On a bleak hillside overlooking the battleground of Sailor’s Creek, General Robert E. Lee watched as hundreds of his men fled through the fields and wooded ravines below. “Men without guns, many without hats,” one witness recalled, “all mingled with teamsters riding their mules with dangling traces.” A relentless barrage of Union attacks on the afternoon of April 6, 1865, had sent the remnants of the once-proud Army of Northern Virginia scrambling wildly toward safety. “My God!” Lee wondered aloud. “Has the army dissolved?”
Most of this gray-clad mob belonged to Lt. Gen. Richard Heron Anderson’s Corps, referred to sometimes today as the Fourth Corps. After Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal army shattered the Confederate defenses around besieged Richmond and Petersburg, Va., four days earlier, Anderson’s soldiers had joined Lee as he retreated west along the Appomattox River.
When Anderson rode up to Lee in the aftermath of the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, the distraught army commander merely moved his head toward his vanquished subordinate without looking directly at him. With a brusque wave of his arm, he ordered the general to “take the stragglers to the rear….I wish to fight here.” As Lee diverted his attention to rallying as many troops as he could to make a stand, Anderson turned his horse and joined the backwash of his ruined corps in its flight.
The moment was a far cry from the one 11 months earlier when Lee had confidently turned to Anderson for help on a different Virginia battlefield. During the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864, when Army of Northern Virginia First Corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was mistakenly shot by his own men, Lee chose then-Maj. Gen. Anderson to replace “Old Pete” while he recuperated.
Longstreet’s chief of staff, Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, had confided in Lee that the 43-year-old native of Statesburg, S.C., would be a worthy surrogate for Longstreet, saying, “We know him and shall be satisfied with him.” Anderson was moved to tears when the veterans of the First Corps cheered and flung their hats in the air as he rode among them.
An 1842 graduate of West Point, Anderson had distinguished himself as a lieutenant of dragoons during the Mexican War. He later honed his military skills on the Western frontier, rising to captain. “He was a favourite in his Regt.,” Lee recalled, “& was considered a good officer.”
When South Carolina seceded in December 1860, Anderson entered Confederate service. He rose from colonel to brigadier general within six months. After initially serving in command of defenses at Charleston, he was transferred to Florida, where he was wounded while leading an attack near Fort Pickens. By mid-February1862, he was in charge of a South Carolina brigade in then-Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s command.
For his aggressive leadership at the Battle of Seven Pines during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Anderson earned the nickname “Fighting Dick.” In July 1862, Lee commissioned him a major general and assigned him to command of Longstreet’s Second Division.
Fighting Dick was liked and respected throughout the army. Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander called Anderson “a sturdy and reliable fighter” and “as pleasant a commander to serve under as could be wished.” Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, a childhood friend of Anderson’s, called him “the most silent and discreet of men.”
Anderson shined in command throughout the summer of 1862. At the Second Battle of Manassas in August, his division went into battle following a grueling 17-hour march. At Sharpsburg a few weeks later, Anderson was seriously wounded in the thigh but left the field only after fainting from loss of blood.
Anderson recovered in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, though his division was involved only on the fringe of the action. After the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee recommended to President Jefferson Davis that Anderson would make a “good corps commander.”
Anderson’s Division was transferred to Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s newly created Third Corps. At the Battle of Gettysburg, however, Anderson suffered a costly repulse when he failed to exert close control of his brigades as they attacked Cemetery Ridge late on July 2. That setback did not change Lee’s opinion that Anderson would be a good corps commander, affirmed by his decision to choose the South Carolinian to lead the First Corps when Longstreet was wounded at the Wilderness.
Anderson started out well. On May 7, he rapidly marched the corps from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House, arriving just in the nick of time to repulse “the enemy with heavy slaughter,” and prevent Federal forces from turning Lee’s right flank.
Anderson ably led Longstreet’s Corps for the remainder of the Overland Campaign, which was characterized by some of the most fearsome fighting of the entire war. Fighting Dick, one of Longstreet’s staffers wrote, “fell easily into position as a corps commander.”
On June 4 Lee promoted Anderson to lieutenant general, and the South Carolinian led the First Corps in the fighting around Richmond and Petersburg for the next two months. In August Anderson guided a task force supporting Lt. Gen. Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. When that mission ended in mid-September, Anderson returned to Petersburg. One month later he relinquished his command when Longstreet resumed duty, but Lee promptly placed Anderson in command of a new corps and instructed him to establish his headquarters “in the vicinity of Petersburg.”
