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1865 April 15: Battle of Five Forks and the Fall of Petersburg and Richmond

April 20, 2015

The Prescott Journal ran a lengthy article on the early battles of the Appomattox Campaign in its April 15, 1865, issue.  This is the ssecond half of the article; the first portion was posted yesterday.

Overview of Appomattox Campaign
Wednesday March 29 Battle of Lewis’s Farm
Friday March 31 Battle of White Oak Road; Battle of Dinwiddie Court House
Saturday April 1 Battle of Five Forks
Sunday April 2 3rd Battle/Fall of Petersburg; Battle of Sutherland’s Station
Monday April 3 Battle of Namozine Church
Wednesday April 5 Battle of Amelia Springs (5-6)
Thursday April 6 Battle of Rice’s Station; Battle of Sailor’s (Sayler’s) Creek
Friday April 7 Battle of High Bridge; Battle of Cumberland Church
Saturday April 8 Battle of Appomattox Station
Sunday April 9 Battle of Appomattox Court House and surrender of Lee

Apr.15, 1865

[Battle of Five Forks]

NEW YORK, April 5.

The Herald’s correspondence has the following account of the operations Sunday :

“At midnight Saturday [April 1], Gen. Wilcox [sic: Orlando B. Willcox] had orders to demonstrate on the right of the line, so as to draw the rebels from the left, preparatory to operations in that quarter.  Admiral Porter [David D. Porter] and all the artillery in the works on the right were also set at work.  Wilcox’s [sic] skirmish line was advanced.  The rebels were aroused, and soon sharp volleys of musketry were heard, indicating that they were at work.

“Amid the noise and smoke, the skirmishers pushed on until reaching the outskirts of Petersburg, where they met a heavy body of rebels and advanced upon them.  A brisk engagement followed, but our numbers were so small we were compelled to withdraw.  Gen. Wilcox [sic] then gave orders to attack Fort Mahone on the left, and massed a column for that purpose.

“While this was being done similar dispositions were making A [sic] system of common signals had been agreed upon to fix the moment of starting, that all might assault simultaneously.  Owing to a mist which the field, hung over the preparations had been concealed from the enemy.  At 4 o’clock the signal was given, the men advanced quickly and in perfect order with fixed bayonets.  That they went to stay was indicated by being accompanied by a detachment of heavy artillery prepared to turn and work the enemy’s guns.

“Presently musketry was heard, the rebel picket line was reached.  Now a hearty cheer, followed by the roar of musketry.  The cheering and musketry firing is taken up, and runs along to the left until it is lost in the distance.

“Instantly the artillery on both sides is at work, and 200 hundred big guns belch forth their thunders, but the work is quickly done.

“Harriman, of the Thirty-Seventhth Wisconsin, acting Brigadier General, gives an order to charge.  [Samuel Harriman]  Up and away, and the noble fellows went over breastworks, rifle pits, chevaux de frieze, the parapet of the fort, into the main works, the deed is accomplished.  For one moment the thunderstruck rebels looked, and then took to flight ;  but our fellows were too quick for all of them, and captured 250.  Nine guns were found in the fort, and quickly trained, and set at work annoying the rebel batteries.

“This, with the simultaneous operations further to the left, cut the rebel line in two, and took from them their commanding positions, and a large amount of valuable artillery.

“Scarcely were we quiet in possession of the fort when the rebels, having reorganized their forces and picked up some reinforcements, came up with determined efforts to retake it.  They made a most desperate assault, standing up manfully against a terrific discharges of grape and cannister [sic] and withering vollies [sic] of musketry, but it was to no purpose.  Seven times during the day did they attempt to retake this important position, but were each time sent reeling back in disorder, losing heavily each time.  It was in one of these assaults that the rebel Gen. A. P. Hill lost his life, seeking in person to lead his men up to the works.

