Following the election of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, the United States began to unravel. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first Southern state to ratify an ordinance of secession. By February 8, 1861, seven states had followed suit, and six of them had banded together to form the Provisional Confederate Government. Three weeks later, the newly formed government established the Provisional Confederate Army, a volunteer force controlled by President Jefferson Davis. Although the Provisional Government later established a more permanent Confederate army, it never flourished, and the term “Confederate Army” became synonymous with the volunteer army.
As the Union dissolved, the seceding state governments began seizing Federal property within their borders, including forts and arsenals. Following Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, he resolved to bring a halt to the illegal occupation of federal facilities. Events reached a climax in early April when South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens demanded the evacuation of four federal strongholds in Charleston Harbor. When the Lincoln administration refused, Confederate forces began shelling the federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, plunging the United States into civil war.
Confederate Army of the Potomac
Three days after the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion. Lincoln’s appeal prompted four states from the upper South, including Virginia, to leave the Union. As both sides ramped up for war, Virginia Governor John Letcher appointed Robert E. Lee as commander of all the state’s military and naval forces on April 22, 1861. Virginia’s proximity to Washington, DC assured that the Old Dominion would be the nexus of conflict. By early May, troops were pouring into the state from throughout the South. As Lee labored to organize the influx of recruits, he placed Philip St. George Cocke, brigadier-general of Virginia forces, in charge of all state troops along the Potomac River. On May 6, 1861, Lee instructed Cocke “to post at Manassas Gap Junction a force sufficient to defend that point against an attack likely to be made against it by troops from Washington.” Cocke’s defensive line would become known as the Alexandria Line.
On May 20, 1861, the Confederate Congress voted to move the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond, Virginia. Two days later, Virginia voters overwhelmingly ratified Virginia’s ordinance of secession, paving the way for the state’s incorporation into the Confederacy. As Southern officials folded Virginia’s forces into the Provisional Confederate Army, they commissioned Cocke as a colonel in the newly organized Rebel forces in Virginia. Cocke’s reduction in rank triggered his replacement as commander of the troops on the Alexandria Line. On May 21, 1861, Brigadier-General Milledge Luke Bonham temporarily superseded Cocke.
On May 31, 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis met with Brigadier-General P. G. T. Beauregard, the hero of the occupation of Fort Sumter. The meeting took place at the new Confederate capital, which had moved from Montgomery, Alabama on the day before. No doubt intent on protecting the new capital, Davis informed Beauregard that he would replace Bonham as commander of the troops constructing defensive works along the Potomac River. After the meeting, Davis instructed Robert E. Lee to issue Special Orders, No. 149, on May 31, 1861, assigning Beauregard “to the command of the troops in the Alexandria line.” Beauregard promptly traveled to Manassas Junction and relieved Bonham of his command on June 2, 1861. On June 20, 1861, Beauregard issued General Orders, No. 20, organizing troops under his command into six brigades that he referred to as the “First Corps, Army of the Potomac,” marking the inception of the designation “Army of the Potomac.”
On the opposite side of the Alexandria Line, President Lincoln and other federal officials were urging Brigadier-General Irvin McDowell, commander of the volunteer army amassing around Washington, to launch an offensive against the Confederate capital and to bring the rebellion to a swift end. Unsure of the readiness of his troops, McDowell reluctantly relented to political pressure and marched a force of nearly 35,000 soldiers (commonly, but not officially, known as the Army of Northeastern Virginia) out of Washington, toward Virginia on July 16, 1861.
Upon learning of McDowell’s departure, Beauregard positioned approximately 22,000 soldiers, in a line along Bull Run, a stream near Manassas Junction. In anticipation of McDowell’s offensive, the Confederate government made plans to rush Brigadier-General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of the Shenandoah to Manassas by train to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. When Johnston arrived at Manassas, on July 20, 1861, Beauregard had already developed a battle plan for defeating McDowell’s forces. Although Johnston was senior in rank to Beauregard, he deferred command of the forces in the field and approved Beauregard’s plans for the impending First Battle of Bull Run.
On July 21, 1861, McDowell’s forces attacked Beauregard’s left flank. Initially, things went well for the Federals, as they drove the Confederates back from their defensive position. As the day wore on, however, reinforcements from Johnston’s former Army of the Shenandoah arrived by rail, and the Union advance stalled. By late afternoon, the Confederates mounted a counterattack, driving the Union soldiers from the battlefield. The ensuing Federal retreat disintegrated into a rout, sending McDowell’s troops scurrying back to Washington.
