Petersburg at Last (April 3, 1865)

A view of Petersburg, taken shortly after the Confederates abandoned it (Library of Congress).

A view of Petersburg, taken shortly after the Confederates abandoned it (Library of Congress).

George Meade and Theodore Lyman write letters home about the great events following the breakthrough of Lee’s lines and the Confederate abandonment of Petersburg and Richmond. The end of the war is in sight. In his letter, Lyman writes a wonderful account of the visit he and the general made to Petersburg, so long denied to them. The Wallace house he mentions still stands. Shortly after he and Meade left there, President Lincoln arrived and met Grant. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “Abraham Lincoln arrived, accompanied by his young son Tad, Adm. David Porter, and a few others. His escort through the lines was his son Robert, who served on Grant’s staff, and he was riding Grant’s favorite horse, Cincinnati. The president dismounted and greeted the general in chief with joy. ‘I doubt whether Mr. Lincoln ever experienced a happier moment in his life,’ wrote Horace Porter. Wallace, who had known Lincoln before the war, invited Grant and the president inside but they preferred to sit on the porch where Grant could smoke a cigar. Lincoln sat on a rocking chair Wallace brought out for him, his long legs dangling over the edge of the porch. The two men stayed there for about ninety minutes, hoping to receive word about the fall of Richmond.”

The Wallace House in Petersburg, where Grant and Lincoln met on April 2, 1865.

The Wallace House in Petersburg, where Grant and Lincoln met on April 2, 1865.

“Lincoln said he suspected Grant might have been planning to order Sherman up from the south to pitch in against Lee. Grant said he had considered that but ‘had a feeling that it would be better to let Lee’s old antagonists give his army the final blow, and finish up the job.’ Grant added, ‘I have always felt confident that our troops here were amply able to handle Lee.’ He and Lincoln then talked a little about postwar concerns. Finally, Grant could wait no longer. He mounted up and rode off to rejoin the army. Lincoln looked around Petersburg a little before returning to City Point.”

The telegraph will have conveyed to you, long before this reaches you, the joyful intelligence that Petersburg and Richmond have fallen, and that Lee, broken and dispirited, has retreated towards Lynchburg and Danville. We have had three glorious days, the fighting not so severe as much we have done before, but in the results. We are now moving after Lee, and if we are successful in striking him another blow before he can rally his troops, I think the Confederacy will be at an end.

George is quite well, having left his uncle at City Point, where it was deemed advisable he should stop for awhile. Willie was doing very well, and is not considered in any danger.

Markoe Bache arrived this morning just in time to march into Petersburg with us.

The strong demonstration we made on Lee’s right caused him so to attenuate his lines that, notwithstanding their strength, we broke through his left, and poured in such a force that he had to fly to save himself. He was fortunate in keeping us out of the town till dark, which enabled him to get over the Appomattox what remained of his army. The last estimate of our prisoners amounted to fifteen thousand, and deserters and stragglers are being picked up by the thousands. Let us hope the war will soon be over.

Lyman, of course, provides a much more detailed account, including a lively description of Petersburg. He also mentions the death of Confederate General A.P. Hill, who was, as Lyman says, shot by some Yankee stragglers. A small stone monument near Pamplin Historical Park outside Petersburg commemorates the event.

We began our day early, for, about light, I heard Duane say, outside my tent: “They have evacuated Petersburg.” Sure enough, they were gone, across the river, and, at that very moment, their troops at Richmond, and all along the river, with their artillery and trains, were marching in all haste, hoping to join each other and get to Burkeville Junction, en route for Danville. How they succeeded will be seen in the sequel. General Meade, to my great satisfaction, said he would ride in and take a look at the place we so long had seen the steeples of. Passing a series of heavy entrenchments and redoubts, we entered the place about eight in the morning. The outskirts are very poor, consisting chiefly of the houses of negroes, who collected, with broad grins, to gaze on the triumphant Yanks; while here and there a squalid family of poor whites would lower at us from broken windows, with an air of lazy dislike. The main part of the town resembles Salem, very much, plus the southern shiftlessness and minus the Yankee thrift. Even in this we may except Market Street, where dwell the haute noblesse, and where there are just square brick houses and gardens about them, as you see in Salem, all very well kept and with nice trees. Near the river, here large enough to carry large steamers, the same closely built business streets, the lower parts of which had suffered severely from our shells; here and there an entire building had been burnt, and everywhere you saw corners knocked off, and shops with all the glass shattered by a shell exploding within.

A Timothy O'Sullivan photograph of Blandford Church, in the cemetery that Meade and Lyman visited on April 2 (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of Blandford Church, in the cemetery that Meade and Lyman visited on April 2 (Library of Congress).

We then returned a little and took a road up the hill towards the famous cemetery ridge. Petersburg, you must understand, lies in a hollow, at the foot of a sort of bluff. In fact, this country, is a dead, sandy level, but the watercourses have cut trenches in it, more or less deep according to their volume of water. Thus the Appomattox is in a deep trench, while the tributary “runs” that come in are in more shallow trenches; so that the country near the banks looks hilly; when, however, you get on top of these bluffs, you find yourself on a plain, which is more or less worn by water-courses into a succession of rolls. Therefore, from our lines you could only see the spires, because the town was in a gully. The road we took was very steep and was no less than the Jerusalem plank, whose other end I was so familiar with. Turning to the left, on top of the crest, we passed a large cemetery, with an old ruined chapel, and, descending a little, we stood on the famous scene of the “Mine.” It was this cemetery that our infantry should have gained that day. Thence the town is commanded. How changed these entrenchments! Not a soul was there, and the few abandoned tents and cannon gave an additional air of solitude. Upon these parapets, whence the rifle-men have shot at each other, for nine long months, in heat and cold, by day and by night, you might now stand with impunity and overlook miles of deserted breastworks and covered ways! It was a sight only to be appreciated by those who have known the depression of waiting through summer, autumn and winter for so goodly an event! Returning through the town, we stopped at the handsome house of Mr. Wallace, where was Grant and his Staff, and where we learned the death of Lieutenant-General A. P. Hill, who was killed by one of our stragglers whom he tried to capture. Crowds of nigs came about us to sell Confederate money, for which they would take anything we chose to give. At noon we left the town, and, going on the river road, camped that night near Sutherland’s Station.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 269. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 339-41. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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