The April 6, 1865, Battle of Sailor’s Creek constituted one of the darkest days in the army of northern Virginia’s history.
It had been one disaster after another for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that first week of April 1865. On April 1, at a road junction in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, known as Five Forks, Federal cavalry and infantry smashed a Southern command led by Major Generals George E. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee protecting the last supply line into Petersburg, the South Side Railroad. The Confederate commander had wanted to “hold Five Forks at all hazards,” since this important road junction was just south of the railroad and the key to it.
When word reached Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant about the victory there by Maj. Gens. Philip H. Sheridan and Gouverneur Warren, he ordered a series of assaults on the main Confederate line defending the long-sought-after railroad center of Petersburg. By early morning of April 2, Grant’s columns had cracked through Lee’s defenses, virtually dividing his force in two. That same day the Confederacy was to lose one of its longest-serving corps commanders, Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, in a brief confrontation with two Federal soldiers. The day also saw numerous clashes in different sectors of the lines, and the names of Fort Mahone, Fort Gregg and Sutherland Station were to become battle honors for the men of both sides. That night Lee would give orders to withdraw his forces from the three fronts he had protected for almost 91⁄2 months.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, along with Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Reserve Corps, left the Richmond defenses and crossed to the south side of the James River. Major General William Mahone, whose division held the Howlett Line between the James and Appomattox rivers across Bermuda Hundred, moved inland to Chesterfield Court House. General Lee, with Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Second Corps and the remnants of Hill’s Third Corps, moved through the “Cockade City” and crossed to the north bank of the Appomattox. Those cut off at Five Forks, and by the breakthrough in the lines west of the city, stayed south of the Appomattox River. The rendezvous point of all these contingents of Lee’s army would be Amelia Court House on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, about 30 miles to the west.
Initially, plans had called for the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg, with the idea that Lee would take his army to North Carolina and join up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s command operating near Raleigh. To do so, they would obtain supplies and subsistence at Amelia, then would follow the railroad toward Danville and the border. Making an all-night march on the night of April 2-3, Lee was able to gain a lead on the Federals, who took most of that time to occupy the newly captured cities of Petersburg and Richmond.
The Appomattox was the first obstacle encountered by the Southern troops on their march, as they had to recross the river in order to get to Amelia. Plans had been made previously for three bridge crossings, one at Genito, one at Goodes and the other at Bevills. Spring flooding unfortunately made Bevills impassible, and the failure to get pontoons to Genito caused complications there. Eventually, the troops at the latter point planked the Richmond & Danville Railroad bridge near Mattoax to cross.
Most of the other troops then had to pass over both the permanent and pontoon bridges at Goodes. By the morning of the 4th, they were beginning to fill the streets of the county seat village of Amelia Court House. When Lee and his officers reached the area of the railroad station, they opened the cars to find large amounts of ordnance supplies but no food. While waiting for the arrival of the rest of his troops, Lee issued a proclamation asking the local citizens for help and sent out foragers to collect supplies from them. At the same time, he ordered supplies sent up the railroad from Danville. Grant spent most of the 3rd moving men into Richmond and Petersburg and preparing his troops for the pursuit. His numerous corps were south of the Appomattox River. Sheridan’s cavalry was already pressing the Confederates who had escaped the debacle at Five Forks and continued to fight rear-guard actions with the enemy at such places as Scott’s Crossroads, Namozine Church, Deep Run and Tabernacle Church.
All indicators seem to point to the fact that the Confederates were falling back into Amelia Court House, and the Federals quickly gained a grasp of where Lee’s army was. Realizing that the goal must be Danville and North Carolina, the troopers departed to cut off the railroad in front of Lee. If they could do so, and get enough infantry there to support them, Lee’s plan would be thwarted.
As the forage wagons began returning to Amelia on the 5th, Lee saw little arrive in the way of supplies. He had failed to feed his army and, more important, lost his day’s lead on Grant’s forces. He later lamented that “this delay was fatal and could not be retrieved.” His commanders then set about putting the army in motion, marching down the railroad toward Danville and the next station, Jetersville.
The army had not gone far when there appeared to be trouble up ahead that might possibly change the plans to go directly to North Carolina. Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, second eldest son of the commander and the leader of the Southern cavalry, reported to his superiors that his men had found dismounted Federal cavalry entrenched across the road. Union infantry was sure to follow.
Robert E. Lee had to decide whether to attack and clear the road or try another alternative. Because of the lateness of the hour and the fact that Lee’s column was well spread out, the general decided to change his original plans. He made a night march, passing to the north of the Federal left flank, and headed west for Farmville on the South Side Railroad. There, he could obtain supplies for his army, then head south, intersecting the Danville rail line near Keysville. To be successful, once again he would have to outdistance Grant’s army.
