On March 29th, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began the initial movements of the final campaign of the Civil War. Grant ordered his cavalry commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, to move toward Dinwiddie Court House ahead of an attack against General Robert E. Lee’s overextended lines on the Confederate right flank at Petersburg, Virginia. Sheridan’s cavalry was to lead the way and as soon as a Union infantry corps could be deployed in support, the attack would begin. A successful attack on the flank would be followed by a general assault ,which Grant believed would finally draw the Confederates out of their trenches and earthworks and into the open. Sheridan would be in position to keep Lee from heading south and linking up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
Sheridan’s cavalry, along with the 5th Corps, achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1st, seizing that important road junction and essentially caving in the Confederate right flank at Petersburg. Federal forces captured the Petersburg lines the next day and Lee pulled his army out of both Richmond and Petersburg the night of April 2nd and 3rd. Both cities were occupied by the Union Army on April 3rd, and the pursuit of Lee’s army began. Several engagements were fought along the way as Grant’s forces raced to cut off Lee’s westward retreat and keep him from going south. Union forces caught up with the Confederates at Appomattox Court House, surrounding them on three sides and preventing any southward or westward movement. Lee surrendered on April 9th.
One of Sheridan’s division commanders was Brigadier General George A. Custer. Like his commanding officer, Custer was an aggressive fighter, and his division was in the thick of the fighting throughout the campaign capturing supply trains, artillery, and prisoners including several generals. He filed this report on his division’s actions in the Appomattox Campaign:
HEADQUARTERS THIRD CAVALRY DIVISION,
April 15, 1865.
SIR: The following is a brief summary of the operations of my command since the 29th of March last:
My division left its camp near Petersburg on the morning of the 29th of March. From this date until our arrival within four miles of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the evening of the 31st, we were employed
as escort for the trains of the entire command. On the afternoon of the 31st a staff officer from the major-general commanding the cavalry conveyed me an order to move two of my brigades rapidly forward to Dinwiddie Court-House, leaving one brigade as escort for the trains. The two brigades designated moved forward at the trot. Upon reaching Dinwiddie Court-House the head of the column was halted, and I reported for orders to the major-general commanding, who directed me to place my command in position to support and relieve the Second Cavalry Division, then engaged and being driven back. Most of my command were dismounted and placed behind a hastily constructed barricade. Lord’s battery of horse artillery, which had been ordered to report to me, was also placed in position. The attacking force of the enemy proved to be infantry. Several vigorous efforts were made to displace us from our position. A strong line of the enemy’s infantry, formed across the road leading to Five Forks, was charged by portions of the First and Third Brigades, and driven handsomely until their supports were reached and they were enabled to make a stand. No further demonstration was made upon either side. My command bivouacked within short range of the enemy’s line of battle. In anticipation of an early attack the next morning my command slept upon their arms, but daylight disclosed to us the retreat during the night of the enemy. The march was resumed early next day in the direction of Five Forks, connection being made with the Fifth Corps at a point about two miles distant from Dinwiddie Court-House. My command then left the road leading direct to Five Forks and moved across the country parallel to the White Oak Creek.No opposition from the enemy was encountered until the advance had nearly reached the road leading from Five Forks across White Oak Creek. A brief skirmish ensued for the possession of this road, which resulted in the enemy being driven back in the direction of Five Forks, we pursuing until communication was restored upon our right with the left of the First Division. The enemy had evidently resolved to oppose our farther advance with the greatest determination. Heavy lines of earth-works were discovered, extending for miles in either direction along our front. In advance of these were strong barricades of rails, logs, and other obstructions. Every point seemed to be strongly manned with infantry and artillery. Repeated charges by portions of my command at various points showed the enemy to be in heavy force. At one time my entire command was dismounted and fighting as infantry in the woods skirting along the enemy’s front. Nothing was accomplished in this manner. About one hour and a half before dark a staff officer informed me that the major-general commanding had placed the Fifth Corps in position to assault the enemy’s left. The First Cavalry Division had been dismounted and were to attack in the center, while my command was to engage the enemy on his right, keeping up the connection with the First Cavalry Division. An examination of the ground in front and on the enemy’s right seemed to favor a movement by a mounted force
