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5) We Who Are Left: Fall of Petersburg

He [Hill] is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.
–Robert E. Lee


AMBROSE HILLWhile Southern congressmen ate peanuts, chewed tobacco, and held lofty debates about the philosophy of slavery in those first weeks of January, 1865, the blood-letting would go on. Since the two eastern armies had stalled in exhaustion before Petersburg, Grant had been muscling his way around Lee’s right to cut the three railroads by which Petersburg lived. The butcher’s bill had been dear enough, but by March only the Southside line stretching away to the west remained. Worse yet for Lee was the fact that in nearly eight months of siege Grant had compelled him to stretch his lines ever westward. They now ran in a huge arc, 55 miles long, stretching from Richmond to the Boydton Plank Road southwest of Petersburg. Manning these trenches were but 55,000 ragged riflemen, and that number was diminishing daily from the attrition of siege and the desertion of despairing Rebels. A New England soldier opposite Petersburg wrote his folks to say the “boys talk about Johnnies as at home we talk about suckers and eels. The boys will look around in the evening and guess that there will be a good run of Johnnies.” In February alone Lee lost very nearly a tenth of his army to desertion. Desertion was particularly heavy in North Carolina outfits whose mail brought pathetic news of the hardships wrought at home in the wake of Sherman’s march. Lee’s Invincibles had marched into Pennsylvania behind the screen of South Mountain back in ’63. Now Lee’s Miserables, worn veterans, boys, and old men, hung on somehow in half a hundred miles of muddy trench. Meanwhile, Grant’s army, wellfed and superbly fitted out, stood at 120,000 strong. Sheridan was already at hand and Sherman on the way with more than 80,000 as soon as he joined Schofield at Goldsboro. As in the Book of Daniel, the king of the North was coming like a whirlwind with chariots and horsemen and many ships.

“I mean to end the business here,” Grant said to Sheridan in March. Grant was determined on at least two resolves at this point. One was to see that the Army of the Potomac, having brought their old antagonist to bay, finally whipped him once and for all–and before Sherman’s Westerners could come up for a share in the kill. It was a point of prickly pride for this army that had fought with such tenacity and had been so very badly led so often. Grant’s second resolve was that Lee should on no account be allowed to slip his lines and join Johnston’s survivors in North Carolina for whatever desperate measure Lee might then devise. Although Lee’s line was stretched, as John B. Gordon put it, to “the mere skeleton of a line,” it was still unlikely that Grant, despite his weight in numbers, could break it by frontal assault. Lee, however, might just be able to break out and join Johnston for a fight that could turn Sherman back. Lee had predicted the inevitable end of his army last summer when Grant had swung to his left and got south of the James. If there were to be any staving off of the inevitable, it would have to be a fight that would rock Grant back on his heels long enough for the Army of Northern Virginia to make a run for it. The place Lee chose was Union Fort Stedman just east of Petersburg, and the man he chose to drive a corps through it was sturdy John B. Gordon. The attack began on the night of March 24 with a bit of sleight-of-hand. Gordon sent a wave of men posing, convincingly enough, as deserters out to Stedman’s picket line, where Union men welcomed them with the easy cordiality of pickets–only to find themselves suddenly seized by this run of turn-coat turncoats. An hour before dawn on the 25th Gordon drove his divisions into and over Fort Stedman, capturing a half-mile of Union trench on either side and pushing on toward the Federal supporting trench in the rear. Break that, and the Rebels would force Grant to pull his left back to restore the breach. Success here east of the city should be enough to open an avenue of escape to the west. But the forts on either side of Stedman were fiercely defended in fighting that was hand-to-hand at times, and their fire tore at the flanks of the Confederate advance. Out in front, Union reserves stalled the drive toward their second line, and when the Federal counterattack came, it came down hard. The Rebels who had seized Stedman now found it intolerably hot. By eight o’clock the attack was broken and the Confederates who had come very close to a breakthrough were now casualties or captives or running for their own lines as best they could. Lee lost some 5,000 men and a stretch of his trench opposite Stedman. Grant, who had last been surprised on the bloody ground near Shiloh Church, lost just 2,000 in this surprise attack. This was another unintended consequence of the long struggle. It had given a grim new cast to the adjective ‘just.’

