Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 1865 

SAYLER’S CREEK 

LATE AFTERNOON

In 1865, the Sayler’s Creek area of central Virginia is a place of outstanding beauty. Verdant rolling hills compete with virgin forest to present a countryside that is uniquely American, a place where families can grow amid the splendors of nature. But the beauty of the area will soon be defiled by the ugliness of war. Grant’s Union army has finally arrived to confront Lee’s forces. Lee’s men are tired and hungry. Many have fought the north from the beginning, seeing action at Manassas, at Fredericksburg, and at Gettysburg. One group, in particular, the Stonewall Brigade, marched into battle under Stonewall Jackson, who, next to Lee, was the greatest of all southern generals. These same hardened fighters wept tears of grief when Jackson fell from his horse, the victim of friendly fire. Years of battle have reduced the numbers of the Stonewall Brigade from 6,000 soldiers to just a few hundred battle-tested veterans.

These men know the meaning of war. They also know the meaning, if not the precise military definition, of terms like “enfilade” and “field of fire” and “reverse-slope defense,” for they can execute them in their sleep. The Stonewall Brigade and the rest of Lee’s men, depleted as they are, are practiced experts at warfare.

Lee knows that his fighting force is splintered. Near a bucolic estate called Lockett’s Farm, the Jamestown Road crosses over Big Sayler’s Creek and Little Sayler’s Creek at a place called Double Bridges. There are, as the name implies, two narrow bridges. The wagons must all funnel into a narrow line and cross one at a time. Lee is miles away from his supply train and cannot protect it. His only hope is that the Union army will be too slow in catching up to the wagons.

Grant’s army is now in sight. The soldiers’ blue uniforms and the glint of their steel bayonets strike fear into the hearts of the teamsters, causing the wagons to attempt to cross Double Bridges two and three at a time. Wheels become tangled. Horses and mules balk in their traces, confused by the noise and smelling the panic. Their pace grows slower and slower, until one of the bridges actually collapses from the weight, and the Confederate advance comes to an abrupt halt.

Within minutes, the Union attacks. Sweeping down from the high ground, General Meade’s infantry pounces on the terrified Confederates, who abandon their wagons and race into the woods on foot.

The Confederate infantry waits a few hundred yards ahead of the chaos, watching. They stand shoulder to shoulder, their line of battle almost two miles wide. Thus are 4,000 of Lee’s troops poised to meet the Union attack.

Behind them, rebel wagons are burning on the double bridges above Sayler’s Creek. To the left of the Confederate force is the Appomattox River. Straight in front of them are thousands of advancing blue-clad Yankees. At first, the Confederate infantry line holds. But under withering artillery fire the men begin to fall back.

It is a mile-long retreat over open ground that offers almost no cover. The rebel infantry topple the wagons that have made it across the double bridges, using them as an impromptu breastworks, hiding behind a spoked wheel or a tilted axle. The sun cannot set quickly enough for these men. With 10,000 Union troops almost on top of them, darkness is the rebels’ only hope.

Night does not come soon enough, and the fight begins. Almost immediately, the Confederates take incredible losses. Artillery and bullets level any man who dares to stand still. Many soldiers quit the war right then and there, convinced that this endless wave of blue is unbeatable. They see the wagons afire, and hear the explosions of the ammunition inside, and know in an instant that of the three things a soldier needs to survive in wartime—bullets, sleep, and food—they have none.

Others, however, are more game. They abandon the cover of the wagons and begin to splash across Sayler’s Creek. They are rewarded.

Just as the North surges forward, hope arrives. It comes in the form of Robert E. Lee, who has spent the afternoon on horseback, trying to find his own army. He sits astride Traveller, looking down from a nearby ridgeline. “The disaster which had overtaken the army was in full view,” one of his officers will later write. “Teamsters with their teams and dangling traces, retreating infantry without guns, many without hats, a harmless mob, with massive columns of the enemy moving orderly on.”

