The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam

CHAPTER XVIII.
THE RETIREMENT FROM PETERSBURG AND RICHMOND.

BY this time, when the outer works of Petersburg were in possession of the Federal forces, and Grant was preparing for the morrow’s work of continuing the assault on the city, Lee had communicated the condition of affairs, and his intention to retire from his lines, to President Davis at Richmond, suggesting that the capital should be immediately evacuated and the seat of Government transferred to Danville. Though it would have been fatuous, after the abandonment of Petersburg, to maintain Confederate control and authority at Richmond, the announcement of withdrawal from it came as a crushing blow to its citizens, since it meant abandoning the city to Northern occupation, and possible destruction or pillage. What it immediately meant, they soon saw with their own eyes, viz., the blowing up of the city’s great warehouses, full of cotton and tobacco, to prevent them becoming the spoil of the enemy; besides the destruction of the Confederate iron-clads on the James River and other Government property and stores within the city’s precincts; the withdrawal of General Ewell’s defensive command of 4,000 troops, and the certain moving in of the Federal general, Weitzel, and his besieging cohorts, as soon as Ewell and the Administration moved out. The crisis ere long came, with the conflagration of the tobacco warehouses, which, unhappily, extended to many valuable portions of Richmond, and the abandoning of the city to loot by the worthless scum of the population. “Thus fell the capital of the Confederacy,” observes the historian from whom we have already quoted, “that for four years had withstood all the efforts of the enemy. It went down in a sea of suffering and sorrow such as it had never known before.” It remains only to add, that Richmond, on the morning of the 3rd (April, 1865), was surrendered by its mayor to the Federal commander. General Weitzel, who took immediate possession, and humanely ordered his troops to arrest the conflagration and restore order, while he sought to relieve distress among the more necessitous of the citizens.

At Petersburg, when Grant became aware of Lee’s retreat from the place and the route he had chosen to take in withdrawing in the direction of Amelia Court House, he pushed forward the mass of his army (about 75,000) in pursuit. The pursuing force, headed by Sheridan’s cavalry, and followed by the Union infantry and artillery, was directed to march with all speed to the line of the Richmond and Danville R.R., north of Burkesville, there, if possible, to intercept Lee and his fugitive army. Already, other points of possible escape had been closed to Lee, and this he, of course, knew; but he thought that, by rapid marching, he could reach Amelia Court House, and from there strike south to Danville, and, if practicable, effect his long-planned junction with General J. E. Johnston. One object, and an imperative one, that now took him to Amelia Court House, was to procure food for his half-famished men, for they had eaten nothing since the retreat began, save some handfuls of parched corn. Here the thoughtful leader had instructed the Confederate commissary-general to forward a provision-train, for the exigencies of the calculated day of arrival; but, to the indignation of General Lee and the dismay of the troops, it was found that the train with the supplies had gone on to Richmond, without stopping to unload the provisions at the Court House, so that it might assist in removing the Government property from the old to the new, temporary capital at Danville. The mishap was a terrible, as it was an irremediable, one, for little local food could be had; and such as could be gathered over a wide area occasioned an enforced delay, which proved, in part, fatal to the retreating Confederates.

But, to return for a brief moment to events at Petersburg, let us relate that, on the morning of the 3rd of April, when Grant had been apprised of the Confederate abandonment of the place and had set his army in motion to pursue them, he ordered General Humphreys, with the Second Union corps and a pontoon train, and General Ord, with the Sixth and Ninth corps, to renew the attack on the city. At this juncture, the Federal skirmishers reported that the Confederate lines were deserted, and a column being sent forward, and meeting with no opposition, it advanced to Petersburg and took possession of it. Leaving a garrison in occupancy, Grant now turned to join his army in its pursuit of Lee, who, as we have seen, had reached Amelia Court House, though with his forces considerably scattered in search of food and forage. Just before this, the retreating Confederates had been joined by the division of General Mahone and the troops that had held the line south of the James, in front of Bermuda Hundreds, as well as by Swell’s command, that had been withdrawn from the lines about Richmond. The addition of these, with their several baggage transports and artillery, increased the unwieldiness of the m^ss in retreat, as well as made it more difficult to provide for the men and horses that had to be fed and cared for on the way. Nor was this all that Lee at this juncture had to contend with, for by this time (the evening of the 5th of April), when the march from Amelia Court House was resumed, the enemy’s cavalry hung closely about his wearied columns and had to be constantly fought off; while many of the impeding wagons had to be burned en route, and many heavy guns buried, which could not be borne along, so exhausted were the horses and mules attached to them. As a narrator (Francis Lawley) of the harrowing incident of the retreat describes:

