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NP: April 2, 1965 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 40: The Evacuation Of Petersburg

The Evacuation Of Petersburg

(The following is the fortieth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the campaign for Petersburg.)

Possibly no day in the long memory of Petersburg was as sad or as laden with suspense as April 2, 1865. The night which preceded it was marked by one of the greatest discharges of artillery of the entire campaign or siege, and it had to be great to impress a community which had become inured to such features.

The pattern of events, of course, was that Lee was endeavoring to hold the shell of the Petersburg defenses until the Army of Northern Virginia could cross the Appomattox River and begin a march which a week later would take it into history. So reduced was the Confederate army that men stood 10 to 20 feet apart in the trenches. On the Union side, the day began with masses of men in blue waiting to plunge across the lines which had resisted them for a long time.

The first Union assault got under way about 4:40 o’clock in the morning. A signal gun in Fort Fisher proclaimed the occasion. The first important gain was made about half an hour later by troops of the VI Corps attacking in a wedge formation from the area of Forts Fisher and Welch. They advanced through a ravine near the Banks (now the Ritchie) house, in an area where Confederate defenses had been weakened by Union capture of picket lines in the afternoon following the March 25 [1865] Battle of Fort Stedman.

When fog and darkness gave way to light, Union troops poured into the outer defenses of Petersburg. Even now the price was high, and, as on the previous day, little country churches and farmhouses suddenly were filled with the dead and dying. A few went ahead to reach the Southside Railroad, but a more practical purpose was accomplished by those who cleared the works to their left and right. Grant himself rode over captured earthworks and moved headquarters temporarily to the Banks house. Again, as after Five Forks on the preceding day he sent messages to Lincoln and his corps commanders.

Other breakthroughs to the southwest cut off Confederate forces there. They went to Sutherland Station to join those who had concentrated there after Five Forks. Sutherland Station became the scene of a battle in which these remnants of Confederate units, fighting from behind fence rails, defended themselves and the all-important railroad before retreating in the face of overwhelming strength.

Their resistance may have had an effect upon Grant’s timetable. It is no disrespect to the heroic defense of Fort Gregg and at other points on the Confederate line to note that the battle at Sutherland Station, which was some miles distant and of which Grant did not have a very adequate account, may have deterred the Union commander from pressing his attacks against Petersburg more strongly. Nor should the resistance on Gordon’s eastern front, especially in the vicinity of Fort Sedgwick, be overlooked. Inner Confederate lines were being held with as much tenacity as the defenders of Petersburg ever had displayed.

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Early in the morning General Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters at the Turnbull house, in advance of the forces he was bringing to help hold the line. Also early in the morning, General A. P. Hill, who had been ill and who had returned from furlough the day before, went out to Edge Hill from his headquarters nearer town.

When it was learned at Edge Hill that the defenses had been pierced, Hill hurried off with an aide to rally his troops. He encountered some Union soldiers and demanded their surrender. One of them raised his rifle and shot Hill through the heart.

About 10 o’clock in the morning Lee sent the message which President Davis received at St. Paul’s Church, Richmond, advising that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond that night. Edge Hill itself soon had to be evacuated. Lee went by way of Mayfield to Cottage Farm to plan the details of the evacuation.

About the middle of the day, the old outer western line of defense was held by Union forces. The Confederates had withdrawn to a line on the east side of Indian Town Creek, from Battery 45 to the Appomattox River. Field’s division of Longstreet’s corps, newly arrived, was used to stem the blue tide.

The Confederate resistance included one of the most notable performances of the war, the defense of Fort Gregg. Standing outside the new line, Forts Gregg and Baldwin [aka Whitworth] felt the full force of the onslaught. The defenders of Fort Gregg used field guns, then muskets, then bayonets. The wounded loaded muskets and handed them to men still able to fight.

From about 3 o’clock in the afternoon on, the day was relatively quiet. Defenders of the new lines were described as ardent, hopeful, defiant, and as saluting shells with cheers and laughter.

At Cottage Farm, at about 3 o’clock, Lee dictated detailed orders for the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, which was to begin at 8 o’clock at night, and explained them to his staff. He received a visit from a delegation of the Petersburg governing body seeking to ascertain his intentions. He would inform them of his plans at 10 o’clock that night at the residence of D’Arcy Paul, on Union Street.

Members of the governing body complied with the instructions and assembled at the Paul residence, a short time before Major Cooke appeared. By that hour the evacuation of Petersburg was under way, so the members agreed to meet again at 4 o’clock in the morning to surrender the city and to ask for protection.

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Evacuation commenced at 8 o’clock, as scheduled. After disabling heavy guns which could not be carried away, the artillery units were the first to move. Then came the infantry and, last, the engineer troops who were to destroy the bridges over the Appomattox River.

Pocahontas bridge and Campbell’s bridge were burned as soon as the artillery and infantry crossed, the pontoon and railroad bridges being reserved for the pickets. The very last of the departing troops are said to have left on the morning of the 3rd under scattered fire from Union troops coming into the city, but if so, there was no fighting from street to street.

Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps crossed by way of a pontoon bridge near the Battersea cotton factory and headed toward the River Road in Chesterfield County. Gordon’s corps crossed the Pocahontas and railroad bridges.

Not long after midnight the greatest part of the infantry which had defended Petersburg had crossed into Chesterfield County. The total strength was probably 12,500, that of the whole force defending Petersburg and Richmond about 28,000 or 30,000. Amelia Courthouse was the point of concentration.

Some of the men leaving found time to pay brief calls at homes where they had friends or relatives, but it is said that until these visits were received the event was regarded by many as only another rumor. The siege or defense had lasted so long that, in spite of the fresh disasters, residents seemed to be incapable of comprehending the fact the Army of Northern Virginia was leaving Petersburg.

The evacuation was regarded as a model of order. Lee had described it as difficult but, he hoped, not impracticable.

Petersburg itself was fortunate in escaping greater trouble. Although there was some looting of stores, there was not enough of goods of any kind on hand to arouse much looting zeal. Government stores of tobacco and cotton had been burned, but Petersburg escaped any general fire of the kind which turned Richmond’s agony into a nightmare. There probably was little sleep in Petersburg on the night of April 2, 1865, but, judging from descriptions written the next day, there was much drawing in of blinds against the uncertainties of tomorrow.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “The Evacuation Of Petersburg.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  April 2, 1965, p. 4, col. 1-2
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