Black Day at Sayler’s Creek

America’s Civil War Magazine, Jan. 1992

A previous edition of this article was printed in the January 1992 edition of America’s Civil War Magazine

“Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on his flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On an on, hour after hour, from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle…thus came short but sharp little battles which made up the side shows of the main performance, while the different divisions of Lee’s lionhearted army were being broken and scattered or captured.” Confederate Major General John B. Gordon was describing the Battle of Sayler’s Creek and the events of April 6, 1865. Called “the Black day of the Army”, this was the day when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was nearly destroyed on the banks of an obscure stream in central Virginia, yet the battle received almost no coverage by the print reporters and photographers who followed the armies, and even today it seldom ranks more than a footnote in most history books.
The events leading up to the Battle of Sayler’s Creek actually began four days before, when General Lee reluctantly ordered the evacuation of his long-held position in the trenches around Petersburg. Lee, knowing the odds were against him from the start, planned to make his way south and link up with the forces of General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina. On Sunday, April 2, 1865, Lee’s Confederate soldiers near Petersburg packed their few possessions and began heading West. One lieutenant described his comrades as they pulled out of Petersburg, “with tattered garments, worn-out shoes, barefooted, and ranks so depleted that each color was supported by only thirty of forty men…It is beginning to look almost like a lost hope when we reflect upon the review of today.”[1.] They were soon joined by thousands of civilians and government clerks, fleeing as the fires of Richmond burned behind them.
Lee hoped to find 200,000 rations waiting for his hungry men at Amelia Court House, but his supply system had completely broken down, and the food never reached Amelia Court House.  Several Confederate columns converged on the tiny crossroad town on April 4, and Lee was forced to halt his march for one entire precious day while his starving men scoured the countryside for food. Little was found however, and on April 5th the Confederate soldiers tightened their belts another notch and resumed the march. The lucky ones shot chickens and hogs by the side of the road, the unlucky ones ate only parched corn, intended for horse fodder. Hunger, exhaustion, and depression soon began to deplete the rebel ranks, and hundreds who were unable to take another step simply dropped by the side of the road. Horses and mules died in their traces, or simply laid down and refused to go any further. Wagons, guns, and caissons were overturned and destroyed when their teams became too weak to pull them. Hundreds of muskets, overcoats, blankets, cooking utensils, and the personal possessions of the demoralized Rebels lay by the side of the road, dumped by teamsters trying to lighten their loads. Hungry and exhausted though they were, the Confederate veterans still had a nearly unshakable faith in General Lee, and most of them  kept marching.
The disintegration of the Confederate army was obvious to the pursuing Federals, and they pushed on at a faster pace than they had ever managed before. They too were hungry too, because they were barely taking the time to eat. After four years of brutal fighting, they could sense victory just around the corner. “…a high jubilation had taken possession of the Army of the Potomac, they were all marching as though in seven-league boots and fighting like wildcats.”[2] General Sheridan’s cavalry was riding on both flanks of the fleeing Confederates, burning wagons and raiding here and there, while three Corps of the Army of the Potomac closed in on the Confederate rearguard under John B. Gordon. At the same time, the Union Army of the James was maneuvering to get in front of General Lee and trap him between the two Federal armies. On the night of April 5th, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote a letter to General Edward Ord, the commander the Army of the James, warning him that Lee was headed in his direction. Grant handed the note to two of his officers who were dressed in Confederate uniform, and one of them hid it in the lining of his boot. The two men rode off into the darkness, hoping to slip through Confederate lines undetected, but they were soon picked up by a suspicious Confederate patrol and brought before General Gordon. One of Gordon’s aides recognized the two men as Union officers, and when they were thoroughly searched, the message from General Grant to General Ord was discovered in the boot. Gordon informed the two spies he would shoot them at dawn, then forwarded the dispatch to General Lee, who received it at three in the morning as he was supervising the construction of a temporary bridge over Flat Creek. Lee sent a message to General James Longstreet, warning him to watch for the Army of the James in his front, then wrote a reply to Gordon, “you must, of course, keep everything ahead of you, wagons, stragglers, etc. I will try to get the head of the column on and to get provisions at Rice’s Station or Farmville.” [3.] Lee also instructed Gordon to keep the spies with him, instead of shooting them at dawn. “The lives of so many of our men are at stake that all my thoughts now must be given to disposing of them. Let him keep the prisoners until he hears further from me.”
Lee had received word that 80,000 rations were waiting at Farmville, and he kept his troops moving West all that night, knowing he must stay ahead of the Yankees. The only sleep many of his soldiers had came when the bridge at Flat Creek collapsed during the night, causing a short delay. It was soon repaired, and the soldiers were back on the road again at 3 A.M. They were moving very slowly now, and advanced only seven miles during the night. Nineteen miles of muddy, deeply rutted roads separated the Confederate rearguard at Amelia Springs from the promise of food at Farmville, with enemy infantry right behind them, cavalry moving on both flanks, and the Army of the James racing to get ahead of them. Mile after mile, they struggled on. The Army of Northern Virginia was made up of four corps. Leading the way to Farmville were the two veteran divisions of Longstreet’s Corps. Behind them marched two divisions of Lieutenant General Richard “Dick” Anderson Corps. Following Anderson came Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Corps, comprised mainly of sailors of the Confederate Navy and garrison troops from Richmond. A wagon train six miles long struggled after Ewell’s Corps, and John B. Gordon’s two divisions were last in line. Gordon’s men had three Federal Corps close on their heels.
As soon as dawn broke on April 6th, a Federal battery fired on Gordon’s men around the makeshift bridge at Flat Creek, but most of the wagons and artillery had already crossed. Lines of blue-coated infantrymen soon appeared on both of Gordon’s flanks, and the long day of fighting began in earnest. At 10:30 Gordon’s men were attacked by the 26th Michigan, beginning a running battle that would last all day and cover fourteen miles. Time after time, Gordon’s weary Confederates swung into battle lines  to repulse the blue-coated cavalrymen. General Grant later wrote, “There was as much gallantry displayed by some of the Confederates in these little engagements, as was displayed at any time during the war.” [4.]
Soon after dawn, General Grant had sent the cavalry divisions of George Crook and Wesley Merritt to take the road from Deatonsville to Rice’s Station. They soon reported back that they had found the Confederate column, and Grant immediately shifted three Federal infantry Corps of the Army of the Potomac onto their trail. These included the Union II Corps under Major General Andrew Humphrey, the V Corps under General Charles Griffin, and the VI Corps led by Major-General Horatio Wright.
