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Chapter 52:

  • Siege of Petersburg
  • -- violent assault upon our position -- a cavalry expedition -- contest near Reams's Station -- the city invested with earthworks -- position of the forces -- the Mine exploded, and an assault made -- attacks on our lines -- object of the enemy -- our strength -- assault on Fort Fisher -- evacuation of Wilmington -- purpose of Grant's campaign -- Lee's conference with the President -- plans -- sortie against Fort Steadman -- movements of Grant further to Lee's right -- army Retires from Petersburg -- the capitulation -- letters of Lee.

After the battle of Cold Harbor, the geography of the country no longer enabled General Grant, by a flank movement to his left, to keep himself covered by a stream, and yet draw nearer to his objective point, Richmond. He had now reached the Chickahominy, and to move down the east bank of that stream would be to depart further from the prize he sought, the capital of the Confederacy. His overland march had cost him the loss of more men than Lee's army contained at the beginning of the campaign. He now, from considerations which may fairly be assumed to have been the result of his many unsuccessful assaults on Lee's army, or from other considerations which I am not in a position to suggest, decided to seek a new base on the James River, and to attempt the capture of our capital by a movement from the south. With this view, on the night of June 12th he commenced a movement by the lower crossings of the Chickahominy toward the James River. General Lee learned of the withdrawal on the next morning, and moved to our pontoon bridge above Drewry's Bluff. While Grant's army was making this march to James River, General Smith, with his division which had arrived at Bermuda Hundred, was on the night of the 14th directed to move against Petersburg, with an additional force of two divisions, it being supposed that this column would be sufficient to effect what General Butler's previous attempts had failed utterly to accomplish, the capture of Petersburg and the destruction of the Southern Railroad. On the morning of the 15th the attack was made, the exterior redoubts and rifle-pits were carried, and the column advanced toward the inner works, but the artillery was used so effectively as to impress the commander of the assailants with the idea that there must be a large supporting force of infantry, and the attack was suspended so as to allow the columns in rear to come up. [542]

Hancock's corps was on the south side of the James River before the attack on Petersburg commenced, and was ordered to move forward, but not informed that an attack was to be made, nor directed to march to Petersburg until late in the afternoon, when he received orders to move to the aid of General Smith. It being night when the junction was made, it was deemed prudent to wait until morning. Had they known how feeble was the garrison, it is probable that Petersburg would have been captured that night; with the morning, however, came another change, as marked as that from darkness to light. Lee crossed the James River on the 15th, and by a night march his advance was in the entrenchments of Petersburg before the morning for which the enemy was waiting. The artillery now had other support than the old men and boys of the town.

The Confederates promptly seized the commanding points and rapidly strengthened their lines, so that the morning's reconnaissance indicated to the enemy the propriety of postponing an attack until all his force should arrive.

On the 17th an assault was made with such spirit and force as to gain a part of our line, in which, however, the assailants suffered severely. Lee had now constructed a line in rear of the one first occupied, having such advantages as gave to our army much greater power to resist. On the morning of the 18th Grant ordered a general assault, but finding that the former line had been evacuated, and a new one on more commanding ground had been constructed, the assault was postponed until the afternoon; attacks were then made by heavy columns on various parts of our line, with some partial success, but the final result was failure everywhere, and with extraordinary sacrifice of life.

With his usual persistence, he had made attack after attack, and for the resulting carnage had no gain to compensate. The eagerness manifested leads to the supposition that it was expected to capture the place while Lee with part of his force was guarding against an advance on Richmond by the river road. The four day's experience seems to have convinced Grant of the impolicy of assault, for thereafter he commenced to lay siege to the place. On the 21st a heavy force of the enemy was advanced more to our right, in the vicinity of the Weldon Railroad, which runs southward from Petersburg. But General Lee, observing an interval between the left of the Second and right of the Sixth of the enemy's corps, sent forward a column under General A. P. Hill which, entering the interval, poured a fire into the bank of one corps on the right and the other on the left, doubling their bank [543]

Map: operations around Richmond and Petersburg.

[544] divisions up on their center, and driving them with disorder and with heavy loss. Several entire regiments, a battery, and many standards were captured when Hill, having checked the advance which was directed against the Weldon Railroad, withdrew with his captures to his former position, bringing with him the guns and nearly three thousand prisoners.

On the same night a cavalry expedition, consisting of the divisions of Generals Wilson and Kautz, and numbering about six thousand men, was sent west to cut the Weldon, Southside, and Danville railroads, which connected our army with the south and west. This raid resulted in important injury to our communications. The enemy's cavalry tore up large distances of the tracks of all three of the railroads, burning the woodwork and laying waste the country around. But they were pursued and harassed by a small body of cavalry under General W. H. F. Lee, and on their return near Reams's Station were met, near Sapponey Church, by a force of fifteen hundred cavalry under General Hampton. That officer at once attacked. The fighting continued fiercely throughout the night, and at dawn the enemy's cavalry retreated in confusion. Near Reams's Station, at which point they attempted to cross the Weldon Railroad, they were met by General Fitzhugh Lee's horsemen and a body of infantry under General Mahone, and this force completed their discomfiture. After a brief attempt to force their way, they broke in disorder, leaving behind them twelve pieces of artillery, more than a thousand prisoners, and many wagons and ambulances. The railroads were soon repaired, and the enemy's cavalry was for the time rendered unfit for service.

