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General Lee strikes back at Petersburg

General Lee strikes back at Petersburg

On June 22, 1864, Union forces attempt to capture a railroad that had been supplying Petersburg, Virginia, from the south, and extend their lines to the Appomattox River. The Confederates thwarted the attempt, and the two sides settled into trenches for a nine-month siege.

The struggle for Petersburg began on June 15. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had spent six weeks fighting his way around Richmond, Virginia. His adversary, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had inflicted tremendous casualties on the Army of the Potomac. Most recently, at Cold Harbor, Grant ordered a disastrous attack on Rebel entrenchments and lost 7,000 men. Afterward, Grant swung south to capture the rail center of Petersburg, 23 miles from Richmond.

When the troops arrived, they found the Confederates already digging trenches. For four days, Grant tried to break through the lines. On June 18, Union losses were particularly heavy. After pausing to reconsider his tactics, Grant refrained from further frontal assaults.

Instead, Grant resumed the flanking movements he had followed throughout the campaign. He extended his left flank on June 21 to cut off the Weldon Railroad, which supplied Petersburg from the south. Part of the Union Second and Sixth Corps moved past the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they ran into Ambrose Powell Hill’s Confederates. Hill’s troops rolled up on the Union flank, inflicting nearly 3,000 casualties and capturing 1,700 prisoners. Hill provided breathing room for Lee’s army, and the armies settled in for a long siege.

The Siege of Petersburg

This time two infantry corps moved west on parallel routes from the Globe Tavern area, with the cavalry riding to the south. The Second Corps (now under Major General Andrew A. Humphreys) marched along the north side of Hatcher's Ruin until it reached the Rebel earthworks that protected the Boydton Plank Road above Burgess' Mill. Anticipating that there would be a quick and aggressive Confederate response to this movement, Humphreys had his troops prepare defenses around a place known as Armstrong's Mill. As expected, a strong Confederate battle line emerged from the entrenchments shortly after 4:00 P.M., February 5, and struck at Humphreys's position.

The main Rebel thrust came against a gap in the Union line that had only been partially filled by New Jersey troops under Brevet Brigadier General Robert McAllister. "They stood nobly and fought splendidly," McAllister later reported. Three times the gray lines pressed through the thick underbrush, only to be hurled back at each try. Such was the confusion on the Confederate side that when General Lee himself tried to rally a panicked group, one of them yelled at him, "Great God, old man, get out of the way, you don't know nothing!"

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In support of a cavalry strike against the lower Boydton Plank Road, the Union Second Corps (now commanded by Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys) and Fifth Corps (still under Warren) challenge Lee's right flank with provocative moves designed to draw a response. On February 5 Humphreys chews up a series of Confederate attacks launched from Petersburg. However, the next day Warren is badly handled by C.S. infantry pushing from the upper Boydton Plank Road, an operation that costs Lee his newlywed brigadier John Pegram. By extending their lines after the fight, the Federals force Lee to stretch his for more than 35 miles.

Humphreys's role in this operation was akin to a lightning rod designed to absorb the strikes meant for the other units involved. The other infantry—General Warren's Fifth Corps—moved south of Humphreys to provide security for the cavalry, which was to ride to the Boydton Plank Road and burn every wagon in sight. The cavalry did reach the road but there discovered that Federal intelligence estimates had greatly overestimated the size of the prize. When the troopers finally pulled back after dark, their total haul was eighteen wagons and fifty prisoners.



Fearing another attack on Humphreys both Warren's men and the cavalry closed up on the Second Corps. But dawn, February 6, found each side waiting for the other to move first. When nothing had happened by midday, units were sent out to investigate. The largest collision of these probing forces took place along the south side of Hatcher's Run, near the sawdust pile that marked Dabney's Mill, once a steam-powered sawmill. There Confederate troops under Brigadier General John Pegram met Union infantry from Warren's corps.

The combat surged back and forth as each side fed more men into the fighting. In the midst of it, young Pegram, who had been married just three weeks earlier, was killed. By nightfall the Federals had been shoved back to the defensive position they had occupied at the start of the day. Tragically, many of the untended wounded on both sides suffered horribly during this encounter because of a freezing rain that began to fall during the latter stages of the battle.

This would be Private Bernard's last fight of the Petersburg campaign and nearly the last day of his life. "I myself received a slight scratch on the cheek," he recorded on February 9, "the position of my head only saving me from a dreadful wound or perhaps death." On March 22 he received a furlough and was at his father's home in Orange County when the end came.

There were some slight engagements on February 7 as the Confederates determined that there would be no further enemy advances. The Federals extended their trench lines out to this point, further stretching Lee's lines, which now ran for 35 miles. The cost to achieve this was about 1,500 Union casualties and 1,000 Confederates.

On March 15, 1865, a British M.P. named Thomas Conolly arrived in Petersburg on a tour of the Confederacy. Conolly described the town as a very considerable place with large Markets, Tobacco factories & handsome streets filled with large stores. He visited several dwellings in the city, all which "bore marks of the shelling." It had been a cold winter, one consequence of which added greatly to the challenge of moving about in the dark. In a special column, the editor of the Petersburg Express lamented that "nearly every little foot bridge about town has lost half of its timber, while some of them have entirely disappeared. They are stolen at night, and burned as fuel."

The stresses of the siege also played havoc on family relationships: children especially were affected by the general social breakdown.

The stresses of the siege also played havoc on family relationships children especially were affected by the general social breakdown. In March 1865, the Express reported that "numerous complaints reach us daily of the . . . danger to which citizens are subjected by boys . . . who indulge in the practice of throwing stones about the city."

At Lee's orders, caches of government tobacco were stored in what one soldier described as "sheds & houses of but little value," making it easier to destroy these stocks when the time came for the army to retreat. It was a warning sign of things to come.

Ominous too was the steady hemorrhage of deserters from the Confederate ranks. As many as one hundred men left each night, some to go home, others to Yankee prison camps. According to official C.S.A. records, 2,934 soldiers deserted in the month following the fight in which John Pegram died. Southerners now had to shoot at their own in an attempt to frighten others from running. Private Bernard, on picket duty in late March, noted that the "firing at deserters [was now] a thing of nightly occurrence."

After attending a series of meetings in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Lee came away convinced that there would be no political initiative to end the war, so his task was to preserve his army as long as possible.

Yet, to all outward appearances, Robert E. Lee remained firm in his resolve to continue Petersburg's defense. During his visit, Conolly dined with him. Also present was a young lady who begged Lee not to evacuate the city when spring arrived. Conolly never forgot Lee's response: "Oh Miss, have you no faith in our boys?"

Conolly's dinner took place on March 17. Six days later Lee listened in grim silence as one of his most trusted subordinates outlined a desperate scheme to break the Federal grip on Petersburg. Lee had asked Major General John B. Gordon to find a way to attack the Union entrenchments. After attending a series of meetings in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Lee came away convinced that there would be no political initiative to end the war, so his task was to preserve his army as long as possible. That meant creating the condition for a breakout from Petersburg, an assignment Lee had handed to Gordon.

Petersburg: The Wearing down of Lee's Army

Ulysses S. Grant Library of Congress

It is the spring of 1864, and the armies are still in Virginia. The Union Army is once again under a new commander. The newly appointed commander-in-chief is Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Although he is coordinating the strategy of all Union forces throughout the South, Grant chooses to move with General George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac. Meade continues to face a formidable Southern force known as the Army of Northern Virginia, being commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

Until now, the main target of the Union Army has been Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Grant, however, realizes that this horrendous war will not end until Lee's Army is destroyed. The determined general informs Meade that: "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. " The plan to overtake Richmond has now taken a back seat to the Union's desire to obliterate Lee's fighting power.

A great risk is being taken, and an even greater price being paid for this plan. Massive casualties occur on both sides as the Union troops begin their trek near Fredericksburg at the Wilderness, then move on to Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and finally Cold Harbor just to the northeast of Richmond. General Grant's popularity wanes as citizens in the North read about the devastating effects this movement is having on the troops. Some, though, realize that the war could now be over if not for the past retreats of less determined Union commanders.

The Northern troops approach Cold Harbor with greater manpower than the Confederates have at this site, but Grant learns a lesson he will never forget. Federal forces rush across an open field only to find that the Southern soldiers are safely entrenched. One man behind a breastwork can hold back three attackers. By June 12, there are 13,000 Union soldiers, dead, wounded, captured, or missing compared to only 5,000 Confederate casualties. By underestimating the effectiveness of entrenchments, Grant signs the death warrant for thousands of Northern soldiers, and this would be a regret that would last a lifetime. The lesson is learned, however, and Grant now focuses his mention on destroying the rail lines from Richmond's main supply base — Petersburg.

General Lee's men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign matching the Union soldiers step by step. However, a campaign is on the horizon that even Lee knows cannot possibly be won by the Southerners. "We must destroy this Army of Grant's before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege and then it will be a mere question of time," Lee writes to another general. Lee is totally unaware that at this very moment, his fear is becoming a reality. Grant's army races toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city.

Why Petersburg? Petersburg is a highly industrialized city of 18,000 people. Supplies arrive here from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Northern forces have cut off many of the other supply lines leading into Richmond. Petersburg is the last outpost and without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, is lost.

Robert E. Lee Library of Congress

In anticipation that Petersburg will prove of major importance in Grant's plan to cut off Richmond from its supply lines, Union General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James makes two demonstrations against the city. On May 9, 1864, Federal troops move upon Petersburg from the north in an attempt to cut the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Confederate defenders stop them at nearby Swift Creek. A month later, Butler sends another force of combined infantry and cavalry to move into Petersburg from the south and east. This time only a small force of Southern regulars and local citizens is available to stop the threat. This band of "Old Men and Young Boys" successfully holds off the Union cavalry until reinforcements under Confederate General P.G.T. Beaureguard arrive on the scene.

The Confederates have long realized the importance of Petersburg. In fact, in 1862, a ten-mile trench line named after its engineer, Charles Dimmock, was dug around Petersburg in a "U" shape. The line anchored on the south bank of the Appomattox both to the east of Petersburg and to the west. Along the trench line were placed 55 gun batteries, whose walls reached up to 40 feet high.

At 7 p.m. on the evening of June 15, 1864 20,000 Union soldiers wage a surprise and deadly attack along the eastern portion of the defense line. A frantic General Beauregard sends urgent messages to General Lee explaining that they are under attack by a large portion of Grant's army.

Northern forces try for three days to break through the Confederate trench line, capturing parts of it each day. Lee finally realizes that Grant's target is to cut the railroads. Thanks to his swift work in acquiring reinforcements for the defenses, General Beauregard succeeds in keeping the Union soldiers at bay, although he is forced to give ground and move his trenches back upon the city.

Following many attempts and again realizing how futile it is to attack well manned earthworks, Grant decides to lay siege to the city of Petersburg. With greater manpower and a seemingly endless supply of food and materials, the Union forces decide to starve the Confederates into submission. The situation now is as Lee predicted, "a mere question of time." The main questions are not "Will the Union prevail?" but "How long will it take to break the Confederacy:" and "How many more men will have to die?"

Supplies are everything. Without proper food and clothing, not only does the body begin to die, but so does the spirit. This is a major issue for the Southerners but not so pressing for the Federals. City Point [present day Hopewell] becomes the supply base for more than 90,000 Union troops. Eight wharves are constructed which stretch a half-mile along the James River waterfront, On any given day, between 150 and 225 vessels are moored in the area where the James and Appomattox Rivers meet. Various supplies are shipped in daily. The site's bakery produces 100,000 rations of bread daily, which are then transported by wagon or rail to the soldiers on the battlefield, Those same trains and wagons return to City Point carrying the wounded and sick who are then placed in one of seven hospitals.

The supply operation is often overshadowed by the elite of the Northern command. General Grant makes his headquarters at City Point. From the east lawn of the Appomattox Manor he commands all Federal armies throughout the South. This village, virtually unheard-of prior to the war, now serves as the largest logistical operation of the entire conflict.

President Abraham Lincoln visits this site twice during the siege, once in June 1864 and once in late March of 1865. He spends two of the last three weeks of his life at City Point when it is apparent that the war is finally coming to an end. During a meeting aboard the steamer River Queen, he reveals to Generals Grant and William T. Sherman, and Admiral David D. Porter what his terms of surrender will be. The lenient terms will be the cornerstone of post-war reconciliation.

As soon as the trenches are dug in preparation for a siege on Petersburg, the Federals head out for a series of eight offensive movements to the south and then toward the west of the city. The Weldon Railroad is the first objective of Grant's movements. Although they fail to capture the rail line, the Northerners do manage to take control of Jerusalem Plank Road on June 21 - 23 and begin extending their lines to the west.

Earthworks created by both the Union and Confederate army at Petersburg Library of Congress

At the same time, a group of 5,500 Union Cavalry under Generals James H. Wilson and August Kautz are sent on a western raid with orders to destroy portions of the Weldon, South Side, and Richmond & Danville Railroads. They have some success at tearing up sections of the railroads but the real test is trying to return to the main Union lines. As they begin their return, over 300 slaves see their opportunity to flee toward freedom all they have to do is keep up with the Union cavalrymen. Confederates block the way. Terrible fighting occurs with heavy casualties for the Northern troops. They have to move and they have to move fast. This means lightening their load by abandoning cannon, supply wagons, their own wounded, and the 300 devastated slaves who would later be returned to their angry owners. On July 1, Wilson and Kautz return to the safety of the Union lines with only 4,000 of the 5,500 soldiers who began the trek.

The uncertainty of how long the siege will last causes great frustration for the already homesick men. Trench life proves lonely and monotonous. A regiment of Pennsylvania soldiers proposes a possible solution to the stalemate. Their plan is approved and they dig a 500-foot tunnel underneath the Confederate line where they place four tons of black powder. When the powder is ignited a tremendous explosion occurs, killing dozens of South Carolina soldiers on the earth above. Union troops attack, assuming they will be able to rush through the cleared section of line and go straight into the city. Some of the most ferocious, merciless fighting of the war happens at this site on the morning of July 30. Federal leadership once again falls apart and when all is said and done, the Battle of the Crater yields 4,000 Northern soldiers dead, wounded, or captured while only 1,800 Southern soldiers became casualties. Grant refers to this event as a "stupendous failure."

Reconstructed entrance to the tunnel at Petersburg

August sees more battles as the Federals succeed in gaining control of the Weldon Railroad that approaches the city from the south. For three days (August 18 —19 and 21) Union forces under General G.K. Warren battle with General A.P. Hill's men for its fate. With the Federals victorious at Weldon Railroad, Grant's men move even further south along its length, destroying the line as they go. A few days later, at Reams Station five miles below Warrens foothold, Hill's men again pounce upon the Union troops. The Confederates force the Federals from the battlefield, which halts any further destruction of the line for a time. Lee can now bring his supplies from North Carolina only as far as Stony Creek Station (16 miles south of Petersburg) where he is forced to unload them onto wagons. From there they move cross-country toward Dinwiddie Court House and then via the Boydton Plank Road into Confederate lines.

From September 14 to 17 a daring operation takes place behind Union lines that comes to be known as Confederate General Wade Hampton's Beefsteak Raid. Riding to Coggin's Point where the Federals have a corral containing 3,000 head of cattle, Hampton's men boldly capture them and ride successfully back into Lee's lines. The beef is a brief respite from the Southerners' inadequate rations.

During the fall, Grant orders his troops to focus their attention on the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. The Battles of Peebles' Farm (September 29 - October 2) and Boydton Plank Road (October 27) are both efforts by the Northern soldiers to cut the two remaining supply lines. The Union soldiers do not complete either objective, but they do lengthen their lines which means Lee also has to lengthen his lines to guard his critical supply routes.

Usually the arrival of inclement weather will bring a halt to military operations but such is not the case around Petersburg. In the first week of December, Union troops lead a raid upon the Weldon Railroad to destroy portions of it below Stony Creek in the direction of Hicksford [now Emporia]. While snow and sleet hamper this effort, Lee is now further inconvenienced in transporting his supplies from this region.

Keeping a constant pressure upon Southern forces, Grant once again orders his troops out of the lines and toward the plank road in February of 1865. He reaches Hatcher's Run near Armstrong's Mill on February 5 and the armies battle for three days in winter weather. Ultimately, the Union line is extended all the way to this watercourse.

March begins with Lincoln's second inauguration and the Confederate Army's morale is low. Inadequate supplies, knowledge of family hardship back home, and a horrible foreboding of impending defeat are consuming the Southern soldiers. Grant realizes this is an opportunity to position his troops to move in for the final blow. He gathers 50,000 infantry, cavalry, and artillery and readies them to break away from the siege lines and seize Lee's remaining supply routes west of the city.

