The Last Campaign for the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia
In about a week (it is March 24, 2002 as I write this), exactly 137 years ago the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia began their final campaigns. At the time, neither knew the resumption of offensive action would end at a little Virginia crossroads named Appomattox Court House. For almost three long, horrendous, blood-soaked years the two great fighting organizations opposed each other. Both armies saw commanders come and go during that time; the majority of the commanders coming and going from the Army of the Potomac. But now it was down to Sam Grant and Bobby Lee. On the Northern side, affairs were very promising to finally seeing the dawn of peace. On the Southern side, affairs were bleak indeed. All that really stood between final Union victory and Confederate defeat were the ragged, starving but doggedly determined veterans of Lee's "miserables". Confederate morale among the civilian population had virtually collapsed; their treasury was bankrupt; vast portions of the South now were under direct Union control; Confederate President Jefferson Davis held out against all hope for a continuance of the struggle for Southern Independence.
When offensive action did resume, the vast Union military machine built up by Sam Grant around Petersburg made its weight finally felt. Confederate defenders, clearly unable to stem the tide of the Union assaults, broke. Between April 1 and April 3, 1865, Confederate forces saw defeat at Five Forks, at Hatcher's Run, and all along the lines at Petersburg. Richmond hurriedly was evacuated and all available Confederate forces ordered to join the tattered survivors of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia as they pulled out westward—toward food, toward supplies and toward a possible link-up with Joe Johnston in North Carolina. What followed for the weary Army of Northern Virginia was similar to a wounded bear being incessantly attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Union attacks by cavalry and infantry harassed the flanks and rears of Confederate columns as they struggled in their retreat westward. Still, the boys of gray managed to put up a fight and keep the boys of blue at bay, though not without disaster. Saylor's Creek saw the capture of approximately a quarter of what little remained of Lee's once invincible army. Failures of Confederate commissary agents to properly provide much needed food and successful Union blocking actions meant starvation, exhaustion and straggling that bled off strength with every mile. With each mile away from Petersburg, the Union boys of blue could taste a culmination of all their years of suffering and bloodshed was ahead. This fact alone made possible marches unheard of by Union infantry only months before. At least once during the War, a Union Army Corps outmarched its normally swifter cousins on horseback.
Bobby Lee knew the end was in sight after Saylor's Creek. But, unwilling to admit defeat until forced to, he desired to keep as much of his army together as possible for a linkage with Johnston. That, however, came to naught at the little crossroads of Appomattox Court House. One final battle, and it was all over. Lee, bowing to the inevitable, finally met Sam Grant in Wilmer McLean's parlor on April 9, 1865 to surrender "that portion of the C.S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia." With the signing of the surrender papers, the long night of the American Civil War was finally beginning to end; in fact, Lee's signing of the surrender terms virtually ended the War even though some fighting continued and the last organized Confederate unit would not surrender (in the West) until early June.
Of the actual surrender ceremony, Grant chose Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Little Round Top fame to supervise the laying down of the arms and equipment of the Army of Northern Virginia. His description of the ceremony in his "Passage of the Armies" is so moving and so eloquent it has moved this writer to tears. He wrote and asked himself, if those in gray and butternut who had been so thoroughly whipped yet would not admit such to themselves, "Was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?"
I certainly hope, for their sakes and ours, that the lessons of America's "longest night" have not been forgotten.© 2002