Every attempt made to force General Lee's lines having proved unsuccessful, General Grant determined upon the method of slow approaches, and proceeded to confront the city with a line of earthworks. By gradually extending the line to his left, he hoped to reach out toward the Weldon and Southside Railroads. To obtain possession of these roads now became the special object with him, and all his movements had regard to that end. Petersburg is twenty-two miles south of Richmand, and is connected with the south and west by the Weldon and Southside railroads, the latter of which crosses the Danville Railroad, the main line of communication between Richmond and the Gulf states. With the enemy once holding these roads and those north of the city, Richmond would be isolated, and it would have been necessary for the Confederate army to evacuate eastern Virginia.

It will be seen from what has been written that, though the operations [545] against Petersburg have been ordinarily called a siege, it could not in strictness of language be so denominated, as the communications in the rear, as well as to the north and south, were still open. It was really a conflict between opposing entrenchments.

General Grant had crossed a force into Charles City, on the north bank of the James, and thus menaced Richmond with an assault from that quarter. His line extended thence across the neck of the peninsula of Bermuda Hundred, and east and south of Petersburg, where it gradually stretched westward, approaching nearer and nearer to the railroads bringing the supplies for our army and for Richmond. The line of General Lee conformed to that of General Grant. In addition to the works east and southeast of Richmond, an exterior line of defense had been constructed against the hostile forces at Deep Bottom, and, in addition to a fortification of some strength at Drewry's Bluff, obstructions were placed in the river to prevent the ascent of the Federal gunboats. The lines thence continued facing those of the enemy north of the Appomattox and, crossing that stream, extended around the city of Petersburg, gradually moving westward with the works of the enemy. The struggle that ensued consisted chiefly of attempts to break through our lines. These it is not my purpose to notice seriatim; some of them, however, it is thought necessary to mention. While at Petersburg, the assaults of the enemy were met by a resistance sufficient to repel his most vigorous attacks; our force confronting Deep Bottom was known to be so small as to suggest an attempt to capture Richmond by a movement on the north side of the James. On July 26th a corps of infantry was sent over to Deep Bottom to move against our pontoon bridges near Drewry's Bluff, so as to prevent Lee from sending reenforcements to the north side of the James, while Sheridan with his cavalry moved to the north side of Richmond to attack the works which, being poorly garrisoned, it was thought might be taken by assault. Lee, discovering the movement after the enemy had gained some partial success, sent over reenforcements, which drove him back and defeated the expedition. On the night of the 28th the infantry corps (Hancock's) was secretly withdrawn from the north side of the river, to cooperate in the grand assault which Grant was preparing to make upon Lee's entrenchments. The uniform failure, as has been stated, of the assaults upon our lines had caused the conclusion that they could succeed only after a breach had been made in the works. For that purpose a subterranean gallery for a mine was run under one of our forts. General Burnside, who conducted the operation, thus describes the work: [546]

The main gallery of the mine is five hundred and twenty-two feet in length, the side-galleries about forty feet each. My suggestion is that eight magazines be placed in the lateral galleries, two at each end, say a few feet apart, at right angles to the side-gallery, and two more in each of the side-galleries, similarly placed by pairs, situated equidistant from each other, and the end of the galleries:

I proposed to put in each of the eight magazines from twelve to fourteen hundred pounds of powder, the magazines to be connected by a trough of powder instead of a fuse.

It appears that it was decided that the charge should be eight thousand pounds instead of the larger amount proposed.1 Between four and five o'clock on the morning of July 30th the mine was exploded, and simultaneously the enemy's batteries commenced firing, when, as previously arranged, the column of attack moved forward to the breach, with instructions to rush through it and seize the crest of a ridge in rear of our fort, so as to interpose a force between our troops and in rear of our batteries. A question had arisen as to whether the assaulting column should consist of white or negro troops; of each, there were brigades in General Burnside's division, which occupied that part of the line nearest to the mine, and therefore seems to have been considered as the command from which the troops to constitute the storming column must be selected. The explosion was destructive to our artillery and its small supporting force immediately above the mine.

An opening one hundred fifty feet long, sixty feet wide, and thirty feet deep, suddenly appeared in the place of the earthworks, and the division of the enemy selected for the charge rushed forward to pierce the opening. A Southern writer2 thus describes what ensued:

The white division charged, reached the crater, stumbled over the debris, were suddenly met by a merciless fire of artillery enfilading them right and left and of infantry fusillading them in front; faltered, hesitated, were badly led, lost heart, gave up the plan of seizing the crest in rear, huddled into the crater man on top of man, company mingled with company; and upon this disordered, unstrung, quivering mass of human beings, white and black—for the black troops had followed—was poured a hurricane of shot, shell, canister, musketry, which made the hideous crater a slaughter-pen, horrible and frightful, beyond the power of words. All order was lost; all idea of charging the crest abandoned. Lee's infantry was seen concentrating for the carnival of death; his artillery was massing to destroy the remnants of the charging divisions; those who deserted the crater, to scramble over the debris and run back, were shot down; then all that was left to the shuddering mass of blacks and whites in the pit was to shrink lower, evade the horrible mitraille, and wait for a charge of their friends to rescue them or surrender.


