Excerpts from The Civil War’s Valiant Irish
By James Francis Smith
Short in Stature, Tall in the Saddle
Killenkere, County Cavan Ireland
The following article regarding the author’s grandfather is from a 1928 Anglo Celt newspaper published in County Cavan, Ireland.
… Mr. Matthew Smith, Beagh Upper, Parish of Upr. Killinkere. Mr. Smith resided in Philadelphia until a few years ago, when he returned to the “old home once more,” which is situated within 200 yards of the house in Beagh Upper where the famous General Phil Sheridan, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, was born.
According to the author’s now deceased uncles, his great-grandmother was a Sheridan.
First Lieutenant Phillip H. Sheridan
As he sloshed back to his post at Yamhill, Sheridan’s mood couldn’t get any darker. He had his fill of the never-ending rain and the drudgery of keeping the many Indian tribes under control. Mumbling to himself as he tried to avoid the puddles. “When in Hell is Owen going to arrive?” Sheridan couldn’t remember being more bitter, except the time he was thrown out of West Point for almost thrusting a bayonet into that Virginian, Cadet William R. Terrill—a damn Southerner. “Now those Southern bastards are trying to secede from my adopted country. No mail for weeks, reports of 40,000 killed at someplace called Bull Run, and me stuck in the Oregon Territory, the farthest place from the action an officer can be stationed.”
On his journey, Sheridan decided to stop over at Saint Louis and pay a courtesy call on General Halleck. It never hurt to have friends in high places. A disgusted Sheridan looked at the long-handwritten columns in the ledger books and cursed himself for telling Major General Halleck he had some bookkeeping experience. Now, having straightened out the financial mess left behind by Major General Fremont, Sheridan was stuck at a desk, likely for the duration.
His time enjoying Curtis’s good graces grew short when Sheridan refused to pay officers for horses stolen from local farmers. Instead, the 5’4” Irishman seized the horses as stolen property and kept them for the army. The offended officers brought Sheridan up on charges. He was fortunate to be saved by Halleck from a court-martial, which the irate Curtis demanded. Sheridan made certain the money saved by not paying for the stolen stock went to purchase hundreds of horses.
Pea Ridge, (Elkhorn Tavern) AR, March
After unloading the badly needed supplies, he ordered his teamsters to take the wounded to the rear. Soon, Sheridan felt as though he had never left the Pacific Northwest, for 1,000 Cherokee Indians, attacking with guns, knives, and arrows broke through the Union lines. An opportunity for Curtis to lose his entire army existed—for a time. However, refusing to chase the retreating Federals, the Indians milled around, inspecting the captured guns, and were ultimately scattered by Union artillery, thus stalling the Confederate attack and stopping General Earl Van Dorn’s drive on St. Louis.
Thousands of wounded, interspersed at times by a weary regiment, were being transported north in wagon trains, on horseback, or carried by comrades who looked every bit as exhausted. As the multitude passed, Sheridan began to wonder if his information, crediting a Union Army success, was erroneous. Halleck had informed him that Shiloh, unexpectedly, had turned into the largest battle of the war, making Bull Run and others seem like skirmishes.
Sheridan didn’t kid himself, he looked at himself in the mirror, knew what others said behind his back. Knew the names they called him, “Runt, Little Phil, and Mongolian.” That’s why he had to prove to them, and to himself, that he was the equal of anyone. Whenever he saw something he wanted, he went after it with all he possessed. Now it was 1862, he was no longer willing to sit out the war as a staff desk jockey. He’d find some way to be transferred to a fighting unit.
