APPOMATTOX CAMPAIGN–THE FINAL BATTLES

Table of Contents

THE decisive campaign which closed the Civil War was begun and ended within the brief space of twelve days, extending from March 29 to April 9, 1865. During this limited period, the regiment participated in the battles of Dinwiddie Courthouse, Five Forks, Sutherland Station, Drummond’s Mills (Amelia Courthouse), Sailor’s Creek, Appomattox Station, and Appomattox Courthouse; in fact, our movements and fightings were so incessant that it would sometimes be hard to indicate where one battle ended and another began.

In the early morning of March 29, we moved from near Petersburg, over almost bottomless roads, via Reams’ Station, halting for the night near Dinwiddie Courthouse, the enemy holding a strong infantry line in our front. Captain Leach writes that their bands greeted us with “Dixie, “My Maryland,” and other Southern airs; while ours, not to be outdone, responded with “Yankee Doodle,” ” Hail Columbia,” etc.

Sheridan planned to make a strong demonstration against Lee’s right, in order to draw off from Petersburg. On the 30th our regiment, having the advance, soon struck the enemy, with whom we had a short skirmish, but no decisive engagement. Early next morning, however, Devin’s entire division advanced in the direc­tion of Five Forks, to feel the enemy’s position, our brigade, under Colonel Fitzhugh, 1 being dismounted. We were not long in finding the enemy in strong force, consisting of Pickett’s and Johnson’s divisions of infantry, with a strong force of cavalry, thus outnumbering us three to one.

(Footnote from Bowen) 1 A score or more of the regiment have contributed facts and incidents for this chapter

After considerable skirmishing, our antagonists evi­dently discovered this disparity in numbers, and began a rapid advance in solid columns, confident in expecta­tion of surrounding and bagging our entire force. A cap­tured officer said, ”We thought we had you sure;” says Devin, ” The Second: Brigade was outflanked, while a heavy line emerged from the woods in front. In a few minutes, the brigade would have been surrounded.” Just at this critical moment the rebel cavalry, with a yell, came charging down the road to get in our rear and sweep the brigade into their lines. Nothing but the most desperate fighting saved us. Of course, our seven shooters became an important factor in such an unequal contest of num­bers. Several times, as their infantry lines dashed upon us, we faced about, pouring such terrific fire into their lines as to check them for a time.

Captain Leach relates that two of the cavalrymen dashed into our lines,-one striking at him with his saber, but he averted the blow by dodging behind a small tree, while a lieutenant shot the rebel dead with his revolver, the other being captured.

Lieut. A. J. Aldrich furnishes this interesting incident of personal experience: ” I am in receipt of your circular letter asking for reminiscences. I might recount many hair-raising adventures, as I was with the regiment in nearly every engagement from the beginning to the round-up at Appomattox.

(Footnote from Bowen) 1 It· should be explained that Devin was now In command of the First Division, while Colonel Fitzhugh commanded Devin’s old brigade (the Second).

“I think my worst experience was at Dinwiddie, March 31, 1865. With others, our regiment was deployed in the woods, five paces apart, and a mile or more in advance of the reserve, waiting for Warren’s support. All was quiet just then in our front when suddenly a rattling fusillade came from the rear, near our horses. Someone shouted, ‘They’ve got our horses ! ‘ and imme­diately every man took command of himself and ske­daddled. The woods were alive with mounted Johnnies, and we were all mixed up in hand-to-hand encounters. In every direction could be heard demands for our surrender. Having fired all my cartridges and no time to reload, my only safety was to start on a race for life to a rail fence about one hundred yards distant. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that half a dozen mounted gray backs were gaining on me at every step, and yelling, ‘ Halt, you Yankee sun of a gun! ‘ backing up their demands with volleys of bullets. Among them was a bugler who kept sounding his ‘tah-te-tah, tah-te-tah..’ Torning a handspring over the fence, I fell panting among the briers and bushes and began reloading. As they gave me a parting salute, Custer dashed up to our relief, and the rebs got out quickly.

