150 Years Ago in the Civil War
After four years of fighting, the end was near as the calendar turned to the fifth April of the war. At Petersburg, Virginia, Ulysses S. Grant had begun a final push at the end of March to turn the Confederate right flank and cut off the Robert E. Lee’s last supply line. In North Carolina, William T. Sherman’s army was preparing to march north to assist Grant, while keeping an eye on Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates. Although the usual minor skirmishing still occurred throughout the south, the only other major action was in Alabama. The Trans-Mississippi region had long been cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, all southern seaports had been captured, most southern industry had been destroyed, and much of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi River was more or less under Federal control. But Confederate President Jefferson Davis still held out hope for success and the war went on.
On April 1st, General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry along with the Union 5th Corps attacked General George E. Pickett’s division at a crossroads called Five Forks on the Confederate right flank along the Petersburg siege line. The attack caved in Pickett’s left flank and Union infantry swept into the rear, capturing about 2400 Rebels and sending the remaining force into a headlong retreat.
When word reached Grant about the victory at the Battle of Five Forks, the Union general in chief ordered a general assault along the Petersburg line on April 2nd. Overwhelming numbers of Federals assaulted the depleted Confederate lines, breaking through the outer defenses in several locations. With his lines on the verge of collapse, Lee organized a defense that would hold off the Federals long enough to allow his army to withdraw that night. Lee informed Davis that the army would withdraw, which meant that Richmond and Petersburg would soon fall and the Confederate government needed to abandon the capital.
Lee successfully withdrew from the Richmond-Petersburg lines and the army headed toward Amelia Court House, about 40 miles west, to regroup. During the fighting, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, one of Lee’s top generals throughout the war, was killed while directing his Corps. Davis, along with other government officials and the Confederate treasury, left Richmond by train that night bound for Danville, Virginia. Civilians who could find transportation also got out. As the army pulled out, civil order broke down, and looting by a population that had been deprived of everything by the hardships of war was rampant. Fires in the city spread to stockpiles of munitions, setting off explosions. The James River ironclad fleet was put to the torch to prevent it from falling into Union hands, and the ships exploded as the flames reached the vessels’ ammunition. The night’s events resulted in widespread destruction of central Richmond.
Early in the morning of April 3rd, Union troops entered Petersburg and Richmond. The Federals organized firefighting details to put out the remaining fires in Richmond and took control of the city. Among the visitors to Petersburg were Grant and President Abraham Lincoln, who had been visiting Grant at his headquarters at City Point, Virginia, a few miles behind the lines. Grant continued on to join the army in pursuit of Lee. Returning to City Point Lincoln told Admiral David Porter that he wanted to see Richmond. The next day, Porter, along with an escort of sailors, brought Lincoln up the James River to the city. While a nervous Porter watched for possible assassins, Lincoln toured the city as curious whites observed him from a distance and jubilant newly freed slaves surrounded him. Lincoln sat in Jefferson Davis’ chair in the Confederate White House office before returning to City Point.
With the Union army in pursuit, Lee’s army began arriving at Amelia Court House on April 4th, where railroad cars filled with provisions awaited, at least according to plan. However, the freight cars were filled with ammunition, and not food. Reluctantly, Lee had his troops take time to forage for food in the countryside.
The countryside yielded little in the way of provisions, and the delay enabled the Federals time to close in. Lee continued west on April 5th, with the Union pursuit spearheaded by Phil Sheridan’s cavalry. The Federals were south of the Confederates on their left flank. Union troops blocked the rail line south of Amelia Court House, preventing Lee from using it to reach Johnston in North Carolina. Lee’s next objective was Farmville, about 25 miles west, where provisions again were supposedly available.
Sheridan’s cavalry and two infantry corps engaged the Confederates at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6th. In severe fighting, about 8000 Confederates, nearly a quarter of Lee’s army, and eight generals, were captured. Union losses were heavy, with nearly 1200 killed and wounded, but the relentless Federal pursuit could not be stopped. There was fighting at Farmville and Cumberland Church on April 7th, and at Appomattox Station on April 8th. That day, Grant sent a message to Lee asking him to surrender. With Union infantry and cavalry closing in, Lee tried to break out one last time at Appomattox Court House on April 9th.
At dawn on the 9th, Confederate forces initially pushed back Union cavalry and took a ridge, only to discover two Union infantry corps deployed on the other side. Realizing that escape was not possible and further fighting would only lead to more bloodshed, Lee sent a message to Grant agreeing to the surrender terms in the April 8th message.
That afternoon, Lee met with Grant and his staff at the home of Wilmer McLean to formally surrender his army. McLean had lived near Manassas, Virginia, and his home there had been damaged in the First Battle of Bull Run. Ironically, McLean had moved to Appomattox Court House in 1863 to get away from the fighting in northern Virginia. In the terms of surrender, officers and men would be paroled and allowed to return home, officers could keep their side arms, and those with horses–which belonged to the soldiers themselves, not the army–would be allowed to retain them. Grant also ordered 25,000 rations for Lee’s hungry men. By three o’clock it was over: the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered.
The news brought massive celebrations in the north. Although there were still other Confederate armies in the field it was believed that other generals would follow Lee’s lead and surrender as well. Until that happened, the war was not completely finished.
In Alabama, Union cavalry under General James H. Wilson captured Selma on April 2nd, handing Nathan Bedford Forrest one of his rare defeats. Wilson continued on to Columbus, Georgia, capturing that industrial city on April 16th and destroying anything of military value there. At Mobile, Alabama, Union victories at Spanish Fort on April 8th and Fort Blakely on April 9th led to the surrender of the city on April 12th.
