Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 38

Camp-Fires of General Lee


GENERAL LEE was anxiously waiting for night. His lines had been broken, the panic-stricken authorities and citizens were hurrying out of Richmond, and the circle of the Federal legions was narrowing around the gaunt skeleton of the Army of Northern Virginia. Every line of retreat, with a single exception, led to destruction: that was the route westward and up the Appomattox toward the Danville line. Even the shadow of the Army of the Potomac was already thrown across that path. The Fifth Union Corps was at Sutherland’s Station, on the Southside Railroad, ten miles west of Petersburg, and on a line parallel with that of the intended retreat, while Sheridan with his cavalry and infantry kindled his camp-fires on the night of the 2d at Ford’s, ten miles still farther west. It will thus be seen that Lee was compelled to withdraw along the northern bank of the Appomattox, thus throwing himself on the exterior line and adding much to the difficulty of his march.

But the great soldier was still undismayed and calmly nerved himself for the last struggle. When night at last slowly settled over Petersburg, the heavens were one immense glare and the boom of cannon and exploding magazines made the earth tremble. At midnight the cadaverous figures began withdrawing like shadows from their trenches, and in the glow of the blazing city hurried silently toward the river. They glided so stealthily along the hot streets crimsoned by the conflagration that the Union pickets saw not what was going on. At three o’clock the city was deserted, and the Petersburg force had reached the north bank of the Appomattox. Tramping northward to Chesterfield Court-House, they were joined by the division holding the front of Bermuda Hundred. The troops on the Richmond side were drawn in to Chesterfield, and the retreat westward was fairly begun.

The entire army that had defended so long and valiantly the line between Petersburg and Richmond and around the latter city numbered less than twenty-five thousand men. Nearly all were barefoot; they were in rags, were living on a few grains of corn apiece, were worn out, and in the dismal hours of early morning had turned their backs on their capital and the enemy which they had beaten times without number. Who of all the multitude could be cheerful and hopeful? And yet those who were near General Lee at that time tell us he was in good spirits. Petersburg was sixteen miles behind, and in view of the fact he said, “My army is safe out of the breastworks, and to follow me my enemy must abandon his lines, and he can derive no more benefit from his railroads or the James River.” It is impossible that the Southern commander-in-chief dreamed of victory. It must have been he believed that by uniting with Johnston he could still offer such a bold front as to compel a peace on advantageous terms.

General Grant displayed prodigious vigor in pressing Lee to the wall. Confident that his antagonist would retreat, he completed his arrangements on the night of the 2d for prompt and unrelenting pursuit. The flight of the Confederate army was discovered on the morning of the 3d. General Grant left a garrison in the city and started on the run, determined that it should not escape him again. General Ord with the Army of the James was hurried along the line of the Southside Railroad to Burkesville, while Sheridan with the Fifth Corps and his cavalry made for the Danville road, just north of Burkesville. Lee was sixteen miles on the way, but the two Federal columns were hastening along a shorter line; and if they could reach the point before him, he would be headed off and compelled to adopt a long and more difficult route or take refuge in the mountains.

The Confederate leader had the most exasperating obstacles to overcome. First of all, the Richmond authorities had turned over to him a wagon-train thirty miles in length. It was loaded with valueless government rubbish, and, pausing just long enough to direct General Lee to take the best care of the same, the authorities resumed their flight toward the setting sun. Like a true soldier, General Lee did his utmost to obey orders; but the enormous train was a complete brake to his progress and delayed him greatly. Nevertheless, he pushed on, and, crossing the Appomattox again at Goode’s Bridge, reached Amelia Court-House on the 4th. He was now thirty-eight miles west of Petersburg. It was there that he received the most agonizing blow of the campaign—made so by the fact that he was smitten by his own government and there was no palliation for the cruel thrust at his very heart.

