In the first months of 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia had been whittled down to a mere 55,000 as it left the trenches of Petersburg. Desertion rates were high, driving General Robert E. Lee to accept volunteers and conscripts from southern Virginia, as well as a Naval Brigade full of sailors – not soldiers. After the fall of the Southside Railroad at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Lee knew they could defend Richmond no longer. As the Confederate forces fled west and south – its objective to join General Joseph Johnston in Raleigh, North Carolina – the Army of the Potomac – aided by the Army of the James and Army of the Shenandoah – were in hot pursuit under the command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Bogging down their travel was five long lines of wagon trains, packed with supplies and household goods of evacuees from the Confederate capitol.
First, they aimed for Amelia Court House to resupply with rations from the railroad junction, then they would divert south to Jetersville, which provided the only reasonable way into North Carolina. However, the V Corps cut off their route, forcing them to shift course toward Rice’s Depot and Farmville with the II Corps riding their heels and the VI Corps shadowing their position to the south. Pressure mounted as the Confederate army was forced onto a single road, one corps following another and deserters dropping out of line by the hundreds with each passing day. With General John B. Gordon’s 2nd Corps covering the rear, the Confederates hoped to reach Rice’s Depot via Deatonsville, through Holt’s Corner and over Sailor’s Creek.
The battle at Sailor’s Creek actually took place in three separate locations on April 6, 1865 – which became popularly known as “Black Thursday” by veterans of the fight. It all began at Holt’s Corner. General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps passed through the crossroads with no difficulty, but General Richard Anderson’s Corps ran into Union General George Crook’s cavalry – 2nd Division of Major General Phillip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah – who was threatening their incredibly long wagon train. A 2-3 hour delay of Anderson forming a battleline to contend with Crook also created a 3-mile gap between Longstreet and the rest of the Confederate army.
Once Crook was repulsed, Anderson continued on to Marshall’s Crossroads, where he was reinforced by Major General Bushrod Johnson and George Pickett. Union cavalry hero George Custer heard the commotion between Anderson and Crook and hurried to Marshall’s Crossroads to engage. Crook also contributed two dismounted brigades to the continued assaults on the Confederate position. Confederate commanders lost control of their own troops as wagon trains were destroyed and set on fire, drawing the near-starving troops’ attention to the stores of food and rations that had yet to be distributed. The contest at Marshall’s Crossroads ended in a Confederate rout, with the three generals (Anderson, Johnson, and Pickett) evading capture. The same couldn’t be said for 2,600 troops, 300 wagons, 15 pieces of artillery, and 800 mules and horses. The three aforementioned generals would be relieved of duty, their units diminished beyond recovery.
Further north, General Richard Ewell dug in along the southern high ground along Little Sailor’s Creek, about to be confronted by Major General Horatio Wright and his VI Corps. Behind the Union artillery lines upon a high ridge overlooking the river, was the HIllsman House, the last original building remaining in this part of the battlefield. The home, owned by Captain James Hillsman of the 44th Virginia, was occupied by his wife, Lucy, her mother, 2 children, and 8 servants. When hostilities broke out, the family took refuge in the cellar and then played host to Union wounded as their home became a field hospital after the battle. After a half-hour bombardment on the Confederate position, Union troops, approximately 7,000 in total, crossed Sailor’s Creek and the surrounding swampy ground. The water level was so high that day, that they had to hold their muskets over their heads to keep them from getting wet. The Federal soldiers asked for the Confederate surrender and was answered with a volley of rifle fire. When a portion of the Union line began to fall back toward the river, green Confederate troops became caught up in the excitement and charged after veteran soldiers who were armed with repeating rifles. The result was a fierce hand-to-hand melee. Cannister fire from the Hillsman ridge broke up the melee and sent the Confederates back to their lines. Upon the second charge toward Ewell’s lines, the Federal numbers overwhelmed and outflanked the enemy. This proved the undoing of the corps. Generals Ewell, Custis Lee, Seth Barton, Joseph Kershaw, Dudley Dubose, and James Simms, along with 3,400 Confederate troops were captured.
As it became clear that the army was under attack, measures were taken to preserve the supply train. Instead of taking it toward Marshall’s Crossroads and on the way to Deatonsville, the train was detoured down Jamestown Road to the north. Caught behind the wagons was Gordon’s corps, still pursued by the II Corps under General Andrew Humphreys. In this running fight to guard the trains, Gordon and Humphrey’s men engaged several times before turning to make their last stand on the banks of Sailor’s Creek. The bridge that would take them across, however, was not suited for heavy army traffic. Only 25 of the wagons made it across before the bridges collapsed, forcing the train to detour again northwest toward Perkinson’s Sawmill. In the evening around Lockett Farm, the Federals finally caught up with Gordon’s troops and in the ensuing fight, the Confederates moved to the opposite bank. As dark descended, the Union advance came to a halt, but not before capturing 1,700 Confederates, along with artillery, wagons, and ambulances. The Federals encamped on the battlefield while the Confederates retreated. Lockett’s Farm like the HIllsman House, became a field hospital.
In total, 7,700 Confederates were captured and the Federals suffered only 1,180 casualties. Lee lost a big chunk of his army and 9 of his generals, including relatives. Longstreet and Lee at Rice’s Depot, however, were completely unaware of the conflict around Sailor’s Creek until it was almost too late. When the disorganization of his army became evident, he exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved!” While not completely, the battle at Sailor’s Creek severely crippled Lee’s army. There are many moments in the Civil War that were considered the “death knell” of the Confederacy, and Sailor’s Creek can be considered one of these last knells. Many on both sides could see that this signaled the end. Grant reported to Abraham Lincoln, “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.” Lincoln replied, “Let the thing be pressed.”
The battlefield of Sailor’s Creek stretches for 400 acres and was declared a National Landmark in 1938. It wasn’t until 2006 that it became an independent state park, complete with a driving tour and visitor center. Today, the public can learn about this crucial moment of the Appomattox Campaign and the stories of the soldiers who fought in it.
The park is a little off the beaten trail. On my first trip, I traveled from Spotsylvania straight southwest to Sailor’s Creek, turning down questionable country roads. I was relieved when a patch of good pavement came up, or if my GPS took me onto a highway with cell reception. Coming from Richmond or Lynchburg, the trip may be easier. Be sure to stop by the visitor center first and get a comprehensive overview of the Appomattox Campaign. Their exhibit features some great artifacts from the battle that have fascinating human interest stories attached, as well as an interactive experience with two soldiers who fought along Sailor’s Creek that should not be missed. Grab a map and take the driving tour to each of the three locations and take some time to reflect on the impact of this battle during the last few days of the Civil War in Virginia.
Address: 6541 Sayler’s Creek Rd, Rice, VA 23966
Derek Smith, Lee’s Last Stand, Sailor’s Creek, Virginia, 1865 (White Mane Publishing, 2002)
Greg Eames, Black Day of the Army, April 6, 1865; The Battles of Sailor’s Creek (E&H Publishing Company, Burkeville, VA, 2001)
Christopher M. Calkins, The Appomattox Campaign: March 9 – April 9, 1865 (Da Capo Press, 1997)