At the beginning General Robert E. Lee decided to evacuate his army from the of April 1865, Richmond-Petersburg front. A number of factors led to his decision. These included the failed assault on Fort Stedman, the approach of Major General William T. Sherman’s forces north through the Carolinas, the defeat of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley by Major General Philip H. Sheridan and the arrival of that victorious Federal force on the front. The disastrous defeat at Five Forks finally enabled the Army of the Potomac and other units under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to extend Federal lines west of Petersburg, threatening the last escape route for the Rebels.
Any or all of these subjects would make interesting discussions, as many sites that relate to these battles and campaigns still exist. However, this column will focus on Lee’s retreat route, what is sometimes referred to as “the Road to Appomattox.” Of course, Appomattox Court House was hardly Lee’s objective. When he began the evacuation on the night of April 2, his destination was Danville, on the rail line to the southwest, and a hoped-for rendezvous with the scattered forces of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. A series of Federal moves checkmated Lee, however, and forced his army to move due west, toward Lynchburg.
Though the route Lee’s force traveled is relatively short by modern standards, there is much to see, and visitors might expect to spend up to two days exploring the area. This tour will start in the Richmond-Petersburg area and include references to earlier events that took place at Lynchburg. That city, in the upper Shenandoah Valley, is an inviting overnight stop for anyone wishing to use it as a departure point for travel to other areas rich in Civil War history to the north or south along nearby Interstate 81.
The first objective of the Army of Northern Virginia and other units that began the retreat was Amelia Court House, where sustenance was supposedly waiting in boxcars on the railroad. But when the Confederates began arriving on April 4, they found only ordnance at the depot. The Southerners were forced to forage the countryside for food, costing them a day in their efforts to stay ahead of the pursuing Federals.
To reach Amelia Court House, take U.S. 360 west from Richmond. From Petersburg, take U.S. 460 west to Virginia 708. On the way is Namozine Church, still standing, where Brig. Gen. George Custer’s cavalry squared off against Maj. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s horsemen on April 3 and hammered them. At this and many other stops on the route are Virginia Civil War Trails markers.
An alternative route from Petersburg is to continue on U.S. 460 west to Nottoway Court House, site of an 1864 cavalry skirmish, and follow Grant’s route on the night of April 5-6 through Crewe and Burke’s Station, now Burkeville, as he rode to meet Sheridan and Maj. Gen. George Meade at Jetersville. Backtrack east on U.S. 360 to Amelia Court House. Eight miles east of Amelia Court House is a historical marker at what was called Goode’s Bridge when Lee’s forces crossed it on the retreat. At Amelia Court House, a Confederate memorial and a Coehorn mortar adorn the front lawn of the courthouse. The modern rail line runs on the same right of way as the tracks of the South Side Railroad, where Lee’s men found the ammunition-laden boxcars.
Lee’s column continued down the rail line to Jetersville. But Rooney Lee reported Sheridan’s cavalry was dismounted and entrenched there, forcing Lee’s army to turn away from its intended route to Burke’s Station. It was at this junction of the South Side and Richmond & Danville railroads that Lee had hoped to get supplies from Danville. However, the presence of Sheridan’s troopers caused Lee to alter his route and conduct a night march through Amelia Springs, a summer resort, toward Farmville. Jetersville is nine miles west of Amelia Court House on U.S. 360. Historical markers describe Lee’s route. A marker seven-tenths of a mile southwest of the community indicates Sheridan’s position when he blocked the Rebel infantry.
Unable to slow Sheridan’s pursuing mounted force with his own depleted cavalry, Lee was in danger of being overtaken by Union infantry on the march west. The lead elements of his column under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, the combined I and III corps, secured Rice’s Station, now Rice, on the South Side Railroad on April 6. Longstreet also dispatched Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to track down a party from Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s rapidly advancing Army of the James that was headed for High Bridge, intending to destroy it. The railroad crossed the Appomattox River at High Bridge between Rice’s Station and Farmville. The party was captured in a brief clash before it could destroy the span.
