When the Confederate military and political officials abandoned Richmond after the fall of Petersburg, they set fire to warehouses on the waterfront – and the resulting Evacuation Fire destroyed much of the city’s commercial district.
Fortifications to protect the capital of the Confederacy between 1861-1865
Four years at war had made Robert Lee an old man. Even the most devoted of his intimates noted it. Colonel Armistead Long of his staff wrote:
“He had aged somewhat in appearance … but had rather gained than lost in physical vigor, from the severe life he had led. His hair had grown gray, but his face had the ruddy hue of health, and his eyes were as clear and bright as ever.… Though always abstemious in diet, he seemed able to bear any amount of fatigue.”
Lee rode the crooked crescent of his lines almost daily even now, peering over the bristling forts and ditches to the enemy. He still wore a uniform of plain gray, without the buff facings and gold lace affected by general officers, so that many men took him for a colonel. A North Carolina captain looked at him in wonder: “There is a fearless look of self-possession without a trace of arrogance.”
His troops, however, did not stand in awe of him. On a recent day when he was trotting behind the lines, men stepped into the path of gray Traveller, demanding his attention. One of them stuck out a bare foot for Lee to see.
“I’ve got no shoes, Ginral.”
Another shouted, “I’m hungry, sir. We’ve got nothing to eat.”
Lee hid his despair from the men but could not keep it from the reports to Richmond.
He called for more Negro laborers; he had only 1200 of the 5000 he needed, and many had deserted. His soldiers could not leave the trenches to work.
“There is a great suffering in the army for want of soap,” he wrote. Skin diseases were rampant, and Lee could not understand why quartermasters did not supply the plentiful commodity, lye soap.
The cavalry was dispersed for lack of forage.
For three days his commissary had “not a pound of meat.”
“You must not be surprised if calamity befalls us,” he had warned as early as February.
A single stick of firewood now fetched the price of $5 in the trenches.
Even a child could guess from Lee’s manner that hope was gone. One day the commander rode beside a mule-drawn army ambulance as escort to a little girl from Petersburg, Anne Banister, whose father had died in defense of the town. The child sat beside the driver, now and then slapping the mules with a whip. Lee halted her, but the girl persisted.
“Anne, you must not do that again,” Lee said sternly. “These animals are on half feed, as we all are, and I don’t feel entirely at ease about using them like this.”
The girl was silent for the rest of the ride, but went in tears to her mother. “I don’t believe General Lee thinks we are going to win the war.”
“Of course we can’t win,” the woman said. “We are all starving.”
Yet Lee’s good humor did not desert him. He entertained a visiting dignitary, B. H. Hill, and said quietly, “Mr. Hill, we made a great mistake in the beginning, and I fear it will be fatal.”
“What is that, General?”
“Why, we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when I was through, my plans seemed to me to be perfect. But when I have fought the campaigns I have discovered defects.
“When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these editor-generals saw all the defects plainly from the start … but they did not tell me until it was too late.”
Hill smiled uncertainly as Lee paused.
“I have done my best,” Lee said, “but I haven’t succeeded as I would like. I’m willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause by editing a newspaper.”
Lee once became so desperate as to ride up to Richmond to talk with the politicians, and afterward gave a rare display of temper to his son Custis and others of his family: “The Congress don’t seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”
On March twenty-eighth, when the sky cleared after weeks of rain, Lee saw the enemy in motion; great columns crawled southward behind the Federal lines, and outposts reported a major movement of cavalry. Lee saw what he had long feared, a general turning movement against his flank, toward the last feeble link with the South, Southside Railroad. He was not strong enough to prevent it.
He wrote a homely note to his wife, Mary, in Richmond:
I have received your note with a bag of socks. I return the bag and receipt. The count is all right this time. I have put in the bag General Scott’s autobiography, which I thought you might like to read. The General, of course, stands out very prominently, and does not hide his light under a bushel, but he appears the bold, sagacious truthful man that he is. I enclose a note for little Agnes. I shall be very glad to see her tomorrow, but can not recommend pleasure trips now.
He did not repeat the words of warning he had written her so recently:
Should it be necessary to abandon our position to prevent being surrounded, what will you do? Will you remain, or leave the city? You must consider the question and make up your mind.
At ten o’clock on the morning of March thirtieth Lee came to the far right of his line, where he had pushed George Pickett’s three little brigades during the rainy night; for all his care in pulling the men from trenches yesterday, they had been seen by Federal lookouts. The men marched along the Southside Railroad to Sutherland’s Tavern, ten miles from Petersburg, then behind Fitz Lee’s cavalry to the very end of the gray line.