The forces of the enemy finally succeeded in making their way back, with a loss of about four thousand prisoners, and General Lee, whose casualties were small, reestablished his line without interruption. This affair was subsequently investigated by a committee of the Congress of the United States, and their report declared that ‘the first and great cause of the disaster was the employment of white instead of black troops to make the charge.’

Attacks continued to be made on our lines during the months of August and September, but, as in former instances, they were promptly repulsed. On August 18th the enemy seized on a portion of the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg, and on the 25th this success was followed up by an attempt, under General Hancock, to take possession of Reams's Station on the same road, farther south. He was defeated by Heth's division and a portion of Wilcox's, under the direction of General A. P. Hill, and, having lost heavily, was compelled to retreat. These events did not, however, materially affect the general result. The enemy's left gradually reached farther and farther westward, until it had passed the Vaughan, Squirrel Level, and other roads running southwestward from Petersburg, and in October was established on the left bank of Hatcher's Run. The movement was designed to reach the Southside Railroad. A heavy column crossed Hatcher's Run and made an obstinate attack on our lines, in order to break through to the railroad. This column was met in front and flank by Generals Hampton and W. H. F. Lee, with dismounted sharpshooters. Infantry was hastened forward by General Lee, and the enemy was driven back. This closed for the winter active operations against our lines at Petersburg.

When the campaign opened on the Rapidan, General Lee's effective strength was in round numbers sixty thousand of all arms; that of General Grant at the same time one hundred forty thousand. In the many battles fought before the close of the campaign, Grant's loss had been a multiple of that sustained by Lee; the large reenforcements he had received, however, both before and after he crossed the James River, repaired his losses, and must have increased the numerical disparity between the two armies; yet, notwithstanding the great superiority in the number of his force, the long-projected movement for the reduction of Fort Fisher and the capture of Wilmington was delayed because of Grant's unwillingness to detach any of his troops for that purpose until after active operations had been suspended before Petersburg.

It was proposed to make a combined land and naval attack—Major General B. F. Butler to command the land forces, and Admiral D. D. [548] Porter the fleet. The enemy seems about this time to have conceived a new means of destroying forts; it was, to place a large amount of powder in a ship, and having anchored off the fort, to explode the powder and so destroy the works and incapacitate the garrison as to enable a storming party to capture them. How near Fort Fisher it was expected to anchor the ship I do not know, nor have I learned how far it was supposed the open atmosphere could be made to act as a projectile. General Whiting, the brave and highly accomplished soldier who was in command of the defenses of Wilmington, stated that the powder ship did not come nearer to Fort Fisher than twelve or fifteen hundred yards. He further stated that he heard the report of the explosion at Wilmington, and sent a telegram to Colonel Lamb, the commanding officer at the fort, to inquire what it meant, and was answered, ‘Enemy's gunboat blown up.’ No effect, as might have been anticipated, was produced on the fort.3 From the same source it is learned that the combined force of this expedition was about six thousand five hundred land troops and fifty vessels of war of various sizes and classes, several ironclads, and the ship charged with two hundred thirty-five tons of powder. Some of the troops landed, but after a reconnaissance of the fort, which then had a garrison of about six thousand five hundred men, the troops were reembarked, and thus the expedition ended.

On January 15, 1865, the attempt was renewed with a larger number of troops, amounting, after the arrival of General Schofield, to twentyodd thousand. Porter's fleet also received additional vessels, making the whole number fifty-eight engaged in the attack. The garrison of Fort Fisher had been increased to about double the number of men there on December 24th. The ironclad vessels of the enemy approached nearer the fort than on a former occasion, and the fire of the fleet was more concentrated and vastly more effective. Many of the guns in the fort were dismounted, and the parapets seriously injured, by the fire. The garrison stood bravely to their guns, and when the assault was made, fought with such determined courage as to repulse the first column, and obstinately contended with another approaching from the land side, continuing the fight long after they had got into the fort. Finally, overwhelmed by numbers, and after the fort and its armament had been mainly destroyed by a bombardment—I believe greater than ever before concentrated upon a fort—the remnant of the garrison surrendered. The heroic and highly gifted General Whiting was killed, and the gallant commander of the fort, Colonel Lamb, seriously wounded. [549] They both fell into the hands of the enemy. General Hoke, distinguished by brilliant service on other fields, had been ordered down to support the garrison, and under the directions of General Bragg, commanding the department, had advanced to attack the investing force, but a reconnaissance convinced them both that his command was too weak to effect the object. The other forts, of necessity, fell with the main work, Fisher, and were abandoned. Hoke, with his small force retiring through Wilmington after destroying the public vessels and property, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy, slowly fell back, fighting at several points, and seeking to find in the separation of the vastly superior army which was following him an opportunity to attack a force the number of which should not greatly exceed his own, finally made a junction with General Johnston, then opposing Sherman's advance through North Carolina.

