150 Years Ago This Week: The end of the road in Virginia

April 1865

Events of momentous importance occurred almost daily in the first two weeks of April 1865. Gen. Lee’s Confederate army headed west from Richmond and Petersburg, only to find much-needed food and supplies missing when they reached Amelia Courthouse.

With little choice, Gen. Lee marched his battered army westward. Ahead and to the south, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his command occupied the Richmond & Danville Railroad, thus preventing Gen. Lee from using that route to go south and join Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina.

President Lincoln, before returning to Washington, drove through the streets of Richmond and sat at the desk of President Jefferson Davis at the White House of the Confederacy. It is very likely that, while there, he picked up the Confederate $5 bill that was later found in his pocket on the night he was shot. It was in Richmond that he learned that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward had been seriously injured in a carriage accident in Washington, and was confined to his bed.

At Danville, President Davis set up an executive office, establishing Danville as the capital of the Confederate States. He issued a proclamation to the people of the crumbling Confederacy: “It would be unwise, even if it were possible, to conceal the great moral, as well as material injury to our cause that must result from the occupation of Richmond by the enemy. It is equally unwise and unworthy of us, as patriots engaged in a most sacred cause, to allow our energies to falter, our spirits grow faint, or our efforts to become relaxed, under reverses however calamitous.”         

The last major engagement between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac took place at Sayler’s (or Sailor’s) Creek near the Appomattox River. Unknown to Gen. Lee, a gap had opened in the ranks of his army as the Southerners approached to cross the river near the railroad high bridge. The Federals moved in and took advantage of the gap, trapping Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell and Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson and all of their two army corps away from the rest of the army.

Gen. Ewell was forced to surrender, some 8,000 men, and Gen. Lee had lost fully a third of his army. The next day, Gen. Grant opened communications with Gen. Lee, hoping to reduce the loss of life in both armies, and proposed the surrender of the Confederate army.

Gen. Lee was not quite ready to talk surrender, until the results of the fighting at Farmville, High Bridge and Appomattox Station revealed that the Confederates had reached the end of the road. At 3.45 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 9, Gen. Lee and Gen. Grant signed the articles of surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Some 26,000 Confederates were all that were left to lay down their arms. The formal surrender took place on April 10, and paroles were distributed. The Confederates could keep their horses for the Spring planting season, and the officers their side arms; this went far to reconcile the two former enemy troops.

Word of the surrender soon spread rapidly throughout the North. President Lincoln and his wife and son arrived back in Washington on April 10, and promised to make a speech the following night. It was to be the last speech he would ever make; in the crowd at the White House were John Wilkes Booth and Lewis Powell, two men determined and destined to change the course of American history in the next few days.

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