As Grant prepares, Lee acts. The Confederate general has been plotting to relieve the pressure to the west by waging a surprise attack on the eastern portion of the line at Union Fort Stedman. Before sunrise on March 25 a large contingent of Lee's men begin their assault with a rush toward the Union fort. Their hopes are ambitious their chances for success slim. Their sense of duty, however, compels them to make the desperate charge against the odds. A Union counterattack brings an end to Lee's only major offensive of the siege and the Southern general realizes his army has been diminished by 4,000 men — few of whom he can hope to replace. Grant once again has the initiative.

March 29, 1865 begins what is officially termed "The Appomattox Campaign," although its first five days coincide with the closing of the "Richmond/Petersburg Campaign." The Confederacy's days are numbered and they know it. The Union forces defeat the Southerners at Lewis Farm, which means the end of Confederate supplies from Boydton Plank Road. The South Side Railroad now means everything to Lee's forces. So, of course, this last supply line becomes the Union's main target but there are still obstacles in their way. The Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House are both preludes to the climactic April 1 Battle of Five Forks the "Waterloo of the Confederacy."

A surprise afternoon attack on the astonished Confederates, coupled with poor communication among the Southern command at Five Forks allows the Union an easy victory. The Union lines are now only three miles from the South Side Railroad. Grant capitalizes on the weakened Southerners by ordering an all-out assault at various points along the Confederate line for the following morning. The Union Ninth and Sixth Corps lead off this action with the Sixth breaking the Confederate lines southwest of the city near Boydton Plank Road [now the location of Pamplin Historical Park]. The scrambling Southerners do everything they can to fight off the Union surge but they are simply overpowered. They have no choice but to escape and even that requires some heroic fighting. In one instance on April 2, the 300 Confederate soldiers manning Fort Gregg manage to hold off 5,000 Union troops to allow for the westward escape of Southern soldiers inside Petersburg. Of the 300 troops 256 sacrifice themselves so a greater number can hold on to the delusion that the Confederacy will somehow survive. On this same day, Union forces storm Sutherland's Tavern to finally wrestle the South Side Railroad from the Confederates. All supply lines leading into Petersburg are cut and the Confederates begin their retreat across the Appomattox and soon abandon Richmond.

Seven days later the fighting in Virginia ends at the sleepy village of Appomattox Court House.

Two Days in April: Breakthrough at Petersburg

In order to reach the Confederate works, Federal attackers first had to pass through these wooden obstacles known as "chevaux-de-frise." Wikimedia Commons

"The Battle of Petersburg" by Currier and Ives Library of Congress

W ith the Confederate disaster at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Robert E. Lee knew that he and his army were in dire straits. Not only was the Southside Railroad cut, but Sheridan’s cavalry was now poised to potentially cut off his lines of retreat. Further, Pickett’s men had functioned as Lee’s only mobile reserve. With the loss of those men, he had been forced to begin emptying the fortifications in front of Richmond, ordering Longstreet to bring his force south. This might allow him enough strength to forestall another calamity should Ulysses S. Grant attack, giving the Army of Northern Virginia a chance to escape, which now seemed their only option. He was hoping to buy time, but must have feared that his opponent, the always aggressive Grant, might see the opportunity before him and strike quickly.

In fact, Grant had already ordered a massive attack on Petersburg’s entrenchments for the next morning, Sunday, April 2. Grant’s plan for the assault was fairly simple. A massive bombardment would begin around midnight and continue until 4:00 a.m., when the infantry of IX and VI Corps would move forward. IX Corps would form on the right and attack the trenches in and around Fort Mahone, while the VI Corps assaulted the Confederate trenches along the so-called Boydton Plank Road line. Meanwhile, the newly formed XXIV Corps would form on the left of VI Corps and either swing in behind them to exploit any breakthrough or attack the Confederate line to VI Corps’ left, as the situation dictated.

That night, as the orders for the next morning were distributed in the Union camps, the soldiers received them with a fatalistic resolve. They had all participated in previous attacks on the formidable Confederate defenses and had seen them all turned back. Just before midnight, the men of VI and IX Corps began to form up. The night was chilly and damp, which added to what was a growing sense of dread. One officer in VI Corps heard a soldier tell his comrades, “Well, goodbye boys this means death.” Another, Captain Thomas Beals of IX Corps, would later write, “There can be no doubt that few of us expected to emerge alive from this affair: for one, I did not.”

At midnight, the Union guns opened fire on the Confederate fortifications. In the ten months that Lee’s army had held the line at Petersburg, they had endured many bombardments, but nothing like this one. The Union artillerymen were using every gun available and the night sky was filled with the burning arcs of shells as they made their way towards the Confederate fortifications. The noise was deafening, so much so that, when the signal gun for the attack was fired, no one could hear it.

Around 4:00 a.m., both IX and VI Corps advanced with teams of “pioneers” in the lead. These men carried axes and their job was to quickly hack through the hedges of abatis and chevaux-de-frise that formed the first line of Confederate defense. The pioneers were followed by rank upon rank of infantry, who advanced with fixed bayonets. Their rifles were loaded, but not capped, to prevent an accidental firing that might reveal their position. The hope was that the infantry could approach the first line of Southern pickets in their rifle pits undetected, then quickly rush and subdue them. This, they hoped, might limit the warning to the main Confederate defensive line.

General Parke’s IX Corps reached the Confederate lines first, attacking Fort Mahone, known to the Union troops as “Fort Damnation.” The lines around Mahone were defended by about 3,600 men under General John B. Gordon. Their numbers were so small, that they could only post about 1,000 men per mile. However, despite the thinness of their ranks, they made "Fort Damnation” live up its name as they raked the waves of Union infantry with salvos of double-canister and volley after volley of rifle fire. Despite this, the Union troops kept coming, tearing their way through the abatis, and plunging into the rain-flooded ditch at the base of the Confederate breastworks, where many wounded Federals would fall and drown. From there, they scrambled up the sides of the earthworks, and jumped into the stronghold, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and rifle butts.

In order to reach the Confederate works, Federal attackers first had to pass through these wooden obstacles known as "chevaux-de-frise." Wikimedia Commons

At first the IX Corps attack was successful, taking three Confederate batteries and gaining partial possession of another. But, soon, the attack bogged down amid the maze of entrenchments and no breakthrough could be made. One Confederate soldier recalled that, “the open space inside Fort Mahone was literally covered with blue-coated corpses.” By 11:00 a.m., Gordon and his men had contained Parke's breach and began to work on counterattacks to push the Union attackers out of the fort.

However, further to the west, things were not going so well for Lee’s men. There, the battle-hardened VI Corps, under the command of General Horatio Wright, advanced in a massive wedge formation, sweeping over the Southern rifle pits and crashing into the fortifications like a great surging wave. The Confederate lines here were held by Wilcox's and Heth's divisions of A.P. Hill's Corps, a total of six brigades holding a front of about six miles along the Boydton Plank Road. As was the case at Fort Mahone, the Confederate line was very thin. As a result, the Federal infantry breached the entrenchments at several points as the defenders clawed and fought hand-to-hand with their attackers.

The first man into the Confederate trenches was Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont Infantry. As he leaped into the trench leading his men, he was bayoneted through the cheek and mouth by a North Carolinian. Gould killed his assailant with a saber as he fired his service revolver at other converging Confederates. One of the defenders then struck him down with a rifle butt, while yet another bayoneted Gould in the back. Gould, who would be awarded the Medal of Honor, fought back ferociously and was finally saved by his color sergeant, who clubbed the attackers with his own rifle, then grabbed the young captain by the collar and pulled him up out of the trench, sending him to safety in the rear.

Detailed map of the VI Corps attack on April 2, 1865 Map by Steve Stanley

All along the Boydton Plank Road line, men of the VI Corps poured over the Confederate entrenchments and all resistance was “swept away and scattered like chaff before a tornado.” Wright’s troops boiled over and through the trenches, pushing past the Boydton Plank Road and reaching the Southside Railroad, a mile behind Confederate lines. By shortly after 5:00 a.m., the Confederate line was completely smashed, and the defenders were fleeing in all directions. Wright managed to reform his exuberant men and swing them left, sweeping down the Confederate line toward Hatcher’s Run, where they linked up with General Gibbon’s XXIV Corps, which had achieved an easier breakthrough.

James Longstreet

As the VI Corps was overrunning the Boydton Plank Road line, General James Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters. He found Lee still in bed, not asleep but suffering from rheumatism. Longstreet sat on the edge of the bed as Lee discussed the events at Five Forks and instructed him where to place his men once they arrived. While they were talking, one of Lee’s staff burst into the room, telling him, “General, the lines have broken out front. You’ll have to go.” Lee calmly rose from his bed and walked to the front door, where he could clearly see the lines of blue-clad infantry advancing towards them. The general quickly dressed, mounted his horse, and rode off with his staff. Knowing that all was lost here, he put a plan in motion to send his army into retreat through Petersburg, across the Appomattox River, then west where he hoped to eventually link up with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Before leaving, he sent one last telegram to his Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge, in which he told him, “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”

When Lee’s message reached Breckenridge, he sent a copy via messenger to President Jefferson Davis, who was attending Sunday morning services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Davis was sitting his usual pew when the messenger strode up the aisle and handed him the telegram. Davis read it silently, and then he “arose, and was noticed to walk rather unsteadily out of the church.” Parishioners said later that they could read nothing by his expression, but, as more messengers arrived and more government officials hurried out, they all knew what must be happening: the Yankees had finally broken through.

Back in front of Petersburg, the fighting continued. The breakthrough by Wright’s corps, now threatened the entire Confederate position at Petersburg. If the Federal troops could advance quickly enough, they might actually enter the city and seize the bridges over the Appomattox River, the very ones the Lee needed to get his army safely away. Lee needed to slow that advance until Longstreet could get into position. The only things stopping the Federals now were Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth, occupied by about 300 troops from various Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia brigades.

John Gibbon Library of Congress

About 11:00 a.m., Wright’s VI Corps was approaching Fort Gregg. However, Wright deferred the attack to Gibbon and XXIV Corps. VI Corps had been up for almost 18 hours straight, and had been fighting and marching since before 5:00 a.m., so Gibbon's men would have to make the effort to take Fort Gregg. Gibbon was more than happy to take on the assignment and his men advanced at 1:00 p.m.

The fort's garrison, outnumbered 10 to 1, was too small to break up the attack, but in too strong a position to be overrun by brute force. Plus, they fought with uncommon ferocity, cutting down the attacking Federal infantry with a deadly hail of cannon and rifle fire. Each defender had two rifles and, as they fired one, a man behind them would reload the other. Still, Gibbon’s men pressed forward and, soon, they were piling in and over the ramparts. The fighting inside Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth would be some of the most desperate of the war. The Confederate defenders refused to go down, despite calls for their surrender. Finally, they would be subdued, but, of the 300 Confederate defenders inside Fort Gregg, only 30 were left standing. Gibbon, meanwhile, had lost 714 men killed, wounded, or missing.

The determined defense of Fort Gregg gave Lee time to deploy Longstreet’s men. As Longstreet watched the assault through his glasses, he saw his old friend, John Gibbon, near the front. Longstreet raised his hat, hoping Gibbon would see the salute of his old comrade. However, Gibbon did not see his friend in the distance across the lines of battle. Then, Longstreet recognized another man through his glasses, someone for whom he had stood up as best man at a wedding long ago in St. Louis: Ulysses Grant. Longstreet did not know it at that moment, but they would be reunited in only a week’s time.

Major General John B. Gordon National Archives

As the firing at Fort Gregg died down, on the other end of the Petersburg line, John Gordon launched his counterattack at Fort Mahone. The assault hit the Union IX Corps hard, nearly driving them out of the fortifications. However, the timely arrival of reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac provost brigade, plus one brigade from VI Corps, stopped Gordon in his tracks, and the Georgian fell back. Gordon, however, would not give up and he prepared his men for another counterattack. But, just as he was about to move forward, word came that VI Corps had broken through to the west and the evacuation of Petersburg was inevitable. So, he abandoned his plans and, instead, began the retreat.

Grant now ordered his corps commanders to push forward and close the ring around Lee. However, Longstreet’s men were able to hold them back, and, with no fresh troops available, the exhausted soldiers of VI, IX, and XXIV Corps could not continue the fight. By late afternoon Grant decided to call a halt to the fighting and plan an attack for the next morning. However, during the night, Lee would get across the river and begin his retreat. Grant, for his part, would then mount the great pursuit that would end a week later at Appomattox Court House.

General Lee strikes back at Petersburg - HISTORY

By Joseph E. Lowry

By the early spring of 1865, the Southern Confederacy was on the cusp of extinction. In every theater of the four-year-old Civil War, the gray-clad Rebels were getting the worst of things. In the West, the hard-fighting but poorly led Army of Tennessee had been literally eviscerated by General John Bell Hood’s useless taking of life at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the loss of its namesake state, Hood’s army had virtually ceased to exist as a functional military unit.

In the deep South, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union army had cut a relentless swath of destruction 60 miles wide through Georgia, and was now wreaking even more havoc as it marched northward through the Carolinas to unite with General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac somewhere in Virginia. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, commanding the forces opposed to Sherman, admitted in a letter to General Robert E. Lee that he could do no more than “annoy” Sherman’s progress.

In the East, conditions were deteriorating just as rapidly for the Confederates. In January 1865, Fort Fisher, guardian of the port of Wilmington, N.C., fell to a combined Union naval-land assault, effectively closing off the South’s last access to the outside world.

Meanwhile, in the squalid trenches around Petersburg, Va., a key railroad center 20 miles due south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Grant’s Army of the Potomac continued the embrace of death they had started the previous summer at the Battle of the Wilderness. Grimly and gamely the Confederates clung to their defenses, but hunger, disease, and desertion were taking an ever-increasing toll on the army’s strength, if not its continued willingness to fight. Grant’s Army of the Potomac, better fed and equipped, and increasingly confident of victory, tightened its death grip around the enemy. Each passing day brought renewed pressure as the Federals continued to extend their lines west of Petersburg in an effort to cut off the railroads supplying Lee’s nearly destitute Confederates.

The Confederacy Faces Harsh Realities

A section of the reinforced Rebel works in Petersburg.

The South’s growing desperation and need for manpower led the Confederate Congress in mid-March 1865 to pass a bill that allowed the arming of slaves to fight for the Confederacy. The move, surprisingly, had the grudging support of many Southern officers. One senior officer in Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s II Corps wrote, “I have the honor to report that the officers and men of this corps are decidedly in favor of the voluntary enlistment of the negroes as soldiers.” The measure, however, was much too little and far too late to appreciably improve the Confederacy’s chances for survival.

For Robert E. Lee, the time had come to make a painful decision. While Lee and the men who remained with him were still full of fight, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was equally anxious to continue the struggle, military realities told both men that the end could not be far off unless something drastic was done, and quickly. What course of action offered the most promise of success? For a brief period there was hope that peace with the North might still be negotiated. Francis P. Blair, Sr., a prominent Maryland politician with connections to the Lincoln administration, visited Richmond in January 1865 on his own authority to see if some sort of accommodation could be found that would satisfy both sides. From these discussions evolved an initiative by which a delegation of three Confederate representatives met personally with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward at Hampton Roads, Va., in February. The Southern delegates, however, were unwilling to accede to Lincoln’s terms for peace—complete military surrender and formal recognition of emancipation for all slaves—and in the end nothing came of the eleventh-hour discussions.

The collapse of the peace talks left Lee with a hellish, unresolved dilemma. What was his duty to the army that was literally falling apart in front of him? In an attempt to resolve this question, Lee turned to his youngest corps commander, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. With Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lee’s ever-dependable “Old War Horse,” off covering Richmond’s defenses north of the James River, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, Lee’s other senior commander, increasingly indisposed due to illness, there was nowhere else for Lee to turn. Knowing Gordon to be a superior combat commander, Lee also considered him tough-minded as well as courageous. Leading the defense of the Bloody Lane at Antietam, Gordon had been wounded five times, the final wound a bullet to the face. Only the fact that his cap had a bullet hole in it kept him from drowning in his own blood. Gordon had returned from the Shenandoah Valley in December 1864, and Lee’s confidence in the young general grew even stronger as he came to personally know the 32-year-old Georgian.

“To Stand Still was Death”

On a bone-chilling morning in early March, Lee summoned Gordon to his quarters at the Turnbull House in Petersburg to discuss the deteriorating military situation. Before Gordon arrived, Lee had spread across a table all the various reports he had received from the front. These reports accurately described the parlous condition of the Confederate troops and the overwhelming enemy force arrayed against them. Lee asked Gordon to review all the documents and offer an opinion.

