My friend Robert M. Brown has published a new book on Captain Charles Rawn and the Frontier Infantry in Montana, published by History Press in 2016.
Bob asked me to write a foreword for the book, which I was happy to do and which can be found below. Check it out. It’s a good book!
Foreword to Captain Charles Rawn and the Frontier Infantry In Montana by Robert M. Brown
I first encountered Captain Charles Rawn on a fine spring day at the site of Fort Fizzle, scene of a confrontation in Montana’s Lolo Canyon between hundreds of Nez Perce warriors and a small contingent of U.S. Army soldiers and local civilians. Dressed in an impeccable blue uniform trimmed with gold braid, wearing a black campaign hat and armed with a single-action pistol, Captain Rawn cut an imposing figure as he described the events of the 1877 Nez Perce War to a group of local schoolchildren. They listened raptly as Rawn described his role as leader of the small force at Fort Fizzle and told of his unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a peaceful surrender with the Nez Perce leaders, including Looking Glass, White Bird, and Joseph.Most of the schoolchildren who learned the story of Fort Fizzle from Major Rawn never realized that the uniformed figure who portrayed Rawn was in fact Dr. Robert M. Brown, the Executive Director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Rawn was the founder and first commander of Fort Missoula, and Dr. Brown spent years researching his historic alter-ego, making him uniquely qualified to write the story of one of the little known but important figures of the frontier army.Whole bookshelves have been filled with biographies of a few prominent soldiers who fought the Indian wars, in particular Lt. Col. George A. Custer, who famously lost his entire battalion after a rash attack on a vastly superior force. On the other hand there has been little written of the everyday lives of the mid-level officers of the frontier army, those men who were focused on doing their jobs and keeping their men alive, rather than seeking fame and promotion.Rawn was raised in an upper middle class family in Pennsylvania, yet chose a career that would take him away from the comforts of civilization for years at a time. He and his family would spend most of their lives in a near lawless land where a small number of soldiers were tasked with keeping an uneasy peace between newly arrived settlers and the Native Americans who had occupied the land for millennia.It is telling that when the U.S. Army drastically downsized at the end of the Civil War, many well-regarded officers were mustered out of service. Rawn on the other hand was not only retained as an officer, but kept his war-time rank of captain while many of his peers faced major reductions in rank. Rawn’s story provides insight into the hardships experienced by those who chose a career in the post-war military, which for most officers proved a thankless job with little chance for advancement and was often characterized by a frustrating series of postings to remote forts. Who were these men who chose to serve their country for little pay or recognition? What motivated them to remain as career military officers despite harsh living conditions? In Captain Charles Rawn and the Frontier Infantry in Montana, Dr. Brown has given us a rare and long overdue insight into the day-to-day lives of the front-line officers who were the backbone of the frontier army during the last half of the Nineteenth Century.Gary Glynn, author of That Beautiful Little Post: The Story of Fort Missoula
The colorful leader of the Irish Brigade fought many battles
—not all of them with the enemy.
Originally published in America’s Civil War September 1995
By Gary Glynn
The bronze statue of Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher depicts a dashing man astride a prancing horse, waving his sword over his head and urging the Irish Brigade into battle. One of the Civil War’s most colorful generals, Meagher (pronounced Mar) successfully led the legendary Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac through some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, including the Seven Days’ campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Meagher then used his military experience as a springboard to high political office, a career cut short by his mysterious death.
Born into a wealthy family in Waterford, Ireland, on August 8, 1823, Thomas F. Meagher showed his true character at an early age. Undeniably talented, Meagher was often described as ‟truculent, noisy, brash, verbose, and belligerent.” Barely out of his teens, the well-educated Meagher became a leading spokesman on behalf of the Irish independence movement. A skilled orator, he also demonstrated a lifelong propensity for making enemies and creating public furor. The world first heard of young Thomas Meagher in 1846, after he spoke before a hostile audience in Dublin, where he urged the violent overthrow of British rule on the Emerald Isle. He cited the examples of the American Revolution and armed revolts in Belgium and Austria, repeating the mocking refrain, ‟Abhor the sword? Stigmatize the sword?”
