Major General John Brown Gordon the forward parapet, whispering cues to a sentry bantering with his Union counterpart. The repartee covered the rustling of special detachments slipping forward in the cold pre-dawn,men armed with axes to break up Yankee obstacles. A mere 200 yards to the front stood the earthen walls of Fort Stedman, which Gordon and a desperate Robert E. Lee hoped would become the key to unlocking the nine-month-old siege of Petersburg.
Unsuspecting Union pickets were quickly disarmed or killed. Behind the pioneers, carefully formed assault units rushed up, each with a clear mission. The ambitious plan Gordon had prepared – a forlorn hope – called for the rapid capture of Fort Stedman and its flanking batteries, after which chosen regiments would plunge deeper into the Union lines to seize two supporting forts. That would, in turn, open a gap for Confederate cavalry to charge through. The horsemen would ride hard for City Point, a vast Union supply base and the headquarters of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, seven miles distant.
Infernally brave but sharp-minded, as well, Gordon saw that the war was all but lost. Nonetheless, he wasn’t about to give up. Such a decision lay with Lee and with no one else.
Over the winter’s months of hunger and sickness for his army, Lee had come to rely on Gordon more than he did on any other officer. And Gordon revered Lee. So when “Marse Robert” directed Gordon to plan a grand attack on the Union siege lines, the Georgian applied himself with the audacity and thoroughness that had made him the master of many a combat collision.
As for Lee, he knew all too well the wretched state of the Army of Northern Virginia. The men were as tough as hickory switches, but morale was fragile. While officers mustered a semblance of gaiety at “starvation balls” held by local belles, desertion rates had soared down in the ranks, leading to dozens and, ultimately, hundreds of executions. Lee knew that many deserters weren’t cowards but had answered pleas from starving families or simply wanted to have a full belly again. Yet, only discipline held his army together: The old Regular in Lee would not hear excuses. He hardened his heart to save the army he loved.
The desertions continued. Lee saw that he had to fight and soon, to take a last great risk, before his army dissolved. (Union forces suffered desertions, as well, though not in proportion to the starving Confederates; often, the Yankee deserters were bounty-jumpers.)
Neither Lee nor Gordon imagined that a successful attack on Fort Stedman would destroy the blue-clad armies coiled around them. But they hoped to buy time, to disrupt the war-machine Army of the Potomac and to dumbfound the Army of the James facing Richmond, discrediting the Union’s top commanders with a shameful defeat aimed as much at civilian morale in the North as at Federal troops.
Now Gordon’s advance parties fanned out through the dark, executing their assigned tasks to perfection. Within the fort, bewildered Yankees succumbed. Assaulting regiments dashed to the left and right, seizing the nearest batteries with hardly a shot heard. The penetration units thrust on through the pre-dawn murk, aiming for those two rearward forts Gordon’s plan had identified as crucial positions to secure the shoulders of the breakthrough.
Groggy Yankee prisoners stumbled toward the Rebel lines, herded by exultant Johnnies. And still the firing hardly sounded like more than the usual skirmishing. A Union general blundered into Fort Stedman, unaware of its capture and mistaking the Rebels for his own troops – he concluded his wartime service by presenting his sword to Gordon. As the first blades of dawn cut the sky, fortune seemed to smile on the Confederacy for the first time in many months.
Then it all went wrong. The penetration units were confounded by the maze of Union trenches and traverses behind Fort Stedman. They could not find the pair of forts they’d been ordered to seize. And they missed them for good reason: Those forts didn’t exist. Because Gordon lacked line of sight to the rear of Stedman, he had relied on reports from spies and deserters to sketch his outline of the Union defenses. Somehow, even his best agents got it wrong. As forms and features took shape in the rising light, bewildered Reb officers led their men in circles, hunting those phantom forts.
Behind them, thousands of Johnnies pressed into Fort Stedman and the adjoining Yankee trenches: Lee had given Gordon control of half of his army. Within the increasingly crowded earthworks, Gordon waited, his mood souring by the minute.
If those forts were illusions, a network of Union batteries well positioned for crossfres proved real enough. Even before dawn broke, veteran Yankee artillerymen, familiar with the ground, sensed their targets by instinct. Recovering from their initial shock, infantry regiments rallied on the batteries. After their initial successes on Fort Stedman’s fanks, the attackers struck ferocious opposition.
