Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lincoln Assassinated

With the Civil War quickly winding down to a close in April, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln began to look ahead towards reconstructing the south and bringing the country back together. On April 11, he gave a speech from the balcony of the White House in celebration of the recent victories by the Union armies. He spoke in support of voting rights for the former slaves, and in supporting the loyal government that had been from in Louisiana. It would be the last public speech he would ever give, and there was a man in the crowd who would make it so – John Wilkes Booth.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lee's Surrender at Appomattox

The reconstructed McClean House, where the negotiations took place
With his army out of supplies and hemmed in by the Federals on every side, Robert E. Lee realized that it was hopeless to continue to resist the Federals. He therefore, with the agreement of most of his officers, wrote to Ulysses S. Grant to ask for terms. As he rode off to meet Grant, Longstreet shouted after him, “General, if he does not give us good terms, come back and let us fight it out!” Grand and Lee met at the house of Wilmer McLean. McLean had lived on the battlefield of Manassas, one of the war's first battles, and had moved to Appomattox to escape the fighting. Now it could be said that the war began in his backyard and ended in his parlor.

Lee arrived at the house first, wearing an exquisite uniform. When Grant appeared he wore a old uniform covered in mud from riding, with little significance of rank. He had not had the opportunity to change before the conference. The two men had met during the Mexican-American War, and Grant mentioned it briefly before Lee brought the meeting onto topic. Grant offered him the same terms as he had a few days earlier, when he suggested that Lee surrender. They were that all the Confederate officers and men be paroled and sent home, not to fight again without being exchanged. Their supplies and weapons would be turned over to the Federals, excepting only the officers' sidearms and the horses that men had brought with them to the war. These were good terms, far better than the unconditional surrender that Grant was famous for offering on other occasions, and Lee happily accepted. Grant wrote of the meeting:
I said to Lee that I hoped and believed this would be the close of the war; that it was most important that the men should go home and go to work, and the government would not throw any obstacles in the way. Lee answered that it would have a most happy effect, and accepted the terms.

As Grant and Lee rode away some Federal soldiers began too cheer at their victory, but Grant forbade it.  “The Confederates were now our countrymen,” he wrote, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” Word spread quickly of the agreement, and before long the McLean House was ransacked by soldiers hoping for a souvenir from the momentous occasion. The armies intermingled, adversaries talking, and old friends from the Mexican War meeting again, and reminiscing about old times. 

The parlor in which the generals met
28,000 Confederates surrendered at Appomattox, a sad remnant of the once great Army of Northern Virginia. Although many thousands of Confederates remained in arms, in armies across the south, Lee's surrender was the deathnell of the Confederacy. Their greatest general and army had fallen, and most in the south saw the war would soon be over. 

Union troops in front of Appomattox Court House

Battle of Appomattox Court House

When Grant broke his lines around Petersburg on April 2nd and Lee put his army into retreat, his plan was to keep ahead of the Federals and join Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina. He was very low on supplies, so he would have to resupply his army along the way. He pushed his men hard to make it to the supplies that were supposed to be waiting for him at Amelia Court House. When he arrived there on April 4th, his exhausted men having marched day and night, he found that ammunition had been sent from Richmond instead of food. The little that had been traveled by wagons had been captured by Phil Sheridan's cavalry which had been hard on the Confederate heels. The rebels couldn't eat gunpowder, so Lee had to halt his army for a day to forage for what supplies they could find in the countryside, allowing Grant to catch up. Lee continued to push his army forward, but his prospects grew darker and darker. The Federal cavalry was pressing at the army's heels, but Lee did not have the time or strength to halt to beat them back.

Ewell, who was captured at Sailor's Creek
On April 6th disaster struck in what is called the Battle of Sailor's Creek. Some Confederates were delayed in their march by having to fend of the pursuing Federals, and so a gap developed in the Confederate column. Eventually the corps of Anderson and Ewell were separated and brought to bay. Surrounded by Grant's army, their men were either captured or scattered. When he saw the broken remnants of Anderson's corps fleeing the field, Lee exclaimed, “My God, has the army dissolved?” “No General,” Major General William Mahone replied, “here are troops ready to do their duty.” Lee had to keep moving.