Interrupted in mid-speech by moderates in the crowd who disagreed with his position, Meagher and his supporters in the Young Ireland movement stormed out of the hall. The Dublin speech that made him famous was widely published, and “Meagher of the Sword” continued to tour Ireland, speaking to rowdy and sometimes violent audiences. It was not long before the young revolutionary attracted the notice of British authorities.
On March 21, 1848, Meagher was arrested and charged with seditious libel. The charge was eventually dismissed, but British authorities were becoming increasingly concerned about Meagher’s revolutionary activities. He was again arrested during the late summer of 1848, and this time he was found guilty of sedition and treasonous activity. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but his sentence was later commuted to banishment tor life, and Meagher was shipped to the penal colony of Tasmania, where he lived uneventfully tor several years.
Meagher was not content to live out his life in exile, however, and with the help of two sailors he secretly rowed to a tiny island between Australia and Tasmania, where, by prearrangement, he was picked up by boat 10 days later. He arrived in New York City at the end of May 1852 and found himself an instant celebrity. The large Irish community in New York welcomed his arrival with wild enthusiasm. Thousands of people cheered him in the streets, and parties were thrown in his honor.
Described as “a fine, military-looking young gentleman, stoutly built, handsome, and always a favorite with the ladies,” Meagher soon married a girl from a wealthy New York family. He became a U.S. citizen and was admitted to the New York bar in 1855. Like so many of his other professions, his law career was undistinguished, although Meagher did serve as an associate lawyer during the celebrated murder defense of Daniel E. Sickles, a man destined to become a major general in the Union Army of the Potomac.
The Sickles trial was one of the most sensational in American history. In 1859, Sickles, a well-known New York congressman, shot and killed Washington, D.C. socialite Philip Barton Key, the son of composer Francis Scott Key, on the streets of the capital. Key, according to rampant rumors, had been having an affair with Sickles’ beautiful young wife, Theresa. When Sickles inevitably heard the rumors, he forced his wife to confess and sign an admission of her guilt. Then, catching sight of Key on the street in front of the Sickles’ home, the outraged husband pulled a pistol, shouted, ‟Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house—you must die!” and fired two bullets into the unarmed seducer. A stellar group of defense attorneys, headed by future Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, managed to convince a jury that Sickles was innocent by reason of “temporary insanity,” the first time such a plea had been used successfully.
Meagher’s law career could not support him, however, and he founded a newspaper, the Irish News, in 1856. He also continued his speaking tours. Of his varied careers (orator, editor, lawyer, soldier, politician), he was most successful at lecturing. He traveled throughout the United States and Central America, and he was particularly impressed by the Southern states.
Meagher, a confirmed Democrat, declared his sympathies for the South during the spring of 1861, but he soon realized his was an unpopular position in New York. The Civil War was only a few weeks old when Meagher pledged, “My heart, my arm, my life—to the national cause.” And once he-had decided to back the Union cause, Meagher moved swiftly. Although he had no military experience, he advertised in the newspapers for 100 Irishmen to form a company of Irish Zouaves under his leadership. By June 1861, the now Captain Meagher and his Zouaves were attached to the 69th New York Militia, an all-Irish unit commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran.
At the First Battle of Bull Run, the 69th arrived at the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike before dawn on July 21, 1861. The 69th, which divisional commander Colonel William T. Sherman considered his most reliable regiment, came into the battle on the Sudley Springs Road, crossed the Warrenton Turnpike, and struck the Confederate line near the Henry house.
Meagher swung his sword over his head. “Come on, boys, here’s your chance at last,” he urged. Three times the 69th attacked uphill toward the Confederates, and three times they were repulsed in very heavy fighting. The color-bearers, carrying the green flag of the 69th into combat for the first time, became targets for Rebel sharpshooters. Despite a valiant effort by the Irishmen, the enemy artillery forced them back. One relieved Confederate officer noted that, “the Irish fought like heroes.”
