The evacuation of Farmville and subsequent fight at Cumberland Church continued to force Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia west. By the morning of April 8, Lee’s next objective was Appomattox Station, where he hoped to obtain critical supplies for his men. It was also crucial for Lee to reach the station first if he hoped to continue his movement before slipping into North Carolina. Lee was in a race to save what was left of his depleted army. Appomattox Station also began to loom large in the mind the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. After his divisions had routed the enemy at Sailor’s Creek two days earlier, the blue horsemen had continued their march as well, arriving at Prospect Station early in the day. While there, Sheridan received intelligence that Confederate supply trains had been spotted at Appomattox Station. The race was on as “Little Phil” turned his horsemen toward the station, with Bvt. Maj. George A. Custer’s Third Division leading the advance.
A West Virginia trooper in Custer’s division recalled “It was well understood that the command was now in Lee’s front, and in consequence, the men were in fine spirits. General Sheridan rode along the column toward the front, offering words of encouragement.”
It was the Confederates, however, that would eventually win the race to Appomattox Station. The lead elements of Lee’s army, Brig. Gen. Reuben L. Walker’s artillery battalion, supported by Brig. Gen. Martin Gary’s cavalry, began arriving early in the afternoon. The exhausted cannoneers slumped to the ground for a well needed rest. Although they had arrived in the station first, the Confederates had no idea of the mounted juggernaut heading straight for them.
Sometime around 4 p.m., the head of Custer’s division, Col. Alexander C.M. Pennington’s brigade, rode into view. As the Federal cavalryman moved forward, a surgeon recalled that Custer “directed two regiments of the division to move forward at a trot as advance guard. The balance of the command followed at the same gait. The advance had orders to charge the station the moment they came in sight of it and capture the trains.”
Closing in on the station, a curious incident took place. “Two young ladies came running, screaming down the walk leading to the road, from a large and elegant mansion” the surgeon wrote. “They are robbing us! They are robbing and trying to murder us! they screamed with all of their might. General Custer, without saying a word stopped short and quickly dismounted, ran up the walk just in time to catch a man in United States uniform running from the front door. With his fist, he almost annihilated the miserable scalawag. Then, running through the house, he caught another making his exit from the rear door. Catching up an axe, he threw it, hitting the brute in the back of his head, thus quickly disposing of the two wretches. In a moment he was in the saddle again…directing…the provost marshal to place a guard on the premises.”
Resuming his place at the head of his command, Custer sent his men forward. After capturing the trains, Custer turned his attention to Walker’s artillery. After two fruitless attacks by Pennington and Col. Henry Capeheart’s brigade, Custer finally ordered up Col. William Wells’ brigade around night fall. Around dark, Custer once again led his men forward, one trooper writing afterwards that the “flashes of the enemy’s guns, as reflected against the sky, resembled a furious storm of lighting.” This final assault carried the station, driving what was left of Walker’s command back down the Stage Road toward Appomattox Court House.
This action slammed the door shut for Lee. Arriving in the Appomattox River Valley, Lee could look westward and see Sheridan’s cavalry. Close on the heels of the Union cavalry was Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s Army of the James, along with the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. To the east, directly in Lee’s rear was the of the Army of the Potomac. To the north was the James River. The “Old Gray Fox” was cornered and the following day, April 9, would be one of the most pivotal for his army.