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From Sailor’s Creek to Cumberland Church

An Excerpt from the current issue: Volume 31, #3

From Sailor’s Creek to Cumberland Church
April 6-7, 1865

by Chris Calkins

Seventy-Two Hours Before Appomattox

 

The smell of fresh dirt permeated the air as arriving Federal soldiers of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry and the V Corps infantry, newly under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin, began digging a line of breastworks near Jetersville Station. Running perpendicular to the Richmond & Danville Railroad, the works lay across the path of the Confederate army’s route to North Carolina. Barely seven miles to the northeast at Amelia Court House was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia which was now beginning its march along the railroad in the direction of Danville and the state line. At this point Lee still hoped to reach this location and combine his forces with those of the Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. It was April 5, 1865, and the Southern commander still had hopes of continuing the struggle which had started nearly four years ago.

The Hillsman property at the new Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park in Virginia was a Union artillery position during the battle.

The Hillsman property at the new Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park in Virginia was a Union artillery position during the battle.

The outcome of what would become the final campaign in Virginia was possibly prophesied back in June 1864, when the two armies faced off at a place called Cold Harbor northeast of Richmond. Lee, in conference with one of his subordinate generals remarked, “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege and then it will be a mere question of time.” Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac did exactly that, pulling away from Lee’s army entrenched at Cold Harbor, marching to the James pretty much undetected, then successfully crossed the river on a 2,200-foot-long pontoon bridge and by boat. Arriving on the south bank of the river, orders were given to move upon nearby Petersburg and attempt to cut the railroad supply lines emanating from there. With five lines radiating from the city like a star fish, if they could be severed, it would negate a major source of commerce running into the Southern capital of Richmond.

What should have become a brief struggle for Petersburg (since most of Lee’s army was still north of the James River), became a four-day contest with Grant eliminating two of the rail lines but not capturing the city. At that point it became Grant’s attempt to lay siege to the Confederate Citadel.

The struggle dragged on for months as Grant’s forces continued to make offensive movements toward the other southern supply routes eventually cutting the use of the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad in August 1864. Now Lee had to use a single roadway to bring his wagons into the Petersburg lines: the Boydton Plank Road. He was now forced to bring his supplies and reinforcements from the Deep South to a point 16 miles south of Petersburg, at Stony Creek Station, then load them onto wagons and traverse cross-county to the Plank Road and into his lines.

For many of these maneuvers, Grant would send counter-thrusts north of the James River to keep Lee’s forces stretched out at both flanks. It would be a one-two punch to keep Lee on his toes. These would include the Crater/First Deep Bottom, Weldon Railroad/Second Deep Bottom, Peebles Farm/New Market Heights-Fort Harrison, and First Hatcher’s Run/ Williamsburg Road.

As fall turned into winter, the cold weather befell the armies in their miserable muddy trenches, yet Grant kept up his unrelenting pressure upon the Confederate armies. An unsuccessful push for the Boydton Plank Road in late October still allowed Grant to extend his lines farther to the west. This was soon followed in December with a raid by the Federal army along the Weldon Railroad down to Belfield/Hicksford astride the Meherrin River. Now Lee had to extend his transportation route even farther to reach the Boydton Plank Road.

Click for Free Sample Map

Click for Free Sample Map

While the campaign extended into the New Year of 1865, Lee was beginning to see the possible outcome of his current predicament of being stagnant in the trenches. Although he still had control of his intermediate supply route, the Plank Road, a short distance beyond was his final lifeline, the South Side Railroad. In early February, Grant’s forces again moved out of their lines and reached Hatcher’s Run once more. With three days of intense fighting, again the Federals were stopped in their tracks. Still they were able to extend their lines farther to the west. On February 22, Lee wrote the new Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge: “Grant, I think, is now preparing to draw out his left [flank], with the intent of enveloping me. He may wait till his other columns approach nearer, or he may be preparing to anticipate my withdrawal. I cannot tell yet. I am endeavoring to collect supplies convenient to Burkeville”

On the same day, Lee communicated with his First Corps commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, noting: “With the army concentrated at or near Burkeville, our communications north and south would be by that railroad [Richmond & Danville] and west by the South Side Railroad. We might also seize the opportunity of striking at Grant, should he pursue us rapidly, or [William T.] Sherman, before they could unite. . . . I desire you also to make every preparation to take the field at a moment’s notice, and to accumulate all the supplies you can. General Grant seems to be preparing to move out by his left flank. He is accumulating near Hatcher’s Run depots of supplies, and apparently concentrating a strong force in that quarter.”

