Prelude to the Battle of Sailor’s Creek
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 on April 2, 1865. 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. As Lee abandoned his defenses at Petersburg, three minor engagements took place during the next three days at Sutherland’s Station, Namozine Church, and Amelia Springs.
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. On April 3, cavalry from both sides met in the inconclusive Battle of Namozine Church.
Two days later, another cavalry engagement erupted north of Amelia Springs. Three Confederate cavalry brigades counterattacked a Union cavalry brigade about three miles north of Amelia Springs. The two cavalry forces fought a running battle through Amelia Springs almost to Jetersville, six miles southwest of Amelia Court House, where Robert E. Lee planned to concentrate his army. The battle accomplished little other than forcing the Army of Northern Virginia to detour around Jetersville on its journey to Amelia Court House.
April 6, 1865 — Clash at Sailor’s Creek
Lee Moves Toward Farmville, Virginia
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.
Custer’s Cavalry Attacks
As Lee, who was with Longstreet, moved ahead of Anderson to Rice’s Station, Union cavalry commanded by Colonel Charles Smith, hit Anderson’s corps at Holt’s Cross Roads around noon on April 6. The attack delayed Anderson, further separating him from Lee and Longstreet. Around 2:00 p.m., Brigadier General George Custer’s cavalry attacked and pinned down Anderson’s corps near Marshall’s Crossroads west of Sailor’s Creek.
Federal’s Capture Rebel Supplies
Meanwhile, Ewell and Gordon, protecting the Confederate army’s main supply train, diverted to a more northerly road at Holt’s Cross Roads to avoid the Union cavalry ahead. The wagon train slowed to a crawl as it crossed a bridge at Sailor’s Creek. Between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., the Union 2nd Corps caught up to Gordon and attacked, capturing over 1,700 Rebels and 300 wagons.
Ewell Captured as Federals Rout Confederates
Back at Marshall’s Crossroads, between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m., Major General Wesley Merritt’s cavalry joined the Union assault and routed Anderson’s corps, capturing 2,600 more Rebels, including Ewell. On the other side of Sailor’s Creek, Major General Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps hit Ewell’s reserves, capturing an additional 3,400 Confederates, including Lee’s oldest son, Major General Custis Lee.
“My God! Has the army been dissolved?”
As refugees from the battle began streaming ahead to Rice’s Station, Lee rode back toward the scene of the action. As he watched the rout from a knoll overlooking Sailor’s Creek, Lee exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”
Significance of the Battle of Sailor’s Creek
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek was catastrophic for the Confederacy. Lee lost nearly twenty percent of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 6. Official casualties totaled 7,700 killed, wounded, and captured or missing. Approximately 7,000 of that number were captives, including nine generals. The Union suffered only 1,200 casualties.
With Lee’s army ravaged, Grant continued his relentless pursuit, which ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House three days later.