Prelude to the Battle of Rice’s Station
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 Confederate 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 Confederates 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 Confederates 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 and join forces with Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of North Carolina.
As Lee moved his army west, he attempted to slow the federal pursuit by destroying bridges behind him. A key bridge along his path was High Bridge, a railroad bridge that spanned the Appomattox River about six miles east of Farmville. Constructed in 1854, the bridge was an engineering marvel, 2,400 feet long and reaching a height of 125 feet above the river. Next to the railroad bridge and closer to the valley floor stood a smaller bridge built for wagon traffic.
April 6, 1865 — Clash at Rice’s Station
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. When Longstreet’s vanguard reached High Bridge, they entrenched to secure access to the bridge until the Confederate army had passed.
Gibbon Skirmishes with Longstreet Near Rice’s Station
Early in the afternoon, the 24th Corps of the Army of the James, commanded by Major General John Gibbon, approached Rice’s Station on its way to destroy High Bridge. When Gibbon encountered Longstreet’s entrenchments, he deployed his soldiers for battle and heavy skirmishing ensued.
With evening approaching, Gibbon chose not to until the next day. During the night, the Confederate army safely passed over High Bridge, and Longstreet withdrew toward Farmville.
Significance of the Battle of Rice’s Station
Neither side lost many soldiers at the Battle of Rice’s Station. The skirmishing impacted Lee’s retreat, however, by diverting attention and possible Confederate reinforcements away from the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, which was raging just a few miles to the east.