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Chapter 42: Petersburg.

  • The fierce concerted assault by the Federals
  • -- death of A. P. Hill -- General Lee announces to Richmond authorities that he must retreat -- reception of the news by President Davis at Church service -- Federals take forts Gregg and Whitworth -- the retreat harassed by continuous fighting -- Longstreet saves high Bridge, a vital point -- Ewell and others compelled to surrender -- General Mahone's account of interesting scenes -- magnitude of the disaster-“is the army dissolving?” -- General Reed mortally wounded -- panic occurs, but order is restored -- General Gregg and part of his cavalry command captured by Rosser and Mumford.

The darkness of night still covered us when we crossed over James River by the pontoon bridge, but before long land and water batteries lifted their bombs over their lazy curves, screaming shells came through the freighted night to light our ride, and signal sky-rockets gave momentary illumination. Our noble beasts peered through the loaded air and sniffed the coming battle; night-birds fluttered from their startled cover, and the solid pounding upon Mahone's defensive walls drove the foxes from their lairs. If tears and prayers could have put out the light it would not have passed Petersburg,--but it passed by twenty miles. A hundred guns and more added their lightning and thunder to the storm of war that carried consternation to thousands of long-apprehensive people.

The cause was lost, but the end was not yet. The noble Army of Northern Virginia, once, twice conqueror of empire, must bite the dust before its formidable adversary.

The impulse was to stop and guard Mahone, but some of his men had been called to assist in guarding elsewhere, which, with our imperative orders, admonished us that he must be left to his fate, and Weitzel's fire upon the lines we had just left told of his orders to be prepared [604] for the grand enveloping charge. But the order for Weitzel's part in the general charge was afterwards suspended until enough troops could be sent to assure success. Had General Grant known that Field's division was withdrawn during the night, Weitzel's assault would have gone in the general move of the morning of the 2d, and Richmond, with the Confederate authorities, would have been taken before noon.

As morning approached the combat was heavier. The rolling thunder of the heavy metal reverberated along the line, and its bursting blaze spread afar to light the doom of the army once so proud to meet the foe,--matchless Army of Northern Virginia!

General Grant had ordered assault for four o'clock, but it was near five before there was light enough for the men to see their way across the line and over the works. Our night-ride was beyond range of the enemy's batteries. Crossing the Appomattox, we rode through the streets of Petersburg for General Lee's Headquarters, some miles farther west. As no part of the command had reached the station when we passed, orders were left for the detachments to march as soon as they landed.

Before the first rays of morning we found general headquarters. Some members of the staff were up and dressed, but the general was yet on his couch. When told of my presence, he called me to a seat at his bedside, and gave orders for our march to support the broken forces about Five Forks. He had no censure for any one, but mentioned the great numbers of the enemy and the superior repeating rifles of his cavalry. He was ill, suffering from the rheumatic ailment that he had been afflicted with for years, but keener trouble of mind made him in a measure superior to the shooting pains of his disease.

From the line gained by the Sixth Corps on the 25th it was a run of but two or three minutes across to the Confederate works. [605]

At 4.45, General Wright advanced as the signal for general assault. General Lee was not through with his instructions for our march when a staff-officer came in and reported that the lines in front of his Headquarters were broken. Drawing his wrapper about him, he walked with me to the front door and saw, as far as the eye could cover the field, a line of skirmishers in quiet march towards us. It was hardly light enough to distinguish the blue from the gray.

General Wright drove in our picket line, and in desperate charges crowned the Confederate works. General Gibbon followed the move with his divisions of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Corps, one of his brigades (Harris's) carrying part of the Confederate works. The troops, weary of their all-night watch and early battle, halted to close their ranks and wait for the skirmish line to open up the field. General Lee appealed to have me interpose and stop the march, but not a man of my command was there, nor had we notice that any of them had reached the station at Petersburg.