“Every Dragoon present on this occasion could give a similar experience. Though men and horses were somewhat scattered, we reached the reserve with but little loss. But that ·bugle, I’ve heard it in my dreams. You can sound the call, but not such a harsh, screechy ‘ tah­ te-tah-tah ‘ as that rebel bugler got off.

“I got even with the Johnnies next day at Five Forks and had the pleasure of marching back fifteen of them, forgetting to ask them to throw down their guns.”

Though repulsed and driven back three or four miles, we accomplished the important result of holding the enemy and gaining time for the infantry to move up and participate the next day in the –

This bitter conflict of arms gained the Union a most decided victory and sealed the fate of the Southern Confederacy. True, the Confederates continued to meet us with stubborn resistance, but their efforts were somewhat like the last struggles of the ox that had received its fatal blow. An eminent historian, spea_king of Sheridan’s marvelous skill in the management of troops, pronounces his victory at Five Forks “one of the most brilliant military feats of the war.”

On the morning of April 1, undaunted by the repulse of the previous day, Devin’s division of cavalry advanced in the direction of Five Forks, meeting the enemy at Chamberlain’s swamp.1 A strong infantry line confronted us, not to be taken without a desperate struggle. Captain Leach further says, “As we were forming our lines, Sheridan, Merritt, and Custer rode by, Sheridan in his earnest, energetic manner shaking his fingers in the direction of the enemy. I remarked, ‘Boys, that means business, there’s lively work before us.'” The captain was correct.

The entire second brigade was dismounted, and ordered to charge across the swamp, and gain a position on the opposite side. This movement was gallantly affected under heavy fire. The other two brigades, mounted, held our right and left flanks.

(Footnote from Bowan) 1 We can only follow our division and regiment. For fuller details of this important battle, together with the Sheridan-Warren embryo, see Sheri­dan’s Memoirs as to bis version. Also, Warren’s official reports lo “Official Records of the War,Serles I, vol, XLVI, part.I, give his side.

Lieutenant Flint tells what next occurred: “The rebel General Picket held a strong position near Five Forks, directly in the rear of an immense forest of several thou­ sand acres in extent, occupying the woods in front with a large body of sharpshooters. It was arranged that Sheri­ dan should make his fight at Five Forks with his cavalry, assisted by the Fifth Corps.

“As we approached the forest where Pickett’s forces were stationed, we heard that old, familiar command, ‘Prepare to fight on foot; No. 4 hold horses.’ We did not wait for the Fifth Corps, which was expected every minute, but addressed ourselves to the task of dislodging the enemy’s skirmishes and driving them back on their mainline. Skirmishing was conducted like Indian fighting. The soldiers, when advancing, were cautioned against reckless exposure. They were to take advantage of every tree, stump, or boulder that could be utilized as a temporary breastwork. We lost several men before getting to the woods, but by a succession of rushes drove them back into their fortifications, at which time we were greeted with a fusillade of artillery. Luckily their guns could not be depressed sufficiently to harm us, the greatest danger being from falling tree tops which their shells cut off like pipestems.”

“All this time the Fifth Corps, hidden by dense woods from the rebels, had been curling around their left flank. Picket, with his sixteen thousand infantry, supposed he had only some five thousand Cavalry to contend with and was just on the point of moving out for their exter­mination, when, to his astonishment, he beheld the cavalry in his front advancing upon his breastworks in a charge; but greater astonishment awaited him when at the same moment he discovered the gallant boys of the Fifth Corps bearing down like an avalanche upon his left flank, the two forces unitedly capturing thousands of prisoners who waved pieces of tents, or threw up their hands in token of surrender. t must have almost broken Picket’s heart to see his gallant division which made that magnificent charge at Gettysburg, go to pieces so badly at Five Forks.”

In his official report, General Merritt bears this testi­mony to the splendid action of our brigade in which the Dragoons bore a conspicuous part: ” The attack was prosecuted and crowned with success, Fitzhugh’s brigade mounting the works in the face of the enemy, tearing down their colors, planting the brigade standard over their artillery, and capturing one thousand prisoners.” The entire captures were six guns, thirteen battle flags, and nearly six thousand prisoners.