The fixed purpose of General Grant's campaign of 1864 was the capture of Richmond, the Confederate capital. For this he had assembled the large army with which he crossed the Rapidan and fought the numerous battles between there and the James River. For this he had moved against Petersburg, the capture of which in itself was not an object so important as to have justified the effort made to that end. It was only valuable because it was on the line of communication with the more southern states, and offered another approach to Richmond. In his attack upon Petersburg it will be seen from the events already described that he adopted neither of the two plans which were open to him: the one, the concentration of all his efforts to break the line covering Petersburg; the other, to move his army round it and seize the Weldon and Southside railroads, so as to cut off the supplies of Lee's army and compel the evacuation of both Petersburg and Richmond. Had there been approximate equality between his army and that of Lee, he could not wisely have ventured upon the latter movement against a soldier so able as his antagonist; the vast numerical superiority of Grant's army might well have induced him to invite Lee to meet him in the open field. He did, however, neither the one nor the other, but something of both.

In the opening of the campaign of 1865 he continued, as he had done in 1864, to extend his line to the left, seeking, after having gained the Weldon Railroad, to reach still farther to that connecting Petersburg with Richmond and Danville Railroad. Lee, with a well-deserved confidence in his troops and his usual intrepidity, drew from his lines of defense men enough to enable him for a long time to defeat the enemy in [550] these efforts, by extension to turn his right flank. After Grant's demonstration on the north side of the James by sending over Hancock's corps had been virtually abandoned by its withdrawal, Longstreet's corps, which had been sent to oppose it, remained for a long time on the north side of the James. Finally General Ewell with a few troops, the Richmond reserves, and a division of the navy under Admiral Semmes, held the river and land defenses on the east side of Richmond.

General A. R. Lawton, who had become the quartermaster general of the Confederate army, ably supported by Lewis E. Harvie, president of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, increased the carrying capacity of that line so as to compensate for our loss of the use of the Weldon Railroad. At the same time General St. John, chief of the commissariat, by energetic efforts and the use of the Virginia Canal, kept up the supplies of General Lee's army, so as to secure from him the complimentary acknowledgement, made about a month before the evacuation of Petersburg, that the army there had not been so well supplied for many months.

During the months of February and March, Lee's army was materially reduced by the casualties of battle and the frequency of absence without leave. I will not call these absentees deserters, because they did not leave to join the enemy, and again, because in some instances where the facts were fully developed, they had gone to their necessitous families with intent to return and resume their places in the line of battle. His cavalry force had also been diminished by the absence of General Hampton's division, to which permission had been given to go to their home, South Carolina, to get fresh horses, and also to fill up their ranks. Long, arduous, and distant service had rendered both necessary.

In the early part of March, as well as my memory can fix the date, General Lee held with me a long and free conference. He stated that the circumstances had forced on him the conclusion that the evacuation of Petersburg was but a question of time. He had early and fully appreciated the embarrassment which would result from losing the workshops and foundry at Richmond, which had been our main reliance for the manufacture and repair of arms as well as the preparation of ammunition. The importance of Richmond in this regard was, however, then less than it had been by the facilities which had been created for these purposes at Augusta, Selma, Fayetteville, and some smaller establishments; also by the progress which was being made for a large armory at Macon, Georgia. To my inquiry as to whether it would not be better to anticipate the necessity by withdrawing at once, he said [551] that his artillery and draught horses were too weak for the roads as they were then, and that he would have to wait until they became firmer. There naturally followed consideration of the line of retreat. A considerable time before this General Hood had sent me a paper, presenting his views and conclusion that, if it became necessary for the Army of Northern Virginia to retreat, it should move toward Middle Tennessee. The paper was forwarded to General Lee and returned by him with an unfavorable criticism and the conclusion that, if we had to retreat, it should be in a southwardly direction toward the country from which we were drawing supplies, and from which a large portion of our forces had been derived. In this conversation the same general view was more specifically stated, and made to apply to the then existing condition of affairs. The program was to retire to Danville, at which place supplies should be collected and a junction made with the troops under General J. E. Johnston, the combined force to be hurled upon Sherman in North Carolina, with the hope of defeating him before Grant could come to his relief. Then the more southern states freed from pressure and encouraged by this success, it was expected, would send large reenforcements to the army, and Grant, drawn far from his base of supplies into the midst of a hostile population, it was hoped, might yet be defeated, and Virginia be delivered from the invader. Efforts were energetically continued to collect supplies in depots where they would be available, and, in furtherance of the suggestion of General Lee as to the necessary improvement in the condition of his horses, the quartermaster general was instructed to furnish larger rations of corn to the quartermaster at Petersburg.

