On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

At Bay

It would be impossible to imagine a more hopeless situation than that which had confronted Lee for many months. To guard the line of intrenchments stretching around Petersburg and Richmond for more than thirty-five miles, he had less than 30,000 effective men, and starvation and disease were daily thinning their impoverished ranks; the soldiers were resorting to the corn intended for the horses, and the cavalry were obliged to disperse through the country seeking fodder for their animals in the wasted fields; the defenders of the trenches, barefooted and in rags, lay exposed to the cold and wet, day and night; there were no medicines for the sick and no great supply of ammunition for the guns.

Perhaps no one but Lee fully realized to what desperate straits his army had been reduced. Certainly his opponents were ignorant of the real condition of affairs or they would have smashed his feeble defenses at a blow, and the fact that he held over a hundred thousand troops at bay for months with a skeleton army shows how skillfully he placed his men.

But though his brilliant career threatened to end in defeat and disaster, no thought of himself ever crossed Lee's mind. Regardless of his own comfort and convenience, he devoted himself day and night to relieving the suffering of his men, who jestingly called themselves "Lee's Miserables," but grimly stuck to their posts with unshaken faith in their beloved chief who, in the midst of confusion and helplessness, remained calm and resourceful, never displaying irritation, never blaming anyone for mistakes, but courageously attempting to make the best of everything and finding time, in spite of all distractions, for the courtesy and the thoughtfulness of a gentleman unafraid.

His letters to his wife and children during these perilous days reveal no anxiety save for the comfort of his men, and no haste except to provide for their wants. At home his wife—confined to an invalid's chair—was busily knitting socks for the soldiers, and to her he wrote in the face of impending disaster:

..."After sending my note this morning I received from the express office a bag of socks. You will have to send down your offerings as soon as you can, and bring your work to a close, for I think General Grant will move against us soon—within a week if nothing prevents—and no man can tell what will be the result; but trusting to a merciful God, who does not always give the battle to the strong, I pray we may not be overwhelmed. I shall, however, endeavor to do my duty and fight to the last. Should it be necessary to abandon our position to prevent being surrounded, what will you do? You must consider the question and make up your mind. It is a fearful condition and we must rely for guidance and protection upon a kind Providence...."

Shortly after this letter was written Lee made a desperate effort to force his adversary to loosen his grip but though the exhausted and starved troops attacked with splendid courage, they could not pierce the solid walls of infantry and fell back with heavy losses. Then Sheridan, who had been steadily closing in from the Shenandoah, swung 10,000 sabres into position and the fate of Petersburg was practically sealed. But, face to face with this calamity, Lee calmly wrote his wife:

"I have received your note with a bag of socks. I return the bag and receipt. I have put in the bag General Scott's autobiography which I thought you might like to read. The General, of course, stands out prominently and does not hide his light under a bushel, but he appears the bold, sagacious, truthful man that he is. I enclose a note from little Agnes. I shall be very glad to see her to-morrow but cannot recommend pleasure trips now...."

At every point Grant was tightening his hold upon the imprisoned garrison and difficulties were crowding fast upon their commander, but he exhibited neither excitement nor alarm. Bending all his energies upon preparations for a retreat, he carefully considered the best plan for moving his troops and supplying their needs on the march, quietly giving his orders to meet emergencies, but allowing no one to see even a shadow of despair on his face. Concerning the gravity of the situation he neither deceived himself nor attempted to deceive others who were entitled to know it, and with absolute accuracy he prophesied the movements of his adversary long before they were made.

..."You may expect Sheridan to move up the Valley," he wrote the Confederate Secretary of War.... "Grant, I think, is now preparing to draw out by his left 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.... Everything of value should be removed from Richmond. It is of the first importance to save all the powder. The cavalry and artillery of the army are still scattered for want of provender and our supply and ammunition trains, which ought to be with the army in case of a sudden movement, are absent collecting provisions and forage. You will see to what straits we are reduced; but I trust to work out."

[Illustration] from On the Trail of Grant and Lee by Frederick T. Hill


At last, on March 29th, 1865, Grant pushed forward 50,000 cavalry and infantry to execute the very move which Lee had outlined and for which he was as thoroughly prepared as it was possible to be with the men he had on hand. But to check this advance which threatened to surround his army and cut off his retreat, he had to withdraw the troops guarding the defenses of Petersburg, abandoning some of the intrenchments altogether and leaving nothing much more formidable than a skirmish line anywhere along his front. Even then he could not stop the onrush of the Union troops, which, under Sheridan, circled his right on April 1st and drove back his men in the fierce engagement known as the battle of Five Forks. With the news of this success Grant promptly ordered an assault against the intrenchments and his troops tore through the almost defenseless lines in several places, encountering little or no resistance.

