Battle of Sailor’s Creek

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Sayler’s Creek (April 6, 1865) – Also known as Sailor’s Creek, Hillsman Farm, or Lockett Farm, this engagement occurred southwest of Petersburg, Virginia. It was the last major engagement between the armies of General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant before the capitulation of Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Court House three days later. On April 6th at Sayler’s Creek nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army was cut off by Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry and elements of the II and VI Corps. Most surrendered, including Confederate Generals Richard S. Ewell, Seth, Barton, James Simms, Joseph Kershaw, Custis Lee, Dudley Du Bose, Eppa Hunton, and Montgomery Corse. This action was considered the death knell of the Confederate army. Upon seeing the survivors streaming along the road, General Robert E. Lee exclaimed “My God, has the army dissolved?” The Union victory resulted in a total estimated casualties of 9,980.

In his official report General Ewell gives the following account of the battle of Sailor’s Creek and the capture of his corps:

“On crossing a little stream known as Sailor’s Creek, I met General Fitzhugh Lee, who informed me that a large force of cavalry held the road just in front of General [R. H.] Anderson, and was so strongly posted that he had halted a short distance ahead. The trains were turned into the road nearer the river, while I hurried to General Anderson’s aid. General [John B.] Gordon’s corps turned off after the trains. General Anderson informed me that at least two divisions of cavalry were in his front, and suggested two modes of escape—either to unite our forces and break through, or to move to the right through the woods and try to strike a road which ran toward Farmville. I recommended the latter alternative, but as he knew the ground and I did not, and had no one who did, I left the dispositions to him. Before any were made the enemy appeared in rear of my column in large force preparing to attack. General Anderson informed me that he would make the attack in front, if I would hold in check those in the rear, which I did until his troops were broken and dispersed. I had no artillery, all being with the train. My line ran across a little ravine which leads nearly at right angles toward Sailor’s Creek. General G.W.C. Lee was on the left with the Naval Battalion, under Commodore [John R.] Tucker, behind his right. Kershaw’s division was on the right. All of Lee’s and part of Kershaw’s divisions were posted behind a rising ground that afforded some shelter from artillery. The creek was perhaps 300 yards in their front, with brush pines between and a cleared field beyond it. In this the enemy’s artillery took a commanding position, and, finding we had none to reply, soon approached within 800 yards and opened a terrible fire. After nearly half an hour of this their infantry advanced, crossing the creek above and below us at the same time. Just as it attacked, General Anderson made his assault, which was repulsed in five minutes. I had ridden up near his lines with him to see the result, when a staff-officer, who had followed his troops in their charge, brought him word of its failure. General Anderson rode rapidly toward his command. I returned to mine to see if it were yet too late to try the other plan of escape. On riding past my left I came suddenly upon a strong line of the enemy’s skirmishers advancing upon my left rear. This closed the only 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 who came in by the same road General Anderson had gone out on. At my request he sent a messenger to General G.W.C. Lee, who was nearest, with a note from me telling him he was surrounded, General Anderson’s attack had failed, I had surrendered, and he had better do so, too, to prevent useless loss of life, though I gave no orders, being a prisoner. Before the messenger reached him General [G.W.C.] Lee had been captured, as had General Kershaw, and the whole of my command. My two divisions numbered about 3000 each at the time of the evacuation; 2800 were taken prisoners, about 150 killed and wounded. The difference of over 3000 was caused mainly by the fatigue of four days’ and nights’ almost constant marching, the last two days with nothing to eat. Before our capture I saw men eating raw fresh meat as they marched in the ranks. I was informed at General Wright’s headquarters, whither I was carried after my capture, that 30,000 men were engaged with us when we surrendered, namely, two infantry corps and Custer’s and Merritt’s divisions of cavalry.”

General J. Warren Keifer, in a pamphlet on the battle of Sailor’s Creek, says:

“General A. P. Hill, a corps commander in General Lee’s army, was killed at Petersburg, April 2d, 1865, and this, or some other important reason, caused General Lee, while at Amelia Court House, to consolidate his army into two corps or wings, one commanded by Lieutenant-General Longstreet and the other by Lieutenant-General Ewell.