As the Confederates groped through the night, they had to first ford Flat Creek, then pass through the country resort of Amelia Springs. As the morning of the 6th, a Thursday, dawned, the troops had nearly bypassed the unsuspecting Federals when the crack of skirmish fire was heard across the creek. Elements of Union infantry observed the final contingents of Lee’s column moving along the opposite ridge and immediately set out in pursuit. It was the beginning of a black day for Lee’s army.
The 23-mile route the Confederates followed ran through a couple of hamlets before reaching Farmville. The first was merely a crossroads called Deatonsville. The road then passed through bottomlands traversed by Little Sailor’s Creek, a tributary of the Appomattox River. Continuing westward, the South Side Railroad was reached at Rice’s Depot, and from there the road ran directly to Farmville. The terrain throughout the area was generally rolling with various watercourses—Flat Creek, Big and Little Sailor’s creeks, and the Sandy and Bush rivers—slashing across the landscape. Bordering to the north was the generally unfordable Appomattox River, whose only crossings were at Farmville and three miles northeast, where the High Bridge carried the South Side Railroad.
In the van of Lee’s column was Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s combined First and Third corps, followed by Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s small corps of Pickett’s and Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s divisions, then Ewell’s Reserve Corps made up of Richmond garrison troops, followed by the main wagon train and finally Gordon’s Second Corps acting as rear guard. It was the Federal II Corps that spied Gordon’s troops passing near Amelia Springs at daybreak on the 6th and set out in immediate pursuit. Following on a parallel road to the south of the one that the Confederates were moving on was fast-riding blue cavalry under Sheridan. Close behind them were Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, leaving from their trenches at Jetersville.
Longstreet’s men pushed on through a drizzling rain, but their progress was disrupted when the general received news of a party of Union cavalry and infantry, about 900 strong, heading for the High Bridge to burn the span. They had been sent from Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s Army of the James at Burkeville Junction.
Longstreet immediately dispatched Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to chase down the Union party and prevent any damage to the important crossing. Not only were the Confederates successful in doing so but they captured the entire Yankee lot, although at the high cost of losing Brig. Gen. James Dearing. Dearing was an excellent young general who got into a pistol duel with Federal Brevet Brig. Gen. Theodore Read, a member of Ord’s staff. Read was killed and Dearing received a mortal wound, lingering until April 23. He was to be the last Confederate general to die of a battle wound.
While Longstreet was arriving at Rice’s Depot, the rest of his column became separated from the head of Anderson’s corps. Observant Federal cavalry, led by Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, saw their chance to wreak havoc. Charging into the gap, the troopers managed to put up a roadblock in Anderson’s front. At the same time Ewell, realizing that additional attacks were imminent, decided to send the wagon train on a more northerly route. This he did at a local crossroads called Holt’s Corner, about a mile northeast of the Little Sailor’s Creek crossing. Gordon, heavily pressed by Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’ II Corps, followed the trains to protect them, and the II Corps kept up its pursuit. The stage was being set for the Battle of Little Sailor’s Creek.
Anderson decided to make his stand at a crossroads bounded by the Harper and Marshall farms, about one mile southwest of the road crossing over the creek. As the wagon train was departing the main column, Ewell took his force to the southwest side of the creek. There, he formed a battle line on a ridge parallel to the creek facing northeast, overlooking the Hillsman farm. General Lee’s eldest son, Maj. Gen. G.W. Custis Lee, had spent most of the war serving as an aide to President Jefferson Davis and commanding Richmond’s Local Defense Troops. Now his troops formed the left of Ewell’s line. Major General Joseph Kershaw’s division formed the right.
Shortly, the opposite high ground was swarming with Federals from the VI Corps who were quickly arriving on the scene. General Wright immediately set about placing his artillery, which began firing on the Confederate line. Ewell, lacking any artillery, could not reply in kind, and his men hugged the ground to escape the flying shrapnel. It was then about quarter past 5 in the evening.
Simultaneously, Sheridan’s subordinate, Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt, was preparing the three cavalry divisions for an assault on Anderson. Brigadier Generals Custer and Thomas Devin and Maj. Gen. George Crook commanded those horsemen. Anderson’s men, a mile to the south of Ewell’s, readied themselves by building breastworks out of fence rails as they dug in along the road. They did have artillery and soon put it to use against the mounted troopers.
