Shortly after sunset on Saturday, April 8, 1865, a few dozen 1st Maine Cavalry troopers and their weary horses vanished into the Virginia darkness near Appomattox Station, a major stop on the Southside Railroad linking Petersburg with Lynchburg. The troopers went foraging for food and fodder while their comrades remained near the station.
Suddenly a train whistle sounded faintly in the west; Lt. Col. Jonathan Prince Cilley quickly heard “[railroad] cars moving toward us”
The train approached from Confederate-held Lynchburg. “Strange sounds for that vicinity,” muttered Sgt. Maj. Edward Tobie. “What does it mean?”
Men cheered somewhere in the darkness, a locomotive “came to a stop” on the Southside track, “and the engineer — one of [George Armstrong] Custer’s long-haired, rough riders … — sang out, ‘Gen. Custer has charged into Appomattox Station and captured three trains loaded with supplies, and here is one of them. Pitch in, boys,” Tobie recalled.
The 1st Maine troopers pitched into the food and supplies intended for Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The food provided men and horses with full stomachs, and weary cavalrymen really appreciated the “underclothing, of which they were sadly in need,” Tobie admitted.
Later that evening, the 3rd Brigade to which the regiment was attached bivouacked “in a field, near Appomattox Station,” Tobie said. Returning empty-handed, the hungry foragers enjoyed a late supper courtesy of Custer and his troopers, who had cut the last railroad that could supply the retreating Confederate army.
By 9 p.m. “a part of the brigade was sleeping sweetly, and the remainder preparing for sleep with pleasant anticipations,” the tired Tobie noticed.
Suddenly a bugler sounded “Boots and Saddles”; grumbling troopers — including Cilley, a bit irascible from the past week’s lack of sleep — scrambled to pack their gear. Men climbed into their saddles; about 10 p.m., a brigade staff officer led the regiment east “a short distance to hold a road,” Tobie said.
Riding past “burning wagons” and “scattered munitions of war of every kind,” the saddle-tramp 3rd Brigade troopers went to block the Lynchburg Stage Road. Cilley and his battered 1st Maine Cavalry had reached the western end of the figurative Appomattox Road, the approximately 100-mile route followed by Lee and his starving soldiers since late night on Sunday, April 2.
Behind Cilley — to the west — lurked Custer and his cavalry division. Ahead, to the east, glowed the Army of Northern Virginia campfires.
The Union cavalry now blocked Lee’s only escape route.
And somewhere to the southeast and the northeast, Union infantrymen tramped through the night to help trap the Confederates. “All day long” on Saturday, the foot-sloggers had “pressed forward, the men, although tired and footsore, requiring neither urging nor command to put forth every effort to head Lee off from Lynchburg,” said 1st Lt. Robert Brady Jr. of Enfield and Co. B, 11th Maine Infantry Regiment.
The noose tightened around Lee that Saturday night as the 3rd Brigade skirmishers pushed back the Confederate skirmishers deployed west of Appomattox Court House. A staff officer quietly ordered Cilley to “prepare your men to fight on foot” and make “as little noise as possible.”
Moving up Clover Hill, the 1st Maine troopers spread out by company from southeast to northwest, with the Lynchburg Stage Road “on the right,” Tobie said.
There the men built defenses. “It was a strange, weird scene, those men noiselessly carrying rails and building breastworks,” Tobie commented. Men appeared “at intervals against the sky” and then vanished; “a strong line of works had been put up” by 1 a.m., Sunday, April 9, and most troopers fell asleep.
Others stood watch in the darkness.
Commanded by Col. Jonathan Hill of Stetson, the 11th Maine boys marched through sunset, and “not until after midnight” did Brady and his men halt “for a few hours’ rest.” The 11th Maine lads “were on the march again” between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., Sunday, according to Brady. Soon after dawn on April 9, the regiment and its brigade emerged into the field where Gen. Phil Sheridan had camped.
“Our infantry stacked arms and breakfasted” on coffee, hard bread, and raw bacon, Brady recalled.
In the darkness atop Clover Hill, “in the cold, damp air of April, we waited for morning and Gen. Lee’s army,” Cilley said. He took some troopers east in the darkness and scattered them as videttes, a blue-clad trip wire against which Lee’s men would brush if they moved west.
Suddenly “a desire possessed me to practically test the feelings of a vidette, and to learn something of the force in front,” Cilley said. Stooping, he “crept forward … as far as I dared.” He sat, listened to sounds emanating from the Confederate camp beyond Appomattox Court House, and “thought of peace, and quiet, and home.”
Then Cilley “found myself waking.” He had fallen asleep! Sheepishly creeping into the 1st Maine lines, he sought “cold comfort and sleep inside of a rubber coat.”