The long lines of heavily loaded Confederate wagons were too a tempting a target for the Union horsemen to pass up, and large numbers of cavalrymen armed with 16 shot Spencers began dashing in and attacking the Confederate wagons whenever the opportunity presented itself. At one point they swooped down on General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters wagons. The teamsters had orders to save a wooden chest full of the archives of the Army of Northern Virginia, but the excited drivers panicked and burned the chest instead. Moments later, Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge and one hundred and twenty Rebels, many of them Generals and Colonels, drove off the Federals, but it was too late to save the irreplaceable papers.
Meanwhile, at the head of the Confederate column General James Longstreet reached Rice’s Station just after dawn on the 6th, and learned that nine hundred Federals front the Army of the James had passed through town just moments before. Commanded by Colonel Francis Washburn, these were men of the 123rd Ohio, 54th Pennsylvania, and 4th Massachusetts cavalry. They had left Burkeville at 4 A.M. with orders to destroy the bridges over the Appomattox River across which the Confederates must flee. Longstreet immediately recognized the threat posed by these raiders, and rounded up twelve hundred cavalrymen and assigned them to General Tom Rosser with orders to stop the Federals if it took every man of his command. Rosser’s horsemen pounded off in pursuit, but were soon spotted by more Federals, who alerted General Ord. General Ord sent his chief of staff, Theodore Read to warn the Union cavalry but it was too late. Rosser’s men caught up with the Federals two miles from High Bridge and in the short, sharp battle that followed, every Union officer was either killed or mortally wounded. Confederate General James Dearing killed Read with a saber cut, but was in turn fatally shot. Colonel Washburn was mortally wounded and died sixteen days later. Nine hundred Federals were captured, including an entire brass band. Confederate  Private E. M. Boykin wrote of the Federal prisoners, “Their coats were so new and blue and buttons so bright, and shirts so clean, that it was a wonder to look upon them by our rusty lot.” [5.] Tom Rosser was lightly wounded in the battle, but his men saved the High Bridge from certain destruction.
Still five miles from Rice’s Station, General Anderson and the middle of the Confederate column neared Holt’s corner at 11 A.M. General George Crook’s cavalry attacks from the west had become so severe that Anderson ordered his men to halt so that his wagons could get further ahead in the column, where he thought they would be safer. Anderson was just as exhausted as his soldiers were, and he failed to notify General Mahone, who was just in front of him, that he was stopping. Mahone and the rest of Longstreet’s Corps kept moving West, unaware that Anderson had stopped, and a gap soon opened between the two sections of the army. Union General George Armstrong Custer was watching from a nearby hill as the vulnerable Confederate  wagons began to roll into this gap. Custer immediately sent his troopers charging into the midst of the Confederate train, and the Federal horsemen began killing drivers, looting and burning wagons, and cutting the horses loose with sabers. Confederate Lt. Colonel W.W. Blackford watched as they looted his personal possessions. “… they made a rush for the plunder. Wagon sheets were torn off, and there was a perfect fountain of things rising in the air as the men threw out what was of no value to them, in search of trunks and private baggage. Our wagon was very near and I tried to save it but could not.” [6] Custer captured several of the wagons and found himself in possession of the road over which Anderson and Ewell must move. Gordon, who was under heavy attack from Union cavalry and artillery in the rear of the column, sent a message forward urging Anderson to advance. At the same time, General Ewell ordered the remaining wagons to take a different road to High Bridge, where they would be out of the line of fire from Custer’s cavalry ahead. The exhausted Ewell failed to notify Gordon that the wagons were turning off, expecting that Gordon would continue on the same road as the rest of the Confederate Army. By the time Gordon’s hard-pressed division reached Holt’s Corner, Ewell’s men were out of sight down the left hand fork of the road, and the wagons were rolling along the right hand fork. Gordon at this point was under artillery fire and had bluecoated infantrymen just behind him. His men continued to follow the Confederate wagons, as they had all day. At the head of the column, General Lee and Longstreet’s Corps continued to march westward, unaware that the Army of Northern Virginia had now been split into three sections. The stage was set for disaster.
Anderson resumed moving about 2:00 P.M., when his men crossed Sayler’s Creek, a boggy, meandering, brush-choked little stream from two to four feet deep.Once across the creek, he discovered   there were now two or three divisions of Federal cavalry holding the road in front of him. He halted again and consulted with General Richard Ewell,and they agreed to merge their forces to break through the Federal cavalry. Ewell, who had lost a leg earlier in the war, was “bald, pop-eyed and long beaked.”[7] His Corps consisted of a makeshift force of 3,000 garrison troops from Richmond, a battalion of naval cadets and marines, and General Joe Kershaw’s 2,000 veteran infantrymen. Kershaw’s men were about to cross Sayler’s Creek, when they were surprised by he appearance of Federal infantry just behind them, where they had expected Gordon’s rearguard to be. There were still many wagons waiting to cross the creek when artillery fire from the Hillsman House, several hundred yards east of the creek, began falling, and Kershaw ordered General Gary’s cavalry to dismount and hold off the Yankees until the rest of his men could get across the creek.
General Wright’s VI Corps had just been stopping to cook a mid-day meal when word came that Sheridan had cut off a section of the Confederate army. Some of these men had already marched twenty miles that day, but they broke into a trot for the last three miles. Major Andrew Cowan, the artillery commander of VI Corps, set up five batteries on the left and right of the Hillsman House and opened fire with twenty guns firing case shot. Sheridan watched from a nearby barn, and directed his men as they came up. On the Federal left he put General Frank Wheaton’s two brigades, on the right General Truman Seymour’s Division, some ten thousand men in all.
Ewell and Anderson were uniting their men to attack the large cavalry force in front of them, when they were stunned by the sudden appearance of enemy infantry and artillery close behind them. General Ewell hurriedly formed a battle line just west of Sayler’s Creek and facing the Union VI Corps across the creek.   He assigned Custis Lee’s men, many of whom were inexperienced clerks and quartermasters from the Government offices in Richmond, to the left of the line. Stapleton Crutchfields Richmond Artillerists, who had no artillery left, were in the middle. On the right were Kershaw’s 2,000 veterans. Commodore John Tucker’s sailors were kept in reserve in the center of the line behind Crutchfield. These naval cadets were a source of much amusement to the other Confederates. A staff officer who heard Commodore Tucker order his men “To the starboard, march. Grand moral combination,” offered his services in directing the cadets, but Tucker refused the offer, saying that he knew how to talk to his men.[8] Ewell’s men had no artillery of their own, so they sought shelter as best they could and waited for the bombardment to end. Many were so exhausted they fell asleep with shells exploding all around. Generals Ewell, Custis Lee, Joe Kershaw, and Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield rode down to the creek to confer, when suddenly Crutchfield was struck by a Federal shell which tore through his right thigh and exploded just beyond.
As Crutchfield lay dying, General Sheridan began his attack. He pointed at Custis Lee’s position and ordered a brigade commander who had just come up, “To form your brigade in one line, cross the creek, and carry the heights.” When the officer asked who would cover his flanks, Sheridan roared, “Never mind your flanks. Go through them. They are demoralized as hell.” [9]

