Prelude to the Battle of Cumberland Church
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 were entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee’s defenses to no avail. Despite being well-entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as their supplies dwindled.
Union prospects, on the other hand, improved over the winter. Major General Philip Sheridan completed his task of sweeping the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley, and his well-rested troops rejoined Grant in the spring. Determined to break the stalemate at Petersburg, Grant ordered Sheridan to turn Lee’s right flank with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps along with the 2nd and 5th Infantry Corps, and force Lee out of Petersburg.
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 succeeded initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines, ending the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Many historians consider March 29, 1865, as the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign. On that date, Grant opened his spring offensive against Lee’s army by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry (freshly returned from the Shenandoah Valley) and Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps to attempted to turn Lee’s right flank 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.
A String of Federal Victories
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 Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House, as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Philip 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 crossroads 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 he could no longer hold the Yankees back. He advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee spent the afternoon preparing his withdrawal from Petersburg.
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 to 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.
Army of Northern Virginia on the March
On April 6, the Federals scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, 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.
Federal Assault at Cumberland Church
After crossing the Appomattox River, Lee found some high ground around Cumberland Church and entrenched to hold back the Federals while providing his men with much-needed rest. There, the Rebels withstood several attacks by the Union’s 2nd Corps. As evening fell, the Yankees called off their assault. During the night, Grant sent his first message to Lee suggesting that the Confederate commander end the bloodshed and surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee declined. Instead, he ordered yet another night march west, hoping to reach a potential sanctuary in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which were within his sight.
Significance of the Battle of Cumberland Church
The Battle of Cumberland Church was the last battlefield victory for the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The achievement was hollow, however, for it accomplished little beyond extending the beleaguered army’s mounting hardships and adding to the war’s casualty list. The Union lost 655 men (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), including Major General Thomas A. Smyth. The Confederacy lost 255 soldiers.