Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWO

SUNDAY, APRIL 2, 1865 

PETERSBURG, VIRGINIA

There is no North versus South in Petersburg right now. Only Grant versus Lee—and Grant has the upper hand. Lee is the tall, rugged Virginian with the silver beard and regal air.

Grant, forty-two, is sixteen years younger, a small, introspective man who possesses a fondness for cigars and a whisperer’s way with horses. For eleven long months they have tried to outwit one another. But as this Sunday morning descends further and further into chaos, it becomes almost impossible to remember the rationale that has defined their rivalry for so long.

At the heart of it all is Petersburg, a two-hundred-year-old city with rail lines spoking outward in five directions. The Confederate capital at Richmond lies twenty-three miles north—or, in the military definition, based upon the current location of Lee’s army, to the rear.

The standoff began last June, when Grant abruptly abandoned the battlefield at Cold Harbor and wheeled toward Petersburg. In what would go down as one of history’s greatest acts of stealth and logistics, Grant withdrew 115,000 men from their breastworks under cover of darkness and marched them south, crossed the James River without a single loss of life, and then pressed due west to Petersburg. The city was unprotected. A brisk Union attack would have taken the city within hours. It never happened.

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant

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Grant’s commanders dawdled. Lee raced in reinforcements. The Confederates dug in around Petersburg just in time, building the trenches and fortifications they would call home through the blazing heat of summer, the cool of autumn, and the snow and bitter freezing rain of the long Virginia winter.

Under normal circumstances, Grant’s next move would be to surround the city, cutting off those rail lines. He could then effect a proper siege, his encircled troops denying Lee’s army and the inhabitants of Petersburg all access to food, ammunition, and other supplies vital to life itself—or, in more graphic terms, Grant’s men would be the hangman’s noose choking the life out of Petersburg. Winning the siege would be as simple as cinching the noose tighter and tighter with each passing day, until the rebels died of starvation or surrendered, whichever came first.

But the stalemate at Petersburg is not a proper siege, even though the press is fond of calling it that. Grant has Lee pinned down on three sides but has not surrounded his entire force. The Appomattox River makes that impossible. Broad and deep, it flows through the heart of Petersburg. The Confederates control all land north of the river and use it as a natural barrier against Union attack from the rear. This allows resupply trains to chug down from Richmond on a regular basis, keeping the Confederates armed and fed.

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In this way there is normalcy, allowing men like Lee to attend church on Sundays, as he would in peacetime. Or a young general like A. P. Hill to live on a nearby estate with his pregnant wife and two small daughters, enjoying parenthood and romance. The men on both sides of the trenches live in squalor and mud, enduring rats and deprivation. But there is order there, too, as they read their newspapers and letters from home and cook their meager breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Confederate lines are arranged in a jagged horseshoe, facing south—thirty—seven miles of trenches and fortifications in all. The outer edges of the horseshoe are two miles from the city center, under the commands of A. P. Hill on the Confederate right and John B. Gordon on the left. Both are among Lee’s favorite and most courageous generals, so it is natural that he has entrusted Petersburg’s defenses to them.

The cold, hard truth, however, is that Robert E. Lee’s dwindling army is reduced to just 50,000 men—only 35,000 of them ready to fight. String them out along thirty-seven miles and they are spread very thin indeed. But they are tough. Time and again over the past 293 days, Grant has attacked. And time and again, Lee’s men have held fast.

Lee cannot win at Petersburg. He knows this. Grant has almost four times as many soldiers and a thousand more cannon. The steam whistles of approaching trains have grown less and less frequent in the past few months, and Lee’s men have begun to starve. Confederate rations were once a pound of meal and a quarter pound of bacon a day, with an occasional tin of peas. Now such a meal would be considered a fantasy. “Starvation, literal starvation, was doing its deadly work. So depleted and poisoned was the blood of many of Lee’s men from insufficient and unsound food that a slight wound which would probably not have been reported at the beginning of the war would often cause blood poison, gangrene, and death,” one Confederate general will later write.

Many Confederate soldiers slide out of their trenches on moonless nights and sprint over to the Union lines to surrender—anything to fill their aching bellies. Those that remain are at their breaking point. The best Lee can hope for is to escape. For months and months, this has meant one of two options: abandon the city under cover of darkness and pull back toward Richmond or punch a hole in the Union lines and march south. In both cases, the goal is to reach the Carolinas and the waiting Confederate reinforcements.