Stones River (Murfreesboro) TN, December 30th
If it had been anyone except his close friend and West Point classmate, General Sill, Sheridan would have thrown a fit. However, when Sill beckons, Sheridan listens, for his friend is not one to become unduly alarmed. Sill’s concern over hearing continuous noise from clinking canteens coming from beyond his front brought Sheridan to his feet and both men made for the pickets. If Sill was correct in his inference, that Bragg was preparing to attack on their right flank, it could prove to be disastrous—Rosecrans intended an early morning assault on Bragg’s right and had his might stacked on that side of the line. For Sheridan knew if that were to occur, the one who attacked first would have the advantage. After personally confirming the Confederate movement, Sheridan woke General McCook, from a sound sleep on bed of straw near a worm-fence. McCook, after deciding the placement of Johnson’s division could handle the situation, ignored their concerns and went back to sleep.
Still unsettled, Sheridan assigned two reserve divisions to support Sill. Then he warned his regiment commanders to have their men sleep on their arms. Sheridan’s Division breakfasted two hours early, and assembled under arms in the cedar woods. He placed Roberts and Sill’s brigades in front of the artillery, and kept Schaefer’s troops in reserve. Only deadly silence came from the enemy’s front.
Then as daylight broke, Hardee attacked on the extreme right, wheeling left as Johnson’s line broke. This movement forced the demoralized Johnson’s and Davis’ Divisions, who had been on Sheridan’s right, to race for protection behind the Wilkinson Pike. Sheridan withdrew Sill’s brigade, and swung Robert’s brigade on an angle to forestall the enemy’s arc from reaching his rear. Sill’s ferocious musket attack drove the rebels back, and he led a counterattack to take advantage of the situation.
A heartsick Sheridan heard that Sill was killed by a rifle ball passing through his upper lip before penetrating his brain. Mourning would have to wait as the Confederate Cheatham’s Division came up on Sheridan’s right, forcing that flank to give ground. On Sheridan’s order, Robert’s brigade bravely charged into the enemy to cover an orderly withdrawal, purchasing time to allow Sheridan to reposition.
With his ammunition nearly exhausted, and in position to be captured, Sheridan prepared to withdraw. However, orders to hold at all hazards came from Rosecrans to buy time to make new dispositions. Sheridan, realizing his command was being sacrificed to save the army, decided they would not die cheaply. To purchase as much protection as he could, he moved the effectives to a position behind huge slabs of limestone. Then, he ordered his men to fix bayonets and reserve ammunition until the most effective moment. Three assaults were met and repulsed but not without a deadly cost. After delaying the Confederates for two hours, Sheridan stopped to draw breath.
Following the Confederate retreat, Sheridan went over the battle-field collecting his wounded and burying his dead in the cedars they had so fiercely defended. He never felt prouder than the day he heard General Grant’s praise.
“Sheridan saved Rosecrans’ Army.”
Chickamauga, Sept – Nov
“Bout time you got here, I was looking for you at Snodgrass.” The sound of reproof in General Thomas’s voice made Sheridan wary.
Not certain whether the Virginia-born Thomas was serious or being humorous, Sheridan, knowing that Thomas’s loyalty was constantly being questioned, decided the former would be the safer course to assume. “I was on my way with Bradley’s and Lytle’s brigades, when we got to where General Wood should have been, and were run over by Hindman. That’s the second time, Wood wasn’t where I expected him. The same thing happened Tuesday at Lee and Gordon’s Mills. I was sent to relieve Woods, found him gone and Johnny Reb on our side of the Chickamauga. I drove him back at a heavy cost and left Lytle to guard the ford. The rest of the day was quiet in my sector on the right. Wednesday was when I was ordered to join you.”
Sheridan could tell that Thomas had relaxed for a smile cracked his face. “Is that when the “Make way for Sheridan chant took place?”
With this remark, Sheridan became visibly disturbed but relaxed when Thomas reached into his saddle bag, retrieved a flask, and offered him a swig. Thomas’s brandy had a bite which caused Sheridan to hesitate before swallowing. It burnt all the way down, or maybe it felt that way after his spending the most miserable days of the war. For the first time, these two generals felt they could relax with their troops safely within shouting distance of Chattanooga. Each from his own prospective had a need to explain his behavior in the losing effort at Chickamauga. Sheridan let Thomas proceed, expecting him to gloat at having saved the Union Army.