“Meantime the 6th and 24th corps, having broken through the rebel lines in their front were swung around to their rear, and coming down both upon their rear and flank, it was evidenty [sic] that Petersburg was lost to the rebellion.  The movements of the 6th corps were so rapid that Gen. Lee [Robert E. Lee] himself narrowly escaped capture.  As it was, his headquarters fell into our hands.”

“Throughout the early part of the night operations were confined to skirmishing, but a few minutes after 12 o’clock, the rebels advanced, making a demonstration.  It was of short duration, promptly repulsed, then followed a season of stillness with orders for most strict vigilance.  The orders were that if the rebels started to go, we were to go after them, and they did go at 3 o’clock.—Our skirmishers in pursuit, occupied the main line and orders were issued for an immediate advance.  At four o’clock, we were in Petersburg.”

The Tribune’s correspondent thus recounts the operations on our left.

“At 4:30 Sunday morning [April 2], the 6th corps left its line to attack the enemy’s left center.  It moved in echelon, so as to enable the corps to throw forward its left, and flank the works of the enemy one after another.  Soon a battery of four guns opened upon the first division, but by a rapid charge of the first brigade it was immediately captured.  The batteries of the enemy now opened from every point, but on went our gallant braves.  The left soon reached some works in their front and one by one, they fell into our hands.

“At 10:30 A. M. a grand picture of war presented itself, the line of the corps with its left in advance was sweeping on towards two heavy forts.  The rebels plied their guns vigorously, and shells burst thickly over our line.  On pushed the left division until it struck the Southside railroad, and against the two forts swept the 2d division.  Our artillery played upon the forts from commanding positions incessantly until our men were close up to them, then a dash was made upon the works, but it was repulsed.  Again it was tried, and this time it met with success, but so resolute were the rebels inside that some of them used the bayonet for a short time.

“As these troops fell into our hands a loud cheer rent the air, and the enemy were seen retiring to their second line, which opened sharply in an effort to stay our advance.

“About this time Sheridan [Philip H. Sheridan] appeared on the field and was received with loud cheers by the 6th corps, who look up to him with great respect.

“At this moment too, our entire line was changing its long front to the right, and slowly before it the broken line of the enemy was falling back upon their rear defences.

“Against the line which fell back a heavy force was now pitted, composed of parts of the 24th, 6th and 25th corps, and nearly all fresh troops.  A lull took place when this force was ready to move, and it was plain that a desperate action was to be fought.  Dusk stole over the scene, and the attack was deferred until the next day.

“While the above fighting was taking place, the 5th corps and the cavalry under Sheridan thinned the right wing of the rebel army, taking from 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners.  The 2d corps, connecting with the right of the 5th, was also victorious, notwithstanding they had perhaps the roughest ground to fight over, and a brave and determined foe in the rebel 3d corps.

“The line of defences in front of the 9th Corps was stronger than those at any other point.  It delivered many assaults during the day, and suffered severely.  At night it found itself close up to the main line of the defences, but was unable to go further.  The 1st Division of the 10th Corps aided the 9th corps greatly.”

Petersburg_Occupation troops marching in, 1865

“The Occupation of Petersburg,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War¹

[Grant’s Petersburg Progress]

The first number of a newspaper, about 12 by 20 inches, printed on one side only, has been started in Petersburg, called Grant’s Petersburg Progress.  The motto is, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  Monday’s issue has the following items.

“The following are the names of the compositors, &c., employed in editing, setting type and working off the first Union paper published in Petersburg, Va., since the commencement of the rebellion :  Major R. E.[sic] Eden [Robert C. Eden], 37th Wisconsin, Editor ;  Capt. Charles McCreary, 8th Michigan Veteran Volunteers, Assistant Editor ;  Chaplain D. Heagle, 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters, Editor ;  J. W. Griffith, 2d Brigade, First Division Band, Foreman ;  1st Lieut. Farrell, 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters, T. Marlatt and J. Bandy, 2d Brigade, 1st Division Band, Sergt. Oliver Greenfield, 8th Michigan Volunteers, Private W. H. Stuart, 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters, Private B. F. Bostwick, 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters, Private S. Dalrymple, 95th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Compositors.