All staff-officers mounted and rode to find the parts of Heth's and Wilcox's divisions that had been forced from their lines. The display of officers riding in many directions seemed to admonish the skirmishers to delay under cover of an intervening swale. The alarm reached General A. P. Hill, of the Third Corps, who rode off to find his troops, but instead came suddenly upon the enemy's skirmishers in their concealment. He wheeled and made a dash to escape, but the Federal fire had deadly effect, the gallant general fell, and the Southern service lost a sword made bright by brave work upon many heavy fields.

General Humphreys, of the Second, followed the move of the Sixth Corps, and General Parke assaulted on the Bermuda Hundred front and at Petersburg. He had partial success at the former, but was repulsed when he [606] met Mahone's strong line. At Petersburg he had more success, capturing twelve guns.

General Sheridan, reinforced by Miles's division, was ordered to follow up his work on the right bank. The reinforcements sent under Lieutenant-General Anderson joined General Pickett at night of the 1st, and the combined forces succeeded in getting out of the way of the Union infantry, and they gave the cavalry a severe trial a little before night at Amazon Creek, where the pursuit rested; but the Union forces made some important captures of artillery and prisoners. The divisions of Heth and Wilcox moved to the right and left to collect their broken files. General Wright wheeled to the right and massed the Sixth Corps for its march to Petersburg, and was joined by General Gibbon.

Not venturing to hope, I looked towards Petersburg and saw General Benning, with his Rock brigade, winding in rapid march around the near hill. He had but six hundred of his men. I asked for two hundred, and led them off to the canal on our right, which was a weak point, threatened by a small body of skirmishers, and ordered the balance of his troops deployed as skirmishers in front of the enemy's main force.

I rode then to Benning's line of skirmishers, and at the middle point turned and rode at a walk to the top of the hill, took out my glasses, and had a careful view of the enemy's formidable masses. I thought I recognized General Gibbon, and raised my hat, but he was busy and did not see me. There were two forts at our line of works,--Gregg and Whitworth. General Grant rode over the captured works and ordered the forts taken. Upon withdrawing my glasses I looked to the right and left, and saw Benning's four hundred standing in even line with me, viewing the masses preparing for their march to meet us.

During a few moments of quiet, General Lee despatched [607] to Richmond of affairs at Petersburg, and to advise that our troops must abandon their lines and march in retreat as soon as night could cover the move.

It was eleven o'clock of the morning when the despatch reached Richmond. It was the Sabbath-day. The city was at profound worship. The President was at St. Paul's Church. My wife was there (rest her spirit!) and heard the pastor, Mr. Minnegerode, read, “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” The full congregation rose, and the air whispered silence. The solemnity was broken as a swift despatch-bearer entered the portals and walked with quiet but rapid steps up the aisle to the chancel. He handed the President a sealed envelope. After reading, the President took his hat and walked with dignity down the aisle. Service was resumed, but presently came another messenger for some of the ladies, then another, and still another, and in a few moments the congregation, followed by the minister, giving up the sacred service, passed out and to their homes to prepare, in silent resignation, for whatever was to come.

The tragic scenes of the south side, in a different way, were as impressive as these. General Gibbon prepared his divisions under Foster and Turner for assault upon Forts Gregg and Whitworth, and when the Sixth Corps lined up with him, he ordered the divisions to their work. As they advanced the other brigades of Field's division came up, were aligned before the enemy's heavy massing forces, and ordered to intrench. General Foster found his work at Fort Gregg called for all the force and skill that he could apply. He made desperate assault, but was checked, and charged again and again, even to the bayonet, before he could mount the parapets and claim the fort. It had been manned by part of Harris's brigade (Twelfth Mississippi Regiment, under Captain J. H. Duncan, three hundred men of Mahone's division). Fifty-five dead [608] were found in the fort; two hundred and fifty, including wounded, were prisoners.