Petersburg was not yet taken, but Lee immediately saw that to protect it further would be to sacrifice his entire army. He, therefore, sent a dispatch to Richmond, advising the immediate evacuation of the city. "I see no prospect of doing more than hold our position here till night. I am not certain that I can do that," he wrote. But he did hold on till the Confederate authorities had made their escape, and then on the night of April 2nd he abandoned the capital which he had successfully defended for four years and started on a hazardous retreat.

The one chance of saving his army lay in reaching the mountains to the west, before Grant could bar the road, but his men were in no condition for swift marching and the provision train which he had ordered to meet him at Amelia Court House failed to put in an appearance, necessitating a halt. Every moment was precious and the delay was exasperating, but he did his best to provide some sort of food for his famished men and again sent them on their way.

By this time, however, the Union troops were hot upon their trail and soon their rear-guard was fighting desperately to hold the pursuit in check. Now and again they shook themselves free, but the moment they paused for food or rest they were overtaken and the running fight went on. Then, little by little, the pursuing columns began to creep past the crumbling rear-guard; cavalry pounced on the foragers searching the countryside for food and captured the lumbering provision-wagons and the railroad supply trains which had been ordered to meet the fleeting army, while hundreds upon hundreds of starving men dropped from the ranks as they neared the bypaths leading to their homes.

Still some thousands held together, many begging piteously for food at every house they passed and growing weaker with each step, but turning again and again with a burst of their old spirit to beat back the advance-guard of the forces that were slowly enfolding them.

"There was as much gallantry displayed by some of the Confederates in these little engagements as was displayed at any time during the war, notwithstanding the sad defeats of the past week," wrote Grant many years later, and it was this splendid courage in the face of hardship and disaster that enabled the remnants of the once invincible army to keep up their exhausting flight. As they neared Appomattox Court House, however, the blue battalions were closing in on them from every side like a pack of hounds in full cry of a long-hunted quarry and escape was practically cut off.

For five days Grant had been in the saddle personally conducting the pursuit with restless energy, and he knew that he was now in a position to strike a crushing blow, but instead of ordering a merciless attack, he sent the following letter to Lee:

"5 P.M. Apr. 7, 1865.

"General R. E. Lee,—Commanding Confederate States Armies.

"The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

"U. S. GRANT, Lieut. General."

Meanwhile the retreating columns staggered along, their pace growing slower and slower with every mile, and at last a courier arrived bearing Lee's reply.


"I have received your note of this day. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

"R. E. LEE, General."

Grant promptly responded that peace being his great desire, there was only one condition he would insist upon and that was that the surrendered men and officers should not again take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged.

But Lee was not yet ready to yield and continuing to move forward with his faithful veterans, he sent a dignified reply, declining to surrender but suggesting a meeting between himself and Grant, with the idea of seeing if some agreement could not be reached for making peace between the two sections of the country.

This was not the answer that Grant had hoped for, but he had too much admiration for his gallant adversary to ride rough shod over him when he held him completely in his power, and while he gave the necessary orders to prepare for closing in, he sent another courteous note to Lee dated April 9, 1865:


"Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 A.M. today could lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood.... Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,

"U. S. GRANT, Lieut. General."

The courier bearing this message dashed off and disappeared and the chase continued, masses of blue infantry pressing forward under cover of darkness and overlapping the weary columns of gray that stumbled on with lagging steps. Meanwhile, the morning of April 9th dawned and Lee determined to make one more desperate effort at escape. Behind him an overwhelming force was crowding and threatening to crush his rear-guard; on either flank the blue-coated lines were edging closer and closer; but in front there appeared to be only a thin screen of cavalry which might be pierced; and beyond lay the mountains and safety. At this cavalry then he hurled his horsemen with orders to cut their way through and force an opening for the rest of the army, who vigorously supported the attack. It was, indeed, a forlorn hope that was thus entrusted to the faithful squadrons, but they responded with matchless dash and spirit, tearing a wide gap through the opposing cavalry and capturing guns and prisoners. Then they suddenly halted and surveyed the field with dumb despair. Behind the parted screen of horsemen lay a solid wall of blue infantry arrayed in line of battle and hopelessly blocking the road. One glance was enough to show them what Grant's night march had accomplished, and the baffled riders wheeled and reported the situation to their chief.

Lee listened calmly to the news which was not wholly unexpected. There was still a chance that a portion of his force might escape, if he was willing to let them attempt to fight their way out against awful odds, but no thought of permitting such a sacrifice crossed his mind.

"Then there is nothing left for me but to go and see Gen. Grant," he observed to those around him.

But desperate as their plight had been for days, his officers were unprepared for this announcement.

"Oh, General!" one of them protested, "What will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?"

"Yes," he replied. "I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers. But that is not the question, Colonel. The question is, is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility."

No response was offered by the little group and turning to one of his staff, Lee quietly gave an order. A few moments later white flags were fluttering at the head of the halted columns and an officer rode out slowly from the lines bearing a note to Grant.