“Among the distinguished citizens we saw on the street, this morning, were Brig. Gen. Pryor [Roger A. Pryor], Confederate paroled prisoner, and W. T. Jaines, Judge of the Circuit Court in this District.

“On Saturday last flour in Petersburg sold at the moderate price of $1,100 a barrel, and sugar and bacon were equally reasonable, a double saw-buck Confederate blue-back being the cost of a pound of each.

“All the bridges about Petersburg, some five or six in number, were destroyed by the rebels last night, on their departure.

“The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters have the credit of being the first to occupy the city, and of floating their flag from the dome of the Petersburg Court House.  Other flags belonging to different regiments were not long behindhand in getting themselves posted on the tops of all buildings of a public character in the city.”


The army of the Potomac has been in and out of Petersburg this morning, merely making a flying visit. The rebels commenced evacuating last night at 10 o’clock, and by 8 o’clock this morning were across the river, the enemy having burned about $1,000, 000 worth of tobacco, the South-side railroad depot and bridges across the Appomatox [sic].

Our troops charged the inner line of works at daylight, taking a picket line of some 509 men prisoners. The troops on entering the city behaved most admirably, not more than half a dozen stores being entered by them, and these mostly containing tobacco, cegars [sic], liquors, etc.  The Provost Guard soon arrived and established order.  The mayor of the town met the troops as they entered and handed to the officer commanding the following communication, offering the surrender of the city:

Lt. Gen. Grant Commanding the Armies of the United States, or the Major General Commanding U. S. Forces in front of Petersburg :

GENERAL :—The city of Petersburg having been evacuated by the Confederate troops, we, a committee authorized by the common council, do here-by surrender the city to the United States
forces, with a request for the protection of the persons and property of its inhabitants.

We are, respectfully,
.                   .Your obedient servants,
.                              .W. W. TOWNES, Mayor.

Protection was promised on the part of the troops and the citizens have no cause of complaint, for certainly there is no instance on record where an army, after lying so long in front of a place of so much importance and losing so many men in the efforts to capture, entered a city with less disorder and doing less damage to private property than in this case.

The citizens did not show themselves during the fore part of the day, but after discovering that our soldiers were orderly and well behaved, with no disposition to disturb or annoy any one, they began to make their appearance at the doors and windows of their residences, and later in the day even many expressing their joy quietly that the Confederates had gone and hoping that the war would soon be over.

For more than a month past the reel troops have been receiving less rations than ever before, only just enough being brought to last from day to day.  Citizens say they have suffered much, but it is well to take such stories with a good deal of allowance.

The rebels managed to get away with all their artillery, excepting one or two old Columbiads and a few heavy mortars which they could transport readily.  A large number of men deserted and hid themselves in the town until our troops entered, when they made their appearance and were taken into custody.  It is believed they retreated toward Lynchburg or Danville, but they will have to make good time if they elude the pursuit of our army, now flushed with victory and willing to travel at any rate and any length to head them off.

The city presents a very cleanly and respectable appearance.  Many houses in the lower part of the city have been badly injured by shot and shell thrown from our batteries last summer, and since that time most of the houses located there have been vacated.

Ever since morning our troops have been passing through the city westward taking the Cox and River road to Sutherland Station.  On the Southside R. R., where our headquarters are in camp to-night, at this hour, 5 p. m., the rear guard are passing and wagons and trains are following.  The railroad from City Point here is to be put in running order immediately, and although it is not expected a permanent base will be established here, yet it will be held as a depot of supplies to the army so long as it is within reach.  All the rolling stock of the railroads was run off toward Richmond, but in this department they must have been very deficient or they would not have burned so much tobacco.

 NEW YORK, April 6.

