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Battle of Appomattox
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Robert E. Lee's withdrawal from Petersburg and Richmond opened the last act for the Army of Northern Virginia. As they withdrew Ulysses S. Grant pursued Lee's beleaguered army along the Richmond to Lynchburg Road. Jefferson Davis, trying to avoid the advancing Union Army, headed southwest towards North Carolina, hoping to establish a new Confederate capitol in the Deep South. Lee was retreating towards Lynchburg, Virginia, where a large stock of supplies awaited him. In front of Lee, Phil Sheridan's cavalry wrecked havoc with the retreat, while the pursuit by the Army of the Potomac was almost constantly attacking his rear guard.
On April 4, 1865 Lee wired the quartermaster in Lynchburg, ordering 4 trains of cars loaded with desperately needed supplies to Appomattox, far enough behind Confederate lines to be safe from Union raiders. What Lee didn't know was General Sheridan's scouts intercepted the message and forwarded it to both the Lynchburg quartermaster and Sheridan. Early on April 8 Sheridan's men watched as the trains advanced slowly along the Lynchburg railroad. Sheridan ordered General George Armstrong Custer to advance and secure the Appomattox depot and the rail cars advancing to the station.
Just south of Appomattox Custer detached two regiments to destroy the track behind the cars, cutting off any possibility of returning to Lynchburg for the trains. Just as Custer arrived forward units of Lee's Army also arrived at Appomattox Station. Sheridan managed a major coup - Custer's surprise attack forced the Confederates (an artillery unit under the command of General R. Lindsey Walker) to retreat without the essential supplies while Custer captured 25 pieces of artillery in the engagement.
The majority of Lee's force had taken position north of Clover Hill, where the village of Appomattox Court House sits. Lee's situation can be summed up fairly easily. Out of 28,000 men he had between 8 and 9,000 effectives, the rest too weak from lack of food combined with the rapid march west to Appomattox.
Since April 7 Grant and Lee had been in communication (Surrender Letters), with Grant pointing out the futility of Lee's continued action. The Battle of Saylor's (Sailor's) Creek probably convinced Lee that Grant was right, but the veteran commander felt that with the supplies his army still had a chance. Late on the 8th, Grant told Lee he refused to meet unless it was to discuss surrender. At the time, Lee was planning an attack the following morning to retake the supplies and create a hole in the Union line between Appomattox Court House and Appomattox Station. Lee didn't know that shortly after the supplies had been captured they were being moved east, well behind Union lines. At his final council of war, Fitzhugh Lee, James Longstreet and John Brown Gordon urged General Lee to attack.
General Lee directed Gordon to setup a line to the south of Appomattox Court House and Longstreet to the north of the Confederate bivouac. Gordon was expected to capture Appomattox Station and get the supplies that had been lost the day before and create a gap in Union lines for the Army to break through. Longstreet, providing rear guard cover for the remaining Army of North Virginia, would advance in support after Gordon had created the hole in the Union line.
With Fitz's cavalry on his right, Gordon's men lined up at 2:00 am, waiting to attack Sheridan's cavalry at dawn. Shortly before 5:00 am the final advance of the Army of Northern Virginia began. During the night a Union infantry column under General Edward O. C. Ord began a forced march from Farmville, reaching Appomattox Station just as Gordon's men left their trenches. Directing his men from a knoll at the rear of the formation Sheridan moved them to appear to be in serious trouble, fortifying their line while they were retreating. The cavalry moving as if to fortify the center line then took a position behind Union infantry lines being formed by advanced elements of the XXIV Corps (Army of the James).
At first, because of Sheridan's ruse, Gordon's gains seemed impressive, to say the least. It wasn't too long before Gordon realized he was no longer attacking retreating cavalry units but a strengthening Union infantry line. His advance was halted and easily pushed back, with Sheridan's cavalry making strong advances on Brown's left and Ord's infantry threatening the Confederate right. Meanwhile, north of the Army of Northern Virginia's bivouac, General George Meade's Army of the Potomac ran headlong into James Longstreet, Lee's rear guard.
"I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet's corps" was the verbal message Gordon transmitted to Lee at 8:00 am through an aide. When Lee heard the message he knew the extent of the problem - Gordon had been one of his Lee's stalwarts, never hinting at an impossible situation. His words told Lee the fight was near an end.
Longstreet withdrew to a point just north of the Army of Northern Virginia's bivouac. "Old Pete" came to visit Lee, who spelled out the situation. Low on food and ammunition, with Gordon blocked, Longstreet agreed the time had come to surrender. Then there was a pause in the fighting. Hurried communication occurred between the U. S. and Confederates, but an attack was scheduled for 11:00am.
Just before 11:00 am, surrounded by the Union Army on three sides, Lee forwarded a message to Gordon and Longstreet, telling them to send a white truce flag forward. He had worked out a cease-fire with General Meade. Gordon ordered Col. Green Payton to carry the flag, but no suitable cloth could be found. After 10 minutes Payton finally found a rag and secured it to a stick and boldly advanced to the Union line.
When Peyton advanced with the "flag" of truce, General Custer rode up to Gordon and demanded an immediate, unconditional surrender. Gordon refused and a few minutes later Sheridan advanced under the flag of truce. He made a similar demand, but Gordon explained that he would not surrender until Grant and Lee had negotiated terms. Sheridan did not know of the meeting, but accepted Gordon's story when the Confederate general showed him the order to send out a flag of truce. Soon, General Longstreet showed up with a similar order and Sheridan returned to his lines.
A group of South Carolinians, however, refused to give up in spite of Lee's orders. Union cavalry put a quick end to this unexpected uprising. As Sheridan and Ord were discussing the situation General Grant arrived and asked his subordinates how they were. Briefly they tried to convince Grant to let them destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, but Grant wouldn't consider any action. The time had come to end the long national nightmare.
Surrender at Appomattox
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Battle of Appomattox was last changed on - October 4, 2007
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