House, 40 miles to the west. He then pens a letter to President Jefferson Davis.

Davis was attending church services when a messenger arrives with the letter from Lee. Not only is Lee abandoning his lines, but strongly recommends the evacuation of the Confederate Government. Davis leaves the church and rushes to the Executive Mansion. Richmond is thrown into a panic as government departments begin packing everything they could and destroying everything they could not take.

The James River Squadron, a naval force under the command of Admiral Raphael Semmes, once commander of CSS Alabama, is destroyed and the sailors became infantry, supported by cadets from the CS Naval Academy.

Supplies were put to the torch, causing huge explosions as ammunition reserves were affected. Fires swept the riverfront, aided by drunken mobs. The area is to this day known as “The Burnt District.”

The remnants of the Confederate Government boarded the last train to leave Richmond, headed for Danville, VA as the last troops fled west to join up with Lee.

That evening Petersburg is occupied by Federal troops.
3 April, 1865: Federal troops enter Richmond and raise the US flag over the state capital for the first time since 1861. It is noted that the first troops to enter the city were African-American soldiers. But the war continues.

4 April, 1865: Grant begins his pursuit of Lee, but decides not to bring about a general attack, instead moving his troops parallel so Lee cannot turn south.

Lee reaches Amelia Court House and finds a supply train waiting. He had ordered rations sent from Richmond before the city’s fall. Somehow the message was misinterpreted, for the train did not hold food, but ammunition and horse equipment. Lee orders the surrounding area searched for food, but there is no more to be had. This delay loses any advantage that Lee had.

5 April, 1865: Lee orders his army to turn to the south, but finds the way blocked by Federals. Movement resumes to the west, this time to Farmville. The lack of food and sleep is taking their toll on the fleeing Confederates, who are dropping out in bunches, either heading to their homes or getting picked up by Federal cavalry patrols.

6 April 1865: As the army of Northern Virginia approaches Farmville, the rearguard of that army, the corps of Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell and Richard Anderson are cut off at Saylers Creek and captured. This leaves the corps of Lieutenant General James Longstreet and the cavalry left. They reach Farmville to find rations.

Grant decides to press in.

7 April 1865: Grant launched an attack on Lee’s shrinking army at Farmville. Using cavalry as a blocking force, Lee manages to pull his infantry out and on to the road to the next rail station, Appomattox Court House.

Grant pens a letter to Lee:

General R. E. Lee, Commander Confederate States Armies,

General- the result 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 is 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 C.S. army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Lieut-Gen. commanding Armies of the U. States

The message was sent to Lee via a truce rider. He reads it, hands it over to Longstreet who also reads it. Longstreet mutters, “Not yet.”

Lee then pens an answer;

To: Lieut-Gen U.S. Grant, Commanding Armies of the United States:

General- I have received your note of this date. Though not entirely of the opinion you express of the hopelessness on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer, on condition of its surrender.

R.E. LEE, General

It is during this time that a fateful decision was made. Several of Lee’s officers expressed the opinion that the army should be disbanded into smaller groups, fade into the mountains and try to reach Johnston in North Carolina. Failing that, the plan would be to stay in the mountains and carry on the war from there. Lee thought about and saw total bitterness and strife for the next 100 years. He said no.

Lee’s answer reached Grant but he was down with a migraine headache, so an answer was not available right away.

8 April, 1865: The Army of Northern Virginia reached Appomattox Court House.

The plan was to push through to Lynchburg, further west, then turn south. There was just one problem, Sheridan had managed to get past Lee and blocked the westward road.

Another message arrives from Grant:

General R. E. Lee, Commander Confederate States Armies,

General: Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions 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 first desire, there is but one condition that I insist upon, viz:
That the men surrendered shall de disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged.
I will meet you, or 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.

Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Lieut-Gen. commanding Armies of the U. States

Lee was planning for one last try at breaking out to the west. He was nor ready to surrender just yet.

