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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
Chapter VI

"Has the Army Been Dissolved?"

Often enough, before that 5th of April, 1865, the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia had been halted and word had been sent back that the enemy was at bay. This time Lee was the pursued and not the pursuer. Unless the Federal position could be quickly forced or turned, the hope of getting supplies from Danville was at an end, and that, in the desperate situation of the retreating forces, might mean an overwhelming disaster with results too horrible to contemplate.

Hastening to the front as soon as he received report of the enemy's presence, Lee found his son Rooney on the ground, with some information as to Federal forces. They were Sheridan's men, the cavalry­men reported — how Lee's weary heart must have sunk at the words — and infantry were close by, moving in the general direction of Burkeville.​1 Grim-faced and silent, Lee made a reconnaissance of the Federal position, made it carefully and slowly as was required where so much depended upon the decision. He called in the farmers from the neighborhood and talked to them of the country ahead, but he found they knew little of it. Should he try once more the "antique valor" of his infantry, as he had at Second Manassas and at Chancellorsville? Should he stake everything on one last assault, throw all his men forward, like the "Old Guard" at Waterloo, and either win a crushing victory or die where the flags went down? Doubtless the blood of his old cavalier ancestors battled momentarily with his judgment as a commander, but judgment triumphed over impulse and, at length, he put down his glasses: he could not afford to attack with his weakened troops.2

 p75  If he could not attack the Federal position, what should he do? What alternative was there? Deprived of the use of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, his main reliance for supplies, he must speedily get provisions if he was to continue fighting. How could he victual the men and at the same time proceed with his retreat? It was the last major strategical question that he put to himself, and it was answered in a manner that accorded with his fame. The railroad supply-lines left to him before he had quit Petersburg had formed a rough Saint Andrew's cross, thus:

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Sketch of the railroads crossing at Burkeville.

The lines met at Burkeville, the junction that had been in his mind since February. He had lost his base at the upper end of the Richmond-Burkeville stretch of the Richmond and Danville, and he was cut off from the Burkeville-Danville division. Behind him, the Federals in their first irruption had reached and had rendered useless the Burkeville-Petersburg part of the Southside Railroad. All that was left to him of the four arms of the cross was that to the northwestward, from Burkeville toward Lynchburg. He determined to strike across to that "arm" of the cross, to order supplies down it from Lynchburg, and then, having fed his army, to turn southwestward in the direction of Danville again. He would move on the dotted line shown on page 76.  p76 

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Sketch to illustrate how Lee planned to avoid Burkeville and to strike for Danville, via Farmville.

But how was he to get away from the enemy that stood across his path and was getting stronger every hour? He had lost his day's lead at Amelia: manifestly he could only regain it by a night's march. In this desperate throw against fate, everything depended on speed — and speed was the last thing that could be expected of an army in which the horses were ceasing to struggle any more and the men were beginning to drop from hunger.​3 There was, however, nothing left to do but to try it. Orders were given accordingly, though they may not have reached all the commands.4

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Routes from Jetersville and Amelia Courthouse, as selected by Lee, April 5, 1865, for his retreat toward Farmville.

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet retraced his steps a short distance up the railroad and turned to the right. The other corps took the same general route — only to find the roads jammed and progress almost impossible. It developed that the rumored attack on the wagon train had been a disastrous reality. Federal cavalry​5 had swept down upon the trains before they had reached Paineville, on the road to Farmville, and had driven off the guards. About 200 wagons had been burned, and 320 soldiers, in addition to 310 Negro teamsters, had been made prisoner. This attack on a narrow road in swampy ground blocked the way and stopped all  p77  movement of the trains. Six hours passed before the wheels of the wagons began to turn again. It was after night when the trains got to Paineville, distant only about ten miles by road from Amelia.​6 This long tie-up made it necessary to reroute some of the wagons on the road the infantry were following toward Amelia Springs.​7 The above sketch shows the terrain.