Walter Harrison, the adjutant general to Pickett, watched Lee as he talked with his commanders. The generals had few suggestions, except for Harry Heth, who was still full of fight.
“I’ll attack in my front, and let Pickett support from the flank.”
Lee shook his head, and at last sent Pickett beyond the protection of his trenches to the right, toward Dinwiddie Court House. He added to his little force two riddled brigades of infantry and six cannon under Colonel Willie Pegram. For the guns, at least, the army could afford no more spirited commander.
Lee hung about, waiting. His reward was a dispatch from Fitz Lee:
Enemy cavalry in force at Five Forks, driving in my pickets.
With the dispatch came a prisoner, a smiling young Federal captain of cavalry who seemed to have no fear of Lee. He spoke up under questioning:
“What were you doing at Five Forks?”
“We’re turning you, sir. The whole line.”
“In what force?”
“All of it, about fifteen thousand.”
A staff officer nearby gave a low whistle. Lee gave the boy a quick look of speculation.
“He does not believe him,” Walter Harrison thought.
“Is there more?” Lee asked.
“A big infantry force with Sheridan at Dinwiddie,” the captain said.
Lee hesitated a moment and then, as if he had no alternative, passed his orders: Fitz Lee would lead the cavalry to Five Forks, with Pickett’s men behind. Pickett would take command.
Before he left the spot there was the faint crackling of rifle fire from the southwest, where the cavalry had met bluecoats. Such of the great men as were left to the cavalry corps were taking the tired brigades into position: Fitzhugh Lee, Rooney Lee, Thomas Munford, Thomas Rosser.
General Lee turned back toward Petersburg, going slowly behind the entrenched line; men were twenty feet apart in the earthworks.
Near the tag end of the trenches lay a handful of elite troops, such as they were—the Sharpshooters of McGowan’s Brigade of South Carolinians. In the months of siege these men had been trained as marksmen; they were armed with Enfield rifles, and many of them were deadly accurate to a range of 900 yards.
Brevet Captain William H. Brunson, who commanded a company of them, was led by a guide to a dangerous spot: “Yanks in that skirmish line over there. Been there since Wise’s brigade pulled out. Hold this line.”
The line was three quarters of a mile long and the company was weak. Nonetheless it survived the adventure. Brunson remembered it:
“A company of Federal cavalry, mistaking us for their own men, rode up within twenty yards of where we stood. A single volley from my line unhorsed nearly the last man of them, and in a few minutes my barefooted crowd were up to their knees in cavalry boots.”
But it was the beginning of retreat, and Brunson was sent to a bridge in the rear, on Hatcher’s Run, to screen a demoralized brigade. The Sharpshooters startled a big enemy force by springing from thickets in a screaming charge and, while the bluecoats fled, trailed rearward, beyond the hospital of Pickett’s division, into an apple orchard where they would not draw fire on the wounded. They skirmished most of the day.
Mr. Lincoln had come down from Washington on the paddle wheeler River Queen to visit the army. He disembarked in the teeming new harbor at City Point, where the Appomattox flowed into the James, amid a swarm of tugs, sailing ships, barges, troopships, steamers, all crowding toward the wharves and warehouses which lined the banks as far as the President could see. Beyond, the army’s traffic simply filled the landscape. Wagons, ambulances and soldiers threaded the bluffs to the riverside and there was a din of wheels, ship’s boilers, screaming anchor chains, and boat whistles. Coffins by the thousand were carried on homeward-bound ships. When night fell, the burning lights of vessels gleamed red, blue, and yellow on the water, and sounds fell away to the occasional chuffing of a tug and the bells on men-of-war striking the hours.
The President settled on the Malvern, a captured blockade-runner now serving as flagship for Admiral David Porter, and chose a miniature stateroom in which, Porter complained, “I couldn’t swing a cat.” Lincoln slept in a space little larger than a closet.
The President placed his boots and socks outside his door the first night. Porter found holes in the socks; he had them washed and darned, and the boots shined.
Lincoln beamed at breakfast. “A miracle happened to me last night. When I went to bed I had two large holes in my socks, and this morning they are gone. That never happened to me before. It must be a mistake.”
“How did you sleep?”
“Well enough, but you can’t put a long blade in a short scabbard. I was too long for that berth.”
While Lincoln visited the army that day, carpenters swarmed on the Malvern to dismantle, enlarge and reassemble his stateroom. New bedding was installed. The changes were not mentioned to the President.