As the flow of soldiers into Rice’s Station slowed, Lee became concerned for the remainder of his force, three small corps following Longstreet. At dusk on April 6, he rode east accompanied by Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s Division to an overlook and found disorganized groups of Rebels retreating in front of him. “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” he exclaimed. Lee was, in fact, observing the survivors of Maj. Gen. R.H. Anderson’s corps, involved in one of three actions that came to be known as the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. The two creek branches, spelled Sayler’s Creek (also a former spelling of the battle), combine and flow northward into the Appomattox River 12 miles east of Farmville.
Cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Crook exploited Lee’s strung-out column first, charging into a gap at the tail of Longstreet’s trains. This blocked the road in front of Anderson’s corps as that force battled troopers under Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt. Next in the column was the Reserve Corps under Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, the Richmond defense forces. The Reserve Corps included the command of the third of Lee’s sons, Maj. Gen. G.W. Custis Lee, on the retreat. Ewell prepared for pursuing infantry by sending the wagon train north to Holt’s Corner and forming a line overlooking Little Sayler’s Creek, at a near 90-degree angle to Anderson’s south-facing line.
Arriving on the other side of Little Sayler’s Creek at the Hillsman Farm, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps unlimbered artillery and shelled Ewell’s line late in the day. A series of assaults by the much larger Federal force resulted in the capture of Ewell, his staff, five other generals and more than 3,400 prisoners, adding to nearly 2,600 men captured when Merritt overwhelmed Anderson. West of Holt’s Corner on high ground, Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s II Corps battled Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys’ II Corps. Gordon’s corps was acting as the rear guard, and the last of his units were discovered leaving Amelia Springs by the pursuing Yankees, leading to the Federal advance on Sayler’s Creek.
Ewell had failed to inform Gordon of the shifting route of the wagons, and in the course of the withdrawal his men encountered the stalled train in a hollow where the road crossed both branches of the creek near their confluence over a double bridge. After fighting among the wagons, Gordon’s force evacuated, with the loss of about 200 loaded wagons and enough men to push the day’s prisoner count to more than 8,000.
From Jetersville proceed north on Virginia 642, then west on Virginia 617 to Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. A driving tour along Virginia 617 describes key sites of the battle. The centerpiece of the 220-acre park is the OvertonHillsman House, dating from the 18th century. Bloodstains on the floor attest to its use as a Federal hospital that treated casualties from both sides after the battle. Near the house are interpretive markers that set the scene of the struggle between Wright and Ewell from the Federal point of view. Continue west on Virginia 617 across Little Sayler’s Creek and up the hill to an interpretive display from the Rebels’ perspective. A short walking trail leads to a Confederate memorial.
Return east on Virginia 617 to Holt’s Corner and turn left on Virginia 618. At the top of the next hill is the Lockett Farm, where Gordon drew his line against Humphreys. A granite monument on the lawn of the Lockett House, now a private residence, commemorates the action. Proceed west down the hill to the creek bed, where Gordon’s men battled among the wagons. Return to Virginia 617 and continue west past the position of Ewell’s line. Interpretive markers describe Anderson’s battle with Merritt’s cavalry. Drive west to Virginia 600, which passes through Rice’s Station. Before continuing west to Farmville, a short trip 2l⁄4 miles north of U.S. 460 on Virginia 619 to the junction with Virginia 688 offers the closest view of High Bridge. The 21-span brick and iron structure, a mile away, is still used by the railroad. A historic marker describes its Civil War significance. After the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Lee’s survivors crossed and burned the railroad bridge and two other spans crossing the Appomattox, but the Federals saved the burning wagon road bridge next to High Bridge and continued their pursuit.
At Farmville, Lee’s men found food on some rail cars, but their meal was shortened by Humphreys’ appearance on the south bank of the river. As Mahone protected the rear, Lee got all his men to the north side of the Appomattox and continued the march west.