On Friday, April 14th, a flag raising ceremony was held at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Four years to the day after Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort and lowered the U.S. flag after the first shots of the war had been fired, a flag raising ceremony was held, raising the very same flag that had been lowered in 1861. Anderson was on hand and raised the flag himself in front of a crowd of some 4000 spectators, most of whom had come down from the north for the occasion.
While the flag was being raised at Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln was busy in Washington working on plans for the postwar nation and the conclusion of the war. That evening, Abraham and Mary Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater in Washington to attend the comedy play “Our American Cousin”. The Lincolns were frequent theater goers, enjoying a few hours away from the pressures of the presidency. Though he was not in this night’s play, one of the actors that Lincoln had seen perform was the popular John Wilkes Booth, a member of a distinguished family of actors that included his brothers Edwin and Junius. While those two were loyal to the Union, John Wilkes was an almost fanatical supporter of the Confederate cause.
Booth told his sister that he had promised their mother he would not enlist in the Confederate army, but he found other ways to serve the cause, including smuggling the important anti malaria drug Quinine to the
south. He also was recruited by Confederate agents for clandestine operations, including a plot to kidnap Lincoln. Booth and a dubious collection of associates were waiting on a road on the outskirts of Washington for Lincoln one day in March of 1865, but the president changed his plans and did not appear. With Lee’s surrender and the capture of Richmond, the increasingly desperate Booth planned to assassinate Lincoln and other high government officials, hoping the ensuing chaos and power vacuum would help the crumbling Confederacy reestablish itself.
Booth planned to kill Lincoln at the theater, while coconspirators George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell (who also went by the name Lewis Paine) would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, respectively.
Booth was well known at Ford’s Theater, and often acted in plays there. He had access to the entire building and would raise no suspicions. At approximately 10:15 p.m. Booth entered the president’s box and fired a single shot from a derringer pistol. The shot struck Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth then leaped from the box onto the stage and escaped out of the building to a waiting horse before anyone could react. Elsewhere, Atzerodt lost his nerve and spent the night drinking and did not attempt to kill Johnson; Powell stabbed Seward, who was bedridden recovering from a recent carriage accident. Though seriously injured, Seward recovered.
Lincoln was carried to a house across the street, where he died the next day, April 15th, at 7:22 a.m. Among those present was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who said “Now he belongs to the ages”. Stanton took charge of the search for Booth as a shocked nation received word of the death of the president. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States at 11:00 a.m. by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who was at one time, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury.
Stanton cast a wide net in his pursuit of those responsible, and anyone with any remote possibility of involvement was arrested or questioned. One by one the actual conspirators were picked up, but Booth and David Herald, who had guided Powell to Seward’s house and held the horses during that assassination attempt, remained at large. On April 26th, a detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry surrounded a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia, where Booth and Herald were hiding. Herald surrendered, but Booth refused and remained in the barn, which was set on fire in an effort to drive him out. Sergeant Boston Corbett, one of the soldiers surrounding the barn, shot Booth against Stanton’s order to take the assassin alive. Corbett later claimed he saw Booth raise a weapon to fire and acted in self defense. Booth was hit in the back of the head, with the bullet severing his spinal column paralyzing him. He was carried from the barn to the farmhouse porch, where he died approximately three hours later.
A state funeral was held in Washington for Lincoln on April 19th. Thousands of mourners from all walks of life filed past the casket and paid their respects. On April 21st, Lincoln’s body
began a long train ride back to Springfield, Illinois on a route retracing the one he took when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his presidency. There were several stops along the way where the body lay in state and mourners in those cities could pay their respects; in Philadelphia, Lincoln’s body lay in state in Independence Hall, in the same room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. As many as 100,000 people filed past the casket in Philadelphia, and an estimated 120,000 filed past it in New York City’s City Hall. And everywhere along the route, people lined the railroad tracks to view the funeral train. At the end of the month, the train was in Indianapolis.
On April 26th, the same day that John Wilkes Booth was killed, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his command to William T. Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina, under the same terms that Lee had surrendered to. It was actually the second time Johnston and Sherman had come to terms. The first time, the two reached agreement not only on surrender terms but also on several far reaching political issues. Sherman was eager to end the war and begin the process of restoring the southern states to the Union, but he had exceeded his authority and the initial deal was rejected by Washington; Stanton was especially critical of both the pact and Sherman. For his part, though he had overstepped his bounds, Sherman had stated all along that he would treat the southerners well if they would end the rebellion, and tried to back his words with action. Johnston’s surrender included not only his army in North Carolina, but also troops under his command in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; in all, over 89,000 soldiers. It was the largest surrender of any type during the war.
On April 27th, on the Mississippi River the side wheel steamboat Sultana exploded and burned seven miles north of Memphis. The ship’s capacity was 461 passengers and crew; however, the vessel had over 2400 people (the exact number is unknown) on board including approximately 2100 recently released former Union army prisoners of war. The grossly overloaded ship’s boilers exploded causing a fire; between 1700 and 1800 died in the explosion, fire, or by drowning. By comparison, about the same number of Union soldiers died in the Sultana disaster as were killed at the Battle of Shiloh. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
As April drew to a close, the war was essentially over in the east, and some Confederate commanders in the west were contemplating surrender, though others–including Jefferson Davis, who was still at large and traveling south, trying to avoid capture– were considering continuing the fight in a trans Mississippi Confederacy. As the north mourned the assassination of Lincoln, there were those in the south who worried that the radical elements in Congress would enact a punitive Reconstruction now that Lincoln was dead. As the war wound down, the future was more uncertain than ever.