The Appomattox Campaign

The Appomattox Campaign, March 29–April 9, 1865, consisted of a series of engagements south and west of the Confederate capital at Richmond that ended in the surrender by Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). During his Overland Campaign the previous spring, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant had relentlessly pursued Lee before settling into a ten-month siege of the Confederate transportation hub at Petersburg, south of Richmond. Grant was finally able to dislodge Lee's army at the Battle of Five Forks (1865), allowing him to take Petersburg and then Richmond. The Confederates fled to Southside Virginia in an attempt to unite with Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, but Grant maneuvered Lee into a trap near the village of Appomattox Court House. There, on April 9, the Confederate general received terms of surrender from Grant. In short order, the remaining Confederate armies also laid down their arms and the war ended. MORE...

 

Background

For three years, the Union Army of the Potomac had targeted the Confederate capital. George B. McClellan came closest to capturing Richmond early in the summer of 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, after which Ambrose E. Burnside suffered humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Joseph Hooker was bested at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But then Union fortunes improved. In July 1863, George G. Meade led Union troops to victory at Gettysburg, and the following May, Grant took personal control of Meade's Potomac army and the Army of the James under Benjamin F. Butler. While Butler marched up the James River, Grant led Union troops through a series of bloody encounters at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, eventually laying siege to Petersburg, beginning in June. By the autumn, Union forces had cut three of the four rail lines into the city, leaving the South Side Railroad as the only means of rail supply for the Army of Northern Virginia. By March 1865, Grant's two armies had stretched Confederate forces across a thirty-five-mile front, applying constant pressure and thereby limiting Lee's offensive capability.

Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, meanwhile, had marched his army first to Atlanta, Georgia, and then north through South Carolina and North Carolina. If his forces were allowed to unite with Grant's, Union numbers would be doubled. Lee was forced to act. Because of bad road conditions and fatigued horses, Confederates had remained in their trenches through much of the spring, but on March 25, Lee attempted a surprise, pre-dawn assault against Fort Stedman. His goal was to break Grant's stranglehold, cut his supply line, and force him to draw back his left flank, with the possible idea of creating an escape route. After an initial breakthrough, Union forces counterattacked, and in the end, Grant's men were positioned even closer to Confederate lines.

The Campaign

In order to provide the attack on Fort Stedman more punch, Lee had borrowed troops from his right flank. Grant saw the opening and seized the initiative, 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. (In another blow, Confederate general A. P. Hill, long one of Lee's most trusted lieutenants, was killed in the fighting.) A stubborn defense at Fort Gregg allowed Lee's army to escape to the west, and he ordered the evacuation of the capital that night. Marching on previously determined routes, Confederate forces from Richmond, Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg all marched toward Amelia Court House. Once Lee reassembled his army, he planned to head south along the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad to link forces with Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, which was moving north from North Carolina. With the two armies joined, Lee could establish a defensive line near Danville and possibly even take the offensive against Sherman.

As the march began, many Confederate soldiers were in high spirits, elated to be freed from the trenches after ten months. But after just a day, fatigue and hunger set in. On April 3, Confederate cavalry general Rufus Barringer was captured after his brigade was routed by forces under George A. Custer at Namozine Church. When Lee reached Amelia Court House on April 4, he discovered that the rations had not been delivered from Richmond as planned. Although moving quickly was essential, the Army of Northern Virginia needed supplies. Lee also needed to concentrate his forces, and decided to pause his march to wait for Richard S. Ewell's command—which included Lee's son, General Custis Lee—from Richmond. In the meantime, he sent wagons into the countryside to gather provisions. Local farmers had little to spare, however, and the wagons returned virtually empty. The delay proved costly. A day's march was lost and pursuing Union troops were allowed to draw near.

Resuming its southward march on April 5, Lee's army traveled only a few miles before encountering dug-in Union troops at Jetersville, along the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Rather than attack, Lee maneuvered to the west 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.

Simultaneously, on the Jamestown Road to the north, the Union Second Corps attacked Confederate supply wagons and John B. Gordon's rear guard and they struggled to cross the creek near Double Bridges. Forced to fight, Gordon's men were driven through the wagon train and across the creek. Lee witnessed the end of the battle from a distance, exclaiming, "My God! Has the army been dissolved?" Approximately 7,700 Confederate soldiers, or about one-fifth of the Army of Northern Virginia, were killed, wounded, or captured, including nine generals. What 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.

