The Battle of Appomattox Station took place in Appomattox County, Virginia on April 8, 1865, during the Appomattox Campaign.
Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 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 drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga to capture Atlanta, and Major General Franz Sigel would invade Western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Stalemate at Petersburg
The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee’s defenses, but to no avail. Despite being well-entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as their supplies dwindled. By the spring of 1865, Lee knew that when the weather allowed, his army must escape the Union stranglehold or face starvation.
Battle of Fort Stedman — Failed Rebel Breakout
On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon’s pre-dawn attack was successful initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines, ending the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Grant’s spring offensive, the Appomattox Campaign, began in late March 1865 when Sherman’s troops south of Petersburg moved west with orders to threaten or capture Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which connected to Petersburg from the southwest. Grant intended to cut off supplies coming into Petersburg and to prevent Lee from using the two arteries as avenues of escape from the city. On March 29, Major General G.K. Warren’s 5th Corps defeated several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. Two days later, the action resumed at the Battle of White Oak Road and Battle of Dinwiddie Court House 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. Losing that strategic crossroad further threatened Lee’s already limited supply lines.
Confederates Evacuate Richmond and Petersburg
Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments around Petersburg on April 2. Federal troops breached the Confederate defenses during the Third Battle of Petersburg and forced the Rebels to withdraw to the city’s inner defenses. By 10 a.m. Lee realized that the day was lost and he advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee spent the afternoon preparing his withdrawal from Petersburg.
Lee Marches West
Lee’s plan was to march his beleaguered army west to Amelia Court House where he expected to find much-needed provisions. From there he intended to move south and join forces with Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of North Carolina. As the Confederates moved west Sheridan’s cavalry began hounding them almost immediately. Three minor engagements took place during the next three days at Sutherland’s Station, Namozine Church, and Amelia Springs.
On April 6, Lee was marching the Army of Northern Virginia west toward Farmville where supplies awaited. Lee’s 1st and 3rd Corps, commanded by Major General James Longstreet, led the march. Major General Richard Anderson, commanding the army’s 4th Corps, followed Longstreet. Two more divisions, led by Major General Custis Lee and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw, under the command of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, trailed Anderson. The Confederate 2nd Corps, comprising three cavalry divisions commanded by Major General John B. Gordon, served as Lee’s rearguard.
Battle of Sailor’s Creek
The Federals scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6, capturing about 7,000 Confederate soldiers, including nine generals. Lee ordered another in a series of night marches to move what remained of his army west. The Rebels crossed the Appomattox River that night but failed in their attempts to destroy the wagon bridge at High Bridge on the morning of April 7, enabling the Federals to continue their pursuit.
Fighting at Appomattox Station
After crossing the Appomattox River, Lee’s design was to reach Appomattox Station on the South Side Railroad where four supply trains loaded with 300,000 rations, plus ammunition and clothing, awaited his hungry soldiers. The first of Lee’s army to arrive near Appomattox Station was a detachment of reserve artillery commanded by Brigadier General Reuben Lindsay Walker, which bivouacked near the station, about a mile west of the village of Appomattox Court House on April 8.
Unbeknownst to Lee, Union scouts had informed Sheridan of the trains’ arrival at Appomattox Station. Sheridan ordered Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer to advance on the station with his cavalry and capture the supplies before Lee could provision his army. Custer arrived at Appomattox Station at about 4 p.m. on April 8 and had no problem commandeering the lightly guarded trains.
Aftermath of the Battle
Custer then turned his attention to Walker’s artillery detachment. By 9 p.m. that evening, after several charges, Custer dispersed Walker’s soldiers, capturing much of Lee’s artillery and securing the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Casualties at the Battle of Appomattox Station were light, but the engagement was important. Besides Lee losing access to vitally needed provisions, Custer’s victory ensured that the Union held the high ground west of Appomattox Court House, squarely across Lee’s line of retreat.