BY MAJOR JAMES B. BLACK.
Editor’s Note: A significant portion of this essay prior to and after the Appomattox Campaign is not reproduced here at Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online. Only that portion specifically pertaining to the subject matter of this web site is included. For the entire article, please see the Internet Archive.
In the latter part of February, 1865, Sheridan started with his cavalry and a small complement of artillery, a force of about ten thousand, upon his last expedition up the valley. General Early retired from his posi-
tionat Staunton to Waynesboro, where the final battle of the valley resulted in the utter destruction of the small Confederate army, the whole force being captured except some general officers, including Early, with fifteen or twenty men, who escaped. Pushing through Rockfish Gap, more captures were made at Charlottesville. Being prevented from crossing the James by the swollen state of the river and the destruction of the bridges by the enemy, he thoroughly destroyed the railroad and the canal, and hastened to join General Grant by the old way of White House. He was now present to take part in the final campaign, the operations of which were delayed to await his coming.
His cavalry corps entered upon the campaign as a separate army, reporting directly to the commander-in-chief. On March 29, he started with his three divisions. To counteract the movement of the Union forces to the left, the Confederate commander concentrated all his cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee and five brigades of infantry under the gallant General Pickett near Five Forks. On the 31st of March, Sheridan, with a portion of his cavalry, fought the battle of Dinwiddie Court House, meeting and replusing a combined attack of the enemy’s cavalry and infantry. The next day, with his entire cavalry force, augmented by General Mackenzie’s cavalry from the Army of the James and the Fifth Corps, the whole under his command, he fought the battle of Five Forks. Engaging his entrenched enemy in front with cavalry, he threw his infantry upon the adversary’s left flank, and, overcoming an obstinate resistance, carried the whole line, driving the Confederates westward, away from Petersburg, and capturing six pieces of artillery, thirteen battle flags and nearly six thousand prisoners. In this great battle he was separated from the main body
of the Army of the Potomac, and was conducting his operations with discretionary authority. It was the grand stroke which necessitated the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg and the retreat of Lee. In that retreat Sheridan bore a most illustrious part. Following the enemy closely, he got upon his flank and cut him off from the avenues of escape toward the South. He was the life and soul of the pursuit. April 3rd, he captured five pieces of artillery, many wagons and hundreds of prisoners. On the 6th, he destroyed several hundred wagons, took many prisoners, captured sixteen pieces of artillery, and for the second time got astride the enemy’s line of retreat and forced a change of direction, isolated Ewell’s Corps and fought with it the battle of Saylor’s Creek, one of the severest conflicts and most signal victories of the war, resulting in his capture of Ewell with six of his general officers and most of his troops — between nine and ten thousand prisoners.
In reporting this victory to General Grant, Sheridan said, “If the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender.” This message being despatched by Grant to the President, waiting at City Point, he telegraphed Grant, “Let the thing be pressed.” On the 8th, Sheridan with his cavalry drove off the advance guard of the enemy from Appomattox Station, and, besides many other captures, cut off and secured a number of trains of provisions brought thither from Lynchburg for Lee, upon orders which were captured by Sheridan at Jettersville and forwarded by means of his scouts to their original destination.
That night he and his army did not sleep. They skirmished and waited for Ord’s column. On the morning of the 9th, with his cavalry, he met the attack of Gordon, the last effort of Lee striving to break through, and held the enemy in check while the Union
infantry formed in his rear. When all was ready, he parted his line and uncovered to the startled gaze of the Confederates the Union infantry blocking their way. Then, as with Merritt’s cavalry he was about to charge the enemy’s left, an aid brought him word that the white flag was up. And so the game of rebellion was played out. The end had come.
- War Papers. Read before the Indiana Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States., Volume 1, pages 59-62 ↩