On paper, Anderson’s new command comprised the infantry divisions of Maj. Gens. Bushrod Johnson and Robert Hoke, formally under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard in the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, then headquartered in Petersburg. Beauregard had left for Charleston, S.C., in September 1864 and had been given command of the Military Division of the West on October 17—the same day Lee assigned Anderson to Beauregard’s old command.
Actually, Anderson’s Corps was composed of Bushrod Johnson’s Division and several small reserve units—a total of about 6,000 muskets defending a thick belt of earthworks east of Petersburg. Commanding Johnson’s four brigades were Brig. Gens. Henry A. Wise, William H. Wallace, Matthew W. Ransom and Archibald Gracie Jr. Providing the corps’ heavy firepower were four artillery battalions commanded by Colonel Hilary Jones.
Although Hoke’s Division was supposed to be part of the corps, it remained north of the city, temporarily under Longstreet, before heading south to Wilmington, N.C., in December 1864. Hoke “never joined me,” Anderson would say later.
As the fourth winter of the war descended, the besieged Army of Northern Virginia occupied a muddy sluice of trenches stretching from Richmond to Petersburg. Anderson lamented their “want of fuel, clothing and provisions,” and the fact that “the scarcity of timber” prevented his men from building stronger earthworks.”
Relentless gunfire from nearby Union works also plagued the corps. “[D]aily casualties were seldom less than five,” Anderson wrote, “and frequently amounted to ten or fifteen.” Surpassing those losses were the numerous desertions that swept the army during the severe winter of 1864-1865. “This caused a daily drain on our strength,” Anderson wrote. “The depressed and destitute condition of the soldiers’ families was one of the prime causes…but the chief…reason was a conviction among them that our cause was hopeless and that further sacrifices were useless.” Anderson observed, however, that the majority of “troops generally preserved a spirit of great fortitude and cheerfulness.”
In early March 1865, Lee shifted the Fourth Corps—except for Jones’ artillery—to Burgess’ Mill, about 11 miles southwest of Petersburg. From the mill on Hatcher’s Run, Anderson’s entrenchments crossed Boydton Plank Road and followed White Oak Road to Claiborne Road, then angled northwest to anchor again on Hatcher’s Run. This key position guarded the South Side Railroad, and Lee’s extreme right flank.
Ostensibly, Anderson’s Corps had moved “for purposes of instruction, exercises and the re-establishment of their health and strength.” It was also hoped that the move would “have some effect in reducing the desertions,” although Anderson insisted that it did not.
One captain in Ransom’s Brigade claimed the change had some positive results, saying “We are now luxuriating in the excellent winter quarters recently occupied by some Virginia troops.” But the respite proved short-lived. On March 20 the captain wrote, “There were two dress parades today, one at eight and a half A.M., the other at 6 P.M., two drills, Company and Squad from nine to eleven A.M., battalion from three to five P.M.” Lamented one Rebel private, “We were drilled like raw recruits.”
The tedium of drills ended abruptly for Ransom’s and Wise’s brigades on March 24. That night, those units moved back through Petersburg to their old positions. Before dawn on March 25, they joined in the fruitless, bloody assault on Fort Stedman—Lee’s failed attempt to penetrate a seemingly weak point in Grant’s siege lines. “Good God what a time!” recalled Confederate Captain Henry Chambers of the 49th North Carolina. “[T]he minie balls came in showers.” Anderson cited his losses at “about twelve hundred.”
Lee’s defeat at Fort Stedman sparked Union attacks against his weakened perimeter. “Several days passed this way,” Anderson wrote, “The enemy frequently feeling our lines, evidently under an impression that we were about to retire from them.”
By March 29, Anderson could muster only about 1,600 rifles to cover each of the three miles in his zone of command. That morning his thinning ranks along White Oak Road were a target of Grant’s spring offensive to cut the South Side Railroad and drive Lee out of both Petersburg and Richmond.
Three Union cavalry divisions under the aggressive Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan pushed beyond Anderson’s right flank toward Dinwiddie Court House. The Union V Corps, under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, followed closely before peeling away from Sheridan’s powerful mounted columns to march northward on the Quaker Road, which pointed like an arrow at the heart of Anderson’s Corps. Meanwhile, Union Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphrey’s II Corps pressed Anderson’s left flank.