The rebels were headed for Appomattox Station, where they could get the supplies they desperately needed. But on April 8th Union cavalry arrived there first, and captured the food, foiling Lee's plans. The day before Grant had sent him a message suggesting he surrender. Lee refused, still hoping that he could reach Lynchburg, where more supplies waited.

On the morning of April 9th, 150 years ago today, the Confederate army was near the small crossroads of Appomattox Court House. The Union army was converging on them, but at the moment only Sheridan's cavalry stood in their way. John Gordon's Second Corps attacked the Federals and drove several lines back. But as they reached the top of the hill on which Sheridan's man had been placed, they saw before them two Federal corps in line of battle. Gordon, his men halted, told a staff officer:
Tell General Lee I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet's corps.
When Lee received this message, he said:
Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.
Out of food, exhausted from the long, hard marches, much of the army missing, and surrounded by Union forces, Lee decided with the agreement of most of his officers that it was time to surrender. Grant agreed to meet with him to discuss the terms.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Breakthrough at Petersburg

Entrenchments at Petersburg
When Ulysses S. Grant received news of Phil Sheridan's victory at Five Forks the previous day, he immediately gave orders for a general attack to be made on Lee's lines at Petersburg. This opportunity coincided with a major attack Grant had been planning for some time. For months the Confederates had been stretched thinner and thinner, and now they must surely be planning to evacuate the position, since Sheridan could cut off their lines of communication. Grant wanted to strike and destroy Lee before he escaped.

Horatio Wright
The assault was preceded by an artillery barrage which began at 10 pm on April 1st, and continued for some four hours. Not longer after, in the early morning of April 2, the Union infantry attacked. The attack was begun by Horatio Wright's VI Corps, which was facing some of A. P. Hill's about in the center of the battle lines. Wright had carefully chosen the point to attack, on the far left of his position, where the lines were close together and these were few obstacles in between. He had a vast superiority of numbers, and was able to bring 14,000 troops to bear on a mile long line held by only 2,000 Confederates. However, the southerner's works were high and strong, and they had well sited cannon posted along the line.

At 4:40 two Union cannon fired, signalling the beginning of the attack. The Federal troops moved forward, preceded by pioneers to clear away the wooden obstructions in front of the Confederate lines.  The Confederate pickets were driven back, but they alerted the main line of the attack, and soon the Yankees began to receive a heavy and well-directed fire. The first Federal over the wall was Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont. He ran down the path made by the Confederate pickets, followed by three men with the rest not far behind, and crossed the ditch on a plank bridge the Confederate had placed there. Gould quickly climbed over the wall and gained the parapet, but the rebels on the other side were ready for him. He was immediately cut three times by bayonets and swords, and one southerner pointed a rifle directly at him and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. He was pulled back over the parapet by Corporal Henry Rector, and before long more Union troops arrived and secured the position.

All along the line Federals climbed up the works, capturing them with quick hand-to-hand fighting. Breaches formed in the Confederate position and soon it fell entirely into Federal hands. The 2nd Rhode Island captured six Confederate cannon, and then quickly turned them on their former owners to drive back a counter attack.

A. P. Hill
After this initial success, Wright's troops continued to push forward in ragged order, capturing the Southside Railroad a mile in the rear. This would not be a temporary success, like Gordon had won at Fort Steadman. Instead it was a major breakthrough. A. P. Hill, the Confederate corps commander, worked to organize a resistance to meet this major reverse. He was riding through the woods towards Harry Heth's headquarters, accompanied by only one staff officer. The Confederate officers encountered two Union stragglers of the 138th Pennsylvania, Corp. John Mauk and Private David Wolford. Hill demanded their surrender, but instead Mauk fired, killing Hill. He was one of the highest ranking Confederate killed during the war.