Enter Farmville on Business U.S. 460. A plaque in the downtown area indicates the site of the Prince Edward Hotel, where Lee stayed on the night of April 6 and Grant slept on the night of April 7. The innkeeper told Grant he was staying in Lee’s room, but in deference to the Virginian, he actually placed Grant in another, less elegant room. There, Grant initiated the surrender correspondence with Lee. The Southern commander received the first communiqué under a flag of truce at Cumberland Church, where Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry was fighting Crook’s troopers. Grant had two corps of infantry in pursuit north of the river while Sheridan and Ord raced ahead to cut off the railroad at Appomattox Station.
From Farmville, go north on U.S. 15 to the site of the engagement at Cumberland Church, and then turn west on Virginia 636 at Sheppards. Follow Virginia 636, the Confederate route west, past Clifton, a private residence where Grant spent the night of April 8 and received the first communication from Lee. He left the house early on April 9 to travel to the Federal front at Appomattox Court House. There are historical markers at the skirmish site and the house. Continue west on Virginia 636 to Virginia 24, then go southwest to Appomattox Court House National Historic Site.
The march west on April 8 passed quietly, even though the two armies were not far apart. A great deal of straggling occurred among the tired and hungry Rebels. As Lee approached Appomattox Court House at dusk, the sight of campfires indicated the Federals had arrived first at Appomattox Station. The only alternative was a breakout, attempted by Gordon’s corps and cavalry on Palm Sunday morning, April 9. But Sheridan’s cavalry, backed by infantry, quickly closed off the breakthrough attempt.
Virtually surrounded, Lee, conferring with his officers in an apple orchard just northeast of the courthouse, rejected the notion that his army take to the hills and continue the fight as guerrillas. That afternoon surrender papers were signed by both army commanders in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house. Three days later, in a solemn ceremony, the Confederate infantrymen stacked their arms, and the process of paroling them began soon after.
Appomattox faded as a commercial center, and the 1865-era courthouse burned in 1892. Plans were made to dismantle the McLean House and move it to Washington, but that never happened. The town’s decline was a stroke of good fortune for posterity. In the 1930s the National Park Service began restoration that led to today’s wonderful 1,325-acre park. The reconstructed courthouse is a visitor center and museum, and all the other structures, including the McLean House, are originals or reconstructions of 1865 buildings (except for the jail, built in 1870). Not only does the park identify and interpret all battle and surrender sites, including the North Carolina Monument at Gordon’s farthest advance, Surrender Triangle and the apple orchard where Lee met with his generals, it also interprets rural life in the 1860s.
From the park, return to U.S. 460 west. The modern town of Appomattox is the former Appomattox Station, where Federal troops captured supplies and completed the encirclement of Lee’s force. Continue west on U.S. 460 to Lynchburg. On June 17-18, 1864, a force sent by Lee under Jubal Early drove off Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s Federals. Though successful in a destructive drive up the Valley, Hunter lost his nerve after contact with the forces guarding the important supply center and Early’s II Corps veterans.
A number of Lynchburg sites relate to the defense of the city and the battle. At Church and Ninth streets, a marker describes the Battle of Lynchburg. Walk from the intersection to a Confederate monument and a commanding view of the James River. Old City Cemetery near Fifth and Taylor is the final resting place for Confederate soldiers who died in Lynchburg’s numerous hospitals. Drive south on Twelfth Street, which becomes Fort Avenue. At Fort Avenue and Vermont Street is the restored Fort Early, part of the defenses and now a park and museum. Early, Thomas Munford, James Dearing and other Confederates are buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, at Fort Avenue and Oakley Street. The South River Meeting House at 5810 Fort Ave. dates from the 1750s and was the scene of a cavalry skirmish in the battle. Traces of Fort McCausland and a nearby June 18 cavalry skirmish can be seen at Langhorne Road near Clifton Street. There are several routes to the north and west of Lynchburg that connect to the scenic Skyline Drive and I-81 for further exploration of important Civil War sites.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.