To: Lieut-Gen U.S. Grant, Commanding Armies of the United States:

General- I received at a late hour your note of today, in answer to mine of yesterday. I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender. But as the restoration of peace should be the sole subject of all, I desire to know whether your proposals would tend to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but so far as your proposition may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and lead to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m. tomorrow, on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket lines of the two armies.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. LEE, General, Confederate States Armies.

9 April, 1865: Lee orders Gordon to hit the Federal cavalry screen to the west. The attack is successful until additional Union infantry arrives in support. Add to that the presence of II Corps in Lee’s rear area and the reality of the situation finally hit home. The Army of Northern Virginia was no longer capable of fighting. They were surrounded and Grant had all the time in the world to wait.

Another rider under a flag of truce arrives with a message from Grant:

General R. E. Lee, Commander Confederate States Armies,

Your note of yesterday is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace, the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. today could lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself; and the whole North entertain the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed.
Sincerely hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself,

Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,

U.S. GRANT, Lieut-Gen. U.S.A.

After reading the letter and receiving reports about the position of the Federal forces (and noting that they were fully surrounded, Lee said, “I have no choice but to go see General Grant, but I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

White flags were ordered raised along the Confederate line and another message was sent;

General:- I received your note of this morning on the picket line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposition of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army.
I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. LEE, General, Confederate States Armies.

To: Lieut-Gen. Grant, Commanding U.S. Armies.

When that letter was received, it was said that Grant’s migraine headache disappeared.

Quickly the order went out for all of his forces to freeze in place, but to be on the alert to resume action. Meanwhile, there was a search for a place to hold the talks. Finally the home of Wilbur McLean was selected. McLean was a sugar merchant who had lived near Manassas Junction in 1861. following the battle, he moved his family out to Appomattox Court House in order to remain away from the fighting. Now, the beginning of the end of the Civil War was about to take place in his parlor.

At about midday the two sides finally met. Lee wore a brand new dress uniform with a jeweled sword. Grant, having lost his baggage, came in his usual privates sack coat with shoulder straps noting his rank and trousers stained with mud. They chatted briefly about their experiences in the Mexican War until Lee gave a reminder of the reason for the meeting. The following was agreed:

The Commander of United States Armies will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia with these terms:

1. Rosters of the surrendering army will be made for the use of the officers designated to conduct the surrender.

2. All officers and men will sign paroles, promising not to take up arms until exchanged for a Union soldier still in a prisoner of war camp.

3. All public property (muskets, cannon, equipment, flags, etc.) will be turned over to Union officers designated to receive them. Side arms and baggage of officers were exempt. Also agreed was that any horses and mules claimed as farm animals could also be taken.

Copies of the terms were drawn up and signed by both sides. Grant orders 25,000 rations sent to the former enemy. The formal surrender is set for the 12th.

As Lee left, Grant and his entire staff saluted Lee as he rode Traveler back to his army. As he arrived, he told his troops, “Go to your homes and resume your occupations. Obey the laws and become as good citizens as you were soldiers.”

As word of the surrender spread throughout the Union encampment, cannon were being fired in celebration. Grant immediately ordered it stopped, stating that the Confederates “are our countrymen once again” and did not want to compound their defeat.

10 April, 1865: Lee issues the last order he will write, General Order No. 9:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, April 10, 1865

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them, but holding that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would attend to the continuation of this contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past vigor has endeared them to their countrymen.
By the terms of agreement officers and men cam return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend you his blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R.E. LEE, General

12 April, 1865: During the formal surrender, as cannon were being parked, muskets stacked, and flags furled, the division of Lieutenant General John Gordon was marching to where they would give up their arms. They were passing a formation of Union troops commanded by one of the officers handling the surrender. Major General Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain quickly orders his troops to attention and then to order arms, raising their muskets in salute to their former enemy. Gordon notices this and shouts, “smarten up boys, the Yankees are saluting our flag.” Gordon then lowers his sword in returning the salute.

After all of the formalities were completed, each man was given a parole slip and then were free to go. The Army of Northern Virginia has passed into history.

This did not end the civil war, even though the largest Confederate army was out of the fight. Two armies were still in the field and the remains of the Confederate Government were fleeing south.

It would be weeks before the war was finally at an end.

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