The regiment lost fifteen killed and wounded, Major Smith, Captain Leach, and Marvin Lindsley were among the wounded. Sheridan’s entire loss, killed and wounded, was about eight hundred.

A little white country church was utilized as a hos­pital, where the wounded of both sides were carried on stretchers dripping with blood. Here during the night, the surgeons were performing their bloody work. Piles of legs and arms, ghastly features of the wounded and dying, were revealed by the glimmer of the lanterns and smoky church lamps. From some, grimly enduring their sufferings, came only suppressed groans, while others gave vent to shrill screams of agony. Others were calling, ” 0h doctor, hurry up,” or pleading for water to quench their burning thirst. Such sad commingling of scenes and sounds can never be forgotten.

One of the peculiar circumstances of the surrender of prisoners was that, almost without exception, they at once appealed to their captors for something to eat. Their first question was, “Say, Yank, have ye got any grub?”  “Jiminie Crackie, Yank, gi’ me a hardtack.” As we got back to our horses, every haversack was unslung, and the half-starved Confederates helped themselves to the best we had. The way they ate was astonishing. It seemed as if their voraciousness would never be satisfied.

During the entire Appomattox campaign, the contrast­ ing characteristics of Meade and Sheridan became ap­parent. As the escaping Confederates retreated from Richmond and Petersburg, Meade, adopting his old-time policy, said, “We must follow them; ” while Sheridan, having no patience with such slow-coach ideas, vigorously declared, “We don’t want to follow the enemy; what we want is to get ahead of him and cut off his retreat,” for it was clear Lee hoped to escape and join Johnston. Sheri­ dan’s idea was to intercept his flying army, vigorously striking it whenever or wherever found, and with relentless pertinacity. Had Meade’s plans prevailed, instead of surrender, we might have been chasing Lee over the Confederacy all summer.

During the next three days, April 2, 3, and 4, the regiment was almost incessantly on the move, chasing up the ” Philistines,” or tearing up railroad tracks, and each day having sharp engagements in which the regi­ment suffered a loss in wounded. Notwithstanding each of these three battles, Sutherland Station, Deep Creek, and Drummond’s Mills (Amelia Courthouse), were hotly contested engagements, the details are omitted.

However, each resulted· in a splendid victory for the “boys in blue.” Many will recall an incident of the irrepressible Sheridan, occurring on the afternoon of the 3d. Mounted on the same black charger he rode at Winchester, he galloped along the lines, shouting to the boys the cheering news that Richmond and Petersburg were evacuated, and that we had the Confederacy on the run. These glad tidings were received with tumultuous demonstrations of joy.

After the battle of Drummond’s Mills, the division held its position until 10 P. M., when we were started off on a long and exhausting night march, over desperately bad roads, reaching Jettersville on the Richmond & Dan­ville railroad, at noon, next day. From constant march­ ing, fighting, and picket duty, the men had scarcely enjoyed an hour of undisturbed rest for ove1· a week. They were now so worn and weary that nothing but that cheering thought, “The end is·near,” kept them from sinking into utter exhaustion. During the last hours of our ride, scores of men could be seen swaying in their saddles, sound asleep; yet not a complaint was heard, and every man on call sprang to duty with alacrity. What was true of the cavalry was equally true of the infantry; as their feats of marching were marvelous.

THE BATTLE OF SAILOR’S CREEK

occurring April 6, was pronounced by General Sheridan “one of the severest conflicts of the war; as the enemy, like a tiger at bay, fought with desperation to escape cap­ture, while we, bent on his destruction, were no less eager and determined. The capture of Ewell and five other generals,-Kershaw, Barton, Corse, Dubose, and Custis Lee,-together with seven thousand prisoners crowned our success; but the fight was so overshadowed by the stirring events of the surrender, three days later, that the battle has never been accorded the prominence it deserves.” The infantry, cavalry, and artillery were all brought into action and all shared in the honors of the great victory.