During the battle, Meagher was knocked head over heels and fell senseless on the field. He was saved from certain capture by a former neighbor from New York who recognized him. “A private of the United States Cavalry, galloping by, grasped me by the back of the neck, jerked me across his saddle, and carried me a few hundred yards beyond the range of the batteries,” Meagher later recalled.
The 69th retreated in good order, but left almost 200 of their number on the field, dead, wounded or missing. Most of the Federal troops, however, were fleeing the field in disorder, and the 69th joined the rout. Jubilant Confederate cavalry swept into the disorganized Federals, and Colonel Corcoran and many of his men were captured.
The dazed Meagher was put aboard an artillery caisson as it rumbled back to Washington. At Cub Run Bridge, Confederate cavalry overtook the column of fleeing Federals and opened fire. One of the horses pulling the caisson was shot and the wagon overturned, dumping the already shaken Meagher into the water. The overturned wagon blocked the road, causing additional panic among the fleeing troops, many of whom did not stop running until they reached the outskirts of Washington, D.C., 35 miles away.
After the disaster at First Bull Run, the 69th New York State Militia saw no further service. In August 1861, the 90-day soldiers of the 69th were mustered out of the service. Many of the veterans immediately signed up for service with a new unit, the 69th New York State Volunteers. With Colonel Corcoran now a prisoner, Captain Meagher, one of the most prominent Irishmen in New York, was promoted to major of the 69th.
It was not long before the persuasive and ambitious Meagher talked the government into allowing him to form an Irish Brigade. Meagher spoke before 30,000 potential recruits at one event in New York City, and he also traveled to Boston to address the Irish community there. Many of the new recruits were not motivated simply by patriotism. Encouraged by Meagher, they considered service in the Union Army a good way to obtain military training for an eventual armed invasion of Ireland.
Meagher, who was promoted to acting brigadier general, spent much of the fall of 1861 raising the regiments of the Irish Brigade. Besides the 69th, the brigade originally consisted of two other regiments of New York State Volunteers, the 63rd and the 88th. Mrs. Meagher was adopted as honorary colonel of the 88th, which was formed around the core of Meagher’s Zouave company. At various times the 28th Massachusetts, 29th Massachusetts (non-Irish), 116th Pennsylvania and several artillery batteries also served with the Irish Brigade.
The ‟Sons of Erin” carried distinctive green flags, embroidered in gold with a harp, shamrock and sunburst. Officers wore green plumes in their hats, while the colorful Meagher was partial to green jackets, embroidered with far more gold lace than regulations called for, set off by a yellow silk scarf. According to one Pennsylvania soldier, he was, “a picture of unusual grace and majesty.” Of the 2,500 men who initially enrolled in the brigade, at least 500 were veterans of Bull Run, and many more had fought with foreign armies. Late in November 1861, the 63rd Regiment left New York amid a riot on the docks. Thousands of civilians bid their boys farewell. The crush of the mob was so great that Meagher’s horse was nearly pushed into the path of a train as he was trying to get his soldiers aboard.
Upon arrival in Virginia, the brigade was assigned to the 1st Division of Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps. Meagher’s men spent most of the spring in training at Alexandria. Meagher soon earned a reputation as a good host, plying his guests with liquor and sparkling conversation. The Irish Brigade’s parties quickly became as legendary as their fighting spirit. On May 31, 1862, the brigade sponsored a horse race, the Chickahominy Steeplechase. In the middle of the race, Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston attacked Federal forces at Fair Oaks (Seven Pines). General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, immediately sent Sumner’s II Corps to reinforce the Union line. For the men of the Irish Brigade, that afternoon and night seemed an endless march. They crossed the Chickahominy River and, exhausted, fell asleep for a few hours amid the grisly wreckage of the previous day’s battle.
On June 1, the 69th and 88th New York Volunteers went into action with a half-English, half-Gaelic battle cry that compared favorably with the dreaded Rebel yell. They stopped the advance of two brigades of Confederates, then acted as a rear guard while other Federals escaped to the north side of the Chickahominy. Although the Irish Brigade was not in the worst of the fighting, it still lost 39 killed, wounded, captured or missing at Fair Oaks.
