The First Confederate Surrender

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Confederate Surrenders
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Appomattox Campaign Overview

Everyone thinks that the Confederacy’s military struggles ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. But did you know that various Confederate armies continued to fight on for several more months?

The most famous Confederate surrender took place at Appomattox, Virginia when General Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of his once-formidable Army of Northern Virginia. His army had suffered a series of debilitating defeats in his headlong retreat from his siege lines around Petersburg.

The Appomattox Campaign began on March 29th when Grant seized upon Lee’s attack on Fort Stedman by sending a joint infantry and cavalry force of 21,000 men to strike the Confederate right flank and capture the South Side Railroad. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps engaged Confederate troops under Bushrod Johnson in the battles of Quaker Road (Lewis Farm) on March 29 and White Oak Road on March 31. Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry, meanwhile, continued farther southwest. On March 31, Sheridan maneuvered beyond the Confederate right flank but was defeated at Dinwiddie Court House by Confederates led by George E. Pickett and W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee.

On April 1, the arrival of Warren’s Fifth Corps at Pickett’s rear caused the Confederate general to fall back to an intersection known as Five Forks. There, in what has come to be known as the “Waterloo of the Confederacy,” Sheridan and Warren overwhelmed Pickett’s forces, losing fewer than a thousand men compared to Confederate casualties of about 3,000.

Warren, a hero of Gettysburg, was nevertheless relieved of his command by Sheridan after the battle. Pickett, whose name was similarly carved into history at Gettysburg, was, like Warren, humiliated at Five Forks. He was famously absent during the battle, attending a shad bake.

Petersburg fell the next day, as did the South Side Railroad, which was captured after the Battle of Sutherland’s Station. General A.P. Hill was killed that day by a Union bullet through his heart. A Sheridan at Five Forksstubborn defense at Fort Gregg allowed Lee’s army to escape to the west, and he ordered the evacuation of the capital that night.

The parts of Lee’s army that were spread out defending Richmond, Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg retreated on pre-determined routes where they reassembled at Amelia Court House. Lee hoped to move along the Richmond and Danville Railroad to link forces with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, which was moving north from North Carolina. Lee then hoped that the two armies could take the offensive against General Sherman.

On April 3, Confederate cavalry general Rufus Barringer was captured after his brigade was routed by forces under George A. Custer at Namozine Church. On April 4th Lee arrived at Amelia Court House to Find that the rations that his troops needed were not there. Lee paused here to collect supplies from the surrounding area and wait for the arrival of forces led by General Richard S. Ewell and his son, General Custis Lee. The local farmers had very little to spare and the delay proved costly allowing Grant’s pursuing forces to draw near.

Lee’s march resumed on April 5th and when the Confederates encountered Union blocking forces at Jetersville they maneuvered toward Farmville in an attempt to outflank the Union troops and resupply his own. He did so under continuous pressure: Union cavalry general Henry Davies captured a Confederate wagon train at Painesville before being driven away by Confederate cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew. In order to get ahead of his Union pursuers, Lee ordered a night march, but the tired and hungry Confederate soldiers fell out of their ranks to search for food. Some simply went home.

On April 6, a Union force attempted to capture High Bridge near Farmville and prevent Lee from crossing the Appomattox River. It was defeated and captured whole by Confederate cavalry. Still, dangerous gaps began to develop in Lee’s retreating forces, the result of constant attack by Union cavalry.

At Sailor’s Creek, the Union cavalry managed to exploit such a gap, cutting off two Confederate corps under generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard S. Ewell as the Union Sixth Corps arrived to their rear. Ewell’s men repulsed an initial charge by the Sixth Corps but surrendered when overwhelmed by the second. At the same time, Union cavalry charged Anderson’s men at Marshall’s Crossroads until his two divisions, led by Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, disintegrated.

The Union forces had overwhelmed the defending Confederates, capturing 7,700 men and depriving Lee of roughly one-fourth of his army. Among the prisoners were six Confederate generals including Richard S. Ewell, Joseph Kershaw, and Custis Lee, the commanding general’s son.

Confederate surrender at Sailor's CreekWhat remained crossed the Appomattox River during another night march and, on April 7, arrived in Farmville, where rations awaited them. Union forces followed so quickly, however, that the Confederates had to close the supply trains and cross the river north of Farmville and fight off Grant’s pursuing forces at the Battle of Cumberland Church.

Lee’s forces were now almost surrounded. His men were tired and hungry and Lee knew it. He began a three day correspondence with General Grant that included an exchange of messages through the lines.

On the afternoon of April 8, the main Confederate column halted northeast of Appomattox Court House, while the reserve artillery and the ambulance and wagon trains approached Appomattox Station, several miles farther west. There, trains arrived from Lynchburg containing, among other supplies, 120,000 rations needed to feed Lee’s army. But at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Custer’s Union cavalry division captured the trains and then, in three assaults, overran the reserve artillery, securing twenty-five cannon, a thousand prisoners, and some one hundred wagons. They also blocked Lee’s line of retreat.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lee, Union infantry marched more than thirty miles into positions to Lee’s south and west. That night, the Confederate general held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee. Together, they determined to attempt a breakout from the looming encirclement.

At 7:50 on the morning of April 9, Gordon’s corps, supported by Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, attacked Colonel Charles Smith’s Union cavalry brigade, which blocked Lee’s line of retreat on the stage road. Although initially successful, the assault faltered as Union infantry arrived on the field. Gordon sent word to Lee that “my command has been fought to a frazzle … I can not long go forward.” Receiving the message, Lee said, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

The next day General Robert E. Lee surrendered his force and the war in Virginia was virtually over. But other Confederate forces fought on.

Confederate surrender at Appomattox

General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s description of the last parade of the Army of Northern Virginia:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

As each successive division masks our own, it halts, the men face inward towards us across the road, twelve feet away; then carefully “dress” their line, each captain taking pains for the good appearance of his company, worn and half starved as they were. The field and staff take their positions in the intervals of regiments; generals in rear of their commands. They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly, — reluctantly, with agony of expression, — they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears. And only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!

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