WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5, 1865
General Sam Grant is also on a midnight ride. The great hooves of his horse beat a tattoo on the bad roads and forest trails of of his horse beat a tattoo on the bad roads and forest trails of central Virginia. Speed is of the essence. Scouts report that Lee is escaping, marching his men through the night in a bold attempt to reach rations at Farmville. From there it’s just a short march to High Bridge, a stone-and-wood structure wide enough to handle an army. Once Lee crosses and burns the bridge behind him, his escape will be complete, and the dreadful war will continue.
Tonight decides everything. Grant is so close to stopping Lee. So very close. Grant digs his spurs into his horse, named Jeff Davis after the Confederate president, in a gesture uncharacteristically vindictive of Grant, who is usually polite and respectful even to his enemies. Grant knows that he must ride hard. Lee must be captured now. And Grant must capture him personally.
As always, his battle plan is simple: Get in front of Lee. Block his path. How many times has he explained this to Generals Sheridan and Meade? Block Lee’s path, stop him in his tracks, then attack and crush the Army of Northern Virginia. So how is it that Lee came within spitting distance of the Jetersville roadblock and escaped?
It confounds Grant that his top generals are so terrified of Lee, holding back when they should rush in. The Union soldiers are better armed, better fed, and far more rested than Lee’s men. The generals must be relentless, pressing forward without ceasing until the war is won. But they are not.
So it is up to Grant to lead the way.
The culprit, Grant decides, is not General Phil Sheridan. He and the cavalry are more than doing their part, charging far and wide over the Virginia countryside, harassing Lee’s wagons and skirmishing with Confederate cavalry. Sheridan is Grant’s eyes and ears, sending scouts to track Lee’s movements and ensuring that Marse Robert doesn’t disappear into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Grant would be lost without Sheridan.
The same cannot be said of General George Meade. His force reached Jetersville at dusk on April 5, after a dreary day of pursuit. But rather than launch an immediate assault on Lee’s rear, as Grant ordered, Meade halted for the night, claiming that his men were too tired to fight.
Grant knows there’s more to it than that. The problem, in a nutshell, is the unspoken rivalry between infantry and cavalry—between the unglamorous and the swashbuckling. Meade’s refusal to fight is his way of pouting about the cavalry divisions sharing the roads with his men, slowing their march. “Behold, the whole of Merritt’s division of cavalry filing in from a side road and completely closing the way,” one of Meade’s aides wrote home. “That’s the way it is with those cavalry bucks: they bother and howl about infantry not being up to support them, and they are precisely the people who are always blocking the way … they are arrant boasters.
“To hear Sheridan’s staff talk, you would suppose ten-thousand mounted carbineers had crushed the entire Rebellion … . The plain truth is, they are useful and energetic fellows, but commit the error of thinking they can do everything and that no one else does anything.”
So Meade made his point by refusing to attack.
Sheridan was furious. “I wish you were here,” he wired Grant. “We can capture the Army of Northern Virginia if enough force be thrown to this point.”
Grant reads between the lines. Rather than wait until morning, and the chance that Meade will find another excuse for not fighting, he orders his staff to mount up for the sixteen-mile midnight ride to Jetersville. Never mind that it is a cold, pitch-black night. There is purpose in the journey. They travel carefully, lest they surprise Union troops and be mistakenly shot as southern scouts.
Grant is always one to keep his emotions in check. But as he guides his horse from the village of Nottoway Court House to Jetersville, from the sandy soils west of Petersburg to the quartz and red soil of the Blue Ridge foothills, Grant fears that Lee is on the verge of outfoxing him again.
Grant knows that the Confederates are beatable. His spies captured a note from one of Lee’s aides, detailing the poor morale and horrible conditions the Confederates are experiencing. Grant is also aware of the massive desertions. He has heard about the roads littered with rifles and bedrolls, abandoned wagons and broken horses. He knows that an astronomic number of Confederate men have been taken prisoner. But all this means nothing if he cannot get ahead of Lee and block the Confederate escape to the Carolinas. And not just that: he must win what he calls the “life and death struggle for Lee to get south to his provisions.”
Once a second-rate fighting force, the Union soldiers have gained remarkable strength since the assault on Petersburg. “Nothing seemed to fatigue them,” Grant marvels. “They were ready to move without rations and travel without rest until the end.” Unlike Lee’s bedraggled force, Grant’s men march with a bounce in their step. Bands play. Nobody straggles or falls out of ranks. They walk the unheard-of distance of thirty miles in one day.
Now Grant and the cavalry detail that guards his life walk their horses through a forest to Sheridan’s camp. Sentries cry out, ordering them to stop. Grant steps forward to show himself. Within seconds the sentries allow them to pass and usher Grant to Sheridan’s headquarters.
Grant speaks briefly with “Little Phil,” the short and fiery dynamo who makes no secret that he wants his cavalry “to be there at the death” of the Confederate insurrection. Then the two men saddle up and ride through the darkness to Meade’s headquarters in Jetersville. The lanky Pennsylvanian is in bed with what he claims to be a fever. Grant chalks it up to fear and orders Meade to get his army ready to attack.
Meade was a hero of Gettysburg, outwitting Lee on the battlefield despite having a reputation for being timid and temperamental. At forty-nine, the “Old Snapping Turtle” is the oldest and most experienced man in the room. Grant bears him a grudging respect, but respect isn’t enough right now. Grant needs a man who will press the attack, day and night, fresh or exhausted, ill or in good health.
Meade is not that man. He never has been. Furthermore, it is not merely a question of heart anymore but of logistics: it is simply impossible for Meade’s infantry to outrace Lee to Farmville. Marse Robert had a good head start, and Meade’s halt for the night only increased the distance. Grant now thinks of Lee, somewhere out there in the darkness, sitting tall astride Traveller, not letting his men stop their all-night march for any reason. Lee has cavalry, artillery, and infantry at his disposal, should it come to a fight.
It will take a fast and mobile fighting force to beat the rebels. In other words: Sheridan’s cavalry.
Grant delivers his orders.
There will be no more waiting, he decrees, proposing a pincer movement, Sheridan in front and Meade from the rear. At first light Meade’s infantry will chase and find Lee’s army, then harass them and slow their forward movement. Sheridan, meanwhile, will “put himself south of the enemy and follow him to his death.” In this way, the Confederate race to North Carolina will stop dead in its tracks. As Sheridan revels in the glory to come, Meade bites his tongue and accepts Grant’s decision. He has to.
There is nothing more Sam Grant can do. His midnight ride has produced exactly the results he was hoping for. Promptly at six A.M., the earth shakes with the clip-clop of thousands of hooves as Sheridan’s cavalry trot west in their quest to get in front of Lee. Meade’s army, meanwhile, marches north to get behind Lee, the two armies forming Grant’s lethal pincers.
Meade’s men march past Grant as he sits down at sunrise, lighting a cigar. Grant is confident. Finally, the Black Thursday of the Confederacy has arrived.