THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 1865
RICE’S STATION, VIRGINIA
General Robert E. Lee has been up all night yet still looks crisp and composed as he rides, backlit by the rising sun, into Rice’s Station. The Army of Northern Virginia, looking for all the world like the most beaten-down fighting force in history, cheers as the beloved general glides past on Traveller. Marse Robert is stately and rugged, six feet tall and afraid of no man. He is almost asleep in the saddle, thanks to the all-night march. But his broad gray hat remains firmly in place as he acknowledges the adulation of his suffering men. Many don’t have shoes; those that do can put two fingers through the rotting leather soles. Half of Lee’s force has quit the war between Petersburg and this tiny depot, slinking into the woods to search for the slightest morsel of a meal and then not coming back. Those who remain are so crazed from lack of sleep and belly-hollowing hunger that their cheers resemble frantic drunken slurs.
Many are too weak even to shoulder a musket, but Lee knows that somehow they will fight when called to do so. The roads of central Virginia are now littered with the detritus of Lee’s retreating army: guns, blankets, broken wagons, artillery limbers, dead horses, and dead men.
It has now been four days since the Confederate army began retreating from Petersburg. The soldiers have endured the betrayal at Amelia Court House, where boxcars full of food had been stolen by Confederate scavengers. Still, Lee’s men marched on, nerves frazzled by the threat of Union attack, but never stopping for more than five or ten minutes to sleep in the mud and rain before resuming their march. The general understands their suffering. Still, he orders them to push on.
Now they see that he was right all along. For the Army of Northern Virginia has eluded the army of General Ulysses S. Grant. Better yet, there are rations waiting just a few miles away, in Farmville.
Which is why Lee’s crazed soldiers cheer him on this dawn as they march into Rice’s Station. Lee is all they believe in right now—not Confederate president Jefferson Davis, not the Army of Northern Virginia, not even terms like “states’ rights” or “pro-slavery,” which spurred many men to enlist in the Confederate cause. Now those things mean nothing. Only Marse Robert matters.
They would follow him into hell.
Ahead of General Lee is his trusted point man General Pete Longstreet. Behind Lee is the rear guard under the command of General John B. Gordon, the fearless Georgian. In between is a ten-mile-long supply column, supervised by General Richard “Fighting Dick” Anderson and General Richard Ewell, a veteran soldier with just one leg who oversees a scrappy band of bureaucrats, frontline veterans, and landlocked sailors who escaped from Richmond just days earlier.
The tiny hamlet of Rice’s Station is a crossroads. One way leads to the Carolinas and safety; the other direction leads back to Petersburg. Longstreet orders cannons pointed down the Petersburg road, to scare off any Union force that might be stalking them. The tired men dig trenches and earthworks to protect themselves from bullets. The woods serve as latrines, the newly dug trenches as beds. Longstreet’s mandate is to remain in Rice’s Station until Lee’s entire army has passed through. Only then will he and his men evacuate.
Incredibly, a bleary-eyed Robert E. Lee is reveling in the moment. The air is fresh, scrubbed clean by the night’s rain. Birds are singing to greet this fine spring morning. He knows that Farmville is less than an hour away, with its boxcars filled with smoked meat, cornmeal, and all the makings of a great military feast. Advance scouts have confirmed that the food is actually there this time. Looters have not touched it.
The plan is for Lee’s men to fill their empty bellies in Farmville this morning, then march over the great span known as High Bridge, which towers over the Appomattox River, separating central and western Virginia. Lee will order the bridge burned immediately after they cross, preventing the Union from following. The Carolinas will be reached in days.
Lee’s escape is so close.
But then grim news arrives. A flying column of Union cavalry galloped through Rice an hour ago. They are now ahead of the Confederates. Longstreet’s scouts report that 800 bluecoats on foot and on horseback are headed for High Bridge. Their goal, obviously, is to burn the bridge and close Lee’s escape route.
General Lee quietly ponders Longstreet’s information. He knows he has no way of stopping this Union advance.
For one of the few times in his adult life, Robert E. Lee is stymied.
Lee hears the thunder of approaching hooves. General Thomas Lafayette Rosser, a gregarious twenty-eight-year-old Texan, gallops his cavalry into Rice’s Station. Rosser’s roommate at West Point was the equally audacious George Armstrong Custer, now a Union general involved on the other side of this very fight.
Longstreet approaches Rosser and, warning him about the Union plan, screams, “Go after the bridge burners. Capture or destroy the detachment, even if it takes the last man of your command to do it.”
Rosser salutes, his face stolid. Only afterward does he grin, then bark the order. His cavalry, enlisted men and officers alike, gallop toward High Bridge. The quiet morning air explodes with noise as hundreds of hooves pound into the narrow dirt road.
When the war first broke out, Thomas Lafayette Rosser was so eager to take up arms for the Confederacy that he dropped out of West Point two weeks before graduation. Starting as a lieutenant, he distinguished himself at more than a dozen key battles, among them Manassas, Bull Run, and Gettysburg. Though wounded several times, Rosser never altered his daring approach to combat. In January 1865, as the Army of Northern Virginia huddled in its Petersburg defenses, Rosser selected 300 of his toughest riders for an impossible mission. They crossed the Allegheny Mountains in the dead of winter, seeking to destroy the Union infantry headquartered in the town of Beverly, West Virginia. Thunderstorms drenched them their second day on the march; then the temperature plummeted below zero, freezing their overcoats stiff. But those hardships actually helped Rosser, making the attack a complete surprise. The daring nighttime raid yielded 800 Union prisoners.
So Longstreet knows that Rosser is the sort of man who will not be afraid of the “kill or be killed” order. Rosser will not let him down.
After Rosser departs, there is nothing to do but wait. As Longstreet directs his men to strengthen their impromptu defenses in Rice’s Station, Lee can only wonder how long it will take the rest of his army and its wagon train to catch up. With every passing second, the danger of Grant’s scouts finding his army grows. Lee cannot let this happen. He must get over High Bridge by the end of the day.
Overcome with exhaustion, at last the fifty-eight-year-old general instructs his orderly to find someplace for him to nap. It is midmorning. Lee will close his eyes just long enough to feel rejuvenated. Then he will begin perhaps his last campaign. If he doesn’t get over High Bridge, Lee knows, he will be defeated.