Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER EIGHT

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5, 1865 

AMELIA COURT HOUSE, VIRGINIA 

NOON TO MIDNIGHT

Wave after wave of retreating Confederate soldiers arrive in Amelia Court House throughout the day of April 4. They have marched long and hard, yanked forward on an invisible rope by the promise of a long sleep and a full belly. But it was a lie, a broken promise, and a nightmare, all at once. Without food they have no hope. Like the sailors who quit the march from Richmond because their feet hurt, many Confederate soldiers now find their own way to surrender. Saying they are going into the woods to hunt for dinner, they simply walk away from the war. And they keep on walking until they reach their homes weeks and months later—or lie down to die as they desert, too weak to take another step.

Lee’s optimism has been replaced by the heavy pall of defeat. “His face was still calm, as it always was,” wrote one enlisted man. “But his carriage was no longer erect, as his soldiers had been used to seeing it. The troubles of these last days had already plowed great furrows in his forehead. His eyes were red as if with weeping, his cheeks sunken and haggard, his face colorless. No one who looked upon him then, as he stood there in full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written on his features.”

His hope rests on forage wagons now out scouring the countryside in search of food. He anxiously awaits their return, praying they will be overflowing with grains and smoked meats and leading calves and pigs to be slaughtered.

The wagons come back empty.

The countryside is bare. There are no rations for Lee and his men. The soldiers become frantic, eating anything they can find: cow hooves, tree bark, rancid raw bacon, and hog and cattle feed. Some have taken to secreting packhorses or mules away from the main group, then quietly slaughtering and eating them. Making matters worse, word now reaches Lee that Union cavalry intercepted a column of supply wagons that raced out of Richmond just before the fall. The wagons were burned and the teamsters taken prisoner.

Lee and his army are in the great noose of Grant’s making, which is squeezing tighter and tighter with every passing hour.

Lee must move before Grant finds him. His fallback plan is yet another forced march, this one to the city of Danville, where more than a million rations allegedly await. Danville, however, is a hundred miles south. As impossible as it is to think of marching an army that far on empty stomachs, it is Lee’s only hope.

Lee could surrender right then and there. But it isn’t in his character. He is willing to demand incredible sacrifice to avoid the disgrace of defeat.

A cold rain falls on the morning of April 5. Lee gives the order to move out. It is, in the minds of one Confederate, “the cruelest marching order the commanders had ever given the men in four years of fighting.” Units of infantry, cavalry, and artillery begin slogging down the road. Danville is a four-day march—if they have the energy to make it. “It is now,” one soldier writes in his diary, “a race of life or death.”

They get only seven miles before coming to a dead halt at a Union roadblock outside Jetersville. At first it appears to be no more than a small cavalry force. But a quick look through Lee’s field glasses tells him differently. Soldiers are digging trenches and fortifications along the road, building the berms and breastworks that will protect them from rebel bullets, and then fortifying them with fallen trees and fence rails.

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Lee gallops Traveller to the front and assesses the situation. Part of him wants to make a bold statement by charging into the Union works in a last grand suicidal hurrah, but Lee’s army has followed him so loyally because of not only his brilliance but also his discretion. Sometimes knowing when not to fight is just as important to a general’s success as knowing how to fight.

And this is not a time to engage.

Lee quickly swings his army west in a grand loop toward the town of Paineville. The men don’t travel down one single road but follow a series of parallel arteries connecting the hamlets and burgs of rural Virginia. The countryside is rolling and open in some places, in some forested and in others swampy. Creeks and rivers overflowing their banks from the recent rains drench the troops at every crossing. On any other day, the Army of Northern Virginia might not have minded. But with so many miles to march, soaking shoes and socks will eventually mean the further agony of walking on blistered, frozen feet.

The topography favors an army lying in wait, ready to spring a surprise attack. But they are an army in flight, at the mercy of any force hidden in the woods. And, indeed, Union cavalry repeatedly harass the rear of Lee’s exhausted column. The horsemen are not bold or dumb enough to attack Lee’s main force, which outnumbers them by thousands. Instead they attack the defenseless supply wagons in a series of lightning-quick charges. On narrow, swampy roads, the Union cavalry burn more than 200 Confederate supply wagons, capture eleven battle flags, and take more than 600 prisoners, spreading confusion and panic.

Sensing disaster, Lee springs to the offensive, ordering cavalry under the command of his nephew Major General Fitzhugh Lee and Major General Thomas Rosser to catch and kill the Union cavalry before they can gallop back to the safety of their Jetersville line. In the running battle that follows, rebel cavalry kill 30 and wound another 150 near the resort town of Amelia Springs. If the Union needs proof that there is still fight in Lee’s army, it now has it.

Lee marches his men all day, and then all night. At a time when every fiber of their beings cries out for sleep and food, they press forward over muddy rutted roads, enduring rain and chill and the constant harassment of Union cavalry. The roads are shoulder to shoulder with exhausted men, starving pack animals, and wagons sinking up to their axles in the thick Virginia mud. Dead and dying mules and horses are shoved to the side of the road so as not to slow the march. Dead men litter the ground, too, and are just as quickly tossed to the shoulder—or merely stepped over. There is no time for proper burials. Nothing can slow the march to Danville.

Men drop their bedrolls because they lack the strength to carry them. Many more thrust their guns bayonet-first into the earth and leave them behind. On the rare occasions when the army stops to rest, men simply crumple to the ground and sleep. When it is time to march again, officers move from man to man, shaking them awake and ordering them to their feet. Some men refuse to rise and are left sleeping, soon to become Union prisoners. Others can’t rise because they’re simply too weak, in the early phases of dying from starvation. These men, too, are left behind. In this way, Lee’s army dwindles. The 30,000 who retreated from Petersburg just three days ago have been reduced by half. As the long night march takes a greater toll, even those hardy men stagger like drunks, and some lose the power of speech. And yet, when it comes time to fight, they will find a way to lift their rifle to their shoulder, aim at their target, and squeeze the trigger.

“My shoes are gone,” a veteran soldier laments during the march. “My clothes are almost gone. I’m weary, I’m sick, I’m hungry. My family has been killed or scattered, and may be wandering helpless and unprotected. I would die, yes I would die willingly, because I love my country. But if this war is ever over, I’ll be damned if I ever love another country.”

His is the voice of a South that wants no part of Lincoln and the United States of America—and for whom there can be no country but the Confederacy. Just as the Union officer in Richmond spoke of the “barbarous south,” so these soldiers and men like John Wilkes Booth view the North as an evil empire. This is the divisiveness Lincoln will face if he manages to win the war.

Now, in the darkness after midnight, a courier approaches the marching soldiers and hands Lee a captured Union message from Grant to his generals, giving orders to attack at first light.

But at last Lee gets good news, in the form of a report from his commissary general, I. M. St. John: 80,000 rations have been rushed to the town of Farmville, just nineteen miles away. Lee can be there in a day.

He swings his army toward Farmville. It is Lee’s final chance to keep the Confederate struggle alive.

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