On the evening of April 7, Grant began a three-day correspondence with Lee by inviting him to surrender. Lee shared the letter with James Longstreet, whose reply was curt: "Not yet." Blocked once more from heading south, Lee moved west on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road in hopes of resupplying at Appomattox Station. The Union Second and Sixth corps followed, while a combined force of Union cavalry, the Fifth, and parts of the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth corps moved along shorter roads south of the Appomattox River to cut off Lee. Lee understood that he was nearly out of options. Still, if he could reach Appomattox Station first, his men could be fed before continuing toward Danville. Lee ordered another night march.

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."

Aftermath

Lee's aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall, secured a place for the conference. At 1:30 p.m. on April 9, Lee and Grant met at the home of Appomattox Court House resident Wilmer McLean. (McLean and his wife came to Appomattox after two battles were fought near their home in Manassas.) The surrender meeting lasted an hour and a half. The terms were simple: Confederate officers and men would be paroled. The officers could keep their side-arms, while enlisted men were required to relinquish all military equipment. Grant also allowed the Confederates to keep their horses, and he arranged for the delivery of 25,000 rations to feed Lee's hungry men.

Grant's adjutant, a Seneca Indian named Ely Parker, wrote a formal copy of Grant's terms and Marshall drafted Lee's acceptance. The letters were exchanged and the meeting ended. The paroling of Lee's army and the surrender ceremonies took place over the next several days and culminated in a stacking-of-arms ceremony for the Confederate infantry on April 12, received by Union general Joshua Chamberlain and the First Division of the Fifth Corps.

After four years of bitter fighting, the war in Virginia ended with remarkable magnanimity. On the way back to Union lines, Grant heard cannon firing in celebration of Lee's surrender and ordered it stopped, saying: "The Rebels are our countrymen again." Lee, meanwhile, instructed his men to "Go home now. And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well." With Grant's forces now freed to turn south, the remaining Confederate armies surrendered in short order. On April 26, Johnston surrendered to Sherman near Durham, North Carolina. On May 4, Richard Taylor surrendered at Citronelle, Alabama. Finally, on June 2, Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered to Edward R. Canby at Galveston, Texas. The Civil War was over.

It is significant, then, that Appomattox, not Galveston, has become synonymous with the war's end. The generosity of Grant's terms and the restraint that Lee urged upon his men set the standard for subsequent Confederate surrenders and allowed for a relatively clean transition from war to peace. Unlike in other civil wars, there was no prolonged guerrilla war and no mass reprisals. There were relatively few executions. Still, bitterness remained, and the death by assassination of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln on April 15 undermined much of the good feeling created at Appomattox. If Grant and Lee made it possible at Appomattox to reconstruct what had been torn asunder, that Reconstruction (1865–1877) nevertheless would be turbulent. Political circumstances initially and briefly were positive for African Americans in the South, but over the years, many former Confederates were able to win back political power. In so doing, they instituted a regime of white supremacy that formally segregated public life and erased African American social and political advances.