Lincoln emerged smiling the next morning.
“A greater miracle than ever happened last night,” he said. “I shrank six inches in length and about a foot sideways. I got somebody else’s big pillow and slept in a better bed than I did on the River Queen.”
The President seemed happy to be marooned from advisers and office seekers, especially those of his Cabinet who were forever quoting from German military experts to him. Porter handed him a telegram from William S. Seward, his Secretary of State:
Shall I come down and join you?
Lincoln grimaced at Porter. “No,” he said. “I don’t want him. Telegraph him that the berths are too small, and there’s not room for another passenger.”
“But I can provide for him if you wish.”
“Tell him, then, that I don’t want him. He’d talk to me all day about Vattel and Puffendorf. The war will be over in a week, and I don’t want to hear any more of that.”
The army watched with unconcealed curiosity as Lincoln stalked among the commands. On March twenty-sixth he rode with General Grant and a little escort to the headquarters of General George Meade. They passed a body of some 1500 Confederates, prisoners of the 9th Corps.
Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff thought the prisoners the most disheveled he ever saw: “They grew rougher and rougher. These looked brown and athletic, but had the most matted hair, tangled beards, and slouched hats, and the most astounding carpets, horse-sheets and transmogrified shelter-tents for blankets.”
Meade turned to Lincoln. “I have just now a dispatch from General Parke to show you.”
“Ah,” said Lincoln, pointing to the prisoners, “there is the best dispatch you can show me from General Parke.”
The officers laughed, but young Lyman stared at Lincoln in fascination.
“The President is, I think, the ugliest man I ever put my eyes on. On the other hand, he has the look of sense and wonderful shrewdness, while the heavy eyelids give him a mark almost of genius. He strikes me, too, as a very honest and kindly man; and, with all his vulgarity, I see no trace of low passions in his face. On the whole, he is such a mixture of all sorts, as only America brings forth. He is as much like a highly intellectual and benevolent satyr as anything I can think of. I never wish to see him again, but, as humanity runs, I am well content to have him at the head of affairs.”
Two days later, on the morning of March twenty-eighth, Lincoln came under the eye of an attentive reporter, Charles C. Coffin of the Boston Journal. Lincoln entered Grant’s headquarters cabin on the bluff over the James for a conference with his commander and General William T. Sherman, who had come up from North Carolina for final instructions. The President doffed his tall hat and ducked into the door, round-shouldered and loose-jointed, in comic contrast to the low, stout Grant, who puffed a cigar in silence, his face impassive under the stiff brim of a new hat. Sherman impressed Coffin more strongly than either: “Tall, commanding forehead, almost as loosely built as the President. His sandy whiskers were closely cropped. His coat was shabby with constant wear. His trousers were tucked into his military boots. His felt hat was splashed with mud.”
George Meade hung about them, tall, thin, with straggling gray beard and stooped posture. There was Sheridan, too, shorter even than Grant, and full of hurried talk and enthusiasm.
It was Lincoln who turned to the table in the cabin, where a huge map lay open.
Grant ran a thick finger down the tracing of his forty-mile entrenched line and stabbed a point at the junction of roads to the west and south.
“Five Forks,” he said. “I’ll try to take it. That would pull Lee out of the trenches to fight.”
He explained how Sheridan’s horsemen would move during the afternoon, leading the sweep against the Confederate flank. Coffin went out to stare at the country where the assault would be made, making notes of it before darkness fell.
Hatcher’s Run wandered southeastward through the eroded clay hills; three roads leading southwest from distant Petersburg crossed the stream: Vaughan Road to the east, then Squirrel Level Road, and, nearest of all, Boydton Plank Road. Within sight was the bridge of the Plank Road, held by the Confederates.
The country beyond the trenches was densely wooded, chiefly with pine, with rare clearings marking sites of old sawmills. The Plank Road led through the pines, fifteen miles from Petersburg, to Dinwiddie Court House. Some four miles away lay the road junction known as Five Forks, the key to the Confederate position.
If Grant could move the army in the swimming roads, Coffin reflected, the movement would be like that of fishermen stretching a seine. One end would be fastened to the bank of the Appomattox, and Sheridan would draw the other past Dinwiddie to Five Forks, and beyond to the railroad, perhaps, to snare Lee’s whole army.
