Lee's Last Retreat The Flight to Appomattox
By William Marvel
University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2006 William Marvel
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780807857038
Chapter One Monday, April 3
Eugene Levy had slept barely an hour by 3:00 a.m. of Monday, April 3, but at that hour he felt himself shaken awake by a man who instructed him to collect the extra muskets from the nearby camp of the Virginia Reserves. He knew that meant something big was happening, and the militia had been called out, but it was not until 8:00 a.m. that Levy discovered the cause of all the trouble. He had seen a train pass toward Farmville with some of Pickett's wounded before the final collapse of that general's line, but there had seemed no special cause for alarm. Now, though, word had reached High Bridge by telegraph of a grand Union assault on Petersburg, where the defensive lines had been broken. Only desperate rearguard actions had prevented the Yankees from sweeping into the city itself that night, but untold numbers of guns and prisoners had been lost, Lieutenant General A. P. Hill had been killed, and Lee's army had evacuated both Petersburg and Richmond. The army-or whatever might be left of it-was reportedly streaming out of those two cities on the way to Burkeville Junction, where Lee might build new defenses and continue to supply himself by both theSouthside Railroad and the Richmond & Danville. So long as nothing happened to General Lee, Levy surmised, all would be well.
Levy fretted in particular for his younger brother, who had remained before Petersburg with the other section of the battery, but he had little time for personal concerns. He spent the rest of the morning packing his few belongings and preparing to leave Camp Paradise. He learned that it would be the next morning before they could obtain enough horses to pull the guns and the single caisson out of the High Bridge fortifications: the battery horses, like many of the cavalry mounts in the Army of Northern Virginia, had been scattered to better grazing land over the winter. That gave him the afternoon to say his good-byes, and he started first to the Watkins house for a farewell with Agnes.
Back on the lower Appomattox, Benjamin Sims had decided to quit the war altogether. Unable to find a place to cross the turbulent river, he and a comrade from Lynchburg opted not to seek their regiment, instead fleeing well ahead of any organized troops. They and hundreds of other beaten survivors of Five Forks littered the roads of Amelia and Powhatan counties as they wandered the countryside, alarming and disgusting the more stoic soldiers they encountered, who rode against the stream of deserters in an effort to make their way back to the army. By the evening of April 3 Sims and his companion were sleeping in a barn near Powhatan Court House, well to the north and out of the way of either army.
Most of the comrades they had abandoned in Richard Anderson's makeshift corps enjoyed no such luxuries as untroubled sleep and shelter. Once his jouncing ambulance stopped, the exhausted Captain Chambers fell asleep for a few hours, but he awoke just before dawn on Monday, when the disorganized column lurched into motion again. High water foiled an attempt to escape north of the Appomattox by Bevill's Bridge, so the train dragged on toward the army's reported destination at Amelia Court House. The lead wagons had come within a few miles of that hamlet in the afternoon when a rumor told of the enemy lying across the road not far ahead. With that the teamsters all turned their wagons around with much cursing and confusion, churning through the same mud they had just navigated until they had retraced their steps almost all the way back to Deep Creek. There they encountered loose throngs of stragglers, and more troops were coming along all the time, so the caravan halted for the night. The demoralization among the infantry diluted any sense of safety in numbers, and most of the surgeons felt so certain of capture that they abandoned their patients during the night to make their own escape.
Five Virginia regiments under Brigadier General Eppa Hunton arrived to protect the train that night. Hunton's brigade remained relatively intact, having missed the debacle at Five Forks, and on this day of the retreat it fought with the rear guard under General Anderson. Hunton's 18th Virginia included a company from Appomattox County that had nearly been annihilated during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and some of the men now marching in the ranks had been wounded or taken prisoner (or both) on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. The Harvey brothers, Thomas and Holcomb, had each fallen into enemy hands with that company near the infamous copse of trees, where a Yankee bullet had broken Holcomb's leg, but both had been exchanged and had returned to duty within six months.