When Lee decided to abandon Richmond and Petersburg, he telegraphed to Danville, as we have stated, ordering a large amount of commissary and quartermaster stores to be forwarded to Amelia Court-House and held there to await his arrival. When his troops withdrew from the entrenchments, two days before, they were without rations, and during the interval that had passed since had not secured a single meal apiece; they were actually undergoing the pangs of starvation. But they were cheered by the promise that when Amelia Court-House was reached they would find abundance. Such ought to have been the case, but a cruel disappointment awaited them. The train loaded with stores and provisions reached Amelia Court-House from Danville on Sunday afternoon, April 2. At that point the officer in charge was met by an order from the Confederate authorities to bring the train without delay to Richmond, as the cars were needed for transporting the public and private property. The officer interpreted the order to mean that the train and its contents were wanted there, and he proceeded with them to the capital without opening a car. It should be added that the train safely reached its destination; the stores were carefully unloaded, and shortly after were used to help make a bonfire of Richmond.

When General Lee learned the horrible blunder that had been committed and met the gaunt, starving eyes of the thousands of brave soldiers fixed despairingly upon him, his breast heaved with indignation and grief. Stupidity, selfishness and base ingratitude could inflict more poignant wounds than the Army of the Potomac. The stars in their courses were fighting against him and his suffering comrades; why struggle longer? But, with the inborn nobility of his nature, he controlled his tempestuous feelings and immediately sent out detachments to hunt for food and forage. That day and the next were consumed in this blind groping for that which did not exist. They were journeying through what may be called a desert waste.

This enforced delay gave General Grant the golden opportunity, which he improved with the same tremendous vigor displayed from the first. General Sheridan, who was straining every nerve, and was far in advance of the rest of the army, arrived at Jetersville on the afternoon of the morning General Lee reached Amelia Court-House. Thus the Federal cavalry and Fifth Corps struck the Confederate line of retreat seven miles to the south-west of the Army of Northern Virginia.

It was no longer possible for General Lee to reach Burkesville, for a force about equal to his own was entrenched before him in the road. It was impossible to give battle, and only a single course lay open to him: that was to push on due west in the attempt to reach the hilly region surrounding Farmville. That place was thirty-five miles off, but, once attained, he was hopeful of securing his retreat into the mountains. The famishing remnant of an army started for that point with their undismayed leader.

The whole Army of the Potomac was concentrated at Jetersville in the evening, and entrenched its line in the expectation of an assault by Lee. This was out of the question, and the next morning General Meade advanced upon Amelia Court-House to attack the Confederate army supposed to be there. Discovering that Lee was making for Farmville by way of Deatonsville, he turned in pursuit, sending the Second Corps direct to Deatonsville, while the Fifth and Sixth moved by parallel routes to the north and south. General Ord with the Army of the James had reached Burkesville, and he was now ordered to hurry to Farmville.

Meanwhile, General Sheridan was playing football with the wagon-train. He adopted the very effective plan of attacking it with one division, and when that was repulsed assaulting it farther on with a fresh division, and so on, delivering blow after blow until the vulnerable spot was found. This was the course followed at Sailor’s Creek, where more than four hundred wagons were destroyed and sixteen pieces of artillery and a number of prisoners taken. Pickett, whose division was reduced to eight hundred men, found himself so hard pressed that he sent to General Ewell for reinforcements, in order to save the rest of the wagon-train. Ewell responded with his corps, forty-two hundred strong, but while taking position observed that Gordon’s corps, forming the rearguard of the army, were following the wagon-train by another road. As Ewell was at the rear of the wagon-train, it will be seen that he was now cut off from the rest of the army. Sheridan kept Ewell hotly engaged until the Sixth Corps came up. Ewell was immediately assailed by them, and he fell back slowly, contesting every foot with wonderful bravery. By and by the Federal soldiers could be seen on every side, but the Confederates fought on. A large number staggered from weakness, and were scarcely able to keep their feet; many were so worn out that they would drop the guns which they had just loaded or discharged, and, regardless of the firing, sink down upon the ground and fall asleep.* Pickett’s division had been broken up and scattered by the heavy column thrown against it, and Ewell was forced to fight the immense numbers without help; but his grim, starving veterans in the very depths of disaster proved the royal stuff of which they were made. They calmly awaited the advance of the Sixth Corps, and when it was at the right point delivered such a terrific volley that it broke and fell back. The Federals quickly rallied, however, and the cavalry closed in upon the rear and flank of the Confederates. Finding themselves surrounded by more than four times their number, the men threw down their arms and surrendered. This surrender included Lieutenant-General Ewell, General Custis Lee and three other general officers. Almost at the same time the energetic Second Corps captured, near Sailor’s Creek, a number of prisoners, several pieces of artillery, thirteen battle-flags and several hundred prisoners.