The following items about the rebel flight from Petersburg and Richmond and of our occupation, and the condition of affairs in the two cities, are from various sources:

The Herald‘s special from Petersburg says:  “At the commencement of Gen. Grant’s operations on this line, five days ago, the rebels had a force at their command defending Petersburg variously estimated at from 60,000 to 75,000 men.  The defence of Petersburg was the defence of Richmond, if one fell the other was certain to fall.  Hence every available means was brought to confront Grant.  Of this army of veteran troops, not less than 25,000 have fallen into our hands as prisoners.  These men have been captured on the field as fruits of severe fighting.  12,500 of them had been delivered at City Point and disposed of up to last evening.  The correspondent estimates 15,000 killed and wounded, making the rebel loss 45,000.”

The citizens of Petersburg did not believe, even Sunday evening, that Lee would evacuate the town, being assured that the destruction of property was merely precautionary, and that the plan would be to hold it at every hazard.  Some of them were only awakened from their delusion by the sound of Yankee music Monday morning.

The rebels left in four distinct bands, each seeking safety for itself.  A portion of them started for the Appomattox, and succeeded in crossing on a pontoon train above Petersburg ;  while the rest, being pressed, could not get across, but fled up the river on the southern bank.

The Times‘ army of the Potomac special, 3d, says:  “After Longstreet’s forces were driven back by Sheridan and Warren, and the right of Lee’s army was turned, Gen. Humphreys led the 2d corps to the attack, and an assault was made along the entire line to the Appomattox, near Point of Rocks.[James Longstreet, Gouverneur K. Warren, Andrew A. Humphreys]—At each point where the 2d corps made an attack they were successful, breaking the enemy’s lines and capturing everything.  The strong works on that portion of the enemy’s line were ineffectual to withstand the shocks struck by the 2d, which nobly sustained its hard-earned reputation.  The 25th corps had one division and a part of another engaged.  It performed the task set for it, and was successful in capturing two large and well defended forts, a goodly number of prisoners, and sixteen guns.  The negroes, of whom the corps is wholly composed, fought with great gallantry, and lost in killed and wounded a proportionate number with other corps.”

[Fall of Richmond]

The Herald‘s correspondent from the late mansion of Jeff. Davis [Jefferson Davis], Richmond, says the evacuation of that city was seriously contemplated several days before it took place, but the final conclusion was not arrived at until Sunday afternoon last, when Lee telegraphed Davis that Grant had rendered the holding of the city, by him, impossible.  This telegram was read in the churches, and the departure of the leading rebels commenced at once, and was continued through the night.  Jeff. Davis left at 8 A. M., for Danville, and it is understood the government archives were sent to that place and Weldon, N. C.

The rebel leaders all left by the Virginia Central Railroad, which runs north to Saxton’s junction of the Fredericksburg road, and then turns west to Charlottesville and Lynchburg.  By this route all of the transportation of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad was used, and the advantage of two tracks obtained for a distance of sixteen miles to Saxton’s.

Davis took on the train he escaped with, horses and carriages, so as to take to the country in case the train should be interrupted.  He expressed himself as being yet determined not to give up, though it was certain he had but little hope left.  Extra Billy Smith did not leave till after midnight.  He left his wife behind, as also did Gen. Lee.  The news of the death of his son, W. H. [F.] Lee, in the battle, had been received.  The Legislature was in session as late as nine o’clock, Sunday night, when they started for Columbia by the canal and James River.  Breckenridge [sic: John C. Breckinridge] left the city as late as half-past six Monday morning.

The city was fired by Gen. Ewell [Richard S. Ewell], and although Gen. Weitzel [Godfrey Weitzel], on reaching the city, endeavored to subdue the flames, one-third of the city was destroyed.  Among the buildings burned were the War Department Post Office, Treasury Department, several churches, two banks, and three newspaper offices.  An attempt to fire the Capitol did not succeed.  It was put out by the citizens.

