April 5, 1865 (Wednesday)
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been marching since the night of the 2nd. Leaving their entrenchments at Petersburg and Richmond, they strode along the Danville Railroad knowing that the van of Grant’s command was never far behind and to his left.
Just prior to leaving, Lee had ordered supplies to be shipped to Amelia Court House, a small railroad town forty miles west. The plan had been to gather at this spot and turn south, slashing quickly their way through the lead elements of the Federal army, hoped to be only cavalry. He would then march his band to join with Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
But the day previous, when Lee arrived at Amelia, it was discovered that no supplies, no rations had been delivered. This was something he could not understand, could not begin to fathom. It was also something he could waste time uncovering.
On that day, he was ahead of the Federals, and if the supplies had been where he ordered them to be, he could feed his men and continue on, missing hardly a beat. But now, it was changed. John Esten Cooke, an officer on Lee’s staff, recalled after the war that “the failure of the supply of rations completely paralyzed him.” He told that “an anxious and haggard expression came to General Lee’s face when he was informed of this great misfortune; and, at once abandoning his design of cutting his way through to North Carolina, he turned westward, and shaped his march toward Lynchburg.”
That night, Lee rested his army at Amelia, waiting for the remainder to catch up. What supply wagons he had were sent in every direction in search of forage and begging “generosity and charity” from the people of Virginia.
Come the next morning, the morning of this date, General Lee acted upon his decision. To lighten the load of the army, he ordered his artillery to bury some of the guns and several thousand rounds of ammunition.
They would now move swiftly, following the road southwest toward Jetersville, where reports held that Philip Sheridan had drawn up his cavalry. If Lee could slash his way through, the road to Danville and Lynchburg would be open. But further reports told of two corps of Federal infantry joining Sheridan, and it was too much to risk.
“I never saw General Lee seem so anxious to bring on a battle in my life as he seemed this afternoon,” wrote E. Porter Alexander after the war. This unfortunate information was a setback to be sure, but did not yet mean the end.
If the troops, unshod and unfed, could withstand a night march, it was possible, in Lee’s mind, that they might yet pull around Sheridan. To the right he sent Longstreet’s Corps, setting course for Rice, a depot on the rails, directly west of the blocked Jetersville. There, he was to entrench and cover the rest of the army as they filed by.
“Starting on this new road,” continued Alexander, “seemed to offer an opportunity to get something, and I hastened to dispatch our darkies out as foragers.”
By midnight, they had passed around Amelia Springs and Deatersville, and by morning would find themselves at Rice.
Through the day, the Federal infantry marched without ceasing to catch up with Sheridan’s line at Jetersville. They knew that Lee could certainly cut his way through cavalry and speed was essential to prevent it.
“The whole of Lee’s army is at or near Amelia Court House, and on this side of it,” wrote Sheridan to Grant that afternoon. “General Davies, whom I sent out to Painesville on their right flank, has just captured six pieces of artillery and some wagons. We can capture the Army of Northern Virginia if force enough can be thrown to this point, and then advance upon it. My cavalry was at Burkesville yesterday, and six miles beyond, on the Danville Road, last night. General Lee is at Amelia Court House in person. They are out of rations, or nearly so.”
When the infantry arrived, they were, of course, timely, though exhausted. Nevertheless, General Meade, who rode with the Second Corps, insisted to Sheridan that an attack must be made. The Rebels, he knew, were on their left, and he feared they might even be so bold to play upon his flank.
Though there were further reports of the Rebels on the left, and even a strange retreat of cavalrymen back into the lines, Meade thought it unlikely.
“And so it turned out,” wrote staff officer Theodor Lyman in his diary, “they smashed up some small cavalry force on our flanks, but never came even to the infantry skirmish line.”
General Grant was en route, having been twice requested by Sheridan to arrive in person. At some point during the day, a letter written from a Confederate colonel to his mother was found, which reveled the true state of the Rebel army. Sheridan sent this to Grant, who would later recall it in his memoirs.
Dear Mamma: Our army is ruined, I fear. We are all safe as yet. Shyron left us sick. John Taylor is well; saw him yesterday. We are in line of battle this evening. General Robert Lee is in the field near us. My trust is still in the justice of our cause and that of God. General Hill is killed. I saw Murray a few moments since. Bernard Terry said was taken prisoner, but may get out. I send this by a negro I see passing up railroad to Mecklenburg. Love to all.
Your devoted son,
Wm. B. Taylor,
General Grant also received another letter from Sheridan, this one of more apparent importance. “This was brought to me by a scout in gray uniform,” recalled Grant after the war. “It was written on tissue paper, and wrapped up in tin-foil such as chewing tobacco is folded in. This was a precaution taken so that if the scout should be captured he could take this tin-foil out of his pocket and putting it into his mouth, chew it. It would cause no surprise at all to see a Confederate soldier chewing tobacco. It was nearly night when this letter was received.”
More than likely, this was that letter:
“From present indications the retreat of the enemy is rapidly becoming a rout. We are shelling their trains and preparing to attack their infantry immediately. Their troops are moving on their left flank and I think we can break and disperse them.
Everything should be hurried forward with the utmost speed. If General Ord can be put in below it will probably use them up.”
This letter was received by Grant after dark, and though sixteen miles away from Sheridan, he managed to arrive by 10pm. It took some pretty crafty convincing on Grant’s part to prove to the sentinels and pickets that he was indeed the General Grant, but finally breaking through his own defenses, he was soon with Sheridan and Meade.
Meeting first with Sheridan, Grant learned of Meade’s orders for the next day. The troops were to move by their right flank to get behind the Rebels. Sheridan explained to Grant that if they did that, Lee would escape. Grant fully agreed.
“We then together visited Meade,” Grant continued, “reaching his headquarters about midnight. I explained to Meade that we did not want to follow the enemy; we wanted to get ahead of him, and that his orders would allow the enemy to escape, and besides that, I had no doubt that Lee was moving right then. Meade changed his orders at once.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p581-582; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander; Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee by John Esten Cooke; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Out of the Storm by Noah Trudeau. [↩]