As the days passed and the armies slogged forward in the days after the breakthrough at Petersburg, civilian and soldier alike sensed a coming end of the Army of Northern Virginia. Through the week, Union cavalry and infantry cut off the Confederate retreat, small battles and constant skirmishing erupted along the retreat/pursuit route and the promised Southern supply wagons did not survive Sheridan and his Yankee boys.
Distant from the scenes of final, large scale campaign in Virginia, Mary Chesnut recorded the fall of Richmond in her diary, days after it actually happened. On the muddy roads, lined with fallen, deserters, and abandoned equipment, Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia Infantry kept running, trying to stay ahead of the Union soldiers; still, his compassion did not end and he took time to aid a hurting comrade. On the other side, General Joshua L. Chamberlain pressed his men in the Fifth Corps to exhaustion, following orders. Eventually, he gave in for some rest, until a messenger arrived in the darkness with history-making news.
Those who were there or following the news from afar can give us a better glimpse into the dangers, difficulties, and uncertainty on the road to Appomattox. Here is the account in the words of Chesnut, Warfield, and Chamberlain.
Mary Chesnut’s Diary
April 7, 1865
Richmond has fallen – and I have no heart to write about it. Grant broke through our lines. Sherman cut through them. Stoneman is this side of Danville.
They are too many for us.
Everything lost in Richmond, even our archives.
Blue-black is our horizon.[i]
Edgar Warfield’s Memoirs
No rations were issued to us, the horses and mules faring as badly as the men. On the 7th rations were issued to a portion of the army. We got none, and in consequence we were continually abandoning and destroying artillery wagons to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy. As soon as the horses gave out from fatigue the pieces were run to the side of the road and cut down.
There was a great deal of straggling, the men falling down by the wayside and being taken prisoner. One poor fellow of my company, who was making great efforts to keep up, finally fell down from complete exhaustion. He said to me as I left him, “I can go no farther, but tell Colonel Herbert that I may be taken prisoner but I will never take the oath.” In a few minutes he was in the hands of the enemy. He never lived to reach home. A few weeks later I called upon to assist in putting his body in the ground at Ivy Hill.
Near Farmville I was delayed a while when I stopped to put my wounded comrade, Hal Appich, in a church which had been converted into a temporary hospital, with the ladies of the town acting as nurses. The enemy was held in check not over two hundred yards off by our rear guard. A portion of this guard had taken position under the church, the rear of which was built on brick piers. While I was in the hospital the bullets were entering the windows, and the cries of the wounded and the screams of the nurses were pitiful to hear.
I carried my comrade on my back down the aisle and put him just inside the chancel rail on the floor. I bade him goodbye and ran out as fast as I could and started down the street. I met a mounted officer of my acquaintance who called out to me to look behind. He was directing my attention to a body of Union cavalry who were crossing just back of me. I answered by telling him to look in the opposite direction where a body of Sherman’s men were crossing the main street about two blocks from where we were.
I called out to him that they would surely get him. Then I ran across the street and through a gateway into a yard, climbed over the back fence, and finally, after climbing several other fences, reached the fields where the cavalry could not well go. In less than two hours I was up with our troops. My friend was captured immediately and spent some time in a Northern prison before returning home, as he told me after the war. Had he abandoned his horse and followed me he too would have escaped.
The morning of April 9 found us near Appomattox Court House…[ii]
Joshua L. Chamberlain’s Reminiscence
The 8th of April found the Fifth Corps at Prospect Station, on the South Side Railroad, nearly abreast of the head of Lee’s retreating column, while Meade was with his two corps close upon Lee’s rear at New Store, ten miles north of us, across the Appomattox. At noon of this day, General Ord, of the Army of the James, joined us with two divisions of the Twenty-fourth Corps under General Gibbon, and Birney’s Diviion of the Twenty-fifth Corps, – colored troops; Ord, by virtue of seniority, becoming commanding officer of the whole. He was a stranger to us all, but his simple and cordial manner toward Sheridan and Griffin, and even to us subordinates, made him welcome. We pushed on, – the cavalry ahead.
The Fifth Corps had a very hard march that day, – made more so in the afternoon and night by the lumbering obstructions of the rear of Ord’s tired column, by courtesy given the road before us, the incessant check fretting our men almost to mutiny. We had been rushed all day to keep up with the cavalry, but this constant checking was worse. We did not know that Grant had sent orders for the Fifth Corps to march all night without halting; but it was not necessary for us to know it. After twenty-nine miles of this kind of marching, at the blackest hour of night, human nature called a halt. Dropping by the roadside, right and left, wet or dry, down went the men as in a swoon. Officer slid out of the saddle, loosened the girth, slipped an arm through a loop of bridle-rein, and sunk to sleep. Horses stood with drooping heads just above their masters’ faces. All dreaming, – one knows no what, of past, or coming, possible or fated.
Scarcely is the first broken dream begun when a cavalry man comes splashing down the road, and vigorously dismounts, pulling from his jacket front a crumpled note. The sentinel standing watch by his commander, worn in body but alert in every sense, touches you on the shoulder. “Orders, sir, I think!” You rise on elbow, strike a match, and with smarting, streaming eyes read the brief, thrilling note from Sheridan – like this, as I remember: “I have cut across the enemy at Appomattox Station, and captured three of his trains. If you can possibly push your infantry up here tonight, we will have great results in the morning.”
Ah, sleep no more! The startling bugle notes ring out “The General” – “To the march!” Word is sent for the men to take a bite of such as they had for food: the promised rations would not be up till noon, and by that time we should be – where? Few try to eat, no matter what. Meanwhile, almost with one foot in the stirrup you take from the hands of the black boy a tin plate of nondescript food and a dipper of miscalled coffee… You eat and drink at a swallow; mount, and away to get to the head of the column before you sound the “Forward.” They are there – the men: shivering to their senses as if risen out of the earth, but something in them not of it! Now sounds the “Forward,” for the last time in our long-drawn strife; and they move – these men – sleepless, supperless, breakfastless, sore-footed, stiff-joined, sense-benumbed, but with flushed faces pressing for the front.
By sunrise we have reached Appomattox Station….[iii]
[i] Mary Chesnut, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, (edited by C. Vann Woodward, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981), pg 782.
[ii] Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry, (McLean, EPM Publications, 1996), pgs 171-172.
[iii] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “Bayonet! Forward”: My Civil War Reminiscences (Gettysburg, Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), pgs 143-144.