The nearest Union fag officer, Brigadier General John G. Hartranft of the IX Corps, commanded a newly formed Pennsylvania division held in reserve. Responding to the Rebel assault, Hartranft became a demon. Dispatching orders to his division to come up fast, he rushed from one threatened battery or regiment to the next, issuing sharp orders to soldiers not his to command, hurling them into biting local counterblows and holding critical ground until his own men emerged from the murk.
When the moment of decision struck – that blink of time when a fight can go either way – Hartranft defend an order from alarmed superiors commanding him to wait for reinforcements. With his Pennsylvanians fresh on the scene, he ordered every soldier he could rally to counterattack at once and retake the fort.
Thousands of vengeful Yankees surged ahead, some racing through the maze of trenches while others charged across the open ground.
On the opposing side, the trusted officers Gordon had sent to take those elusive forts had returned to report that they could not find their objectives. No gap had been opened for the Rebel cavalry to exploit. Instead, the Yankees were closing in from three sides.
Inside Stedman, order broke down as more waves of attackers crowded together, waiting for orders. High-explosive shells burst overhead or among the packed-in Johnnies. The situation threatened to match the Union plight in the Crater the previous summer.
Gordon grasped all too clearly that his great gambit had failed. Worse, his force was in danger of being cut off, the bulk of his Second Corps captured.
Lee had come forward to witness a triumph but met a looming disaster. He authorized Gordon to withdraw at once.
But for thousands of Johnnies, the hour had struck. As Rebs scurried back toward their own entrenchments, Union artillery swept the ravaged ground. Trapped within or near the fort, one Confederate unit after another found itself surrounded and threatened with massacre. Proud regimental fags dropped in smoky light. Four hours after the first Johnnies crept forward, the assault on Fort Stedman was over.
The Federal IX Corps lost a thousand men. Gordon’s formation lost four times that number, the majority captured and many drawn from the best soldiers left in Lee’s ranks.
It was March 25, 1865. The Army of Northern Virginia had two weeks to live.
Grant and his senior subordinate, Major General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, realized at once that Lee had played his last cards and lost the hand. Through the summer, fall and winter, Grant and Meade had pushed their siege lines westward, cutting roads and railroads until Petersburg depended on a single direct supply line, the Southside Railroad, tracing the southern bank of the Appomattox River.
The Union generals decided that it was time to cut that last artery. Orders went out to Major General Philip Sheridan, victor of the Shenandoah Valley and now commanding the Cavalry Corps. Reinforced with infantry, Sheridan was to thrust to the west, turn north and close the trap.
But Sheridan faced an implacable enemy: Virginia’s early spring rains. Always poor and few, the roads southwest of Petersburg dissolved into shoe-grabbing, hoof-sucking, mule-crippling, wheel-gripping mires. A charismatic leader who didn’t hesitate to drive men hard, Sheridan just could not advance his force with his usual speed. And as the marches grew longer, tempers grew shorter. Assigned to guard and bring up Sheridan’s supply train, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s cavalry division spent 48 hours literally wrestling wagons through deepening mud; often, the only method that worked was to unload the cargo and lift up the wagons by brute strength then reload them and start the process over again. Ill-tempered soldiers slogged ahead, damning all creation.
Lee knew what was coming, but in the wake of the Fort Stedman debacle – which had cost nearly 10 percent of his gasping army – he had few troops to spare from his overstretched lines. His choice for a force to counter Sheridan came down to the ill-starred Major General George E. Pickett and his division, shifted south from the Richmond defenses and augmented with what remained of three mounted divisions. Pickett’s mission was to block Sheridan as far from the rail line as possible and to hold the vital crossroads at Five Forks. In modern parlance, Five Forks was his “die line.”
With hard-worn uniforms as brown with mud as they were gray or blue, the forces collided by Dinwiddie Court House on March 31. Neither side was ready for battle or properly organized, but nobody shied from the fight. Pickett attacked with grit, but without much coordination. Caught midstream or in open fields, dismounted Reb cavalrymen paid a gruesome price. But Pickett was determined: He brought his infantry to bear, ordered the cavalry to renew the attack and gave “Little Phil” some very bad hours until Custer’s division came up, armed with repeating rifles and glad to be free of escort duty. Even then, Pickett thrust ahead, pushing Sheridan back to a line near the village.