“The main body of the Confederate army had passed by toward Sailor’s Creek. Pursuit with such troops as were up was promptly ordered by General Sheridan and conducted by General Horatio G. Wright, who commanded the Sixth Corps. The enemy’s rear-guard fought stubbornly and fell back toward the stream. The Second Division of his corps, under General Frank Wheaton, arrived and joined the Third Division in the attack and pursuit. The main body of the cavalry, under General Merritt, was dispatched to intercept the Confederate retreat. General Merritt passed east and south of the enemy across Sailor’s Creek, and again attacked him on the right rear. By about 5 P.M. the Confederate army was forced across the valley of Sailor’s Creek, where it took up an unusually strong position on the heights immediately on the west bank of the stream. These heights, save on their face, were mainly covered with forests. There was a level bottom, wholly on the east bank of the creek, over which the Union forces would have to pass before reaching the stream, then swollen beyond its banks by recent rains, and which washed the foot of the heights on which General Ewell had rested the divisions of his army, ready for an attack if made, and with the hope that under cover of night the whole Confederate army might escape in safety to Danville.

“The pursuing troops were halted on the face of the hills skirting the valley, within the range of the enemy’s guns, and lines were adjusted for an assault. Artillery was put in position on these hills, and a heavy fire was immediately opened. An effort was made to get up General G. W. Getty’s division of the Sixth Corps, and a portion of the Second Brigade of the Third Division, which had been dispatched to attack a battery on the right, but the day was too far spent to await their arrival. After a few moments’ delay, General Wright, as directed by General Sheridan, ordered an immediate assault to be made, by the infantry, under the cover of the artillery fire. Colonel Stagg’s brigade of cavalry was, at the same time, ordered by General Sheridan to attack and, if possible, flank the extreme right of the enemy’s position. General Merritt’s cavalry divisions (First and Third) simultaneously attacked the Confederate army on its right and rear. Without waiting for reserves to arrive in sight, the two divisions of the Sixth Corps descended into the valley, and in single line of battle (First Division on the left and the Third on the right) moved steadily across the plain in the face of a destructive fire of the enemy, and, with shouldered guns and ammunition-boxes also, in most cases, over the shoulder, waded through the flooded stream. Though the water was from two to four feet deep, the stream was crossed without a halt or waver in the line. Many fell on the plain and in the water, and those who reached the west bank were in more or less disorder. The order to storm the heights was promptly given by the officers accompanying the troops, and it was at once obeyed. The infantry of the Sixth Corps began firing for the first time while ascending the heights, and when within only a few yards of the enemy. His advance line gave way, and an easy victory seemed about to be achieved by the Union forces. But before the crest of the heights was reached General Ewell’s massed troops, in heavy column, made an impetuous charge upon and through the center of the assaulting line. The Union center was completely broken, and a disastrous defeat for the Union army was imminent. This large body of the Confederate infantry became, by reason of this success, exposed to the now renewed fire from General Wright’s artillery remaining in position on the hills east of the stream.

“The right and left wings of the charging Union line met with better success, and each drove back all in its front, and, wholly disregarding the defeat of the center, persisted in advancing, each wheeling as upon a pivot, in the center of the line—then held by the Confederate masses. These masses were soon subjected to a terrible infantry fire upon both flanks as well as by the artillery in front. The swollen stream forbade a Confederate advance to attack the unguarded artillery. General Merritt and Colonel Stagg’s cavalry, in a simultaneous attack, overthrew all before them on the right and rear. The Confederate officers gallantly struggled to avert disaster, and bravely tried to form lines to the right and left to repel the flank attacks. This latter proved impossible. The troops on the flanks were pushed up to within a few feet of the massed Confederates, which rendered any re-formation or change of direction by them out of the question, and speedily brought hopeless disorder. A few were bayoneted on each side. Flight was impossible, and nothing remained to put an end to the bloody slaughter but for them to throw down their arms and become captives. As the gloom of approaching night settled over the field, covered with dead and dying, the fire of artillery and musketry ceased, and General Ewell, together with eleven of his general officers [including Kershaw, G.W.C. Lee, Barton, Du Bose, Hunton, and Corse], and about all his gallant army that survived, were prisoners. Commodore Tucker and his Marine Brigade, numbering about 2000, surrendered to me a little later. They were under cover of a dense forest, and had been passed by in the first onset of the assault. Of the particular operations of the cavalry the writer of this, of his personal knowledge, knows little; but no less praise is due it than to the infantry. In this battle more men were captured in actual conflict without negotiation than on any other field in America.”

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