As noncommissioned officers, the Harvey brothers now helped to cover the flight of their ruined division, disjointed pieces of which ranged well ahead of the fighting. All day April 2 the Harveys and their compatriots would march a few miles, stop, and form a line of battle, piling up ambitious breastworks of fence rails, freshly chopped logs, and earth-bringing the enemy to an abrupt halt before vacating those prodigious parapets and moving on again. They repeated that sequence until 3:00 a.m. on April 3. At dawn they resumed the process and continued on the Namozine Road toward Amelia Court House, occasionally parting their battle line to allow more demoralized stragglers to pass between them. Union cavalry under George Armstrong Custer threatened the rear of the column at the crossing of Namozine Creek, but dismounted Virginia cavalry blocked the ford. Custer slipped a few companies of his own across the creek on foot, where they took the Virginians from behind and overwhelmed them. The mounted portion of the Confederate squadron spurred in to the rescue, lashing repeatedly at the Yankees, but most of their dismounted comrades had already been herded back over the creek as prisoners. Then Custer gathered more strength, cleared the ford, drove away the remaining defenders, and pursued doggedly from there.
Taking advantage of the time bought by the cavalry, Bushrod Johnson's division passed Namozine Church around 8:00 a.m. There they took a wrong turn, bearing to the right where the road forked; that road led to a bridge over Deep Creek that had been inundated by floodwaters, and a courier galloped after Johnson to steer him right. As the last of the column passed the church, Fitz Lee covered the intersection with Rufus Barringer's brigade, composed of four North Carolina cavalry regiments. Custer's horsemen attacked again before Barringer's brigade could fully deploy, but the few Tar Heels already in line sacrificed themselves with a countercharge on Custer's leading brigade. The better-mounted Yankees gobbled them up and crashed into their ill-prepared fellows so quickly that few escaped. General Barringer got away with nothing more than his personal staff and his headquarters flag. Consequently Johnson found Custer in the way when he turned his division back to the Namozine Road by way of a short detour, but he threw Henry Wise's Virginia brigade at the Yankee troopers and chased them off, opening the way to Amelia Court House.
Union cavalry scouting along the river spotted the long columns of Confederate troops and trains moving steadily to the west on the north side of the river. They took word of this back to Wesley Merritt, who served during this campaign in the somewhat redundant role of Phil Sheridan's chief of cavalry (for Sheridan still seemed to cling to the image of himself as commander of the dismantled Army of the Shenandoah). From that information Merritt deduced that Lee's entire army aimed for the railroad at Amelia Court House, and he dispatched the 15th New York Cavalry toward Amelia on a road curving west of Anderson's retreat, sending along Sheridan's daring company of scouts in their Confederate uniforms. This advance party probably inspired the reports that turned Anderson's trains back from Amelia Court House.
That evening Hunton's five exhausted regiments, and Wise's four, built their last fortification at the bridge over Deep Creek. There, with the help of two little cavalry divisions, they oversaw the passage of the tail of the wagon train and what seemed to be the last of the army's stragglers. They expected Heth's division and other orphans of A. P. Hill's Third Corps to come up behind them, but no organized infantry appeared; pestered by Sheridan's cavalry, the residue of Heth's division and Wilcox's lost brigades clung to roads nearer the Appomattox, camping that night a few miles downstream, where Deep Creek emptied into the river. Once the final laggard had crossed their bridge, so did Hunton's and Wise's men, one of whom put the span to the torch. Still the two brigades marched onward for another four or five miles, though, passing Tabernacle Church and turning east toward Bevill's Bridge. The cavalry remained behind, staving off Custer's last attack in the darkness and gaining a few hours for the beleaguered infantry column.
There the pursuit ended that day: Sheridan's column had to deal with hundreds of Confederate prisoners who had been gathered at the roadside, most of them shaken loose from Heth's and Wilcox's isolated brigades along the riverbank, and scores of trophies waited to be secured. At dark Custer camped alongside Sweathouse Creek, short of Deep Creek, with the Fifth Corps not far behind him. In its haste to catch the enemy this Union infantry had left its wagon train far behind, so the Fifth Corps field and staff lay down for a chilly night's sleep with neither tents nor blankets.