General Turner attacked at Fort Whitworth, and had easier work. General Wilcox, thinking it a useless sacrifice to try to hold it, ordered his troops withdrawn, and many got out in time to escape the heavy assault, but many were taken prisoners. General Gibbon lost ten officers and one hundred and twelve men killed, twenty-seven officers and five hundred and sixty-five men wounded; two pieces of artillery and several colors were captured.

It was my time next. General Meade called Miles's division back to the Second Corps, and prepared to march down upon Petersburg, but General Grant thought that the work might prove hazardous of delay to his plans for the next day; that General Lee was obliged to pull away from his lines during the night to find escape, and standing as he was he would have the start, while at Petersburg he would be behind him. He therefore ordered all things in readiness for his march westward at early light of the next morning.

After A. P. Hill fell his staff and corps were assigned as part of my command. Heth's and Wilcox's divisions were much broken by the losses of the day. Mahone had repulsed the attack made upon his position, and had his division in good order and spirits, except the regiment of Harris's brigade that was at Fort Gregg.

General Lee's order for retreat was out in time to have the troops take up the march as soon as night came. The troops at Petersburg were to cross the Appomattox at the bridge there, Mahone's division to march to Chesterfield Court-House and cover the march of the troops from the north side. General Ewell, commanding on the north side, was to cross his divisions, one at the lower bridge, the other at Richmond. Lieutenant-General Anderson and Major-General Pickett, with the cavalry, were to march up the south bank of the Appomattox. [609]

Field's division and parts of Heth's and Wilcox's crossed the river soon after dark, and were followed by the Second Corps, which wrecked the bridge behind it. G. W. C. Lee's division, including the garrison at Chapin's Bluff, crossed the James at the lower bridge, breaking it when they had passed. The sailors and marines at Drury's Bluff, on the south side, failed to receive orders, but, under advice from General Mahone, got off in good season and marched through Chesterfield Court-House to join G. W. C. Lee's division in its after-march. General Kershaw crossed at Richmond. As the division came over the bridge the structure was fired (supposedly by an incendiary), and Kershaw had to go through the flames at double-quick time. Ewell's command was united near Manchester and pursued its march. General Mahone marched on his line just mentioned.

After a tramp of sixteen miles through mud, my column halted for a short rest, and marched to Goode's Bridge on the 3d. Field's and Wilcox's divisions were put across the Appomattox to guard against threatening moves of cavalry. In the forenoon of the 4th, Mahone's division crossed,--also a part of Heth's that had been cut off, and had marched up on the south side,--and our march was continued to Amelia Court-House, the enemy's cavalry constantly threatening our left flank. At the Court-House the cavalry was more demonstrative and seemed ready to offer battle. Field, Heth, Wilcox, and the artillery were put in position and looked for opportunity to strike the head of the enemy's column and delay his march. But it proved to be only the purpose of the cavalry to delay our march while the enemy was passing his heavier column by us to Jetersville.

Orders had been sent for provisions to meet us at the Court-House, but they were not there, so we lost the greater part of a day gathering supplies from the farmers. [610]

Our purpose had been to march through Burkeville to join our forces to those of General J. E. Johnston in North Carolina, but at Jetersville, on the 5th, we found the enemy square across the route in force and intrenching, where our cavalry under General W. H. F. Lee engaged him. General Field put out a strong line of skirmishers to support the cavalry. Field's, Heth's, and Wilcox's divisions and artillery were prepared for action and awaited orders. General Meade was in front of us with the Second and Fifth Corps and Sheridan's cavalry, but his Sixth Corps was not up. General Fitzhugh Lee had been sent by the Painesville road with the balance of his cavalry to guard the trains raided by detachments of the enemy, which latter made some important captures.

General Lee was with us at Jetersville, and, after careful reconnoissance, thought the enemy's position too strong to warrant aggressive battle. He sent for some of the farmers to get more definite information of the country and the strength of the position in front of us, but they knew nothing beyond the roads and by-roads from place to place. General Meade, finding that his Sixth Corps could not join him till a late hour, decided to wait till next morning for his attack. General Ord rested his column for the night at Burkeville. The enemy was quiet at Jetersville, except for a light exchange of cavalry fire. No orders came, the afternoon was passing, further delay seemed perilous. I drew the command off and filed to the right to cross Flat Creek to march for Farmville. The other infantry and trains and artillery followed and kept the march until a late hour, halting for a short rest before daylight.

