Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, meanwhile, had marched his army first to Atlanta, Georgia, and then north through South Carolina and North Carolina. If his forces were allowed to unite with Grant's, Union numbers would be doubled. Lee was forced to act. Because of bad road conditions and fatigued horses, Confederates had remained in their trenches through much of the spring, but on March 25, Lee attempted a surprise, pre-dawn assault against Fort Stedman. His goal was to break Grant's stranglehold, cut his supply line, and force him to draw back his left flank, with the possible idea of creating an escape route. After an initial breakthrough, Union forces counterattacked, and in the end, Grant's men were positioned even closer to Confederate lines.
On April 1, the arrival of Warren's Fifth Corps at Pickett's rear caused the Confederate general to fall back to an intersection known as Five Forks. There, in what has come to be known as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," Sheridan and Warren overwhelmed Pickett's forces, losing fewer than a thousand men compared to Confederate casualties of about 3,000. (Warren, a hero of Gettysburg, was nevertheless relieved of his command by Sheridan after the battle. Pickett, whose name was similarly carved into history at Gettysburg, was, like Warren, humiliated at Five Forks. He was famously absent during the battle, attending a shad bake.)
As the march began, many Confederate soldiers were in high spirits, elated to be freed from the trenches after ten months. But after just a day, fatigue and hunger set in. On April 3, Confederate cavalry general Rufus Barringer was captured after his brigade was routed by forces under George A. Custer at Namozine Church. When Lee reached Amelia Court House on April 4, he discovered that the rations had not been delivered from Richmond as planned. Although moving quickly was essential, the Army of Northern Virginia needed supplies. Lee also needed to concentrate his forces, and decided to pause his march to wait for Richard S. Ewell's command—which included Lee's son, General Custis Lee—from Richmond. In the meantime, he sent wagons into the countryside to gather provisions. Local farmers had little to spare, however, and the wagons returned virtually empty. The delay proved costly. A day's march was lost and pursuing Union troops were allowed to draw near.
On April 6, a Union force attempted to capture High Bridge near Farmville and prevent Lee from crossing the Appomattox River. It was defeated and captured whole by Confederate cavalry. Still, dangerous gaps began to develop in Lee's retreating forces, the result of constant attack by Union cavalry. At Sailor's Creek, the Union cavalry managed to exploit such a gap, cutting off two Confederate corps under generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard S. Ewell as the Union Sixth Corps arrived to their rear. Ewell's men repulsed an initial charge by the Sixth Corps but surrendered when overwhelmed by the second. At the same time, Union cavalry charged Anderson's men at Marshall's Crossroads until his two divisions, led by Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, disintegrated.
On the evening of April 7, Grant began a three-day correspondence with Lee by inviting him to surrender. Lee shared the letter with James Longstreet, whose reply was curt: "Not yet." Blocked once more from heading south, Lee moved west on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road in hopes of resupplying at Appomattox Station. The Union Second and Sixth corps followed, while a combined force of Union cavalry, the Fifth, and parts of the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth corps moved along shorter roads south of the Appomattox River to cut off Lee. Lee understood that he was nearly out of options. Still, if he could reach Appomattox Station first, his men could be fed before continuing toward Danville. Lee ordered another night march.
On the afternoon of April 8, the main Confederate column halted northeast of Appomattox Court House, while the reserve artillery and the ambulance and wagon trains approached Appomattox Station, several miles farther west. There, trains arrived from Lynchburg containing, among other supplies, 120,000 rations needed to feed Lee's army. But at about four o'clock in the afternoon, Custer's Union cavalry division captured the trains and then, in three assaults, overran the reserve artillery, securing twenty-five cannon, a thousand prisoners, and some one hundred wagons. They also blocked Lee's line of retreat. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lee, Union infantry marched more than thirty miles into positions to Lee's south and west. That night, the Confederate general held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee. Together, they determined to attempt a breakout from the looming encirclement.
At 7:50 on the morning of April 9, Gordon's corps, supported by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, attacked Colonel Charles Smith's Union cavalry brigade, which blocked Lee's line of retreat on the stage road. Although initially successful, the assault faltered as Union infantry arrived on the field. Gordon sent word to Lee that "my command has been fought to a frazzle … I can not long go forward." Receiving the message, Lee said, "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Grant's adjutant, a Seneca Indian named Ely Parker, wrote a formal copy of Grant's terms and Marshall drafted Lee's acceptance. The letters were exchanged and the meeting ended. The paroling of Lee's army and the surrender ceremonies took place over the next several days and culminated in a stacking-of-arms ceremony for the Confederate infantry on April 12, received by Union general Joshua Chamberlain and the First Division of the Fifth Corps.
It is significant, then, that Appomattox, not Galveston, has become synonymous with the war's end. The generosity of Grant's terms and the restraint that Lee urged upon his men set the standard for subsequent Confederate surrenders and allowed for a relatively clean transition from war to peace. Unlike in other civil wars, there was no prolonged guerrilla war and no mass reprisals. There were relatively few executions. Still, bitterness remained, and the death by assassination of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln on April 15 undermined much of the good feeling created at Appomattox. If Grant and Lee made it possible at Appomattox to reconstruct what had been torn asunder, that Reconstruction (1865–1877) nevertheless would be turbulent. Political circumstances initially and briefly were positive for African Americans in the South, but over the years, many former Confederates were able to win back political power. In so doing, they instituted a regime of white supremacy that formally segregated public life and erased African American social and political advances.
April 7, 1865, 4:00 p.m.–night - Retreating Confederates clash with Union forces in the Battle of the Cumberland Church.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: April 14, 2009 | Last modified: February 22, 2012