Instead, Thomas surprised him by saying, “Neither of us’ll ever live this defeat down.”
Sheridan shook his head in disbelief. “You have no need to be criticized. You earned your nickname, ‘The Rock of Chickamauga’ and rightfully deserve it.”
“That’s not how Old Rosey’s going to look at it. He’ll remember me as the guy who kept demanding and demanding more reinforcements. He had told me to hold the road to Rossville, and if I’m hard pressed, he’d reinforce me with the entire army. I took him at his word.” “Can’t blame it on McCook, with all the forces he sent, he was stretched to the breaking point.” Then realizing that Thomas would take this remark as an insult, Sheridan quickly changed the topic. “This was not Rosecrans’ day, and he knows it. You got hit ferociously by that lawyer-fellow, Cleburne. Rosecran had no choice but to push everybody north. We would have all done the same. Where Old Rosy made his mistake, was refusing to believe Longstreet had arrived.”
Thomas gulped a brandy before declaring. “He should have. When Bradley’s brigade retook the 8th Indiana’s battery, he captured a large number of Longstreet’s men. We knew he had arrived. Hell, I even sent a captive from Longstreet over to him. Rosecran didn’t believe him, called him a liar.”
Sheridan took another swig of brandy before continuing. “Between the dense woods, scattered hills, and dense underbrush, there was no place to observe more than the troops directly in front. The only orders that got through were those delivered by a messenger on a swift horse.”
Upon clearing the timber, Sheridan’s division waded through a violent barrage of shot and shell. As they closed in on the rifle-pits, the Confederate artillery changed from shot to grape and canister, followed by unyielding musket fire by the awaiting Rebels. Stung by earlier taunts from both Hooker’s and Longstreet’s men over their failure at Chickamauga, Sheridan added fuel to their humiliation by reminding them of that lost battle. “Chickamauga” roared from the throats of thousands as they surged forward.
Sheridan’s three brigades were among the first to overrun the lower level pits. Instead of holding their position and fighting hand-to-hand, the Butternuts turned and fled up the steep slope toward the safety of the crest. Those in the pit above had to hold their fire lest they hit their own men.
Sheridan’s troops had reached the target, overrun the first line of pits and lay down on the mountain’s face. As Sheridan had feared, their exposed position, left them vulnerable to the steady fire from above. Instead of halting at the lower level, Francis Sherman’s and Harker’s brigades continued up the slope. Arthur McArthur, yelling “On Wisconsin,” led the charge of the 24th Wisconsin and planted the colors on the crest. Sheridan arrived at the center with orders to halt or to carry the ridge if he thought it feasible. Wagner’s men cheered as he gave them permission to continue their assault.
Sheridan looked left and saw a single regiment from Wood’s division lay down just below the crest and that Hazen’s men were also ascending. Being closest to the crest, the right and left of Sheridan’s division were the first to cross over just to the right of Bragg’s Headquarters.
Sheridan, arriving at the top, spotted a large wagon train and pieces of artillery fleeing across the valley. While others employed themselves with gathering artillery, Sheridan ordered his men to press the enemy’s rear guard and capture as much of the train as possible. The pursuit continued until two PM.
Despite the glory earned by driving Bragg from the heights of Missionary Ridge, Sheridan ended with a sour memory. While he and his men were chasing Bragg’s wagon train, General Hazen claimed 11 of the guns that Sheridan’s men had captured.
“How would Sheridan do?” Before Lincoln could ask, “Who is Sheridan?” Grant continued. “A little man with scant experience in the cavalry, but an aggressive leader who’ll sit tall in the saddle.” Then as though the image of having Sheridan grew on him, Grant announced: “The very man I want.” The matter seemed to be settled as Halleck and Grant shook hands. Lincoln had little choice but to add his agreement.
With Grant away, Sheridan’s meeting with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was cold and formal. Sheridan weighting in at a mere 115-pounds then met with the long-legged President, who read Grant’s dissatisfied critique of Army of Potomac cavalry before attempting a stale joke. “Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?”