Early on the 6th, General Meade advanced for battle, and, not finding us at Jetersville, started towards Amelia Court-House to look for us, but General Humphreys, of his Second Corps, learned that our rear-guard was on the north side of Flat Creek on the westward march. [611] General Griffin, of the Fifth Corps, also had information of troops in march west, and General Meade, therefore, changed direction to pursue with his Second and Sixth Corps, putting the Fifth on the Painesville road. General Sheridan despatched General Ord that we had broken away from him and were marching direct for Burkeville. The latter prepared to receive us, but soon learned that we had taken another route. He had previously detached two regiments of infantry (five hundred men), under Colonel Washburn, with orders to make rapid march and burn High Bridge. To this force he afterwards sent eighty cavalrymen, under Brigadier-General Theodore Reed, of his staff, who conducted the column, and put his command in march to follow by the road through Rice's Station.

After repairing the bridge at Flat Creek, General Humphreys marched in hot pursuit of our rear-guard, followed by the Sixth Corps, Merritt's and Crook's cavalry moving on the left of our column as we marched. General Humphreys, in his account of the pursuit, says,--

A sharp and running fight commenced at once with Gordon's corps which was continued over a distance of fourteen miles, during which several partially-intrenched positions were carried.1

My column marched before daylight on the 6th. The design from the night we left Petersburg was that its service should be to head off and prevent the enemy's infantry columns passing us and standing across our march.

At Sailor's Creek the road “forks,” --one road to the High Bridge crossing of Appomattox River, the other by Rice's Station to Farmville. We had information of Ord's column moving towards Rice's Station, and I was ordered to that point to meet it, the other columns to follow the trains over the bridge. At Rice's Station the [612] command was prepared for action,--Field's division across the road of Ord's march, Wilcox on Field's right; both ordered to intrench, artillery in battery. Heth's division was put in support of Wilcox, Mahone to support Field. Just then I learned that Ord's detachment of bridge-burners had passed out of sight when the head of my command arrived. I had no cavalry, and the head of Ord's command was approaching in sight; but directly General Rosser reported with his division of cavalry. He was ordered to follow after the bridge-burners and capture or destroy the detachment, if it took the last man of his command to do it. General Ord came on and drove in my line of skirmishers, but I rode to meet them, marched them back to the line, with orders to hold it till called in. Ord's force proved to be the head of his column, and he was not prepared to press for general engagement.

General T. T. Mumford reported with his cavalry and was ordered to follow Rosser, with similar directions. Gary's cavalry came and reported to me. High Bridge was a vital point, for over it the trains were to pass, and I was under the impression that General Lee was there, passing with the rest of his army, but hearing our troops engaged at Rice's Station, he had ridden to us and was waiting near Mahone's division. Ord's command was not up till near night, and he only engaged with desultory fire of skirmishers and occasional exchange of battery practice, arranging to make his attack the next morning.

General Ewell's column was up when we left Amelia Court-House, and followed Anderson's by Amelia Springs, where he was detained some little time defending trains threatened by cavalry; at the same time our rear-guard was near him, followed by the enemy. Near Deatonville Crook's cavalry got in on our trains and caused delay of several hours to Anderson's march. Crook was joined by part of Merritt's cavalry and repeated the attack on the trains, but Ewell was up in time to aid in repelling the [613] attack, and the march was resumed, the enemy's cavalry moving on their left flank.

