No. 200. Report of Bvt. Major General Wesley Merritt, U. S. Army, commanding Cavalry, Army of the Shenandoah.1
HDQRS. CAVALRY OF THE ARMY OF THE SHENANDOAH,
April 20, 1865.
GENERAL: During the day of March 28 the command remained at Hancock’s Station, in front of Petersburg, being supplied with rations and forage. It marched on the morning of the 29th in the rear of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac to within a mile of Dinwiddie Court-House, the men, as usual, carrying on their horses five days’ rations, thirty pounds of forage, and forty rounds of ammunition. The roads were in a horrible condition, and it was found impossible for the wagon train to reach the point made by the cavalry during the day; in fact, the wagon train did not get up until the third day, it being necessary to corduroy almost the entire road over which the march was made. The Third Division, General Custer, was ordered to remain with the train and guard it, as the enemy’s cavalry was known to be on its flank in the neighborhood of Stony Creek Depot.
March 30, the First Division, General Devin, was moved toward the Five Forks from Dinwiddie Court-House, to a point about two miles from the town, near Boisseau’s house, where the roads fork. From this point a reconnaissance was sent out on each road. The force on the road to the White Oak road (Colonel Leiper, Sixth Pennsylvania, commanding) met the enemy’s pickets a short distance out, and drove them in on the reserves. The force under Major Morris, Sixth United States, which went on the road to the Five Forks, had not proceeded more than three miles before it accomplished a like work. Both reconnaissances developed the enemy’s infantry, and each in the lively skirmishing which took place was conducted with great spirit, the officers and men giving an earnest, in the manner in which they fought, of the good work that might be expected of them in the future. The division encamped near Boisseau’s house, picketing advanced positions gained during the day.
March 31 at 9 a.m. the pickets were re-enforced and an advance was made. The enemy resisted strongly, and, in his turn, advanced. His force consisted of Pickett’s and Johnson’s divisions of infantry, since ascertained to have been over 14,000 strong, and all the enemy’s cavalry. The First Division was pressed back slowly but steadily, the men and officers behaving magnificently, contesting every inch of
ground, and inflicting a very severe loss upon the enemy. General Davies’ brigade, of Crook’s division, having reported for temporary duty was ordered to act upon the flanks of the enemy’s, who at the same time that he attacked in Davies’ front also attempted to force a passage of the ford on the Chamberlain Bed, in Crook’s front, near Dinwiddie Court-House. General Davies was, however, pushed rapidly in toward the forks of the road, which it soon became apparent the enemy in overwhelming force was trying to gain and that all the resistance the cavalry could offer could not prevent. As part of the First Division was well advanced on the White Oak fork of the road, it was impossible to withdraw it toward Dinwiddie Court-House, and Generals Devin and Davies were ordered to retire fighting toward the Boydton plank road, while General Gibbs was withdrawn toward Dinwiddie Court-House, forming connection with Crook’s left. All this was done without confusion, and with a loss to the enemy, as has been ascertained, of at least four to our one. General Devin was ordered to form his command after retiring toward the Boydton plank road, and instructed to attack the enemy in flank and rear if he continued to push toward Dinwiddie Court-House. General Davies, however, assumed command of the entire force, and marched it by the Boydton plank road to Dinwiddie Court-House, forming a junction with the rest of the cavalry at dark. In the meantime the Third Division, which had been sent for, arrived, and, in conjunction with the Reserve Brigade and General Crook’s command, formed line of battle in splendid style, ready to received the enemy, who appeared in great force in our front. Some very spirited fighting occurred, but night coming on the enemy did not press his advance.
The fighting this day on the part of the cavalry was excellent. The enemy was very severely punished, and though by superior numbers he succeeded in forcing us, the movement to the rear was conducted without confusion. The ground on which the fighting took place was very heavy, and for the most part densely wooded; when it was open, it was impossible for a single horseman to cross, owing to the nature of the soil and the heavy rains which had just fallen.
General Custer was charged with the duty of holding the lines during the night, while General Devin was camped in easy supporting distance.