A dank night brought the engagement to an end. Pickett had succeeded in blocking and briefly reversing the Yankee advance, but Sheridan had maintained a position within striking distance of Five Forks. And what passed for a Confederate win – if scored on points – was marred by Pickett’s loss of almost three Johnnies for each Billy Yank who fell.
Along with a simultaneous engagement to the east along White Oak Road, where the Union V Corps had advanced in support of Sheridan and gotten pushed back slightly, the fight at Dinwiddie Court House fit a pattern that had prevailed since the previous summer: Grant and Meade would shove a force westward; Lee would land a savage counterblow; and the Rebels would claim a tactical victory, only to find that the Yankees had gained the operational advantage by holding on to the key contested terrain, extending their lines and stretching Lee’s army still thinner. Lee kept winning battles and losing ground.
In the wet dark, as March gave way to April, Pickett pulled back, ceding the hard-won field to Sheridan. Orders from Lee had stressed yet again the critical importance of holding Five Forks, miles to the rear, and scouts had reported Union reinforcements in route, threatening Pickett’s flank. After more than one blunder in the dark, the drenched and exhausted infantrymen and horse soldiers under Pickett felt their way into their swamped entrenchments.
April Fool’s Day, 1865, was about to make bloody fools of all parties for hours. With Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps still slopping along back roads to support his attack, Sheridan had to delay his effort to flank the Rebels. And patrols had misread the end of Pickett’s lines. When the Yankees finally advanced, key units would miss the enemy’s position entirely, while sister units would discover Johnnies where they weren’t supposed to be.
Sheridan cursed and fretted. And George Pickett went to lunch.
On that fateful day, Pickett and key subordinates indulged in what may have been the most infamous meal in the history of the Confederacy. Two of the cavalry generals supporting Pickett had invited him to a midday shad bake about two miles behind the Confederate lines. Accounts are muddled, but it appears that Pickett failed to inform his staff where he could be found. And after the meal, the generals lingered long over a bottle, with Pickett apparently confident that Sheridan would not attack.
Inevitably, Sheridan struck the Rebel lines while Pickett was savoring jovial companionship. And thanks to weather-skewed acoustics, the hard-luck general and his companions failed to hear the crackle of musketry or even the roar of cannon a short ride away.
The Yankees, too, continued to have problems (always remember that these were exhausted men). Units became entangled in the woods and undergrowth. Brigade commanders got contradictory orders or none at all. Attacking units collided or veered off in different directions. Although doing his best to push his men forward, General Warren could not satisfy Sheridan.
Furious, Little Phil rode his own front lines, cursing bloody blue murder and driving units forward by strength of will, taking personal charge of the tactical fighting. It seemed that the only general who did not disappoint the enraged commander was Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, whom Sheridan found leading his troops from the front as they charged over Rebel entrenchments. A delighted Sheridan exclaimed that Chamberlain was just where brigadiers belonged.
As the afternoon faded, Sheridan closed his trap on the graybacks at last. Pickett had never regained effective control of his embattled troops, and far too late, he realized that he was threatened with encirclement. His withdrawal became “every man for himself,” and by night Five Forks was securely in Union hands. Pickett’s force had suffered 3,000 casualties, the majority taken prisoner. It was another debacle that Lee could not afford.
With the Southside Railroad rendered indefensible, General Lee sent a message to President Jefferson Davis on the morning of April 2nd. He informed Davis that Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital, had to be evacuated immediately. Lee intended to withdraw from Petersburg that night to preserve his army.
The Great Retreat Begins
At Five Forks, the Union suffered under a thousand casualties, but one bloodless loss was noteworthy. Empowered to do so by Grant, Sheridan relieved Warren of command of the V Corps. The man who had led that proud corps through the worst fighting of the war would sit out the war’s conclusion on the sidelines, humiliated.
At Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks, Sheridan’s performance had been bold but clumsy. He failed to do adequate reconnaissance and didn’t properly organize his attacks. He whipped a weary enemy with numbers, grit and savagery, not through exemplary generalship. And Warren had played his part well enough, advancing his corps over dreadful roads and across terrain that had stymied Sheridan’s own advance.
Sheridan was an almost magical leader, his presence on the battlefield electrifying. And he loved to fight. But he also was an ambitious, merciless man, supportive of favored subordinates, but jealous of his peers. He could not get rid of Meade – whom he hated – but seized his chance to humiliate Warren, whom he viewed as a Meade man and distinctly not his sort of leader. Certainly, Warren’s deliberate approach and engineer’s concern with details were the opposite of Sheridan’s swaggering, smash-’em-up style (which Grant preferred, despite the cost in casualties). But Warren’s relief after Five Forks appears more an act of spleen than of justice and, not least, a cover for Sheridan’s own flawed generalship at Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks: In the past, Sheridan had overlooked far worse performances by officers he liked.
When Warren begged for his command to be restored to him, Grant refused and George Meade could do nothing. Sheridan, for all his faults, was a warrior born. And Grant meant to end a war.
Peterburg Broken, Richmond Ablaze
For the morning of April 2nd, Grant and Meade ordered a general assault across the entire front below the Appomattox, committing four more corps – the II, IX, VI and XXIV – to prevent Lee evacuating Petersburg and to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
Armies develop a collective intelligence, a feel for the way the winds of war are blowing. As surely as the Union troops sensed that the end was near, that the fortunes of war had shifted in their favor, once and for all, the Rebels clinging to Petersburg knew that their grip on the city was measured in hours. Yet, the splendid tenacity of the Army of Northern Virginia remained. When Major General Horatio Wright’s Union VI Corps assaulted the city’s southwestern defenses at dawn on April 2nd, the remnants of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps manning the earthworks were outnumbered 4-to-1, but they wouldn’t run. The Yankees had to beat them down in a gruesome quarter-hour of hand-to-hand combat inside the works.
But there were just too many Yankees and too much ground to defend. The Confederate defenses crumbled. Alerted to the breakthrough along his stretch of the front, Hill, in poor health again, left his visiting wife and rode to the sound of the guns, determined to contract his line and rebuild a defense. He never reached his men. Unaware of the swiftness of the Union advance, he blundered into blue-coated infantrymen who were lost themselves. At a furry of shots, A.P. Hill fell, another of the Confederacy’s fabled generals lost.
Struck hard by Hill’s death, Lee struggled to hold on long enough to extricate his army, to cross to the north side of the Appomattox and march west, to gain time and, perhaps, to join General Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Lee and his remaining paladins imagined that, united with Johnston’s small army, they might defeat Union Major General William T. Sherman and then turn about to whip Grant. (To the author’s knowledge, historians have failed to recognize that this pipe dream of a strategy was the last, tragic legacy of the cult of Napoleon among the war’s older generals: This was the French Emperor’s famed “strategy of the central position” in which, marching rapidly, he positioned himself between two converging enemy forces before they could unite and defeated them in succession.)
Grant and Meade did not intend to let Lee slip away, but the Rebels’ self-sacrificing defense of Fort Gregg and supporting works bought vital hours for Lee to pull out his army. Yet, if Lee’s withdrawal from Petersburg was surprisingly successful, the situation in Richmond was appalling. While thinned Confederate forces sought to delay the Union advance north of the James, bureaucrats panicked. Inept administration had hampered the Confederate war effort from the start, but the fall of Richmond became a last self-inflicted catastrophe.
President Davis had received Lee’s warning to evacuate while seated in his pew. He rose and strode toward the church’s rear doors. By midday, the fight from the capital had begun. Overloaded wagons and carriages clogged the streets. Special trains were packed, with senior officials pulling rank for their families and prized possessions. Government departments burned great piles of records (depriving future historians of vital material). Quartermaster and commissary officers torched warehouses crammed with hoarded supplies that could have eased the plight of Lee’s army, had they been issued that winter. Gunboats and other craft were scuttled in the river. In an act of patriotic madness, stored munitions were ignited, sparking a monstrous chain reaction that shook the city for hours.