Anderson crossed Sailor's Creek, closely followed by Ewell. The route by which they were to march was by High Bridge, but they were on strange ground, without maps, or instructions, or commander. In the absence of orders Anderson thought to march for the noise of battle, at Rice's Station. They had no artillery or cavalry. The chief of cavalry was there, but his troopers were elsewhere, and he rode away, advising the force to follow him. The rear-guard came up rapidly and essayed to deploy for defence, but the close pursuit of Humphreys's corps forced its continued march for High Bridge, letting the pursuit in upon Ewell's rear. As Anderson marched he found Merritt's cavalry square across his route. Humphreys was close upon Ewell, but the former awaited battle for the arrival of the Sixth Corps.

There was yet a way of escape from the closing clutches of the enemy by filing to their right and marching to the rear of the command at Rice's Station; but they were true soldiers, and decided to fight, even to sacrifice their commands if necessary, to break or delay the pursuit until the trains and rear-guard could find safety beyond High Bridge.

Ewell deployed his divisions, Kershaw's on the right, G. W. C. Lee's on the left. Their plan was, that Anderson should attack and open the way while Ewell defended the rear. As Anderson attacked, Wright's corps was up, Humphreys had matured his plans, and the attack of Anderson hastened that of the enemy upon the Confederate rear. Anderson had some success, and Ewell received the assaults with resolute coolness, and at one moment pushed his fight to aggressive return, but the enemy, finding that there was no artillery with the Confederates, dashed their batteries into closer range, putting in artillery and infantry fire, front and flanks, until the [614] Confederate rear was crushed to fragments. General Ewell surrendered; so also did General G. W. C. Lee with his division. General Kershaw advised such of his men as could to make their escape, and surrendered with his division. General Anderson got away with the greater part of B. R. Johnson's division, and Pickett with six hundred men. Generals Corse and Hunton and others of Pickett's men were captured. About two hundred of Kershaw's division got away.

General R. S. Ewell and General R. H. Anderson are barely known in the retreat, but their stand and fight on that trying march were among the most soldier-like of the many noble deeds of the war.

While waiting near my rear, General Lee received information, through Colonel Venable, of his staff, as to the disaster at Sailor's Creek. He drew Mahone's division away, and took it back to find the field. General Mahone writes of the scenes that he witnessed as follows:

As we were moving up in line of battle, General Lee riding with me and remonstrating about the severity of my note in respect to Colonel Marshall's interference with my division the night before, up rode Colonel Venable, of General Lee's staff, and wanted to know if he, General Lee, had received his message. General Lee replied ‘No,’ when Colonel Venable informed him that the enemy had captured the wagon-trains at Sailor's Creek. General Lee exclaimed, ‘ Where is Anderson? Where is Ewell? It is strange I can't hear from them.’ Then turning to me, he said, ‘General Mahone, I have no other troops, will you take your division to Sailor's Creek?’ and I promptly gave the order by the left flank, and off we were for Sailor's Creek, where the disaster had occurred. General Lee rode with me, Colonel Venable a little in the rear. On reaching the south crest of the high ground at the crossing of the river road overlooking Sailor's Creek, the disaster which had overtaken our army was in full view, and the scene beggars description,--hurrying teamsters with their teams and dangling traces (no wagons), retreating infantry without guns, many without hats, a harmless mob, with the massive columns of the enemy moving orderly on. At this spectacle General Lee straightened himself in his saddle, and, looking more the soldier [615] than ever, exclaimed, as if talking to himself, ‘My God! has the army dissolved?’ As quickly as I could control my own voice I replied, ‘No, general, here are troops ready to do their duty;’ when, in a mellowed voice, he replied, ‘Yes, general, there are some true men left. Will you please keep those people back ’ As I was placing my division in position to ‘keep those people back,’ the retiring herd just referred to had crowded around General Lee while he sat on his horse with a Confederate battle-flag in his hand. I rode up and requested him to give me the flag, which he did.