As the Union soldiers across the creek began to advance,  the eccentric General Ewell remarked, “Tomatoes are good. I wish I had some,”[10] and then rode to the rear to find out how Anderson’s attack against Custer’s men was coming along. “Dick” Anderson Corps consisted mainly of Bushrod Johnson’s division in the lead, General Henry Wise’s brigade in the middle, and the remains of George Pickett’s division, 6,000 men in all. Facing them were three divisions of cavalry, 8,000 Federal horsemen commanded by Generals George Crook, George Custer, and Thomas Devin. Anderson’s ordered an assault on the Yankees, but his “troops seemed to be wholly broken down and disheartened.” The attack disintegrated almost immediately, and the Federal cavalry swooped down the hill. General Crook’s division shattered Bushrod Johnson’s division, while Custer and Devin hit Pickett’s men. Most of the exhausted and starving Confederates simply broke and ran before the Federal horsemen. General Pickett of Gettysburg fame, rallied some of his staff around him, fired a volley at the advancing Federals, and escaped in the confusion. Fitz Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) evaded capture in a similar manner. General Henry Wise’s brigade managed to fight their way out of the melee and turned towards Farmville. At one point Wise ordered his men to fire three volleys to the rear and three volleys to the front. On one of these volleys a Confederate brigade hiding in the woods came out waving white flags, and Wise added them to his own command as they made their escape. General Bushrod Johnson, accompanied by a mob of disoriented teamsters and soldiers, fled toward Rice’s Station with Merritt’s Union cavalry hard at their heels.