Now Grant meant to end the business for good and all–’now’ meaning as soon as the relentless rain would quit and make the roads passable. The rain never really quit, but Grant moved anyway. On March 29 he sent Sheridan’s cavalry and an infantry corps slogging after them through the muck toward Dinwiddie Courthouse, some dozen miles southwest of Petersburg on the Boydton Plank Road. From that place, they were to turn northwest and seize the little crossroads town of Five Forks. From Five Forks it was just a quick march north to the Southside railroad. Break that line, and Lee must fight or run, and either way the end was at hand. In fact, all Grant really needed to do was turn Lee’s right at last and the railroad itself meant nothing. This Lee knew as well as Grant and meant to hold Five Forks as surely as Grant meant to seize it. But the power Grant could generate out on Lee’s flank would be merciless. Winding up for a sweeping left hook, he sent Sheridan’s confident and capable troopers to lead the way, a corps behind them, and a second blue corps following in its muddy wake. When everybody was up, there would be 50,000 Federals west of Hatcher’s Run. The right-hand that must counter this blow was virtually all Lee could spare for the purpose. Stretching his lines as far west as Five Forks was out of the question. Lee sent George Pickett with a reinforced division and virtually all the played-out Confederate cavalry to that place. Some 6,500 riflemen and 5,500 horsemen were charged with holding what was virtually the right flank of the Confederacy itself. These were nearly four miles from their left-most comrades.

Lee was Lee to the last. Rather than wait to be struck, he chose to do the striking. On March 30 he ordered Pickett and the cavalry to drive Sheridan’s advance on Five Forks back. The next day, the last wet day of March, the infantrymen, with Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers helping out, pitched into Sheridan’s command and pushed it back on Dinwiddie. But the firepower of Sheridan’s Spencers was enough to stall the attack just short of the town. At the same time on Sheridan’s right Warren’s corps was reaching across the Boydton Plank Road feeling for the Rebel line in front of Hatcher’s Run with Humphreys’ corps shadowing Warren’s right. They found Rebels easily enough. Dick Anderson’s men with reinforcements from A. P. Hill caught Warren’s corps strung out and used the V Corps badly. Humphreys’ men fared a little better but were turned back just the same. Satisfied that he had blunted the Federal threat to Lee’s right, Pickett fell back himself on Five Forks in the darkness before dawn on April 1. Sheridan, however, was not satisfied that Pickett had blunted anything. Nor was Lee when word of the repulse reached him. Not only did Sheridan hold Dinwiddie, the jumping-off point for Five Forks, but he was also in possession of the crossing of Stony Creek to the south, by which supplies from the Carolinas might reach Pickett. More than that, Sheridan was hugging close enough to the White Oak Road to Pickett’s east to obstruct either supply or reinforcement that might come from that quarter. In short, Pickett and his comrades were in worse straights after their March 31 attack than before.

As the rain continued to fall, turning the Virginia clay to a sucking soup that could swallow up a horse or mule, both commanders considered their next move. Lee was pondering evacuation, as he had for some time now, fearing the likelihood of being broken at Petersburg and Richmond both. He now told Jefferson Davis to plan for the calamity he had long foretold. We are obliged, he said, “to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.” Grant for the moment was inclined to hesitate, bearing in mind the immense difficulty of supplying the strike force on his left with the food, forage, and ammunition it would need to press on. The roads to his left had become glutinous rivers in the everlasting rain, provoking sodden privates to wonder when the gunboats would arrive. He was in fact ready to call Sheridan off and wait for weather to give him better ground. But Sheridan was not to be called off, any more than on that October day when he had ridden out from Winchester to turn his fugitives back to Cedar Creek to crush Jubal Early. Now he slurped and slopped his way on horseback to Grant’s headquarters just west of the leftmost of the Federal lines near Armstrong’s Mill. Little Phil didn’t care a damn about food or forage or flood. Dripping and fuming, he insisted to any and all: “I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.” The man he had to convince was U. S. Grant, commander of a million soldiers, who was least likely of all men to seek counsel of any man. But just now the fierce Irish voice was persuasive enough. Rain or no rain, Sheridan had his leave to smash things.

