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A burly officer in a mud-splattered uniform walked out of a telegrapher’s tent near Petersburg, Virginia, about 9 p.m. on April 1, 1865, and calmly said, “I have ordered an immediate assault all along the lines.” That dispassionate announcement, Horace Porter recalled, was typical of the man then commanding all Union field armies. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s order crackled over miles of wire strung across Virginia like an electric spider web. Soon the incessant booming of artillery tubes announced to all who heard their ominous message that something big was afoot. Young Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles was thrilled when he heard the sound and eager for an opportunity to fight. For 296 days Grant had held the city of Petersburg in an iron grip, the longest siege endured by any city in the divided nation. He’d used the Army of the Potomac to bludgeon Robert E. Lee’s dwindling forces into a shrinking network of trench lines and fortified strongpoints. All attempts to breach the thin gray lines had so far failed. But news of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks on April 1, emboldened Grant to issue his sweeping order that same evening. He sensed the beginning of the end was at hand.

The battle that sealed the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia took place about eight miles west of Petersburg at a nondescript depot on the South Side Railroad, the last remaining supply artery. Often overlooked because of the Union capture of Fort Gregg that same afternoon, the tussle at Sutherland Station on April 2 would showcase some of the best and worst traits of one of Grant’s hardest-fighting division commanders, and it would make Private Josiah Phillips, Company E, 148th Pennsylvania Infantry, a hero and Medal of Honor recipient.

From their position on the western fringes of the Union lines, the men of the 1st Division, II Corps, could hear the growing sounds of battle. But for the past few days those regiments, mainly from New York and Pennsylvania, had done more marching than they had fighting.

Being away from where the action was hottest went against the grain of the division’s youthful commander, Brevet Maj. Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles. Like Grant, Miles was a warrior at heart, even though he was neither a West Point graduate nor a professional soldier. A store clerk in Boston, Mass., before the war, Miles loved to read military history and studied tactics in his leisure hours.

In September 1861, he combined his savings with borrowed money to raise and equip a company of volunteers. His rise through the ranks came quickly—but so did a series of combat injuries. First felled at the Battle of Fair Oaks during the Peninsula Campaign, he nevertheless was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry for gallantry in action in May 1862. Assuming command of that regiment at Antietam after its commander was struck down, Colonel Miles was wounded again at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. He was cited for gallantry and seriously wounded at Chancellorsville the next May (he would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1892). Convalescence forced him to miss Gettysburg, the only major Eastern battle in which he did not participate. A brevet major general at 26, Miles had a reputation for courage, competitiveness, impetuousness, vanity and ambition.

During the April 1865 Battle of Five Forks, Miles’ division played a supporting role, holding the White Oak Road to keep Confederate reinforcements from using it to attack Sheridan’s forces. Concerned that Lee might risk thinning the defenses in front of Petersburg to stop Sheridan, Grant ordered II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys to at – tempt a breach of the Confederate lines in his front. If Humphreys could not break through, he was to send Miles down the White Oak Road to support Sheridan.

According to his memoir, Serving the Republic: Memoirs of the Civil War and Military Life, Miles set off about midnight, arrived at Sheridan’s headquarters about 3 and stayed till daylight. “General Sheridan then concluded that he would not require the assistance of my division,” Miles recalled, “and directed me to retrace my steps in part and attack the enemy’s line near where it crossed the Boydton Plank Road. This was accomplished.”

Miles claims that the enemy’s works were carried by assault, and in fact they were—but not by the 1st Division. By the time he published his memoir in 1911, Miles had just retired as a permanent lieutenant general, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army. His recollections might have been a bit cloudy, because the attack he describes was carried out early on the morning of April 2 by Brig. Gen. William Hays’ 2nd Division. By the time Miles’ division came up on the right flank of the Rebel position along the White Oak Road, the works were already abandoned. In his after-action report, Miles conceded as much.

Miles and Hays did agree, however, on who was retreating and where they were going. According to Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Heth, his brigade of mostly North Carolinians began to retreat along the Claiborne Road: “As soon as I found that the enemy had possession of the Boydton Plank Road….My position no longer tenable, I gave orders to withdraw to Sutherland Station.”

With the Confederate lines under attack all along the Petersburg front, Humphreys intended to pursue Heth’s Brigade up Claiborne Road with all the troops he could muster. Prompt action, Humphreys reasoned, might prevent Heth from rejoining Lee, thus trapping the graybacks between the II Corps and Sheridan. The plan seemed tactically sound, but the unexpected arrival of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade at II Corps headquarters changed everything.