On the afternoon of April 1, Grant removes the second option. At the decisive Battle of Five Forks, General Phil Sheridan and 45,000 men capture a pivotal crossing, cutting off the main road to North Carolina, handing General George Pickett his second disastrous loss of the war—the first coming at Gettysburg, and the infamous ill-fated charge that bears his name. Five Forks is the most lopsided Union victory of the war. More than 2,900 southern troops are lost.

It is long after dark when word of the great victory reaches Grant. He is sitting before a campfire, smoking one of the cigars he came to cherish long ago in the Mexican War. Without pausing, Grant pushes his advantage. He orders another attack along twelve miles of Confederate line. He hopes this will be the crushing blow, the one that will vanquish Lee and his army once and for all. His soldiers will attack just before dawn, but the artillery barrage will commence immediately. This is the bombardment Lincoln watches from eight miles away in City Point—the president well understanding that the massive barrage will cause devastating casualties and panic in the Confederate ranks.

The infantry opens fire at four A.M., per Grant’s orders, with a small diversionary attack to the east of Petersburg—cannon and musket fire mainly, just enough to distract the Confederates.

Forty-five minutes later, as soon there is enough light to see across to the enemy lines, Grant launches hell. Some 100,000 men pour into the Confederate trenches, screaming curses, throwing themselves on the overmatched rebels. The fighting is often hand to hand, and at such close range that the soldiers can clearly see and smell the men they’re killing. And, of course, they hear the screams of the dying.

The Union attack is divided into two waves. Just a few hours earlier, Major General John G. Parke was so sure that the assault would fail that he requested permission to call it off. But now Parke obeys orders and leads the bluecoats to the right flank. Major General Horatio Wright, employing a revolutionary wedge-shaped attack column, charges from the left flank. Wright is a West Point-trained engineer and will later have a hand in building the Brooklyn Bridge and completing the Washington Monument. He has spent months scrutinizing the Confederate defenses, searching for the perfect location to smash the rebels. Wright is far beyond ready for this day—and so are his men.

General Wright’s army shatters Lee’s right flank, spins around to obliterate A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, then makes a U-turn and marches on Petersburg—all within two hours. The attack is so well choreographed that many of his soldiers are literally miles in front of the main Union force. The first rays of morning sunshine have not even settled upon the Virginia countryside when, lacking leadership and orders, Wright’s army is stymied because no other Union divisions have stepped up to assist him. Wright’s army must stop its advance.

Meanwhile, Lee and his assistants, Generals Pete Longstreet and A. P. Hill, gape at Wright’s army from the front porch of Lee’s Confederate headquarters. They can see the destruction right in front of them. At first, as Longstreet will later write, “it was hardly light enough to distinguish the blue from the gray.” The three of them stand there, Lee with his wrap against the chill, as the sun rises high enough to confirm their worst fears: every soldier they can see wears blue.

A horrified A. P. Hill realizes that his army has been decimated. Lee faces the sobering fact that Union soldiers are just a few short steps from controlling the main road he plans to use for his personal retreat. Lee will be cut off if the bluecoats in the pasture continue their advance. The next logical step will be his own surrender.

Which is why, as he rushes back into the house and dresses quickly, Lee selects his finest gray uniform, a polished pair of riding boots, and then takes the unusual precaution of buckling a gleaming ceremonial sword around his waist—just in case he must offer it to his captors.

It is Sunday, and normally Lee would be riding his great gray gelding, Traveller, into Petersburg for services. Instead, he must accomplish three things immediately: the first is to escape back into the city; the second is to send orders to his generals, telling them to fall back to the city’s innermost defenses and hold until the last man or nightfall, whichever comes first. The third is to evacuate Petersburg and retreat back across the Petersburg bridges, wheel left, and race south toward the Carolinas.

There, Lee believes, he can regain the upper hand. The Confederate army is a nimble fighting force, at its best on open ground, able to feint and parry. Once he regains that open ground, Lee can keep Grant’s army off balance and gain the offensive.

If any of those three events do not take place, however, he will be forced to surrender—most likely before dusk.

Fortune, however, is smiling on Lee. Those Union soldiers have no idea that Marse Robert himself is right in front of them, for if they did, they would attack without ceasing. Lee is the most wanted man in America. The soldier who captures him will become a legend.

The Union scouts can clearly see the small artillery battery outside Lee’s headquarters, the Turnbull house, and assume that it is part of a much larger rebel force hiding out of sight. Too many times, on too many battlefields, soldiers who failed to observe such discretion have been shot through like Swiss cheese. Rather than rush forward, the Union scouts hesitate, looking fearfully at Lee’s headquarters.

Seizing the moment, Lee escapes. By nightfall, sword still buckled firmly around his waist, Lee crosses the Appomattox River and then orders his army to do the same.

The final chase has begun.

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