The forced night march of April 5‑6, now Lee's chief hope of escape, almost immediately became a slow stumble over crowded roads where confusion ruled and panic was easily spread. A black stallion, running away with a fence rail swinging from his bridle,  p78  set men to shooting at one another in the darkness.​8 Worse still, as the engineers had not considered the possibility of an advance on the road from the railway to Amelia Springs, they had not strengthened the bridge over a troublesome little stream known as Flat Creek, which crossed the road just before the springs were reached. The bridge broke down and halted the artillery and the wagons, though the infantry could ford the watercourse and keep on. Lee ate his supper at Selma, the home of Richard Anderson, about two miles from Amelia Springs. Anticipating a clash, he urged the hospitable family to see safety in the cellar.​9 Then he hurried to the creek and sent for the engineer troops, who were still at Amelia Courthouse, where they had arrived that day.

Probably while he was waiting for the engineers to come up, a courier brought Lee a message from Gordon: two spies had been captured, and from one of them had been taken dispatches that Gordon considered sufficiently important to forward for Lee's inspection. The small envelope was marked for quick delivery and was addressed to the Federal General Ord. Inside were two yellow tissue sheets, copies of messages of no great consequence, and a single white sheet on which in a sprawling hand was a note to Ord dated "Jetersville, April 5, 1865 — 10:10 P.M." It directed that officer to move at 8 A.M. the next morning and to take a position from which he could watch the roads between Burkeville and Farmville. "I am strongly of the opinion that Lee will leave Amelia tonight to go south. He will be pursued at 6 A.M. from here if he leaves. Otherwise an advance will be made upon him where he is." This was signed "Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant, lieut-genl."

There was no mistaking the meaning of this: Grant himself was at Jetersville, Ord at Burkeville. The Army of the James as well as the Army of the Potomac was nearby in sufficient strength to pursue or to attack. It was the first certain information Lee had that Ord's troops from the north side of the James, the most distant Federal units, were on his heels. The news showed the  p79  vigor of the pursuit and reinforced the urgency of speed and still more speed. Lee remained at the crossing until the engineers had arrived and had given assurance that the material for repairing the bridge was close at hand.​10 Thence he rode on to Amelia Springs,​11 just beyond Flat Creek, and there he at once adjusted his dispositions, so far as practicable, to the new development.

The first obvious danger was, of course, that the wagon train would slow down the retreat of the army so much that the rear troops might be cut off. There was no way to be rid of the wagons because the roads were few. The one route that was not to be used by the army led to the Appomattox at a point where, so far as Lee could ascertain, there was no bridge. The wagons, therefore, had to be taken along, and the rear closed up as well as was possible. Part of the cavalry could be utilized to cover the retreat and, as it happened, could use crossroads that were well-suited for defense. Special pains must be taken to destroy the bridges. All this General Lee explained in a letter he wrote General Gordon at 4 A.M. in his own hand. "I will try to get the head of the column on," he concluded, "and to get provisions at Rice's Station or Farmville."12

When he handed Gordon's staff officer this letter, Lee thought a moment before giving an answer to a verbal question Gordon had forwarded concerning the disposition of the two spies. Having beenº caught in Confederate uniform, and having acknowledged themselves Federal spies, these men were liable to immediate military execution. Gordon had asked whether this should be carried out. Lee pondered. "Tell the General," he said at last, "the lives of so many of our men are at stake that all my thoughts now must be given to disposing of them. Let him keep the prisoners until he hears further from me." Subsequently, the officers who carried and received this message concluded that Lee deferred a decision  p80  in the belief that if the fate of his own army was to be settled speedily, he should not take the lives of his enemies needlessly.13

The second danger Lee had to consider on the night of April 5‑6 was one he discussed with Fitz Lee, who had driven off the Federal attack on the wagon train near Paineville and had now ridden ahead of his command to Amelia Springs. This danger was that Sheridan would attack and destroy the wagon train as it groaningly crept to the southwest the next day. Already it was apparent that the United States cavalry had ceased operating against the Confederate rear and were preparing to move on a route parallel to Lee's left marching flank — a direful prospect. The only defense was caution in seeing that each command kept contact with the unit ahead and, exercising the greatest vigilance, stood ready to beat off attacks.​14 Fitz Lee was to send all except one division of his cavalry toward Rice after Longstreet, but he was to remain in person to explain the situation to the first infantry commander to arrive. The division left behind was to guard the rear.15

