150 Years Ago This Week: The road to Appomattox

March/April 1865

At the end of March, 1865, beyond the lines at Petersburg and in North Carolina, fighting between Union and Confederate troops continued unabated in such places as Oyster Bayou and Indian Bend, La.; at Canoe Creek and the Escambia River in Florida.; at Bewley Forks, Kentucky; Deer Park Road, Alabama; Stephenson’s Mills in Missouri; Monticello, Arkansas,; and a Federal expedition against Indians near Ft. Sumner, New Mexico Territory.

At City Point, Va., President Lincoln and his wife and son visited Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant at his headquarters. On Monday, Mar. 27, Mr. Lincoln met on board the River Queen with Gen. Grant, Adm. David Porter of the U.S. Navy, and Maj. Gen. William Sherman, who had arrived from his headquarters near Goldsboro, N.C. The discussions lasted two days; the focus was on reconstruction. The president proposed that, as soon as Southerners lay down their arms, he was willing to grant them full citizen rights.

In a letter to his daughter on Mar. 29, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote “. . . Genl Grant is evidently preparing for something & is marshalling & preparing his troops for some movement, which is not yet disclosed.” The movement turned out to be some 125,000 Union troops in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James threatening the weakly defended Confederate right flank.

Gen. Lee had his men busily collecting food and war materiel in preparation for pulling out of the lines at Petersburg and heading west and south to join Gen. Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. To keep the roads to the west open, Gen. Lee sent Maj. Gen. George Pickett and cavalry under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee west to the area of the intersection of five roads called Five Forks, where he expected the Federals to make a flanking movement.

Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his cavalry just arrived from the Shenandoah Valley were augmented by two army corps, the Second under Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, and the Fifth under Maj. Gen. Gouveneur Warren. Gen. Sheridan moved his reinforced command to Five Forks, to force Gen. Lee’s troops out of the entrenched lines. At the Boydton Plank Road, the two sides clashed and the Federals drove the weakened Confederate troops back. Gen. Sherman returned to No. Carolina, and President Lincoln, his wife Mary, and son Tad remained at City Point after the reconstruction talks had been concluded.

Heavy rains fell on the last day of March, but that did not stop the bloody fighting at Dinwiddie Courthouse and on the White Oak Road west of Petersburg. Gen. Pickett was able to muster some 10,000 Southerners against 50,000 Union troops; Gen. Pickett’s men had little chance of advancing much beyond their lines.

This fighting was a prelude to the main engagement, fought on Saturday afternoon, April 1, at Five Forks. “Hold Five Forks at all hazards,” Gen. Lee ordered Gen. Pickett that morning. Several of the Confederate commanders were enjoying a shad bake, away from their troops, when Gen. Sheridan’s men attacked unexpectedly; their absence at the initial attack was to benefit the Union advance.

It was not long before it became clear that the outnumbered Confederates had no chance to hold or throw back the Union attacks. The Federals not only crumpled Gen. Lee’s right flank and seized the area of Five Forks, but they almost completely encircled Petersburg south of the Appomattox River. Federal casualties numbered about 1,000 while some 4,500 Southerners were captured — almost half of Gen. Pickett’s command.

That night, before the full import of Five Forks had been given to him, Gen. Lee wired President Davis of the seriousness of the Federal threat, and that he was prepared to evacuate their positions in front of Richmond and Petersburg in order to save the army.

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