As minor officials followed the orders of their fleeing masters and smashed the city’s stores of alcoholic beverages in the streets, thugs and deserters flopped on their bellies to lap whiskey from the gutters. Looting and violence spread. Spawned by the continuing detonations from munitions stores and the arsenal, an inferno tore across the city’s commercial district. By the next morning, the conflagration had gutted Richmond’s heart, stopping just below Virginia’s capital building. It was a sorry climax to years of valor.
Not everyone ran away. Mary Custis Lee, the invalid wife of the Confederacy’s senior general, refused entreaties to abandon her home. Forced from one residence to another over four years of war (with her family’s plantations destroyed in succession), “Mrs. General Lee” chose to stand her ground – or, put more accurately, to sit her ground in her “rolling chair.” A far more vitriolic Rebel than her restrained husband, she and her daughters spent the night watching the fire’s approach, praying hard and hating Yankees. Neighbors wet down the roof of the Lee’s rented home, but the inferno appeared unstoppable – until a sudden shift of the wind before dawn turned back the flames on the other side of the street.
U.S. Colored Troops led the way into Richmond on the morning of April 3rd, followed by cavalrymen on well-fed mounts and then a long parade of Yankee regiments. Mrs. Lee was treated with respect and a guard posted at her door to deter the brigands haunting the city. Union soldiers deployed to quell the remaining flames, and some of the fire went out of Mrs. Lee, too. In time, she came to see each of her enlisted guardians as some other mother’s son and she drew on her meager stocks of food to send “her” sentry a breakfast tray every morning.
As smoke wreathed a half-ruined city, Mrs. Lee’s husband drove his army westward, determined, even with Richmond lost, to fight on for the Confederate States of America. And for pride.
When historians speak of a westward “race” between Lee’s soldiers and their pursuers, it conjures images of speed thoroughly at odds with the harsh reality. The weather still delivered more rain than sun; vast armies quickly churned up the few roads; even Union troops outran their supplies; and the last battles we remember obscure the constant skirmishing and vicious local engagements that erupted whenever the mud-crusted armies blundered against one another.
Morale became the soldier’s last reserve. The soldiers in blue sensed the climax of the hunt and grasped the necessity of the merciless marches, the wet-through uniforms and short or missing rations. The Union ranks bristled with spirit, enlivened as they had not been since the first day of the Overland Campaign, 11 months earlier. Despite the daily rigors, desertions dropped off: Men who had made it this far wanted to be present at the victory.
For the soldiers in gray or brown or assorted rags, the situation was grim. The plague of desertions spread, in part because men saw that their cause was lost, but also from plain exhaustion. Long undernourished and exposed to the elements, men who had marched gamely for four years found their limbs betraying their hearts. Hunger felled men out of the range of bullets. Each day, hundreds of disheartened Confederates found their way into the Union lines or just slipped off.
But that dour army retained its warlike soul. For every man who fell away, two, three or four remained in the ranks, expecting that, somehow, Marse Robert would work a last miracle. But even a local repulse of the Yankees just meant a further retreat. Marching his men hard to reach promised stores of provisions ahead of the Yankees, Lee faced the heartbreak of seeing Sheridan’s cavalry arrive first or, at Amelia Court House, of winning through to railcars he had been told were full of rations, only to find them loaded with useless equipment.
Weaving along the Appomattox River, the armies plodded on, bleeding and bitter. The beginning of the end came on April 6th, at Sayler’s Creek.
Blackest Day of the Army of Northern Virginia
Harried and reeling, Lee’s army made a desperate night march for Farmville, where officers hoped, yet again, to fill soldiers’ bellies. The Confederate commissary general had sworn he could deliver 80,000 rations to the little town. Instead, miles short of Farmville, the Johnnies found their route blocked by Sheridan’s cavalry and the storied Union II Corps – now commanded by the versatile, brilliant Major General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys – with more of Sheridan’s horsemen on their flank. Instead of food, Lee’s scarecrows found a fight.
It was raining again.