In a word, the condition presented by the captured dispatch could not be removed strategically and had to be met tactically. With speed his one remaining weapon, Lee was confirmed in his decision that the movement of the whole army must continue through the night and on into the day with only such brief rest as was imperative. Longstreet was to remain in the van, and Lee determined to march with him in the hope of expediting the retreat. Behind Longstreet were to come Anderson, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell, and, in the rear, the alert, hard-hitting Gordon. Beyond Deatonsville, five miles west of Amelia Springs, all these troops and all the wheeled vehicles would have to use one road. And to this road, unfortunately, another ran almost parallel, just where the Federals could use it for dashes against the wagon trains. It was the gloomiest outlook Lee had yet faced on the retreat. Desperate since he had reached Amelia Courthouse and had found no provisions there, his situation might easily be rendered hopeless within twenty-four hours.

Commissary General St. John reported at headquarters while  p81  Lee was at Amelia Springs. St. John had left Richmond not long before the Federals had entered the city on the morning of April 3, and he had been trying to hasten forward the wagons he had loaded in Richmond with the provisions he had not been able to send up the Danville Railroad on April 2 in answer to Colonel Cole's belated message.​16 From St. John, probably, Lee learned for the first time why the rations had not been awaiting him at Amelia. He learned, also, that part of those that had been brought from the evacuated capital had been captured by the Federals near Clementown bridge.​17 The only encouragement St. John could give was that he had 80,000 rations at Farmville, which was nineteen miles away. This food had been en route to the army when the Southside Railroad had been cut. After the cars had been halted at Burkeville, they had been switched back up that line toward Farmville. Their contents would be available as soon as the army reached the railway. Should they be left at Farmville, asked General St. John, or should they be moved farther down the railroad, closer to the army? Lee said frankly that the military situation made it impossible to answer. What he apprehended, of course, was that the Federal cavalry might reach the railroad before he did, and might destroy the train. St. John accordingly went on to Farmville to prepare for the coming of the army and for the issuance of rations there.18

It was now the early morning of April 6, a dreadful day in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia. While Lee had been giving his orders and conferring at Amelia Springs, the column had been moving painfully forward — soldiers, wagons, and guns mingled together, men and horses tottering in their weakness and their misery. Straggling was perceptibly worse. The number of broken-down teams was larger. Many of the department clerks and reservists in Ewell's corps, who were unaccustomed to marching, had to quit the road. Starting on the 3d with about 6000, Ewell now had less than half that strength.​19 As Lee rode forward to  p82  join Longstreet there was something akin to despair in the eyes that were turned on him, and there was delirium in the loyal cheers that greeted him.

Continuing to the vicinity of Rice, which is about twelve miles southwest of Amelia Springs and on the Southside Railroad, Lee awaited there the coming of the First Corps. Longstreet arrived during the forenoon with his men, after what must have been a very good march. "Old Pete" had information that some 600 or 700 mounted Federals had passed up the road toward Farmville, which is eight and a half miles by rail from Rice, and about seven by the old highway. The object of these troops was presumably to burn the bridges over which part of Lee's army would pass in reaching that town. Longstreet immediately sent off cavalry in pursuit of these bluecoats.​20 Hearing, also, that the enemy was in force about four miles to the southeastward, he took up line of battle covering the roads to Rice and at right angles to the railway.21

This intelligence of the nearness of the Federals was bad news for Lee. Still more ominous was a development about 10 A.M. After Longstreet had come up, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox's and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth's divisions had reported, and then Mahone. But Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett, whose men were at the head of Anderson's little corps, had not closed on Mahone, as the marching orders required. Instead, there was a gap, and, after a little, word that the wagon train had been assailed some two miles back on the road. Lee heard of this while he was with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton. He at once directed that officer to collect what men he could and to see if he could stop the attack on the trains.​22 Soon it was apparent that the Federals had fired the wagons they had reached. How strong they were and what support they had, Lee did not know. But the outlook was grim. With the column broken, the presence of Union cavalry on the flank of a far-spread wagon train meant danger and inevitable delay — at a time when speed was everything. Besides, Lee was militarily in the dark, ahead of half his army.