It is easy to see that the locomotion of an army in such a plight must have been slow and slower. The retreat was conducted in the following fashion: About midnight the Confederates slipped out of their hasty works, which they had thrown up and held during the previous day, and fell back until ten or eleven o’clock the next morning. Then they halted, and immediately threw up earthworks for their protection during the day. It was not long before the wolves were again on their heels, and from their earthworks the Confederates exchanged a heavy fire with their pursuers throughout the day. Delayed by the necessity of guarding a train from thirty-five to forty miles in length, enfeebled by hunger and sleeplessness, the retreating army was able to make only ten miles each night. This delay enabled the active Sheridan to get ahead with his cavalry, and to destroy the provisions along the railroad between Burkesville and Danville. Upon the 5th, many of the mules and horses ceased to struggle, when it became necessary to burn hundreds of wagons. Towards evening of the 5th, and all day long upon the 6th, hundreds of men dropped from exhaustion, and thousands let fall their muskets from inability to carry them any farther. The scenes of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th, were of a nature which can be apprehended in its vivid reality only by men who are thoroughly familiar with the harrowing details of war. Behind, and on either flank, were ubiquitous and increasingly adventurous troops—every mud-hole and rise in the road choked with blazing wagons—the air filled with the deafening reports of ammunition exploding, and shells bursting when touched by the flames—dense columns of smoke ascending to heaven from the burning and exploding vehicles—exhausted men, worn-out mules and horses, lying down side by side—gaunt famine glaring hopelessly from sunken, lack-luster eyes—dead men, dead horses, dead mules, everywhere—death, many times welcomed as God’s blessing in disguise,—who can wonder if many hearts, tried in the fiery furnace of four years’ unparalleled suffering, and never hitherto found wanting, should have quailed in presence of starvation, fatigue, sleeplessness, misery—unintermitted for five or six days, and culminating in hopelessness?

This narrative of the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia is a painfully realistic, but not overdrawn, one; and, in proof of that, we need but mention the fact of the dwindling numbers of Lee’s forces, as well as the perils by the way, in its withdrawal from the late scenes of its operations. On the morning of the 6th, Meade having joined Sheridan at Jetersville, they together moved upon Amelia Court House, with the purpose of giving Lee battle. The latter, however, having been brought news of the enemy’s design, branched off toward Farraville, by way of Deatonsville, and for the time gave them the slip. When this happened, Grant instructed General Ord to take the direct road to Farmville, and there block Lee’s onward path; while Sheridan swiftly pursued the Confederate columns on the road they had taken, and came upon them at Sailor’s Creek, a minor tributary of the Appomattox. On the way after the fugitives, the Federal general made repeated onslaughts upon their columns, but was constantly beaten off. Presently, however, he found a weak spot in the retreating line, in Pickett’s command, which was guarding a portion of Lee’s long train; and on this Sheridan fell with three of his divisions, and captured a number of the Confederates, besides taking from them sixteen pieces of artillery and destroying 400 wagons.

In his dire extremity, and to enable him to save the remainder of the column attacked, Pickett summoned General Ewell to his assistance, who at once came upon the scene with reenforcements to the number of 4,200 men. While Ewell was coming up, it was unfortunately found that the rearguard, consisting of General Gordon’s corps, had branched off another road, so as to evade trouble from Sheridan’s attacks; and this escape of Gordon lessened the chances of the combined forces of Pickett and Ewell withstanding Sheridan successfully. It was also found that, while Ewell was preparing for what he saw must be a stiff fight, the enemy had occupied the high ground about him and cut him off from the remainder of the retreating columns. The situation of the command was, hence, a desperate one, but, despite the fact, Ewell resolved to give battle, and sell his own and his men’s lives dearly. Meanwhile, heavy reënforcements came forward for Sheridan, and in the conflict that ensued Pickett’s division was worsted and put to flight, leaving Ewell and his veterans to cope alone with the enemy. This they gallantly did, and for a time so successfully, that the 6th Unionist corps was driven back before the sharp Confederate fire. The broken Federal line was presently, however, rallied and re-formed, when it renewed the attack, and now with such effect that Ewell’s men were surrounded by overpowering numbers and compelled to throw down their arms and surrender. When this disaster overtook Ewell, he had himself no other recourse than to submit to be made a prisoner with his command; while three other general officers, including Custis Lee, at the same time fell into the hands of the enemy.

With the dispersion of Pickett’s division, and the capture or breaking up also of the commands under Anderson and Bushrod Johnson, Lee’s army, when it reached Farmville, was reduced to 10,000 men, less than a fifth of the strength of the pursuing Federals. At Farmville, the little band, however, was enabled to get food; and, when it had driven off General Ord’s command, here engaged in destroying the bridges, it passed on a few miles, and on the night of the 6th of April crossed the Appomattox at High Bridge, where it bivouacked; while Lee summoned Longstreet, Gordon, Pendleton, and other of his chief officers to a camp-fire council to consider the situation.

Return to The Life of General Robert E. Lee