After the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, Johnston assumed command of the combined armies, which kept the name “Army of the Potomac.” Beauregard remained the de facto second in command, in charge of the 1st (and only) Corps. On September 25, 1861, Johnston issued General Orders, No. 31 (AOP/CSA) establishing the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General Gustavus W. Smith. Johnston directed that the troops of the 2nd Corps would “consist of the troops of this army not heretofore assigned to the First Corps,” meaning the Army of the Shenandoah.
On October 22, 1861, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin issued General Orders, No. 15, announcing the establishment of the Department of Northern Virginia commanded by Johnston. The new department comprised three districts—the Potomac District, commanded by Beauregard, the Valley District, command by Major General Thomas J. Jackson, and the Aquia District, commanded by Major General Theophilus H. Holmes. Soon thereafter, Confederate officials began referring to the troops in the new department as the Army of Northern Virginia. Correspondence from the engineering bureau, dated February 25, 1862, referred to Johnston’s forces as the Army of Northern Virginia. In a letter dated March 5, 1862, Robert E. Lee addressed Johnston as “Commanding, Army of Northern Virginia.” By May Johnston began referring to his command as the Army of Northern Virginia.
Following the Confederate victory at the Firat Battle of Bull Run, Confederate officials added more soldiers to the Army of the Potomac, and Johnston reorganized his force into four wings commanded by Major General D.H. Hill (Left Wing), Major General James Longstreet (Center Wing), Major General John B. Magruder (Right Wing), and Major General G.W. Smith (Reserve Wing).
On the Union side, one week after the embarrassing defeat, the federal government reorganized its forces near the nation’s capital. On July 25, 1861, the War Department merged the Department of Northeastern Virginia with the Department of Washington to create the Division of the Potomac commanded by Major General George B. McClellan. Facing constant political pressure to avenge the Federal loss at Bull Run, McClellan spent the next several months molding the Army of the Potomac into a disciplined fighting force.
Finally, in March 1862, after nearly nine months of preparation, McClellan transported the Army of the Potomac by ship to Fort Monroe in Virginia, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. With most of the Rebel forces encamped near Manassas, McClellan planned to march his army up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. Although he enjoyed a numerical advantage of nearly three-to-one, McClellan advanced cautiously towards Richmond. McClellan’s sluggishness provided Johnston with ample time to reinforce the Rebel troops at Richmond. Still, the Army of the Potomac successfully fought its way up the Peninsula to within sight of Richmond by May.
McClellan’s fortunes changed on May 31, 1862, when Johnston sustained serious injuries during the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31–June 1, 1862). Confederate President Jefferson Davis turned to his chief military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, to save Richmond. On June 1, 1862, Lee issued Special Orders, No. 22, announcing that he was assuming command of Johnston’s forces, which he referred to officially for the first time as the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee spent the next few weeks building defensive works outside of the Confederate capital and then went on the offensive. In a shocking turn of events, Lee launched a series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862) that eventually drove the Army of the Potomac back toward the sea, bringing an end to McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign.
Northern Virginia Campaign
After the Union Army of the Potomac retreated down the Virginia Peninsula, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief-of-the-Army Henry W. Halleck recalled it to the Washington area on August 3, 1862. With McClellan off of the peninsula, Lee turned his attention to Major General John Pope and the Union Army of Virginia and scored a major victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). Reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac prevented the Union defeat from being worse than it could have been when Pope’s army retreated. Lee’s victory opened the way for a Confederate invasion of the North.
Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam
After his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Robert E. Lee marched the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland. On September 4, Lee’s soldiers began crossing the Potomac River near Poolesville, Maryland. Assuming that the Federal forces near Washington were still in disarray following their stinging defeat at Bull Run, Lee believed that it was safe to divide temporarily his army. The pivotal engagement of the Maryland Campaign occurred near Sharpsburg, Maryland along Antietam Creek. On September 17, 1862, McClellan attacked Lee. During the day, Lee’s divided army reunited on the battlefield and fought the Army of the Potomac to a standoff. The Battle of Antietam ended as a tactical draw, but it was a strategic Union victory because McClellan halted Lee’s northern advance. The engagement was the bloodiest single day of combat during the American Civil War. The Army of the Potomac suffered 12,401 reported casualties, including 2,108 killed. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered 10,316 casualties, including 1,546 killed. Following a day of truce, during which both sides recovered and exchanged their wounded and dead, Lee began withdrawing his army back across the Potomac River, but McClellan did not press the issue.