April 1, early in the morning an advance of the Third Division showed that the enemy had withdrawn a short distance from our front during the night. The Third Division was ordered to dismount, the country being impracticable for mounted operations, and move with its left resting on Chamberlain’s Bed, toward the Five Forks. The First Division was ordered to move, mounted, to its old position near Boisseau’s house and form connection with the Third Division, press the enemy in the same direction (toward the Five Forks). The infantry (Fifth Corps), which had formed a junction and was under the orders of the major-general commanding, was to move up on our right flank toward the White Oak road. The cavalry pressed the enemy back to his entrenchments at the Five Forks, which entrenchments run parallel to the White Oak road. It was a great source of satisfaction to our gallant men to drive the enemy, outnumbering us as he did, over the same ground from which he had forced us the day before. Every man fought with a will, and not until the enemy’s breast-heights, glistening with bayonets, were within fifty yards of our front, did the brave cavalrymen, baptized with the blood of fifty battles, cease the advance, and then only for a moment. The time was occupied in supplying the commands with ammunition and resting the men, who had
marched and fought on foot for miles. Word was received from the major-general commanding that the infantry would attack the enemy’s works on our right in a very short time, and that the cavalry must co-operate. In anticipation of this orders had been issued for the division and brigade commanders to charge the works in our front so soon as the infantry fire was heard. It could not have been earlier than 3 o’clock when the infantry fire opened. The cavalry, without a moment’s hesitation, rushed into close quarters with the enemy, who, having fought the cavalry all day, evidently had concentrated their strength on the works immediately opposed to us. The enemy’s artillery in the works commenced firing rapidly, but owing to the woods obscuring the view where the cavalry line was operating, this fire was necessarily inaccurate and not very destructive. A hotter musketry fire than on this day has seldom been experienced during the war. Fortunately for us the enemy, firing from breast-works, aimed high, else the casualties in the command must have been very much greater. General Custer was directed to keep one brigade mounted, in order to make the most of a pursuit when the enemy’s was dislodged from his works. Every thing worked well. The right of Pennington’s brigade, which was thrown into some confusion on account of a deficiency in ammunition, was soon restored, and, the desired ammunition supplied, the attack was prosecuted and soon crowned with success, Fitzhugh’s brigade, of the First Division, mounting the works in the face of the enemy, tearing down their colors and planting the brigade standard over two pieces of artillery, which, together with nearly 1,000 prisoners, remained substantial indication of the prowess of this gallant brigade and its accomplished commander. Never did men over the behests of a commander better, and never were orders given with more judgment or their gallant execution indicated by a better example. Colonel Fitzhugh is entitled to the greatest praise for this days’ work. In thus speaking of this brigade it must not be imagined that all did not do well. These headquarters, situated at the connection between the two divisions, saw more of the two brigades (Fitzhugh’s and Pennington’s) mentioned above than of the others, but in passing along the lines during the battle it was observed that all were doing nobly. No shirking, no straggling, comparatively, was noticed. The reports of division commanders will, it is thought, do justice to all. The results of the day- two of the enemy’s best and strongest infantry divisions, together with all his boasted cavalry broken, captured, or routed-are just cause for congratulations, and the cavalry, already famous in the history of the war for the brilliancy of its success, feels proud to share with the infantry of the Army of the Potomac the glory of striking the blow that decided the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia-a blow that made the great heart of the Northern people pulsate with a holy satisfaction.
April 2, the command marched from its camp near the battle-field by the Little White Oak road to a point on the South Side Railroad midway between Ford’s and Sutherland’s Depots. Here a force of rebel cavalry was met, but retired without offering any resistance to the tearing up of the track. As the occupation of the railroad was secure the advance brigades were ordered to move forward across the road toward Scott’s Forks, some five miles north of the railway. An order was received from the major-general commanding directing this march soon after it commenced. During the march to this point General Mackenzie’s division reported to the command and was assigned its place in the column. The cavalry in our front (W. H. F. Lee’s) opposed the column from time to time at points favorable for resistance, build-
ing barricades of rails and logs, but he was easily dislodged and driven by the advance back to the fork of the road where the road we marched on intersected the one pursued by the enemy’s infantry and trains. Here spirited fight took place, in which the First Division was engaged with the enemy’s infantry. The enemy used his artillery freely. Night fell before the entire command could be got up and in position to attack the enemy, who was strongly posted behind barricades, which, as was found the following morning, extended for miles. General Gregg’s brigade, which reported to the command temporarily, together with the rest of the command, was put in camps for the night, during which a connection was formed, with the infantry of the Fifth Corps, which had marched up from Sutherland’s Depot.