Relative to our particular part, I quote from Devin: “On the morning of April 6 the division marched in the direction of Deatonsville; soon it was reported that the enemy’s train was moving on the road to Rice’s Station, and the division was ordered across the country and to attack it. The country was broken, intersected with ravines and ditches, but in a few minutes, we struck the flank of the train, only to find it covered by a heavy force of infantry and artillery. Learning that the third divi­sion had pushed in on the left of the second, I moved rapidly to the left of the third, hoping to strike the train at a vulnerable point. As I was passing to the rear of the third division, I received an urgent message from General Custer, stating that he had captured part of the train, and was hard-pressed. I found it necessary to bring up the division on the gallop, and form on his right, in order to hold the ground across Sailor’s Creek, and secure the captures. The division succeeded in checking the enemy’s advance, and was ordered to the extreme left, but had scarcely reached its new position when it was found necessary to return to the support of Custer’s division, which had been forced back.”

In this joint movement of Devin, Custer, and Crook several hundred wagons, sixteen pieces of artillery, and many prisoners were captured. The credit justly be­ longed to all three divisions alike, and it is to be regretted that another protest must be made against the insatiable greed of Custer who, as usual, claimed all the glory.

These movements against the trains just referred to where but the prelude to the battle proper. They had, however, accomplished the important work of cutting off and isolating Ewell’s Corps of infantry, which later on was nearly surrounded by the cavalry and Sixth Corps, which unitedly accomplished its destruction.

During the march between Deatonsville and Rice’s Station, we passed over some high ground from which the boys caught a magnificent view of Lee’s veteran army, with its long lines of men and trains, stretching out through the open country as far as the eye could reach. All were pressing on at as rapid a gait as legs could carry them, vainly endeavo1·ing to escape their pursuers.

At Sailor’s Creek and the subsequent battles the cavalry and our old partners of the Shenandoah Valley, the Sixth Corps operated together, and our old-time success attended our efforts. Early next morning Sheridan, the irrepressible, sent his cavalry flying over the country in hot pursuit of the escaping Johnnies. Our line of march was via Prince Edward Courthouse, encamping for the night at Buffalo Creek.

It now became apparent that Lynchburg, not Danville, was Lee’s objective point, and away went the c_avalry for Appomattox Station, Custer’s division in the advance. No engagement took place until the afternoon when it was learned that four trains of cars were at the station with rations for Lee’s army. At once the dashy Custer, with his division, was off on the gallop, followed by Devin. Custer, quick to take in the situation, swung around, cot the track in the rear, and took possession of the station just as the advance guard of Lee’s army arrived.

The rebels were in force, and desperately determined to secure the much-needed subsistence stores; but the impetuous Custer quickly formed his gallant division, and before the astonished graybacks could realize what was up, swept into their lines, carrying everything before them. The enemy quickly rallied, and, strongly re-en­ forced, would have hurled Custer back, but our division dismounted, and went in on his right, enabling him to bring off his captures. Custer’s charge was a magnifi­cent one, but it was the old, reliable War Horse, Uncle Tommy Devin, who guarded the tree while the gayly attired cavalier gathered up the fruits of the victory.1

That night our division was posted across the road on which the enemy was attempting to move, effectually destroying his chance of making a night’s march in retreat as he intended to do. Says a Southern writer, “Our bravest soldiers gave way in despair when it became apparent that our line of retreat was cut off, and our greatly needed supplies taken from our mouths. The night of April 8 settled darkly over the bravest army that ever faced a foe.”

On the morning of April 9, Lee, realizing his only hope of success was to move in force and crush the cav­alry in his front, came down upon them with overwhelming numbers. Our orders were to hold the ground as stubbornly as possible, retiring no faster than compelled to. This was the last battle in which the Dragoons faced the enemy during the Civil war. While it continued, it was of a desperate character. 

(Footnote added by Bowen) 1 Having previously referred to Custer In this volume, and lest he be misunderstood, the writer desires to give his humble estimate of this remarkable soldier. He was certainly a military genius of a very high order, keen on Instinct, and quick to seize every opportunity to strike the enemy- just the leader needed where dangerous and energetic work was to be done. It is true, however, that his audacity sometimes led him Into positions of danger, requiring the aid of the cooler-headed Merritt and Devin to extricate him. Unlike these trusty men, Major Reno failed him In the “Last Battle,” and thus his sad fate. It Is to be regretted that his ambition on the present occa­sion, as at Cedar Creek, led him to claim honors belonging to others, which his report he did.