Meanwhile, all along Ewell’s line the men waited as the attacking lines of bluecoats crossed the creek and began marching up the hill. Waiting for them, Major Robert Stiles thought his men looked, “blanched and haggard and awe struck.”[11] Stiles waited until the Federal line was within fifty yards before giving the order to fire, and he described the devastation of the Confederate volley. “The enemy seemed to have been totally unprepared for it…the earth appeared to have swallowed up the first line of the Federal force in our front. There was a rattling supplement to the volley and the second line wavered and broke. The revulsion was too sudden. On the instant every man in my battalion sprang to his feet, and, without orders, they rushed bareheaded and with unloaded muskets, down the slope after the retreating Federals. I tried to stop them, but in vain, although I actually got ahead of a good many of them. They simply bore me on with the flood.” [12] The sudden charge drove the Yankees back, but they soon regrouped and advanced again. Major Stiles managed to get his men back to their original position just in time to face the next attack. A Confederate private who was there wrote, “Near the end the 37th Massachusetts had the fiercest literally savage encounter of the war with the remnants of Stile’s battalion and the Marines. I was next to those Marines and saw them fight. They clubbed muskets, fired pistols into each other’s face and used bayonets savagely.”[13] Major Stiles himself said, “quicker than I can tell it the battle degenerated into a butchery and a confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts. I saw one of my officers and a Federal officer fighting with swords over the battalion colors, which we had brought back with us, each having his left hand upon the staff. I could not get to them, but my man was a very athletic, powerful seaman, and soon I saw the Federal officer fall.”[14] Morris Schaff, a reporter who sketched the scene from the Union side of the creek, described a portion of the confused battle. “One Berkshire man [37th Massachusetts] was stabbed in the chest by a bayonet and pinned to the ground as it came out near his spine. He reloaded his gun and killed the Confederate, who fell across him. The Massachusetts man threw him off, pulled out the bayonet, and despite the awful wound, walked to the rear.”[15]
Two lines of Federals, elbow to elbow, attacked across the creek, and hit the right of the Confederate line but were driven back by a volley at 50 yards. Kershaw’s men charged the overwhelming numbers of Yankees, and Kershaw later said “On no battlefield of the war have I felt a juster pride in the conduct of my men,” but more infantry were pouring at them from the right flank, and they were soon overwhelmed.[16] Along the Confederate left, Custis Lee, sword in hand was there “in perfect dignity and composure,” but most of his men were clerks from Richmond, and they were quickly outflanked. [17] The survivors grudgingly laid down their arms and surrendered. Major Stiles and William S. Basinger 18th Georgia Battalion retreated through a ravine back up the hill, but were soon rounded up Federal Cavalry. Commodore Tucker’s men retreated to the woods, until discovered later by the Federals, who demanded their surrender. The astonished Tucker remarked, “I never before got into a fight like this. I thought everything was going on well.”[18]

