April 2, 1865 (Sunday)
“I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here till night,” wrote General Lee to Secretary of War John Breckinridge at 1040am. “I am not certain that 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. The brigades on Hatcher’s Run are cut off from us; enemy have broken through our lines and intercepted between us and them, and there is no bridge over which they can cross the Appomattox this side of Goode’s or Beaver’s, which are not very far from the Danville railroad. Our only chance, then, of concentrating our forces, is to do so near Danville railroad, which I shall endeavor to do at once. I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond to-night. I will advise you later, according to circumstances.”
Grant’s assault upon the Confederate lines at Petersburg stepped off at first light. The attack came all along the line, but the breakthrough was southwest of the city itself. Federals crumbled A.P. Hill’s lines, reaching and holding the Boydton Plank road beyond. The brigades referenced by Lee, on Hatcher’s Run, had been cut off by the Union Second Corps, which had managed to push Henry Heth’s troops across the stream. The lines before the city, assailed by the Ninth Corps, however, were holding.
Lee learned of the breakthrough along A.P. Hill’s lines when he, Hill and General Longstreet were meeting at Lee’s headquarters. As they were discussing how to best evacuate the defenses, one of Lee’s staff officers burst through the door to deliver the news. Longstreet walked to the front door, calling later that he espied “as far as the eye could cover in the field, a line of skirmishers in quiet march towards us. It was hardly light enough to distinguish the blue from the gray.”
Hill left without saying a word, returning to his shattered lines to rally his men. But too close he rode to the enemy’s pickets and was gunned down for his efforts. Word soon returned to Lee, who was to have said, “He is now at rest, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” This only added to the chaos. Longstreet, whose corps had been set in motion to reinforce the Hatcher’s Run line, was placed in charge of Hill’s Corps until Henry Heth might be found.
It was in and around this when Lee wrote Breckinridge. The lines were caved, Hatcher’s Run was lost, there was now only one line of retreat – along the Appomattox. If they could make for the Danville Railroad, there might be some chance of uniting with Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Lee wished to mass his men along those lines and break through.
In Richmond, as he was strolling to church, Jefferson Davis was given a copy of General Lee’s message to the Secretary of War. After entering the church, and when services were in swing, Davis received another message, this one personally to him from Lee.
I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position to-night. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops, and the operation, though difficult, I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed General Stevens to send an officer to Your Excellency to explain the routes to you by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Court-House, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.
Davis made his egress, as quietly as possible, but soon word spread through the Richmond streets like wildfire. Davis met with his cabinet amongst this chaos. The entire government had to be folded up, neatly as possible, to be unfolded as quickly as could be done in some other location. As Lee toiled in his own headquarters to construct a plan to vacate his defenses, so too did Davis sequester himself in his own office to do much the same.
“To move to night will involve the loss of many valuables,” wrote Davis to Lee, “both for the want of time to pack and of transportation. Arrangements are progressing, and unless you otherwise advise the start will be made.”
When this message reached Lee, the general, who had displayed amazing calmness throughout, finally and understandably lost his composure. Shredding the note to pieces, Lee said aloud, “I am sure I gave him sufficient notice.” And to another, he spoke, “It has happened as I told them it would at Richmond. The line has been stretched until it has broken.”
By this time, it was a battle for Forts Gregg and Whitworth on the west side of Petersburg. The eastern defenses were holding, as were much of the southern. Longstreet’s men were hurrying toward the forts to establish a defense line in their rear. If the garrison troops could hold, and Longstreet could stake his claim,
Lee might be able to slip the whole of his army back into the open. The assaults were crazed and vicious, but more so was the defense. The lines were intertwined and brawling, and the artillery, fired from Fort Whitwoth towards the attackers of Fort Gregg, erupted, adding blood and slaughter.
As the Rebel ammunition dwindled, rocks and spikes were employed. And when even they were in short supply, the Federals were atop the parapets, flooding into Gregg as gore from the countless bodies tossed throughout the work. And then orders from Lee came to evacuate. Longstreet’s men were arriving, a new line was established, and the bleeding staunched for the present.
At 3pm, shortly after the fall of Gregg and Whitworth, General Lee somehow found time to reply to a message from Davis written the day before. He explained, “I have been willing to detach Officers to recruit negro troops and sent in the names of many who are desirous of recruiting companies, battalions or regiments, to the War Department. After receiving the General Orders on that subject, establishing recruiting depots in the several states, I suppose that this mode of raising the troops was preferred – I will continue to submit the names of those who offer for the service and whom I deem competent to the Department; but among the numerous applications which are presented, it is difficult for me to decide who are suitable for this duty – I am glad Your Excellency has made an appeal to the Governors of he states and hope it will have a good effect.”
To Lee, even the loss of Richmond, which at this hour seemed impossible to avoid, did not mean either the loss of the government or the army. If the whole of Virginia fell, the Confederacy and its armies could march on.
Still, in this same letter, Lee went on to describe the events of the past few days, including the loss of Five Forks and the defeat of General Pickett. He gave specifics of where the Federals had pierced his lines that morning, and how their efforts now placed the Union left upon the Appomattox River, “thus enclosing and obliged us to contract our lines to the City.”
Lee cautioned Davis, “I do not see how I can possible help withdrawing from the city to the north side of the Appomattox tonight. There is no bridge over the Appomattox above this point nearer than Goode’s & Bevil’s over which the troops above could cross to the north side and be made available to us – Otherwise I might hold this position for a day or two longer, but would have to evacuate it eventually and I think it better for us to abandon the whole line on the James river tonight if practicable.”
He informed Davis that all was in motion and that he would be better “able to tell by night whether or not we can remain here another day; but I think every hour now adds to our difficulties.”
With word of Longstreet’s timely arrival, Lee sent word to Breckinridge: “I think the Danville road will be safe until to-morrow.” The Secretary showed it to Davis, telling him also that the train for his departure would leave at 8pm.
But as Davis was making his way through the throngs in the streets, Lee sent another message to Breckinridge – this one too late.
It is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position to-night, or run the risk of being cut off in the morning. I have given all the orders to officers on both sides of the river, and have taken every precaution that I can to make the movement successful. It will be a difficult operation, but I hope not impracticable. Please give all orders that you find necessary in and about Richmond. The troops will all be directed to Amelia Court-House.
The President was headed for Danville, well south of Lynchburg, but Lee wished for supplies to be sent to Amelia, a spot much closer to Richmond than not. This would not have posed a problem, but that it was sent too late. By the time Lee’s message reached Richmond, there was hardly any order left, and the note fell mostly on nonexistent ears.
Davis’ train was halted as the President waited until the last minute for better news from Lee. Nothing came. And at 11pm, the train finally pulled out of the station, chuffing west upon its 120 mile journey to Danville.
Danville, too, was Lee’s destination, though it would be much more harrowing for him than Davis. Once his troops could be assembled south of Lynchburg, they could all make their way to North Carolina and Joe Johnston. Richmond and Petersburg had fallen, but, if all could hold, the war, the country, was not finished.
The Rebels began their formal evacuation at midnight. Back at General Meade’s headquarters, it was obvious. Theodore Lyman, an officer on Meade’s staff whom we’ve visited with much before, wrote only this to his wife an hour before the Rebels began their egress:
.((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p1378 – 1382; With Grant & Meade by Theodore Lyman; Papers of Jefferson Davis; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis.))