Although the Army of the Potomac had halted Robert E. Lee’s advance into Maryland, McClellan’s reluctance to press Lee’s retreating army disappointed President Lincoln. On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order removing McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with General Ambrose E. Burnside. Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck urged Burnside to launch an invasion of Virginia quickly. On November 9, Burnside submitted a proposal to cross the Rappahannock River at the town of Fredericksburg, to gain control of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, and then to use the railroad to support a rapid invasion of Richmond.
By the time Burnside could put his plan into action, his intentions were clear to Lee, who used the delay to fortify the area around Fredericksburg. Feeling pressured by Lincoln and Halleck, Burnside attacked Fredericksburg in early December, despite Lee’s preparations.
On December 13, Burnside began his assault on Lee’s army. Throughout the day, the Army of Northern Virginia weathered many attacks by the Federals. The fighting was especially intense on Lee’s left flank where Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s men, positioned at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, withstood sixteen separate charges that resulted in a Union bloodbath. As Lee witnessed the carnage unfold, he reportedly turned to Longstreet and said, “It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.”
Determined to win the battle, Burnside planned another assault for the next morning but his junior officers dissuaded him during the night. Instead, Lee granted Burnside a truce to care for the Union wounded and dead on December 14. On the following day, Burnside and his defeated army limped back across the river, and the Fredericksburg Campaign ended.
On January 25, 1863, President Lincoln drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department), announcing that he was replacing Burnside with Major General Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. By spring, the army was ready for another offensive. Hooker’s first test as commander of the army came at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863), where he proved no match for Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Facing an enemy twice his size, Lee boldly divided his army and attacked Hooker near Chancellorsville, Virginia on May 1. On the next day, Lee divided his army again and Major General Thomas J. Jackson’s 2nd Corps routed the right flank of Hooker’s army, sealing the Rebel victory.
Despite the Confederate success, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered a crushing blow during the Battle of Chancellorsville. On the evening of May 2, Jackson rode out on a reconnaissance mission to explore the possibility of a moonlit attack to finish off Hooker’s army. As Jackson returned to his lines, Rebel sentries mistakenly identified his party as Federals and accidentally shot him. Although the wound was not initially mortal, Jackson died from complications eight days later, costing the Confederacy one of its greatest generals.
Despite the Rebel victory at Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia needed food, horses, and equipment after the battle. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. Lee planned to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg, to move the Army of Northern Virginia northwest across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then to push northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began gathering his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863.
As the Army of Northern Virginia marched north, President Lincoln ordered Hooker to move in a parallel direction, keeping the Army of the Potomac between Lee and the nation’s capital. Throughout the month of June, Lee and Hooker parried for position. Segments of the two armies engaged at the Second Battle of Winchester (June 13 and June 15, 1863), the Battle of Aldie (June 17, 1863), the Battle of Middleburg (June 11–June 19, 1863), the Battle of Upperville (June 21, 1863), and the Battle of Hanover (June 30, 1863).
On June 27, 1863, Hooker attended a strategy meeting with President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. When a dispute arose regarding the disposition of troops at Harpers Ferry, Hooker impulsively offered to resign his command. Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation and placed Major General George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac. Upon assuming his new command, Meade quickly began moving north from Frederick, Maryland in search of Lee’s army in Pennsylvania. When Lee learned of Meade’s aggressive pursuit, he ordered his scattered army to concentrate at Cashtown, approximately eight miles west of the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
On June 30, 1863, elements of both armies were unwittingly approaching each other at Gettysburg. On the next day, skirmishing erupted that eventually developed into one of the pivotal engagements of the Civil War. From July 1 through July 3, the two armies slugged things out during the Battle of Gettysburg, immortalizing locations such as Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Hill.
On July 3, Lee focused his attention on the center of Meade’s line. At approximately 3 p.m., following two hours of heavy artillery bombardment, a force of nearly 12,500 Rebels, led by Major General George Pickett, Brigadier-General J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Major General Isaac R. Trimble, began a frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge. During the attack, the Confederates breached the Union line temporarily, but the Federals recovered and repulse Pickett’s Charge. The Rebels suffered nearly fifty percent casualties during the ill-fated assault. On the following day, Lee ended his northern offensive and began marching his army back to Virginia.