After a half-hour bombardment, Wright’s men (two divisions under Brig. Gens. Truman Seymour and Frank Wheaton) formed their battle line and advanced to the creek. Because of spring rains, Little Sailor’s Creek was out of its banks and ran from 2 to 4 feet deep. The men crossed the stream with great difficulty, re-formed their line, and began the assault upon the Confederate line. When the Federals were within easy range, Ewell’s men rose and fired a volley, causing the blue line’s center to break and fall back.
The 2nd Rhode Island’s Lieutenant George Peck, who was “seeing the elephant” for the first time, wrote that after crossing the creek: “We were at the foot of a moderately steep, turf-covered declivity over whose summit the foliage of dense trees was visible….At the word ‘FORWARD!’ the men sprang to their feet, fired into the woods, and with a cheer dashed forward on the run. Gaining a few rods, they fell, loaded (officers meanwhile simply stooping), rose again, fired, and made a second dash….With the third dash came the words: ‘Now close on them—Go for them!’”
The Confederates, however, held firm. Colonel Stapelton Crutchfield’s Department of Richmond Artillery Brigade—gunners serving as infantrymen—were deployed near the center of Custis Lee’s section of the line. Led by Crutchfield, a Virginia Military Institute graduate who had lost a leg at Chancellorsville, the brigade counterattacked, driving the Federals back across Sailor’s Creek. The Rebels soon were forced back with great loss; Crutchfield was among the mortally wounded. Regrouping, the Federals once again charged Ewell’s line, this time overwhelming it on both flanks. Ewell later recalled: “On riding past my left I came suddenly upon a strong line of the enemy’s skirmishers advancing upon my left rear. This closed the only avenue of escape, as shells and even bullets were crossing each other from front and rear over my troops, and my right was completely enveloped.” The general surrendered himself and his staff to a cavalry officer, who then had a note from Ewell forwarded to Custis Lee, informing him that he was cut off and suggesting that to prevent further loss of life he should surrender. In all, the Federal attack had bagged six Confederate generals and more than 3,000 men.
Farther to the south, meanwhile, Merritt’s cavalry prepared for their mounted attack against Anderson’s Confederates. Some of the Union troopers, having previously worn out their usual mounts during the campaign, had acquired mules to ride in their stead. One rider remembered: “It took my mule just about four jumps to show he would outclass all others. He laid back his ears and frisked over [the] logs and flattened out like a jackrabbit….He switched his tail and sailed right over among the rebs, landing near a rebel color-bearer of the 12th Virginia Infantry…a big brawny chap and he put up a game fight, but that mule had some new side and posterior uppercuts that put the reb out of the game.”
The Federal cavalry smelled blood and rode into the midst of the Rebels, increasing the havoc. Infantryman David Johnson of the 7th Virginia of Pickett’s division remembered the horror: “We were behind…rails, close to the ground. The enemy, armed with repeating rifles, when within seventy-five yards or so open upon us. Every man who raised his head above the rails gave his life for the venture….In a moment began an indiscriminate fight with clubbed muskets, flagstaffs pistols and sabers. In a few moments all was over. We had met the enemy and we were theirs. This final struggle was most tragic. We were now marched out and surrounded by a cordon of cavalry.”
Soon other Union cavalrymen had likewise overcome the Southerners’ stubborn resistance and captured two more generals, although many of Anderson’s men managed to escape through the woods. As the refugees fled the battlefield and headed west toward Rice’s Depot, they had to scramble through the valley of Big Sailor’s Creek. General Lee had ridden to a knoll overlooking the creek and seeing this disorganized mob, exclaimed: “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”
The third clash in what is collectively known as the Battle of Sailor’s Creek occurred about two miles north of the Wright-Ewell and Merritt-Anderson fights, at Lockett’s farm. When the wagon train Gordon had followed became bogged down at the double bridge crossing over the confluence of Big and Little Sailor’s creeks, his men were forced to protect the lumbering wagons and their valuable cargo. Deploying on the high ground around Lockett’s, the Confederates awaited the attack of Humphreys’ II Corps, which came just before dusk. The fighting became intense as the battle lines neared each other.
A Northern infantryman recalled: “We advanced to a White House [Lockett’s farmhouse] on Sayler’s Creek, where we had an engagement and I found some protection behind the house. I called Sergt. Percival’s attention to what I thought a better position near the hen coop, fifteen feet distance, but he ordered me to remain where I was. I thought I could get better aim from the other position. I had been hit just before reaching the house and wounded slightly. We had notified the occupants of the house to adjourn to the cellar; bullets came pattering against it.”