After reading the dispiriting documents, Gordon advised Lee that he saw only three options, which he proceeded to list in the order he felt they should be considered: make the best terms with the enemy that could honorably be obtained abandon Richmond and Petersburg and, by rapid marches, unite with Johnston’s forces in North Carolina and strike Sherman before he and Grant could combine or strike Grant immediately at Petersburg.

Lee concurred fully with Gordon’s assessments. Since a negotiated peace was no longer possible and the authorities in Richmond were still reluctant to abandon the capital, the only remaining option was to strike at Grant. “To stand still was death,” Lee reasoned. He directed Gordon to devise a plan by which such a blow could be struck.

A Plan of Fantasy?

Griffin A. Stedman.

Gordon and his staff spent the next several days studying the Union entrenchments around Petersburg, seeking a weak spot in the Union line. After surveying the enemy works, Gordon decided that the most promising point for a Southern attack was at Fort Stedman (named after Union Colonel Griffin A. Stedman, who had died of wounds received at the Battle of the Crater in July, 1864). It was about 100 yards from the forward Confederate position known as Colquitt’s Salient, and the picket lines were even closer, a mere 50 yards apart. Gordon was bolstered in his opinion that this was the best place for his attack when, during his survey of the Union trenches, he asked one of his subordinate officers if his forces could hold their position against a Union attack. The officer replied that he didn’t think he could hold off such an attack because of the closeness of the lines. Nevertheless, he added, “I can take their front line any morning before breakfast.”

Gordon’s plan of operation, as he proposed it to Lee, was to conduct an attack in the early-morning darkness, with a quick rush across no-man’s-land between the lines. The Union pickets would be quickly and silently overwhelmed, and 50 handpicked men with keen-edged axes would proceed to cut paths through the chevaux-de-frise, wooden obstructions with sharpened stakes laid out by Union engineers. These 50 men would be followed by three companies of 100 men each who would bypass Fort Stedman, leaving it for other supporting troops to capture, and hurry on to the second line of Union trenches. Each man in these companies would wear a white strip of cloth across his breast to identify him as friendly fire in the darkness.

When the select companies made it into the second line, they would identify themselves as Union troops fleeing a Rebel attack, using the name of a Union officer known to be serving in that sector. They would then overpower the Federals and capture three redoubts believed to be located within the works. This would serve to widen the breach in the Union lines and cause consternation among the Union troops. At this point, if all was successful, Confederate cavalry, waiting in reserve, would charge through the gap thus created and make for the Union supply and railroad lines, destroying as many men and supplies as possible.

The chief benefit of attacking in darkness, a tactic not often used during the war, would be the utter surprise of the enemy. In addition to sowing panic in the Union lines, the predawn attack would leave the Yankees confused as to exactly where and how many Confederate troops were actually involved in the assault. It would also prevent Union artillery from firing on the Confederates for fear of killing their own men.

It was hoped that the seizure of Fort Stedman and the works in its rear would convince Grant that his army was in imminent danger of being cut in half and would accordingly force him to constrict his lines. This, in turn, would allow Lee to shorten his own lines and release some of his troops to join Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

Approximately 100 yards from Colquitt’s Salient lay the most inviting target for Gordon’s surprise attack.

From the distant vantage of 139 years, Gordon’s plan seems like the height of fantasy, given the disparate resources and manpower of the opposing sides. At the time, however, it was believed that only an act of true desperation would have any realistic chance of success. Lee, for his part, readily approved the plan, and to carry it off he assigned the three divisions of Gordon’s corps (now reduced to about 8,000 men) and added several brigades from other units, including a division of cavalry, to exploit the hoped-for Confederate breakthrough. All told, Gordon would have at his disposal almost half the remaining strength of Lee’s army. As the ground in the rear of Fort Stedman had undoubtedly changed from its presiege appearance, Gordon requested that Lee furnish him with knowledgeable guides to lead the three assault companies over the ground. Lee agreed. The date for the attack was set for March 25.

“Look Out We are Coming”

At 4 am on a cold, dark morning, Gordon stood on the Confederate breastworks, a single soldier by his side. The previous night all debris lying in front of the Confederate works was supposed to have been removed so that unobstructed lanes could be used by the assaulting columns. However, as Gordon stood on the breastworks he could see that some debris still remained. He ordered it cleared. The noise made by this work alerted a nearby Union picket, who called out a peremptory challenge: “What are you doing over there, Johnny? Answer quick or I’ll shoot!” Months of living in close proximity had led to an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement whereby pickets would refrain from firing at each other unless it was deemed unavoidable. Gordon hesitated when he heard the challenge, not knowing exactly what to say to allay suspicion. The quick-thinking private at his side met the unforeseen threat by replying: “Never mind, Yank. Lie down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.” The Union guard answered right away, “All right, Johnny, go ahead and get your corn. I’ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”

Chevaux-frise barricades guarding the trenches near Fort Stedman provided some cover, and could prove a deadly obstacle to an onrushing foe.

While this exchange was taking place, the last of the debris was cleared from the Confederate front, and the attack was set to commence. Gordon ordered the soldier to fire his musket to signal the assault. A pang of conscience tugged at the veteran—he thought it unfair, even in war, to have lied to a man who would allow him to pick his rations. Gordon, unhampered by such distinctions, repeated the order.

Before firing, however, the soldier called out to his considerate foe, “Hello, Yank! Wake up we are going to shell the woods. Look out we are coming.”

Brig. Gen. Napoleon B. McLaughlen was taken prisoner when Confederate forces stormed Ft. Stedmen.

With that brief warning, the soldier fired his musket and the offensive began. Rebel pickets, who had crept close to their Union counterparts, overpowered them so quickly that no warning shots could be fired. Some Union reports claimed later that the Confederates had employed the ruse of pretending to be deserters, only to turn on their would-be captors. As soon as the Union pickets were rendered harmless, the 50 axmen leaped over the Rebel breastworks, closely followed by the three 100-man companies, and made haste for the bristling chevaux-de-frise. Clearings were hewn through the wooden obstructions with quick, strong blows from razor-sharp ax heads.

As the three lead companies made their way to the Union rear, the rest of the assault force, following on the heels of the spearhead, rushed Fort Stedman. Fanning out along both sides of the fort, they poured withering fire into the works. Union defenders managed to put up some resistance, firing a few shots of their own at the oncoming Rebels, but the swiftness of the onslaught and the early-morning darkness helped to neutralize any real defense.

The attack was more successful than Gordon could have hoped. Besides Fort Stedman, the Confederates were able to capture three enemy batteries on the north and south sides of the fort. These batteries were unenclosed works housing both cannon and mortars, and quick-thinking cannoneers in the attacking columns turned the guns around and began shelling Federal positions in all directions. In addition to the redoubts and guns, about 500 yards of trench line on both sides of Fort Stedman were taken, as well as some 500 Federal prisoners, including the area commander, Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte McLauglen.

Battery 9 Holds Firm

Confederate axemen chop through the barricades surrounding Ft. Stedmen as troops pour through the gaps of the now-breached defenses.

Success, however was not complete. Battery 9, north of Fort Stedman, put up stout resistance and halted the Confederate advance in that direction. Similar Confederate assaults against Fort Haskell, south of Battery 12, were also repulsed with much bloodshed. Adding to Gordon’s troubles, word soon came back from one of the commanders of the select companies that he was unable to find the redoubt in the Union rear that he had been assigned to capture as his guide had been lost in the attack. The other two companies reported a similar lack of success.

These unexpected failures jeopardized the entire operation. Without the capture of the additional works and the guns in them, Gordon would not be able to widen the breach and threaten the Union rear. This would also doom any attempts by the Southern cavalry to further exploit the breakthrough and strike Union supply lines.

As Fort Stedman and the adjoining works were being taken, the alarm was sounded in the Union lines. As luck would have it, Maj. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was not immediately available to his men. He was away at City Point conferring with Grant, and the Rebels had cut the telegraph lines between the two points. At this point the Rebels’ luck stopped. Command of the army devolved on Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, a West Point graduate who commanded the IX Corps. Parke, a much-tested veteran of both the eastern and western theaters of the war, kept calm in the face of confused reports from the front. He immediately ordered Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox to organize a counterattack against the Rebels. Parke also called upon Brig. Gen. John F. Hartranft’s 3rd Division, which was in reserve near the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the IX Corps, to reenforce Willcox.

John F. Hartranft: Grizzled Veteran

In this staged photograph, two Union pickets open fire, while another reloads behind an earthwork at Petersburg.

The Rebels could not have asked for a worse foe than Hartranft. A native Pennsylvanian like Meade and Parke, Hartranft was also a tough, battle-tested veteran. Like Gordon, he had been at Antietam, where he led the 51st Pennsylvania in its famous charge over Burnside Bridge. He also led part of the attack into the Crater the previous July. Hartranft may have been as surprised as anyone at the audacious Confederate attack, but he would not panic and he would not run.

Hartranft’s division was made up of two brigades of six Pennsylvania regiments. He knew he had enough men, about 6,000 in all, to assist in a counterattack, but he may have had some doubts as to how his men would perform. They were all one-year enlistees who had only recently joined the army, and they were still undergoing training when the Confederates attacked Fort Stedman. Green or not, these troops were all Hartranft had to work with, and events would soon test their mettle.

The immediate problem was how best to contain the Confederate attack. While the Union generals may not have known it at the time, this had already been accomplished by the defenders of Battery 9 and Fort Haskell. Not only had they repulsed the initial Confederate assaults, but their cannon fire was deadly and accurate enough to compel the Rebels to confine their forces to the ground already taken.

Years later Hartranft would comment that “great credit is justly due to the garrison of these two points [Battery 9 and Fort Haskell] for their steadiness in holding them in the confusion and nervousness of a night attack … if they had been lost, the enemy would have had sufficient safe ground on which to recover and form their ranks.”

The Yankee Counterattack

With his flanks secured, Parke could concentrate on regaining the ground the army had lost. This was the mission he now gave Willcox.

Troop movements were quickly initiated for a Union counterattack. On the left side of the line, near Fort Haskell, Hartranft placed the 208th Pennsylvania. The 100th Pennsylvania and the 3rd Michigan extended the line to the north. Connecting with these troops toward the Prince George’s Court House Road (the road to the rear of Fort Stedman that Gordon likely would have used to penetrate the rear of the Union lines) were the 207th and 205th Pennsylvania.

On the other side of the line, starting from Battery 9, the 17th and 20th Michigan hooked up with the right of the 209th Pennsylvania. Close to the center of the crescent-shaped line was the 200th Pennsylvania, along with the remnants of the 57th Massachusetts, whose camp had been overrun in the initial Confederate attack. Artillery under the command of Brevet Brig. Gen. John C. Tidball was set up behind the Union lines. In conjunction with the guns from Battery 9 and Fort Haskell, these guns began playing havoc on the Rebel troops.

A row of cannons, now silent, were part of a much fought-over Union battery.

As the Union infantry moved into line, Hartranft conferred with Willcox. They noticed increased musket fire coming from the Rebel lines, an indication that the enemy was again getting ready to advance. Hartranft, taking personal command of the counterattack, immediately ordered the 200th Pennsylvania and 57th Massachusetts to move against the enemy troops now advancing up the Prince George’s Court House Road. The Federals quickly attacked and plowed through the enemy skirmish line, but soon found themselves facing more Rebels in the entrenched works surrounding Fort Stedman.

Confederate musket fire was severe and, supported by the captured guns of Fort Stedman, took a heavy toll on the Pennsylvanians, causing them to retreat a short distance. Hartranft, concerned that the Rebels would try to take advantage of this withdrawal, quickly rallied the men and attacked a second time, gaining and holding the ground for about 20 minutes before retreating to the Union works. The effect of these attacks was to halt any further Confederate advance and allowed the remaining Union troops to come up in support.

The last regiment of Hartranft’s division, the 211th Pennsylvania, now made its first appearance on the field, having rushed from its camp some miles to the rear. With their arrival, Hartranft’s counterattacking force was complete.

The Confederate Plan Crumbles

It was now about 7:30 am, and the morning sun was rising higher in the cold March sky. The Confederate advantages of surprise and darkness had long since disappeared. Parke ordered Hartranft to attack the Rebels again and recapture the lost ground. Hartranft passed the word to his subordinate commanders that the attack would begin in 15 minutes. The signal would be the advance of the 211th. The Southern troops could probably see what was coming, but now they could do nothing to stop it.

At the appointed time, the 600 men of the 211th Pennsylvania rose as one and charged toward the Rebel line. They were met by Confederate cannon and musket fire, but stoutly pushed on. The other regiments took their cue from their Keystone State comrades, and the whole Union line moved forward.

Just as the full attack began, however, Hartranft received orders to halt and await reinforcements from the VI Corps. Hartranft barely hesitated a second before disobeying the order. He was sure the countermanding order would not reach all the troops in time, and he firmly believed that victory was assured. “I saw the enemy had already commenced to waver,” he remembered, “and that success was certain.”

Hartranft’s battlefield judgment would prove correct. Acting not like the green troops they were but like gray-bearded veterans, the Pennsylvanians fought tenaciously and courageously. Despite the intensity of the combat, they soon drove the Confederates out of the recently captured works.

Hartranft later wrote, “The division charged with a will, in the most gallant manner, and in a moment Stedman, Batteries 11 and 12 and the entire line which had been lost, was recaptured with a large number of prisoners, battle-flags and small-arms.”

Gordon was convinced that continued fighting would be futile. He apprised Lee of the worsening situation, and around 8 am Lee gave Gordon permission to withdraw his troops.

Collapse of the Confederate Ranks

It was an order easier to give than to obey. By the time the withdrawal order reached the front, the increasingly confident Federals were pouring a veritable storm of shot and shell over the entire length of the Confederate retreat. The added fire from the Union infantry reoccupying Fort Stedman only made the retreat more difficult. Gordon himself was slightly wounded as he ran back to the Rebel line.

A dead confederate soldier lies amid the muck of Petersburg’s trenches.

The effectiveness of the Union artillery shell fire was attested to by a Union medical officer, who wrote: “The great majority of the Rebel wounded fell into our hands, and the wounds were all very severe. An unusually large number of shell wounds of the thigh and legs, demanding amputation, were seen.” Confederate Brig. Gen. James A. Walker personally attested to the deadly dangers of the retreat. “I found myself crossing the stormswept space between us and our works. At first I made progress at a tolerably lively gait, but I wore heavy cavalry boots, the ground was thawing under the warm rays of the sun, and great cakes of mud stuck to my boots my speed slackened to a slow trot, then into a slow walk, and it seemed as if I were an hour making that seventy-five yards…deadly minie balls were whistling and hurling as thick as hail. Every time I lifted my foot with its heavy weight of mud and boot, I thought my last step was taken. Out of a dozen men who started across that field with me, I saw at least half of them fall, and I do not believe more than one or two got over safely. When I reached our works and clambered over the top, I was so exhausted that I rolled down among the men, and one of them expressed surprise at seeing me by remarking: `Here is General Walker I thought he was killed.’”

Seeing that death would be their probable fate, many Confederates refused to even try to make it back to their own lines, preferring to surrender where they stood. A large number of skulkers in the Rebel ranks refused to obey their officers on the field, no matter what order or entreaty was made.

One Union major captured earlier when Fort Stedman was overrun commented that “the numbers of stragglers and skulkers was astonishingly large, and I saw several instances where the authority of the officers who urged them on was set at defiance.”

A Losing War

Thus, an attack that had started with such promise ended in abysmal failure. More than 3,500 Confederates were casualties, including some 1,900 who were taken prisoner. Nine stands of colors were also captured. Later that day other Union commanders assaulted the Confederate lines to the southwest. While these attacks were halted short of the main Confederate trenches, a number of fortified picket lines were captured, bringing the Union army that much closer for a final grand assault and costing the Confederates another 2,000 sorely needed men.

Robert E. Lee, who had taken many successful gambles during the war, reluctantly realized that this last throw of the dice had completely failed. As he rode away from the scene of the defeat at Fort Stedman, he knew that the end of the war could not be long in coming. On his way back to the Turnbull House, he encountered his sons Rooney and Rob. Lee, who had always been careful not to outwardly display his emotions, could not hide his manifest disappointment at this latest turn of events. Rob noted all too clearly “the sadness of his face, its careworn expression.”