All the wharves at Rocketts, the steamboats and iron clads, were either burned or blown up.  In fact, in so brief time there must have been a large number engaged in the wholesale destruction.  In the eastern and western parts of Richmond there were whole squares which have been burned, and considerable portions of the business places on Main street have also been set on fire.  Some were put out and others burned up.

Richmond Ruins—Main Street

“Ruins of Richmond—Main Street,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War¹

It was not until between 12 and 1 o’clock Sunday night that it was believed at Weitzel’s headquarters, north of the James, that Richmond was being evacuated.  The firing towards Petersburg had ceased soon after dark, and the rebel lines in front of Fort Harris were vociferous with shouts and music.  We would have thought that they were celebrating some great victory ;  but it was simply a game of deception, for, soon after the music ceased, the sky was red over Richmond.  Explosion after explosion followed in rapid succession, and there was no doubt that Richmond was evacuated.

Gen. Weitzel waited most impatiently till 5 o’clock in the morning, when he started out Maj. Manning, of the 5th Massachusetts colored cavalry, on a reconnoissance [sic].  He soon returned, and reported that the whole rebel line in Wietzel’s front had been abandoned.  Nothing but debris of camp and garrison remained.  The advance into Richmond was immediately commenced.  The three remaining divisions of the 24th and 25th corps started on the old Osborne turnpike, the Williamsburg stage road, and the Darbytown road the all reached Richmond Monday before 1 o’clock.

Gen. Weitzel, on entering the city, on the Osborne turnpike, which passes over Libby hill, was met by some citizens—no officials, I believe—who surrendered the city to him.  The march of the troops up main street was received in various places by demonstrations of welcome.  Some of the citizens cheered, ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and in a great many instances American flags were displayed.  The colored troops were the subject of great attention to those who ventured on the streets.  Every place of business and all residences were closed.

Gen. Weitzel established his headquarters in the State capitol, lately occupied by the Virginia house of delegates, and immediately instituted measures to restore order to the town.  Gen. Weitzel issued an order making Gen. Shipley [sic: George F. Shepley] military governor.  The latter issued an order calling upon citizens in putting out the fire, and referring them to the president’s proclamation for the disposition of rights and duties.

The Tribune‘s special from Richmond the 3d, gives an account of the occupation of that city by the 2d brigade, 3d division, 24th corps—“Gen. Ripley [James W. Ripley] led the advance upon the town Maj. Gen. Weitzel and staff heading the column with a detachment of cavalry, to meet the mayor, from whom Gen. W. received the keys of the public buildings.  The Army of the James then marched into the rebel capital.  It met no opposition whatever.  Our army was greeted with enthusiastic cheers by the populace.  Inspection of the rebel works disclosed the fact of their having left in great haste.  Arms of every description were found in profusion clothing of every description, and in some officers’ quarters were found their private correspondence.  The enemy had planted torpedoes in front of Fort Gilmore, and so thickly that it was found necessary to march the column through the fort.  They had attached to every torpedo a stick with a piece of red webbing tied to it.  This precaution they had observed for the safety of their own men.”

The Herald‘s correspondence says :  “The works, in front of Richmond consist of three strong lines, wholly enveloping the city.  The outer ones are continuous ;  the inner one consists of a series of strong redoubts and bastion forts.  All these would, had they been properly garrisoned, form an impregnable series of defences.  Torpedoes were thickly strewn all over the ground, marked with flags for the safety of the rebels, but which they neglected to remove in their busy night, and thus saved many of the lives of our men when marching into Richmond.  The second line was found equally as strong as the first, excepting as to the abattis and torpedoes.  The third line is just outside of the edge of town, situated on high ground.  These works, like the others, mount heavy guns.”

1.  “The Occupation of Petersburg,” and “Ruins of Richmond—Main Street,” from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden (Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68); available in the UWRF Archives (E 468.7 .G87 1866)

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