On July 5, Meade learned that Lee had left Gettysburg. Despite prodding from his superiors in Washington, Meade chose not to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia aggressively. During the rest of July, elements of the two armies engaged at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16, 1863), the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863), and the Battle of Manassas Gap (July 23, 1863). After failing to cut off Lee’s retreat at Manassas Gap, Meade abandoned any further pursuit of the Confederate army, thus ending the Gettysburg Campaign.
The Gettysburg Campaign produced mixed results. Lee relieved the pressure on war-ravaged Virginia during the summer of 1863. He also captured vast amounts of much-needed food and other supplies. Nonetheless, Lee failed to demoralize the North or erode support for the Lincoln administration. Moreover, after the Federal victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia generally assumed a defensive character for the rest of the Civil War.
In September, Confederate officials pressured Lee into sending Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps to Chattanooga to reinforce Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, which was being battered by Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland. When Meade learned that Lee had weakened his army, he renewed his pursuit. In mid-September, Meade sent two columns forward to engage the Army of Northern Virginia, which encamped along the Rapidan River.
The tables quickly turned, however, when Washington officials ordered Meade’s 11th and 12th Corps to Tennessee after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). With the size of Meade’s army also depleted, Lee responded by crossing the Rappahannock River and launching an offensive aimed at Meade’s right flank. Meade countered by beginning a withdrawal to secure his supply depot at Centerville.
On October 13, Confederate cavalry under command of Major General J. E. B. Stuart skirmished with the rearguard of the Union 3rd Corps near Auburn, in Fauquier County, Virginia. On the next day, Major General Gouverneur Warren’s 2nd Corps caught elements of Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps at the Battle of Bristoe Station (October 14, 1863). A futile charge into murderous fire failed to dislodge the stubborn Yankees. By the time that the Rebels escaped, Hill had lost nearly 1,400 soldiers and a battery of artillery. Following the Union victory at Bristoe Station, Lee called off his short-lived offensive and slowly fell back to the Rappahannock River.
With Lee in retreat, Meade reversed his course and, once again, became the pursuer. On October 19, 1863, Stuart, who was shielding Lee’s withdrawal, lured Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry into an ambush near Buckland Mills on a small stream named Broad Run. Stuart’s horsemen routed the surprised Blue Coats and sent them fleeing. The Union retreat was so speedy that the Confederates derisively referred to the Battle of Buckland Mills as the Buckland Races. On the next day, Stuart’s cavalry rejoined Lee’s main army.
By early November, the Army of Northern Virginia had safely crossed the Rappahannock River, leaving intact a pontoon bridge at Rappahannock Station. Meade, who was under intense pressure from Washington to continue to pursue Lee’s retreating army, launched an attack on November 7, 1863. Lee hastily shifted troops but he could not halt the Federal advance. At dusk, the Yankees surged forward and overran the Confederates guarding the bridge. During the rout, they captured over 1,600 soldiers of Major General Jubal Early’s Division. The Union victory at the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station forced Lee to retreat even farther south than he had hoped before the onset of winter.
Mine Run Campaign
Meade’s success at the Battle of Rappahannock Station emboldened him to launch another offensive before cold weather arrived. On November 26, 1863, Meade’s 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Corps advanced toward the Rapidan River. Meade planned for each of the corps to cross the river and then quickly to swing west in three columns to attack Lee’s right flank near Mine Run, a small stream flowing north to the Rapidan. The success of the operation depended upon the element of surprise. Unfortunately for Meade, the weather and some poor generalship combined to eliminate any chance that he had to catch Lee off guard. By the time that the Union forces poised to launch their assault, Confederate scouts had discovered their whereabouts. Alerted to the Yankees’ presence, Lee quickly dispatched troops to intercept them.
The Battle of Mine Run started when elements of the two armies collided on the next day, November 27, on the east side of Mine Run in a dense tangle of trees and brush locally known as the Wilderness. As both sides hastened to send troops to the front, intense fighting eventually engaged over 16,000 soldiers. After an afternoon of charges and countercharges, neither side could claim a victory, and the fighting subsided with the onset of darkness. Veterans on both sides would later recall that day’s action as some of the more intense fighting of the entire war.
During the night, Lee pulled his men back to the west side of Mine Run and began entrenching. Meade awoke the next morning to find the Army of Northern Virginia well entrenched on the high ground protected by a stream to his front. After shelling the Confederates for the next two days, while unsuccessfully probing for a weakness in Lee’s lines, Meade recognized the futility of launching a hopeless assault against the Rebels. Instead, he wisely turned his army around during the night of December 1–2 and headed north to re-cross the Rapidan. One day later, the army was safe across the river, and Meade went into winter quarters, expecting harsh criticism from the Northern press and his superiors in Washington for the failed campaign.
