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From Petersburg to Appomattox. [from the times-dispatch, January 1, 1905.]

A brave officer's recollection of the last hours of the Confederacy.

Bridges that were burned.

By Colonel T. M. R. Talcott, in Command of the Engineer Troops of the Army of Northern Virginia.

During the winter of 1864-5, by order of General Lee the Engineer Troops rebuilt Bevill's Bridge over the Appomattox river about twenty-five miles above Petersburg, and sent a pontoon bridge which was at Petersburg, to the Richmond and Danville Railroad crossing of the Staunton river, ninety miles west of Richmond. Another pontoon bridge was ready for use at the site of Goode's Bridge over the Appomattox, between Bevill's Bridge and the R. & D. R. R. crossing of that stream, and requisition was made on the Engineer Bureau for a pontoon train to be held in reserve subject to order.

In addition to these preparations for the possible exigencies of the spring campaign, a map was made, showing the roads from Richmond and Petersburg to the several crossings of the Appomattox river, to be distributed to the corps and division commanders when needed. This map has since been published by the United States Government.

On Sunday, April 2, 1865, General Lee notified the Engineer Bureau to send at once to Matoax by the Richmond & Danville [68] Railroad, the reserve pontoon train, which was being held in Richmond, and Engineer Troops were sent with orders to take it up to Genito and throw a bridge over the river to enable wagon trains from Richmond to cross at that point.

The water in the Appomattox river was so high on April 3 and 4 as to cover the approaches to Bevill's Bridge, rendering that crossing useless during the retreat, and contrary to expectations, the Engineer Bureau did not ship the pontoon train intended for Genito, and used the boats for another purpose, so that the pontoon bridge at Goode's was the only available crossing for wagons on April 3rd, when it was availed of by wagon trains which came east of the river for safety after the Five Forks engagement, thus adding to the number of wagons to be passed over the pontoons at Goode's Bridge during the retreat, and there being no pontoons for Genito, the Engineer Troops at Mattoax made huried preparation of the railroad bridge at that point for the passage of wagon trains which had been ordered to cross at Genito, and move by roads north of Amelia Courthouse.

Thus it happened that although General Lee's plans contemplated three available crossings of the Appomattox river for troops, artillery and wagon trains, and a fourth that could be used for troops if necessary, only two bridges were available, and one of them the railroad bridge, of difficult approach for artillery and wagons.

Amelia Courthouse was the rendezvous for the army after crossing the Appomattox, to which commissary supplies had been ordered, and the route via Bevill's bridge was the shortest from Petersburg to that point, but this crossing of the Appomattox river being unavailable on the 3rd and 4th, the troops ordered that way were forced to cross the river at Goode's bridge, which required more time and delayed concentration at Amelia Courthouse; for additional time was required for the march by a longer route, the time of crossing the river was prolonged by the larger force to be passed over the pontoon bridge at Goode's, and the railroad bridge at Matoax. Besides this, the water was falling during the time of crossing at Goode's, and the approaches to the pontoon bridge had to be readjusted from time to time, causing occasional interruptions to the use of that bridge.

The delay of at least one day disconcerted General Lee's plans, and gave Grant time to occupy the commanding ridge on which the [69] railway is located at Jetersville, and with it the control of Lee's line of communication with Johnston's army.

The crossing of the Appomattox having been effected and the bridges destroyed, the Engineer troops moved on to Amelia Courthouse on April 5th, where they overtook the main body of the army, which was soon after in motion westward from that point, without the rations which should have been there, and not in the direction originally contemplated by General Lee, but towards Amelia Springs, the road to which crossed Flat creek some miles north of Jetersville, which by that time was in possession of the enemy.

Soon after leaving Amelia Courthouse we received orders from General Lee to move rapidly ahead, and on arrival at the crossing of Flat creek we found that the county road bridge over that stream had given way, so that neither artillery nor wagons could cross it. General Lee was himself on the ground, and evidently considered the situation critical enough to require his personal attention. He explained his anxiety by saying that General Stuart had captured a dispatch from General Grant to General Ord, who was at Jetersville, ordering an attack early the next morning, and did not leave until he was assured that material for a new bridge was close at hand.

[Major Robert W. Hunter, ‘Secretary of Military Records for Virginia,’ in a communication in the Times-Dispatch of January 8, 1905, gives a more definite account of this dispatch:

The dispatch referred to was taken by General Gordon's orders from a ‘Jessie Scout,’ who, with the dispatch concealed in the lining of his coat, had boldly ridden to the head of Gordon's column, representing himself and companion as soldiers of General Fitz Lee's cavalry returning from furlough and wishing to be informed as to the location of their command. The circumstances which aroused suspicion and led to their capture are given with appropriate accuracy by General Gordon in his ‘Reminiscences,’ pages 424-428.