While brilliant in conception and initial execution, the ultimate failure of the attack on Fort Stedman accomplished nothing except to burnish the already-formidable reputation of Confederate valor and the equally proven stalwartness of their Union foes. It would take two more weeks and much additional bloodshed at Fort Gregg, Sayler’s Creek, and Five Forks for the war in the east finally to end. If Ulysses S. Grant had mounted the breastworks at Fort Stedman that morning and looked over the backs of the retreating Rebels, far off in the distance he might have been able to glimpse the small village of Appomattox Court House and the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s red brick home.

General Lee strikes back at Petersburg - HISTORY

821 clicks posted to Main » on 22 Jun 2021 at 10:26 PM (2 days ago) | Favorite | share:

abhorrent1: [Fark user image image 401x401]

They never stood a chance

/i aint know how to spell gyuh

This is to the ones that display their confederate flags now a dayz. total horse Crap.

skinink: [Fark user image image 850x478]

foo monkey: The lyrics to the theme song say them Duke boys were, "never meanin' no harm." It took many years and much soul-searching for me to accept this double-negative and that the Duke boys did, in fact, mean harm.

one thing I've always wondered. did the mountains ever get, err, "git" 'em?

studebaker hoch: The Dukes of Hazzard was collateral damage in the ongoing Civil War II.

Which one was dating Cletus? Was it Luke or Bo(ttom)?

J_Kushner: studebaker hoch: The Dukes of Hazzard was collateral damage in the ongoing Civil War II.

Which one was dating Cletus? Was it Luke or Bo(ttom)?

I figured they were both boning Daisy.

studebaker hoch: The Dukes of Hazzard was collateral damage in the ongoing Civil War II.

The show was as delightful as it was unreconstructed.

Shi'ite Terrorists Cross County Line

foo monkey: J_Kushner: studebaker hoch: The Dukes of Hazzard was collateral damage in the ongoing Civil War II.

Which one was dating Cletus? Was it Luke or Bo(ttom)?

I figured they were both boning Daisy.

Daisy? But I thought that she was their cousin and oh, I see now.

melfunction: So my great great grandmother's brother was shot at Weldon Railroad on June 23, 1864. Calvin O. Foster, 11th Regiment Vermont Volunteers, Heavy Artillery. He died a slow death in an Army hospital on David's Island in New York Harbor. I have his ID tag and a small photo of his girlfriend Mary which he wore. His sister saved everything and I have his letters he wrote most everyday bragging about saving all of his pay and getting fat in camp in Washington DC until May of 1864. His brother sat with him while he died and also wrote some bitter letters about not supporting the war any longer. All of the amputees in that hospital died in that July.
He joined up to save as much money as possible, his brother was drafted. He said the best things about Virginia and the worst about the thousands of freed slaves he encountered. He was repeating the family position to his sister I think.

Yeah, in the later years of the war, Grant decided all those heavy artillery regiments in the forts around DC would serve a better purpose as infantry, as the ranks needed filling in the army of the Potomac. So off they went to the trenches in Spotsylvania and Petersburg.

melfunction: So my great great grandmother's brother was shot at Weldon Railroad on June 23, 1864. Calvin O. Foster, 11th Regiment Vermont Volunteers, Heavy Artillery. He died a slow death in an Army hospital on David's Island in New York Harbor. I have his ID tag and a small photo of his girlfriend Mary which he wore. His sister saved everything and I have his letters he wrote most everyday bragging about saving all of his pay and getting fat in camp in Washington DC until May of 1864. His brother sat with him while he died and also wrote some bitter letters about not supporting the war any longer. All of the amputees in that hospital died in that July.
He joined up to save as much money as possible, his brother was drafted. He said the best things about Virginia and the worst about the thousands of freed slaves he encountered. He was repeating the family position to his sister I think.

Assault at Petersburg

Lieutenant Octavius Wiggins of Company E, 37th North Carolina, peered out across Arthur’s Swamp in the pre-dawn darkness of Sunday, April 2, 1865. He was searching for the masses of assaulting Federal soldiers that he and his fellow members of Brigadier General James Lane’s Brigade expected every morning to face along the lines south of Petersburg. Suddenly a few rifle shots from Rebel pickets broke the morning silence, followed by ‘one full, deep, mighty cheer,’ alerting Wiggins that this would be the morning.

The thin line of Confederate soldiers in the breastworks offered what resistance they could provide before they were overwhelmed. One of the Federal soldiers pointed the muzzle of his rifled musket at Wiggins and pulled the trigger. The blast blew powder into the lieutenant’s face, nearly destroying his eyes and knocking him senseless upon the ground.For nine long, weary months, a set of formidable field fortifications and an obstinate foe had kept the Army of the Potomac out of Petersburg, Va., the capture of which would have made the Confederate capital and industrial center of Richmond indefensible, hastening the end of the war. Southern soldiers fought valiantly during those nine months. Each time the Federal army sought to move westward in an attempt to cut the Rebel supply lines, portions of the Confederate army battled back. Yet the numerically superior Federals were able to continually lengthen their lines, stretching the Confederate defenders painfully thin.

In March 1865, General Robert E. Lee recognized that if other Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley and North Carolina united with the Army of the Potomac, Richmond and Petersburg could not be held. The Confederate commander chose to strike first, and on March 25 attacked Fort Stedman, to the east of Petersburg. The assault met with early success, but the Confederates were later routed from their prize by Federal reinforcements. Lee’s only option was to retreat, and he waited for supplies and dry roads for his army.

On March 24, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander, had issued orders for an offensive he believed would end the war. Infantry from the Army of the Potomac and cavalry from the Shenandoah Valley were to move west of Petersburg and destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. By 5 p.m. on March 28, the Federal cavalry was at Dinwiddie Court House, southwest of Petersburg, with the infantry moving in early the following morning. Lee pulled men from the front lines and his sole remaining reserves and sent them west to confront this force.

Portions of the two opposing forces clashed early in the afternoon around the Lewis farm, leaving the Federals in control of the field at the end of March 29. Meanwhile, the infantry that Lee had sent west arrived that evening and went into position at Five Forks.

Two different assaults followed on March 31. Four Confederate brigades attacked two Federal divisions on the White Oak Road, initially driving them back in confusion. By early afternoon, however, the Federal counterattack had pushed the Confederates back to their works.

The other Confederate attack was on the Federals at Dinwiddie Court House, and followed a similar pattern. The Rebels again made early gains, but these were erased as Federal reinforcements arrived overnight and forced the Confederates to fall back to Five Forks. A Union attack on Five Forks on April 1 pushed the Confederates out of their entrenchments and opened the way for a grand assault on the Confederate lines.

In the last weeks of March, the veterans of the 37th North Carolina had been one of the many Southern regiments juggled among the trenches south of Petersburg. On March 24, they, along with the other three regiments in Lane’s Brigade, had been placed in support of the attack on Fort Stedman. They were back in their old trenches the following day, and skirmished with the Federals that evening. Another skirmish followed on March 27, and on the 29th Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan’s brigade, on the right of Lane’s Brigade, had been pulled out of the trenches and sent to help with the attack toward Dinwiddie Court House. The Tar Heels were forced to extend their position. Their division commander, Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox, estimated that the distance between each soldier was 10 feet. The veteran soldiers hoped that the Federal generals would focus on the action at Dinwiddie and not on their lean lines.

On the 30th, anticipation gripped the Federal troops of the VI Corps across from Lane’s Confederates. They loaded their baggage wagons and harnessed their mules, while officers had their horses saddled, ready to step off toward the imposing Confederate lines at a moment’s notice. One brigade commander thought that the next day might ‘be a day of carnage & blood between the contending armies around Richmond.’ The Federal regiments were often up at 4 a.m., prepared to meet any possible dawn assault from the Confederates. Orders went out to the VI Corps to stage a dawn assault on April 1.’All the regimental commanders were ordered to report to Brigade headquarters where we were told that the 6th Corps must attack Petersburg,’ wrote Elisha Hunt Rhodes. ‘We must not fail….We must take the enemy’s work[s] no matter what it cost. We returned to our Regiments in a solemn frame of mind and made preparations.’

But weather conditions prevented the Union troops from detecting the withdrawal of McGowan’s Brigade, and by the early evening hours, the attack was called off. Later that night, word that the Confederates had indeed been on the move reached the VI Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright. He requested permission to proceed with the attack. Wright lacked sufficient time to get the troops into position before dawn, however, and the Federal soldiers returned to their rain-sodden camps.

All along the Confederate lines there was a sense of despair on April 1. One soldier wrote of ‘a feeling of unrest and apprehension, not only among the individuals, but even the animals….I have no recollection of having spent a more thoroughly disagreeable day.’

Despite the bad weather, Grant was invigorated by the success of the Federal attack at Five Forks on the 1st. He sent out new orders for a general assault against the Confederate entrenchments on April 2.

Wright’s VI Corps was again chosen to spearhead the attack. Members of the corps had detected a vulnerable point alongthe Confederate lines, and senior Union officers, including Wright and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, examined the area several times. They observed that Arthur’s Swamp, a sluggish morass that extended from the Union lines to near the Boisseau home, was fed by a number of tributaries that caused breaks in the Confederate lines. One of the ravines was only 50 or 60 feet wide at the place where it intersected the Confederate lines, but it extended into a flat marsh nearer the Union picket lines.

Due to the nature of the woody, marshy ground, the Confederates had not built fortifications across the depression but had placed artillery on either side of it. Throughout the winter, McGowan’s infantry was posted along this section of the line. Lane’s Brigade of North Carolinians had replaced McGowan only days prior to the planned April 2 Federal assault.Orders went out to the VI Corps: ‘You will assault the enemy’s works in your front at 4 a.m. to-morrow morning.’ Major General George W. Getty’s division was assigned to lead the attack. His right was supported by the division of Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton and his left by the division of Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, both of which were positioned in echelon. The regiments in each brigade were stacked behind one another, providing a nar-row front but great depth.

Wright’s assaulting force consisted of some 14,000 soldiers. Officers were instructed to leave their horses behind, and the men in the leading ranks were to leave the priming caps off their muskets, relying on bayonets only. One brigade commander told his line officers: ‘We are going to have a hell of a fight at early daylight….I want you fellows to simply tell your first sergeant to have the men fall in ready to march…at 1 o’clock a.m. Now you can go to your quarters and if any of you have anything to say to your folks, wives or sweethearts make your story short and get what sleep you can for hell will be tapped in the morning.’

Federal artillery — some 150 guns — opened fire at 10 p.m. on the opposing entrenchments. One Confederate general recalled ‘an almost incessant cannonade, solid shot and shell whizzing through the air and bursting in every direction, at times equal in brilliancy to a vivid meteoric display.’ General Grant hoped the shelling would convince the Rebels to abandon their fortifications, and thus save lives. The Confederates returned the fire, however, making it seem to one Federal as if ‘the devils in hell were fighting in the air.’

Federal soldiers of the VI Corps began moving into position about the same time the long-range duel began. Artillery fire began to slacken by 1 a.m., as more Federals shifted into line behind their pickets and strained to conceal their movements from the Confederate sentinels.

Rebel pickets along the front lines opened fire, striking members of the assaulting force — who were not allowed to return fire, lest they expose their attack. Some of the Federals blamed their own pickets for bringing on the brisk firefight they thought it was an attempt to mask the sounds of thousands of moving men. Others believed that the Confederates had detected the Federals moving into position and were attempting to provoke the main body into firing and giving away their location.

Brigadier General Lewis Grant’s brigade of Vermonters took the lead in the attack. They were positioned on the left of Getty’s division, with their left resting on the edge of the ravine. Grant had been wounded in the head during the skirmish between the pickets, and leadership of the brigade devolved to Colonel Amasa Tracy of the 2nd Vermont. Tracy commanded six regiments. To his right was the brigade of Colonel Thomas Hyde, composed of men from Maine, New York and Pennsylvania. Colonel James Warner’s brigade of Pennsylvanians was to the right of Hyde.

Farther to the right of Getty was Wheaton’s division, with brigades led by Colonels Oliver Edwards, William Pen-rose and Joseph Hamblin. Across Arthur’s Swamp, to the left of the Vermont Brigade, was Seymour’s division. The right of Colonel J. Warren Keifer’s brigade rested in the swamp, and to his left was the brigade of Colonel William Truex. Accompanying the infantry were three batteries of artillery, one for each division, along with a group of 20 volunteer artillerymen that hoped to turn captured Rebel guns on their former owners.

The Confederate task of guarding the area around Arthur’s Swamp fell to James Lane’s North Carolina Brigade. Lane positioned the 28th North Carolina on his right. The 37th North Carolina came next, to the left of the 28th, with the ravine of one of the tributaries of Arthur’s Swamp between the two forces. To the left of the 37th came the 18th North Carolina, and the 33rd North Carolina was on the brigade’s left. To the left of the 33rd was a brigade of Georgians under Brig. Gen. Edward L. Thomas, and to Lane’s right were two regiments of Brig. Gen. William MacRae’s Brigade: the 11th and 52nd North Carolina, under the command of Colonel Eric Erson.

Several artillery emplacements strengthened the Confederate line, but Lane’s four regiments probably numbered no more than 1,100 men. His fifth regiment, the 7th North Carolina, had recently been detached and sent to its home state.

The Federals waited in the darkness, miserable and solemn. Not only was the earth wet and the weather cold, but the early morning hours between when they went into position and when they were called to battle gave many hours to think of nothing but the unpleasant task at hand. All too often they had tried frontal attacks where the assaulting force gained nothing and suffered devastating losses.

Although the attack was slated to begin at 4 a.m., given the total darkness that pervaded the area the Federals had to cross, General Wright postponed the assault until 4:40 a.m. Wright thought that by then ‘it had become light enough for the men to see to step, though nothing was discernible beyond a few yards’ distance.’ A cannon in Fort Fisher, belonging to the 3rd Vermont Battery, broke the silence, and the Federal infantry stepped off.

Alert Confederate pickets produced a weak and scattering volley and attempted to make for the main Confederate lines. The Federals gave a cheer that, combined with the rifle fire from the pickets, warned the main Confederate line of their approach.

The 5th Vermont, leading the attack, advanced through the pickets, capturing many who were not quick enough to escape. The Vermonters were just about to reach the obstructions when, remembered a Yank, a ‘well-directed musketry fire from the front and artillery fire from the forts on either hand’ tore into their ranks, demoralizing the Federal soldiers and almost bringing an end to the assault.

One Union captain recalled that many of the men in the brigade ‘refused to advance further than the rebel picket line. I never had to strike men with my saber before to make them advance but that day I did [strike] a great many of them and in earnest too, as hard as I could with the flat of my sword….’ Thanks to the work of the officers, the stalled brigade regained its momentum and proceeded with its attack.

Federal soldiers soon encountered a line (possibly two) of abatis — trees that had been felled by the Confederates with their branches pointing toward the Union lines. The Rebels had sharpened the branches, presenting a formidable challenge for an attacking force to pass. During the assault, members of the Federal army detailed as ‘pioneers’ advanced with axes. As the attackers advanced and came upon the abatis, they called for their pioneers, who went to work chopping up and clearing the downed trees. One Yankee soldier recalled that while he was working,’seven of our Pioneer comrades were killed in that one place.’

Captain Charles G. Gould of the 5th Vermont was the first Federal inside the works. He had found a weak place in the abatis and led the way through the ditch and up the parapet into the Confederate lines, followed by several of his men. As soon as Gould gained the lines, a Confederate pointed his rifle at the captain and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired, but a second Rebel bayoneted Gould in the mouth, and the blade passed under his lip and emerged at the lower part of the jaw near his neck. Gould thrust his saber through that Tar Heel, killing him. Another Confederate slashed Gould on the head with a sword. Gould was grabbed, hands partially ripping off his overcoat. Before he could struggle free from his assailants, a second bayonet was thrust at the officer, entering his spine and penetrating nearly to the spinal cord.

The captain attempted to crawl back over the works, and one of his own men, Corporal Henry Recor of Company A, rescued him, although Recor was also wounded while dragging Gould into the ditch. Gould staggered toward the main Federal lines, seeking medical aid and reinforcements for his Vermonters. Captain Gould survived his wounds and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

More Federal soldiers poured into the fortifications and fought hand to hand with the Tar Heels. Close-quarters fighting took place when several members of the 37th Massachusetts of Edwards’ brigade spied the colors of the 37th North Carolina. Lieutenant William Waterman, Corporals Luther Tanner and Richard Welch, and Private Michael Kelly, all of Company E, rushed toward the Confederate color-bearer.

The ensuing melee left Lieutenant Waterman wounded in the wrist. Corporal Tanner was killed, as was Private Kelly, but not before he bayoneted a Tar Heel who was trying to kill the 37th Massachusetts’ regimental commander. Corporal Welch knocked down the color-bearer of the 37th North Carolina and seized the banner. Welch was also awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing that flag.