April 3, the command moved forward at daylight and occupied the forks which the enemy had abandoned during the night. The Third Division was ordered to take the advance on the Namozine road in pursuit of the enemy. It was soon after followed by the First Division. General Mackenzie command was ordered toward the point from which the enemy marched, to pick up the stragglers and others cut off by our movement. In the pursuit numbers of prisoners were captured, together with five guns, by the Third Division. Wells’ brigade had a spirited fight with Barringer’s brigade of rebel cavalry, routing, dispersing, or capturing the entire command, including the rebel general himself. After marching and fighting over twenty miles the enemy’s infantry was found in strong position on Deep Creek, where he had destroyed all the bridges and obstructed the fords, which naturally were very bad and deep. The command encamped for the night at this point. It here became apparent that the enemy were moving to Amelia Court-House with a view to concentrating at that point. In addition to the column which had been pursued during the day on the south side of the Appomattox, large bodies of infantry and trains could be plainly seen on the north side of the river moving toward Bevill’s and Goode’s Bridges over the Appomattox, where the crossing was effected and the junction of the two wings of the rebel army made.
April 4, the march was resumed at 6 a.m., the enemy as usual having made a night’s march and disappeared from the front. General Mackenzie’s command, which rejoined the column, immediately busied itself with clearing the obstructions from the best ford on Deep Creek, the energetic commander superintending the work. It was intended to cross the entire command at this ford, but after General Mackenzie had crossed it was found that the ford, which was very deep and muddy, was impassable for wheels and impracticable for mounted men. The other two divisions, with all the wagons, were therefore marched to the south side, thus flanking the main stream and crossing its headwaters. The advance reached Beaver Dam Creek at sunset. Here the enemy’s infantry was found, his main body being at Amelia Court-House. Some skirmishing ensued, in which the enemy, intrenched as usual, used his artillery. The command was ordered in camp at dark, having determined the position of the enemy’s army. In the meantime General Mackenzie, who, after crossing Deep Creek, was ordered to march on Amelia Court-House, reached a point within less than two miles of Amelia Court-House, on a different road from that pursued by the First and Third Division. He also found the enemy in force and engaged them with success. At 10 p.m. of this day orders were received from the major-general commanding for the command to move to Jetersville. In less than half an h our the column was on the road, and at daylight on the 5th the head of it had arrived at the point designated. During the 5th of April the command remained at Jetersville, taking position on
the right of the infantry with a view to repel a threatened attack of the enemy. General Mackenzie, remaining at his position near Amelia Court-House, reported being engaged more or less during the entire day.
April 6, moved the command at 6 a.m. in the direction of Deatonsville. It was soon discovered that the enemy, with his trains, was pushing toward Farmville. The cavalry pressed forward on the flanks of the enemy’s route, attacking the column and wagon train at different points, in conjunction with General Crook’s command. An attack of the First Brigade, First Division, on the train, which was right gallantly made, having exhibited the enemy to be in great force on the road near Sailor’s Creek, Generals Custer and Devin were ordered to move parallel to the enemy’s line of march and attack the train and impede the march of the column wherever practicable. This order was obeyed with alacrity by both divisions. General Crook’s command was in the meantime operating in the same manner. The First Brigade (Stagg’s) of the First Division remained with Miller’s battery at the point where the train was first attacked. The battery did excellent service in shelling the enemy’s train, practicing on it with wonderful accuracy. Stagg’s brigade operated with the Sixth Corps at Sailor’s Creek, performing most important service, capturing over 300 prisoners. General Custer succeeded in striking the enemy’s train at a point less strongly guarded than at others where it had been attacked and in surprising a park of three batteries of the enemy’s artillery. The enemy, concentrating, attacked the Third Division in force, when the First moved rapidly to its assistance, both divisions holding the enemy in check. This movement on the part of these two divisions, assisted on the left by Crook’s division of cavalry, cut off three divisions of the enemy’s infantry, the entire rear guard of his army, and finally, in conjunction with the movement of the Sixth Corps in the enemy’s rear, resulted in the capture of the entire force, including eight general officers and many stand of colors and arms. To continue the operations of the day the First Division was again moved to the left and advanced rapidly in the direction of the firing of the Twenty-fourth (Gibbon’s) Army Corps. It soon came up with the rear of the retreating rebel infantry, which made a front in the direction of the advance. It soon became apparent that the Army of the James was not operating with vigor against the enemy, and as darkness came on the command was ordered into camp.