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant devised plans to invade east-central Virginia and to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant set up his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac and instructed General Meade, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Understanding that he was better equipped to win a war of attrition, Grant engaged the Army of Northern Virginia in a series of horrific battles over the next two months. Each side suffered thousands of casualties at the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–June 24), the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21), the Battle of North Anna (May 23–26), the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12), and at other engagements during the campaign. Although Grant suffered higher casualties than Lee (39,000 to 31,500), the Confederacy could not replace their losses as readily. After each encounter, Grant ordered Meade to disengage and to march the Army of the Potomac farther south toward Richmond. By threatening the Confederate capital and its main supply depot, at Petersburg, Grant tied down the Army of Northern Virginia, limiting Lee’s military options for the rest of the war.
After the severe punishment that the Army of Northern Virginia inflicted on the Union forces at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant abandoned his strategy of attacking Lee’s army. He ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the James River to begin an assault on Petersburg, a crucial supply depot for Richmond and the Rebel army. With the Army of Northern Virginia concentrated outside of Petersburg and Richmond, Grant decided to starve Lee’s forces into submission by cutting off their supplies.
For the next nine months, the two armies built extensive networks of trenches around Petersburg. During that period, the tedium of trench warfare was periodically interrupted as Lee attempted to hinder Grant’s efforts to cut off roads and railroads leading into Petersburg and Richmond. Between June 1864 and March 1865, elements of the Army of Northern Virginia engaged their Union adversaries frequently, including:
- Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15–18, 1864)
- Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21–23, 1864)
- Battle of Staunton River Bridge (June 25, 1864)
- Battle of Sappony Church (June 28, 1864)
- First Battle of Ream’s Station (June 29, 1864)
- First Battle of Deep Bottom (July 27-29, 1864)
- Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864)
- Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 13-20, 1864)
- Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18-21, 1864)
- Second Battle of Ream’s Station (August 25, 1864)
- Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights (September 29–30, 1864)
- Battle of Peebles Farm (September 30–October 2, 1864)
- Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads (October 7, 1864)
- Battle of Darbytown Road (October 13, 1864)
- Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road (October 27–28, 1864),
- Battle of Boydton Plank Road (October 27–28, 1864)
- Battle of Hatcher’s Run (February 5–7, 1865)
- Battle of Fort Stedman (March 25, 1865)
Eventually, Grant’s strategy worked. By the spring of 1865, Lee knew that when the weather allowed, the Army of Northern Virginia must escape the Union stranglehold or face starvation.
On March 29, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant opened his spring offensive against the Army of Northern Virginia, by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry (freshly returned from the Shenandoah Valley) and Major General G.K. Warren’s 5th Corps to turn Lee’s right flank at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm (March 29, 1865). After a brief, but sharp firefight, the Federals gained control of the Boydton Plank Road and forced the Rebels to retreat to their entrenchments along White Oak Road.
Two days later, the action continued at the Battle of White Oak Road and the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House (March 31, 1865), as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the Federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865).
Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg the next day. The Union onslaught at the Third Battle of Petersburg (April 2, 1865) forced Lee to advise President Jefferson Davis to abandon the Confederate capital at Richmond. As darkness fell, the Army of Northern Virginia began evacuating Petersburg and Richmond, moving west, hoping to find desperately needed supplies at Lynchburg or Danville, Virginia. From there he planned to move south and to unite his army with General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces opposing Major General William T. Sherman in North Carolina.
Grant, however, had no intention of letting Lee’s plans come to fruition. Throughout the next week, the Army of the Potomac doggedly pursued Lee’s beleaguered army, winning engagements at Sutherland’s Station (April 2) and Sailor’s Creek (April 6). At Sailor’s Creek, Sheridan and elements of the 2nd and 6th Corps cut off Lee’s retreat, forcing the surrender of nearly one-fourth of the Confederate army. The defeat led Lee to exclaim, “My God, has the army dissolved?”
On April 7, Grant opened communications with Lee regarding the cessation of hostilities. Grant informed Lee that, because he considered Lee’s situation to be hopeless, that he felt that it was his “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.”
That night, Lee responded to Grant, disputing the Union general’s assessment regarding the “hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Nevertheless, Lee inquired about “the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”
The next morning, April 8, Grant generously replied, “there is but one condition I would insist upon,—namely that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged.” He, once again, invited Lee to meet with him to discuss the surrender of Lee’s army.