The meeting was followed by a review of his new command, a review which sickened Sheridan. Rethinking Lincoln’s uncalled for attempt at humor made Sheridan angry at how his cavalry had been treated.
General Meade considered the cavalry as nothing more than mounted guards, destined to ride circles around armed infantry who didn’t need protection. The horses weren’t only undertrained, overused, sickly, underfed, and mistreated, so were the men. Six thousand horses, worn out by overuse were lost monthly to either combat or disease … 6,000. A practice Sheridan vowed to end
Phillip Sheridan has come east to head up the cavalry. Lincoln’s not overly impressed, said, ‘He’s the only person who can stand and scratch his ankles without bending over.’”
Overland Campaign – The Wilderness, May 5-7
If those who were complaining about reentering the Wilderness weren’t hard-core veterans, Sheridan would have scoffed at their imaginary fears. However once he had reconnoitered the tract of land, he came away, determined to avoid taking his cavalry into that jungle of widow-makers. By studying the landscape, Sheridan sensed the earlier failure of Hooker in the Wilderness was not entirely due to his lack of leadership but to the foolish commitment of troops to ferret out a hidden enemy in an unconquerable terrain.
In the densest vegetation the Irishman had yet encountered, roads were almost nonexistent and the trails were concealed by twisted and dense vegetation. The second growth stunted oaks and pines never reached sufficient maturity to crowd out the thickets of thorny-vine that covered everything but the few roads that penetrated the unending semi-dark marshes. He knew instantly—this was a killing trap for horses and no place for an invading army. An almost invisible defender could easily hug the ground and shoot anything that moved.
For once, the normally combative Sheridan was content to be responsible only for insuring Meade’s army safe passage across the Rapidan and would not be forced to take the lead in the coming offensive. He deduced that Grant’s plan to bull through this twelve- by eight-mile stretch of Hell in less than a day was feasible … but only … if Lee would cooperate and not be lying in wait. Should there be a halt, even one of a few hours, leading to a night camp in the Wilderness, a certain victory could turn into an unimaginable defeat.
In the meantime, Sheridan had to content himself with locating JEB Stuart and preventing the Confederate cavalry from sniping at the Union’s flanks destroying the over 5,000 wagons and ambulances in the 70-mile-long supply train.
Spottsylvania, May 9-24
Knowing that only Grant could keep Sheridan in his place, Meade approached the commanding general for help. Instead of supporting him and ordering the insubordinate officer arrested, as he had done during a similar situation regarding Brigadier General Griffin, Grant showed admiration for Sheridan’s bluster. “Well he generally knows what he’s talking about. Let him start out and do it.”
With the armies ensnarled near Spottsylvania, Meade saw no need for the cavalry, therefore, to get rid of the irritation, he ordered Sheridan to assemble his available mounted force and proceed against the enemy’s cavalry.
That night Sheridan shared his plans with his three division commanders. “Draw three days rations for the men and half ration of grain for the horses. We’ll advance against Richmond at a leisurely pace so as not to wear out the horses. Stuart’ll have no choice but to follow. We’ll feint an attack on their capital to draw him into a fight, then we’ll wipe him out. Our goal is to destroy the Confederate cavalry, supply depots, and railroads. Now get some sleep, we’ve hard riding ahead.”
Looking back along Telegraph Road at the trailing 13-mile long, 10,000 strong, three divisions, and their 32-guns, he decided they were not a reconnaissance in strength; they were an invading army on horseback. There’s not a cavalry in the entire south strong enough to stop us. His first targets were the Virginia Central Railroad and Lee’s advance supply base at Beaver Dam. Knowing Stuart would have little choice but to follow, he kept the movement moving forward, attacks on his column were flecked off as one would drive away annoying fleas. More than satisfied and at a leisurely pace, Sheridan headed for Richmond, knowing Stuart’d have to wear out his horses to get between the advancing army and the Southern Capital. While passing Ashland Station, an additional six miles of track were destroyed.