It was in the Seven Days’ campaign, during that terrible last week of June 1862, that Meagher and his Irishmen first established their reputation. On June 27, after General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had broken through the Federal lines at Gaines’ Mill, Meagher’s men turned back stragglers fleeing the battle, effectively stopping the rout. They then fought a stubborn rear-guard action that bought McClellan a precious day to pull together his retreating Army of the Potomac. Confederate Brig. Gen. George Pickett credited Meagher’s men with fighting heroically and holding back the pursuing Rebels under general Thomas R. Cobb.
Two days later, the Irish Brigade and the rest of Sumner’s II Corps threatened the Confederate line in the morning, then were forced to withdraw to Savage’s Station. On that day, June 29, Meagher was temporarily placed under arrest, but the charges could not have been too serious. By the next day, he was conspicuous riding up and down the front line at White Oak Swamp, directly in front of the forces of Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. As Jackson shelled the Federal line, Meagher declared, “I would rather be killed riding this horse than lying down.”
As June of 1862 turned into July, Lee attempted to destroy the battered Union army at Malvern Hill. Meagher was in the forefront of the savage hand-to-hand battle, exhorting his men to throw off their gear and charge with bayonets. By the time darkness brought an end to the Seven Days’ campaign, the famous green flags of the Irish Brigade were riddled by fire. In the space of just one week, the brigade had lost 700 men dead, wounded or missing. The brigade needed new recruits to bring it back up to strength, and McClellan gave Meagher permission to return to New York on a recruiting drive. Doing what he did best, Meagher spoke in front of 4,000 people in New York City on July 25, but the days of easy recruiting were gone.
When Meagher rejoined his unit, he brought with him only 250 new recruits, a mere quarter of those needed to fill out the ranks. By September 1862, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were headed toward their historic clash at Antietam. On the bloodiest day in American history, Meagher, his aides and the regimental chaplains led the way as the Irish Brigade crossed Antietam Creek, then moved uphill. They calmly tore down a fence in the face of tremendous artillery fire. The Rebels retreated to a sunken road, where they poured fire into the Irish Brigade and the rest of II Corps. Meagher yelled, “Boys! Raise the colors and follow me!”
Five times, the men of the Irish Brigade charged the Confederate line at the so-called Bloody Lane, and five times they were repulsed. The color-bearers were easy targets, and eight men carrying the green flags were shot down at Antietam. In the face of withering fire, Meagher’s men halted on a little knoll 100 yards from the sunken road, with the Confederates directly in their line of fire. Running out of ammunition, the soldiers frantically searched the pockets of the dead and wounded for cartridges. One of Meagher’s aides was killed, and another had two horses shot from under him. In the thick of the battle, Meagher’s horse was also killed, and he was hurled to the ground unconscious. (At least one Federal officer claimed that Meagher was drunk and simply fell from his horse.) Although the general was not seriously hurt, early newspaper accounts of the battle reported that Meagher had been killed. Whatever the extent of his injuries, he had sufficiently recovered in time to arrange a truce with a Confederate officer the following day to retrieve the wounded. The regiments were torn to pieces on the little knoll, and they finally went to the rear, the 500 men still on their feet marching proudly in formation. Divisional commander Maj. Gen. Israel Richardson saluted one regiment as it passed. “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!” he cried.
After Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln again removed the highly popular McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. Legend has it that as McClellan passed in review of his troops, the impetuous Meagher ordered the famous green flags thrown down in front of the general in protest of McClellan’s dismissal. McClellan halted and somberly ordered the flags picked up before he would pass.
The 1,300 survivors of the Irish Brigade underwent their next trial by fire that December at Fredericksburg. En route, Meagher ordered his men to cross the Rappahannock and capture an isolated Confederate battery. The men of the Irish Brigade stormed across a ford in the river, routed the defenders and captured two guns within minutes. An admiring Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock remarked, “General Meagher, I have never seen anything so splendid.”
With Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside now in command, the Army of the Potomac endured weeks of cold and rain while the Confederates fortified their positions at Fredericksburg. Although an assault on the Confederate defenses seemed suicidal, Burnside persisted.