against the enemy’s right and rear. With this object in view I deployed the First Brigade dismounted, Colonel Pennington commanding, along the entire line held by my division. The Second and Third Brigades, commanded, respectively, by Colonels Wells and Capehart, were mounted and moved opposite the extreme right of the enemy, and waited the opening of the general assault before advancing to turn the enemy’s right flank. As soon as the firing on the line held by the Fifth Corps indicated the inauguration of the attack the Second and Third Brigades were moved at a gallop against the right of the enemy’s line of battle. To cover the movement and to draw the fire of the enemy’s batteries in front Lieutenant-Colonel Bliss, of the Eighth New York Cavalry, was directed to charge with his regiment upon the enemy’s batteries. Without a hope of successfully carrying the enemy’s position Lieutenant-Colonel Bliss gallantly led his regiment up to the very muzzles of the enemy’s guns, at the same moment exposed to a terrible cross-fire from the enemy’s infantry posted in rifle-pits and behind barricades within easy range. Although suffering a heavy loss in men and horses and compelled to retire the object of the charge was accomplished. Before the enemy could shift the position of his batteries my columns had pushed past the extreme right of his line and were moving rapidly to place themselves directly in rear of his position. Although this movement was almost entirely under the view of the enemy it was so rapid he was unable to prevent it. W. H. F. Lee’s division of cavalry was discovered to be moving upon us. Portions of each command moved simultaneously to the attack. For some time success was varied and uncertain. My line was then facing in the same direction toward which that of the enemy had faced two hours before, the enemy being between my command and the line of battle of the Fifth Corps and First Cavalry Division. The gradual nearing of the firing indicated that the enemy’s left was being forced back. This fact had its influence on the position of the enemy with whom we were engaged and aided us in effecting a total rout of the entire force of the enemy. The retreat of over 5,000 of the rebels was then cut off, and this number was secured as prisoners of war. Besides these the loss in killed and wounded was very heavy. The First Connecticut Cavalry, belonging to the First Brigade, was the first regiment to gain the enemy’s works, and succeeded in capturing two pieces of artillery, which were at once turned upon the retreating foe. The pursuit was maintained over a distance of six miles and only ended on account of the darkness. Returning from the pursuit at a late hour my command encamped on the battle-field.
Soon after daylight the following morning the pursuit was taken up, the command moving toward the South Side Railroad–one brigade crossing the latter at Ford’s Station, the other two brigades crossing at a point between Ford’s and Sutherland’s Stations. But little skirmishing was had with the enemy during the day. The entire command encamped that night near the intersection of the Sutherland Station road and the Namozine road. On the morning of the 3d moved on the road leading to Amelia Court-House. The enemy was found posted at the crossing of Namozine Creek, having destroyed the bridge and erected strong breast-works on the opposite bank. Under a heavy canister fire from one of our guns a force of dismounted men were thrown across the creek some distance and flanked the enemy from his position. After removing the felled trees and other obstructions from the ford my entire command crossed and began a vigorous pursuit of the enemy. He was not permitted to make any decided stand until near Namozine Church, when about one brigade of his cavalry charged my advance and endeavored to break it. Colonel Wells, commanding the advance brigade, repulsed the charge with the Eighth New York Cavalry alone. At Namozine Church the enemy divided his forces–Fitzhugh Lee’s division moving toward Amelia Court-House, W. H. F. Lee’s division taking the road leading to Bevill’s Bridge, across the Appomattox. I directed Colonel Wells, with his brigade, to pursue the former, while Colonel Capehart, commanding Third Brigade, was ordered to pursue the latter. Colonel