General Ewell, who had ridden over to observe Anderson’s attack, ran into a line of Union skirmishers as he attempted to return to his command. In his words, “This closed the avenue of escape; as shells and even bullets were crossing each other from front and rear over my troops, and my right was completely enveloped, I surrendered myself and staff to a cavalry officer.”[19] Ewell persuaded the Union cavalry officer who had captured him to take a message to General Custis Lee, urging him to surrender also, but Lee had been captured before the message arrived. Many of the prisoners begged food from the Federal soldiers, then, overcome with exhaustion, they promptly fell asleep near Sayler’s Creek.
It was at this moment that Robert E. Lee and General Mahone, who were searching for the missing Ewell and Anderson, topped a rise and saw the battlefield below them. Mahone described the scene, “the disaster which had overtaken our army was in full view and the scene beggars description-hurrying teamsters with their teams and dangling traces (no wagons), retreating infantry without guns, many without hats, a harmless mob… Lee at the sight of the spectacle, straightened himself in the saddle and exclaimed, as if talking to himself, ‘My God, has the army dissolved?'”[20]

Meanwhile, John B. Gordon’s men were still following the Confederate wagons along the northern most route to High Bridge, dogged every step of the way by Humphrey’s II Corps. The road Gordon took ran northwest for two miles, then turned west and crossed Sayler’s Creek at the confluence of two forks. At 4 P.M. a bridge collapsed over one of the two forks, slowing the wagons. And then, in Gordon’s words, the Federals “struck my command while we were endeavoring to push the ponderous wagons trains through the bog, out of which the starved teams were unable to drag them.”[21] “Many of these wagons, loaded with ammunition, mired so deep in the mud that they had to be abandoned. It was necessary to charge and force back the Union lines in order to rescue my men…” One of the Union attackers described the Confederate reaction. “There was wild screaming and clawing to get out of the way of the confounded Yankees. Our column dashed forward to secure the spoils, but every rock and tree, every fence and hillock, seemed alive and offered resistance. Wagon after wagon was overturned, its contents confiscated and scattered to the winds.”[22] Gordon’s men fought, “with a spirit and deadliness that would have kindled the eyes of [Stonewall] Jackson,” according to another onlooker, but it was not enough, as more and more Federals were pouring in from the scene of Ewell’s defeat. Finally, General Gordon’s position became untenable and his Confederates broke under the pressure and fled across the creek, leaving 1,700 prisoners, 70 ambulances, 3 guns, and 13 battle flags. Gordon’s men formed up on a ridge east of Sayler’s Creek, where he sent a message to Lee at 5:00 P.M.
“I have been fighting  heavily all day. My loss is considerable and I am still quite closely pressed. I fear that a portion of the train will be lost as my force is quite reduced and insufficient for its protection. So far I have been able to protect them, but without assistance can scarcely hope to do so much longer. The enemy’s loss has been very heavy.”[23]