JEB Stuart rushed among his men to rally them while the 1st Virginia Cavalry drove Custer’s men back. He was returning when a dismounted private, John A. Huff of the 5th Michigan Cavalry fired his pistol.
“I am shot.” Stuart yelled as his horse was led to the rear. He yelled at those passing his ambulance, “Go back! Go back! Do your duty as I have done mine. I would rather die than be whipped.”
Fitz Lee took over as part of his command fled, but he lacked the manpower to stop Sheridan. Two brigades held briefly against two Union Divisions before retreating across the Chickamominy.
His return to North Ana brought nothing but good natured ribbing from Grant. Who joked about it being impossible for Sheridan to have traveled that distance, gotten a peek at Richmond, destroyed tons of supplies, a half-dozen Locomotives, and killed the elusive Stuart. Then turning a bit more serious, Grant thanked him for leaving Torbert behind. Torbert, upon departing the hospital, rounded up the available cavalry and drove the Confederates across the Mattapony River while capturing both the wagon-road and the railroad bridges.
Following which, Grant told Sheridan what he expected next. Sheridan had his work cut out. During the following weeks, he collided with Hampton at Haw’s Shop and put him to flight, drove Fitz Lee back to Cold Harbor, then attacked and occupied it when Meade ordered him to hold at all hazards. Putting their repeating rifles to good effect, Sheridan’s men hung on against two attacks by superior forces. Wright finally arrived, following an all-night march to add support.
While the Sheridan’s forces held Cold Harbor, the attacks against a heavily fortified works west of the city cost the Union 7,000 casualties in less than eight minutes. Grant later confessed to Sheridan that Cold Harbor assault bothered him more than any other he had ever ordered.
Early’s winnin’ in the Shenandoah. Lincoln wants to send Meade there, but Grant named Phil Sheridan.
Once again Sheridan found he wasn’t among Lincoln’s favorites. Perhaps it was due to the Crater fiasco, maybe Early’s attempted raid on the capital, or that Lincoln, facing reelection, can not afford another defeat. With those thoughts in mind, Sheridan listened as Lincoln pointed out his shortcomings, his youthfulness and impetuousness. For a time, Sheridan wondered if he were about to be demoted. Then the President got to the reason why he had been summoned. Over Lincoln’s objections, Grant wanted Sheridan to head the army in the Shenandoah. Finally the President admitted to giving in, but not before he had the opportunity to admonish Sheridan. He had to avoid being defeated and avoid ‘all coercive measures.’
Next Sheridan met with Grant at Monocacy Junction, and received a copy of orders originally prepared for General Hunter … orders that were the opposite of those given by the President.
Later on the train to the Shenandoah, Sheridan reread Grant’s orders and underlined those that were to be the heart of his upcoming campaign:
… it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy. It is not desirable that buildings be destroyed-they should be protected
Sheridan arrived at Harpers Ferry with the intent to follow Early to the death. His first meeting with Lieutenant Meigs, the chief engineer, was to study maps and learn all he could about the topographic layout of the valley, a practice that paid dividends.
Winchester, Sept. 18
Sheridan knew that battles were often won by solid intelligence, and he meant to obtain such before he sacrificed his men in an attack on the entrenched Early. This time the information came from two non-combatants: Thomas laws, a Negro vegetable huckster, had obtained a pass signed by Early permitting him to enter Winchester to hawk his wares. Rebecca Wright, a Quaker schoolteacher and Union sympathizer, resided in Winchester. Sheridan put both potential informants to use by sending a tinfoil-wrapped message, which Wright carried in his mouth ready to be swallowed if necessary.
Sheridan was prepared to begin his campaign to annihilate Early and his army. Initially his plans went awry when Wright’s ammunition train clogged Berryville Pike. To relieve the blockage, Sheridan ordered Wright’s wagons flung into ditches alongside the pike.