Gunfire broke out soon after dawn as Confederate infantry commanded by John B. Gordon pushed west in the last charge made by the Army of Northern Virginia. Cilley saw enemy cavalry swirling on one flank; looking around, his men “could see nothing of any force prepared or placed to support us.
“It seemed as if we were alone,” he thought.
On came the artillery-supported Confederates. Rapidly firing their repeater rifles, the dismounted Union cavalrymen gave ground grudgingly. Enemy troops captured a two-gun Federal battery; blue-clad bodies dotted the terrain as the Union boys pulled “back from the wooded crest of Clover Hill,” Cilley said.
The Maine boys and other Union cavalry regiments “received … and inflicted loss,” he noticed the casualties piling up on both sides. “Back over an open field and a little rise“ the Union soldiers went, “back down a long, sloping incline,” where Cilley and other regimental commanders straightened their lines.
“Firing began a short distance in front of us,” Brady noticed in the 1th Maine’s bivouac as the sun burned away the morning fog. Forming his regiment, Hill led his “on a quick step; then, as the firing grew fiercer and fiercer, the order was, ‘Double quick,’” Brady said.
The 11th Maine boys and thousands of other Union infantrymen huffed, puffed, and ran toward the battle. “Up the pike (stage road) we sped,” Brady said.
“Back up a long rise of ground, covered with woods at the top” went the hard-fighting 1st Maine cavalrymen, Cilley walking amidst their retreating ranks. “The curtain of cavalry covering the last scene of the rebellion was rolled fully up and back.”
The cavalry had failed; Gordon’s men had opened the way to Lynchburg. All Lee had to do was send his army marching west.
Deploying into line of battle, the 11th Maine Infantry and its brigade “broke through the woods to where the dismounted cavalrymen were falling back, firing rapidly as they retreated, mounting as fast as they reached their horses,” Brady described the scene before him.
There, “before the astonished vision of the rebel force stood [Maj. Gen. Charles] Griffin with the Fifth [Corps], and [Maj. Gen. Edward] Ord with the Twenty-fourth corps,” saw the astounded Cilley. “A colored division of the latter [corps] stepped into the place of our regiment. All night long had they marched, but how refreshing the sight of their black countenances [looked] at this time.
“At the spectacle the rebel host staggered back, and their whole line wavered, as if each particular man was terror struck,” Cilley noticed.
The 11th Maine boys plunged into the fight. Shot from his horse, the wounded Hill was captured; “they lifted him to a horse, seating him behind its rider, with the intention of carrying him away,” Brady said. With angry 11th Maine boys “pressing them sharply,” the Confederates pulled Hill from the horse, stole his sword and watch, and fled as his men reached him.
On went the 11th Maine, which like many other Union regiments lost men killed, wounded, and briefly captured. Companies A and B formed a skirmish line and crossed a field “to take position in the edge of the woods beyond” it, Brady said. The advancing skirmishers scooped up “a number of Ohio men under command of a sergeant.”
The Ohioans formed on the far right of the skirmish line. “We were well beyond the ravine“ — this topographical feature was noted by many soldiers in blue and gray — “and were getting so close to the edge of the woods that we were beginning to wonder what sort of a reception we would meet,” Brady admitted.
Suddenly “a tremendous yell sounded in our rear, and then a terrible rifle fire broke out from the same quarter,” he heard the disaster unfolding behind him. “Looking back to where our line of battle ought to be emerging from the woods, we saw a scene of confusion as of a battle — firing, cheering, yelling, men moving to and fro, with spirals of gunpowder rising and drifting away.”
The skirmishers “wavered,” with “one thought in the minds of all, officers and men — that the Confederates had attacked, and were between our slender skirmish line and our army,” Brady sensed the fear.
“What was to be done?” he asked.
The officers (including Brady) held “a swift exchange of opinion … and it was determined to push to the edge of the woods we had been ordered to reach, and from there take observations,” he said.
Telling their men that “it’s none of your —— business what’s in your rear,” the officers got the men moving. “And forward it was, with anxiety filling the mind of each responsible officer,” Brady admitted.
Then a wild shout caught his attention. “A mounted Union officer was seen galloping from our rear towards us, waving his cap over his head as he spurred his horse at full speed,” Brady held his breath.
“We halted our men, and as the officer, a staff one we now recognized, came flying on, full of some great news — that was plain by his abandon — he swept into calling distance and shouted, ‘Halt, boys! Halt!
“‘Lee has surrendered, and the war is over!’” the officer bellowed.
“The curtain fell on four years’ fighting!” Cilley exulted elsewhere on the battlefield.
Next week: Appomattox Road — veterans disbelieve the news on April 9, 1865
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.