Pennington, commanding First Brigade, was directed to send one regiment in support of each brigade, holding the remainder of his brigade in reserve at the cross-roads. A running fight then ensued on both roads, the enemy being driven at the gallop before a vastly inferior force. Prisoners, guns, and battle-flags were captured all along the line of retreat. After crossing Sweat House Creek the enemy were re-enforced by six brigades of infantry. Here a desperate struggle took place, which gave a temporary check to our farther advance. As soon as the brigade in rear had reached the ground another advance was ordered, but the enemy had not waited to receive it. It was found impossible to again overtake him that day. The command encamped on Sweat House Creek. From this point we marched to Jetersville, on the Danville railroad, reaching the latter point at 7 a.m. of the 5th. Leaving Jetersville at 6 a.m. of the 6th we marched to Harper’s farm, on Sailor’s Creek, where we charged and routed the forces guarding the enemy’s wagon train, capturing over 300 wagons. While engaged in securing and destroying this train two divisions of rebel infantry, commanded by Generals Kershaw and Custis Lee, the whole under command of Lieutenant-General Ewell, attacked my command with a view to recapturing their train. After a severe engagement, during which my command was several times driven back, the enemy’s line of battle was broken by a charge of the Third Brigade, supported by a portion of the First. The enemy was driven from his breast-works in great confusion. Thousands of his men were captured on the spot, others surrendered after a short pursuit. Besides these advantages already gained we secured a strong position in rear of that of the enemy’s force engaging the Sixth Corps, which eventually compelled the surrender of the entire force of the enemy engaged on that part of the field. Lieutenant-General Ewell and six other general officers were captured at this point by my command. In addition, we captured 15 pieces of artillery and 31 battle-flags. After the pursuit had ended my division encamped upon the battle-field.
From Sailor’s Creek we moved, on the 7th and 8th, without opposition until we reached Appomattox Station, where we surprised the enemy and captured three large trains of cars loaded with rations for the rebel army. The locomotives being in good running order the trains, with their contents, were run back to a point of safety, in the direction of Farmville. Learning that the enemy was moving a large train upon the road from Appomattox Court-House across the Lynchburg railroad I ordered the entire division forward to attack. The train was found to be guarded by about two divisions of infantry, in addition to over thirty pieces of artillery, all under command of Major-General Walker. Most of the enemy’s guard were placed in position and their fire concentrated upon the road over which it was necessary for me to advance. The enemy succeeded in repulsing nearly all our attacks, until nearly 9 o’clock at night, when by a general advance along my line he was forced from his position and compelled to abandon to our hands twenty-four pieces of artillery, all his trains, several battle-flags, and a large number of prisoners. Our loss was slight. Our advance reached Appomattox Court-House that night and charged into the camp of the rebel army.
The following morning my command was moved toward Appomattox Court-House, about which point the entire rebel army was massed. Moving at a rapid gait and under a heavy artillery fire I place my command upon the extreme right of our army, which was then moving to the attack of the enemy’s position. Driving back his skirmishers, we had almost gained possession of his trains, when a staff officer of General Longstreet came galloping into our lines undera flag of truce, requesting a suspension of hostilities. After making a proper disposition of my force either to repel or make an attack the truce was agreed to until instructions could be received from the proper authority. The result is already known.
The rapidity with which battle followed battle in the late campaign, each time resulting in a glorious victory for our arms, has prevented me from going into detail. A mere reference to each important engagement is all that has been attempted in this report.
During the brief period of ten days my command captured in open battle 46 pieces of artillery and 37 battle-flags. This of itself is the best evidence I could wish to offer of the gallantry and heroism displayed by this division.
G. A. CUSTER,
Brevet Major-General, Comdg. Third Cavalry Division.
Brevet Major-General MERRITT,
Acting Chief of Cavalry.
“Five Forks and the Pursuit of Lee” by Horace Porter. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I Volume XLVI, Part 1.
Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865
by Noah Andre Trudeau.