Sheridan had kept Russell’s division in reserve. He now called it forward to hit the Confederate flank, which drove them back to their original position. Tobert taking advantage of level ground ordered a cavalry charge which broke the Confederate left. Next, Sheridan had Crook and Duval attack and turn Gordon’s left. Merritt’s cavalry brigades led by Custer, Lowell, and Devin, fighting with both saber and pistol, overran a battery of five guns and captured 1200-prisoners. Simultaneously, while Wright broke through Rhodes line forcing the entire Confederate Army to fall back, Crook struck from the right. Panic took over and Early’s army sought their escape through Winchester. Finally Sheridan decided his army was fighting like an army should.
Fisher Hill, September 22
To keep Early distracted, Sheridan had five divisions under Wright and Emory firing artillery as though they were preparing a frontal attack. At four PM, charging into the flank of dismounted cavalry, Crook sent them fleeing. Meanwhile, Wright’s divisions crossed Tumbling Run Creek to join in the melee as Early’s left crumbled. Astride Rienz, his black charger, Sheridan shouted encouragement. “Forward! Forward everything! Don’t stop. Go on. If you can’t run, then holler!” As thrilling these two victories were to Lincoln and Grant, Sheridan was livid because he hadn’t caught Early in his well-conceived plan.
Laying to waste the Shenandoah Valley
The citizens of the Shenandoah became his next target. Crops and livestock were seized, fields, barns, and railroads destroyed. The land made untenable for survival, let alone to supply the Confederate Army.
Regarding the guerrillas, whom Sheridan didn’t recognize as a legitimate part of the Confederate Army, per Grant’s instructions he ordered them ‘hung without trial’. Mosby, who held a commission as a cavalry officer in the Confederate Army, retaliated in a like manner. For what some claimed to be outright murder, the Union cavalry’s reprisal consisted of scorching an area 20 by 40 miles. Some 2,000-barns, 70-grain mills were put to flame and 4,000-head of cattle driven off, with over 3,000-sheep slaughtered. Towns, such as Dayton, were destroyed in “The Burning.” After Rosser’s renowned Laurel Cavalry Brigade was put to flight in what the Union called “The Woodstock Races,” Sheridan’s army bivouacked near Cedar Creek.
Sheridan Saves the Army
Cedar Creek, October 18
The sporadic artillery wasn’t what bothered Sheridan. It was the women of Winchester standing at their doors and windows defiantly waving their skirts. Wondering if once again the civilian clothesline communication had outstripped his couriers, Sheridan dismounted, and using a trick he had learned when fighting Indians in the Pacific Northwest, put his ear to the ground. The sound of racing horses and stamping of thousands of feet made the bile from a yet to be digested breakfast rise in his throat. Something had happened to his army, and he became determined to find out what. Putting the whip to Rienzi, he pondered the circumstances as he raced ahead of his staff and the 300-strong escort of Pennsylvania’s 17th Cavalry. His curiosity overcame his need for caution, and accompanied by two of the staff, 20 of the Pennsylvanians, and his standard bearer, he raced on to locate the battle. The others were assigned to collecting stragglers and moving toward whatever dangers lie ahead.
Waving his hat as he passed panic stricken infantry, he urged them to turn and follow. To his everlasting pride, most did. Men drinking coffee, threw the liquid on the ground and screamed his name as he waved his hat, yelling: “About face boys! We’re going back to our camps. We’re gonna lick them outta’ their boots.” After being told of Sheridan’s remark, Emory told his men. “We might as well whip them today. If we don’t we’ll have to do it tomorrow. Sheridan will get it out of us sometime.”
All the guns lost in the morning rout were recovered, along with 25 of Early’s. Custer’s and Merritt’s cavalry kept pressure on the fleeing Rebels, who first stopped at Fisher’s Hill, then abandoning that position retreated toward New Market.