Three pontoon bridges were thrown across the river, and on December 12, 1862, the Irish Brigade and the rest of II Corps crossed the Rappahannock. Each man of the brigade wore an evergreen sprig in his cap as the brigade moved through the ruined town, clearing it of snipers.
From the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights, Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill muttered, “There are those damned green flags again.” The green flags, in fact, were tattered beyond repair, all except for a new one carried by the 28th Massachusetts. (This flag was later found on the battlefield by a Confederate soldier of Irish ancestry. Shortly after the battle, the Confederate impulsively swam across the river to return the flag to Meagher.) New green flags for the Irish Brigade had in fact been brought to Fredericksburg by several distinguished citizens from New York City. Wagonloads of food and drink had also been ordered for presentation with the flags, but the ensuing battle intervened.
On the morning of December 13, Meagher ordered the 69th New York to lead the brigade down Hanover Street toward the canal. The men anxiously watched as Maj. Gen. Samuel French’s division was cut down, and then it was their turn to face the fire. Under intense fire, they began pushing toward the very center of the Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights.
The Irish Brigade’s actions at Fredericksburg won its men the admiration of all who were present. Pushing uphill toward the center of the entrenched Confederate line, the brigade never wavered despite the murderous fire. The Confederates watching from the heights were particularly impressed. Lieutenant General James Longstreet thought the charge of the Irishmen “was the handsomest thing in the whole war.” Robert E. Lee admiringly declared, “Never were men so brave.” Pickett, who would make his own legendary charge within the year, thought “the brilliant assault…. was beyond description…. we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our line.” Thomas F. Galwey, a Union soldier in French’s division, had a bird’s-eye view of the Irish Brigade’s charge: “They pass just to our left, poor fellows, poor, glorious fellows, shaking goodbye to us with their hats!” Galwey saw the brigade “reach a point within a stone’s throw of the stone wall. No farther. They try to go beyond, but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance further and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There, away out in the fields to the front and left of us, we see them for an hour or so, lying in line close to that terrible stone wall.” It was no use. The Confederate line was too strong, and little by little the Irishmen began crawling back down the hill.
The Irish Brigade had been shattered. By evening, only 250 men of the 1,300 who had charged up the hill were present and accounted for. Almost 500 men had been killed or wounded; one company was down to three men.
Despite the carnage, that night the new green flags were presented to the Irish Brigade. The survivors commandeered a shell-damaged building in Fredericksburg. Liquor flowed freely, large tables of food were set out, and Meagher topped the list of speakers. The party was so loud that Burnside’s headquarters heard the commotion on the far side of the river and ordered the festivities stopped before the Confederates resumed shelling.
Meagher’s reputation as a good host was further enhanced during March 1863, when he invited the new army commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, as well as his staff and most of the II Corps officers, to a gala St. Patrick’s Day banquet. Featured entertainment included a steeplechase, watched by 20,000 Federal soldiers, as well as footraces, wheelbarrow races, horse races, and a greased pig chase. One officer remembered that Meagher served “the strongest punch I ever tasted.” Meagher himself overindulged and challenged his brigade surgeon to a duel, but their differences were apparently patched up by the next day.
Spring brought campaigning weather, and once again the Army of the Potomac, including the 520 surviving members of the Irish Brigade, crossed the Rappahannock and moved on Chancellorsville. On May 3, 1863, as Lee’s troops rolled up the Federal line, the Irish Brigade supported the 5th Maine Battery in trying to stem the Confederate advance. Thirty Rebel cannons pounded the six guns of the 5th Maine, destroying most of the caissons and killing the horses. Stubbornly retreating, the Irishmen saved the guns, dragging them backward by hand as their numbers were thinned even more.
A few days after the debacle at Chancellorsville, the impetuous Meagher made the worst mistake of his military career. Protesting the wasting away of what he called “this poor vestige of and relic of the Irish Brigade,” Meagher resigned his command on May 6, 1863. He intended to return to New York and devote all of his time to raising a fresh brigade, even though his previous recruiting trips had been unsuccessful. He turned over command to Colonel Patrick Kelly and left the brigade on May 19.