‘I was driven from the works,’ recorded the 37th North Carolina’s regimental com-mander, Major Jackson L. Bost. ‘[Our] line…was broken and the enemy were filling down in the rear of our works toward Petersburg. I had to fall back directly to the rear and formed a skirmish line as best I could to keep the enemy from advancing too fast in our rear.’ Major Bost lost approximately two-thirds of his regiment. Among the dead were three of his company commanders: Captains William T. Nicholson, Company E John B. Petty, Company F and Daniel L. Hudson, Company G. Sergeant Yates Lacy of the 5th Wisconsin recalled that he ‘did a little artistic bayonet work’ and that ‘the Johnny that he interviewed passed on to sweet subsequently.’

Other Confederates ‘threw down their guns and surrendered,’ said Elisha Hunt Rhodes. ‘They shouted `Don’t fire, Yanks!’ and I ordered them to go to the rear, which they did on the run.’ Union troops captured well over 100 veteran soldiers of the 37th North Carolina, including several who were wounded.

Rhodes’ men had advanced with their rifles uncapped. Now that they had gained the Confederate works, he ordered them to prime, and a volley was sent after the retreating Tar Heels.

Elsewhere along Lane’s line, his other regiments were collapsing. The attack of Keifer’s brigade, to the left of the Vermont brigade across Arthur’s Swamp, focused on the 28th North Carolina. Keifer had learned of ‘A narrow opening, just wide enough for a wagon to pass through,’ along the Confederate lines to the front of his brigade. He ordered the 6th Maryland, in the center of his brigade, to exploit this opening, holding their fire until they were within the works, when they would ‘open on the Confederates…taking them in the flank, and, if possible, drive them out and thus leave for our troops little resistance in gaining an entrance over the ramparts.’ After navigating through the Confederate pickets and abatis, the Marylanders did gain the Confederate works.

Major Edward Hale, Lane’s assistant adjutant general, on seeing his men coming over the earthworks ahead of the attack, ‘remarked to someone `Why, there are the skirmishers, drive in,’ & called out to know how near behind the enemy were. Just at the moment I observed a stand of colors in the work[s] & the person in command ordered his followers to fire.’ The 28th North Carolina was flanked on the right, and forced to fall back toward the Boydton Plank Road.

The 18th North Carolina, to the left of the 37th North Carolina, suffered the same fate. Federals from Penrose’s New Jersey brigade and Edwards’ mixed brigade of men from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin struck the 18th North Carolina with overwhelming force.

Major Augustus Fay of the 40th New Jersey shot the color-bearer of the 18th. Another member of the 40th New Jersey, Private Frank Fesq, retrieved the flag and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for the deed. The 18th North Carolina fell back and attempted to establish a new line, but the troops were soon driven eastward toward Petersburg and the Confederates’ Fort Gregg. (Both the Federal and the Confederte armies had bastions called Fort Gregg at Petersburg.) The 33rd North Carolina was soon forced back toward the inner works as well. Once inside the Confederate works, the Federals began to spread out in all directions.

General Lane sent Lieutenant George Snow of the 33rd North Carolina back to division headquarters with word of the breakthrough. Wilcox gathered together remnants of Lane’s and Thomas’ brigades. The 600 men were ordered forward in a counterattack that allowed Lane and Thomas to recapture two cannons and reoccupy a portion of the lost breastworks. They established a new line perpendicular to the Confederate fortifications.

Surviving members of the 37th North Carolina, along with other soldiers and officers of Lane’s and Thomas’ brigades, retreated into Forts Gregg and Whitworth. There, they held the Federals at bay long enough for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps to stabilize the lines and allow the Confederates an orderly withdrawal during the evening hours.

Thirty minutes passed from the time the assault began before General Wright reported to Meade that his corps had ‘carried the works in front and to the left of the Jones house.’ Meade sent a congratulatory reply to Wright and shared the good tidings with Grant, who passed them on to Abraham Lincoln. Many of the Federals ‘were perfectly wild with delight at their success in this grand assault,’ wrote one division commander.

A fellow soldier, a sergeant in the 14th New Jersey, thought ‘the charge of Major-Gen. Wright’s veterans under cover of the darkness and mist, preceding the break of day, will forever live in history as one of the grandest and most sublime actions of the war.’ Even General Grant referred to the action among ‘the brightest day[s] in the history of the war.’ Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2, and just a few days later surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Other Confederate armies were also forced to capitulate over the next few weeks, and the war, after four long years, ended.

What became of Lieutenant Octavius Wiggins? After he was knocked to the ground by the blast of the Federal rifle, he was captured and taken to the rear. He found fellow members of the 37th North Carolina behind the lines, and they commenced to pick the tiny grains of powder out of his face. Wiggins and the other Confederate prisoners were taken to City Point, Va., where they boarded a steamer for Washington, D.C. There, the officers were placed on a train bound for Johnson’s Island in Ohio. During the night, Wiggins, wearing clothes made from an old gray shawl, jumped out of a window of the car he was riding in and escaped.

He cut off his buttons from his coat and vest, ‘and substituting wooden pegs, he was in perfect disguise and passed as a laborer, working a day or so at one place, then moving further south,’ he remembered. Once he reached Baltimore, he took a steamer to Richmond, but was ‘too late to do any more fighting[,] for General Lee had surrendered.’

This article was written by Michael C. Hardy and originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of America’s Civil War. Tar Heel Michael Hardy is the author of The Thirty-seventh North Carolina Troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia. In addition to his book, for further reading he recommends A. Wilson Greene’s Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion.

Last Ditch Rebel Stand at Petersburg

After more than nine months of squalid trench warfare around the beleaguered Southern city of Petersburg, Virginia, the spring of 1865 found Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his 44,000-man Army of Northern Virginia facing an overwhelming enemy force of 128,000 troops commanded by the indomitable Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee had been successful against long odds before, but never before had he and his men faced a situation as desperate as this. Less than 150 miles away in North Carolina, General Joseph Johnston and his depleted Army of Tennessee were trying to hold back Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and four times as many Union troops, while a third Federal force, under Major General Philip H. Sheridan, had just joined Grant outside Petersburg. Soon, Lee knew, he would be facing more than 200,000 battle-tested foes. Not even Robert E. Lee could defy those odds.

It had already been a long and grueling winter inside the Confederate trenches at Petersburg. Hunger, cold, illness, desertions and the constant threat of deadly snipers had sapped the spirits of the once defiant Virginians. In one five-week stretch that winter, nearly 3,000 Southern soldiers deserted–nearly 8 percent of Lee’s total strength. The few new recruits that came into the army–usually grudgingly, via the widely hated draft–could not replace the hardened veterans of so many earlier campaigns. ‘The men coming in do not supply the vacancies caused by sickness, desertions, and other casualties, Lee admitted. Although the general still retained the affection and loyalty of his men, both Lee and his underlings realized that it was only a matter of time before the war reached a point of no return. Said one Maryland soldier: There are a good many of us who believe this shooting match has been carried on long enough. A government that has run out of rations can’t expect to do much more fighting, and to keep on is reckless and wanton expenditure of human life. Our rations are all the way from a pint to a quart of cornmeal a day, and occasionally a piece of bacon large enough to grease our plate.

Lee himself made a fruitless trip to Richmond to plead his army’s case before the Confederate Congress, but bitterly told his son Custis, I have been up to see Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving. Meanwhile, the Union forces were growing stronger by the day. A massive supply depot at City Point, seven miles northeast of Petersburg at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers, bulged with mountains of food, clothing, arms and ammunition for the Federal troops.

Lee’s desperate attempt to cut the enemy supply lines at the juncture of Prince George Court House Road and the City Point Railroad on March 25 went terribly awry. Major General John Gordon, aiming his assault at the enemy salient of Fort Stedman, quickly seized the fort, but a massive counterattack rained down death and destruction on the Confederate attackers. After only a few hours, Lee called off the attack, but not before losing another 4,000 irreplaceable troops while gaining absolutely nothing.

Even worse, Lee’s halfhearted assault put Grant on alert. The Union commander was no longer worried that Lee could defeat him (if indeed he ever had been), but he was concerned that the wily Confederate might slip away under cover of darkness and join Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. On March 29, Grant assembled 50,000 troops on the Union left under one of his favorite commanders, Sheridan, who had already cleared the Shenandoah Valley of all effective Rebel resistance. Two days later, Sheridan’s force pushed northwestward toward Five Forks, a strategic wilderness crossing a dozen miles south of Petersburg. Lee, rather than extending his thin lines of defense an additional four miles to meet the Union threat, dispatched a 10,500-man mobile force of cavalry and infantry to oppose Grant’s flanking movement. The idea was that the quicker-moving Confederate cavalry could bridge the gap between the existing lines and the 6,000 supporting infantry troops until they could be properly situated.

On March 31, a portion of Sheridan’s force reached the outskirts of Five Forks but were repulsed by Maj. Gens. George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee. A terse message soon arrived from General Lee. Hold Five Forks at all hazards, he ordered. Incredibly, Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee chose the next day to hold a holidaylike shad bake behind their lines, and that same afternoon the relentless Sheridan struck, routing and scattering the leaderless Confederates. In one stroke, Lee’s entire right flank disappeared.

To replace the lost infantrymen on the right and attempt to continue holding his lines around Petersburg, Lee sent a desperate appeal that night to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who was north of the James River guarding Richmond, to come immediately to his aid. Major General Charles Field’s 4,600-man division was at least 12 hours away from Petersburg, and could not be expected to arrive before 7:30 a.m. on April 2. In the meantime, Confederate troops were moving out of their old earthworks and shifting toward the right to meet the enemy flanking movement there, with the slight hope that Field’s reinforcements would arrive at Petersburg before a general Federal assault fell on the defenders across the entire line.

Grant, however, alertly launched a heavy attack along the whole length of the Confederate lines south of the Appomattox River at dawn (4:45 a.m.) on April 2, and the center of Lee’s lines was soon broken at a thin section held by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps. As Lee came out of his headquarters behind Hill’s lines at the Turnbull house before daylight on the morning of April 2 to investigate the heavy firing that was in progress, he could just make out a long line of men coming toward him from the southwest. In the growing light, Lee could clearly see the blue uniforms of the troops, who were not more than half a mile away.

Hill was present at headquarters by this time, and he immediately set out with a lone courier to try to ride around the advancing Federals in a desperate attempt to rally his troops and restore the broken lines. The III Corps commander had said recently that he had no wish to survive the fall of Richmond, if that should occur. His wish was soon fulfilled–as Hill was killed instantly when knocked from his horse by a shot through the heart. In the meantime, a six-gun battery set up on the grounds of the Turnbull house opened fire to slow the advance of the oncoming Federals.

A semicircular section of the Confederate line held by Gordon on the left, surrounding Petersburg itself and running from the Appomattox River on the east to Fort Gregg well west of the city, had remained intact. The only chance to buy sufficient time for an evacuation of the major portion of Lee’s army that night required that the Federals be kept out of the 11Ž2-mile-wide gap in the lines on the west (running north from Fort Gregg to the Appomattox River) until Field’s approaching division could be brought into place about noon to establish an effective inner line of defense.

Lee himself was presently outside the intended inner line of defense, with hardly any Confederate troops between him and the enemy, a mere half mile away. Undaunted, Lee took time to go back into his headquarters and rapidly complete his dressing, including the unusual step of strapping on a dress sword with his full uniform. Reluctant to leave even then, Lee took personal charge of the guns. Later, a Federal officer reported: As we advanced over rolling and open country, a rebel battery opened on our left. Several times, as it was forced to change positions by the fire of the First Maine, we noticed a fine-looking old officer on a gray horse, who seemed to be directing its movements. At length the guns went into battery again on a hill near a large house, and their presence became more annoying than ever. By common consent the three brigades attempted to charge the hill, but the canister fire was so hot that the first attack was a failure. Later, I asked a mortally wounded artillery officer left behind what battery it was. ‘Poague’s North Carolina’, he said, and then I asked who was the officer on the gray horse? ‘General Robert E. Lee, sir, and he was the last man to leave these guns.’

Lee remained so long at the front that he eventually had to ride away at a gallop on his beloved Traveller, under heavy artillery fire. A shell burst so near the little band of retreating riders that the horse of one of his staff officers was killed. This caused Lee to rapidly jerk his head to one side, as he sometimes did when angry, and glare over his right shoulder toward the source of the fire as he rode along. Some shells also passed through the just-abandoned Turnbull house, setting it on fire and soon leaving only four tall chimneys standing where the headquarters had been.

As he rode through a thin inner line that was beginning to form across the open western end of the earthworks, Lee was cheered by his men as enthusiastically as he had been when he rode into the opening around the Chancellor house following Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville almost two years earlier. Before leaving the Turnbull house, Lee found time to send a telegram to the War Department in Richmond (received at 10:40 a.m.) stating, I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight. This dispatch was delivered to President Jefferson Davis, who was attending Sunday morning service at Saint Paul’s Church. After receiving the message, Davis got up quietly and left the church to prepare for the evacuation of Richmond that night.

The army had achieved so much for Lee that even now he must have wondered if there might not be one more miracle left. In a way there was, for otherwise the troops would never have been able to get away from Petersburg. Relief came in the form of two small earthworks under construction just beyond the south end of an open area, where it was hoped that an inner line could be established and held. Fort Gregg and Fort Baldwin (also called Battery Whitworth from its nearness to the Whitworth house) were about a quarter mile apart and mutually supporting. The works were occupied by Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Harris’ Mississippi brigade, which was a part of Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s division of Hill’s III Corps. This brigade had been one of the first reinforcement units to be thrown into the broken mule-shoe salient at Spotsylvania 10 months earlier. During that battle, Lee had been riding beside Harris at the head of this column when a solid artillery shot passed under Traveller’s raised forefeet as the rearing horse pawed in the air. Soldiers of the brigade called out: Go back, General Lee! For God’s sake, go back! Completely composed, he said, If you will promise to drive those people from our works, I will go back. The troops shouted their promise, and then made good on it with the assistance of an Alabama brigade from Mahone’s division that arrived shortly thereafter.

Harris’ brigade consisted of the battle-thinned remnants of four Mississippi regiments (the 12th, 16th, 19th and 48th), which numbered about 400 men in total–not even enough for one good-sized regiment. The brigade was augmented in the Gregg and Baldwin redoubts by about 100 North Carolinians who had been cut off from Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s division of Hill’s corps when the left of Wilcox’s line had collapsed during the Petersburg breakthrough. Harris put just under half of those troops into Fort Gregg (214 men, including portions of the 12th and 16th Mississippi and the remnants of Brig. Gen. James Lane’s North Carolina brigade), along with two rifled cannons, one manned by the famed Washington Artillery of New Orleans and the other by the 4th Maryland Battery.

Harris took the rest of the men (about 286, including most of the 19th and 48th Mississippi) and three guns from the Washington Artillery with him to Fort Baldwin, which lay just north of Fort Gregg and had a field of fire of a mile and a quarter to cover, running all the way to the Appomattox River on the north.

Fort Gregg was a square earthwork with a water-filled ditch around three sides of its steeply sloped walls. On the north side, the building of a trench and an elevated parapet to connect with Fort Baldwin had only just begun, and this unfinished section gave a narrow access into Fort Gregg. Likewise, there was an opening in the side of Fort Baldwin to accommodate the planned connecting entrenchment. Thus, each fort depended somewhat on the sweeping cannon fire of its neighbor to prevent enemy forces from entering through its open side. Also, there was no ditch along the unfinished side of the Gregg garrison.

Before Harris left Fort Gregg about noon, he shouted out Lee’s orders over the roar of the ongoing cannonade. Men, he told them, the salvation of the army is in your keep. Don’t surrender this fort. If you can hold out for two hours, Longstreet will be up. As he left the fort, after placing Lt. Col. James Duncan of the 16th Mississippi in charge, he heard someone shout out behind him: Tell them we’ll not give up! This was the second promise to Lee that the Mississippians would honor in every respect.

Two 6,000-man Federal divisions were put in place to overrun the Rebel earthworks as soon as the bombardment was lifted at 1 o’clock. One division was assigned to each of the works. The attack on Fort Gregg got underway promptly, but there was a delay at Fort Baldwin because of the heavy smoke from nearby burning buildings that the Confederates had set ablaze to improve their field of fire. The Federals advanced toward Fort Gregg in three columns, each containing a 2,000-man brigade, which were to converge on the fort as they approached.