As Lee was pondering Grant’s proposal, Major General George A. Custer’s cavalry seized a Rebel supply train at Appomattox Station, denying Lee’s army of vital provisions. Custer also captured Lee’s lead artillery unit and secured the high ground west of Appomattox Court House, directly in Lee’s line of retreat. Although Lee’s situation had deteriorated during the day, that night he stated in his response to Grant’s morning proposal, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army. . .” Lee then suggested that the two generals meet to discuss terms of peace between the North and South.
Early the next morning, Grant declined Lee’s request, noting that he “had not authority to treat on the subject of peace.”
The same morning, April 9, Lee made a last desperate attempt to escape Grant’s enclosing forces. He ordered Major General John B. Gordon’s 2nd Corps to attack Sheridan’s Cavalry early in the morning to open an escape route for the Confederate army. Sheridan stationed the Union cavalry along the ridge that Custer had secured the day before. Gordon’s troops successfully penetrated the Federal cavalry and seized the ridge. To his dismay, however, Gordon discovered that on the other side of the ridge he faced the entire Union 5th and 24th Infantry Corps formed for battle. Gordon had no alternative other than to withdraw.
Meanwhile, to the north of Appomattox Court House, the Federal 2nd Corps was closing in on Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps. Realizing that Grant had trapped his forces, Lee contacted Grant to arrange a meeting, “with reference to the surrender of this army.”
Upon receiving Lee’s request, Grant dismounted his horse and wrote a note at 11:50 a.m., informing Lee that he would, “push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you.”
The meeting took place that afternoon, April 9, 1865, at the home of Wilmer McLean, at Appomattox Court House. Lee arrived first, and Grant followed soon thereafter. By 4 o’clock the two generals had negotiated the terms of surrender, and the Appomattox Campaign ended. On April 10, Lee delivered a farewell address to his army, and on April 12, the surrender formally concluded. The Army of Northern Virginia was no more.
During the three years of its existence, the Army of Northern Virginia usually numbered between 50,000 and 70,000 soldiers. That number swelled to over 90,000 during the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862. By the time that Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, the size of the army had diminished to approximately 30, 000 soldiers because of death, disease, captivity, and desertion. Over the course of its existence, nearly 200,000 soldiers served with the Army of Northern Virginia. Most of them hailed from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, but men from all the Southern states passed through its ranks. Historians estimate it that over 30,000 soldiers who served with the Army of Northern Virginia died in action and that seventy-five percent of the infantrymen were casualties of war (killed, died of disease, wounded, or captured).
During the war, the structure of the Army of Northern Virginia changed several times. At the time of its creation, under General Joseph E. Johnston, the army comprised two corps commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard and by Major General G.W. Smith.
By 1862, Johnston had reorganized the army into four wings commanded by D.H. Hill (left), James Longstreet (center), John B. Magruder (right), and G.W. Smith (reserve). After Robert E. Lee assumed control, the army was an amalgam of commands and divisions, but by the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, it Lee organized it into two wings and a cavalry division commanded by James Longstreet (right), Thomas J. Jackson (left), and J. E. B. Stuart (cavalry).
On November 6, 1862, just prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg, Lee restructured the army into two corps (led by Longstreet and Jackson), a cavalry division commanded by Stuart, and an artillery unit led by William N. Pendleton.
In the spring of 1863, Confederate officials detached Longstreet and much of the First Corps, so Lee personally commanded the remnants of the 1st Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 30, 1863, about one month after Jackson’s death following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized the army into three corps, commanded by Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and A. P. Hill. Lee added a 4th corps on October 19, 1864, commanded by Richard H. Anderson.
On April 8, 1865, following the mass surrender at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Lee merged the remnant of Anderson’s Corps into the 2nd Corps. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, the Army of Northern Virginia consisted of three infantry corps commanded by Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and A.P. Hill, plus a cavalry corps commanded by Fitzhugh Lee.
Besides the corps commanders already mentioned, other notable officers who served with the Army of Northern Virginia were:
- Jubal Early
- Wade Hampton
- Henry Heth
- John Bell Hood
- John D. Imboden
- Bushrod R. Johnson
- Joseph B. Kershaw
- William Mahone
- Lafayette McLaws
- Thomas T. Munford
- George E. Pickett
- William B. Taliaferro
- John G. Walker
- Cadmus M. Wilcox