The captives expected to be executed as spies, but naturally preferred to be shot instead of being hung. Desiring to avoid the useless sacrifice of life, General Gordon with General Lee's concurrence, awaited developments, and the spies were held as prisoners until the surrender, when they were delivered with other prisoners to the Union forces. [70]

The captured dispatch was of such importance that it was sent at once to General Lee, who, at four o'clock on the morning of the 7th, wrote in pencil a note to General Gordon of three pages, giving clear and most minute directions as to routes, and means to foil the enemy's plans. Considering General Lee's extremely difficult environment at the time and under the circumstances it was written, I think it will be regarded as one of the best illustrations of the mens aequa in arduis to be found in military annals. After General Gordon had studied the note with the aid of our maps, I put it in my pocket and preserved it, together with an original of the farewell order of the 10th of April, until it was sent to Mrs. Gordon as a memento of a remarkable incident in the career of her illustrious husband. Unfortunately, the original of General Lee's note was lost in the fire which consumed General Gordon's home in 1899, but I took the precaution before giving it away to have a copy made for the Official Records of the War, in which it now appears.

The mention of General Stuart's name in connection with the incident was, of course, a lapse of the pen.]

The bridge was built and the artillery and wagons passed over it before morning, so that when a Federal battery was unlimbered on a hill to the southward and opened fire soon after sunrise, April 6th, only the Engineer Troops and a gang of negro workmen, which had accompanied the army from Petersburg, were within range of the guns. The route General Lee intended to pursue was via Jetersville, the road to which did not cross Flat creek and therefore no attention had been paid to the condition of this bridge in advance of the movement.

After this nothing worth recording occurred under my observation until the command reached Sailors creek that evening just before the battle at that point, when orders were received to push forward and endeavor to expedite the movement of the wagon trains which was being retarded by a small stream over which there was only a single narrow bridge with many lines of wagons converging towards it, and contending for the right of way.

Additional crossings of the stream were soon provided and the congestion was being relieved when the disordered remnant of our rear guard, which had been routed at Sailor's creek, and the stampeded drivers and their teams from abandoned wagon trains came hurrying by.

Presuming that the enemy were in hot pursuit, the Engineer [71] troops were drawn up in line across the road to offer some resistance to their advance, soon after which General Lee himself appeared on the hill beyond us, where the disordered remnant of his rear guard had halted, and ordered the senior officer to move them on, saying that General Mahone's troops were coming to protect the rear of the army, and, as he expressed it, would not let ‘those people’ trouble them; meaning, of course, the Federals, for whom that was his favorite expression.

On General Mahone's arrival, General Lee instructed him as commander of the rear guard of his army to cross the Appomattox at the ‘High Bridge’ and destroy the bridges, which included the railroad bridge and a wagon bridge close by it, being careful to see that all troops, artillery and wagon trains had passed before setting fire to them. The Engineer troops were ordered to move ahead of General Mahone's command, prepare the bridges for burning, and set fire to them when ordered to do so by General Mahone, or one of his staff officers.

On the morning of April 7th all the troops, artillery and wagon trains being apparently across the river and no orders having been received to set fire to the bridges, Lieutenant-Colonel Blackford, of the First Regiment of Engineer troops, was sent in search of Gen. Mahone to solicit the orders for which we were waiting. He found him on the road about four miles beyond the High bridge, and returned with instructions to burn the bridges just as the enemy's skirmish line was approaching, and a battery unlimbered on the eastern hills. Both bridges were set on fire, but our skirmish line was driven back and the wagon bridge was captured before it had been seriously injured. Two spans of the railroad bridge were burnt. General Long, in his Memoirs of General Lee, refers to his chagrin at the failure to burn a bridge over the Appomattox river, but it was a more important one higher up the river near Farmville, and not the one referred to.

The 7th and 8th of April were uneventful days for the Engineer Troops, but on the morning of the 9th, when General Gordon was trying to cut through the Federal lines, it was reported that a force of Federal cavalry was threatening the wagon trains in Gordon's rear, and acting on general instructions to make the Engineer troops useful wherever they could be of most service, they were moved southward from the road to Appomattox Courthouse across a small creek, and deployed on the left of a section of artillery which was occupying an isolated position. [72]

There was a narrow space of cleared ground immediately in front of the line, but beyond that dense woods from which came hoarse cheers, characteristic of the Federal troops, indicating that the enemy were close at hand and an attack imminent.

Soon afterwards a Federal cavalry officer coatless, and revolver in hand, dashed from the woods ahead of his men, called on us in very uncomplimentary terms to surrender, and fell under a scattering fire which was delivered contrary to orders not to fire until the word of command. Immediately thereafter orders came from General Gordon to cease firing for a flag of truce was out.

The artillery on our right and one of Mahone's brigades which had joined our left, being withdrawn, the Engineer troops withdrew across the creek, which was picketed as the line of demarcation between the two armies during the truce.

It chanced that General Lee noticed the movement which was not far distant from where he was waiting before his meeting with General Grant, and being told that it was the Engineer troops sent for me, and in the short interview which followed, he stated the situation, saying that he felt it to be his duty to meet General Grant for the purpose of negotiating terms of surrender, and stopping further sacrifice of life.

While General Lee was waiting to hear from General Grant, a crowd was accumulating, including some Federals who had come through the lines, and by order of Colonel Walter H. Taylor of of General Lee's staff, a cordon of sentinels was placed around the space temporarily occupied as headquarters, and maintained until after General Lee returned from his interview with General Grant. This was the last military duty the Engineer troops were ordered to perform.

I happened to be where I was and among the first to meet Gen. Lee as he returned from Appomattox Courthouse, and he kindly stopped to inform me of the terms of surrender and of Grant's promise to send rations, telling me to keep my command together and make them as comfortable as possible until paroled.

T. M. R. Talcott, Colonel of Engineers.

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