Hit by massed volleys of fire, the attacking columns fell back, regrouped and came again, only to meet the same destructive fire and have to fall back once more. Longstreet was on the field by this time, swiftly positioning his lead brigades inside an inner defensive line as soon as they arrived. He and Lee observed the attack on Fort Gregg from a high vantage point. After each unsuccessful storming attempt, faint cheering could be heard from Fort Gregg and Fort Baldwin, which was not yet under heavy attack. At one point Lee called his staff around him, pointed to Fort Gregg and asked them to remember the most gallant defense they had witnessed here. Under a tree on a hillside in another part of the field, Grant was also observing and directing the assault on the fort.

Union Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, in charge of carrying out the attack, eventually called for one of the brigades in the division still standing idle before Fort Baldwin. This increased his assaulting force to about 8,000 men, and they were now sent against what was left of the 214 men inside Fort Gregg in one single flood designed to swamp the defenders, instead of in successive waves. The attackers completely surrounded the fort and gained entry through the unfinished side. While the Confederates tried to drive the Federals out through the opening, more troops attacked the other sides of the fort, standing on the shoulders of their comrades to reach the tops of the parapets.

Eventually, hand-to-hand fighting broke out on parapets all around the perimeter of the battered fort. At one time, six Federal regimental battle flags were visible on the parapets. Wounded Confederates inside the fort continued to load rifles taken from dead and disabled soldiers and pass them up to the sharpshooters atop the walls. Tumbling over the parapets, sometimes lifted on the raised bayonets of the unwavering defenders, the attacking Federals achieved a tenuous foothold inside the fort. Still, for another 25 minutes, hand-to-hand fighting continued within Fort Gregg, where defenders made use of everything available to them, from bayonets and clubbing rifles to bricks gathered from chimneys toppled by artillery fire.

Finally, only one gun was in action within the redoubt, and that was manned by a single cannoneer who held the lanyard taut on a gun loaded with double-shot canister. Told to drop the lanyard or we’ll shoot! the gunner yanked on the lanyard and shouted, Shoot and be damned! whereupon he was riddled with bullets and fell dead across the smoking gun. A similar incident had occurred on May 3, 1863, during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, when the last gunner of the Washington Artillery fired point-blank into surrounding attackers. The unit’s well-earned reputation was not harmed by their work on April 2, 1865.

It was just after 3 o’clock when the last fighting terminated in Fort Gregg. The defenders had been true to their word–they had not given up. Moreover, they had given Lee the two hours he wanted, plus an extra hour for good measure. With the collapse of Fort Gregg, the defenders of Fort Baldwin now made a rush for the inner lines before their now-indefensible position could be surrounded, losing about 60 men as they fled. Left inside Fort Gregg were 55 dead defenders, 129 wounded and only 30 men who surrendered uninjured. The Federals suffered more than 700 casualties during the reduction of the two unfinished earthworks. Now, however, the victorious Federals faced a stronger inner line of works, manned by defenders whose resolve had been strengthened by witnessing the heroic defense of Fort Gregg.

The exhausted Federals were content to remain in a line just outside the range of Confederate rifle fire until nightfall, when the Confederates began their retreat across bridges over the Appomattox River about an hour after darkness fell (8 p.m.). There was no organized interference from the Federals except for continued cannon fire. Because of the enemy firing, the Confederates could roll their artillery over the cobblestone streets of Petersburg without being heard during their retreat. Perhaps the retreat went undetected. But after losing well over 40,000 casualties in the trenches around Petersburg during the past 293 days (including more than 700 lost that afternoon in overwhelming 500 Confederates in Forts Gregg and Baldwin), perhaps Grant was perfectly willing to allow the Army of Northern Virginia to gain unopposed access to the open country.

As they walked through Fort Gregg and the surrounding Petersburg trenches following the evacuation on April 2, the victorious Federals could not fail to notice the beardless faces or silver strands of hair of many of the fallen Confederates. Major Washington Roebling wrote: Old men with silver locks lay dead, side by side with mere boys of thirteen or fourteen. It almost makes one sorry to have to fight against people who show such devotion for their homes and their country. The Confederate manpower shortage became acute during the last stage of the war, but the boys and older men in the trenches continued to fight as desperately as any of Lee’s veteran troops ever had.

The evacuations of Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2 were accomplished successfully, with most of the artillery intact, and the two wings of the army were on the march, in good order, toward a juncture at Amelia Court House on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, about 40 miles from the evacuated cities. The army, reunited for the first time since the battle of Cold Harbor 10 months earlier, planned to evacuate along the railroad through Burkeville to link up with Johnston’s forces somewhere beyond Danville, which was more than 100 miles from Amelia Court House. Although the retreat started well, not much went right thereafter not the least of the blunders was a failure to deliver rations to the starving army at Amelia Court House. The surrounded army was forced to surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, only a week after the gallant defense of Fort Gregg had allowed a last slim chance for escape. In the meantime, many thousands more had died for a cause that appeared to be altogether hopeless, even before the Petersburg lines were finally broken.

Still, the defense of Fort Gregg was not without benefit, over and above providing an example of conspicuous gallantry in pursuit of a near hopeless cause that ranks alongside any armed resistance in modern or ancient times, including the Spartan defense of Thermopylae. Indeed, the delay of the Federal attack may have saved a great many lives, at least on the Confederate side. As it turned out, the defense presented an opportunity to draw the army together and allow Lee to make a collective and reasoned decision regarding the surrender of what was left of his once-great army. Even after a week of hard marching with hardly any food, with his army totally surrounded by a vastly superior force, Lee found the decision so agonizing that when contemplating surrender he was heard to remark: How easy I could be rid of this, and be at rest! I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over! He must have been thinking about A.P. Hill’s recent death as he said this. Then, after some reflection, Lee added: But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?

Some 28,356 paroled Confederate troops returned home from Appomattox. Many of these men might have been shot down, one by one, in the streets of Petersburg if the stout defense of Fort Gregg had not stalled the Federal advance until the Confederates could retreat across the Appomattox bridges. Lee’s life may well have been one of those saved by the orderly evacuation, because it is difficult to imagine that he would have peacefully surrendered with troops still actively engaged in the field. To believe otherwise goes against a considerable body of evidence on Lee’s behavior under fire. His taking charge of the cannons on the morning his lines were broken at Petersburg is but one example of the commander’s steadfastness in battle. Lee’s troops were equally dedicated, some giving their lives at Fort Gregg so that others would have an avenue of retreat. In that way, at least, they did not die in vain.

Ronald E. Bullock of Cardiff, Calif., is a longtime student of the Civil War and has published several articles on this and other subjects. For further reading, see Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Douglas Freeman’s R.E. Lee, Vol. 4 and E.P. Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate.

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Petersburg to Appomattox

Following the Union repulse at Cold Harbor, both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia continued to entrench as Grant weighed his options. Concluding that there was no opening on his immediate front that would permit him to move directly on Richmond, he decided to change his line of operation by shifting his forces to the south, crossing the James River, and seizing Petersburg, the critical railroad hub linking Richmond with the lower South.

The operation would be a difficult one. Grant and Meade would have to break contact with Lee, move south around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, cross both the Chickahominy and James rivers, and take Petersburg before Lee could react.

On June 12, II and VI Corps occupied a shortened trench line while V Corps slid to the south to protect the Union approaches to the James. XVIII Corps marched east to White House on the York River, embarking on ships for transport to Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers between Richmond and Petersburg. Once V Corps took up its covering position, the rest of the Army of the Potomac passed behind it toward the James.

On June 14, II Corps crossed the James from Wilcox’s Landing to Windmill Point by boat and XVIII reached Bermuda Hundred. On June 15, Yankee engineers completed a massive pontoon bridge across the James, permitting the rest of the army to cross by June 16. Meanwhile, diversionary actions, including a cavalry raid north of Richmond, kept Lee confused as to Grant’s intentions.

It was a bold plan, boldly executed. The Petersburg lines were only weakly defended by elements of a small force under Beauregard, who was also responsible for holding the line at Bermuda Hundred. Before Lee knew what was going on, elements of the Army of the Potomac were in position to seize the city.

The plan called for William Smith’s XVIII Corps to break through Beauregard’s lines at Bermuda Hundred and attack the Petersburg lines from the east, supported by II Corps. Smith delayed his attack, but when XVIII Corps finally attacked late on June 15, it easily carried the lines of the Confederates, who reformed behind Harrison’s Creek. Had Smith continued the attack, he would probably been able to occupy the city. But perhaps still stunned by the carnage at Cold Harbor, the Federals did not exploit their early success.

Beauregard abandoned his Bermuda Hundred position and rushed his troops south to man the Petersburg lines. The Federals resumed their assaults on June 17 and 18, but they were largely disorganized and uncoordinated. Lee’s troops poured into the Petersburg defense and by the evening of June 18, the Union assault had stalled, prompting Grant to call off further frontal attacks on the city.

The Siege Begins: Battle of the Crater

Since the Army of the Potomac could easily be resupplied through City Point on the James River , Grant and Meade now settled into a siege. For the most part, the Confederate defenses were too strong to be taken by storm. Indeed, photographs taken at the time eerily adumbrate the Western Front a half century later. Thus Grant’s overall plan was to extend his lines toward the west in order to achieve two goals: to cut the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad, the city’s main source of provisions from North Carolina, and to thin out Lee’s lines in the hopes that at some point the Rebel defenses would be so weakened that Union forces could achieve a breakthrough.

The first attempt to extend the lines was repulsed by A.P. Hill near the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22-23. After this event, Meade and Grant tried a more direct approach. A unit within Ambrose Burnside’s IX made up of Pennsylvania coal miners had proposed digging a tunnel from Union lines to the Confederate position, filling it with explosives, and then detonating it to undermine the Rebel works. Grant approved the plan, but didn’t think it would bear fruit. He seems to have thought of it primarily as a way to keep the troops busy, akin to his approach during the winter of 1863 in the lead up to his brilliant Vicksburg campaign.

Nonetheless, Grant ordered II Corps to attack the Confederate defenses north of the James in an effort to weaken the part of the line where the mining effort was taking place. Although the attack at Deep Bottom failed, the Rebel lines were in fact weakened at the point of the mine as Lee had to send troops to meet the apparent threat to the Richmond defenses north of the James.

The mine itself was a remarkable engineering feat. The approach shaft was over 500 feet and the miners developed an ingenious way of ventilating the shaft. When completed, it was packed with about 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. The plan called for an immediate attack after the mine was detonated. Unfortunately, in an early case of political correctness, the African-American division that was to lead the assault was replaced at the last minute, due to Meade’s concern that if the attack failed, he would be accused of using black soldiers as cannon fodder. The new division was badly led and not up to the challenge.

On July 30, the mine was detonated, creating a huge crater 30 feet deep and 70 feet wide in the Confederate works. But rather than skirting the crater, the lead division attacked directly into it and stopped, where the Union soldiers became sitting ducks. As Grant drily noted in his memoirs, they “stopped there in the absence of any one to give them directions their commander having found some safe retreat to get into before they started.” Actually he was drunk in his quarters.

The Battle of the Crater was a horrendous failure, costing IX Corps nearly 3800 casualties. Grant now returned to his original approach of extending his lines to the west to get at the Weldon and Petersburg railroad. On August 18, V Corps seized part of the rail line near Globe Tavern. Although a sharp Rebel counterattack drove the Federal back some distance, they maintained their hold on the tracks. A Union push south of Globe Tavern by II Corps was defeated on August 25 at Reams Station.

These efforts continued into October both to the west and north of the James. On September 30, Union troops gained a salient at Popular Springs Church southwest of Petersburg and captured Fort Harrison north of the James. In October, the Union line was further extended west near Hatcher’s Run.

The strain on Lee’s army was beginning to tell. While he was able to prevent a Union breakthrough, he was forced to constantly rush troops from one threatened sector to another. As winter set in, operations on the Richmond-Petersburg front came to a halt.

Operations in the Shenandoah Valley

While Meade and Grant were applying pressure against Lee, event of military importance were also transpiring in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant’s strategic plan for ending the war called for a simultaneous advance by five federal armies: the three main thrusts were to be made by Meade directly against Lee, Sherman against Atlanta, and Banks against Mobile. Two other smaller offensives would support Meade in Virginia: Franz Siegel was to move up the Shenandoah Valley, and Benjamin Butler was to move against Richmond from the James River.

Butler was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred and remained inactive. In the Shenandoah, Siegel was beaten by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge at New Market in May, after which the latter joined Lee on the North Anna. Grant replaced Siegel with David Hunter, who defeated a Confederate force at Piedmont on June 5 and then marched on Lexington, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute before moving toward Lynchburg. Breckinridge hurried back to the Valley, followed by Jubal Early’s corps.

Outnumbered by Early, Hunter fell back to the Kanawha Valley, leaving the way open for Early to march down the Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland and Washington. The Great Valley of Virginia was one of the few remaining areas from which Lee’s army could draw provisions. More importantly, it was a strategic asset for the Confederacy, serving as an avenue of approach. Lee had used the Valley in both 1862 and 1863 for his thrusts northward. A Confederate army in the Shenandoah was always a threat to Washington, as Stonewall Jackson had shown during the spring of 1862.

Lee hoped that Early could reprise Jackson’s success. At the end of June, 1864, Early marched down the Valley, crossed the Potomac, and headed north before turning toward the capital. On July 9, he engaged a Federal force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace on Monocacy Creek near Frederick, forcing it back on Washington’s defenses. Early’s arrival set of panic in the city leading Grant to detach two corps to reinforce Washington’s defenses. After exchanging volleys with Union troops at Fort Stevens, Early retreated into the Valley.

Many historians have concluded that Early’s raid on Washington was a failure. But other disagree. For instance, a new book on the battle of the Monocacy argues that had Lew Wallace not delayed Early, the Rebels could have seized Fort Stevens, which was only lightly defended by “cooks and clerks.” As it was, another historian has argued that Early’s raid extended the war for nine months by diverting two corps from Meade’s army at the beginning of the Petersburg siege.

As Early withdrew, Federal forces pursued the Rebels to Snickers Gap, administering a defeat at Cool Springs on July 18. Thinking that Early would continue his retreat up the Valley, most of the Union forces returned to the Richmond-Petersburg lines.

But Early turned and attacked a Union force under George Crook, defeating it at Second Kernstown on July 25, and then continued down the Valley to Martinsburg where he destroyed the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His cavalry then raided into Pennsylvania, burning Chambersburg in retaliation for Hunter’s earlier depredation in the Valley.

Grant had had enough of the Rebels in the Valley and at the beginning of August, he sent Phil Sheridan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, to deal with Early. Early had misinterpreted Sheridan’s previous refusal to give battle as a sign of timidity. As result of his overconfidence, he then divided his army, spreading it from Winchester to Martinsburg. When Sheridan discovered Early’s disposition, he attacked at Winchester. Although Early was able to re-concentrate his forces and repulse several of Sheridan’s assaults on September 19, Union cavalry crushed the Confederate left flank and drove the Rebels from the field.

Early attempted to rally his troops at Fisher’s Hill near Strasburg but three days after his triumph at Winchester, Sheridan flanked this position as well, routing the Rebels.Sheridan pursued Early to Staunton then turned back, systematically destroying the agricultural potential of the Valley as he went. The goal was to deny provisions for the Confederacy. Sheridan later boasted that his goal was to make it so that a crow flying over the Valley would have to carry its own provisions.

On October 9, Yankee cavalrymen routed their Rebel counterparts at Tom’s Brook, making it clear that the advantage the Confederacy once held in this arm was now a thing of the past. Nonetheless, Early still managed to surprise the Union army on October 19 at Cedar Creek, initially sending the Yankees reeling. Sheridan was away but when he received word that the battle was underway, he quickly returned and organized a counterattack that routed the Confederates. His feat was immortalized in Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem “Sheridan’s Ride.” Following Cedar Creek, both sides went into winter quarters, but on March 3, 1865, Sheridan destroyed what was left of Early’s army at Waynesboro.

Union Breakthrough at Petersburg and the Race to the West

On February 6, 1865, an event occurred that was to have important consequences for war termination. On that date, Lee was appointed General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies. General Order 3 of that date reads:

The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That there shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, an office, who shall be known and designated as ‘General in Chief,’ who shall be ranking officer of the army, and as such, shall have command of the military forces of the Confederate States General Robert E. Lee having been duly appointed General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, will assume the duties thereof and will be obeyed and respected accordingly.

As the Richmond Dispatch of February 7 observed, “Providence raises up the man for the time, and a man for this occasion, we believe, has been raised up in Robert E. Lee, the Washington of the second American Revolution.”

The move by the Confederate Congress reflected the fact that by this time, Jefferson Davis had lost support throughout the South. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, Southerners concluded that Davis lacked the political—and, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, the military skills—necessary to achieve independence.

