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Keith Rocco, "Victory or Death"

Sailor's Creek

Sayler's Creek

Amelia County, Prince Edward County, and Nottoway County, VA  |  Apr 6, 1865

Four days after the Federal breakthrough at Petersburg, VA, Union soldiers captured roughly one-fourth of Robert E. Lee’s army during three separate engagements near Sailor's Creek, a tributary of the Appomattox River. Three days later, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse

How It Ended

Union Victory. After having all possible escape routes cut off from the rest of the Confederate army, elements of what remained of Richard S. Ewell’s command and Richard H. Anderson’s corps made a final stand near Sailor’s Creek. After their flanks were crushed, both generals surrendered their forces to the Union army, depriving Lee of one-fourth of his men. 

In Context

After the Federal breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2nd, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made a daring attempt to escape the area and make it to North Carolina, where he hoped to continue the war. To prevent this, Union General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched elements of the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James, including Philip Sheridan’s cavalry force, to hunt down Lee.

Leaving Richmond behind in the aftermath of the Union breakthrough at Petersburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped to link up with Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina. First, however, Lee had to feed his beleaguered troops. After finding ordnance—but no food—at Amelia Court House and discovering the road to Danville blocked by Federal troops, Lee directed his army toward the supply depot at Farmville. Heading Lee's column were the First and Third Corps under the combined command of General James Longstreet, followed by General Richard Anderson's corps, and the Reserve Corps under General Richard Ewell, composed primarily of garrison units from the Confederate capital. The army's supply train followed with General John Gordon's Second Corps bringing up the rear. To evade the Union roadblock, Lee ordered a night march on April 5th.

Forces Engaged
27,500
Union
16,000
Confed.
11,500

On the morning of April 6th, skirmish fire announced that General Andrew Humphreys' Union Second Corps was in pursuit. At the same time, General Philip Sheridan's cavalry rode parallel to Lee's line of retreat, launching hit-and-run strikes on the Southern column. Anderson and Ewell's troops halted at Holt's Corner to fend off the Federal attackers, creating a two-mile gap between Anderson and the nearest friendly unit. Into that gap, Union General George Custer thrust his horsemen. Making matters worse, Union General Horatio Wright's Sixth Corps was approaching from the east. With Yankee cavalry blocking the road to Farmville and infantry nipping at its heels, a sizable portion of Lee's army was caught in a vice.

After the alarm at Holt's Corner, Gordon's corps and the supply train were diverted to the north, hoping to join the rest of the army. With the Union Second Corps in close pursuit, Gordon made a series of stands on high ground as the train withdrew. When supply wagons became bottle-necked at the Double Bridges over Sailor's Creek, the Federals got within striking distance. Around 5 p.m., Humphreys attacked, and the bulk of Gordon's force was driven to the opposite bank before darkness ended the fighting on this part of the field. Further to the south, Anderson and Ewell deployed between Little Sailor's Creek and Marshall's Crossroads on high ground. Ewell's divisions dug in facing northeast, toward the Hillsman farm. Extending the Confederate line to the south and west were two more divisions. The Confederate line was practically back-to-back, and thus the disparate units could not help one another.

Wright's corps formed opposite Ewell and used twenty artillery pieces to shell the Southern force. After a thirty-minute cannonade, one of Wright's divisions waded into the swollen waters of Little Sailor's Creek. Ewell's defenders let loose a volley that staggered a portion of the attacking force, which bolted for cover. Confederate General Stapleton Crutchfield seized this opportunity and led an impetuous counterattack spearheaded by his heavy artillery battalions. These artillerymen acting as infantry became embroiled in savage hand-to-hand combat that claimed Crutchfield's life. By now, more Federals had crossed the stream and were advancing on Ewell's left. After another brutal melee, the Confederates began to surrender.

At Marshall's Crossroads, Anderson fared no better. General Wesley Merritt's Union cavalry pressed the Confederates on both flanks. Custer ordered a series of mounted assaults on General George Pickett's division, while Union General George Crook's dismounted attacks put pressure on General Bushrod Johnson's men on the Confederate right. Custer's cavalry eventually broke through, and Anderson's men began rushing for the rear or surrendering. Watching the battle from a distant knoll, Robert E. Lee exclaimed, "My God! Has the army dissolved?"

Union
1,150
0 killed
0 wounded
0 missing & captured
Estimated Casualties
9,980
Union
1,150
Confed.
8,830
Confederate
8,830
0 killed
0 wounded
0 missing & captured

After both flanks turned in and many of their troops surrendered, Ewell and Anderson formally surrendered their commands. Grant reported to President Abraham Lincoln, "If the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender." Lincoln responded, "Let the thing be pressed." April 6, 1865, became known as "Black Thursday" among the Confederates. In the three engagements along Sailor's Creek, Lee lost roughly one-fourth of his army, many of them captured. The Federals claimed 7,700 prisoners that day, including six generals, Ewell, Joseph Kershaw, and Robert E. Lee's eldest son, Custis. Lee surrendered three days later.

1. What effect did the Battle of Sailor’s Creek have on the Confederate army?

After the federal breakthrough at Petersburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee moved his army westward in hopes of trying to reach North Carolina. During his march, Federal units under the command of Philip Sheridan followed closely behind the Confederate army. Once portions of the rear of the Confederate army neared Sailor’s Creek, Sheridan’s men attacked and quickly encircled 7,000 Confederates. In the wake of the defeat at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Confederate General Robert E. Lee not only lost well over 7,000 men but over six generals. Lee was now faced with not only a power vacuum but dwindling manpower. It would only be a matter of time before the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was finally finished.

2. Out of the three major Confederate organizations to fight in the battle, which managed to escape the Federal encirclement?

Out of the three Confederate organizations to fight in the battle, those being Richard S. Ewell, Richard H. Anderson, and John B. Gordon, the latter was the only one to escape the battle relatively intact. This escape was due to Gordon fighting along the Lockett Farm near Sailor’s Creek, several miles north of Ewell and Anderson. After conducting fighting a withdrawal from the farm, most of Gordon’s men escaped across the creek and towards Lee’s main army.

All battles of the Appomattox Campaign

White Oak Road
Dinwiddie County, VA  |  Mar 31, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 2,670
Union: 1,870
Confederate: 800
Five Forks
Dinwiddie County, VA  |  Apr 1, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 3,780
Union: 830
Confederate: 2,950
Petersburg Breakthrough
Petersburg, VA  |  Apr 2, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 7,750
Union: 3,500
Confederate: 4,250
Sailor's Creek
Amelia County, Prince Edward County, and Nottoway County, VA  |  Apr 6, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 9,980
Union: 1,150
Confederate: 8,830
High Bridge
Cumberland County, VA  |  Apr 6 - 7, 1865
Result: Inconclusive
Est. Casualties: 947
Union: 847
Confederate: 100
Cumberland Church
Farmville, VA  |  Apr 7, 1865
Result: Confederate Victory
Est. Casualties: 900
Union: 645
Confederate: 255
Appomattox Station
Appomattox County, VA  |  Apr 8, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 1,121
Union: 121
Confederate: 1,000
Appomattox Court House
Appomattox County, VA  |  Apr 9, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Est. Casualties: 652
Union: 152
Confederate: 500

Related Battles

Amelia County, Prince Edward County, and Nottoway County, VA | April 6, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Commanders
Forces Engaged
27,500
Union
16,000
Confed.
11,500
Estimated Casualties
9,980
Union
1,150
Confed.
8,830