No Rest for the Wicked (April 6, 1865)

A view of Amelia Courthouse today. Lee was delayed here while he waited for his army to concentrate and for rations that never arrived.

A view of Amelia Court House today. Lee was delayed here while he waited for his army to concentrate and for rations that never arrived.

The Union armies’ struggle with the Army of Northern Virginia has turned into a race. Lee’s exhausted forces trace a westward course across the Virginia countryside, shedding men, equipment, and horses like a comet burning up in the atmosphere. Theodore Lyman continues his observations of what it was like to be among the pursuers, as Sheridan’s cavalry nips at Lee’s heels, and the infantry plunges ahead in attempt to place the killing blow. And, as far as Lyman (and Meade) are concerned, Sheridan is eager to grab for all the glory.

Lyman remained so incensed about Sheridan’s credit grab at Sailor’s Creek that a month later he wrote a letter to the Boston Advertiser about it. It was Wright who attacked, he said, “and he was under the immediate orders of General Meade, and had nothing whatever to do with General Sheridan, whose entire command numbered not over 7000 mounted men, while the Second and Sixth Corps had together not less than 25,000 men actually in the fight.”

We are pelting after Old Lee as hard as the poor doughboys’ legs can go. I estimate our prisoners at 16,000, with lots of guns and colors. At six a.m. the three infantry corps advanced in line of battle, on Amelia Court House; 2d on the left; 5th in the centre; and 6th on the right. Sheridan’s cavalry, meantime, struck off to the left, to head off their waggon-trains in the direction of the Appomattox River. We did not know just then, you perceive, in what precise direction the enemy was moving. Following the railroad directly towards Amelia C.H., General Meade received distinct intelligence, at nine o’clock, that the enemy was moving on Deatonsville, intending probably to cross the Appomattox at High Bridge. Instantly General Meade gave orders for the 6th Corps to face about and move by the left flank and seek roads in the direction of High Bridge, with the idea of supporting the cavalry in their attempt to head off the enemy; the 2d Corps were turned into the left-hand road nearest Jetersville, and directed to push on and strike the enemy wherever they could. At nine we got to the left-hand road lying some way beyond Jetersville, and here the 5th Corps was turned in, with orders to follow the road through Paineville and attack whatever they found. These prompt dispositions ensured the grand success of the day, which the newspapers have gracefully handed over to General Sheridan! Here I may as well say that Lee was trying to escape with his large artillery and waggon trains. At first he thought to move directly along the railroad, through Burkeville, to Danville. Cut off by the 5th Corps and the cavalry, he now was trying to march “cross lots” and get to the Danville road, somewhere below us. . . . At ten, we got back to Jetersville, a collection of half-a-dozen houses with a country church. From the second story of a house I witnessed a most curious spectacle—a fight, four miles off in a straight line! At that point was a bare ridge, a little above Deatonsville, and there, with my good glass, I could see a single man very well. It was just like a play of marionettes! and the surrounding woods made side scenes to this stage. At first, I saw only the Rebel train, moving along the ridge towards Deatonsville, in all haste: there now goes a pigmy ambulance drawn by mouse-like horses, at a trot. Here come more ambulances and many waggons from the woods, and disappear, in a continuous procession, over the ridge. Suddenly—boom! boom! and the distant smoke of Humphreys’ batteries curls above the pine trees. At this stimulus the Lilliputian procession redoubles its speed (I am on the point of crying “bravo!” at this brilliant stroke of the gentleman who is pulling the wires). But now enter from the woods, in some confusion, a good number of Rebel cavalry; they form on the crest—but, boom! boom! go the cannon, and they disappear. Ah! here come the infantry! Now for a fight! Yes, a line of battle in retreat, and covering the rear. There are mounted officers; they gallop about, waving their tiny swords. Halt! The infantry form a good line on the crest; you can’t scare them. What are they carrying? Spears? No, rails; that’s what it is, rails for to revet a breastwork. They scramble about like ants. You had better hurry up, Yanks, if you want to carry that crest! (The stage manager informs me the Yanks are hurrying and the next act will be—Enter Duke Humphrey, in haste.) Hullo! There come six fleet mice dragging something, followed by more: yes, a battery. They unlimber: a pause: Flash!—(count twenty-two seconds by Captain Barrows’s watch) then, bang!—flash! flash! bang! bang! There come in their skirmishers! running for their lives; certainly the Yanks are in those woods. Now they turn their guns more to the left; they are getting flanked. Their officers gallop wildly. You seem to hear them shout, “Change front to the rear!” anyhow they do so, at a double-quick. Then one volley of musketry, and they are gone, guns and all! The next moment our skirmishers go swarming up the hill; up goes a battery, and down goes the curtain.

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "The Last of Ewell's Corps." It depicted an incident at the Battle of Sailor's Creek. On the back, Waud wrote, "This was quite an effective incident in its way. The soldiers silhoutted [sic] against the western sky with their muskets thrown butt upwards in token of surrender, as our troops closed in beyond a wagon train which was captured, and burning debris probably other wagons in the gathering gloom." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “The Last of Ewell’s Corps.” It depicted an incident at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. On the back, Waud wrote, “This was quite an effective incident in its way. The soldiers silhoutted [sic] against the western sky with their muskets thrown butt upwards in token of surrender, as our troops closed in beyond a wagon train which was captured, and burning debris probably other wagons in the gathering gloom.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

There is no rest for the wicked. All day long the peppery Humphreys, glaring through those spectacles, presses hotly in their rear; the active Sheridan is felling trees across their front; on their right is the Appomattox, impassible; and now, as the afternoon closes, here comes the inevitable Wright, grimly on their left flank, at Sailor’s Creek. The 6th Corps charges; they can’t be stopped—result, five Rebel generals; 8600 prisoners, 14 cannon; the Rebel rear-guard annihilated! As we get to our camp, beyond Deatonsville, there comes a Staff officer with a despatch. “I attacked with two divisions of the 6th Corps. I captured many thousand prisoners, etc., etc. P. H. Sheridan.” “Oh,” said Meade, “so General Wright wasn’t there.” “Oh, yes!” cried the Staff officer, as if speaking of some worthy man who had commanded a battalion, “Oh, yes, General Wright was there.” Meade turned on his heel without a word, and Cavalry Sheridan’s despatch proceeded — to the newspapers!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 348-51. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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