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Part 4. from war to peace

Henry W. Elson

The siege and fall of Petersburg

Union picket near Fort Mahone, the Confederate stronghold


The finished product: Union veterans of trench and field before Petersburg--1864. It is winter-time before Petersburg. Grant's army, after the assault of October 27th, has settled down to the waiting game that can have but one result. Look at the veterans in this picture of 1864--not a haggard or hungry face in all this group of a hundred or more. Warmly clad, well-fed, in the prime of manly vigor, smiling in confidence that the end is almost now in sight, these are the men who hold the thirty-odd miles of Federal trenches that hem in Lee's ragged army. Outdoor life and constant “roughing it” affects men variously. There was many a young clerk from the city, slender of limb, lacking in muscle, a man only in the embryo, who finished his three or five years term of service with a constitution of iron and sinews like whip-cords. Strange to say, it was the regiments from up-country and the backwoods, lumbermen and farmers, who after a short time in Camp began to show most the effect of hardship and sickness. They had been used to regular hours, meals at certain times, and always the same kind of food — their habits had been formed, their sleep had not been interfered with; their stomachs, by which they could tell the time of day, rebelled at being obliged to go empty, their systems had to learn new tricks. But the city recruit, if possessed of no physical ailment or chronic trouble, seemed to thrive and expand in the open air — he was a healthy exotic that, when transplanted, adapted itself to the new soil with surprising vigor — being cheated of his sleep, and forced to put up with the irregularities of Camp life was not such a shock for him as for the “to bed with the chickens and up with the lark” countryman. This is no assuming of facts — it is the result of experience and record. But here are men of city, farm, and backwoods who have become case-hardened to the rugged life.

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Siege of Petersburg.

Thus we see Petersburg as, with a powerful glass, it might have been seen from the north bank of the Appomattox, looking south over the ruined town in April, 1865. As the railroad center south of Richmond, it was, at the outbreak of the war, one of the largest cities of Virginia. It was Grant who first utilized its importance in leading up to the capture of the capital. Although all missiles apparently evince a selective intelligence, at times in any bombardment there are naturally objects which give range to the gunners and become targets for their aim. Chimneys and smokestacks, and, alas! in some cases, steeples, were picked out between the sights before the lanyard was pulled. In Petersburg the churches suffered least, but buildings such as the mill and the gas-house, with its 80-foot stack, were crumbled into ruins.

Petersburg the besieged city

The ruined mill

Where the light failed--gas works at Petersburg


Bolingbroke street — historic houses bombarded In the houses down this quiet street, liable at any moment to be pierced by shot, as some of these have been, the women of Petersburg, with all the courage the daughters of the South invariably have shown, went bravely about their self-imposed tasks, denying themselves all luxuries and frequently almost the necessities of life, to help feed and take care of the men in the trenches that faced the Federal lines. During the siege, from June, 1864, to April, 1865, led by the wives of some of the officers high in command, the Petersburg citizens, and the women especially, exhibited high heroism in nursing the wounded and aiding the army. This street was named after a distinguished Revolutionary family, whose mansion during the Revolution had been seized and made the headquarters of Benedict Arnold. Arnold, after his defection from the Continental cause, had been sent into Virginia to destroy the property of prominent Revolutionists.



This beautiful old mansion on Bolingbroke Street could look back to the days of buckles and small clothes; it wears an aggrieved and surprised look, as if wondering why it should have received such buffetings as its pierced walls, its shattered windows and doorway show. Yet it was more fortunate than some of its near-by neighbors, which were never again after the visitation of the falling shells fit habitations for mankind. Many of these handsome residences were utterly destroyed, their fixtures shattered beyond repair; their wainscoting, built when the Commonwealth of Virginia was ruled over by the representative of King George, was torn from the walls and, bursting into flames, made a funeral pyre of past comforts and magnificence. The havoc wrought upon the dwellings of the town was heavy; certain localities suffered more than others, and those residents who seemed to dwell in the safest zones had been ever ready to open their houses to the sick and wounded of Lee's army. As Grant's troops marched in, many pale faces gazed out at them from the windows, and at the doorsteps stood men whose wounds exempted them from ever bearing arms again.

A battered relic of colonial days in Petersburg

The shattered doorway


The demolished dining-room of a handsome mansion: havoc of bombardment in a Petersburg home In this room, nearly a hundred years before, the red-coated officers of His Britannic Majesty's troops had gathered at the long mahogany table, which, with the glittering sideboards and the old portraits, had furnished the apartment. They were unbidden guests and were invaders. It was with enforced courtesy that the lady of the house, whose husband and two sons were wearing the blue and buff of the Continental Army, received them. And now, in 1865, this lady's descendents, the heirs to the old mansion, have been forced to move by another invasion that brought home to them the stern decrees of war. The two maiden ladies of proud lineage had been forced in the early stages of the siege to move their belongings to a safer place. The house had been stripped of furnishings; against the noble old walls the Federal guns had knocked for admittance, presenting no billet of lodgment with a sweeping bow, but rudely bursting in. After the war was over, its occupants came back; but still, if you should visit them, they could point out to you the traces of the siege.

It is not improbable that Grant might have made more headway by leaving a sufficient part of his army in the trenches in front of Petersburg and by moving with a heavy force far to the west upon Lee's communications; or, if it were determined to capture the place à main forte, by making a massed attack upon some point in the center after suitable mining operations had weakened Lee's defenses and prepared for such an operation. But the end was to come with opening spring. To the farsighted, this was no longer doubtful. The South must succumb to the greater material resources of the North, despite its courage and its sacrifices. --Colonel T. A. Dodge, U. S.A., in A Bird's-eye view of Our Civil war.

During the winter of 1864-65, General Lee, fighting Grant without, was fighting famine within. The shivering, half-clad soldiers of the South crouched over feeble fires in their entrenchments. The men were exposed to the rain, snow, and sleet; sickness and disease soon added their horrors to the desolation. The finances of the Government were almost gone. The life of the Confederacy was ebbing fast.