Though of unusually calm and well-balanced judgment, General Lee was instinctively averse to retiring from his enemy, and had so often beaten superior numbers that his thoughts were no doubt directed to every possible expedient which might enable him to avoid retreat. It thus fell out that, in a week or two after the conference above noticed, he presented to me the idea of a sortie against the enemy near to the right of his line. This was rendered the more feasible by the constant extension of Grant's line to the left, and the heavy bodies of troops he was employing to turn our right. The sortie, if entirely successful, so as to capture and hold the works on Grant's right, as well as three forts on the commanding ridge in his rear, would threaten his line of communication with his base, City Point, and might compel him to move his forces around ours to protect it; if only so far successful as to cause the transfer of his troops from his left to his right, it would relieve our t [552] right, and delay the impending disaster for the more convenient season for retreat.

Fort Steadman was the point against which the sortie was directed; its distance from our lines was less than two hundred yards, but an abatis covered its front. For this service, requiring equal daring and steadiness, General John B. Gordon, well proved on many battlefields, was selected. His command was the remnant of Ewell's corps, troops often tried in the fiery ordeal of battle, and always found true as tempered steel. Before daylight, on the morning of March 25th, Gordon moved his command silently forward. His pioneers were sent in advance to make openings through the obstructions, and the troops rushed forward, surprised and captured the garrison, then turned the guns upon the adjacent works and soon drove the enemy from them. A detachment was now sent to seize the commanding ground and works in the rear, the batteries of which, firing into the gorges of the forts on the right and left, would soon make a wide opening in Grant's line. The guides to this detachment misled it in the darkness of a foggy dawn far from the point to which it was directed. In the meantime the enemy, recovering from his surprise and the confusion into which he had been extensively thrown, rallied and with overwhelming power concentrated both artillery and infantry upon Gordon's command. The supporting force which was to have followed him, notwithstanding the notice which was given by the victorious cheer of his men when they took Fort Steadman, failed to come forward, and Gordon's brilliant success, like the Dead Sea fruit, was turned to ashes at the moment of possession. It was hopeless, with his small force unsupported, to retain the position he had gained. It remained only to withdraw, as far as practicable, his command to our line, and this the valiant soldier promptly proceeded to do; some of his men were killed on the retreat, many became prisoners-I believe all, or nearly all, of those who had been detached to seize other works, and had not rejoined the main body.

The following letter from General Gordon furnishes some important details of the attack:

Atlanta, Georgia, October 16, 1880.
my Dear Mr. President: The attack upon Fort Steadman was made on the night of the 25th March, or rather before light on the morning of the 26th March, 1865. A conference had been held between General Lee and myself at his headquarters the 10th of March, which resulted in General Lee's decision to transfer my corps from the extreme right of our army to the trenches in and around Petersburg, with the purpose of enabling me to carefully examine the enemy's lines, and report to him my belief as to the practicability of breaking them at any point. Within a week after being transferred to this new position, I [553] decided that Fort Steadman could be taken by a night assault, and that it might be possible to throw into the breach thus made in Grant's lines a sufficient force to disorganize and destroy the left wing of his army before he could recover and concentrate his forces, then lying beyond the James and Appomattox Rivers. Fort Steadman was the point at which the earthworks of General Grant most nearly approached our own. This fort was located upon what was known as Hare's Hill, and was in front of the city of Petersburg, and of the point on our lines known as Colquitt's Salient. The two hostile lines could not have been more than two hundred to two hundred and fifty yards apart at this point; and the pickets were so close together that it was difficult to prevent constant conversation between those of the Confederate and Federal armies. Fort Steadman was upon the main line of General Grant's works, and flanked on either side by a line of earthworks and other forts, which completely commanded every foot of the intervening space between the hostile lines. In rear of Fort Steadman were three other forts, two of which, and perhaps all three, could command Fort Steadman, in case of its capture by our forces. These forts in rear of Steadman were protected by an almost impenetrable abatis, while, in front of Fort Steadman itself, and of the main line of which it was a part, was a line of sharpened fence-rails, with the lower ends buried deeply in the ground, their middle resting upon horizontal poles and wrapped with telegraph-wires, and their upper ends sharpened and elevated to the height of four and a half or five feet. These rails, which formed the obstruction in front of General Grant's lines at Fort Steadman and along the flanking works, were, is I said, wrapped with telegraph-wire where they rested on the horizontal poles, so as to prevent an attacking force from pressing them apart, and buried in the ground too deeply to be pulled up, and, sharpened at the upper end, were too high to be mounted by my men. This obstruction, therefore, had to be cut away with axes before the attacking force could enter the fort or lines.

General Lee, after considering the plan of assault and battle which I submitted to him, and which I shall presently describe, gave me orders to prepare for the movement, which was regarded by both of us as a desperate one, but which seemed to give more promise of good results than any other hitherto suggested. General Lee placed at my disposal, in addition to my own corps, a portion of A. P. Hill's and a portion of Longstreet's, and a detachment of cavalry—in all, about one half of the army.

The general plan of the assault and battle was this: To take the fort by a rush across the narrow space that lay between it and Colquitt's Salient, and then surprise and capture, by a stratagem, the commanding forts in the rear, thus opening a way for our troops to pass to the rear, and upon the flank of the left wing of Grant's army, which was to be broken to pieces by a concentration of all the forces at my command moving upon that flank. During the night of the 25th my preparations were made for the movement before daylight. I placed three officers in charge of three separate bodies of men, and directed them, as soon as the lines of Fort Steadman should be carried by the assaulting column, to rush through the gap thus produced to the three rear forts—one of these officers and bodies of men to go to each fort, and to approach them from their rear by the only avenue left open and seize those forts. A guide was placed with each of these officers, who was to conduct him and his troops to the rear of the front, [554] which he was to surprise. A body of the most stalwart of my men was organized to move in advance of all the troops, armed with axes, with which they were to cut down the obstruction of sharpened and wire-fastened rails in front of the enemy's lines.