One after another, bleary Confederate corps broke from the line of march to face off with their antagonists. Communications broke down between commands. In his rush to save a crucial bridge, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Lee’s “Old Warhorse,” opened the first gap in the Rebel column. No one had the pluck left to take charge. From yet another direction, the Union VI Corps materialized, putting the Rebels under pressure from three sides (four, if counting Longstreet’s fight at the High Bridge). In the general confusion, an entire corps of Johnnies found themselves without a single artillery piece to counter massed Union guns.
Custer’s cavalry division plunged through a broad gap in the Rebel lines. Then Custer’s comrade and rival, Major General Wesley Merritt, found a second hole for his own division. Sheridan’s favorite subordinates were chopping Lee’s army into beleaguered segments, their troopers employing their repeating carbines to butcher Rebels plagued by sodden cartridges.
Still, the slapped-together Southern defense was ferocious. Veterans would recall the bayonet-and-gun-butt brawl at Sayler’s Creek as the most savage and merciless combat of the war.
Valor wasn’t enough. When night fell on that “Black Thursday,” Lee had lost a fourth of his army, almost 9,000 men, with 7,700 of those taken prisoner. Captives included Lee’s eldest son, Custis, a major general, as well as Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, Major General Joseph Kershaw and at least a half-dozen more men who wore stars.
The soldiers still marching under those ragged red banners with the blue St. Andrew’s cross had lost their last great battle. But “Lee’s Miserables” still would not accept defeat.
Just No More To Give
The promise of rations continued to torment Lee’s officers and men. This time, assurances were given that multiple trains of provisions and other essential supplies would be waiting for them at Appomattox Station. Beset by Yankee cavalrymen, the Army of Northern Virginia – cut in half since Fort Stedman – exerted its last ghosts of energy to out-march the Union infantry and feed itself. Not only were the blue-coated bloodhounds of the Army of the Potomac hard on the army’s rear, the Army of the James, fresh from Richmond’s capture, was closing in from the north.
On April 8th, a hard-riding brigade reached Appomattox Station and found those waiting supplies. But the troopers wore the blue jackets and red scarves of Custer’s division, not the faded gray of the Confederacy. The exuberant “boy general” put the torch to everything.
From the hamlet of Appomattox Court House, Lee’s starving vanguard would have seen the rising smoke, perhaps even smelled the perfume of charred fatback, if the wind was right.
Lee was all but encircled. Grant reached out, encouraging him to surrender to prevent the further, pointless loss of life. But Lee’s pride remained in play even at that hour. The first exchange between the generals reminded Grant too much of Lee’s haughty tone when the generals had bickered over truce terms to remove Cold Harbor’s wounded. When they’d finally reached an agreement after three days, most of the Yankees lying exposed had died. This time, Lee would have to give in without conditions; only then would Grant show mercy.
As his starving, filthy men gathered at Appomattox, Lee knew the end was near. Yet, he and his remaining deputies believed they saw one chance. In the direction of those taunting plumes of smoke, the Yankee encirclement was still a tenuous matter, consisting only of cavalry. Even while exchanging notes with Grant, Lee decided on a last attempt to break free and march south.
As April 9th dawned, 9,000 Johnnies under Gordon and Lee’s nephew, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, swarmed over the dismounted Union pickets. With a last wild Rebel yell, they smashed through the Union line. A second line of blue-jacketed cavalry parted and fed before the Confederates reached them. Sunlight shot through the overcast.
Certain they had achieved the breakthrough that would be their salvation, thousands of gaunt men rushed to secure a commanding hilltop just to their front, determined to hold that high ground while the rest of the army escaped.
At the crest, hearts broke. Instead of retreating cavalrymen, the Johnnies saw an entire Union infantry corps deployed for battle below them, with another corps approaching at a quick-march. Instead of riding off, the Union cavalry had taken up positions on the flanks.
It was over. Later that morning, Lee sent Grant another, humbler note. That afternoon, he would surrender his army. And Grant would do what Lee had failed to do: He fed Lee’s men.
Ralph Peters is the author of the new Civil War novel “Valley of the Shadow,” which covers the campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in the autumn of 1864. His previous Civil War novels, “Cain at Gettysburg” and “Hell or Richmond,” have both been prize-winning best-sellers. Ralph is also a former U.S. Army enlisted man, a retired officer, a Fox News strategic analyst, and a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team.