The little known engagement at the small community of Painesville illustrates well the chaotic and confused fighting of the Appomattox Campaign. During the six-day campaign, battles and skirmishes occurred every day. It was a complex campaign, with many moving parts, as columns from each army used various roads, and at different points, encountered each other. In addition, at different times each side had momentary numerical superiority over the other. Painesville on April 5 is such an example.
The Confederate army used several parallel roads for its wagon trains to allow the army to move efficiently and not clog any one route. Having turned west from Jetersville, the army’s columns were headed through Amelia County with Farmville as the next immediate objective (and linking up with the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina as the ultimate goal).
The wagon train of George Washington Custis Lee’s division (son of the commanding general), had left Richmond on the Manchester Pike, moved through Powhatan Court House and Tobaccoville, crossed the Appomattox River, and finally camped at Painesville on the night of the 4th. The next morning they resumed their march west.
General Phillip Sheridan ordered General Henry Davies and his cavalry brigade to scout ahead from Jetersville to the west on the morning of April 5th. His command include the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, 1st New Jersey Cavalry, and 10th and 24th New York Cavalry. The Union troopers moved over the country roads, through Painseville, and spotted the Confederate wagon train about four miles beyond.
Striking fast, the Confederates had little time to prepare. Ramsay’s North Carolina battery was in the process of unlimbering, and their infantry support (which included the only black troops to be fielded by the Confederate army) formed to receive the charge.
Davies wrote that, “I immediately moved down at the trot, sending the First Pennsylvania Cavalry . .. ahead at the gallop, and they succeeded in striking the train just as a piece of artillery had been placed in position to repel my advance.”
The defenders repulsed this initial charge. They Union cavalry reformed and attacked again, this time capturing the guns, and scattering the guards of the train. Confederate courier R.M. Doswell recalled, “I saw a wagon train guarded by Confederate negro soldiers . . . When within about one hundred yards of an in the rear of the wagon train, I observed some Union cavalry a short distance away on elevated ground forming to charge and the negro soldiers forming to meet the attack, which was met successfully . . . The cavalry charged again, and the negro troops surrendered.”
Then the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry and 24th New York Cavalry rode along the length of the train, capturing animals, men, and lighting the wagons on fire. Soon 20,000 desperately needed rations were aflame. In all the Federals took 11 battle flags, 320 white and 310 black prisoners, five guns, and over 400 animals. Seven Union troopers earned the Medal of Honor in the action. The muddy road was littered with burning wagons, dead men and horses, and the debris of battle. The victorious Federals rode back toward their army at Jetersville, prisoners in tow, yet their day was far from over.
Upon receiving word of the attack at Painesville, General Robert E. Lee dispatched General Fitzhugh Lee’s Cavalry to the area. Fitz Lee wrote that, “I found the enemy had attacked and burned a portion of the cavalry train, including my own headquarters wagons.”
The Confederate troopers passed by the destroyed wagon train near Painesville, and continued east. They met up with Gary’s South Carolina Cavalry brigade, and soon found Davie’s rearguard. Fitz Lee had his own division and that of General Thomas Rosser charge into the Federals. A running fight ensued as both forces moved east, through Amelia Springs, towards Jetersville, a total of three miles.
Davies found the road to Jetersville, and safety, blocked by Confederate troopers ahead of him. Directing the 1st Pennsylvania and 10th New York to attack, they succeeded in breaking through, allowing his column to make it back to the main Union army at Jetersville. The 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry had been dispatched from Jetersville, aiding in the effort to get Davie’s column back to safety.
In the confused fighting during their withdrawal, the federal troopers lost many of their prisoners. They also suffered about 30 killed and 150 wounded. The Confederate broke off the pursuit as they neared Jetersville, where the bulk of the Union army was concentrated.
As with most Medals of Honor awarded to Union troops, the citations were for the capture of flags. Yet Quartermaster Sergeant Stephen Chandler of the 24th New York Cavalry earned it for something else.
The report of his action states that he, “Under severe fire of the enemy and of the troops in retreat, went between the lines to the assistance of a wounded and helpless comrade, and rescued him from death or capture.” This also attests to the close quarter fighting during the movement back towards Jetesrville.
Trooper Aaron Tompkins of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry earned the medal after he, “Charged into the enemy’s ranks and captured a battle flag, having a horse shot under him and his cheeks and shoulders cut with a saber.”
Along the country roads of western Amelia County that week, desperate men, white and black, found themselves cut off from their respective armies. These refugees of the army went different ways, some trying to rejoin their units, others looking to get away- some for home, others for a new start later.