SUNDAY, APRIL 2, 1865
THERE IS NO NORTH VERSUS SOUTH in Petersburg now. Only Grant versus Lee—and Grant has the upper hand. Like many of the generals on both sides, Lee and Grant served together in the Mexican War. Now, in the Civil War, these former comrades-in-arms are enemies.
Lee is fifty-eight years old, a tall, rugged Virginian with a silver beard and formal air. Grant is forty-two and Lee’s exact opposite: dark-haired and sloppy in dress, a small, introspective man who has a fondness for cigars and a close relationship with horses. When Grant was a baby, his mother’s friends were shocked to see that Hannah Grant allowed her son to crawl between their horses’ feet!
Like Lee, Grant possesses a genius for warfare—indeed, he is capable of little else. When the Civil War began, he was a washed-up, barely employed West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War who had been forced out of military service, done in by lonely western outposts and an inability to hold his liquor. It was only through luck and connections that Grant secured a commission in an Illinois regiment. At the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee in February 1862, Grant and his army delivered the first major victories to the Union. And Grant kept on winning. As the war continued, Lincoln gave him more and more responsibility. Now Grant is general in chief—the commander of all the Union armies from Virginia down to New Orleans.
A Currier & Ives lithograph of the Battle of Petersburg.
At Petersburg, 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 Confederate A. P. Hill on the right and John B. Gordon on the left.
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The day before, at the decisive Battle of Five Forks, Union General Phil Sheridan and 45,000 men had captured a pivotal crossing, cutting off the main road to North Carolina.
It was long after dark when word of the great victory reached Grant. Without pausing, Grant pushed his advantage. He ordered another attack. He hoped this would be the blow to crush Lee and his army once and for all. His soldiers would attack just before dawn, but he ordered the artillery fire to begin immediately.
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The Union attack is divided into two waves. Major General Horatio Wright, leading the 24,000 men in his Sixth Corps, charges first and shatters the right side of Lee’s line. Wright’s attack is so well choreographed that many of his soldiers are literally miles in front of the main Union force. As Wright’s men reorganize to prepare for the next stage of attack, the rest of the Union army strikes.
Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, Confederate States of America.
Meanwhile, Lee and his assistants, the generals James “Pete” Longstreet and A. P. Hill, gaze out at Wright’s army from the front porch of Lee’s Confederate headquarters, the Turnbull house. The three of them stand there 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 is being crushed, and he jumps on his horse to try to stop the disaster in the making. He is shot and killed by Union soldiers.
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 retreat. He will be cut off if the bluecoats in the pasture continue their advance.
Fortune, however, is smiling on the Confederates. Those Union soldiers have no idea that Lee himself is right in front of them. If they did, they would attack without ceasing, because any soldier who captured Lee would become a legend.
The Union scouts can clearly see the small artillery battery outside Lee’s headquarters, and they assume that it is part of a much larger rebel force hiding out of sight. Rather than rush forward, the scouts hesitate.
Lieutenant General James “Pete” Longstreet.
Seizing the moment, Lee escapes north across the Appomattox River and then turns west. His goal is the Richmond and Danville Railroad Line at Amelia Court House, where he has arranged to store food and supplies. He issues orders to the commanders of his corps to follow. At one point, Lee pauses to write a letter to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, saying that his army is in retreat and can no longer defend Richmond. Davis and the Confederate government must abandon the city or risk capture.
The final chase has begun.
Copyright © 2012 by Bill O’Reilly