Appomattox Road: “We wanted to be there when the rebels found the last ditch” — Pursuit

 

Union troops enter Richmond as buildings burn in mid-morning on Monday, April 3, 1865. The artist depicted most civilians as waving their hands to welcome their "liberators"; black Richmonders did so, but most white residents quietly watched as Union troops went by. Fires set by retreating Confederate troops burned many buildings within the city; the explosion in the distance apparently involves a warehouse stored with munitions. For Union troops pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia, the fall of Richmond was a sign of the war's imminent end. (Library of Congress)

Union troops enter Richmond as buildings burn in mid-morning on Monday, April 3, 1865. The artist depicted most civilians as waving their hands to welcome their “liberators”; black Richmonders did so, but most white residents quietly watched as Union troops went by. Fires set by retreating Confederate troops burned many buildings within the city; the explosion in the distance apparently involves a warehouse stored with munitions. For Union troops pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia, the fall of Richmond was a sign of the war’s imminent end. (Library of Congress)

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.

Overwhelmed by a sudden Union cavalry attack at Amelia Court House, Va. on April 5, 1865, hungry and exhausted Confederate soldiers "ground" their rifles and swords to indicate that they have surrendered. The 1st Maine Cavalry later supported the Federal cavalry regiments involved in this fight. (Library of Congress)

Overwhelmed by a sudden Union cavalry attack at Amelia Court House, Va. on April 5, 1865, hungry and exhausted Confederate soldiers “ground” their rifles and swords to indicate that they have surrendered. The 1st Maine Cavalry later supported the Federal cavalry regiments involved in this fight. (Library of Congress)

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.

Deployed near the Hillsman House at Sailor's Creek Battlefield State Park in Virginia, a "Union" cannon points west toward the tree-studded valley of Little Sailor's Creek. Federal cavalry and infantry inflicted some 7,700 casualties on the Army of Northern Virginia during the April 6, 1865 Battle of Sailor's Creek. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Deployed near the Hillsman House at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park in Virginia, a “Union” cannon points west toward the tree-studded valley of Little Sailor’s Creek. Federal cavalry and infantry inflicted some 7,700 casualties on the Army of Northern Virginia during the April 6, 1865 Battle of Sailor’s Creek. (Brian Swartz Photo)

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?”

Shot to pieces and surrounded, Confederate soldiers surrender en masse during the April 6, 1865 Battle of Sailor's Creek. (Library of Congress)

Shot to pieces and surrounded, Confederate soldiers surrender en masse during the April 6, 1865 Battle of Sailor’s Creek. (Library of Congress)

“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.”

Commanded by Gen. Phil Sheridan, hard-riding Union cavalrymen constantly harassed the retreating Army of Northern Virginia and sought to block its westward flight. Men and horses of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment were in the saddle almost steadily for several days while chasing Robert E. Lee. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Commanded by Gen. Phil Sheridan, hard-riding Union cavalrymen constantly harassed the retreating Army of Northern Virginia and sought to block its westward flight. Men and horses of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment were in the saddle almost steadily for several days while chasing Robert E. Lee. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“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.

Confederate troops not engaged at Sailor's Creek crossed the nearby Appomattox River on High Bridge, a railroad bridge spanning the river. Robert E. Lee ordered High Bridge and a nearby wagon bridge burned to prevent Union troops from following his army. Federal troops captured the wagon bridge, however, and Union infantry followed hard on Lee's heels. His arm was being run to earth by April 8, 1865. (Library of Congress)

Confederate troops not engaged at Sailor’s Creek crossed the nearby Appomattox River on High Bridge, a railroad bridge spanning the river. Robert E. Lee ordered High Bridge and a nearby wagon bridge burned to prevent Union troops from following his army. Federal troops captured the wagon bridge, however, and Union infantry followed hard on Lee’s heels. His army was being run to earth by April 8, 1865. (Library of Congress)

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 visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.