In preparation for this probable withdrawal from the Richmond-Petersburg front, instructions were given to Col. Thomas M. R. Talcott, commanding the Engineer Troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, to construct a map delineating possible retreat routes from “Petersburg, Chester Station and Manchester to Amelia Court-House.” The survey was completed by March 30, but did not take into consideration possible weather changes or faulty communications.

On March 25, Lee attempted his one and only offensive strike against the Union lines during the entire campaign. Bringing together a large portion of his army to the Eastern Front of the Petersburg defenses, his target was to break through the Federal trenches in the vicinity of the Union’s Fort Stedman. In an early morning assault, Lee’s Second Corps, led by Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon, briefly penetrated the Northern lines and plunged into their rear positions. Quick acting Federal reinforcements made a countercharge, sending the Confederate attackers back into their initial position at Colquitt’s Salient. With this attempted assault a failure, Grant could now prepare for a final offensive and his intended reach for the South Side Railroad.

On March 29, what was to be delineated as the Appomattox Campaign began in the rural countryside of Dinwiddie County. This campaign would actually overlap the Petersburg Campaign by five days (which ended on April 2 with the withdrawal of Lee’s forces from the Richmond-Petersburg front). As Grant began this final offensive, Sheridan’s cavalry, recently returned from the Shenandoah Valley, was joined by two corps of infantry: the II Corps under Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, and the V Corps, at this point still led by Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren. Their orders were to move in unison toward the Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad beyond, the II Corps moving on the right with its flank anchored on Hatcher’s Run, the V Corps in the middle, and the cavalry directed toward the village of Dinwiddie Court House on the left.

As the V Corps advanced up the Quaker Road it ran into a roadblock of Confederate forces sent from Maj. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s trenches along the White Oak Road. Intense fighting took place around the Lewis farm before the Southern units fell back to their initial position in the line. Warren then moved his divisions northward and his men began entrenching astride the Boydton Plank Road. Lee’s wagon train route was now severed.

The 30th was spent by both armies reconnoitering each other’s positions with the Union Army extending its lines in front of the White Oak Road. Sheridan’s troops entered the county seat village of Dinwiddie Court House and planned to move north to the South Side Railroad. Blocking their way at an intersection known locally as Five Forks was Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s division sent there by General Lee from the Bermuda Hundred front. Hearing that Sheridan’s cavalry held Dinwiddie, Pickett had his men prepare for an offensive move early the next day.

Friday the 31st saw two engagements take place. The V Corps would attempt to interpose itself between Pickett’s Division at Five Forks to the west, and Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s corps (composed of just Bushrod Johnson’s division), along the White Oak Road at its intersection with Claiborne Road. Both contingents of the Confederate army were separated by about six miles. Warren’s plan was to keep Anderson’s men from reinforcing Pickett’s troops. In an engagement known as either White Oak Road, Gravelly Run, or Hatcher’s Run, Confederate troops initially got the upper hand with an unexpected assault on Warren’s troops, but later a counterattack by Union soldiers gained the White Oak Road and kept Anderson in his trenches, and prevented him from helping the soldiers at Five Forks.

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About The Author

chris

CHRIS CALKINS, former Historian at Petersburg National Battlefield, is Manager and Historian of Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park in Virginia, and was instrumental in developing the park. Chris has written several articles for B&G and is the author of Blue & Gray Magazine’s History and Tour Guide of Five Forks, Hatcher’s Run and Namozine Church (2003).

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