Next to these were to come three hundred men, armed with bayonets fixed and empty muskets, who were to mount and enter the fort as the axemen cut away the obstruction of sharpened rails, bayoneting the pickets in front and gunners in the fort if they resisted, or sending them to our rear if they surrendered. Next were to cross the three officers and their detachments, who were to capture the three rear forts. Next, a division of infantry was to cross, moving by the left flank, so as to be in position when halted, and fronted to move without any confusion or delay immediately down General Grant's lines, toward his left, capturing his troops, or forcing them to abandon their works and form under our advancing fire at right angles to his line of works.

Next was to cross the cavalry, who were to ride to the rear, cut the enemy's telegraph-lines, capture his pontoons, and prevent or delay the crossing of reenforcements from beyond the Appomattox. Next, my whole force was to swell the column of attack. Then, as the front of our lines were cleared of the enemy's troops, our divisions were to change front and join in pressing upon the enemy and driving him farther from the other wing of General Grant's army, and widening the breach. Strips of white cloth were tied around the shoulders of our men, so as to designate them in the darkness.

Just before daylight, when all was ready, I gave the signal, and the axemen rushed across, followed by the bodies armed with bayonets and empty muskets, who captured and sent to the rear the enemy's pickets. The axemen cut away the sharpened rails so rapidly as scarcely to cause a halt of the troops following, who mounted the enemy's works and seized his guns and gunners in the fort, clearing the way and giving safe passage to detachments and larger bodies which were to follow and which did follow. The fort and most of the lines between the fort and the river were captured with the loss of but one man, so far as I could learn. We captured eleven heavy guns, nine mortars, about seven hundred prisoners, as I now recollect, among whom was the brigadier commanding that portion of the line, General McLaughlin.

Everything was moving as well as I could have desired, when, one after another, all three of the officers, sent to the rear to capture by strategem the rear forts, sent messengers to inform me that they had passed successfully through the lines of the enemy's reserves in rear of Fort Steadman, and were certainly beyond the rear forts, but that their guides had been lost or had deserted, and that they could not find the forts.

Although I heard nothing afterward of these guides, yet I did learn of the fate of the three officers and their commands. Some were shot down after daylight, some were captured, and a few, very few, made their way back to our lines. The failure of that portion of the programme left, of course, these three forts manned by the enemy, and his heavy guns made it impossible to carry out literally the details of the plan. Then a large body of the troops sent by General Lee from General Longstreet's corps were delayed by the breaking down of trains, or by some other cause, and did not arrive at the appointed hour, which caused so great a delay that we did not get in the fort and upon the enemy's flank at as early an [555] hour as was expected, and daylight found us with the plan only half executed. At daylight, all the commanding forts in the rear, which we had failed to capture, opened upon Fort Steadman and that portion of the enemy's lines held by our troops. Reenforcements were rapidly brought up, so that it became too hazardous, as General Lee thought, to go forward or attempt it. So he ordered me back (I may say here that I entirely approved of this decision of General Lee). Up to this hour we had lost but few men, and these had been killed or wounded mainly by artillery. But now the enemy's infantry came up and made several assaults. They were repulsed by our troops in Fort Steadman and in the enemy's works on its flanks. It was in the effort to withdraw the troops that our principal loss occurred. A raking fire was kept up across the intervening space over which we had moved in capturing the fort. I was wounded in recrossing to Colquitt's Salient, and many of our men were killed and wounded in making the same passage back to our works.

As I said at the outset, this attack was regarded by both General Lee and myself as very hazardous; but it seemed necessary to do more than sit quietly waiting for General Grant to move upon our right, while each day was diminishing our strength by disease and death.

Let me also add that the movement made at Hare's Hill must have proved a great success but for the unforeseen and unavoidable miscarriages to which I have referred.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Immediately following, and perhaps in consequence of this sortie, an extensive attack was made upon our lines to the left of Fort Steadman, but without any decisive results. On March 27th the main part of Grant's forces confronting Richmond were moved over to the lines before Petersburg, and his left was on the same day joined by Sheridan's division of cavalry. It will be remembered that Lee had sent Longstreet to the north side of the James as soon as he discovered that Grant had sent a corps across with the supposed purpose of attacking Richmond from that side. It was intended that Longstreet should return whenever the enemy withdrew his main force from the north side of the James; it appears, however, that this was so secretly done as to conceal the fact from General Longstreet, and that both Hancock and Ord had joined Grant, to swell his forces by two corps before our troops returned to join Lee. Grant, thus strengthened, made a more determined movement to gain the right of Lee's position; before he was ready to make his assault, however, Lee marched with a comparatively very small force, took the initiative, and on the 31st struck the enemy's advance and repulsed him in great confusion, following until confronted by the heavy masses formed in open ground in the rear, when Lee withdrew his men back to their entrenchments. [556]

A strategic position of recognized importance was that known as Five Forks. Lee had stationed there Major General Pickett with his division, and some additional force. On the next day, April 1st, this position was assaulted, and our troops were driven from it in confusion. The unsettled question of time was now solved.