On the morning of the 8th, General Ord, commanding the Twenty-fourth Corps, received word from Sheridan that if he could bring up his forces, the war would soon be over. This news, when communicated to his men, was like magic. Though tired and worn, they sprang up, and seizing their muskets, marched from daylight on the 8th, until 10 A. M. of the 9th, with but three hours’ rest. He was just in time, as Lee was crowding the cavalry furiously; but when Ord’s three lines of glistening bayo­ nets suddenly appeared in his front, with the Fifth Corps covering the valley and hillsides between him and Lynch­ burg, the Confederate commander realized his hopeless. condition.

Relieved by the infantry, the whole cavalry force was drawn up for a mounted charge. The rebel army was at our mercy. Our artillery had opened upon them, and in five minutes more the troopers would have swooped down upon them as we did at Winchester and Cedar Creek, but a white flag was seen hurrying forward in token of surrender.

Says Merritt, “Thus were concluded the labors of a campaign, so far as the cavalry was concerned, which has scarcely a parallel in history. Never did men behave better, never endure more uncomplainingly the severest of hardships; no task was too severe; any danger too imminent for the cavalry to encounter or overcome. The gallant, daring, and rapid execution of the commander of the Third Division, united with the sure, steady, and unchangeable courage and bearing of the commander of the first division, has accomplished a work that must shed glory on the Union cavalry for all time to come.”

While still drawn up in line of battle, awaiting the turn of events, someone shouted, ” There comes General Grant!” Passing close to our regiment on his momen­tous errand, we could not but notice his plain, rough, mud-bespattered garb. His conference with Lee was of short duration, and soon the glorious news that the army of northern Virginia had surrendered spread like wildfire among the troops, when cheer upon cheer from thousands of throats rent the air, only to be caught up and repeated again and again by corps after corps.

To our surprise, the rebel army in the valley below responded lustily, for they, too, seemed glad the long, bloody war was over. And now occurred scenes which one, not a witness can hardly realize. The officers and men of the two late contending armies, after four long years of bloody strife, now mingled together like old friends. The blue and the gray sat side by side munching hardtack and pork from the same haversack, and drinking from the same canteen. In a friendly way we talked of the bloody battles in which, as mortal enemies, we had stood face to face. The gray had at last met defeat, but no words of exultation were spoken by the blue in their presence. Witnessing these strange scenes, we could not but realize that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Sergeant Ezra Marion sends this greeting to the old comrades: “We remember our first battle of Deserted House, and the many others that followed, including the sl8ge of Suffolk, Manassas Plains, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor, Trevilian Station, Winchester, Cedar Creek, Five Forks, and when we reached the goal at Appomattox. There is nothing in all the annals of war so full of pathos and thrilling incidents as that scene at Appomattox Court­ house on the 9th of April, 1865. Here were the two great armies face to face; the one exultant in the victory achieved, the other bruised and crushed in the humiliation of defeat. For four long years, with bravery unsurpassed, they had contended with each other for mastery. For four long years as representatives of loyalty and treason, they had grappled with each other in deadly combat. For four long years, the wild passion and·fierce hate of each army toward the other had hissed from the hot lips of cannon and the biting teeth of a relentless war. But now the hour had come; treason had been subdued, armed rebellion overthrown, and the political heresy of States’ rights trampled in the dust. The majesty of the law was vindicated, the sovereignty of the nation maintained, and above both armies, our radiant and triumphant banner looked out with starry eyes upon a Union restored, a nation saved, and the gallant First New York Dragoons had no little share in its accom­plishment.

The details of Lee’s surrender, and the magnanimity of General Grant in his treatment of the humiliated Confederates, are too well known to be repeated here.

We all remember how like a dream it seemed to go into camp that Sabbath night, in sight of the rebel army, with no picket firing, and all hostilities ended.