This “harmless mob,” Lee realizes, is his own Army of Northern Virginia.

“My God,” says a horrified Lee, staring down at the columns of smoke and tongues of flames and stacks of bodies—so many that the ground along both branches of Sayler’s Creek is a carpet of gray and blue. “Has the army been dissolved?”

Two miles south of Lee’s viewpoint, and a half mile north of where General Custer still has a Confederate force pinned down, perhaps the most ferocious battle ever seen on American soil is unfolding.

“At three o’clock in the afternoon,” one Confederate soldier will remember, “we reached Sayler’s Creek, a small creek that at the time had overflowed its banks from the continuous rains of the past few days, giving the appearance of a small river. We halted a few minutes then waded across this stream and took our positions on the rising ground one hundred yards beyond.”

The hill is grassy, but the site of the Confederate stand is toward the back of the rise, under the cover of broom sedge and pine shrubs. Now the rebels hold the high ground. Any force attacking Lee’s army of almost 4,000 will have to expose themselves to fire while wading the four-foot-deep morass of Sayler’s Creek. If they get across safely, they will then have to fight their way uphill to the rebel positions.

“We threw ourselves prone upon the ground. Our battle line was long drawn out, exceedingly thin. Here we rested awaiting the attack, as the enemy had been following closely behind us,” a Confederate major will later chronicle.

At five-thirty, the Union artillery opens fire on the grassy hill, lobbing shells at the Confederate positions from just four hundred yards away. The rebels have no artillery of their own and cannot fire back. The screams of the wounded are soon drowned out by the whistle and explosion of shells. All the Confederates can do is hug the ground and pray as the Union gunners take “their artillery practice without let or hindrance.”

The shelling lasts twenty minutes. Under cover of that heavy fire, long blue lines of Union infantry wade the creek, separated into two battle lines, and slowly march up the hill. The Confederates are devastated by the precision artillery, but do not retreat. Instead, they lie flat on the ground, muskets pointed at the stream of blue uniforms picking their way up the grassy slope. A Confederate major steps boldly in front of the line and walks the entire length, exposing himself to fire as he reminds the rebels that no one is allowed to shoot until ordered to do so. He later recalls the instruction: “That when I said ‘ready’ they must all rise, kneeling on the right knee; that when I said ‘aim’ they must all aim about the knees of the advancing line; and that when I said ‘fire’ they must all fire together.”

Everything, as one officer notes, is as “still as the grave.” The advancing line of blue moves forward in a giant scrum, slowly ascending the hill. Some of the men wave white handkerchiefs, mocking the Confederates, jeering that they should surrender. But the rebels say nothing, letting the Union soldiers believe that the South is already beaten. The bluecoats refrain from charging, preferring to plod, letting the notion of surrender sink in, for the rebels surely know there is no way they can get off this hill alive.

“Ready!” comes the cry from the Confederate lines. They are low on ammunition and may get only a shot or two. Even then, reloading a musket takes time. Better to make each shot count.

“The men rose, all together, like a piece of mechanism, kneeling on their right knees and their faces set with an expression that meant—everything,” a Confederate officer will write.

On the cry of “Aim!” a line of horizontal musket barrels points directly at the blue wall. Then: “Fire!”

“I have never seen such an effect, physical and moral, produced by the utterance of one word,” marvels the Confederate major. “The enemy seemed to have been totally unprepared for it.”

The entire front row of Union soldiers falls in bloody chaos. The second line turns and runs down the hill.

This is Grant’s vaunted army, a force better rested, better fed, and better equipped than the half-dressed Confederates. And yet the bluecoats flee in terror, their white handkerchiefs littering the ground. It is a triumph, and in that instant the Confederate force is overcome by righteous indignation. The memory of that hard overnight march in the rain, the starvation, the delirious craziness born of exhaustion—all of it blends into a single moment of fury. The rebels leap to their feet and chase after the bluecoats. Down the hill they run, caps flying off, curses streaming from their mouths. Dead men are everywhere, on both sides, and the Confederates have to hop and jump over bodies. But the rebels never stop running.