Lee continued his retreat with what was left of his army, and on the night of the 6th crossed the Appomattox at High Bridge, near Farmville, and bivouacked on the opposite side of the river. That night the general officers gathered around a campfire to consult as to what should be done. “All present agreed that but three lines of conduct yet remained open to them—either to disband and allow the troops to make their way as best they could to some specified rallying-point, to abandon the trains and with the infantry cut their way through the Federal lines, or to surrender. The first course was equivalent to a desertion of the cause, for it was certain that the army, once disbanded, would not reassemble, and to turn such a throng of starving men upon the country would be to bring still greater misery upon the inhabitants. The second course was doubtful, for it was hardly possible to cut through such an army as that of General Grant with the little band of Confederates; and if it could be done, starvation a was sure to follow. Nothing remained, in the opinion of the council, but to surrender. The army had done all in its power to uphold its cause. This decision was made reluctantly, and General Pendleton, the chief of artillery, was appointed to communicate it to General Lee.”*

But the commander-in-chief did not think the crisis had come: the bell had not yet struck.

As soon as the Confederates were across the Appomattox the railroad- and stage-bridges were fired, but the brigade left by Gordon to see that they were destroyed was driven off by the Second Federal Corps, who saved the stage-bridge and part of the railroad-bridge. A dash was then made at the wagon-train and a number captured, but General Gordon returned, drove off the assailants and took two hundred prisoners. The next day was mainly enlivened by continual attacks on the wagon-train. The Second Corps pushed on, but about noon found itself brought to a stand by the main body of Lee’s army, strongly entrenched in a commanding position a few miles north of Farmville. The halt had been made for the purpose of resting the army and holding the enemy at bay until nightfall. The works were too strong to be taken in front, and Humphreys, the Federal leader, sent back for reinforcements. While awaiting them he concluded to improve the time by attacking the Southern left. The result may be summed up in the simple statement that General Humphreys was repulsed with the , loss of six hundred killed and wounded. When the reinforcements arrived, the day was so far gone that the attack was deferred until the next morning.

After occupying Farmville, General Grant sent a messenger to General Lee with the following letter:

April 7, 1865.

GENERAL: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.


This communication reached General Lee on the night of the day on which it was written. He sent off at once the following reply:

April 7, 1865.

GENERAL: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

‘R. E. LEE, General.


General Lee resumed his retreat during the night in the direction of Lynchburg, and had progressed a number of miles when his letter reached General Grant, who without delay forwarded the following:

April 8, 1865.

GENERAL: Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply, I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon—namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.


General Lee beyond all doubt was in desperate straits, but he was not quite ready to yield unquestioningly:

April 8, 1865.

GENERAL: I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired t o know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but, as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M., to-morrow, on the old stage-road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.

R. E. LEE, General.


The foregoing letter reached General Grant late at night, and the next morning he replied:

April 9, 1865.

GENERAL: Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 A. M. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.


The correspondence between the two leaders was written on the wing, Lee continually falling back and Grant remorselessly pressing him.

As we have stated, the Confederate army withdrew from its entrenchments on the night of the 7th, and the following night approached Appomattox Court-House. So little firing took place on the 8th that many began to hope they would reach Lynchburg, after all; but this hope, like all the others that had cheered them, was short-lived. On the evening of the 8th, Sheridan reached Appomattox Station, five miles south of the courthouse, and captured four trains of cars loaded with supplies sent from Lynchburg for Lee’s army. Then, throwing his command across the Confederate line of retreat, he braced himself to hold the position, knowing as he did that the Army of the James would be up in the morning and the Army of the Potomac were treading on the heels of the Southern forces.

General Lee saw that all retreat was shut off, and he had to elect between surrender and cutting his way through Sheridan’s lines. He chose the latter, and ordered General Gordon to carry out the desperate enterprise at all hazards at sunrise the next morning. It was a pitiful but impressive sight. The once proud and invincible Army of Northern Virginia under its matchless leader was reduced to eight thousand ragged, gaunt and exhausted men.