April 7, marched at 6 a.m. on the flank of the infantry, directing the movement to Prince Edward Court-House. Encamped at Spring Creek, four miles toward Prospect Station.
April 8, marched at 6 a.m. through Prospect Station toward Appomattox Court-House. The Third Division, in advance, met with no opposition until it arrived near Appomattox Station. Here the enemy’s advance column was struck, moving on the Lynchburg road toward Danville. The enemy’s army was in force at Appomattox Court-House. Artillery, prisoners, and wagons were here captured by the Third Division, which rushed into the enemy’s lines, carrying all before them. Three trains of cars were also taken by this division, loaded with subsistence stores for Lee’s army. The First Division was brought up rapidly, and, deploying dismounted on the right of the Third Division, assisted materially in the captures. This division was advanced within a short distance of Appomattox Court-house, being posted across the road on which the enemy was attempting to move, and effectually destroying his chance of making a night’s march in retreat, as he intended to do as on former occasions.
It is impossible to overestimate the value of this day’s work. The enemy’s supplies were taken, as it were, out of their mouths. A strong force, they knew not how strong, was posted along their line of retreat at a point where they did not expect opposition. Night was upon them; tired, dispirited, and starving they lay at our feet. Their bravest soldiers, their hardiest men, gave way when they heard the noise of battle far in the rear, and the night of despair fell with the night of the 8th of April darkly and terribly on the Army of Northern Virginia.
April 9, at daylight the command was in readiness to move. General Crook relieved the First Division in the position which it had occupied during the night. This division was ordered to move to the right. The enemy advanced against General Crook’s front in heavy force. The cavalry was forced back by overwhelming numbers. General Custer was immediately ordered to move up with his division. The cavalry retired slowly, but of necessity. Soon the Twenty-fourth corps took up Crook’s line on the left of the First Division, and the Fifth Corps deployed in rear of General Devin. So soon as the heavy columns of the enemy discovered we had infantry in position he abandoned his evidently formed idea of forcing the road of his retreat, and retired precipitately toward the valley, where his wagon train was parked. The cavalry, now disengaged, was thrown rapidly to the right, taking possession of the high ground on the enemy’s left within a short half mile of his camp. There every disposition was made for an attack. The rebel army was at our mercy. The artillery played rapidly for a few moments, when a flag of truce sent from the enemy’s line silenced forever the noise of battle between the Union and rebel armies of Virginia.
April 10, the command marched at 8 a.m. for Burke’s Station, under the immediate command of General Custer. The undersigned, having been appointed one of the Union commissioners to arrange the details of surrender, remained at Appomattox Court-House until the 12th instant.
Thus were concluded the labors of the campaign-a campaign, so far as cavalry in concerned, which has scarcely a parallel in history Never did men behave better; never endure more uncomplainingly the severest of hardships. No task was too severe; no danger too imminent for the cavalry to encounter or overcome. The gallant, daring, and rapid execution of the brave commander of the Third Division, united with the sure, steady, and unchangeable courage and bearing of the commander of the First Division, have accomplished a work which must shed glory on the Union cavalry for all time to come.
In making up this record it was impossible to enter into details with reference to the different commands or officers without extending it to a very great length. The attention of the major-general commanding is respectfully invited to the reports of division commanders transmitted herewith; they will necessarily enter more largely into particulars. The exceptions to those throughout the command who have given the most complete satisfactory are very few. It is enough glory to be associated with such men-a double glory to have commanded them.
To my staff I owe especial thanks; one and all, they performed their duties at all times with judgment, energy, and indefatigable zeal. I commend them to the attention of the major-general commanding.
Brevet Major-General, Commanding Cavalry.
Chief of Staff, Headquarters Cavalry.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLVI, Part 1 (Serial Number 95), pp. 1116-1121 ↩