Behind Union breastworks, early in 1865, General Grant was making preparations for the opening of a determined campaign with the coming of spring. Mile after mile had been added to his entrenchments, and they now extended to Hatcher's Run on the left. The Confederate lines had been stretched until they were so thin that there was constant danger of breaking. A. P. Hill was posted on the right; Gordon and Anderson held the center, and Longstreet was on the left. Union troops were mobilizing in front of Petersburg. By February 1st, Sherman was fairly off from Savannah on his northward march to join Grant. He was weak in cavalry and [279]

Siege of Petersburg.

For nine months of 1864-1865 the musket-balls sang past these Federal picket posts, in advance of Federal Fort Sedgwick, called by the Confederates “Fort Hell.” Directly opposite was the Confederate Fort Mahone, which the Federals, returning the compliment, had dubbed “Fort Damnation.” Between the two lines, separated by only fifty yards, sallies and counter-sallies were continual occurrences after dark. In stealthy sorties one side or the other frequently captured the opposing pickets before alarm could be given. No night was without its special hazard. During the day the pastime here was sharp-shooting with muskets and rifled cannon.

Approaching the post of danger — Petersburg, 1865

A few steps nearer the picket line

In behind the shelter


Grant determined to bring Sheridan from the Shenandoah, whence the bulk of Early's forces had been withdrawn, and send him to assist Sherman. Sheridan left Winchester February 27th, wreaking much destruction as he advanced, but circumstances compelled him to seek a new base at White House. On March 27th he formed a junction with the armies of the Potomac and the James. Such were the happenings that prompted Lee to prepare for the evacuation of Petersburg. And he might be able, in his rapid marches, to outdistance Grant, join his forces with those of Johnston, fall on Sherman, destroy one wing of the Union army and arouse the hopes of his soldiers, and prolong the life of his Government.

General Grant knew the condition of Lee's army and, with the unerring instinct of a military leader, surmised what the plan of the Southern general must be. He decided to move on the left, destroy both the Danville and South Side railroads, and put his army in better condition to pursue. The move was ordered for March 29th.

General Lee, in order to get Grant to look another way for a while, decided to attack Grant's line on the right, and gain some of the works. This would compel Grant to draw some of his force from his left and secure a way of escape to the west. This bold plan was left for execution to the gallant Georgian, General John B. Gordon, who had successfully led the reverse attack at Cedar Creek, in the Shenandoah, in October, 1864. Near the crater stood Fort Stedman. Between it and the Confederate front, a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, was a strip of firm earth, in full view of both picket lines. Across this space some deserters had passed to the Union entrenchments. General Gordon took advantage of this fact and accordingly selected his men, who, at the sound of the signal gun, should disarm the Federal pickets, while fifty more men were to cross the open space quickly with axes and cut away the abatis, and three hundred others were to rush through the opening, and capture the Fort and guns. [281]

Siege of Petersburg.

These well-made protections of sharpened spikes, as formidable as the pointed spears of a Roman legion, are chevaux-de-frise of the Confederates before their main works at Petersburg. They were built after European models, the same as employed in the Napoleonic wars, and were used by both besiegers and besieged along the lines south of the Appomattox. Those shown in this picture were in front of the entrenchments near Elliott's salient and show how effectually it was protected from any attempt to storm the works by rushing tactics on the part of the Federal infantry. Not far from here lies the excavation of the Crater.

Security from surprise

The mole-hill ramparts, near the crater


At four o'clock on the morning of March 25, 1865, Gordon had everything in readiness. His chosen band wore white strips of cloth across the breast, that they might distinguish each other in the hand-to-hand fight that would doubtless ensue. Behind these men half of Lee's army was massed to support the attack. In the silence of the early morning, a gunshot rang out from the Confederate works. Not a Federal picket-shot was heard. The axemen rushed across the open and soon the thuds of their axes told of the cutting away of the abatis. The three hundred surged through the entrance, overpowered the gunners, captured batteries to the right and to the left, and were in control of the situation. Gordon's corps of about five thousand was on hand to sustain the attack but the remaining reserves, through failure of the guides, did not come, and the general found himself cut off with a rapidly increasing army surrounding him.

Fort Haskell, on the left, began to throw its shells. Under its cover, heavy columns of Federals sent by General Parke, now commanding the Ninth Corps, pressed forward. The Confederates resisted the charge, and from the captured Fort Stedman and the adjoining batteries poured volley after volley on Willcox's advancing lines of blue. The Northerners fell back, only to re-form and renew the attack. This time they secured a footing, and for twenty minutes the fighting was terrific. Again they were repulsed. Then across the brow of the hill swept the command of Hartranft. The blue masses literally poured onto the field. The furious musketry, and artillery directed by General Tidball, shrivelled up the ranks of Gordon until they fled from the Fort and its neighboring batteries in the midst of withering fire, and those who did not were captured. This was the last aggressive effort of the expiring Confederacy in front of Petersburg, and it cost three thousand men. The Federal loss was not half that number.

The affair at Fort Stedman did not turn Grant from his plans against the Confederate right. With the railroads here [283]

Siege of Petersburg.

This church at Petersburg stood near the tobacco warehouses shown in the lower picture, and here the Federal prisoners confined in the old brick building were praying for victory as they listened to the boom of cannon and the rattle of musketry through the terrible winter of 1864 and 1865. But every Sunday, in this church, prayers to the God of Battles for relief from the invader were raised in fervent zeal of spirit. In all the camps, and in all the cities of the North and South, throughout the war, each side, believing firmly in the justice of its cause, had regularly and earnestly thus appealed to the Almighty for the triumph of its arms.