Meagher returned to New York City, but his dream of raising a new unit was shattered by the July draft riots in the city, riots in which the Irish community played a conspicuous, disreputable part. With little else to do, Meagher lobbied for a new military command or the governorship of one of the new western territories.
Eighteen long months passed before the Army found a place for Meagher. Finally, in the tall of 1864, he was sent south to the Department of the Cumberland, where he was handed the thankless task of making a fighting unit out of some 5,000 stragglers, convalescents and garrison troops. The general’s heart was not in his new command, however, and he did little to whip his men into shape. Meagher’s Provisional Division, described as “a mob of men in uniform,” was shipped to New Bern, N.C., in January 1865. One witness described the men of the division as “ill treated and suffering, badly managed, shamefully deserted by drunken officers.”
It was at this point in his career that Meagher’s excessive drinking became so noticeable that the military could ignore it no longer. On February 5, 1865, Major Robert N. Scott delivered orders to Meagher and found the general so drunk that he could not understand them. Three weeks later Meagher was relieved of further duty, amid rumors of court-martial proceedings. As the Confederacy was driven to its knees, Meagher returned to New York. He resigned his commission on May 15, 1865.
In appreciation of his service in command of the Irish Brigade, the state of New York awarded Meagher a gold medal. His gaudy uniform abandoned in favor of civilian clothes, the disgraced Meagher walked in the Fourth of July parade in New York City along with the surviving members of the Irish Brigade.
With his military career ended in near disgrace, the silver-tongued Meagher began looking for civilian work, preferably a long way from New York. During his sojourn in New York City in 1863 and 1864, Meagher had managed to offend much of the local Irish community. He had implied that many Irish were involved in the deadly New York draft riots, and had accused the “obstinate herds” of Irish Democrats of “gross stupidity” and “the stoniest blindness.” His military accomplishments were not enough to erase those harsh remarks.
Shortly after leaving the military, Meagher embarked on the last great adventure of his life. In response to a veritable flood of letters from the Irishman, President Andrew Johnson appointed Meagher to be the new secretary of Montana Territory.
Meagher, as usual, managed to involve himself in controversy almost from the beginning. He arrived in the raw gold-mining camps of Montana in September 1865 and immediately found himself the acting governor of Montana. For almost two years, the flamboyant Meagher cut a wide swath through Montana politics, alternately infuriating Democrats and Republicans alike.
True to form, Governor Meagher did his best to incite a war with the Sioux tribe. Seeking arms for the militia he had raised, Meagher traveled to Fort Benton to meet a Missouri River steamboat that was bringing cases of rifles. A friend, finding the general ill after several days’ travel, offered him a berth on board a docked steamboat.
Late that night, a watchman aboard the steamboat saw an indistinct white figure plummet from the upper decks of the boat. When he heard a splash in the water, he roused the crew. Searchers with lanterns checked both banks of the Missouri around Fort Benton, but no trace of the missing governor was ever found.
The incident that ended the life of the colorful, combative Irishman has been shrouded in mystery ever since. Some people theorized that Meagher had been drinking and had accidentally fallen off the boat. Others thought he had committed suicide, or that he had been murdered by his political enemies in Montana Territory. No matter, Thomas Francis Meagher had made his last exit from the world stage.
Despite a life of some accomplishment militarily and otherwise, Meagher never achieved the grand success he sought. One solid reminder of his achievements remains, however. On the front lawn of the Montana Capitol in Helena a bronzed statue of the fiery general sits on horseback, saber raised, ever ready to charge into battle.
Gary Glynn is the author of Montana’s Home Front During World War II. His Article ‟Black Thursday For Rebels” was published in the .January 1992 issue of America’s Civil War. For further reading, he suggests: Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America, by Robert G. Athearns; and The Irish Brigade, by .John Paul Jones.
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.” 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.”  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.” 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. 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.” 
As the Union soldiers across the creek began to advance, the eccentric General Ewell remarked, “Tomatoes are good. I wish I had some,” 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.” 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.”  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.” 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.” 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.”
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. 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.  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.”
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.” 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?'”
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.” “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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 
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.”