The thing he first intended to smash was right in front of him–Pickett’s division. To do the smashing he had all his own cavalry, not quite 15,000 troopers and by mid-day of April 1, when they at last came slogging up after a miserable night march, all 16,000 men of Warren’s V Corps. Warren was, by Grant’s direct order, under Sheridan’s command. (Both Grant and Sheridan had long cultivated a mistrust of this general who had helped save the Army of the Potomac on Gettysburg’s second day.) Pickett was drawn up behind the White Oak Road at Five Forks, five brigades strong, cavalry covering both flanks. His orders from Lee were uncompromising: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards.” Directly in the center of his line, Ford Road ran due north to Ford Depot on the Southside line. To break this line, Sheridan intended to drive his troopers northwest from Dinwiddie and strike Pickett square in front. While dismounted cavalry held Pickett’s front, Warren was to strike his left flank, one division hard on the short stretch of Rebel line where it turned north to confront trouble from the east, two more wheeling around the first and driving directly into Pickett’s rear. As far as Sheridan was concerned, Pickett’s division would be out of the war for good by nightfall. Warren, however, was torturously and maddeningly slow getting in position on Sheridan’s right. It was 4:00 before Warren was ready and Sheridan’s men had already been engaged in front for some time. Sheridan’s wrath was rising as fast as the sun was setting. But at last, a little after four, Warren’s three divisions went forward to fall on Pickett’s Flank.

Warren, however, seems to have exhausted all his luck at Gettysburg. Sheridan had told him that Pickett’s left was opposite the little road that ran to Gravelly Church; in fact, it was a half-mile west of that place. Romeyn Ayres, in command of Warren’s left-most division, crossed the White Oak Road, saw the miscalculation, and turned his brigades smartly to the west, headed for the Rebel flank. Sam Crawford’s division, however, continued to trudge groggily north, striking nothing but air and drawing the third, Charles Griffin’s, in behind it. Two-thirds of the corps that was supposed to crush Pickett’s rear were moving farther from the battle with every step they took. Warren saw the trouble quickly enough and galloped after Griffin, got him turned west, and then went on after Crawford. In the meantime, Ayres’s men, who had struck alone, were taking a bloody beating from the Confederate guns on that north-running stretch of Pickett’s flank. Now Sheridan galloped to the right on that big black horse to get the stalled attack there in motion again. As at Cedar Creek, he brought something electric with him when he rode into a battle. Ayres’s men went forward once more, convinced by Sheridan that the Rebels were ready to run. At very nearly the same time the first of Griffin’s brigades reached the Rebel flank and overlapped it. There wasn’t much daylight left, but the moment of crisis was at hand for Pickett’s division. Their unlucky commander, however, was not. He was enjoying a shad bake in his rear with two of his cavalry chiefs. Sheridan continued to keep up the pressure as he fed the fight with fresh brigades coming up. Then suddenly the way to the end of the war was open: the attack drove home and Pickett’s division collapsed. At the angle, a thousand surrendered at once. Sheridan rode among them in triumph, grinning and directing traffic: “Go right over there… Drop your guns; you’ll never need them anymore… Are there any more of you? We want every one of you fellows.”


When the last of Pickett’s fellows were scooped up in the dark, they numbered some 5,000. The day before, Sheridan had resolved that “not a man in [Pickett’s division] should ever be allowed to get back to Lee.” He had come about as close as he could come to accomplishing just that. Certainly, the division was finished as an organized fighting force. The next morning Picket would number fewer than 2,000 muskets. Sheridan in fact used thousands of Confederate muskets to corduroy the bottomless roads. Pickett had returned from his shad bake in time to witness for the second time the wreckage of a division under his command. That other unlucky Gettysburg hero, Gouverneur K. Warren, lost his command this day as well. He had failed to act crisply and capably enough to please Sheridan, and Little Phil sent him the sharpest of rebukes: “By God, sir,” he told one of Warren’s staffers, “tell General Warren he wasn’t in that fight.” Then he relieved him. It wasn’t fair, and much later–fourteen years later–a court of inquiry found so. Warren’s corps had had a confused and wearing fight on March 31 and an exhausting march in the mud following bad maps that night. They had arrived at Five Forks the next day in time to be thrown into another battle. It was not to be wondered that they acted groggily. Then too Crawford’s misdirection had something to do with Sheridan’s misinformation. Most important, Warren had managed finally to get his wayward divisions turned around to win a smashing victory for Sheridan. But all that would mean nothing to Warren’s fate this day. What Sheridan ordered in hot haste stayed ordered. Nor would that later day of vindication mean anything to Warren, as it happened; he had been some months in the grave when he was finally acquitted of negligence.