Rebel pickets felled trees across Quaker Road and opened a brisk fire, but failed to stop Warren’s infantrymen from crossing Gravelly Run, where the bridge spanning the deep stream lay in ruins. Anderson hurled Wise’s and Wallace’s brigades at the Union spearhead near the Lewis Farm, east of the roadway, and Moody’s and Ransom’s brigades soon joined the melee. “The firing,” remembered one of Ransom’s veterans, “became as heavy…as I ever heard.”
The battle raged through pinewoods and clearings, skirting Quaker Road for nearly two hours. Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, whose brigade bore the brunt of Anderson’s assault, reported, “nothing but the most active exertions of field and staff officers kept the men where they were….” The battle finally turned when Warren fed several regiments and four Napoleons into the action. Near dusk, Anderson retired “into the breastworks” along White Oak Road, having lost more than 300 men against 380 Union casualties.
That night a heavy rain began to fall and continued into the next day, limiting operations. Lee used the lull to glean reinforcements from other points in his lines to counter the Yankee pressure on his right wing. From Richmond, the Confederate Cavalry corps under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee arrived to tackle Sheridan’s cavalry near Dinwiddie Court House. And most of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s Division, from Longstreet’s First Corps, reached Anderson overnight. But “a few hours afterwards,” Anderson wrote, Pickett “was detached to…support Fitz Lee’s Cavalry at Five Forks.”
Ransom’s and Wallace’s brigades went with Pickett, leaving Anderson’s riflemen about 10 paces apart in waterlogged works along White Oak Road. To fill his line below Hatcher’s Run, Anderson pulled in Brig. Gen. Eppa Hunton’s Brigade, the last of Pickett’s units to arrive on the scene, as well as three Third Corps brigades.
Lee arrived early on the 30th and surmised that Warren’s left flank looked open to attack. About 11 a.m. he sent Anderson’s troops against the enemy’s exposed position near White Oak Road, hoping to prevent Warren from seizing that path to Five Forks and the South Side Railroad. Anderson stayed close to the action in a subordinate, though active, role.
Four Confederate brigades charged with a yell, raking the bluecoats with musket volleys. “They broke and ran,” recalled one Virginia riflemen, “we at their heels…burning powder for all we were worth.” The Rebels rolled forward for more than a mile until the Yankees, backed by artillery, stiffened along a branch of Gravelly Run. Reinforced at midafternoon, the Federals counterattacked, pushing Anderson’s outgunned troops back to their log revetments along White Oak Road. Despite losing twice as many soldiers as the Confederates, the Federals were now firmly wedged between Anderson and Pickett.
Anderson rose on the morning of April 1 to find that the Union II Corps had replaced Warren’s men, who had slipped away to reinforce Sheridan. White Oak Road remained blocked. The rattle of musketry in late afternoon let Anderson know that Pickett was heavily engaged near Five Forks.
About 5:45 p.m., Lee ordered Anderson to take “my remaining force to Church [Road] Crossing,” on the South Side Railroad, two miles north of Five Forks. Pickett’s force had been shredded and scattered from the battlefield. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry and the survivors of Pickett’s command were being “hard pressed by the enemy.” Anderson’s Corps departed within an hour, marching through the night.
Anderson took a circuitous route around the Federal roadblock on White Oak Road, reaching Church Road Crossing before dawn on April 2. Lee’s horsemen and about 250 of Pickett’s men under Major Walter Harrison joined him. Pickett, with 800 men who escaped the debacle at Five Forks, had fled toward the Appomattox River. Some of Pickett’s troops, including most of Ransom’s Brigade, crossed to the north bank of the Appomattox on the ferry at Exeter Mill. The process of ferrying his entire command across the river was taking too long, however, so Pickett led the remainder of his force upriver.
Before noon, Anderson learned that “the enemy had carried our lines at Petersburg,” with Rebel troops soon streaming away from Richmond and Petersburg and crowding onto the roads north of the Appomattox. Lee planned to resupply his army at Amelia Court House on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, and would then follow the tracks to Danville, Va., and farther south, possibly to unite with Confederate Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
South of the Appomattox, Anderson’s Corps, joined by a few contingents from the Third Corps, was all that stood between the Union forces and Amelia Court House. Ordered to cross the river at Bevil’s Bridge and rejoin the rest of Lee’s army, Anderson struggled over mud-clotted byways from Church Road Crossing toward Namozine Road, which ran parallel to the Appomattox. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry guarded Anderson’s rear. “A continuous skirmish with the enemy was kept up,” recalled a Rebel trooper. “At points of advantage a stand was made.”