In the Southern army in particular, religious fervor was high. During the previous winter, while Lee's troops were encamped on the Rapidan, revivals had swept nearly every soldier into the church. General Gordon says that “not only on the Sabbath day, but during the week, night after night, for long periods these services continued, increasing in attendance and interest until they brought under religious influence these great body of the army. Along the mountainsides and in the forest, where the Southern camps were pitched, the rocks and woods rang with appeals for holiness and consecration, with praises for past mercies and earnest prayers for future protection and deliverance. Thousands of these brave followers of Southern banners became consistent and devoted soldiers of the Cross.” And the same officer recalls that during the siege of Petersburg, especially after the attack on Fort Stedman, religious devotion was uncooled. “From the commander-in-chief to the privates in the ranks, there was a deep and sincere religious feeling in Lee's army. Whenever it was convenient or practicable, these hungry but unyielding men were holding prayer-meetings. Their supplications were fervent and often inspiring.”

On the memorable 2d of April, in the Richmond church in which he had been baptized and confirmed scarcely three years before, President Jefferson Davis received the ominous tidings sent by Lee to the capital of the Confederacy that both Petersburg and Richmond would have to be evacuated before the morning of April 4th. There followed a night of terror.

Where prayer rose for the waning cause: prayers for relief and prayers for victory

Where prisoners prayed for liberty

[284] destroyed, Richmond would be completely cut off. On the morning of the 29th, as previously arranged, the movement began. Sheridan swept to the south with his cavalry, as if he were to fall upon the railroads. General Warren, with fifteen thousand men, was working his way through the tangled woods and low swamps in the direction of Lee's right. At the same time, Lee stripped his entrenchments at Petersburg as much as he dared and hurried General Anderson, with infantry, and Fitzhugh Lee, with cavalry, forward to hold the roads over which he hoped to escape. On Friday morning, March 31st, the opposing forces, the Confederates much reenforced, found themselves at Dinwiddie Court House. The woods and swamps prevented the formation of a regular line of battle. Lee made his accustomed flank movement, with heavy loss to the Federals as they tried to move in the swampy forests. The Northerners finally were ready to advance when it was found that Lee had fallen back. During the day and night, reenforcements were coming in from all sides. The Confederates had taken their position at Five Forks.

Early the next afternoon, the 1st of April, Sheridan, reenforced by Warren, was arranging his troops for battle. The day was nearly spent when all was in readiness. The sun was not more than two hours high when the Northern army moved toward that of the South, defended by a breastwork behind a dense undergrowth of pines. Through this mass of timber the Federals crept with bayonets fixed. They charged upon the Confederates, but, at the same time, a galling fire poured into them from the left, spreading dismay and destruction in their midst. The intrepid Sheridan urged his black battle-charger, the famous Rienzi, now known as Winchester, up and down the lines, cheering his men on in the fight. He seemed to be everywhere at once. The Confederate left was streaming down the White Oak Road. But General Crawford had reached a cross-road, by taking a circuitous route, and the Southern army was thus shut off from retreat. The Federal [285]

Siege of Petersburg.

To this gallant young Georgia officer, just turned thirty-three at the time, Lee entrusted the last desperate effort to break through the tightening Federal lines, March 25, 1865. Lee was confronted by the dilemma of either being starved out of Petersburg and Richmond, or of getting out himself and uniting his army to that of Johnston in North Carolina, to crush Sherman before Grant could reach him. Gordon was to begin this latter, almost impossible, task by an attack on Fort Stedman, which the Confederates believed to be the weakest point in the Federal fortifications. The position had been captured from them in the beginning, and they knew that the nature of the ground and its nearness to their own lines had made it difficult to strengthen it very much. It was planned to surprise the Fort before daylight. Below are seen the rabbit-like burrows of Gracie's Salient, past which Gordon led his famished men. When the order came to go forward, they did not flinch, but hurled themselves bravely against fortifications far stronger than their own. Three columns of a hundred picked men each moved down the slope shown on the left and advanced in the darkness against Stedman. They were to be followed by a division. Through the gap which the storming parties were expected to open in the Federal lines, Gordon's columns would rush in both directions and a cavalry force was to sweep on and destroy the pontoon bridges across the Appomattox and to raid City Point, breaking up the Federal base. It was no light task, for although Fort Stedman itself was weak, it was flanked by Battery No. 10 on the right and by Battery No. 11 on the left. An attacking party on the right would be exposed to an enfilading fire in crossing the plain; while on the left the approach was difficult because of ravines, one of which the Confederate engineers had turned into a pond by damming a creek. All night long General Gordon's wife, with the brave women of Petersburg, sat up tearing strips of white cloth, to be tied on the arms of the men in the storming parties so that they could tell friend from foe in the darkness and confusion of the assault. Before the sleep-dazed Federals could offer effective resistance, Gordon's men had possession of the Fort and the batteries. Only after one of the severest engagements of the siege were the Confederates driven back.

General John B. Gordon, C. S. A.

Gracie's salient — after Gordon's forlorn hope had charged


Prisoners to Phil Sheridan: full rations at last. This group of the five thousand Confederate prisoners captured March 31st is eloquent of the tragedy in progress. Dire was the extremity of the Confederate cause in March, 1865. The words of the gallant leader in the last desperate and forlorn hope that charged Fort Stedman, General Gordon, give a pen-picture of the condition of the Southern fighting men: “Starvation, literal starvation, was doing its deadly work. So depleted and poisoned was the blood of many of Lee's men from insufficient and unsound food that a slight wound, which would probably not have been reported at the beginning of the war, would often cause blood-poison, gangrene and death, yet the spirits of these brave men seemed to rise as their condition grew more desperate.” But not only was it physical ailments and consequent inability to fight their best which brought about the downfall, it was numbers, the overwhelming numbers that were opposed against them. In an interview with General Gordon, Lee laid before him his reports, which showed how completely he understood the situation. Of his own fifty thousand men but thirty-five thousand were fit for duty. Lee's estimate of the forces of Grant was between one hundred and forty thousand and one hundred and fifty thousand. Coming up from Knoxville was Schofield with an estimated force of thirty thousand superb troops. From the valley Grant was bringing up nearly twenty thousand more, against whom, as Lee expressed it, he “could oppose scarcely a vidette.” Sherman was approaching from North Carolina, and his force when united with Scofield's would reach eighty thousand. It was impossible, and yet it was after this, that Gordon made his charge. South of Hatcher's Run, at the very westernmost part of the Confederate entrenchments, Sheridan fell upon the Confederate flank. It was a complete victory. With General Merritt and General Griffin sweeping in, the cavalry charged the works and five thousand Confederates were taken prisoners, besides those killed and wounded. The Federal loss was less than seven hundred. This was the last day of March. Lined up here we see some of these captured thousands about to receive their first square meal in many months.