As General Anderson brought Johnson's division up to Bevill's Bridge, he discovered the flooding there that prevented him from reaching Lee's main body, but at last he also discovered the pitiful relic of George Pickett's famous division, huddling before the torrent. Not all of Pickett's survivors had come in yet: disorganized debris like Colonel Griggs's skeleton regiment still lay scattered over the route of the day's retreat. Griggs had been unable to find anyone capable of giving him orders until midday. By then his nervous survivors had tramped all the way to Deep Creek, just short of Tabernacle Church, and once across that stream they made camp for the evening near the parked wagon and ambulance train, relying on the cavalry south of the creek to keep them safe.
After the vicious scrap at Namozine Church, Rufus Barringer could not find any of his demolished cavalry brigade. Most of it had been captured, and the rest had fled to all points of the compass; ten days later two vagabond lieutenants from that brigade would show up in Danville, asking the secretary of war for orders, and fewer than two dozen troopers ever made their way back to Lee's army. Cut off from the rest of Anderson's column, Barringer led his staff to the west on a circuitous course for the rendezvous at Amelia Court House. Their destination lay but a couple of miles away when they encountered a few grey-clad cavalrymen who offered to give them directions. The spokesman for these eager guides turned out to be Major Henry Young, Sheridan's chief of scouts, who escorted the surprised Confederate general and his headquarters entourage into the clutches of the 15th New York Cavalry.
Sheridan's cavalry gathered in two or three hundred prisoners at Deep Creek, for a total catch of about 1,200 for the day, most of whom had fallen behind on the retreat; farther back, Union infantry had also picked up a sifting of rebel deserters in the riverside forests behind the old Petersburg trenches. Burning gun carriages and caissons marked the Confederate flight, and General Merritt described the enemy at Deep Creek as having descended into a state of "immense demoralization."
Confederate witnesses corroborated that assessment. Major Holmes Conrad, a staff officer from Thomas Rosser's cavalry division who had been detached with the division wagon train, fled with the wreckage of Pickett's command. Pickett's entire division wore a discouraged look, he noted, and for that matter everyone on that particular road seemed dejected. Major Conrad still felt fairly confident on April 3, though, as he surveyed the flotsam of a command that had given Phil Sheridan a sound thrashing only a few days before. "Richmond will be given up," Conrad conceded, "but still think we will succeed if our people will hold out true."
However true the people may have held out, most of the army still clung to its duty. Private James Edward Hall, acting adjutant of the 31st Virginia, remained awake through that night, marching ever westward with his brigade. Not until noon on Monday did these Virginians stop to rest. When they did, Hall could hear artillery grumbling somewhere up ahead-probably one of Custer's fights with Dick Anderson and Fitz Lee along the Namozine Road, on the other side of the Appomattox.
Chaplain Paris may have slept in the saddle, for the dawn of April 3 revealed to him that he had lost the ambulance train. He wandered among strangers for much of the day, swinging north of the army's main crossing at Goode's Bridge and taking refuge, finally, with a hospitable citizen named Rudd, whose general store sat in an intersection of the Goode's Bridge Road.
Major Cooke had spent his final night in Petersburg hurrying John Gordon's Second Corps across the river. Cooke made a quick circuit of friends' homes, then saw to his portion of the evacuation. The last of Gordon's troops had crossed by 1:30 Monday morning, and Major Cooke stopped one last time at his uncle's house before tracing the deserted streets to Pocahontas Bridge. There he stayed until a couple of hours before dawn, when he directed the engineers to fire the bridge. Then he heard the jubilant voices of Yankees as they began pouring into the streets. Their voices chilled him as he speculated on what an exhilarated invader might do to the defenseless city he had left behind, but he reined his horse toward the tail end of the line of march and rode away from the flames, into the darkest of the night.
By noon on Monday the major had covered twenty miles. That brought him to the house where his mother and sisters were living, and he stopped to refresh himself while the army slogged by. Not until 9:00 that evening did he climb back into the saddle, and his departure so unnerved one of his sisters that she swooned. His mother bore the parting bravely, though, and it was the major who seemed to suffer the most in bidding what he supposed might be his last farewell to his family.
It was Captain Oscar Hinrichs who actually touched off the fire under Pocahontas Bridge. A native of Germany, as a young man Hinrichs had joined his grandfather and his uncle in North Carolina, where he secured a job with the U.S. Coast Survey.
Excerpted from Lee's Last Retreat by William Marvel Copyright © 2006 by William Marvel. Excerpted by permission.
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