Some of Davis’ critics were so keen to diminish the president’s role that they even considered the possibility of making Lee Commander-in-Chief and thus de facto leader of the Confederacy. This never came to pass, largely because Lee would have none of it. But the Act did raise Lee’s official status to the one demanded by the public. At Appomattox two months later, this congressional action would mean that Lee’s surrender would essentially end the war. During the winter, things had remained quiet on the Richmond-Petersburg front. However, in February, Grant resumed his efforts to thin the Confederate defenses by extending the Union lines to the west. Lee knew he had to do something and thought that if he was able to achieve some success near City Point, Grant would have to contract his lines. If the contraction took place, Lee would then be able to move south toward North Carolina if Petersburg fell.

The Rebel attack at Fort Stedman on March 25 initially achieved success, but Union counterattacks restored the line. Recognizing that Lee had weakened his defenses in order to concentrate his forces on Fort Stedman, Grant now believed the time was ripe for a final push. Sheridan, having returned from his successful campaign against Early the Valley, led his cavalry against Rebel forces near Dinwiddie Court House and then defeated Pickett’s command at Five Forks. The Confederate defenses began to collapse and on April 2, Grant ordered a general assault across the entire front.

Lee advised Jefferson Davis that he could no longer hold his position and on the night of April 2-3, the Confederates evacuated Richmond. Lee hurried west on multiple routes toward Amelia Court House on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, where he hoped to be resupplied before turning south to link up with Joseph Johnston’s forces now in North Carolina. But when he arrived at Amelia Court House, the supplies were not there. He also learned that Union forces were blocking his path to the west.

Conducting an exhausting night march that enabled him to circumvent the Federals, Lee marched his tattered army to Farmville, again hoping to be resupplied. The rations were there but with sizeable Federal forces to his south, he was unable to execute his plan to link up with Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6 as he crossed the Appomattox River, his rear guard was smashed at Sayler’s Creek, costing Lee 7,000 more casualties.

On April 8, Sheridan’s cavalry reached Appomattox Court House, blocking a further move by Lee to the west. Lee attempted to break through the Union position, but the diminished size of his army and the timely arrival of elements of the Army of the James ended any chance of success. Lee now had no choice but to surrender his army.

Lee and War Termination

At Appomattox, Lee’s position as General-in-Chief of the Confederate armies became an important aspect of war termination. As on historian has observed, “Davis and many others initially refused to accept that Lee’s surrender brought the end of the Confederacy . British journalists agreed that the war did not end with Lee. Instead, they expected guerilla warfare. Lee’s refusal to participate made such a shift difficult, if not impossible.”

Lee had already made it clear that Lee did not support the idea of continuing the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare, an option that his chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, had suggested before the surrender. But Lee rejected the suggestion in favor of unifying the country. As James I. Robertson observed in 2006, “Lee’s attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let’s look to the future and rebuild,” Mr. Robertson says. “He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war.”

On the other hand, Grant was disappointed that Lee did not exercise his position as General-in-Chief or the Confederate armies by encouraging other Rebel army commanders to surrender when he did. As Grant wrote in his Memoirs, he “suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if we would now advise the surrender of all the armies [he] had no doubt [Lee’s] advice would be followed with alacrity.”

Indeed, on April 10, 1865, just days after Lee’s surrender, Grant went so far as to suggest that Lee bypass Davis’s authority altogether and speak directly with Lincoln to negotiate terms of surrender for the whole Confederacy but Lee refused, holding firm to the position that only Davis, as president of the Confederacy, could negotiate with Lincoln toward a general surrender. But Grant maintained that the “Confederacy had gone a long way beyond the reach of President Davis, and that there was nothing that could be done except what Lee could do to benefit the Southern people.”


In retrospect, historians agree that after the fall of Atlanta in September of 1864, the Confederacy was doomed and wonder why the South did not recognize this reality. But this is an illustration of the fact that all hindsight is twenty-twenty. As Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson, the editors of The Collapse of the Confederacy wrote in 2001, “an air of inevitability has clung too long to the Confederacy’s final months.” Working backwards from the known outcomes at Appomattox and Durham Station, most historians argue that the Confederacy had no chance of gaining its independence after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection. But while the outcome may be certain to us, it was not at all certain to either Northerners or Southerners at the time.

While Southern morale had suffered as a result of battlefield setbacks through the end of 1864, many in the South saw the situation in the winter of 1865 as just one more period of grave peril—no different than that of spring 1862 or even the dark days of the American Revolution—that could be reversed by courage and perseverance. As the passage from the Richmond Dispatch cited above illustrates, white Southerners looked to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to vindicate the independence of the Confederacy just as Patriots during the American Revolution invested their hopes for independence in Washington’s Continental Line. As long as Lee was in the field, Southerners believed that there was still hope for their cause.

Of course, Lee has long been admired. He has been portrayed as outshining all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. He has been described as the perfect soldier—a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander who led the Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds.

This view of Lee has come under attack by some historians, most notably Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan, although both reflect a view advanced by the British military writer J.F.C. Fuller in the 1930s. Historians of this school contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause with his single-minded offensive orientation that led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford. According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy, focused narrowly on defeating his adversary in Virginia, and was willing to pay any cost to prevail. Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the demise of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee.

Most importantly, these critics argue that Lee’s reputation as a gifted soldier was “manufactured history,” by such “Lost Cause” writers as Jubal Early, who “distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee’s abilities and wartime stature.” But the outstanding historian Gary Gallagher has argued persuasively that Lee’s high reputation was not a post-war creation of the Lost Cause school. Relying on wartime sources—”as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded,” he concluded that Southerners retained a remarkable faith in the qualities of Lee and the prowess of his army.

Thus, Southerners did not see the setbacks at Antietam or Gettysburg as disasters, and even as Lee clung to the trenches at Petersburg, believed that victory was ultimately possible.

A Closer Look at General Lee’s Civil War Record

General Lee left a mark on American history as one of the greatest generals during the American Civil War. Learn more about his role in the war based on his battle records.


Civil War record of General Lee was considerably less impressive than the Myth of the Lost Cause portrays it. After declining command of the Union army because he would not lift his sword against his beloved Commonwealth of Virginia (as distinguished from the Confederacy), Lee did an excellent job organizing the Virginia militia and defending that state in the early months of the war. As its militia became part of the Confederacy’s army, Lee became President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor.

Disappointed that he was not on the field for the Confederate victory at First Bull Run (Manassas), Lee continued to lobby for a field command. His wish was granted when he was sent to northwestern Virginia in late 1861, but there he demonstrated some of the weaknesses that would plague him throughout the war. At Cheat Mountain, he issued long, complicated orders and failed to exercise hands-on control. While in that small theater, he failed to deal with squabbling subordinates whose disputes were undermining Confederate efforts to regain control of northwestern Virginia, and he returned to Richmond a failure.

Davis then gave General Lee a chance for redemption by assigning him to command the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts. First, Davis had to write letters to affected governors ensuring them that Lee was indeed a highly competent general (contrary to what they may have heard about his western Virginia experience). Lee did an excellent job building defensive coastal fortifications and withdrawing most of the rebel defenses to waters beyond the reach of Union gunboats.

Apparently because Davis was becoming disenchanted with independent, uncooperative, and personally despised generals such as Joseph Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, he recalled Lee to Richmond as his primary military advisor once again. There Lee helped Davis to pressure Johnston into more aggressive defensive actions, especially after George B. McClellan started slowly moving up the Virginia peninsula from the Norfolk area toward Richmond.

After two months of dalliance, McClellan finally reached the vicinity of Richmond and split his army on both sides of the Chickahominy River. On May 31, 1862, with prodding, Johnston attacked an isolated portion of Little Mac’s army on the south side of the river. In what became the two-day Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Longstreet bungled his attack, and reinforcements from north of the river were able to avert a Union disaster.

The most important result of the battle was that Johnston was badly wounded and on June 1, 1862, General Lee succeeded to command of the major Confederate army in the east, which he promptly dubbed the Army of Northern Virginia. His record as its commander requires deep examination before judgment can be rendered about the quality of his Civil War performance.

General Lee enhanced his early-war reputation as the “King of Spades” by ordering his army to dig fortifications south of the Chickahominy between Richmond and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Contrary to many people’s expectation that he would be a cautious general, he was preparing the first of many offensives against his foes. His strategic and tactical aggressiveness would soon be apparent to all.

The Seven Days’ Battle, ending McClellan’s disastrous Peninsula Campaign, began in late June and was Lee’s first as army commander. Correctly predicting that McClellan would not have the moral courage to attack Lee’s lines and Richmond while General Lee moved his army to the north side of the Chickahominy, Lee took two-thirds of his army above the river and attacked Little Mac’s largest corps, which was alone there.

In a sign of things to come, General Lee had his army attack the enemy for most of one week and pushed them away from Richmond and back to the James River. Although Lee knew that he had achieved his strategic objective of saving Richmond after two days of fighting, he continued his attacks for days more, taking substantial casualties. His army suffered twenty thousand casualties (dead, wounded, missing, or captured), while McClellan’s army suffered “only” sixteen thousand. Most of Lee’s casualties were “hard” ones—killed or wounded. Only ten thousand of Little Mac’s men were killed or wounded.

That week of fighting was marked by McClellan’s constant retreats (under his usual misapprehension that he was outnumbered two to one) and Lee’s over-aggressiveness and mismanagement of his army. He generally issued a battle order for the day and then simply let things unfold without close battlefield control by him or his deliberately small staff. Virtually every daily order called for Stonewall Jackson to come in on Lee’s left flank after the rest of Lee’s army diverted the Yankees’ attention with frontal assaults. While those assaults resulted in horrendous casualties, Jackson was either a no-show or late-show on almost every occasion. General Lee took no corrective action.

The final battle of the week was Malvern Hill, where a disorganized and disastrous rebel assault against a strong, elevated Union position resulted in such slaughter that D. H. Hill, one of Lee’s generals, described it as “not war, but murder.” By then, Lee had so decimated and disorganized his army that McClellan’s subordinates recommended an immediate counterattack to destroy Lee’s army or capture Richmond. McClellan, of course, declined and retreated farther downriver.

Lee’s strategic victory made him an instant hero in the South, which was losing battles on most other fronts. He had, however, demonstrated a proclivity for complicated and ambiguous orders, lack of battlefield control, and relentless offensive action that resulted in irreplaceable casualties for the manpower-starved Confederacy.

While McClellan, pouting at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, kept requesting more reinforcements, General Lee determined that the Army of the Potomac was no threat to Richmond and decided to go on the offensive. He moved into central and northern Virginia to challenge John Pope’s new Army of Virginia. With help from McClellan, who delayed sending reinforcements to Pope and kept twenty-five thousand Union troops away from the battlefield, Lee won perhaps his greatest victory at Second Manassas. With Jackson on the defensive and Longstreet then overwhelming Pope’s left flank, Lee suffered only 9,500 casualties to the Union army’s 14,400. With Lee present, Jackson inexplicably failed to leave his position and join Longstreet’s attack.

After a minor victory at Chantilly, Lee took unilateral action, approved neither by Davis nor the Confederate Congress or cabinet, that proved devastating to rebel prospects—he crossed the Potomac and invaded the North in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. In that Maryland (Antietam) campaign, he hoped to feed his army, gather thousands of recruits, and win a great victory that would dismay the Northern people and convince England and France to recognize the Confederacy. For about three weeks, Lee’s army lived on non-Virginia soil, but he failed to gain recruits. He was in the western part of Maryland, where proslavery sentiment was weak, and those Marylanders interested in joining his army had already done so.

More importantly, he squandered what had been a grand opportunity for European recognition. England and France had been poised to recognize the Confederacy until Lee’s invasion, but they decided to wait for the outcome of his campaign. That campaign started well for General Lee as he took advantage of McClellan’s slow response to the discovery of Lee’s “lost order” and captured more than eleven thousand Union soldiers at Harpers Ferry. Instead of declaring the campaign a success after the capture of Harpers Ferry and its garrison, however, Lee put his pitifully small and exhausted army in a trap at Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, he suffered severe losses and would have been destroyed by almost any general other than McClellan. Lee’s and Jackson’s counterattacks at Miller’s Cornfield in the early hours of the battle were acts of tactical suicide, not genius. Although McClellan allowed Lee’s army to escape, the Confederates had suffered a crushing strategic defeat that opened the door for Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 and virtually ended all hopes of European intervention. Lee’s net casualties at Harpers Ferry had been a plus-11,500, but his army suffered 11,500 casualties in the rest of the Antietam campaign (to the attacking Union army’s 12,400).

After retreating to Virginia, General Lee was the beneficiary of foolhardy Union assaults ordered by Ambrose Burnside at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Lee’s army, fighting from entrenched positions most of the day, inflicted almost thirteen thousand casualties on the Union attackers while incurring a few more than five thousand themselves. Although Lee was not satisfied with the defensive nature of the victory, it was sufficient to bolster Southern morale for many months.

The lesson of Fredericksburg was that a frontal assault on the enemy, if not absolutely necessary, was unwise, but Lee failed to learn it. After Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville in early May 1863, Lee spent the next couple of days frontally assaulting Joseph Hooker’s Union lines. As a result, his army suffered almost thirteen thousand casualties while inflicting over seventeen thousand on the weakly led enemy. But Lee’s army paid too high a price, including the loss of Jackson, for the Chancellorsville victory. Its butcher bill would have been even higher had Lee been able to launch a planned final assault on another strong Union position. Lee was angry, but his subordinates were relieved, when Hooker retreated across the Rapidan River before Lee could attack.

Gettysburg proved even more disastrous to the Confederacy and the Army of Northern Virginia. By invading Pennsylvania, General Lee deprived rebel armies in other theaters of desperately needed reinforcements. Had Longstreet’s troops reinforced the badly outnumbered Bragg against George Thomas’s Tullahoma campaign, Thomas might have been prevented from crossing the Tennessee River and seizing Chattanooga and more rebel troops might have been sent to oppose Grant’s Vicksburg campaign.

On the first day of the three-day battle at Gettysburg, General Lee missed a grand opportunity to occupy the high ground, a failure that proved costly over the next forty-eight hours. Longstreet, his senior general, opposed Lee’s plan for frontal assaults on the second and third days against Union troops in strong defensive positions. That campaign cost Lee an intolerable twenty-eight thousand casualties, while the Union lost twenty-three thousand. As a result, Lee no longer had the strength to initiate strategic offensives (which had been a bad idea anyway) and, more importantly, he lacked the manpower to counterpunch effectively when attacked.

Some regard Gettysburg as a turning point of the war. Lost Cause adherents have attempted to make it the turning point and have expended considerable effort attempting to relieve Lee of responsibility for that major tactical and strategic defeat. Their position is that Longstreet lost Gettysburg and thus the war, while Lee was blameless. Although Douglas Southall Freeman recited a litany of guilty parties (Longstreet, Ewell, A. P. Hill, Jeb Stuart), most of Lee’s apologists found the only scapegoat they needed in James Longstreet. Because the Lee-Longstreet saga has become such a fundamental part of the Myth, I have devoted the next chapter to a thorough examination of the Gettysburg campaign and the allegations against Longstreet. Readers can determine for themselves whether Lee or Longstreet was primarily responsible for that disaster.

The cumulative casualties of 1862 and 1863 had taken a severe toll on Lee’s army—both in the number and the quality of the men lost. It was a toll the Confederacy, outnumbered almost four to one at the war’s outset, could not afford. With an army that was a mere shadow of the one he had inherited, Lee was finally forced to fight truly defensively in opposing Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. Staying generally on the defensive at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor enabled Lee to post the kinds of numbers he had needed in prior years. Before Grant had reached the James River, Lee lost “only” thirty-three thousand men while inflicting fifty-five thousand casualties on the Army of the Potomac. But it was too little, too late, for Lee. He had so weakened his army with his offensive strategy and tactics in 1862 and 1863 that he could not prevent Grant from forcing him into a partial siege situation at Richmond and Petersburg in which Lee’s army was doomed. Thereafter, he continued to focus solely on his own army as the rest of the Confederacy was collapsing.

Ironically, the Overland Campaign of 1864, in which Grant, according to his critics, took too many casualties, shows what Lee could have accomplished had he stayed on the strategic and tactical defensive in 1862 and 1863. As Alan Nolan concludes, “The truth is that in 1864, General Lee himself demonstrated the alternative to his earlier offensive strategy and tactics.” Grady McWhiney reaches the same conclusion: “Though Lee was at his best on defense, he adopted a defensive strategy only after attrition had deprived him of the power to attack. His brilliant defensive campaign against Grant in 1864 made the Union pay in manpower as it had never paid before. But the Confederates adopted defensive tactics too late Lee started the campaign with too few men, nor could he replace his losses as could Grant.”