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April second--where Lee watched From this mound General Lee watched the final Federal attack begin near Hatcher's Run on the morning of April 2, 1865. It was a serious party of officers that gathered in this battery on the inner line of Confederate fortifications before Petersburg. On the preceding days at Hatcher's Run, and again at Five Forks, Lee had attempted to break through the besiegers, but the efforts were futile, and no sooner had they ceased than the Federal army began to gather itself for the last grapple. All night of April 1st, till four in the morning, the Federal artillery had kept up a terrific bombardment along the whole line, and at daybreak Lee saw the Sixth Corps advancing to the assault. As they broke through the Confederate lines and wheeled to attack Fort Gregg, Lee called his staff about him, telling them to witness a most gallant defense. A moment later they saw the Stars and Stripes unfurled over the parapet. The depleted and worn-out Confederates had spent themselves to the last gasp. Not even Lee's veterans could fight starvation and overwhelming numbers at once. “This is a sad business!” were Lee's words as he turned to his staff. Couriers were bringing in reports of disasters all along his lines, and he gave the orders necessary for the holding of such of the interior defenses as would enable the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon Petersburg and Richmond.


April second--“this is a sad business” As his general watched, this boy fought to stem the Federal rush — but fell, his breast pierced by a bayonet, in the trenches of Fort Mahone. It is heart-rending to look at a picture such as this; it is sad to think of it and to write about it. Here is a boy of only fourteen years, his face innocent of a razor, his feet unshod and stockingless in the bitter April weather. It is to be hoped that the man who slew him has forgotten it, for this face would haunt him surely. Many who fought in the blue ranks were young, but in the South there were whole companies made up of such boys as this. At the battle of Newmarket the scholars of the Virgina Military Institute, the eldest seventeen and the youngest twelve, marched from the classrooms under arms, joined the forces of General Breckinridge, and aided by their historic charge to gain a brilliant victory over the Federal General Sigel. The never-give — in spirit was implanted in the youth of the Confederacy, as well as in the hearts of the grizzled veterans. Lee had inspired them, but in addition to this inspiration, as General Gordon writes, “every man of them was supported by their extraordinary consecration, resulting from the conviction that he was fighting in the defense of home and the rights of his State. Hence their unfaltering faith in the justice of the cause, their fortitude in the extremest privations, their readiness to stand shoeless and shivering in the trenches at night and to face any danger at their leader's call.”


At Fort Mahone--the first to meet the onslaught The tall young Southerner stretched here was outside the walls of Fort Mahone, and with scores of comrades met the first shock when the onsweep of the massed lines in blue came roaring down like a torrent upon the outer works. His musket, with the ramrod out, lies beside him, showing that he has even stayed to load; the ground is strewn with cartridges frantically torn open; his hands are grasped tightly over the gaping wound through his body; he will be laid away to rest on the very spot he has so splendidly defended.


“You will see a brave defense” : three soldiers who bore out Lee's prophecy When Lee, looking toward Fort Gregg as the Federals attacked on April 2d, said, “You will see a brave defense,” he spoke from intimate knowledge of his men. But even if they had been twice the number, they could not have done more than they did. If they had had three lives apiece they might have laid them down no more bravely nor uselessly. God was on the side of the bigger army. But in the outflanking trenches filled with mud, in the covers of the abatis, in the angles of the walls, and in the very last ditch, groups of men in gray fought with the desperation almost of wild animals with retreat cut off. The bayonet and clubbed musket did bloody work here; men rolled and grappled with each other in the half darkness of the early dawn, rising to their knees to fight again. It was relentless, terrible, and from the romantic point of view magnificent. Yet as we look at these poor heaps of day, the magnificence has vanished; horror and sorrow are the sensations that are aroused. Dead “Reb” or fallen “Yank,” these men who fell, though their voices are stilled, cry from their gory beds that such things may come to pass no more — their faces and forms, twisted as they fell, speak more eloquently than any words could, for peace.


Fresh ammunition in the path of the charge A veritable battle-photograph, in the fresh path of the charge within the Confederate works that had so long held the Federals back. This picture was taken very shortly after the rattle of their muskets had rung the knell of Petersburg. Beyond the parapet are the Federal lines and the intervening plain over which the men came at the double-quick that morning. Some regiment has halted here to replenish its ammunition. Boxes of cartridges have been hurried up and impatiently broken open. There was no time for the eager men to fill pouches and belts. Grabbing handfuls of the cartridges, they have thrust them into their pockets or the breasts of their jackets. Then, leaving many of the boxes but half emptied, they pressed on, loading as they ran. The picture is an eloquent bit of still life; even the belts and cartridge-pouches cast away in impatience tell of the hurry and heat of battle.


Siege of Petersburg.