As the sun set over the carnage on Sayler’s Creek, General Robert E. Lee rode among the demoralized survivors of Ewell’s and Anderson’s commands. One of them described the scene, “An artist ought to have seen the old cavalier at this moment… with head erect, gestures animated, and in the whole face and form the expression of the hunter close upon his game. He rode in the twilight among the disordered groups, and the sight of him aroused a tumult. Fierce cries resounded on all sides, and, with hands clenched violently and raised aloft, the men called on him to lead them against the enemy. ‘It’s General Lee, Uncle Robert where’s the man who won’t follow Uncle Robert’ I heard this on all sides-the swarthy faces full of dirt and courage, lit up every instant by the glare of burning wagons.”[24] Despite the Confederate’s undying loyalty to General Lee, time was running out for the Confederacy, and everyone, even Robert E. Lee knew it. That night he told John Wise “A few more Sayler’s Creeks and it will all be over-ended-just as I have expected it would end from the first.” [25]
As darkness finally fell, over Sayler’s Creek, General Gordon gathered his survivors and began to make his way towards High Bridge, the road ankle deep in mud. They were joined by the survivors of Johnson’s men led by General Wise, and they crossed over High Bridge and continued on to Farmville, where rations waited. To reward Gordon for his gallant but futile defense of the Army’s rear, General Lee gave him the remnants of Ewell’s and Anderson’s men, but as a survivor of the Richmond Artillerists said, “It was now apparent to all that we could hold out but a few hours-men and horses were utterly worn down by fatigue, loss of sleep and hunger. Thousands were leaving their commands and wandering about the devastated country in quest of food, and they had no muskets.”[26]
That evening, a Union private observed the captured Confederates generals around the Hillsman House. “The prisoners go in and out as they please, seemingly much more jolly than their captors. There is no fear of their escaping, for it is useless for them to return to their own army. With us they have something to eat. As for going home, many are hundreds, even thousands, of miles from home, and they are too weak to walk far… Destruction and starvation on one hand, surrender on the other. Still, many cling to General Lee with child-like faith.”[27]
The Yankee soldiers were enjoying the spoils of victory. An overturned wagon had yielded barrels of newly minted Confederate money, and the Union soldiers wasted no time in starting dozens of high-stake poker games with their worthless booty, throwing down millions of worthless dollars on each hand. The Federals shared their food with their prisoners, and it seemed that capture had lifted a great weight from the shoulders of many of the Rebels, but General Ewell was thoroughly dejected. He sat, head slumped, with arms clasped around his legs, one flesh and the other wooden, and was heard to remark, “… our cause is lost. Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.”[28]  At a nearby campfire, General Custer entertained Colonel Frank Huger, a West Point classmate whom he had captured west of Sayler’s Creek and General Joe Kershaw. Except for one man, Kershaw’s entire command had been captured at Sayler’s Creek.
While his men celebrated, General Sheridan wrote a dispatch to General Grant, describing the victory on Sayler’s creek. “Up to the present time we have captured Generals Ewell, Kershaw, Barton, Corse, Hunton, Dubose, and Custis Lee, several thousand prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery and a large number of wagons. If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.”[29] Sheridan’s dispatch arrived at midnight, and Grant promptly forwarded it on to President Lincoln at nearby City Point. The President wasted no time in replying, “Let the thing be pressed.”     The Federals captured 6,000 Confederate prisoners on the banks of Sayler’s Creek, more prisoners than had ever been taken in a single day’s combat on the North American continent, before or since. In addition, Lee had lost another 2,000 dead, wounded, and missing. Ewell’s Corps was gone, Anderson’s cut in half, Gordon’s missing 1700 men. Six miles of wagons had been destroyed, fifty battle flags captured, fifteen field pieces of artillery gone. In one day the legendary Army of Northern Virginia had lost more than a quarter of it’s strength, while Union casualties for the day were reported as 166 killed and 1014 wounded.
At dawn, the Confederate trooped across High Bridge, and the rearguard fired the bridge, but Federal cavalry doused the flames before they did much damage. Only four of the twenty-one spans of the bridge were destroyed by fire, and as the first Federals crossed the bridge, Robert E. Lee’s last chance to elude the Army of the Potomac vanished. The Confederate infantrymen were now too weak to outmarch the Federals, and Lee knew time was quickly running out. That morning he received a message from General Grant, “General: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States Army, known as the Army of Northern Virginia. Very Respectfully, your obedient servant, US Grant. Lieutenant General, Commanding Armies of the United States.” [30]
Lee’s exhausted army continued to march and fight for another two days, another thirty miles, but on the morning of April 9th, 1865, near the crossroads of Appomattox Court House, Lee found his way blocked once more. The opposing battle lines were being drawn up when a Confederate rider carrying a flag of truce suddenly galloped up to the waiting Federals. Shortly thereafter, General Grant and and General Lee met to discuss surrender terms, and the war was effectively over. In the confusion and desperation of those final days, the Battle of Sayler’s Creek was completely overlooked by the general public and the newspapers of the day, but the soldiers who were present did not not forget the vicious fight where Lee’s army was destroyed. In his memoirs, General Sheridan called the battle of Sayler’s Creek, “One of the severest conflicts of the war, for the enemy fought with desperation to escape capture, and we, bent on his destruction, were no less eager and determined…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.”[31]

General Thomas Meagher, leader of the Irish Brigade

Pancho Villa’s Raid on Columbus New Mexico

The occupation of Veracruz, New Mexico

The First Aero Squadron chases a bandit


1. Henry, Robert Selph. “The Story of the Confederacy”, Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. Garden City NY 1931.

2. Pratt, Fletcher. “Ordeal By Fire, A Short History of the Civil War”, William Sloane Associates Inc. 1948. P.385.

3. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p. 217.

4. Korn, Jerry, and the Editors of Time-Life Books, “The Civil War,” “Pursuit to Appomattox”. Time-Life Books, Alexandria Va. 1987.

5. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p. 235

6. Blackford, Lieut. Col. W.W., “War Years with JEB Stuart” Charles Scribners Sons, 1945. p. 284

7. Freeman, Douglas Southall. “Lee’s Lieutenants-A Study in Command” “Vol”” III”, Charles Scribners and Sons, New York NY 1944.

8. Stiles, Major Robert. “Lee Retreats”, printed in “Combat: the Civil” “War” ed. by Don Congdon, Delacorte Press, New York, NY 1967.

9. Schaff, Morris. “The Sunset of the Confederacy”, John W. Luce and Company, Boston, 1912. p. 104.

10. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p.226

11. ibid, p. 226

12. ibid p. 227

13. ibid p. 228

14. Stiles, Major Robert. “Lee Retreats”, printed in “Combat: the Civil” “War” ed. by Don Congdon, Delacorte Press, New York, NY 1967. p. 551

15 Schaff, Morris. “The Sunset of the Confederacy”, John W. Luce and Company, Boston, 1912. p. 107

16. Wood, William. “Captains of the Civil War”, Yale University Press, 1921.

17. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p.224

18. ibid p.228

19. ibid p.228

20. Foote, Shelby. “The Civil War, A Narrative Vol. 3, Red River to” “Appomattox”, Random House New York, NY 1974.

21. Gordon, John B. “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, Charles Scribners and Sons, New York, NY 1905.

22. Silliker, Ruth. ed. “The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Boast-Civil War” “Journal of a Maine Volunteer”, Down East Books, Camden Maine 1958.

23. Tankersley, Allen. “John B. Gordon-A Study in Gallantry”, Whitehall Press, Atlanta Georgia, 1955.

24. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p. 233

25 ibid p.235

26. ibid p.230

27. Silliker, Ruth. ed. “The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Boast-Civil War” “Journal of a Maine Volunteer”, Down East Books, Camden Maine 1958

28. Davis, Burke “To Appomattox, Nine April Days”, Popular Library New York, N.Y. 1959, p.242

29. Sheridan, Phil “Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, Vol. II”, Charles L. Webster and Company, New York, NY 1888.

30. Headley, J.T. “The Life of Ulysses S. Grant”, The Perkins Book Co. NY, 1885. p. 372

31. Sheridan, Phil “Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, Vol. II”, Charles L. Webster and Company, New York, NY 1888.


Japanese incendiary bomb sightings in western Montana

News reports this week indicate thatAl Qaeda is now urging its followers to set the forests of western Montana on fire with incendiary bombs, so I thought I would post some information on the last terrorists who tried this tactic. Below is the list I compiled on the Japanese incendiary balloons that landed or were sighted in Montana during World War II. The tactic wasn’t successful for the Japanese, and I don’t expect that Bin Laden’s acolytes will have any more luck, and they just might encounter a rather unpleasant welcome from the residents of western Montana if they try it. Fortunately, their leader is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and the organization is in shambles. Below is the list of Japanese balloon bombs known to have landed in Montana. More information on the balloon bombs can be found here. You can read the full story of Montana’s Home Front During World War II here.