Grant's massive columns, advancing on right, left, and center, compelled our forces to retire to the inner line of defense, so that, on the morning of the 2d, the enemy was in a condition to besiege Petersburg in the true sense of that term. Battery Gregg made an obstinate defense and, with a garrison of about two hundred fifty men, held a corps in check for a large part of the day. The arrival of Longstreet's troops, and the strength of the shorter line now held by Lee, enabled him to make several attempts to dislodge his assailant from positions he had gained. In one of these, the distinguished soldier whose gallantry and good conduct it has frequently been my pleasure to notice, Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, who had so often passed unscathed through storms of shot and shell, yielded up the life he had, in the beginning of the war, consecrated to the Confederate cause; his comrades, while mourning his loss, have drawn consolation from the fact that he died before our flag was furled in defeat.

Retreat was now a present necessity. All that could be done was to hold the inner lines during the day, and make needful preparations to withdraw at night. In the forenoon of Sunday, the 2d, I received, when in church, a telegram announcing that the army would retire from Petersburg at night, and I went to my office to give needful directions for the evacuation of Richmond, the greatest difficulty of which was the withdrawal of the troops who were on the defenses east of the city, and along the James River.

The event had come before Lee had expected it, and the announcement was received by us in Richmond with sorrow and surprise; though it had been foreseen as a coming event which might possibly, though not probably, be averted, and such preparation as was practicable had been made to meet the contingency when it should occur, it was not believed to be so near at hand.

At nightfall our army commenced crossing the Appomattox, and, before dawn, was far on its way toward Amelia Courthouse, Lee's purpose being, as previously agreed on in conference with me, to march to Danville, Virginia. By a reference to the map it will be seen that General Grant, starting from the south side of the Appomattox, had a shorter line to Danville than that which General Lee must necessarily [557] follow, and, if Grant directed his march so as to put his forces between Danville and those of Lee, it was quite possible for him to effect it. This was done, and thus Lee was prevented from carrying out his original purpose, and directed his march toward Lynchburg. The enemy, having first placed himself across the route to Danville, at Jetersville, subsequently took up the line of Lee's retreat. His large force of cavalry, and the exhausted condition of the horses of our small number of that arm, gave the pursuing foe a very great advantage; worn and reduced in numbers as Lee's army was, however, the spirit it had always shown flashed out whenever it was pressed. A division would turn upon a corps and drive it; General Fitzhugh Lee, the worthy successor of the immortal Stuart, with a brigade of our emaciated cavalry, would drive a division of their pursuers. These scenes were repeatedly enacted during the long march from Petersburg to Appomattox Courthouse, and have been so vividly and fully described by others that I will pass to the closing event.

Lee had never contemplated surrender. He had, long before, in language similar to that employed by Washington during the Revolution, expressed to me the belief that in the mountains of Virginia he could carry on the war for twenty years, and, in directing his march toward Lynchburg, it may well be that as an alternative he hoped to reach those mountains and, with the advantage which the topography would give, yet to baffle the hosts which were following him. On the evening of the 8th General Lee decided, after conference with his corps commanders, that he would advance the next morning beyond Appomattox Courthouse, and if the force reported to be there should prove to be only Sheridan's cavalry, to disperse it and continue the march toward Lynchburg; if infantry should be found in large force, however, the attempt to break through it was not to be made, and the correspondence which General Grant had initiated on the previous day should be reopened by a flag, with propositions for an interview to arrange the terms of capitulation. Gordon, whose corps formed the rear guard from Petersburg, and who had fought daily for the protection of the trains, had now been transferred to the front. On the next morning, before daylight, Lee sent Colonel Venable, one of his staff, to Gordon, commanding the advance, to learn his opinion as to the chances of a successful attack, to which Gordon replied, ‘My old corps is reduced to a frazzle, and, unless I am supported by Longstreet heavily, I do not think we can do anything more.’ When Colonel Venable returned with this answer to General Lee, he said, ‘Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant.’ [558]

At that time Longstreet, covering the rear, was threatened by Meade, so that there was no ability to reenforce Gordon, and thus to explain why General Lee then realized that the emergency had arisen for the surrender of his army which, in his note to General Grant of the previous day, he had said he did not believe to exist. Colonel Venable, at early dawn, had left Gordon with about five thousand infantry, and Fitzhugh Lee with about fifteen hundred cavalry, and Colonel Carter's battalion of artillery, forming his line of battle to attack the enemy, which, so far as then known, consisted of Sheridan's cavalry, which had got in front of our retreating column. The assault was made with such vigor and determination as to drive Sheridan for a considerable distance; if this had been the only obstacle, the road would have been opened for Lee to resume his march toward Lynchburg. After Gordon had advanced nearly a mile, he was confronted by a large body of infantry, subsequently ascertained to be about eighty thousand. To attack that force was, of course, hopeless, and Gordon commenced falling back, and simultaneously the enemy advanced, but suddenly came to a halt. Lee had sent a flag to Grant, who had consequently ordered a suspension of hostilities.