It was the grand old Sixth Corps that crowned its splendid record on April 2d in the last great charge of the war upon an entrenched position. Silently the troops had been brought out on the night of the 1st and placed in position just in the rear of their own picket line. The darkness hid the intended movement even from the watchful eyes of the Confederate pickets. Orders for the strictest silence had been imposed upon each man. But suddenly the pickets broke out firing, and it was only with great exertions that the officers quieted the Federal outposts. The men in the columns had maintained their positions without a sound — not a shot fired, not a word uttered. At half-past 4 in the early morning a signal gun from Fort Fisher boomed and flashed through the early light. Rushing forward, breaking the Confederate line of outposts, down streamed the blue masses upon the main line of the defenses. Into their faces the men in gray poured deadly volleys from behind the earthworks and lines of spiked abatis. The latter were rolled aside, carried by main force and tossed into the ditches. General Wright, in command of this body of men, knew from the shouts even before he saw the flag upon the breastworks that the wedge had been driven home. Leaving behind their own dead and wounded lying mingled with the bodies of the brave defenders, without waiting for orders, men from each division of the Sixth Corps pressed ahead, broke up the South Side Railroad and cut the telegraph wires. When the officers had at length calmed the ardor of their troops and re-formed the lines, a large part of the corps wheeled to the left and dashed along the Confederate entrenchments, soon overcame all resistance and swept victoriously forward as far as Hatcher's Run, capturing artillery and a large number of prisoners. There they were again re-formed, marched back to the original point of attack, and thence pushed forward in conjunction with the Twenty-fourth Corps to complete the investment of Petersburg. In this advance some Confederate batteries, very dashingly handled, inflicted considerable loss until they were driven behind the inner lines of entrenchment, when the Union troops were halted with their left resting on the Appomattox. Petersburg had fallen. The end was only a week away.

Abatis and defender in the ditch

After the last great charge

[294] cavalry had dismounted and was doing its full share of work. The Confederates soon found themselves trapped, and the part of their army in action that day was nearly annihilated. About five thousand prisoners were taken.

With night came the news of the crushing blow to Lee. General Grant was seated by his camp-fire surrounded by his staff, when a courier dashed into his presence with the message of victory. Soon from every great gun along the Union line belched forth the sheets of flame. The earth shook with the awful cannonade. Mortar shells made huge parabolas through the air. The Union batteries crept closer and closer to the Confederate lines and the balls crashed into the streets of the doomed city. The bombardment of Petersburg was on.

At dawn of the 2nd of April the grand assault began. The Federal troops sprang forward with a rush. Despite the storms of grape and canister, the Sixth Corps plunged through the battery smoke, and across the walls, pushing the brave defenders to the inner works. The whole corps penetrated the lines and swept everything before it toward Hatcher's Run. Some of the troops even reached the South Side Railroad, where the brave General A. P. Hill fell mortally wounded.

Everywhere, the blue masses poured into the works. General Ord, on the right of the Sixth Corps, helped to shut the Confederate right into the city. General Parke, with the Ninth Corps, carried the main line. The thin gray line could no longer stem the tide that was engulfing it. The Confederate troops south of Hatcher's Run fled to the west, and fought General Miles until General Sheridan and a division from Meade appeared on the scene. By noon the Federals held the line of the outer works from Fort Gregg to the Appomattox. The last stronghold carried was Fort Gregg, at which the men of Gibbon's corps had one of the most desperate struggles of the war. The Confederates now fell back to the inner fortifications and the siege of Petersburg came to an end.



View of field artillery


In the wake of Lee's retreat the ruins of railroad bridge at Petersburg April, 1865 The scene that met the eyes of the Union cavalry on April 3d. The ashes of a bridge, locomotive, train and all, as they had fallen the day before on the gravelly shore of the Appotomax. When the lines southeast and west of the city were captured on April 2d, Lee had seen that retreat was the only resource left. His haggard but undaunted veterans began this final movement at eight o'clock in the evening, passing to the north side of the Appomattox by the pontoon, Pocahontas and “railroad” bridges. These were given to the flames immediately after crossing, in order to hinder the pursuit. Though there were in the fields of Mississippi and Alabama supplies enough to feed Lee's army for a whole year, the means of transportation was so poor that all through the winter they had suffered from hunger. Now the only avenue of supply that had remained in their control was seized by the Union armies. The possibility of joining with Johnston's forces, or of making a last stand where the pursuer should put himself at a disadvantage, was the hope which sustained the famished heroes in gray as they left behind them the burning bridge.

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The capital of the Confederacy fallen: the desert and the waste places in Richmond, April, 1865. The ruins of the armory in the foreground, the pillars of the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad bridge across the James, a few houses in Manchester beyond the stream — this picture of desolation revives the scenes of wild commotion in Richmond on the 2d and 3d of April, 1865. On the 2d, a quiet Sunday, Jefferson Davis, at morning service in St. Paul's Church, received a despatch from General Lee, announcing the imminent fall of Petersburg and the necessity of retreating that night. Mr. Davis left his seat calmly; but by half-past 11 a strange agitation began to appear in the streets, and by noon the worst was known. A hubbub of excitement, the rumbling of trains and rattling of wagons filled the afternoon. By sunset bands of ruffians made their appearance on the principal streets. That night was full of the pandemonium of flight. Orders for the burning of the arsenals and all public buildings were issued before the officers of government left the city. To prevent drunkenness the alcoholic liquor was emptied into the gutters. The explosion of the magazines threw high into the air burning fragments which fell upon the adjacent buildings in Richmond and even across the river in Manchester. The hundreds of blazing piles lighted up the river with the brightness of day as it rushed sparkling beneath the high-arched bridges past the flaming cities. At early dawn, amid the roar of the explosions and of the falling buildings, the clatter of Union cavalry was heard in the streets. The capital of the Confederacy had fallen.

