As the sun rose daily in early April 1865, the Maine boys pursuing Robert E. Lee’s disintegrating army sensed that the jig was almost up — and the thought of final victory buoyed their morale.
“The end seemed close at hand,” recalled 1st Lt. Robert Brady Jr. of the 11th Maine Infantry. Only a private when the regiment formed in spring 1861, the talented and daring Brady had risen through the ranks to command Co. B in early spring 1865. The regiment served in the Army of the James, led by Maj. Gen. Edward Ord.
His troops “put in the lightest possible marching order,” Ord had launched his army after Lee “the morning of the 3d,” Brady said, and the soldiers marched “with a jubilant step.
“Joy was in the air, and laughter and frolic … were freely indulged in,” Brady noticed. Moving fast, the 3rd Brigade to which the 11th Maine belonged passed “through a peach orchard that was in full bloom.
“The men broke branches from the trees and placed them in the muzzles of their rifles, giving the column an unwonted holiday appearance,” Brady commented.
“By dint of putting one foot before the other,” the 11th Maine boys reached Burkeville Junction at sunset on Wednesday, April 5, Brady said. Since early Monday, the regiment had marched 53 “miles of Virginia roadway” to help block Lee from turning his army southwest to join Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
The Union roadblock forced Lee to turn west toward Lynchburg.
After surviving a running fight on Wednesday afternoon, 1st Maine Cavalry troopers “awoke in fine spirits” on Thursday, said Sgt. Maj. Edward Parsons Tobie. “Roads [were] in good condition, the air fresh and invigorating, the trees just beginning to put on their green.”
Not just the fine weather (a rarity in this rainy Virginia spring) affected the soldiers’ mood. “Never before during their three years and more of service had there been any prospect of the end, explained Tobie.
Petersburg and Richmond — described by Tobie as that “stronghold of the rebellion” — had fallen on April 3. Since then the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James had chased Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia west along the Appomattox River.
Hard-riding Union cavalry and harder-marching Federal infantry participated in what “was fast becoming a race for very life on the part of the Confederacy, and on the part of the Union troops a chase for final victory and triumph,” Tobie said.
The armies repeatedly clashed. On April 5, Union cavalry had swept up many prisoners after hitting a Confederate wagon train at Paineville. Riding up in support, the 1st Maine Cavalry helped fight off a Confederate counterattack.
While enjoying “fine marching” on Thursday morning, the 1st Maine boys sometimes crested high ground and “through gaps in the woods” spotted Confederate wagons moving west on a parallel road, Tobie noticed.
Around 11:30 a.m., Lt. Col. Jonathan Prince Cilley took his men north to attack the enemy wagons somewhere near Deatonsville. Men and horses bogged down in a mucky swamp, Cilley led a charge that encountered “a large force of the enemy” guarding the wagon train, Capt. John A. Heald of Co. E died when a bullet struck his head, and the regiment withdrew.
Hours later, a tactical error and a Union cavalry attack split the retreating Confederates at a rural crossroad known as Holt’s Corner (the intersection of modern Routes 617 and 618). One section of Lee’s army turned northwest; a large section continued southwest into the valley of Little Sailor’s Creek.
Union cavalry and infantry trapped and destroyed that section in bitter fighting along the creek and up its abutting hills. Deploying with its brigade, the 1st Maine Cavalry boys charged the enemy line “with a hearty cheer” and within minutes “were at their works, over them, and beyond,” Tobie said.
The dismounted Union troopers — most of the available Union cavalry fought at Sailor’s Creek — chased the retreating Confederates “for more than a mile” and overran an enemy wagon train, Tobie recalled. The Maine boys passed “hundreds of the enemy whom they no time to capture, — leaving that for those to do who had no more exciting work.”
The bloodiest battle since April 2, Sailor’s Creek cost the 1st Maine Cavalry four men killed, 16 wounded, and four missing. There were another 1,120 Union casualties. Lee lost some 7,700 men; stunned by his losses, he blurted, “My God! Has the army dissolved?”
“All hearts beat high in thinking over what had been done,” Edward Tobie said afterwards.
Discovering “a barn well filled with corn,” his comrades fed their horses well that night. Men and mounts resumed a westward heading at 6:30 a.m., Friday, April 7.
The Maine boys could see the end in sight. “Along the road were evidences of the rapid retreat of the enemy, — all sorts of munitions … laying around in loose profusion,— a dead rebel soldier lying in the road where he halted his last time, with every appearance of having died from hunger and exhaustion,” Tobie concluded after examining the body.
The cavalrymen trotted past Union infantrymen “already on the move, singing, laughing, joking, and apparently happy as they marched along,” Tobie noticed. The foot-sloggers stepped off a road when overtaken by cavalrymen, who had precedence; Tobie heard more than a few infantrymen “growl at being obliged to let the cavalry have the road.”
“Prisoners were pouring into our lines by thousands,” said Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry. He and his comrades marched hard as if willing to end the war in Virginia with the soles of their very shoes.
“We never endured such marching before, as it was not an unusual thing for us to march thirty-five miles a day,” he said. “We grew tired and prostrated, but we wanted to be there when the rebels found the last ditch of which they had talked so much.”
Somewhere en route, the 20th Maine boys liberated “a large cask of excellent syrup,” into which “a little fellow, slim and pale” from Co. H “was thrown head-first,” Gerrish said. To the laughter of his comrades, “he was quickly fished out” and sent on his way, sticky from head to toe.
On Saturday, April 8, the 20th Maine boys “had a tedious march of thirty-five miles,” Gerrish said. After dark the regiment marched through woods on “a single road, narrow and crooked.” Sometime around midnight, a horse-drawn cannon “came crashing down upon us” and almost crushed a Maine soldier or two.
An angry Mainer slammed his rifle butt against the head of a horse; the poor animal “staggered and fell,” according to Gerrish. Within minutes a 20th Maine lieutenant struck the head of a horse ridden by an angry artillery sergeant; “horse and rider went down together, and we rushed on our way” to avoid repercussions, Gerrish admitted.
The clock had ticked into early morning on Sunday, April 9. Exhausted 20th Maine boys fell out of line to sleep.
A message came from Gen. Phil Sheridan “that if we would rush on, Lee would be captured on that day,” Gerrish learned. Told that they would be issued rations at 9 a.m., the 20th Maine boys hustled west on that “beautiful spring morning” when “the air was soft and balmy” and “the sun shone from a cloudless sky.”
The 20th Maine boys trailed the weary 1st Maine Cavalry troopers and 11th Maine infantrymen to a place called Appomattox Court House.
Next week: Appomattox Road: Maine cavalrymen fight Lee’s last advance — April 9, 1865
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.