Sheridan’s regiments moved through the gray afternoon. The Rebels were restive the next day, and firing increased. Nightfall of March twenty-ninth brought an artillery duel. Coffin described it for his eager New England readers: “I stood upon the hill in rear of the Ninth Corps, and witnessed the display. Thirty shells were in the air at the same instant. The horizon was bright with fiery arches, crossing each other at all angles, cut horizontally by streams of fire from rifled cannon. Beneath the arches thousands of muskets were flashing. It surpassed in sublimity anything I had witnessed during the war.”
The night was very dark, and there was a wind from the south, bringing more rain. Tomorrow, surely, the army would bog down once more and the offensive must be postponed. On this day Sheridan made headquarters at Dinwiddie. Grant moved to follow him.
Mr. Lincoln came ashore from the Malvern, rowed through the harbor by sailors in a drizzling rain. Before eight-thirty he was at Grant’s headquarters to say good-bye. The field commander was in a joking mood, telling the President of the ingenious suggestions for winning the war which were poured upon him daily.
“The latest one was to supply the men with bayonets exactly a foot longer than the enemy’s, and then charge. When they met, our bayonets would go through them, they couldn’t reach us, and the war would be over.”
Lincoln laughed. “Well, there’s a good deal of terror in cold steel. I got a chance to test it myself once. When I was a young man, walking on a back street in Louisville one night about midnight … a very tough-looking citizen sprang out, reached back of his neck and pulled out a bowie knife that looked to me about three feet long. He flourished that thing before my face to see how close he could come to cutting off my nose without touching it. He held his knife close to my throat and said, ‘Stranger, will you lend me five dollars on that?’ I never reached in my pocket and got out money so fast in my life. I handed him a banknote and said, ‘There’s ten, neighbor, now put up your scythe.’”
Grant turned away to his cabin door, where he kissed his wife; she stared after them with her long, plain face pale but composed, as the officers walked toward a little military train.
In the party was General Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, who noted that Lincoln looked older, with deeper lines in his face and darker circles under his eyes. Lincoln stood at the rear as the officers climbed to the platform and raised their hats. His voice almost broke as he called to them, “Good-bye, gentlemen. God bless you all. Remember, your success is my success.”
The train moved away. It went like a fly over a corrugated washboard, Horace Porter thought, over the new tracks laid by engineers to the rough contour of the land. Within the train, headquarters quickly assembled.
Grant took a seat at the end of the car, went through his familiar routine of striking his flint and slow match, and was soon half-hidden in blue cigar smoke. Porter and several others sat near the commander, who began to talk of his plan of campaign. He halted as if his attention had been diverted.
“The President is one of the few visitors I ever had who never tried to squeeze out of me every one of my plans—though he’s the only one with a right to know them.”
Grant looked through the dirty window at snaking lines of infantry on the move.
“He will stay at City Point,” he said, “and he’ll be the most anxious man in the country to hear from us, his heart is so wrapped up in it. I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.”
Older officers exchanged glances. They had never known Grant to express such optimism at the opening of an offensive.
The train rattled through light rain to the end of the thirteen-mile track, where they followed Grant out. They mounted horses led from the baggage car, rode slowly along the Vaughan Road and in midafternoon camped in a cornfield. At night rain fell in torrents, rose from nearby swamps and made fields into shallow lakes.
Behind, along the abandoned line, were thousands of chimneys, desolate in the rain, tents stripped from them; roofless huts marked the old camp of an army corps. Columns struggled in the roads which were like porridge as the miserable troops were driven westward. The chief quartermaster complained to Colonel Lyman that it was the worst moving day of his memory. A train of 600 wagons, though aided by 1000 engineer troops, spent fifty-six hours in moving five miles.
But, like Lyman, the men could raise their heads and look across the landscape: “One pretty sight was a deserted farmhouse quite surrounded by peach trees, loaded with blossoms. In the distance it seemed covered with pink clouds.”
Horses inched along with water up to their bellies and wagons almost disappeared in the sloughs. Men made jokes in the ranks:
“If ever anybody was to ask us if we’d ever been through Virginia we could say, ‘Yes, sir! In a number of places.’”
Soldiers shouted to passing officers on horseback:
“When the gunboats coming up?”
Phil Sheridan was in a hurry, and the cavalry suffered. There were no tents, and the mess wagons were stuck in the mud somewhere in rear of the driving columns. Sheridan himself was among the first men to ride into the country crossroad hamlet called Dinwiddie Court House, where four roads intersected, the most vital leading through Five Forks to the Confederate flank. There was little else.