[299] [300]
I now come to what I have always regarded — shall ever regard — as the most creditable episode in all American history — an episode without a blemish, imposing, dignified, simple, heroic. I refer to Appomattox. Two men met that day, representative of American civilization, the whole world looking on. The two were Grant and Lee — types each. Both rose, and rose unconsciously, to the full height of the occasion — and than that occasion there has been none greater. About it, and them, there was no theatrical display, no self-consciousness, no effort at effect. A great crisis was to be met; and they met that crisis as great countrymen should. Consider the possibilities; think for a moment of what that day might have been; you will then see cause to thank God for much. General Charles Francis Adams, U. S. V., in Phi Beta Kappa Address delivered at the University of Chicago, June 17, 1902.

We are now to witness the closing scene of one of the greatest tragedies ever enacted on the world's stage. Many and varied had been the scenes during the war; the actors and their parts had been real. The wounds of the South were bleeding; the North was awaiting the decisive blow. Thousands of homes were ruined. Fortunes, great and small, had melted away by the hundreds of millions. In Richmond, the citadel of the waning Confederacy, the people were starving. The Southern army, half clad and without food, was but a shadow of its once proud self. Bravely and long the men in gray had followed their adored leader. Now the limit of endurance had been reached.

It was the second day of April, 1865. Lee realized that after Petersburg his beloved Richmond must fall. The order was given for the movement to begin at eight o'clock that night. The darkness of the early morning of the 3d was suddenly transformed into a lurid light overcasting the heavens [301]

Twelve hours after, at the Petersburg courthouse The night of April 2d was a tense one for the Federal troops in the trenches. The brigade of Colonel Ralph Ely was to charge at four o'clock in the morning, but at half-past 2 he learned that only the Confederate picket-lines remained. His command was formed for attack and advanced quickly across the opposing works. It then re-formed and pushed into the town, arriving at the courthouse shortly after four o'clock. At 4.28 A. M. the flag of the First Michigan Sharpshooters was floating from the staff. Major Lounsberry, in command of the detachment, was met in front of the courthouse by three citizens with a flag of truce, who surrendered the town in the name of the mayor and common council. The committee were assured of the safety of private property, and, according to the report of the mayor, so long as the brigade was in the city “the conduct of both officers and men was such as to reflect [honor] on our cause and cast a luster of glory over the profession of arms.” This is one of the series of photographs taken April 3d by the enterprising artist with the Federal army; and the clock-face in the courthouse tower shows that the picture was made at ten minutes of four that afternoon.

[302] for miles around the famous city whose name had become a household word over the civilized world. Richmond was in flames! The capital of the Confederacy, the pride of the South, toward which the Army of the Potomac had fought its way, leaving a trail of blood for four weary years, had at last succumbed to the overwhelming power of Grant's indomitable armies.

President Davis had received a despatch while attending services at St. Paul's church, Sunday morning, the 2d, advising him that the city must be evacuated that night, and, leaving the church at once, he hastened the preparations for flight with his personal papers and the archives of the Confederate Government. During that Sabbath day and night Richmond was in a state of riot. There had been an unwarranted feeling of security in the city, and the unwelcome news, spreading like an electric flash, was paralyzing and disastrous in its effect. Prisoners were released from their toils, a lawless mob overran the thoroughfares, and civic government was nullified. One explosion after another, on the morning of the 3d, rent the air with deafening roar, as the magazines took fire. The scene was one of terror and grandeur.

The flames spread to the city from the ships, bridges, and arsenal, which had been set on fire, and hundreds of buildings, including the best residential section of the capital of the Confederacy, were destroyed.

When the Union army entered the city in the morning, thousands of the inhabitants, men, women, and children, were gathered at street corners and in the parks, in wildest confusion. The commissary depot had been broken open by the starving mob, and rifled of its contents, until the place was reached by the spreading flames. The Federal soldiers stacked arms, and heroically battled with the fire, drafting into the work all able-bodied men found in the city. The invaders extinguished the flames, and soon restored the city to a state of order and safety. The invalid wife of General Lee, who was [303]

In Petersburg — after nine months of battering This fine mansion on Bolingbroke Street, the residential section of Petersburg, has now, on the 3d of April, fallen into the hands of straggling Union soldiers. Its windows have long since been shattered by shells from distant Federal mortars; one has even burst through the wall. But it was not till the night of April 2d, when the retreat of the Confederate forces started, that the citizens began to leave their homes. At 9 o'clock in the morning General Grant, surrounded by his staff, rode quietly into the city. The streets were deserted. At length they arrived at a comfortable home standing back in a yard. There he dismounted and sat for a while on the piazza. Soon a group of curious citizens gathered on the sidewalk to gaze at the commander of the Yankee armies. But the Union troops did not remain long in the deserted homes. Sheridan was already in pursuit south of the Appomattox, and Grant, after a short conference with Lincoln, rode to the west in the rear of the hastily marching troops. Bolingbroke Street and Petersburg soon returned to the ordinary occupations of peace in an effort to repair the ravages of the historic nine months siege.

[304] exposed to danger, was furnished with an ambulance and corporal's guard until the danger was past.

President Lincoln, who had visited Grant at Petersburg, entered Richmond on the 4th of April. He visited President Davis' house, and Libby Prison, then deserted, and held a conference with prominent citizens and army officers of the Confederacy. The President seemed deeply concerned and weighted down with the realization of the great responsibilities that would fall upon him after the war. Only ten days later the nation was shaken from ocean to ocean by the tragic news of his assassination.

General Lee had started on his last march by eight o'clock on the night of the 2d. By midnight the evacuation of both Petersburg and Richmond was completed. For nine months the invincible forces of Lee had kept a foe of more than twice their numerical strength from invading their stronghold, and only after a long and harassing siege were they forced to retreat. They saw the burning city as their line of march was illuminated by the conflagration, and emotions too deep for words overcame them. The woods and fields, in their fresh, bright colors of spring, were in sharp contrast to the travelworn, weather-beaten, ragged veterans passing over the verdant plain. Lee hastened the march of his troops to Amelia Court House, where he had ordered supplies, but by mistake the train of supplies had been sent on to Richmond. This was a crushing blow to the hungry men, who had been stimulated on their tiresome march by the anticipation of much-needed food. The fatality of war was now hovering over them like a huge black specter.

