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.
About two o’clock, Union cavalry under George A. Custer attacked Anderson’s men two miles farther south at Marshall’s Crossroads, capturing some artillery and pinning Anderson in place as two additional Union cavalry divisions approached to join the fight. Ewell, meanwhile, was being pursued by Union general Horatio G. Wright’s Sixth Corps. Ewell’s corps, created to defend the Confederate capital, was an ad-hoc assortment of regular soldiers, military bureaucrats, and naval personnel from the James River Squadron. When Ewell learned of Anderson’s predicament, he directed the slow and cumbersome supply wagons that accompanied his forces to swing north, up the Jamestown Road, and out of the way. Gordon and the Confederate Second Corps followed to protect them.
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.
Meanwhile, eight hundred yards to the south, Union general Wesley Merritt sent his forces against Anderson at Marshall’s Crossroads. (Just twenty-eight at the time, Merritt later would fight in the Spanish-American War and serve as military governor of the Philippines.) At five o’clock, three divisions of mounted Union cavalry under Custer, George Crook and Thomas C. Devin advanced on two divisions of Confederate infantry commanded by George E. Pickett and Bushrod R. Johnson. After beating back several attacks, Anderson’s line finally broke and his men fled west down the road toward Rice’s Depot and the safety of Longstreet’s corps. The pell-mell retreat led to an additional 2,600 captured Confederates, including four more generals: Theodore Brevard, Alexandria-native Montgomery D. Corse, Warrenton-native and future U.S. senator Eppa Hunton II, and Ewell, who was returning to his men after checking on the progress of Anderson’s fight.
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.
At Sailor’s Creek, Lee’s army suffered the largest field surrender in American history—or at least the largest that was not followed by specific terms—and was reduced by more than 8,700 men, 7,700 of whom were captured. That equaled about 20 percent of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, who had been traveling with Longstreet, viewed the disaster from a distant ridge and exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” The following day, he relieved Generals Anderson, Johnson, and Pickett of duty, the men they commanded having largely been captured anyway. The remnants of his army, meanwhile, marched overnight the eight miles to Farmville, with their Union pursuers close behind.
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.