A leader less resolute, an army less heroically resisting fatigue, constant watching, and starvation, would long since have reached the conclusion that surrender was a necessity. Lee had left Petersburg with not more than twenty thousand infantry, five thousand cavalry, and four thousand artillery. Men and horses all reduced below the standard of efficiency by exposure and insufficient supplies of clothing, food,4 and forage, only the mutual confidence between the men and their commander could have sustained either under the trials to which they were subjected. It is not a matter of surprise that the army had wasted away to a mere remnant, but rather that it had continued to exist as an organized body still willing to do battle. All the evidence we have proves that the proud, cheerful spirit both of the army and its leader had resisted the extremes of privation and danger, and never sunk until confronted by surrender.

General Grant, in response to a communication under a white flag made by General Lee, as stated above, came to Appomattox, where a suitable room was procured for their conference, and, the two generals [559] being seated at a small table, General Lee opened the interview thus:

General, I deem it due to proper candor and frankness to say at the very beginning of this interview that I am not willing even to discuss any terms of surrender inconsistent with the honor of my army, which I am determined to maintain to the last.

General Grant replied:

I have no idea of proposing dishonorable terms, General, but I would be glad if you would state what you consider honorable terms.

General Lee then briefly stated the terms upon which he would be willing to surrender. Grant expressed himself as satisfied with them, and Lee requested that he would formally reduce the propositions to writing.

To present a full and satisfactory account of the circumstances and terms of the surrender, as well as the events immediately preceding the evacuation of Petersburg, and the retreat thence to Appomattox Courthouse, I annex the subjoined letters:

Appomattox Court-House, April 9, 1865.
General R. E. Lee, commanding Confederate States Army:
In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., 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 designated by me, the other to be retained by such officers as you may designate.

The officers to give their individual parole not to take 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 their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.

Very respectfully,

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

headquarters army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865.
General: I have received your letter of this date containing the terms of surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Retreat from Richmond and Petersburg.


Mr. President: Your letter of the 1st is just received. I have been willing to detach officers to recruit negro troops, and sent in the names of many who are desirous of recruiting companies, battalions, or regiments, to the War Department. After receiving the general orders on that subject establishing recruiting depots in the several States, I supposed that this mode of raising the troops was preferred. I will continue to submit the names of those who offer for the service, and whom I deem competent, to the War Department; but, among the numerous applications which are presented, it is difficult for me to decide who are suitable for the duty. I am glad your Excellency has made an appeal to the Governors of the States, and hope it will have a good effect. I have a great desire to confer with you upon our condition, and would have been to Richmond before this, but, anticipating movements of the enemy which have occurred, I felt unwilling to be absent. I have considered our position very critical; but have hoped that the enemy might expose himself in some way that we might take advantage of, and cripple him. Knowing when Sheridan moved on our right that our cavalry would be unable to resist successfully his advance upon our communications., I detached Pickett's division to support it. At first Pickett succeeded in driving the enemy, who fought stubbornly; and, after being reenforced by the Fifth Corps (United States Army), obliged Pickett to recede to the Five Forks on the Dinwiddie Court-House and Ford's road, where, unfortunately, he was yesterday defeated. To relieve him, I had to again draw out three brigades under General Anderson, which so weakened our front line that the enemy last night and this morning succeeded in penetrating it near the Cox road, separating our troops around the town from those on Hatcher's Run. This has enabled him to extend to the Appomattox, thus inclosing and obliging us to contract our lines to the city. I have directed the troops from the lines on Hatcher's Run, thus severed from us, to fall back toward Amelia Court-House, and I do not see how I can possibly help withdrawing from the city to the north side of the Appomattox tonight. There is no bridge over the Appomattox above this point nearer than Goode's and Bevil's over which the troops above mentioned could cross to the north side, and be made available to us; otherwise I might hold this position for a day or two longer, but would have to evacuate it eventually; and I think it better for us to abandon the whole line on James River to-night, if practicable. I have sent preparatory orders to all the officers, and will be able to tell by night whether or not we can remain here another day; but I think every hour now adds to our difficulties. I regret to be obliged to write such a hurried letter to your Excellency, but I am in the presence of the enemy, endeavoring to resist his advance.

I am most respectfully and truly yours,

R. E. Lee, General.

1 Testimony of General Burnside, ‘Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War,’ Vol. I, pp. 16, 17, 1865.

2 John Esten Cooke, Life of General R. E. Lee.

3 ‘Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War,’ 1865, Vol. II, pp. 106, 107.

4 Falsehood and malignity have combined to invent and circulate a baseless story to the effect that food ordered to Amelia Courthouse for Lee's troops was by the administration at Richmond diverted from its destination, and the soldiers thus left to needless suffering. A further notice will be taken of this slander in a subsequent chapter, and that it had not one atom of truth in it will be shown by conclusive testimony.

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