While waiting anxiously for the arrival of the head of Anderson's column, Lee examined the roads and the terrain around  p83  him. It was bad ground for a retreat. The meandering Appomattox found its way among hills that now were close to its channel, and now set forbiddingly back from it, high and difficult of approach. The country on either side of the river was rolling and cut by many smaller streams. Some of these bogged between the hills. Others, mere branches in themselves, ran between declivities so steep that heavy bridges were necessary. The roads converged in the general direction of Farmville, and were straightest and best from the very direction of the Federal approach. There could hardly have been a stretch of Virginia countryside better suited for an attack by cavalry on an encumbered column of infantry.​23 Particularly dangerous was the ground northwest of Rice, still to be traversed by the centre and the rearguard. There were located the two forks and the watershed of a little stream called Sayler's Creek that flows northward into the Appomattox at a point where the river makes a loop to the southward as shown on the map, page 87.

The crossings of this watercourse were much exposed. The bridges were weak and narrow. To the west of the creek were hills that presented a hard pull for teams and were not as strong a defensive position as they seemed, because they were easily taken in rear. Over nearly the whole of the landscape grew dark pine woods, broken by scattered plantations and a few small farms — just the setting for a military tragedy.

In examining this ground General Lee rode during the early afternoon, virtually without escort, toward the Appomattox River and the mouth of Sayler's Creek. There he found himself with Roberts's cavalry brigade.​24 This little command of North Carolinians was not engaged, but it was watching something as ominous as it was unexpected — a fight in progress on the other side of the creek, between Gordon's corps and unidentified units of the enemy. Gordon was the rearguard: if he was being assailed, where were the central divisions? What had happened to them? Lee dismounted near a cabin, held Traveller by the bridle and with the other hand took out his glasses to survey some white objects he saw in the distance.

 p84  A young captain came up at the moment. "Are those sheep or not?" Lee asked doubtfully.

"No, General," said the possessor of younger eyes, "they are Yankee wagons."

Lee looked again through his glasses and then said slowly: "You are right; but what are they doing there?" What did it mean that the Federal wagon trains, which normally followed the troops, were already up — and no word from Anderson or Ewell, who were marching ahead of Gordon?25

Riding back in a few minutes, toward the line on which these corps should be moving, Lee soon met General Mahone, who had been engaged the previous evening in a verbal encounter with Colonel Charles Marshall. Lee had thought Mahone in the wrong and he proceeded now to remonstrate with him on the tone he had employed. While they were talking, Colonel Venable rode up and asked if Lee had received his message.

"No," said the General.

Then Venable told him that the enemy had captured those of the wagons that were between the branches of Sayler's Creek.

"Where is Anderson?" exclaimed General Lee. "Where is Ewell? It is strange I can't hear from them." Then he turned. "General Mahone," he said, "I have no other troops. Will you take your division to Sayler's Creek?"

Mahone gave the order, the men started, Lee and Mahone went ahead of them, Colonel Venable behind the two. They rode on a high ridge leading northward to the Appomattox, and then they turned to the right and came to the elevation over­looking the creek. The landscape opened up on the instant for a long distance across the valley. Lee stopped and straightened himself in his saddle and stared at what he saw. It was such a sight as his eyes had never beheld in the years of his command of the Army of Northern Virginia: streaming out of the bottom and up the ridge to them were teamsters without their wagons, soldiers without their guns, and shattered regiments without their officers, a routed wreck!

"My God!" cried Lee, as if to himself; "has the army been dissolved?"

 p85  Mahone, whose heart was in his mouth, swallowed and struggled and at last answered stoutly: "No, General, here are troops ready to do their duty."

Lee regained his poise on the instant. "Yes, General," he said, "there are some true men left. Will you please keep those people back?"