Sheridan’s bright black gaze found a headquarters site:
“A half-dozen unsightly houses, a ramshackle tavern propped up on two sides with pine poles, and the weather-beaten building that gave official name to the crossroads.”
The staff had no more than peeked into the primitive tavern when a rainstorm broke upon them. There was promise of a bleak night, but soon there was laughter and the tinkling of a piano; officers found two women in the place, refugees from Savannah to Petersburg to Dinwiddie, they said, and in gay spirits despite all. They exacted promises from the cavalrymen:
“You gentlemen won’t fight right here at the Cote House? We know you won’t. Our gentlemen were on picket right about here, until you came up, and they told us they’d not allow bloodshed. Can’t we expect the same of you Northern gentlemen?”
The staff found coffee in an officer’s haversack and the women brewed a pot for the staff. There was late singing at headquarters.
Dispatch riders soon found the place, and messages came in from Grant: This was no longer intended to be a cavalry raid backed by infantry. The entire army would join the offensive. Sheridan slept contentedly in a fat Virginia feather bed, despite warnings from his staff that Confederate agents might attack him there. In the morning there was more rain.
Sheridan moved the troops into position in a downpour, covering the roads, with a wary eye toward Five Forks; the Confederates were beginning to stir.
The two women at headquarters were still thumping the tinny piano when there was a glum note from Grant. Sheridan read it with impatience:
The heavy rain of today will make it impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired. You may, therefore, leave what cavalry you deem necessary to protect the left, and send the remainder back.…
Sheridan quickly mounted the big Confederate gray pacer he called Breckinridge, captured from the enemy, and with an officer and about a dozen cavalrymen he rode to the cornfield camp of Grant near Gravelly Run. Sheridan’s party and the headquarters throng regarded each other with amusement. The little cavalry chief’s horse plunged in mud to the knees at each mincing step, and the riders were splattered almost beyond recognition. The infantry officers stood about Grant’s tents like roosting chickens, perched on boards and logs to prevent their sinking into the mire.
Sheridan bantered with Grant’s staff:
“I can drive in the Rebel cavalry with one hand, and if they give me infantry, I’ll strike Lee’s right so hard they can break the lines and march to Petersburg.” He became so excited that he ended by shouting.
“How will you get forage in this weather?” someone asked.
“I’ll get all I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.”
The little horseman paced back and forth in the slush, splashing his boots to the hips.
“That’s the kind of talk we need at headquarters,” an officer said. “You go in and tell Grant that.”
“I don’t want to break in there. He’s with Rawlins, you say.”
An officer went in to Grant. “Sir, General Sheridan’s here with some mighty interesting matters. He’d like to come in and talk with you.”
Grant was engaged in a slow argument with John Aaron Rawlins, his chief of staff and closest friend; Rawlins urged that the attack be continued.
“Bring him in,” Grant told the intruding officer, and as Sheridan entered Grant was chiding the chief of staff, “Well, Rawlins, I think you’d better take command.”
Sheridan excused himself. “I’m cold and wet,” he said. “I’ll go to the fire.” He went out, and soon disappeared into the tent of General Ingalls. Within a few moments, Grant sought him there.
“I’m afraid we can’t move,” Grant said. “If we have no roads, we’d best pull back.”
“Please let me go on,” Sheridan said. “The men are already moving, and we’re covering the roads on the flank. We may have a chance later, but you know what they’ll say if we turn back now. Burnside’s Mud March of ’sixty three all over again.”
“It’s my better judgment to go on,” Grant said, “but they all find reasons to stop. They lose wagons, they say, and wear out the men, and wet the ammunition, and say they’ll have no artillery left. I want to go ahead if it can be done.”
“We can do it without trains,” Sheridan said. “We have them just where you want ’em.” He saw that Grant needed little persuasion, and fell silent.
Grant soon rose. “We’ll go on,” he said. Sheridan recognized the determination in the quiet voice.
Late the next morning Sheridan’s exposed men were struck by Confederate cavalry, and when fighting slowed, gray infantry howled through pine woods after them. Bluecoats fell back in stubborn lines from Five Forks toward their camp at Dinwiddie, and skirmishing became heavy.
Horace Porter, riding from Grant with important dispatches, came near the firing and noted a cheering sign:
Along the road, within rifle shot of skirmishers, was one of Sheridan’s big regimental bands, mounted on fine gray horses. They blared away at “Nellie Bly” and the music carried down into the wet thickets, even over the thundering of the new repeating rifles of General George Custer’s men. Porter could no longer hear the minor shriek of the Rebel Yell.