The impetuous Gordon formed his thin battle-line in front; the fragments of the iron-willed Longstreet’s corps composed the rear, and between the lines were the wrecks of the few wagons left of the immense train, while around and among them staggered several thousand stragglers like moving skeletons. They were too weak to carry their muskets. The three thousand cavalry looked as if riders and horses should be in the hospital. But the first beams of the morning sun were hardly seen in the horizon when Gordon moved forward to cut his way through the Federal lines. His assault was made with such fierceness that the cavalry, which had dismounted to resist the attack, was forced back upon Ord’s infantry. At this juncture General Sheridan came up from Appomattox Station, whither he had been to hurry forward the Army of the James. By his direction the troopers slowly retreated until the infantry had time to form. This required but a few minutes, when Gordon saw the forest of bayonets advancing. He then began to give ground, and sent word to General Lee that the enemy were forcing him back.

Meanwhile, Sheridan was “pressing things,” as ordered to do by Grant. The command to mount was sounded, and the cavalry dashed into position on the Confederate left flank. When about to charge on the doomed band, a white flag was seen advancing from the Confederate lines, The messenger bore a letter from General Lee asking for a suspension of hostilities looking to surrender. At the same time he forwarded the following note to General Grant:

April 9, 1865.

GENERAL: I received your note this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposition of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army.

I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

Very respectfully, Your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE, General.

Commanding Armies of the United States.

General Grant replied:

April 9, 1865.

GENERAL R. E. LEE, Commanding Confederate States Armies:

Your note of this date is but this moment, 11.59 A.M., received.

In consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road, I am at this writing about four miles west of Walters Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you.

Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

Generals Grant and Lee met at the house of Mr. Wilmer McLean, in the village of Appomattox Court-House.* The greeting was courteous, and everything was conducted in the best of taste. General Grant was delicate and considerate toward the vanquished chieftain, who appreciated the magnanimity of the one whom hard fate had designated to be his conqueror. General Lee did not proffer his sword, nor did General Grant demand it; but after a few of the exchanges common between gentlemen the two great men sat down at a wooden table, and in a few minutes wrote and signed the following two papers, which dissolved for ever the grand old army of Northern Virginia:

April 9, 1865.

GENERAL: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, and the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked and turned over by the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.


April 9,1865.

GENERAL: I have received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

R. E. LEE, General.


The respective commissioners met the next day and drew up and signed the following agreement:

April 10, 1865.

Agreement entered into this day in regard to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the United States authorities:

1st. The troops shall march by brigades and detachments to the designated point, stack their arms, deposit their flags, sabres, pistols, etc., and thence march to their homes under charge of their officers, superintended by their respective division and corps commanders, officers retaining their side-arms and the authorized number of private horses.

2d. All public horses and public property of all kinds to be turned over to staff-officers, to be designated by the United States authorities.

3d. Such transportation as may be agreed upon as necessary for the transportation of the private baggage of officers will be allowed to accompany the officers, to be turned over at the end of the trip to the nearest United States quartermaster, receipts being taken for the same.

4th. Couriers and mounted men of the artillery and cavalry whose horses are their own private property will be allowed to retain them.

5th. The surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia shall be construed to include all the forces operating with that army on the 8th instant, the date of the commencement of the negotiations for surrender, except such bodies of cavalry as actually made their escape previous to the surrender, and except, also, such pieces of artillery as were more than twenty miles from Appomattox Court-House at the time of surrender on the 9th instant.

JOHN GIBBON, Maj.-Gen. Vols.
CHARLES GRIFFIN, Brevet Maj.-Gen. U.S.Vols.
W. MERRITT, Brevet Maj.-Gen.
J. LONGSTREET, Lieut.-Gen.
J. B. GORDON, Maj.-Gen.
W. N. PENDLETON, Brig.-Gen. and Chief of

The last camp-fire of General Lee was extinguished.


* McCabe states this on the authority of many witnesses.

* McCabe.

* Major Wilmer McLean, who died in Alexandria recently, was the man who literally saw the beginning and the end of the late war. It wag on his farm that the battle of Bull Run was fought, and General Lee surrendered in his house at Appomattox, to which he had moved with his family in order to be free from the annoyances of the war.

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