The attacks
Wright reorganized his corps, and began widening the gap formed in the Confederate line, with support from Gibbon's XXIV Corps. At 6:00 Humphreys' II Corps on the left attack, and also made progress. Many Confederates resisted just to buy time, hoping that reinforcements would arrive. Fort Gregg was stoutly defended, and the attackers got stuck in the ditch, which was filled with mud and water. However, after several attacks, Union soldiers were able to work their way around to the fort's rear, drive off the few defenders placed there, and gain entrance into the fort.

Dead Confederate at Petersburg
Robert E. Lee realized that he could not maintain his lines, and that Richmond and Petersburg must fall. He telegraphed the Secretary of War:
I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here until night. I am not certain I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw to-night north of the Appomattox, and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line to-night from James River. I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight.
During the day of heavy fighting along the entire line, Grant's army lost about 4,000 men, the Confederates about 5,000 men, mostly captured.Lee's men began evacuating the lines which they still retained at 8:00 pm. The government abandoned Richmond that night, taking with them what papers they could. The retreating soldiers set fire to the warehouses, and other structures of military use. The fire spread out of control, and much of the city burnt to the ground.

Richmond burning
That night Grant wrote to his wife:
I am now writing from far inside of what was the rebel fortifications this morning but what are ours now. They are exceedingly strong and I wonder at the sucsess [sic] of our troops carrying them by storm. But they did it and without any great loss. Altogether this has been one of the greatest victories of the war.
Early the next morning, Union troops found that Lee had abandoned his lines. He had set off towards Appomattox. The last stage of the American Civil War had begun.

The ruins of Richmond after the fire

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Battle of Five Forks

Map of the campaign
In the spring of 1865, Phil Sheridan's army from the Shenandoah Valley rode to join Grant around Petersburg. With the addition of this cavalry, Grant had a large force available for maneuver. Sheridan attempted to flank Lee by moving with a force of infantry and cavalry around Lee's right, heading for the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by sending 12,000 men of George Pickett's division and cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee. On March 31st they met at Dinwiddie Court House. The Union advance was temporarily stopped, and Pickett and Lee fell back to Five Forks, an important intersection, which they were ordered to hold at all hazards.

Sheridan planned to attack the next morning, but reinforcements were slow in coming, and his troops were prepared to advance until 4:00 pm on April 1st. This delay worked greatly to the advantage of the Union. Pickett and Fitz Lee, thinking that Sheridan would make no attack that day, left the front lines to go to a shad bake. When the Confederates were struck by three Yankee divisions, they were without a commanding officer. Even as the battle began to rage, it took the Confederate generals a long time to join the army. They received reports of the fighting, but an acoustic shadow silenced the roar of battle. Since they couldn't hear the fighting, they believed for a time that the reports they received were not urgent.

Nevertheless, Federal attack soon faltered. The plan had been to strike the rebel flank, but the Northerners had been incorrectly positioned and instead were taking fire in their own flank. The plan was turning out to be a failure. Seeing this, Sheridan rode to the front of his lines and shouted,
Where's my battle flag? Come on, men! Go at 'em with a will. Move on at a clean jump or you'll not catch one of them! They're all getting ready to run now, and if you don't get on to them in five minutes they'll every one get away from you.
His encouragement worked. The Federals resumed their advance, and with their general at their head charged, drove the Confederates back. The rebels formed a new line, and Pickett finally joined his army. However, the Union momentum continued, and they captured the Five Forks intersection, continuing to drive the southerners back. Sheridan scored a complete victory, capturing thousands of prisoners and several stands of colors.

More importantly, the Southside railroad was threatened. Lee knew he needed to retreat. Between Five Forks and Fort Stedman he had lost one quarter of his army. He planned to hold out for a few more days so as to give the authorities in Richmond time to move the capitol, but the situation was far worse than he realized.