On April 6, Lee's men were marching west through the rain in an attempt to reach supplies at Farmville while also placing the Appomattox River between themselves and the pursuing Union columns. Lee hoped eventually to link up with the army of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston near Greensboro, North Carolina. At the head of the Confederate First and Third corps, Longstreet led the march. (The Third Corps's previous commander, A. P. Hill, had been killed in the fighting on April 2.) He was followed by Anderson's small Fourth Corps, but an attack about noon by Colonel Charles Smith's brigade of Union cavalry at Holt's Crossroads—the intersection of the Deatonville and Jamestown roads—forced Anderson to stop and meet the threat. In the time it took him to fend off Smith's horsemen, a dangerous gap opened up between Anderson and Longstreet, isolating the Fourth Corps and Ewell's men who followed behind it.
By the time Union general Philip H. Sheridan arrived on the scene to oversee the coming fight, his cavalry had already succeeded in dividing the Confederate forces between Longstreet's corps—which trekked along toward Rice's Depot, unaware of the disaster in the offing—and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia. Now Anderson's, Ewell's, and Gordon's forces were divided again, this time from each other, setting the stage for three separate pitched battles.
Sailor's Creek was a north-flowing tributary of the Appomattox River and, because of the recent rain, deeper than usual at two to four feet. (The earliest map found to label the creek, dated 1751, spells the name "Sailor's," but alternate spellings have included "Sayler's," "Saylor's," and "Sailer's.") After leaving skirmishers near the Hillsman Farm east of the creek, Ewell's 3,700 men crossed over to the high ground on the west side and built protective breastworks. Wright's Sixth Corps promptly chased the skirmishers back and advanced eighteen cannons to the yard of the Hillsman House, where they pounded the Confederates for twenty minutes unopposed. At about six o'clock, Wright sent two divisions totaling 7,000 men, under Truman Seymour and Frank Wheaton, across the creek and then up the hill. As they came into range, some of the Union soldiers waved white handkerchiefs as an invitation for Ewell's men to surrender. In return, they received a staggering volley of musket fire, decimating two regiments.
Jubilant Confederates led by Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield—a former Virginia Military Institute instructor who had lost a leg at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863)—chased Wright's men down the hill and across the creek. There, the two sides engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat until Crutchfield's men were repulsed by canister from advanced artillery. Crutchfield himself was killed in the fighting. Wright's men reformed for a second assault and overwhelmed Ewell's forces, who signaled surrender by raising their musket-butts in the air. Nearly 3,400 men gave up, including five generals: Dudley M. DuBose, Joseph B. Kershaw, James P. Simms, the Fredericksburg-native Seth M. Barton, and George Washington Custis Lee. The eldest son of Robert E. Lee, Custis Lee had served most of the war as a military functionary in Richmond, including as an aide to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. This was his first combat experience.
A third engagement occurred two miles to the northwest of Ewell, on the east side of Sailor's Creek and near the farm of James Lockett. That was as far as Ewell's supply wagons—protected by Gordon's infantry, as well as cavalry under William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, another of Robert E. Lee's sons—made it before being attacked. The Confederates had been harassed all day by the Union Second Corps, commanded by Andrew A. Humphreys, fighting delaying actions to the east at the Truly Vaughan farmhouse and at Deatonville, where Gordon lost 400 men. At Sandy Creek, Union Second Corps general Philippe Régis Dénis de Keredern de Trobriand, a French-born lawyer and novelist, took over the pursuit.
At the Lockett Farm, the Jamestown Road crossed both the Big and Little Sailor's creeks over two narrow bridges known as the Double Bridges. The army's supply train made for a tight fit, became backed up, and caused a traffic jam, all of which forced Gordon to attempt to delay Humphreys yet again. Union troops formed on the high ground around the Lockett house and pressed Gordon's men back against the stalled wagons and the creek. Union general Nelson Miles's division advanced on Gordon's left flank, and the overwhelming pressure of his attack forced Gordon to order a retreat and abandon the wagons. When nightfall finally stopped the fighting, Gordon's corps suffered 1,700 men captured in addition to the loss of 13 battle flags, 300 wagons, 70 ambulances, and 400 men killed and wounded.
Union losses numbered 1,180, and following the battle, Sheridan reported to Grant, "If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender." Grant forwarded the dispatch to Abraham Lincoln at City Point, and the president replied: "Let the thing be pressed." It was, and Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9.
April 6, 1865, 12 p.m. - Union cavalry under Charles Smith attack Confederate general Richard H. Anderson's Fourth Corps at Holt's Cross Roads east of Sailor's Creek as it retreats west from Petersburg. Anderson is forced to stop and fight, dangerously separating his men from Longstreet's column.
April 6, 1865, 2 p.m. - George A. Custer's Union cavalrymen exploit a gap in the lines of retreating Confederate forces, attacking near Marshall's Crossroads west of Sailor's Creek. Custer captures some artillery and pins Richard Anderson's Fourth Corps in place. Two Confederate corps under James Longstreet march on to the west, unaware of Anderson's predicament.
April 6, 1865, 4:30–6:30 p.m. - The slow-moving supply wagons following General Richard S. Ewell that detoured north and were protected by John B. Gordon's corps, are attacked by the Union Second Corps near the Lockett Farm. The wagons have difficulty crossing Sailor's Creek, resulting in the capture of more than 1,700 of Gordon's men, in addition to 300 wagons and 70 ambulances.
April 6, 1865, 5:00–6:30 p.m. - Union general Wesley Merritt's cavalry attacks and routs Confederate general Richard H. Anderson's corps at Marshall's Crossroads west of Sailor's Creek. The pell-mell retreat results in 2,600 of Anderson's men being captured, including four generals: Richard S. Ewell, Theodore Brevard, Montgomery D. Corse, and Eppa Hunton II.
April 6, 1865, 5:15–6:30 p.m. - Union general Horatio G. Wright's Sixth Corps attacks Richard S. Ewell's reserve corps across the rain-swollen Sailor's Creek. Hand-to-hand fighting ensues before the Confederate line breaks and nearly 3,400 men surrender, including five generals, one of whom is Robert E. Lee's eldest son: George Washington Custis Lee.
April 6, 1865, 6:15 p.m. - Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who has been traveling with James Longstreet's corps, views the disaster at Sailor's Creek from a distant ridge. Nearly 20 percent of the Army of Northern Virginia is killed, wounded, or captured, with nine generals taken prisoner. "My God!" he exclaims. "Has the army been dissolved?"
April 7, 1865 - After a disastrous series of battles near Sailor's Creek in which 7,700 Confederates are captured, including nine generals, Robert E. Lee relieves Confederate generals Richard H. Anderson, Bushrod R. Johnson, and George E. Pickett of duty, although Pickett continues with the army to Appomattox Court House.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Schroeder, P. The Battles of Sailor's Creek. (2012, February 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Sailor_s_Creek_Battles_of.
- MLA Citation:
Schroeder, Patrick. "The Battles of Sailor's Creek." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 23, 2010 | Last modified: February 22, 2012
Contributed by Patrick Schroeder, who is the historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and has written or edited and published more than twenty Civil War–related titles. Among the works he has authored are Thirty Myths About Lee's Surrender (2002); More Myths About Lee's Surrender (1996); The Confederate Cemetery At Appomattox (1999); The Pennsylvania Bucktails: A Photographic History of the 42nd, 149th, 150th Pennsylvania Regiments (2001); and We Came To Fight: The History of the 5th New York Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Duryee's Zouaves, 1863–1865 (1998).