It was near dusk, and he wanted to know of me how to get away. I replied, ‘Let General Longstreet move by the river road to Farmville, and cross the river there, and I will go through the woods to the High Bridge (railroad bridge) and cross there.’ To this he assented. I asked him then, after crossing at the High Bridge, what I should do, and his reply was, to exercise my judgment. I wanted to know what should be done with the bridge after crossing it. He said, ‘Set fire to it,’ and I replied that the destruction of a span would as well retard the enemy as the destruction of the whole half mile of bridge, and asked him to call up Colonel Talcott, of the Engineers' Regiment, and personally direct him in the matter, which he did.

General Mahone withdrew at eleven o'clock at night through the wood, found the bridge, had the fragments of commands over before daylight, and crossed High Bridge. The parties called to fire the bridge failed to appear. He sent a brigade back to do the work, and had a sharp skirmish in checking the enemy long enough to start the fire, after which he withdrew as far as Cumberland Church and deployed for battle, Poague's artillery on his right. General Rosser got up with the detachment sent to burn the bridge, and attacked. General Reed, seeing his approach, found a defensive position, and arranged the command to receive battle. General Mumford got up and deployed his troopers, dismounted, on Rosser's left. Nothing daunted, General Reed received the attack, and in gallant fight made one or two counter-charges with his small cavalry force, but ere long he was mortally wounded, as was Colonel Washburn. Most of his cavalry officers [616] and many of his infantry were killed or wounded, and the rest surrendered. Reed's fight was as gallant and skilful as a soldier could make, and its noise in rear of Sailor's Creek may have served to increase the confusion there. The result shows the work of these remnants of Confederate veterans as skilful and worthy of their old chief who fell at Yellow Tavern.

I heard nothing of the affair at Sailor's Creek, nor from General Lee, until next morning. Our work at Rice's Station was not very serious, but was continued until night, when we marched and crossed the Appomattox at Farmville without loss, some of Rosser's and Mumford's cavalry following. We crossed early in the morning and received two days rations,--the first regular issue since we left Richmond,--halted our wagons, made fires, got out cooking utensils, and were just ready to prepare a good breakfast. We had not heard of the disasters on the other route and the hasty retreat, and were looking for a little quiet to prepare breakfast, when General Lee rode up and said that the bridges had been fired before his cavalry crossed, that part of that command was cut off and lost, and that the troops should hurry on to position at Cumberland Church.

I reminded him that there were fords over which his cavalry could cross, and that they knew of or would surely find them. Everything except the food was ordered back to the wagons and dumped in.

Meanwhile, the alarm had spread, and our teamsters, frightened by reports of cavalry trouble and approaching fire of artillery, joined in the panic, put whips to their teams as quick as the camp-kettles were tumbled over the tail-boards of the wagons, and rushed through the woods to find a road somewhere in front of them. The command was ordered under arms and put in quick march, but General Lee urged double-quick. Our cavalry was then engaged near Farmville, and presently came a [617] reckless charge of Gregg's troopers towards parts of Rosser's and Mumford's commands. Heth's division of infantry was sent to support them. As the balance of the command marched, General Lee took the head of the column and led it on the double-quick.

I thought it better to let them pass me, and, to quiet their apprehensions a little, rode at a walk. General Mahone received the attack of part of the enemy's Second Corps, like Gregg's cavalry making reckless attack. The enemy seemed to think they had another Sailor's Creek affair, and part of their attack got in as far as Poague's battery, but Mahone recovered it, and then drove off an attack against his front. General Gregg and a considerable part of his command were captured by Rosser and Mumford. At Cumberland Church the command deployed on the right of Poague's battery, but Mahone reported a move by part of Miles's division to turn his left which might dislodge him. G. T. Anderson's brigade of Field's division was sent with orders to get around the threatening force and break it up. Mahone so directed them through a woodland that they succeeded in over-reaching the threatened march, and took in some three hundred prisoners,2 the last of our trouble for the day. General Lee stopped at a cottage near my line, where I joined him after night; the trains and other parts of his army had moved on towards Appomattox Court-House.

1 Virginia Campaigns.

2 General Mahone claimed seven hundred in all.

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