Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIVE

TUESDAY, APRIL 4, 1865 

AMELIA COURT HOUSE, VIRGINIA

As Booth and Lucy depart Newport long before their supper can be delivered, Robert E. Lee’s soldiers are marching forty long miles to dine on anything they can find, all the while looking over their shoulders, fearful that Grant and the Union army will catch them from behind.

Lee has an eight-hour head start after leaving Petersburg. He figures that if he can make it to Amelia Court House before Grant catches him, he and his men will be amply fed by the waiting 350,000 rations of smoked meat, bacon, biscuits, coffee, sugar, flour, and tea that are stockpiled there. Then, after that brief stop to fill their bellies, they will resume their march to North Carolina.

And march they must. Even though Jefferson Davis and his cabinet have already fled Richmond and traveled to the Carolinas on the very same rail line that is delivering the food to Lee’s forces, there is no chance of the army using the railway as an escape route. There simply isn’t enough time to load and transport all of Lee’s 30,000 men.

The day-and-a-half trudge to Amelia Court House begins optimistically enough, with Lee’s men happy to finally be away from Petersburg and looking forward to their first real meal in months. But forty miles on foot is a long way, and mile by mile the march turns into a death pageant. The line of retreating rebels and supply wagons stretches for twenty miles. The men are in wretched physical condition after months in the trenches. Their feet have lost their calluses and their muscles the firm tone they knew earlier in the war, when the Army of Northern Virginia was constantly on the march. Even worse, each painful step is a reminder that, of the two things vital to an army on the move—food and sleep—they lack one and have no chance of getting the other.

Lee’s army is in total disarray. There is no longer military discipline, or any attempt to enforce it. The men swear under their breaths, grumbling and swearing a thousand other oaths about wanting to go home and quit this crazy war. The loose columns of Confederate soldiers resemble a mob of hollow-eyed zombies instead of a highly skilled fighting force. The men “rumbled like persons in a dream,” one captain will later write. “It all seemed to me like a troubled vision. I was consumed by fever, and when I attempted to walk I staggered like a drunken man.”

The unlucky are barefoot, their leather boots and laces rotted away from the rains and mud of winter. Others wear ankle-high Confederate brogans with holes in the soles and uppers. The only men sporting new boots are those who stripped them off dead Union soldiers. The southerners resent it that everything the Union soldiers wear seems to be newer, better, and in limitless supply. A standing order has been issued for Confederate soldiers not to dress in confiscated woolen Union overcoats, but given a choice between being accidentally shot by a fellow southerner or surviving the bitter nightly chill, the rebels pick warmth every time. A glance up and down the retreat shows the long gray line speckled everywhere with blue.

Bellies rumble. No one sings. No one bawls orders. A Confederate officer later sets the scene: there is “no regular column, no regular pace. When a soldier became weary he fell out, ate his scanty rations—if indeed, he had any to eat—rested, rose, and resumed the march when the inclination dictated. There were not many words spoken. An indescribable sadness weighed upon us.”

It is even harder for the troops evacuating Richmond, on their way to link up with Lee at Amelia Court House. Many are not soldiers at all—they are sailors who burned their ships rather than let them fall into Union hands. Marching is new to them. Mere hours into the journey, many have fallen out of the ranks from blisters and exhaustion.

Making matters worse is the very real fear of Union troops launching a surprise attack. “The nervousness,” a Confederate major will remember, “resulting from this constant strain of starvation, fatigue and lack of sleep was a dangerous thing, sometimes producing lamentable results.” On several occasions bewildered Confederate troops open fire on one another, thinking they’re firing at Yankees. In another instance, a massive black stallion lashed to a wooden fence “reared back, pulling the rail out of the fence and dragging it after him full gallop down the road crowded with troops, mowing them down like the scythe of a war chariot.”

It’s no wonder that men begin to desert. Whenever and wherever the column pauses, men slip into the woods, never to return. The war is clearly over. No sense dying for nothing.

Lee has long craved the freedom of open ground, but now his objective is to retreat and regroup, not to fight. His strategy that his army “must endeavor to harass them if we cannot destroy them” depends upon motivated troops and favorable terrain. These are essential to any chance of Lee snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But the fight will have to wait until they get food.

To lighten his army’s load and move faster, Lee orders that all unnecessary guns and wagons be left behind. The pack animals pulling them are hitched to more essential loads. A few days from now, as bone thin and weary as the soldiers themselves, these animals will be butchered to feed Lee’s men.

Everything about the retreat—starvation, poor morale, desertion—speaks of failure. And yet when messengers arrive saying that the Petersburg bridges were blown by his sappers once the last man was across, making it impossible for Grant to follow, Lee is optimistic. Even happy. He has escaped once again. “I have got my army safely out of its breastworks, and in order to follow me the enemy must abandon his lines and can derive no further benefits from his railroads or James River,” he notes with relief.

Grant’s army is sliding west en masse, racing to block the road, even as Lee feels relief in the morning air. Lee suspects this. But his confidence in his army and in his own generalship is such that he firmly believes he can defeat Grant on open ground.

Everything depends on getting to Amelia Court House. Without food Lee’s men cannot march. Without food they cannot fight. Without food, they might as well have surrendered in Petersburg.

Lee’s newfound optimism slowly filters down into the ranks. Against all odds, his men regain their confidence as the trenches of Petersburg recede further and further into memory and distance. By the time they reach Amelia Court House, on April 4, after almost two consecutive days on the march, electricity sizzles through the ranks. The men speak of hope and are confident of victory as they wonder where and when they will fight the Yankees once again.

It’s just before noon. The long hours in the saddle are hard on the fifty-eight-year-old general. Lee has long struggled with rheumatism and all its crippling agonies. Now it flares anew. Yet he presses on, knowing that any sign of personal weakness will be immediately noticed by his men. As much as any soldier, he looks forward to a good meal and a few hours of sleep. He can see the waiting railroad cars, neatly parked on a siding. He quietly gives the order to unload the food and distribute it in an organized fashion. The last thing Lee wants is for his army to give in to their hunger and rush the train. Composure and propriety are crucial for any effective fighting force.

The train doors are yanked open. Inside, great wooden crates are stacked floor to ceiling. Lee’s excited men hurriedly jerk the boxes down onto the ground and pry them open.

Then, horror!

This is what those boxes contain: 200 crates of ammunition, 164 cartons of artillery harnesses, and 96 carts to carry ammunition.

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