The Chicago Tribune celebrated with headlines proclaiming, “The Nation Rings with Praises of Phil Sheridan.” Sheridan’s ride took on a life of its own, and he commemorated the occasion by renaming Rienzi, “Winchester.” Poets, such as T. Buchanan Read, took up the challenge and included Rienzi’s thoughts in his work.
I have brought you Sheridan, all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.
“I’ve been trading with Grant, offering the carrot of destroying the Virginia Central if he’ll invite us to join him in Virginia. I’m also trying to avoid being sent to North Carolina to help Sherman. Lee is our target, and I want to be in on the kill.”
. I’ve been trading with Grant, offering the carrot of destroying the Virginia Central if he’ll invite us to join him in Virginia. I’m also trying to avoid being sent to North Carolina to help Sherman. Lee is our target, and I want to be in on the kill. The washed out roads, swollen rivers, and light Confederate resistance proved no match for the determined Sheridan. That is, until he received intel that Early with some 2,000 had moved to Waynesboro to prevent Sheridan from adding his muscle of 10,000-cavalry to Grant’s Army. Again the aggressiveness of being Irish overrode the taking of an easier route. Instead of heading toward Lynchburg, Sheridan chose to confront Early, a move that brought him closer to Grant and further from Sherman.
Five Forks, April 1
Sheridan knew that the upcoming battle at Five Forks was pivotal, for if Pickett’s force could be destroyed, then Richmond would fall. Sheridan took direct command. He arrived to find several regiments retiring in disorder. After reassuring the men and reestablishing the line, Sheridan ordered Joshua Chamberlain, one of the heroes of Little Round Top, into the breach between Ayres’s division and Merritt. Then Sheridan remained with Ayres during the battle. Sheridan, personally, rounded up hundreds of rebels, “Go right over there. Drop your guns; you’ll never need them anymore.”
Before the day’s end, 7,000 prisoners, over 10% of Lee’s available force, were taken. At the Battle of Five Forks, the back of the Confederate resistance was broken.
Appomattox, April 7th to 9th
Knowing from an intercepted message that Lee had requested 300,000 rations be sent to Burkeville Junction from Lynchburg and Danville. Sheridan saw an opportunity to obtain supplies his hungry troops badly needed, and at the same time, withhold them from Lee’s starving army. To accomplish this, he ordered Custer to intercept the supplies. Next, he had scouts ride to the Burkeville telegraph station and resend the message as it had been originally written. Custer destroyed an undefended portion of the wagon train. The attack created a massive traffic jam, isolating Ewell’s Army. Sheridan ordered Wright to attack from the rear while the cavalry hit the front. Although the enemy fought “like a tiger at bay,” in the end Sheridan bagged six generals (Ewell, Kershaw, Barton, Corse, Dubose, and Robert E. Lee’s son Curtis) along with 10,000 prisoners.
As he planned a massive counter attack, a message from Custer arrived, advising Sheridan that Lee was finished:
“Lee has surrendered; do not charge; the white flag is up. I met with Gordon and demanded an immediate and unconditional surrender in your name, but he sent me to Longstreet who insisted on meeting with you. Fitz Lee’s cavalry took off, hoping to avoid surrendering.”
The ever belligerent Sheridan, instead of being thrilled with the news clinched his fist.
“I’ve got them like that. I wish they had held out for an hour longer and I would have whipped the hell out of them.”
The Surrender, April 9th
Wilmer McLean’s Parlor
The tall, composed Lee, wearing a sword, was dressed in his finest uniform while the short, mud splattered Grant arrived with neither insignia nor sword. After the introductions, Sheridan, Ord, and nearly all of Grant’s staff withdrew. Shortly thereafter, Babcock of Lee’s staff called to them. “The surrender has been made. You can come in again.”
The dejected Lee admitted that his army was starving, but he had sent for rations. “I telegraphed to Lynchburg, directing several train loads of rations to be sent….”
There was a stir among the listeners, and they looked at Sheridan, for, unknown to Lee, he had captured the rations that had come down from Lynchburg. Sheridan maintained his silence so as not to further add to Lee’s distress.