The Union soldiers finally gather themselves. They stop, turn, and fire. Knowing they are outgunned, the Confederates retreat back to their positions, only to be surrounded as the Union force quickly counterattacks the hill.

And this time the bluecoats aren’t plodding. Union soldiers sprint up the hill, overrunning the Confederate positions. Out of ammunition, and heavily outnumbered, the Army of Northern Virginia still refuses to surrender. The fighting becomes hand to hand. Soldiers claw at each other, swinging fists, kicking. “The battle degenerated into a butchery and a confused melee of personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts,” one Confederate officer will write. “I had cautioned my men against wearing Yankee overcoats, especially in battle, but had not been able to enforce the order perfectly—and almost at my side I saw a young fellow of one of my companies jam the muzzle of his musket against the back of the head of his most intimate friend, clad in a Yankee overcoat, and blow his brains out.”

Although the battle is little remembered in history, witnesses will swear they have never seen more suffering, or a fight as desperate, as during the final moments of Sayler’s Creek.

And still it grows more vicious. None other than General George Armstrong Custer, who has been killing Confederates since breakfast, has broken off from his former position and races his cavalry through the pine thickets behind the rebel lines. His horsemen ride into the action behind him, sabers swinging. Custer is impervious to personal injury, his savagery today adding to his growing legend for fearlessness. Custer slashes his sword, showing no mercy. He spurs his men to do the same. Rebel troops on foot are cut to pieces by bullets and steel blades.

The Union artillerymen, not wanting to be left out, pull their guns to the edge of Sayler’s Creek and take aim into those stray bands of Confederate soldiers on the fringes of the fighting. Firing rounds of canister and grape—lethal small balls and bits of sharpened metal designed to maim and disfigure—the artillery adds to the chaos. On the ground, bodies missing heads, legs, and arms are sprawled in absurd contortions, a gruesome reminder of what close-quarter combat will yield.

Soon, one by one, the rebels raise their musket butts in the air as a signal of surrender. Union soldiers round up these men, whom they have fought so savagely for the previous hour. Then, shocked by the sunken eyes and gaunt Confederate faces, some of the bluecoats open their rucksacks and share their food.

The last rebels to surrender are the sailors and marines recently converted to infantry. Surrounded in a grove of trees, with no hope of escape, they lay down their rifles.

One Confederate corps has managed to escape from the confusion of Sayler’s Creek, and now it reaches General Lee at the top of the ridge. Seeing his forces trudging back toward him, Lee grabs a battle flag and holds it aloft. The Confederate Stars and Bars snaps in the wind, the flag’s bright red color a compass beacon guiding the weary surviving soldiers to safety. Union forces try to give chase but abandon the effort when the darkness makes it impossible to tell whether they are shooting at friend or foe.

A day that started so well for the Confederates at Rice’s Station, then saw triumph at High Bridge, is now finished. In the morning, Lee will continue his escape, but without 13 battle flags, 300 wagons, 70 ambulances, and almost 8,000 men, either killed or taken prisoner. Ten of Lee’s top officers are either dead or captured. Among the captured is his eldest son, Custis Lee.

The Union army, on the other hand, suffers 1,200 casualties. So fierce is the fighting, and so courageous the actions of the fighters, that 56 Union soldiers will receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions on the field that day.

Night falls, and so ends what will come to be known as the Black Thursday of the Confederacy. Half of Lee’s army is gone. Except for General Longstreet, his remaining generals think the situation is hopeless. Lee continues to improvise, still looking for a way to save his army and get to the Carolinas. Yet even he is devastated. “A few more Sayler’s Creeks and it will all be over,” sighs Marse Robert.

But Lee cannot bring himself to utter the one word he dreads most: “surrender.”

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