Meade, the Army of the Potomac’s notoriously cautious commander, countermanded Humphreys’ orders and directed two of the II Corps’ divisions to swing east along the Boydton Plank Road toward Petersburg to support the attack of General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps. Miles too was supposed to turn eastward “by the first right hand fork met after crossing Hatcher’s Run.” Humphreys dutifully rode off to find his wandering division. He later expressed his contempt for Meade’s order, claiming “probably the whole force would have been captured in the morning had the Second Corps continued its march toward Sutherland Station.”

Given at least a temporary reprieve, Heth’s regiments, including seven pieces of artillery, halted near Sutherland Station and began to dig in along the Cox Road in front of the South Side Railroad. His orders were to protect the withdrawal of the supply wagons parked there. The half-mile line, anchored on the right at Sutherland’s Tavern and the left in some woods near the Ocran Methodist Church, was a good defensive position. It rested on the crest of a smooth, open ridge with a small stream running parallel to the trench line about 500 yards beneath the crest. Another ridge, partly covered with oak and pine trees, paralleled the stream about 300 yards below the trenches. Heth put four guns around the tavern, two in the middle of his line and one near the church to protect his left flank. Positioned between the guns were about 2,000 battle-tested veterans.

Just before Heth finished positioning his men, a courier arrived from Lee ordering Heth to Petersburg. A.P. Hill had been mortally wounded, and Lee needed Heth to take command of Hill’s Third Corps. “I then turned over the command to Brig. Gen. John Rogers Cooke,” Heth wrote in his after-action report, “and directed him as soon as the wagon train withdrew to push on after it, that my desire was not to fight a battle if it could be avoided.”

Clearly neither Meade nor Heth wanted a fight at Sutherland Station. Humphreys had been ordered to find Miles and direct his division away from the small railway depot and toward Petersburg. So why was there a battle there at all? The answer may lie, at least in part, with the combative personality of the Union general in pursuit and his desire to exact some measure of revenge on the Confederate regiments retreating in his front.

Nelson Miles had an eight-month-old score to settle with Heth’s North Carolinians. On August 24, 1864, Miles’ division and some other Union troops had just finished tearing up about eight miles of Weldon Railroad track and bivouacked near Ream’s Station. The II Corps commander, then-Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, was alerted that some Confederate troops were on the move, their destination uncertain. Hancock knew that his forces at Ream’s Station were exposed but probably never realized they were about to be attacked by A.P. Hill’s entire Third Corps of 10,000 men, along with 5,000 cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton.

The morning of August 25 opened with some skirmishing along the Dinwiddie Stage Road. By late afternoon the Union forces had beaten back two determined Confederate attacks, but Miles was concerned about a weak section of the Union line where the railroad cut ran through his defensive perimeter. He had good reason to worry. About 5 p.m. a third Confederate attack, spearheaded by two fresh brigades of North Carolinians under Heth, hit the Union weak point, held by inexperienced troops from another division. When two green regiments gave way, the entire Union force was in danger of being routed.

Miles tried unsuccessfully to organize a counterattack. His old regiment, the 61st New York, had remained cohesive and was slowing the Confederate advance. Unable to rally the inexperienced troopers, and knowing that his veterans might well be cut off and surrounded, he reluctantly ordered them to withdraw.

Night and driving rain brought an end to the debacle. Union forces took a beating at Ream’s Station: 117 killed, 439 wounded, 2,046 missing and presumed captured, nine cannons, 12 stands of Union colors and 3,000 rifles lost. Rebel casualties totaled about 825.

Now, eight months later, Heth’s North Carolinians again came under the guns of the 1st Division, but this time Nelson Miles held the upper hand. According to Humphreys’ re – port, Miles’ division had already crossed the road it should have taken to Petersburg before Humphreys could deliver Meade’s new orders, though some accounts say that Miles had not yet reached the specified turnoff.

Geography notwithstanding, Miles assured his commander that he could handle the situation, then rejoin the rest of the corps. Humphreys rode off to join his command. This left Nelson Miles and John Cooke isolated on the far western fringe of the Petersburg battlefield. Cooke later noted, “Line of battle was formed at 11 o’clock a.m. and every preparation made to check the enemy who were now close on us in heavy force.”