Another order delivered in hot haste Sheridan reconsidered with a cooler head in the gathering darkness. His first impulse was, as ever, to drive on, striking for the crucial Southside line. In the last light of day he had instructed Griffin–now commanding the V Corps–to press on to the railroad as long as he could see his hand before his face. Then, considering the impediment of 5,000 prisoners, his own victorious disorder, and the possibility of counterattack against his own isolated position, he thought better of an offensive just then. The railroad would be there in the morning, but the division charged with its defense were now fugitives or prisoners. When the news of Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks reached Grant at his headquarters, it was of course the occasion of much cheering, backslapping and hat-tossing. Except on the part of the commander himself. He sat smoking the inevitable cigar and wearing his inevitable expression, that is to say, none in particular. He looked, one observer thought, as expressionless as last year’s bird nest. He went into his tent, drafted orders, and came out sometime later to offer: “I have ordered an immediate assault all along the lines.”

All winter Robert E. Lee had been doing the grim arithmetic of the Army of Northern Virginia. As reports drifted in from his shattered right in the dark, the numbers got grimmer. In eight days–from Fort Stedman to Five Forks–nearly a quarter of his army was lost. Now Grant intended to overwhelm what remained with massive pressure at every point. As night drew on toward dawn on the Petersburg front, the Federals commenced an artillery barrage with every gun from the Appomattox River to Hatcher’s Run, shaking the earth and lighting the wet gloom with fitful fire. Ignorant of what had happened out on their far left, the Federals opposite the Petersburg works could only suppose that the artillery fury was another evil omen. Sam Grant was about to throw them headlong against Rebel works again. As bitter experience had taught them, they wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their coats that the home folks might know that their son had found a shallow grave in Virginia. John Parke’s IX Corps was to strike John B. Gordon’s line on the Federal right; Wright’s VI would pitch into Powell Hill’s lines opposite Confederate Fort Gregg; Hancock’s old II Corps, now under E. O. C. Ord, would come up to the left of the VI Corps in readiness to strike wherever Wright pried a stretch of Rebel line loose.

In the grey light of dawn on April 2, the guns of the bombardment fell silent and the 14,000 men of Wright’s VI Corps stepped off across the boggy ground in lines of battle a half-mile wide. First came the popping of the Rebel skirmishers driven back on the main line, then the steady rattle of rifle fire and the booming of cannon from the works. On came the bluecoats, details of axemen hacking openings in the abatis. The Yankees were running to close once more with their old antagonists. It was hand-to-hand now, the furious business of bayonets and clubbed muskets. Then it was full day and it was over, at least for this sector. The VI Corps had punched a half-mile hole in Lee’s line. Winded Yankees used the last of their breath to lift cheer after cheer. On Wright’s left, Ord had broken through likewise, wrecking Hill’s corps into so many fragments and driving them northward in rout. “Then and there,” a New England soldier wrote home, “the long-tried and ever faithful soldiers of the Republic saw daylight!” Now elements of two blue corps were across the Southside railroad and headed for the banks of the Appomattox beyond that. A. P. Hill with a single courier was riding to Lee with news of the breakthrough when he encountered a squad of these advancing Yankees in a patch of woods. The two bluecoats nearest slipped behind a tree and leveled their muskets. Lieutenant General Hill and Sergeant George Tucker pulled their revolvers and demanded their surrender. The Yankees fired instead. A moment later Little Powell was dead with a Minie ball through his heart. When news of Hill’s death reached Lee, tears welled up in his eyes. A. P. Hill in his red battle shirt would come up no more. “He is at rest now,” said Lee, “and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” The Army of Northern Virginia had just seven days more to suffer.

All Lee might reasonably hope for at this point was to hold Fort Gregg and the line of inner works long enough to get his army started west from the two toppling cities. “It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen,” Lee told an aide. “The line has been stretched until it is broken.” He sent now to Jefferson Davis with the direful news. Davis, at Episcopal services this Sunday at St. Paul’s in Richmond, was handed a note by a sexton. Its contents brought a “gray pallor” to his face, said a woman in a nearby pew. “My lines are broken in three places,” it read. “Richmond must be evacuated.” Davis rushed to organize the government’s flight to Danville to the south. Loaded on freight cars marked “War Department,” “Treasury Department,” and so forth was the executive branch of the government of the Confederate States of America. Davis and his cabinet left the city on the last train as retreating Rebels were blowing up Richmond’s arsenals and sinking what remained of the Confederate navy. All that the government had left to provide in the way of leadership were some brave speeches sadly marred by their air of utter unreality. To this end the Confederacy had come at last: brave speeches and a burning capital. Less than two days after Davis left his desk, Abraham Lincoln, waking from a four-year nightmare, would sit at it and brood a moment about that “horrid dream.”