General Grant did not proceed to Richmond, but leaving General Weitzel to invest the city, he hastened in pursuit of Lee to intercept the retreating army. This pursuit was started early on the 3d. On the evening of that date there was some firing between the pursuing army and Lee's rear guard. It was Lee's design to concentrate his force at Amelia Court [305]

Siege of Petersburg.

A Federal wagon-train moves out of Petersburg to feed the troops pursuing Lee, in those early April days of 1865. The Army of Northern Virginia has taken no supply trains on its hurried departure from Petersburg and Richmond. It depends on forage. Within the next week Grant's troops are to be brought almost to a like pass. If the surrender had not come when it did, the pursuit would have been brought to a stop for the time being by lack of subsistence. The South Side Railroad, which crossed Indian Town Creek on the trestle shown in the smaller picture, was the only railroad line in the possession of the Confederates at the end of the siege of Petersburg. It was their only avenue of supplies, but Sheridan's victory at Five Forks made it possible to cut the line. Lee was thus compelled to evacuate both Richmond and Petersburg. The bridge is to the west of Petersburg on the main line of the railroad.

Supporting the pursuit of Lee's army

The last railroad into Petersburg


House, but this was not to be accomplished by the night of the 4th. Not until the 5th was the whole army up, and then it was discovered that no adequate supplies were within less than fifty miles. Subsistence could be obtained only by foraging parties. No word of complaint from the suffering men reached their commander, and on the evening of that disappointing day they patiently and silently began the sad march anew. Their course was through unfavorable territory and necessarily slow. The Federals were gaining upon their retreating columns. Sheridan's cavalry had reached their flank, and on the 6th there was heavy skirmishing. In the afternoon the Federals had arrived in force sufficient to bring on an engagement with Ewell's corps in the rear, at Sailor's Creek, a tributary of the Appomattox River. Ewell was surrounded by the Federals and the entire corps captured. General Anderson, commanding the divisions of Pickett and Johnson, was attacked and fought bravely, losing many men. In all about six thousand Confederate soldiers were left in the hands of the pursuing army.

On the night of the 6th, the remainder of the Confederate army continued the retreat and arrived at Farmville, where the men received two days rations, the first food except raw or parched corn that had been given them for two days. Again the tedious journey was resumed, in the hope of breaking through the rapidly-enmeshing net and forming a junction with Johnston at Danville, or of gaining the protected region of the mountains near Lynchburg. But the progress of the weak and weary marchers was slow and the Federal cavalry had swept around to Lee's front, and a halt was necessary to check the pursuing Federals. On the evening of the 8th, Lee reached Appomattox Court House. Here ended the last march of the Army of Northern Virginia.

General Lee and his officers held a council of war on the night of the 8th and it was decided to make an effort to cut their way through the Union lines on the morning of the next day. On the 7th while at Farmville, on the south side of the [307]

Pursuing Lee to Appomatox.

This is a scene near the railroad station on April 3, 1865. Muskets of the Federal troops are stacked in the foreground. Evidences of the long bombardment appear in the picture. The foot-bridge shown in the smaller picture is at the point where the old river road crossed the run west of Old Town Creek. In the distance can be seen the trestle of the South Side Railroad. This bridge shook under the hurrying feet of Meade's heavy advancing column, as the pursuit of Lee was pressed.

Waiting to press the advantage

On the line of pursuit


Appomattox River, Grant sent to Lee a courteous request for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, based on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of that army. In reply, Lee expressed sympathy with Grant's desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and asked the terms of surrender.

The next morning General Grant replied to Lee, urging that a meeting be designated by Lee, and specifying the terms of surrender, to which Lee replied promptly, rejecting those terms, which were, that the Confederates lay down their arms, and the men and officers be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. When Grant read Lee's letter he shook his head in disappointment and said, “It looks as if Lee still means to fight; I will reply in the morning.”

On the 9th Grant addressed another communication to Lee, repeating the terms of surrender, and closed by saying, “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, etc.”

There remained for Lee the bare possibility, by desperate fighting, of breaking through the Federal lines in his rear. To Gordon's corps was assigned the task of advancing on Sheridan's strongly supported front. Since Pickett's charge at Gettysburg there had been no more hopeless movement in the annals of the war. It was not merely that Gordon was overwhelmingly outnumbered by the opposing forces, but his hunger-enfeebled soldiers, even if successful in the first onslaught, could count on no effective support, for Longstreet's corps was in even worse condition than his own. Nevertheless, on the morning of Sunday, the 9th, the attempt was made. Gordon was fighting his corps, as he said, “to a frazzle,” when Lee came at last to a realizing sense of the futility of it all and [309]

Pursuit of Lee to Appomattox.

The roads leading west from Petersburg crossed and recrossed the Appomattox and its tributaries. The spring floods impeded, though they did not actually check, Grant's impetuous pursuit of Lee. By the time Lee had reached Amelia Court House (April 5th), Grant's van was at Jetersville. Lee halted to bring up provisions; as he said in his official report, the ensuing delay proved fatal to his plans. The provisions that he expected to find at Amelia Court House were captured by the Federals.

The freshet that delayed Grant's pursuit

The flooded Appomattox

[310] ordered a truce. A meeting with Grant was soon arranged on the basis of the letters already exchanged. The conference of the two world-famous commanders took place at Appomattox, a small settlement with only one street, but to be made historic by this meeting. Lee was awaiting Grant's arrival at the house of Wilmer McLean. It was here, surrounded by staff-officers, that the terms were written by Grant for the final surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The terms, and their acceptance, were embodied in the following letters, written and signed in the famous “brick house” on that memorable Sunday:

Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.
General: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General. General R. E. Lee.