With the Confederates now determined to stand and fight, Miles’ first inclination was a frontal assault with one brigade and part of another, all commanded by Brevet Brig. Gen. Henry J. Madill. Miles trusted his New York regiments even though Major John Hyde of the 39th New York later admitted his men “were much ex – hausted from loss of sleep the previous night and the rapid marching they had gone through.” But shortly after noon, the hastily formed blue-coated infantry advanced toward the Rebel right.

Behind the breastworks, the North Carolinians of Cooke’s old brigade coolly held their fire. Lieutenant J.F.C. Caldwell, who was serving with a South Carolina regiment on the opposite flank, reported that Cooke’s veterans “rolled a perfect sheet of lead across the open interval, striking down scores of the enemy, opening great gaps in their line, and destroying all concert and all order.”

Miles’ impetuous attack cost him dearly in casualties and prisoners. It also cost him the services of General Madill, who was mortally wounded.

But Miles ordered a second attack, this time against the Rebel left, and with artillery support. Ezra Simons, chaplain of the 125th New York, wryly noted that by this time, “All were impressed with the uselessness of the charge.” Colonel Robert Nugent and Madill’s brigades, both commanded by Colonel Clinton MacDougall, rushed forward.

The second frontal assault, this time against South Carolinians under Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan, was no more successful than the first. Miles lost his second brigade commander when MacDougall’s right arm was smashed. Two unsuccessful assaults convinced Miles that, while both sides paused and tended their wounded, he should send skirmishers to seek out the enemy flanks. Then he did something totally out of character: He sent for help.

For Miles, of course, sending for help didn’t necessarily mean waiting around for it to arrive. Even as General Hays’ 2nd Division was countermarching from Petersburg to assist him, Miles came up with yet another plan. This time skirmishers would make a strong demonstration against the Rebel right. Meanwhile, Brevet Brig. Gen. John Ramsey and his 4th Brigade would undertake a flanking march and hit South Carolina regiments holding the Rebel left. And Ramsey would have ample artillery at his back, notably Battery B, 1st New Jersey Heavy Artillery. His men were mostly Pennsylvanians, among them Josiah Phillips.

Miles put the ball into play around 4 p.m. Ramsey reported: “Formed line of battle under the crest of a hill which screened the men from the enemy….The whole preparations were made in a most incredible short time….” This time McGowan’s South Carolinians, along with sharpshooters from Orr’s Rifles, broke under what one defender called “one living cloud of blue coats.” Michael Hanifen, who worked a Union gun, wrote that they “opened fire on the enemy’s battery of four guns, which was en trenched about 1,200 yards distant.” Peering through the smoke and haze, Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mac Rae found that his small brigade of about 280 North Carolinians was left practically alone to face the Union onslaught. With the entire Confederate position in danger of being rolled up, MacRae ordered a retreat toward the Appomattox River.

Only General Cooke’s old brigade, on the far right of the line, retired in good order; most of the other troops broke and ran for the river. Union infantry seized the Confederate entrenchments, crossed the South Side Railroad and pursued the fleeing graybacks as far as Clark’s Branch.

Battery B shelled a bridge across the Appomattox River with fire that Michael Hanifen characterized as “so deadly that the bridge became jammed with wagons and ambulances, dead horses and mules.”

The Confederates left behind 600 men, two guns and one battle flag belonging to the 47th North Carolina Infantry, which was taken by Private Josiah Phillips. In a letter dated April 11, General Miles recommended that Phillips receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic deed. Probably more important to Phillips than the medal was the 30-day leave Miles granted him.

Miles exulted in his victory despite the fact that his division had suffered 33 killed, 236 wounded and 97 missing. The Confederate losses for that fight are harder to determine, estimated at between 20 and 40. In his history of the 125th New York, Chaplain Ezra Simons criticized Miles’ tactics: “The works were rude affairs but in such good position as to challenge a front assault from 10 times the number holding them much more from a single brigade of tired and worn out troops….We saw at the time and are sure now that that position might have been taken at the first charge if a flanking force had been sent out.”

The war in Virginia would last only seven more days, but Miles found one more chance to display his flair for impetuous attacks. On the heights outside Farmville on April 7, he assaulted a Confederate defensive position without first making a thorough reconnaissance of the terrain.

The II Corps’ 1st Division ended the war with a reputation for hard fighting. Nelson Miles emerged with a reputation as a tenacious combat commander. At Sutherland Station, both lived up to their reputations.


Gordon Berg, a regular contributor to Civil War Times, recommends for further reading: The Appomattox Campaign, by Chris M. Calkins; and The Last Citadel, by Noah Andre Trudeau.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.