• Nov. 4, 1944 – A balloon bomb was recovered at sea 175 miles off of Los Angeles.
• Dec. 6, 1944 – A loud explosion was heard in Thermopolis, Wyoming and Japanese bomb fragments were recovered.
• Dec. 11, 1944 – Kalispell. A cream-colored Japanese balloon with blue stripes was found at Truman Creek. Two Japanese men living in Kalispell and Whitefish translated the writing and learned that it was manufactured on Oct. 31, 1944.
• Jan. 16, 1945 – Lame Deer. Balloon recovered.
• Feb. 2, 1945 – Lodge Grass. Balloon recovered.
• Feb. 12, 1945 – Eden. Balloon recovered.
• Feb. 12, 1945 – Red Lodge. Balloon recovered.
• Feb. 12, 1945 – Big Fork. Balloon seen drifting east.
• Feb. 12, 1945 – Riverdale. Three bombs fell southwest of Great Falls and started small grass fires.
• Feb 22, 1945 – Hays. A balloon with three incendiaries and a barometer was found.
• Feb. 25, 1945 – Hardin. Witnesses saw an explosion and smelled explosives. They found a 10-inch long bomb fin sticking out of the ice.
• March 2, 1945 – Boyd. A balloon was recovered, along with a battery, a sandbag, four arming wires, and one bomb.
• March 10, 1945 – Benchland. A balloon made of blue paper was spotted in flight and was recovered mostly intact.
• March 10, 1945 – Whitehall. Balloon with one sandbag and one incendiary found.
• March 13, 1945 – Butte. Balloon found by a farmer.
• March 13, 1945 – Benchland. Balloon recovered.
• March 13, 1945 – Malta. Balloon recovered.
• March 15, 1945 – Stanford. Balloon recovered.
• March 15, 1945 – Legg. Balloon recovered.
• March 18, 1945 – Silesia. Balloon recovered.
• March 19, 1945 – Hammond. Balloon recovered.
• March 20, 1945 – Eden. Balloon recovered.
• March 21, 1945 – Glenn. A 4.5 kg incendiary bomb exploded and started a small fire.
• March 22, 1945 – Sula. An incendiary bomb started a small fire.
• April 4, 1945 – Bozeman. A balloon was recovered at the Montana State College sheep experiment station.
• April 10, 1945 – Turner. Balloon recovered.
• May 3, 1945 – Philipsburg. Balloon with eight sandbags recovered. Five still contained sand.
• May 12, 1945 – Stockett. Balloon recovered.
• May 13, 1945 – Maiden Rock. Balloon recovered.
• May 16, 1945 – Kalispell. Balloon recovered.
• June 1, 1945 – Billings. Balloon recovered south of town. It was believed to have landed two months before.
• July 11, 1945 – Deer Lodge. Balloon recovered.
• July 11, 1945 – Dillon. Balloon recovered.
• July 27, 1945 – Butte. Balloon recovered. It had probably
landed six months earlier.
Balloon bombs were also reported near Cascade, Flathead Lake, Bernice, Hammond, Divide, Harlowton, Coram, Laurel, Nyack, Loring, Dodson, Pryor, Boulder, Monida, Babb,
and Broadus, where an explosion was heard. The Japanese balloon bombs were made of
layers of mulberry paper or rice paper, treated with paraffin.

Read more about Japanese Fugo Balloon Bombs


Leak of the Victory Program. Patriotism, Treason or Subterfuge?

The mystery of the Montana Senator who revealed America’s top-secret war plan just days before Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor threw an unprepared United States into the global conflict of World War II. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that America’s top-secret war plan had been compromised just three days before. On December 4, 1941, Americans awoke to read of “F.D.R.’s WAR PLANS!” on the front pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald. The article revealed the existence of the Victory Program, America’s blueprint to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan, described by a presidential historian as, “one of the most remarkable documents of American history.”

The newspaper article revealed a policy where the United States would concentrate on defeating Germany before Japan, with a planned invasion of Europe in 1943. The Victory Program called for building an army of ten million men and doubling America’s industrial production in just two years in order to manufacture the estimated 68,000 aircraft and 4,000 ships that would be needed to win the war. It also contained a detailed target list for destroying the German economy from the air. The leak of the Victory Program set off an uproar in Washington. German diplomats cabled the details to Berlin while the F.B.I. scrambled to apprehend the culprit who had leaked the top-secret plan. The Assistant Secretary of War declared, “There’s blood on the fingers of the man who leaked this information.”

The man who revealed the plan to reporter Chesly Manly was U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, who had been given the document the day before by an unidentified captain in the Army Air Corps. The Senator read the document with dismay, appalled by the plan commissioned by President Roosevelt. A prominent isolationist, Wheeler was convinced that the President had been lying to Congress regarding his preparations for war, and he decided that the American people deserved to know of Roosevelt’s deceit, (although Wheeler successfully concealed his own role in the leak for more than 20 years).

The attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war on December 11, ended Wheeler’s opposition to the war, but many questions remain about how the top-secret plan became public knowledge at a critical juncture of American history.

  • What motivated the mysterious Army Air Corps captain who risked his career and liberty to provide the top-secret plan to Senator Wheeler?
  • Why did a former British spymaster claim (more than 30 years later) that he had duped Wheeler into releasing a “sanitized” version of the plan?
  • Why did the F.B.I. abandon their investigation after it seemed to lead them to the highest levels of the U.S. military?
  • Why would Col. Albert Wedemeyer, chief planner of the Victory Program and the D-Day invasion, state that “I have always been convinced… that President Roosevelt authorized it. I can’t conceive of anyone else… having the nerve to release that document.”

Gary Glynn will lead a discussion of the unsolved mystery of how the Victory Program, America’s biggest secret, became a front page story at a critical moment in American history. Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Tuesday, May 15 2012 at 7:00 p.m.