Time Line

  • March 29, 1865 - Confederates commanded by Bushrod Johnson engage the Union Fifth Corps under Gouverneur K. Warren at the Battle of Quaker Road (Lewis Farm).
  • March 31, 1865 - Confederates under George E. Pickett defeat Union cavalry, fresh from the Shenandoah Valley, at Dinwiddie Court House. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren attacks fortifications along the White Oak Road, but is repulsed by Confederate troops commanded by Bushrod Johnson.
  • April 1, 1865, night - Following victory at Five Forks, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant orders an all-out assault on Petersburg to commence in the morning.
  • April 1, 1865, 8:00 p.m. - The arrival of Union troops under Gouverneur K. Warren at his rear causes George E. Pickett's men to fall back to an intersection known as Five Forks. They are soundly defeated, providing the Union a decisive victory that helped end its ten-month siege of Petersburg.
  • April 2, 1865 - Union forces breach Confederate lines south of Petersburg, in a sector held by troops under Confederate general A. P. Hill, who is killed in the fighting. Confederate general Robert E. Lee manages to hold off the Union forces long enough to evacuate Petersburg and flee to the west.
  • April 3, 1865 - The Confederate capital of Richmond falls to Union forces and Petersburg is occupied. Confederate general Rufus Barringer is defeated and captured after the Battle of Namozine Church by George A. Custer.
  • April 4, 1865 - Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, retreating from Richmond and Petersburg, pauses at Amelia Court House to regroup and resupply. The countryside is bare of foodstuffs, however, and the delay is costly.
  • April 5, 1865 - Robert E. Lee's retreat from Amelia Court House is forced west at Jetersville. Union cavalrymen under Henry Davies capture a Confederate supply train at Painesville, but then are attacked by Confederates under Fitzhugh Lee at Amelia Springs. A running fight occurs until Davies reaches Union lines.
  • April 6, 1865, 4:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. - Edward Ord sends Union troops to burn High Bridge over the Appomattox River. Confederates intercept, however, and capture 780 troops. Union general Theodore Read is killed and Confederate general James Dearing is mortally wounded. He is the last Confederate general to die in the war.
  • April 6, 1865, 2:00 p.m.–night - In three separate engagements the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia loses 7,700 men killed, wounded, and captured, including nine generals captured.
  • April 6, 1865, 4:30–6:30 p.m. - Robert E. Lee's retreating army moves toward Farmville and gets bogged down crossing Sailor's Creek. Union cavalry successfully exploit gaps in the Confederate column at four separate engagements—Holt's Corner, the Hillsman House, Marshall's Crossroads, and the Lockett House.
  • April 6, 1865, 6:00 p.m. - Elements of the Union Twenty-fourth Corps assault James Longstreet's entrenched Confederates at Rice's Station, but darkness puts a halt to the fighting before a sizeable battle can develop.
  • April 7, 1865, morning - Robert E. Lee's retreating Army of Northern Virginia arrives in Farmville, but is forced north by pursuing Union troops, who were able to cross the Appomattox River by extinguishing flames on a wagon bridge.
  • April 7, 1865, 3:00–5:00 p.m. - At Cumberland Church, Confederate forces under William Mahone repulse the Union Second Corps. Union general J. Irvin Gregg is captured in a nearby cavalry action. Union general Thomas Smyth is mortally wounded, the last Union general to die in the war.
  • April 7, 1865, 4:00 p.m.–night - Retreating Confederates clash with Union forces in the Battle of the Cumberland Church.
  • April 7, 1865, 5:00 p.m. - Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant sends his first letter to Confederate general Robert E. Lee asking for his surrender.
  • April 8, 1865, 3:00 p.m. - Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia encamps near Appomattox Court House.
  • April 8, 1865, 4:00–8:00 p.m. - Confederate reserve artillery commanded by Reuben L. Walker are defeated by Union cavalry under George A. Custer at Appomattox Station. Twenty-five cannon, two hundred thousand rations, and about a thousand Confederates are captured.
  • April 8, 1865, 9:00 p.m. - Confederate general Robert E. Lee holds a council of war with generals James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee. Lee orders an assault to the west to open his line of march.
  • April 9, 1865, 7:50–10:00 a.m. - Confederates under John B. Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee attack Charles Smith's Union brigade in a last-ditch effort to escape the encircling Union army. Hard-marching reinforcements from the Army of the James and the Fifth Corps prevent a breakout, and Confederates send out truce flags.
  • April 9, 1865, 1:30–3:00 p.m. - Confederate general Robert E. Lee meets Ulysses S. Grant at the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House. The meeting results in the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
  • April 10, 1865, morning - Confederate general Robert E. Lee meets for a second time in two days with Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the terms of Confederate surrender.
  • April 12, 1865 - Robert E. Lee's Confederate infantrymen of the Army of the Northern Virginia stack their arms in the final ceremony of surrender.
  • April 14, 1865, evening - U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
Further Reading
Calkins, Christopher M. The Appomattox Campaign, March 29–April 9, 1865. Lynchburg, Virginia: Schroeder Publications, 2008.
Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based on Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.
Davis, Burke. To Appomattox: Nine April Days. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1959 (Reprinted by Short Hills, New Jersey: Burford Books, 2002).
Korn, Jerry, and the editors of Time-Life Books. Pursuit to Appomattox. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1987.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April–June 1865. Boston, Massachusetts and New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Schroeder, P. A. The Appomattox Campaign. (2012, February 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Appomattox_Campaign.

MLA Citation:
Schroeder, P. A. "The Appomattox Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 14, 2009 | Last modified: February 22, 2012


Contributed by Patrick A. Schroeder, a historian in Lynchburg, Virginia.