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865.
General: I have received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your [311]

Appomattox: the landmark of the Confederates' last stand

The Union army, after the fall of Petersburg, followed the streaming Confederates, retreating westward, and came upon a part of Gordon's troops near High Bridge over the Appomattox, where the South Side Railroad crosses the river on piers 60 feet high. Hancock's (Second) Corps arrived on the south bank just after the Confederates had blown up the redoubt that formed the bridge head, and set fire to the bridge itself. The bridge was saved with the loss of four spans at the north end, by Colonel Livermore, whose party put out the fire while Confederate skirmishers were fighting under their feet. A wagon bridge beside it was saved by the men of Barlow's division. Mahone's division of the Confederate army was drawn up on a hill, north of the river behind redoubts, but when Union troops appeared in force the Confederates again retreated westward along the river.

High bridge over the Appomattox

High bridge over the Appomattox

[312] letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulation into effect.

When Federal officers were seen galloping toward the Union lines from Appomattox Court House it was quickly surmised that Lee had surrendered. Cheer after cheer was sent up by the long lines throughout their entire length; caps and tattered colors were waved in the air. Officers and men alike joined in the enthusiastic outburst. It was glad tidings, indeed, to these men, who had fought and hoped and suffered through the long bloody years.

When Grant returned to his headquarters and heard salutes being fired he ordered it stopped at once, saying, “The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again; and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstration in the field.”

Details of the surrender were arranged on the next day by staff-officers of the respective armies. The parole officers were instructed by General Grant to permit the Confederate soldiers to retain their own horses — a concession that was most welcome to many of the men, who had with them animals brought from the home farm early in the war.

There were only twenty-eight thousand men to be paroled, and of these fewer than one-third were actually bearing arms on the day of the surrender. The Confederate losses of the last ten days of fighting probably exceeded ten thousand.

The Confederate supplies had been captured by Sheridan, and Lee's army was almost at the point of starvation. An order from Grant caused the rations of the Federal soldiers to be shared with the “Johnnies,” and the victorious “Yanks” were only too glad to tender such hospitality as was within their power. These acts of kindness were slight in themselves, but they helped immeasurably to restore good feeling and to [313]


At this railroad point, three miles from the Court House, a Confederate provision train arrived on the morning of April 8th. The supplies were being loaded into wagons and ambulances by a detail of about four thousand men, many of them unarmed, when suddenly a body of Federal cavalry charged upon them, having reached the spot by a byroad leading from the Red House. After a few shots the Confederates fled in confusion. The cavalry drove them on in the direction of Appomattox Court House, capturing many prisoners, twenty-five pieces of artillery, a hospital train, and a large park of wagons. This was Lee's last effort to obtain food for his army.

Appomattox station — Lee's last attempt to provision his retreating army

Federal soldiers who performed one of the last duties at Appomattox: a detail of the Twenty-sixth Michigan handed out paroles to the surrendered Confederates.


McLean's residence at the beginning of the war — Beauregard's headquarters at Bull Run


The homes of Wilmer McLean: where the battles began and ended By an extraordinary coincidence the two historic houses on this and the facing page belonged to the same man. In 1861, Wilmer McLean lived near Manassas Station, and his house was chosen by General Beauregard as headquarters. In the engagement of July 18th, preceding the great battle, a Federal cannonball landed in the fireplace and spoiled the general's dinner. During the famous battle of the following Sunday the household was subject to the constant alarms of a long-fought field. To avoid the scene of active military operations McLean removed to the village of Appomattox and spent nearly four years tranquilly enough. But he found himself once more the center of warlike activity. Only half a mile west of the town Grant's messenger had found Lee resting under an apple-tree. After reading Grant's letter, he started with his military secretary for Appomattox Court House. In the village they met Wilmer McLean, who, after stopping for a moment at the first house they came to, conducted the party to his own home. It was Sunday, three years and nine months since that Sunday of Bull Run. At half-past 1, April 9th, the negotiations took place to the left of the central doorway; during them General Lee sat by a small oval table near the window, half hidden by the pillar at the top of the step. For the table General Sheridan paid Mr. McLean twenty dollars in gold. The rest of the furniture used on that historic occasion was largely seized by others of those present. The house itself remained no longer in obscurity, but became one of the most famous landmarks in American history.

[316] associate for all time with Appomattox the memory of reunion rather than of strife. The things that were done there can never be the cause of shame to any American. The noble and dignified bearing of the commanders was an example to their armies and to the world that quickly had its effect in the genuine reconciliation that followed.

The scene between Lee and his devoted army was profoundly touching. General Long in his “Memoirs of Lee” says: “It is impossible to describe the anguish of the troops when it was known that the surrender of the army was inevitable. Of all their trials, this was the greatest and hardest to endure.” As Lee rode along the lines of the tried and faithful men who had been with him at the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, and at Cold Harbor, it was not strange that those ragged, weather-beaten heroes were moved by deep emotion and that tears streamed down their bronzed and scarred faces. Their general in broken accents admonished them to go to their homes and be as brave citizens as they had been soldiers.

Thus ended the greatest Civil War in history, for soon after the fall of the Confederate capital and the surrender of Lee's army, there followed in quick succession the surrender of all the remaining Southern forces.

While these stirring events were taking place in Virginia, Sherman, who had swept up through the Carolinas with the same dramatic brilliancy that marked his march to the sea, accomplishing most effective work against Johnston, was at Goldsboro. When Johnston learned of the fall of Richmond and Lee's surrender he knew the end had come and he soon arranged for the surrender of his army on the terms agreed upon at Appomattox. In the first week of May General “DickTaylor surrendered his command near Mobile, and on the 10th of the same month, President Jefferson Davis, who had been for nearly six weeks a fugitive, was overtaken and made a prisoner near Irwinsville, Georgia. The Southern Confederacy was a thing of the past.

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