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Ten Civil War Generals Who Died Unusual Deaths

Of the more than 1,000 Union and Confederate generals who served in the Civil War, 124 died of wounds received in battle, while 38 died from illnesses, accidents, or in other bizarre incidents. Among those in the latter category were two who committed suicide—one after being demoted by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the other after being placed under arrest by notorious Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. While most of the generals who survived the four years of carnage would die of natural causes, a fraction perished in tragic mishaps during peacetime. One of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s ablest lieutenants, for example, drowned in a shipwreck on his way to Mexico in 1880. A Union division commander who helped repel Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg died in a train accident nine years after he fought in that epic battle. Most buffs know of Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ murder of Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, a fellow Yankee, during the war, and the slaying of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn by the husband of his mistress in April 1863, but they probably aren’t familiar with the stories of the Confederate generals killed in street fights or assassinated in the 1870s and 1880s. Compiled here is a list of 10 bizarre and tragic deaths of Union and Confederate generals both during and after the war.

Michael Corcoran (Union)

Michael Corcoran is one of the most controversial generals to serve on either side during the Civil War. The outspoken Irishman even killed a fellow Union officer—Lt. Col. Edgar Kimball of the Hawkins’ Zouaves in April 1863—but he was absolved by a court of inquiry. It is not surprising that Corcoran’s life ended under peculiar circumstances.

Corcoran, a colonel at the time, first made headlines in 1859 when he refused to parade the 69th New York State Militia to greet Prince of Wales Albert Edward upon the prince’s arrival in New York. He was court-martialed, though the charges were later dismissed. In July 1861, he was captured while leading his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run. After time in a Confederate prison, he was released in August 1862. The popular officer was promoted to brigadier general and recruited a brigade known as “Corcoran’s Legion” composed of Irishmen.

On December 22, 1863, Corcoran, accompanied by several other officers, met fellow Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher at a train station not far from Virginia’s Fairfax Court House, where Meagher’s men were camped. On the slog back, Corcoran’s horse lost a shoe, so he exchanged horses with Meagher.

Meagher’s unruly horse suddenly bolted ahead out of sight, taking Corcoran with it. Found unconscious, Corcoran was taken by wagon to Dr. William P. Gunnell’s home in Fairfax, where surgeons proceeded to bleed him by cupping. The 36-year-old general died roughly four hours later, surrounded by his grief-stricken officers and a teenage bride.

The popular belief is that Corcoran was either thrown from the horse or fell out of his saddle (Meagher rode on an old-fashioned English saddle to which Corcoran was supposedly not accustomed) and fractured his skull. But more reliable sources claim that he had died from cerebral apoplexy or a stroke. Corcoran had been suffering from poor health since his release from Confederate captivity and had had prior fainting episodes.

Thousands of Irish-Americans visited his body at New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was buried December 27.

Philip St. George Cocke (Confederate)

Virginian Philip St. George Cocke left the Army in 1834, two years after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, but he retained ties with the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, acting as a benefactor and serving as the president of VMI’s board of visitors. He was one of the wealthiest slave and plantation owners in the South before the war.

Philip St. George Cocke, one of the South's wealthiest slaveowners in 1852, wrote "Plantation and Farm Instruction." (Library of Virginia)

Cocke was appointed a brigadier general and placed in command of Virginia’s troops in 1861. He was instrumental in organizing Confederate forces. To Cocke’s anguish, he was stripped of his authority and demoted to the rank of colonel when Virginia’s forces were transferred to the Provisional Army of the Confederacy on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. Cocke partially blamed General Robert E. Lee for his demotion, writing indignantly to President Jefferson Davis: “I think General Lee has treated me very badly and I shall never forgive him for it.”

Colonel Robert E. Withers noticed a disturbing change in Cocke’s demeanor after that incident and began to question his mental stability. “My opinion was formed from his general manner,” Withers declared, “which was distrait [sic], he was often abstracted and evidently oblivious of his surroundings, the expression of his eye was not normal and there was an indefinable something in his whole bearing which I thought justified my opinion.”

As winter approached, Cocke, in poor health and disheartened at how he had been treated, returned to his mansion in Powhatan, Va. On December 26, 1861, he walked outside his mansion and placed a pistol in his mouth, pulling the trigger.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a fellow Virginian and Confederate army chaplain who had spent the day before with Cocke, said he “never saw him more rational.” During his funeral sermon, the Rev. Cornelius Tyree deduced what had driven Cocke to take his own life: “With a temperament nervous and excitable, being for more than a year under intense, high-wrought and continued mental anxiety about the country, and dwelling on the gloomy aspect of our revolution, his bright intellect gave way and was wrapped in the somber cloud of irrationality, which caused his mournful end.”

William Harrow (Union)

After relocating with his family from Kentucky to Illinois, William Harrow studied law. Known for his elegant speeches and magnetic personality in the courtroom, the six-foot lawyer was said to be able to defeat any opponent if given the opportunity to deliver a trial’s closing argument. Before the war, he traveled with Abraham Lincoln in the 8th Judicial Circuit, the two becoming good friends. Lincoln supposedly considered Harrow for a position in his Cabinet, but Harrow turned it down so he could fight. While commanding a division during Pickett’s Charge, he was saved from a Confederate bullet by a daguerreotype of his wife and two Mexican coins he was carrying in a uniform pocket.

William Harrow, a lawyer before and after the war, strongly supported Horace Greeley of the Liberal Republican Party for president in 1872. (USAHEC)

After the war, Harrow returned to politics and his law practice. Nominated for Congress, he decided not to run against William E. Niblack because of his failing health. On September 27, 1872, after speaking in Mitchell, Ill., in support of Horace Greeley’s candidacy for president, Harrow boarded a train on the New Albany & Chicago Railroad, scheduled to deliver another speech in Jeffersonville, Ill. Before he reached his destination, however, the train struck a damaged rail and ran off the track, throwing Harrow from his car—breaking a shoulder and hip while causing severe internal injuries. On his deathbed, he declared, “I lived like a hero, I would like to die like one.” But his dying words were reserved for his wife, who had not yet arrived at his bedside: “Tell my wife—God receive my spirit.”

He died that night at the age of 49.

William Wirt Adams (Confederate)

William Wirt Adams had a variety of occupations before the Civil War: soldier for the Republic of Texas sugar planter banker and Mississippi legislator. He declined the position of postmaster general offered by President Jefferson Davis at the beginning of the war. Instead, he raised a Mississippi cavalry regiment and supported Confederate operations in Mississippi and Tennessee until the conclusion of the war.

William Wirt Adams died in a 1888 confrontation with newspaper editor John H. Martin in Jackson, Miss. (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

In 1883, President Grover Cleveland appointed Adams, then 64, to the position of postmaster of Jackson, Miss. Adams became embroiled in a bitter feud with the editor of the New Mississippian newspaper, 25-year-old John H. Martin. On May 1, 1888, Martin was on his way to his office when he bumped into an irate Adams in the street. Tired of the editor’s slanderous remarks, Adams yelled at Martin, “You damned rascal, I have stood enough from you.”

Both men pulled their pistols and fired. Adams died instantly from a bullet that entered his body between the heart and collarbone Martin collapsed to the ground and bled to death seconds later. Adams’ funeral procession stretched for miles through Jackson’s streets, leading the New Orleans Picayune to declare: “Truly, there was no man whom Jackson loved more than General Adams.”

Emerson Opdycke (Union)

Before the war, Emerson Opdycke worked as a merchant selling horse equipment in Warren, Ohio. He enlisted as a private and rose to brevet major general by the war’s end. The most notable deed of his career occurred in November 1864 at the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., where his brigade halted a Confederate breakthrough in the Union line.

Emerson Opdycke's decision to defy orders and pull his brigade behind a fortified position ultimately led to a Union victory at Franklin, Tenn., in November 1864. (Library of Congress)

After the war, Opdycke moved to New York and helped establish the dry goods house Peake, Opdycke, Terry & Steele. On April 25, 1884, his wife and son heard a gunshot in his bedroom and found the general with a bullet hole in his abdomen. Before he died a few days later, Opdycke managed to tell his physician that he had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. “With the death of Gen. Opdycke,” the St. Paul Daily Globe avowed, “passes away one of the most gallant and distinguished soldiers which Ohio sent into the Civil War.”

The 54-year-old general’s body was transported by train to his hometown and buried.

Bryan Grimes (Confederate)

An antebellum farmer and University of North Carolina alumnus, Bryan Grimes became the last officer appointed major general in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, having earned a reputation for his daring, boldness, and talent as a commander. After the war, he returned to North Carolina and to farming.

Bryan Grimes' bravado and quick thinking saved the Confederates from defeat at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe in May 1864. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

On August 14, 1880, he left Washington, N.C., in a two-horse-buggy accompanied by 12-year-old Bryan Satterthwaite. As the buggy crossed Bear Creek two miles from his home, a shotgun blast exploded from the bushes. It struck 51-year-old Grimes in the left arm and breast, severing a large artery and lodging into one of his lungs. He calmly uttered to his young companion, “Bryan, I am shot.” Seeing the severity of his wound, Satterthwaite asked, “Are you much hurt, General?” Grimes replied with his last gasping breath, “Yes, it will kill me.”

The assassin, William Parker, drunkenly boasted of the crime and was kidnapped by an angry mob and lynched. The general’s old warhorse, 26-year-old Warren, carted his coffin to the burial in the family cemetery. “Thus has ingloriously died,” the Raleigh Observer lamented, “one of the brightest stars that ever shone in the galaxy of North Carolinians.”

James Holt Clanton (Confederate)

James Holt Clanton distinguished himself on the first day at Shiloh but was wounded and captured at Bluff Springs, Fla., on March 25, 1865. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

After the war, Clanton resumed his legal career. On September 27, 1871, the 44-year-old lawyer traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to represent his state in a court case. He was introduced by a friend to Brevet Lt. Col. David M. Nelson, the son of congressman Thomas A.R. Nelson and a Union officer on the staff of Maj. Gen. Alvan Cullem Gillem during the war. Clanton expressed to the men that he wanted to see the town after a long day in court.

Nelson, who had been drinking heavily all day, turned to Clanton and boasted, “I can take you where there is something very nice, if you are not afraid.” The general wasn’t amused by the Yankee officer’s remark. He replied, “Do I look as if I am afraid?” After Nelson said he didn’t know for sure, Clanton stared him down, declaring “I am not afraid of anything or any man.” Nelson questioned Clanton’s courage a second time, provoking the ex-Confederate to issue a challenge: “If you think I am, try me name your friend, time and place, any time or any place.”

Nelson disappeared into the St. Nicholas Saloon while his friend apologized to Clanton for Nelson’s behavior. Nelson suddenly burst out the saloon’s door and aimed a double-barreled shotgun at Clanton. As Clanton reached for his pistol, Nelson riddled him with buckshot. The blast fractured Clanton’s right shoulder and severed several major arteries. Clanton fired as he fell to the ground, but missed Nelson. He died a few minutes later.

Locals carried Clanton’s remains to the Lamar House Hotel. Transported home to Montgomery, Ala., the general’s body laid in rest in the Alabama State Capitol before burial. The Memphis Daily Appeal claimed that his funeral was one of “the greatest demonstrations ever known in Alabama.”

In 1873, Nelson was acquitted of murder by a jury.

Francis Engle Patterson (Union)

Frank Patterson lived in the shadow of his father, Robert Patterson, for most of his life. The senior Patterson was a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, a general during the Mexican War, and the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah early in the Civil War. The younger Patterson followed his father to Mexico, served as an artillery lieutenant, and remained in the Army for another decade after the Mexican War.

Frank Patterson was placed under arrest by Brig. Gen. Dan Sickles for ordering a hasty retreat at Catlett Station, Va., in late 1862. He may have committed suicide. (USAHEC)

Francis Patterson’s friend, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, recommended him for promotion to brigadier general in April 1862. Seven months after Patterson’s appointment, his division commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Sickles, placed him under arrest for ordering a hasty retreat near Catlett’s Station, Va. Two weeks after his arrest, James Fowler Rusling of the 5th New Jersey Infantry watched the Pennsylvanian near his tent “ill and acting strangely all the evening” until about 2 a.m., when a gunshot broke the silence of the camp. The men discovered the 41-year-old general dead in his tent with a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Rumors spread that he had committed suicide rather than face a shameful trial others thought his pistol misfired. Nobody could be sure. Some of Patterson’s soldiers blamed Sickles, saying the former New York congressman (notorious for brazenly murdering his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key II, in 1859) got away with his second murder. “Another gallant spirit snuffed out,” Rusling wrote of his deceased commander. “Good old soldier, brave heart, generous soul, hail and farewell! It was a tragic affair. It cast a deep gloom over the whole division, and everybody felt it like a personal sorrow. He was a very capable officer, and will be missed sadly.”

Alfred Thomas Archimedes Torbert (Union)

A Delaware native and 1855 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Alfred Torbert saw success during the Civil War. He first served as an infantry brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, then as a cavalry division and corps commander under Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan. He left the army a year after the war ended. During Reconstruction, he served in diplomatic positions in El Salvador, Cuba, and France.

Torbert, assigned command of a cavalry division before the Overland Campaign, performed admirably for Phil Sheridan at Tom's Brook, Va. (Library of Congress)

On August 15, 1880, the 47-year-old general left New York City for Mexico on the steamer City of Vera Cruz to secure a land grant for a railroad from the Mexican government. Fifteen days later, Torbert’s steamer got caught in a hurricane 30 miles off the coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. Torbert helped to fasten life preservers on the women and children before the ship sank and he was washed overboard. He clung to a fragment of the wreckage until it capsized and he disappeared beneath the waves.

The next day, the general’s lifeless body washed up on the beach. Torbert’s remains were first buried in Daytona, but then disinterred and reburied in his home state. The epitaph “He bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman” is fittingly inscribed on the obelisk erected over Torbert’s grave.

Thomas W. Egan (Union)

As a colonel, “Fighting Tom” Egan first led the 40th New York Infantry during George McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where he was wounded in the left side of his head. In July 1863, he was again wounded at Gettysburg, shot in the right thigh. He suffered a third wound at the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 16, 1864, two days after his 30th birthday, when a shell fragment penetrated his back one inch to the left of his spine. Before the war’s end, he was promoted to brigadier general, and suffered a fourth wound when a musket ball shattered his right forearm. The battered Egan ended the war as a brevet major general.

Thomas Egan became the lieutenant colonel of the 40th New York Infantry, known as the Mozart Regiment, in June 1861. The frequently wounded Egan was committed to an insane asylum on New York's Ward's Island in July 1884. (Heritage Auctions, Dallas)

After the war, Egan returned to New York a physical wreck, with paralysis in his lower limbs and his right arm virtually useless. A doctor, upon examination, called Egan’s condition “unqualifiedly deplorable.”

The ex-general began to frequent saloons, and in early July 1884, he stood trial before Justice Solon B. Smith after being arrested for public intoxication. At one point during the trial, he claimed that he was worth $40 million. “Drinking has somewhat unbalanced your mind and I’ll change the complaint against you into insanity,” the judge declared, ordering Egan to the insane asylum on Ward’s Island.

On May 22, 1886, Stephen Smith, commissioner of lunacy of the State of New York, and army surgeon Charles S. Hoyt, both discouraged Egan’s release, noting that “he appears so well in asylum he would be made much worse if subjected to the excitement of life outside.” Smith further reasoned that keeping Egan in the sanitarium was “most favorable to his health and happiness.” Despite their warnings, a judge ordered Egan released on June 5, 1886. He lived for about another eight months.

On the morning of February 24, 1887, Egan suffered an epileptic seizure outside the entrance of the International Hotel. He was moved to the House of Relief or Chambers Street Hospital, an institution that offered free medical aid to the poor. He died there that afternoon, at the age of 52.

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic covered the cost of his funeral and interment—none of Egan’s family members came forward—rather than see the general’s remains relegated to a potter’s field. The veterans of the 40th New York also pitched in to purchase a fine granite monument to commemorate the general, and he was laid to rest in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Frank Jastrzembski, a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War and the blog “Emerging Civil War,” is the author of Admiral Albert Hastings Markham: A Victorian Tale of Triumph, Tragedy and Exploration and Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand at Tashkessen, 1877. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans. (For more information, see facebook.com/shroudedvetgraves)

This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.

Watch the video: General Lee - Aurora, St. Petersburg (January 2022).