‘Hemmed in On Every Side’ – The Battle of Sailor’s Creek

April 6, 1865

Generals George Meade and Philip Sheridan were of two minds. As they gathered at Jetersville, south of the Appomattox River and west of Richmond, Meade believed that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, now in retreat, was entrenched at Amelia Court House, along the Danville Railroad, ten miles northeast.

Capturing Confederate wagons by Andrew Waud.
Capturing Confederate wagons by Andrew Waud.

Sheridan, on the other hand, believed Lee to be much more mobile that Meade suspected. While Meade ordered his entire Army of the Potomac to march at dawn for Amelia, Sheridan refused to allow his cavalry ” to participate in Meade’s useless advance, but shifted it out toward the left to the road running from Deatonsville to Rice’s station.”

The Danville Railroad ran from Richmond to Danville in the upper Shenandoah Valley. More locally, heading west, it passed through Amelia, Jetersville, and Burkesville, where it crossed the Southside Railroad. Following the Southside northwest led to Rice’s Station, Farmville and the Appomattox River.

Sheridan decided to send his troopers towards Rice’s, but along a road north of the rails which ran through the town of Deatonsville. They were off early and before long, three miles south of Deatonsville, they stumbled upon a heavily guarded train of supply wagons, which they were hesitant to approach. Sheridan left there a brigade, moving the bulk of his force on a road to the south that paralleled Lee’s line of retreat.

There, they discovered a lightly guarded line of supply wagons along the road to Rice’s Station. Sheridan attacked, laying waste to a few hundred wagons, claiming sixteen pieces of artillery and taking a mess of prisoners. Even more momentous was the fact that he was now between two Rebel corps, cutting a full third of Lee’s army off from the main body.

At Rice’s Station, James Longstreet’s Corps had arrived and was waiting for the rest of the army to catch up. Next in the line of march was Richard Ewell’s Corps, followed by John Gordon’s (formerly A.P. Hill’s). To make matters worse for the Rebels, the brigade left behind by Sheridan had worked their way between Ewell and Gordon, even forcing the latter to take a different road.

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As it now stood, Lee’s army was sliced in three nearly equal parts, completely isolating Ewell from both Longstreet and Gordon. And it was upon Ewell Sheridan would soon fall.

Richard Ewell quickly grasped the situation. Toward the south, to face down Sheridan’s cavalry, Ewell sent Richard Anderson’s division-sized corps, while his remaining two, he hoped, might escape through the woods to the west. But before him was not simply Sheridan’s cavalry. The Sixth Corps, whose skirmishers were even now pushing the Rebels lines back upon Anderson’s lines, were marching hard from the northeast, along the road from Deatonsville.

Sheridan had called upon Grant to send the Sixth Corps, giving its commander, Horatio Wright, the particulars of Ewell’s situation. Grant soon replied, telling Sheridan that “The Sixth Corps will go in with a vim any place you may dictate.”

Quickly Ewell formed his two other divisions, under Joseph Kershaw and G.W.C. Lee, forming them facing northeast and east along a ridge. Anderson brushed off a few strikes by the cavalry, but as the day wore on and the sound rose from an attack upon Gordon’s Corps three miles distant, Sheridan pressed the advantage, ordering the Sixth Corps to attack while his own men held Anderson in place.

Custer ready for his 3rd charge at Sailors Creek 1865 by Alfred Waud
Custer ready for his 3rd charge at Sailors Creek 1865 by Alfred Waud

“The enemy,” wrote Sheridan following the war, “seeing little chance of escape, fought like a tiger at bay, but both Seymour and Wheaton [Sixth Corps divisions] pressed him vigorously, gaining ground at all points except just to the right of the road, where Seymour’s left was checked. Here the Confederates burst back on us in a counter-charge, surging down almost to the creek, but the artillery, supported by Getty, who in the mean time had come on the ground, opened on them so terribly that this audacious and furious onset was completely broken, though the gallant fellows fell back to their original line doggedly, and not until after they had almost gained the creek.”

Robert Stiles, an officer in Ewell’s Corps, saw that “the battle degenerated into a butchery and confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts.”

But then, at least in the part of the battlefield where Stiles found himself, the fighting died down and seemed to be at an end. “I concluded I would try to make my escape,” he continued. “At all events, selecting the direction which seemed to be most free from Federal soldiers and to offer the best chance of escape, I started first at a walk and then broke into a run; but in short distance ran into a fresh Federal force, and it seemed the most natural and easy thing in the world to be simply arrested and taken in.”

Ewell’s entire force was, as Sheridan wrote, “hemmed in on every side, and all those under his immediate command were captured. Merritt and Crook had also broken up Anderson by this time, but he himself, and about two thousand disorganized men escaped by making their way through the woods toward the Appomattox River before they could be entirely enveloped.”

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General Ewell saw that he was surrounded, the Federals now closing off the only route of escape. “As shells and even bullets were crossing each other from front and rear over my troops,” wrote Ewell in his report, “my right was completely enveloped. I surrendered myself and staff to a cavalry officer who came in by the same road General Anderson had gone out on.”

Ewell sent a message to G.W.C. Lee that it would be best to surrender, but by the time the message was received he had already done so. General Kershaw had as well, now delivering the whole of Ewell’s command.

On this day, Ewell lost 3,400 out of 3,600 men, while Anderson lost 2,600 out of 6,300. Meanwhile, General Gordon lost around 2,000. General Lee could hardly stand to lose such a figure as 8,000 – nearly a quarter of his army.

That night, Philip Sheridan wrote to General Grant: “If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.”1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p1295; Part 3, p610; Four Years Under Marse Robert by Robert Stiles; “The Sunset of the Confederacy” by Morris Schaff; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Out of the Storm by Noah Trudeau. []

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