The Best Part of the Civil War…the End
As Lee’s army trudged along the muddy roads of Southside Virginia in their retreat from Richmond and Petersburg, they would soon reach the rolling hills of the Piedmont region. Their path led them through villages like Amelia Court House, towns like Farmville, with a solemn and final ending at a place called Appomattox.
Today you can follow in the paths of both armies, Grant’s and Lee’s, on a twenty-six stop driving tour known as “Lee’s Retreat.” With radio stations explaining the importance of each site, you will soon come to the site of the last major battle of this final campaign, Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park. Here, on April 6, 1865, Lee would lose almost a quarter of his army as 7,700 men would be either killed, wounded or captured including eight Confederate generals who would surrender to Grant’s army.
For those who escaped this catastrophe, they would continue their journey into nearby Farmville where rations awaited the hungry army. In doing so, a portion would cross the famous “High Bridge” over the Appomattox River. Over this structure ran the South Side Rail Road, running from Petersburg to Lynchburg while passing through Farmville. A military target once across, an attempt was made to burn the bridge so as not to allow Grant’s pursuing army from using this avenue to cross the river. While successful in destroying a few spans of the 126 foot high crossing, a smaller wagon bridge below was saved by the Northerners who now gained access to the opposite side of the river and the rear of Lee’s army.
The importance of the High Bridge to Lee cannot be understated. Even before the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on the 6th, Union “bridge burners,” made up of a small group of infantry and cavalry, were sent to destroy the structure so the Confederates could not use it as passage in their retreat. Attacked by Southern cavalry, the group of Northerners were either killed or captured. This time the bridge was saved but more threats were to come.
After the disaster at Sailor’s Creek that evening, Lee, seeing his army in flight from this battlefield, remarked: “My God! Has the army dissolved?” Making a night march into Farmville to obtain the 80,000 rations awaiting the army, Lee rode into town to confer with his generals. To move things along, one column marched along the direct road from Rice’s Depot while the other planned to use High Bridge.
Farmville in 1865 was a tobacco town of about 1,500 inhabitants, being incorporated in 1832. It served the Confederacy in many capacities: A large wagon works was located here, along with a major hospital that contained 1,200 beds. Casualties of this medical operation are now buried in a mass grave across the river in Cumberland Heights. The Farmville Female College, later to become Longwood University, was also located here. Those students in attendance were evacuated from the area and as one home owner recalled that he had “the spiciest set of feminine rebels to-night I have ever seen. They were school girls from Farmville on their way to their homes in Richmond and vicinity….”
Upon Lee’s arrival in the town, he rode to Beech Street, where some of Farmville’s best examples of ante-bellum dwellings exist, meeting with high ranking officials over the current situation of his army. Before any decisions could be made, fast-riding Union cavalry strode into town and by 1:30 p.m. Farmville was occupied. Lee then made the fateful decision to cross to the north side of the Appomattox River, thus leaving the shorter route to Appomattox Station, where again supply trains awaited him.
Later in day, commander of the Union army, General Ulysses S. Grant, arrived in Farmville and set up his headquarters in the Randolph House (later called Prince Edward Hotel) on Main Street. That evening, from the front porch of the hotel, an impromptu review of his troops took place as they marched toward a crossing of the nearby river. From here he would also send his first dispatch to Lee concerning the possibility of surrendering his army. Lee showed the message to one of his generals who remarked- “Not yet.”
With his failure to issue all the rations awaiting him at the train station, Lee was forced to send them west to Pamplin Depot where they were captured the next day, April 8th, by Union cavalry…the race was now on to reach more supplies sent from Lynchburg to Appomattox Station, located just three miles from the county-seat village of Appomattox Court House.
In the late evening, as Lee’s column approached the station, they found that Union cavalry, under General George A. Custer, had reached them first and captured the supply trains meant for the Confederate army. After an encounter during which Lee’s men lost a considerable amount of artillery and wagons in battle, the main body of Lee’s army fell back to the courthouse village.
On the morning of April 9th , after an attempt to break through the Union army’s road block which now presented Lee as he tried to continue his westward march, white flags of truce presented themselves along the battle lines. The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia would now meet with General Grant to discuss terms of surrender. After meeting in the home of villager Wilmer McLean, Grant provided his former foe with magnanimous terms and allowed the former Confederate soldiers to go home unmolested. The healing now began.
Today, as one approaches Appomattox County, they are greeted with a welcoming sign that states: “Where our Nation Reunited.” More symbolic words cannot behold the importance of this event in the history of our country- “one Nation, under God, INDIVISABLE….” It would cost 618,000 lives to reach this sleepy village and an end to the struggle in Virginia known as the American Civil War.