With the sound of fighting echoing from the south, the Federal infantry gradually pushed the Southerners back into the low ground along the creek. Using the wagons as barricades, Gordon’s men fought desperately.
Only when a Federal flanking column was seen crossing farther to the north at Perkinson’s sawmill did the Confederates retreat up the opposite slope. Humphreys’ men bagged more than 200 wagons and 1,700 prisoners by the time nightfall brought an end to the fighting.
It was once again a night march for veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. The remainder of Gordon’s corps trudged on to the High Bridge, crossing the Appomattox on their way down the railroad to Farmville. Those remnants who had escaped disaster at the other two fights were placed under the command of Maj. Gen. William Mahone, who likewise crossed on the gigantic railroad bridge.
Lee followed Longstreet’s troops and Fitz Lee’s cavalry along the road running south of the river into the town. Arriving there in the early morning hours of the 7th, they found several trainloads of supplies, including more than 80,000 rations of meat and 40,000 of bread.
Not long after his men began preparing their meals, the popping of carbine fire was heard to the east. The Confederates closed up the boxcars and sent the trains westward down the rail line. About six miles southeast of Farmville, the South Side Railroad crossed to the north bank of the Appomattox over the High Bridge, then curved to the southwest, recrossing the Appomattox on the outskirts of Farmville. From there it ran westward, staying south of the river to Lynchburg. Next to each railroad bridge a wagon bridge spanned the Appomattox.
Lee figured that if he could get his men on the north side of the Appomattox and then burn all four bridges behind them, the pursuing Federal forces would be stalled while they waited for their pontoon bridges to arrive. That way, he could put some distance between the armies.
By 1:30 p.m., the Federals had gained control of Farmville, as Lee’s army retreated to the north side of the Appomattox. While Crook’s cavalry division poured into the town from the eastern heights, the last of Lee’s troops crossed the wagon and railroad bridges, both of which were torched.
To the southwest, the High Bridge railroad span had been burned, but Federals captured the adjacent wagon bridge intact. The II Corps crossed and continued its pursuit. To counter that threat, Mahone’s troops marched to high ground around Cumberland Church, about five miles northwest of High Bridge and four north of Farmville, and began entrenching to cover the route of retreat Lee’s column would take.
At about 2 p.m., lead elements of Humphreys’ corps arrived on the scene and came in contact with Mahone’s Division. Federal skirmishers captured a few Confederate cannons, although Southern infantrymen quickly recaptured them. Humphreys then set about maneuvering his divisions into place.
Union Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles marched his division to the right in preparation for attacking and turning the exposed Confederate flank. Miles then sent one brigade, Colonel George Scott’s, charging across a rolling terrain broken by numerous ravines, managing to get around and in the rear of Mahone’s flank. Mahone quickly brought up reinforcements, probably from Brig. Gen. George T. “Tige” Anderson’s Brigade, which cut off and scattered the group. Nightfall brought an end to the fighting.
Back in Farmville, the town was brimming with Federal troops, but few were across to the north side of the river. In fact, only one division of cavalry, General Crook’s, was able to ford the river and menace Lee’s troops that afternoon. The leading Union brigade, Brig. Gen. J. Irwin Gregg’s, attacked the retreating Southern wagon train at about 4 p.m. Nearby Southern horsemen countered and sent the blue troopers scurrying back to Farmville, minus Gregg, who was captured. Until a pontoon bridge could be built at Farmville, the Federals had to either cross the wreckage of the burned bridges or ford the river. Eventually, General Ord lent his Army of the James pontoon bridge to the VI Corps, while Ord and his troops stayed south of the river in the town.
With nightfall ending the fighting at Cumberland Church, Lee realized that once again he must ask his men to make a night march to elude the Federals. Under the cover of darkness, his two columns continued toward New Store, Appomattox Court House and then Appomattox Station. Before leaving the area, the commanding general received a note through the lines from General Grant, now in Farmville. In it, Grant brought up the possibility of surrender for the Confederate army. Looking it over, Lee handed it to General Longstreet, who read it and replied, “Not yet.”
That last act would eventually come on April 9, when Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. The fighting at Little Sailor’s Creek had shattered his force beyond repair. The loss of six generals and thousands of soldiers taken prisoner was an obstacle even that great general could not overcome. In the postwar years, when Army of Northern Virginia veterans gathered to talk and reminisce, if an emotion-choked speaker began to reminisce about a horrible Thursday in April, the aging soldiers all knew he was referring to that terrible day in 1865 when their army began to fall apart on the heights above Little Sailor’s Creek.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.