EXCERPT: Spring 1865
An excerpt from Spring 1865: The Closing Campaigns of the Civil War (April 2015) by Perry D. Jamieson. Excerpt is from Chapter Eight, Spring Morning.
Sunrise on Sunday, April 9, 1865, brought a foggy morning that became warm with a blue, cloudless sky.76 Before daybreak Fitz Lee and Gordon began preparing to carry out what would be the last offensive of the Army of Northern Virginia. They would attempt to move Sheridan’s cavalry out of the way and open the Stage Road west from Appomattox Court House.77 Gordon deployed his corps at the western edge of the Court House, along a line running from the southeast to northwest. Fitz Lee’s cavalrymen extended his right flank.78
At daylight the Southerners advanced, at first encountering only a lone dismounted cavalry brigade and two three-inch rifles of Battery A, Second United States Artillery.79 Much stronger cavalry—and infantry—forces were not far away.
The last attack of the Army of Northern Virginia met the same experience as many others during the Civil War: it won initial success before it ended in failure. In an early achievement, some North Carolina cavalrymen captured the pair of field guns. As one of the attackers remembered it, some of the Union artillerymen “went into the woods, some took shelter under the gun carriages, and all quit firing.” When Maj. Erasmus Taylor of Longstreet’s staff recalled this successful action many years later, the section of two guns became a full battery: “When the advance began on this morning of the 9th of April, 1865, our van-guard encountered a battery of the enemy at once, which they charged and captured, bringing into our lines guns, horses, officers and men.”80
Fitz Lee’s troopers hit their opponents in front and on their northern flank and drove the Federals back. To the left of the Southern cavalry, Gordon brought forward his corps. By about 8:30 a.m. the Confederates had opened the Stage Road.81
Lee made his command post on a knoll about a mile and a half northeast of Appomattox Court House, or about midway between his two corps, with Gordon ahead and Longstreet to the rear. The morning’s fog prevented the Confederate commander from seeing Gordon’s fight along the Stage Road. Lee nonetheless could hear the infantry and artillery fire coming from the west.82
Gordon well understood that having opened the Stage Road, he must keep it secure so the army could continue its westward march. He left one North Carolina brigade and little else to guard the road against threats from the west. Gordon swung nearly all of his men in a great wheel to the left to clear the way for the wagons and artillery and to protect the essential roadway against a counteraction from the south.83
Gordon and Fitz Lee had achieved all that they could, and now the rapid advance of Grant’s southern wing—Sheridan, Ord, and Griffin—paid the North a decisive dividend. With aggressive cavalry rides and hard infantry marches, these commands had outpaced their opponents and had taken Appomattox Station. Then they had turned east. Now they would seal the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
The first challenge to the Confederates came when the Union cavalry arrived from Appomattox Station. The Confederates then faced not just a lone dismounted brigade but masses of Sheridan’s horsemen.84 During the ensuing action, the Federals shot down the color bearer of the Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry. Sgt. John Donaldson of the Fourth Pennsylvania captured his flag, the last of the hundreds of such trophies seized in battle during the Civil War.85
The arrival of the Federal infantry proved fatal to Gordon. For two days Ord had driven hard his soldiers, telling them, among other things, that their legs would win the next battle. Two full divisions of the Army of James, under Gibbon’s immediate command, now emerged from the woods in the rear of the Union troopers. They drove back the lone North Carolina brigade still facing west, and soon they threatened Gordon’s right flank and rear. Ord galloped past his tired soldiers, swinging his hat and shouting in triumph: “Your legs have done it, my men! Your legs have done it!”86
Griffin’s V Corps had followed Ord and came up on his right, pressuring Gordon from the southwest and south. The Confederates were forced to withdraw toward Appomattox Court House.87 The massed ranks of Ord’s and Griffin’s infantrymen had settled the matter. Lee could move no farther west.
The eastern half of the Federal vise also was closing. Humphreys’s II Corps and Wright’s VI Corps advanced west from New Store and approached Appomattox Court House from the east. While Longstreet’s men staggered westward on the Stage Road, Humphreys’s advanced guard nipped at their heels. Along Wright’s marching column, the word arrived that Lee had been cut off at Appomattox Court House. This report, Lieutenant Colonel Lyman exulted, “gave us new wings!”88
Lee recognized that the end was near. The noise of the combat west of the village was growing louder, closer. This sound meant that Gordon had been unable to control the Stage Road.
Lee sent for Longstreet and described the position to him. The commander’s Old War Horse asked if sacrificing the Army of Northern Virginia could benefit the Confederacy elsewhere. After Lee gave a negative reply, Longstreet stated that the situation spoke for itself. Mahone joined the two senior generals; years later, Longstreet remembered that “Mahone thought it time to see General Grant.”89
76. Longacre, Cavalry at Appomattox, 185; and Catton, Stillness at Appomattox, 375.
77. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 160; and Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 162–63.
78. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 160 (map).
79. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 156; Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 159; and or, 46, 1:576.
80. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 161; Trudeau, Out of the Storm, 134; and transcript of the Reminiscences of Erasmus Taylor, 10, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.
81. Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 163; and Trudeau, Out of the Storm, 135.
82. Trudeau, Out of the Storm, 134; and Freeman, R. E. Lee, 4:119.
83. Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 166; and Marvel, “Retreat to Appomattox,” 52.
84. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 161, 162.
85. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 161; and Longacre, Cavalry at Appomattox, 188.
86. Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 162; Marvel, “Retreat to Appomattox,” 52; and Longacre, Cavalry at Appomattox, 193.
87. Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 170; and Calkins, Appomattox Campaign, 164.
88. Lyman, With Grant and Meade, 355, 356.
89. Marvel, Lee’s Last Retreat, 171; and Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, 625.