On Namozine Road near Scott’s Cross Roads, at midafternoon on April 2, Anderson faced a strong force of Yankee cavalry in hot pursuit. “A handsome line was formed,” reported Bushrod Johnson, “and hasty barricades of rails were thrown up.” Rebel cannons and small arms repulsed several daring assaults before the blue horsemen ceased attacking at dusk and bivouacked for the night. Anderson pushed on toward Bevil’s Bridge. One Southerner characterized the retreat as “Constant marching and fighting without food, shelter, or sleep.”
Firefights raged all day on April 3. Union forces doggedly forced Anderson into a series of bloody delaying actions. From the west bank of Namozine Creek, on through the yard of Namozine Church, the running battles finally ended at nightfall near Sweathouse Creek, where three of Anderson’s infantry brigades fought a Union cavalry division to a standstill. Finding the approaches to Bevil’s Bridge flooded and impassable, Anderson marched in darkness directly for Amelia Court House. Pickett joined him along the way.
Encumbered by wagon trains, and “worn almost to a frazzle,” Anderson’s somber gray columns moved slowly over muddy trails on April 4. Discarded equipment littered their course. “Now and then,” recalled a Virginian, “we would pass a poor fellow who could hold out no longer and had dropped by the roadside, to be picked up by the Yankee cavalry.”
Near Tabernacle Church and Beaverpond Creek, blue-clad riders poked repeatedly at Anderson’s ranks. Just four miles from Amelia Court House, Anderson was forced to unlimber artillery and form a line of battle near Scott’s Fork to beat back more enemy thrusts. The fighting there lasted until after sundown but allowed the rest of Lee’s army to enter Amelia Court House unmolested. When Lee left the village on April 5, Anderson’s Corps marched with him.
Leading the way was Longstreet, who—because of A.P. Hill’s death on April 2—was now also in command of the Third Corps. Anderson’s Corps and the Reserve Corps under Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell came next, followed by Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Second Corps as the rear guard. Gordon was shepherding the army’s main wagon train and artillery, including Hilary Jones, who had dragged all but 10 of his guns away from Petersburg. Because Union forces had cut the Richmond & Danville rails at Jetersville while Lee’s men foraged near Amelia Court House, the army commander shuffled his slim battalions toward Farmville, Va., 23 miles to the west, where he expected to find another cache of food.
Toiling on mired roads, Lee’s army was unable to outpace enemy forays against its flanks and rear. Anderson recalled that they “skirmished continually,” adding that the march was “greatly impeded by wagon trains which still blocked up the road.”
On the morning of April 6, in a region of hills and steep ravines carved by Sailor’s Creek and its tributaries about five miles east of Farmville, a wide gap opened between the rear of Longstreet’s command and the head of Anderson’s Corps. Union cavalry swept into the void, blocking the road in front of Anderson while two Federal infantry corps closed upon Ewell and Gordon from the rear. Only Gordon, who diverted his march away from the vortex of action, emerged from the battle with any sizable force.
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek claimed nearly 8,000 Confederates—mostly prisoners. The losses included Ewell, most of his corps, and six other Rebel generals. Anderson, Pickett and Bushrod Johnson eluded capture.
Joining the grim procession after Lee admonished him to “take the stragglers to the rear,” Anderson could barely account for 200 survivors from his command. On April 7, Lee merged those fragments into Longstreet’s and Gordon’s corps. Just like that, Anderson’s Corps ceased to exist.
Now without a command, Anderson traveled with the army until the afternoon of April 8. Near New Store, a settlement 15 miles west of Appomattox Court House, Lee relieved him from duty, along with Pickett and Bushrod Johnson. “ I…was directed to repair to my home or any other place I might select, and report there to the Secretary of War,” Anderson wrote later.
Fighting Dick Anderson struggled to make a living in postwar South Carolina until his death at Beaufort in June 1879. Nearly 10 years would elapse before his grave was marked with a simple monument.