As Mahone hurried away to draw a line of battle, Lee spurred forward to rally the men who were running toward him. Either from the ground where the bearer had dropped it in his flight, or else from the hand of some color-bearer, Lee took a battle flag and held it aloft. There on Traveller he sat, the red folds of bunting flapping about him, the soldiers in a mob in front of him, some wild with fear, some exhausted, some wounded. A few rushed on; others looked up and, recognizing him, began to flock around him as if to find shelter in his calm presence. Did it flash over him then that this was the last rally of the great Army of Northern Virginia?26

The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 46, part 1, p1265. Besides Sheridan's cavalry, the V Corps was already in position (O. R., 46, part 1, p839), while the II Corps was just coming on the field (O. R., 46, part 1, p681). The VI Corps was nearly within striking distance (O. R., 46, part 1, p905).

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2 Longstreet, 610; Alexander, 595. The ground appears on O. R. Atlas, Plate LXXVII, 4. Lee's decision doubtless will be sustained by all who examine the terrain and justly (p75)appraise the condition of the army. Had he hurled his little army against the Federal position, he might have carried it — for his men had stormed worse places against as heavy odds — but he would merely have been driving himself into a sack, the neck of which could easily have been closed behind him. The least that could have happened to him would have been the complete loss of his wagon train and the almost certain envelopment of his left flank.

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3 Lawley, Fortnightly Review, September, 1865; McCabe, 619.

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4 Longstreet said, op. cit., 610, that he got no orders. It is hard to see how he led the movement without them.

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5 It was the 1st Brigade of the 2d Division (O. R., 46, part 1, pp114, 1145).

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6 Stevens's report, Lee MSS. — L.; Baldwin's report, Lee MSS. — L.; Stevens said that "over 100" wagons were destroyed, including all reserve ordnance and medical supplies. The route of the wagons, best followed on O. R. Atlas, Plate XCIII, is given by Stevens as Paineville-Rodophil-Deatonville and Rice.

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7 This is plain from Lee's reference to Gordon's route in O. R., 46, part 3, p1387.

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8 Alexander, 595.

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9 Information from Gilliam Anderson, Esq., through the writer's generous friend, M. R. Turner of Blackstone, Va. The late Mrs. G. T. Crallé, née Eliza Gilliam Willson, was a young guest at Selma and was stationed on the porch to keep out intruders while Lee ate his supper in the basement dining-room. While he was at the meal, Colonel Marshall came up on an important mission. Miss Willson refused to let him enter the house. He hesitated a moment, then took up a Confederate flag and wrapped it around her. She then decided that he was a safe visitor and permitted him to pass.

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10 O. R., 46, part 1, p583; 32 S. H. S. P., 69; Gordon, 425 ff. The originals of the captured dispatches are in the Lee MSS. Both Gordon, loc. cit., and Hunter, cited in a note to 32 S. H. S. P., 69, were in error as to the date of the capture of this dispatch. The date of Grant's dispatch and that of Lee's answer to Gordon (O. R., 46, part 3, p1387) make this plain. There would, of course, have been no particular value on the night of April 6‑7 to a dispatch written from Jetersville on the night of the 5th‑6th, for by the later date the attack at Sayler's Creek had demonstrated the presence of the Federal infantry.

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11 Some of the Federal accounts styled the place "Sulphur Springs."

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12 O. R., 46,ºpart 3, p1387. The terms "Rice," "Rice's," and "Rices' Station" are used indiscriminately in the reports and correspondence. The correct name is Rice.

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13 21 S. H. S. P., 98; 32 ibid., 69.

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14 O. R., 46, part 1, pp1301‑2.

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15 O. R., 46, part 1, p1302.

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16 See supra, p55 and Appendix IV-2.

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17 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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18 St. John's report, loc. cit., R. and F., 2, 671‑72. It is possible that the Secretary of War was with the commissary general at this interview. Breckinridge certainly saw Lee the next day (cf. O. R., 46, part 3, p1389).

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19 O. R., 46, part 1, p1295.

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20 O. R., 46, part 1, p1302.

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21 Longstreet's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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22 O. R., 46, part 1, p1281.

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23 Map in O. R. Atlas, Plate LXXVIII, 4.

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24 William P. Roberts in February, 1865, had been commissioned brigadier general and had been assigned a small brigade in Rooney Lee's division.

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25 28 S. H. S. P., 110‑111.

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26 The best account is Mahone's in Longstreet, 614‑15. See also 32 S. H. S. P., 71; cf. O. R., 46, part 1, p1290.

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