The Chase Begins

The night of April 2-3, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, march about forty miles west along different routes, and reassemble at Amelia Courthouse. The ultimate goal was to escape to Danville or Lynchburg, unite with Gen. Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina, and deal the Union army a stunning defeat. But the most pressing issue for Lee was the need for food, so Lee ordered supply trains to head for Amelia Courthouse as well.

Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant knew that direct assaults upon Lee’s entrenchment at Petersburg would cost many thousands of casualties. Instead, Grant’s strategy was to force Lee’s army out from its cover into the open where they could be be pursued and, hopefully forced to surrender. It was Maj. Gen Phil Sheridan’s job to ride west along a route parallel to, but south of Lee’s, and prevent Lee from turning south toward Danville or Lynchburg. Union infantry, including the Seconds Corps, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteers would chase Lee’s army from behind. (Click for Wikipedia map.)

The Confederates marched into Amelia Courthouse on April 4, but no wagon trains loaded with rations had arrived. The following day, on empty bellies, Lee’s men marched south, but soon came upon Sheridan’s troopers. Lee ordered his weary troops to march another twenty miles to Farmville on the South Side Railroad where surely, there would be rations for the men, and feed for the animals.

Once again, Sheridan spoiled Lee’s plans. Most of Lee’s army crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, but Sheridan trapped about 18,000 Confederates (about one fourth of Lee’s total strength) south of the river. In the Battle of Sailor’s (Sayler’s Creek), Sheridan lost about a thousand men, but Lee lost four generals captured, including Richard Ewell, almost 8,000 men taken prisoner, and unknown numbers killed or wounded.

Despite the high drama that was being played out a few miles west of them, this cryptic chronicle of those few days appears in the regimental history: “At two o’clock (a.m.) April 4th, the march was resumed and rations were served until the regiment marched forward. It rained some during the day and a train of wagons and some prisoners were captured.” (Could the 14th Connecticut captured one of the wagon trains Lee was waiting for?) “April 5th the regiment started early and marched all day, being out as skirmishers, driving the Rebels continuously and taking some prisoners. At night the regiment went out on picket.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Fourteenth Connecticut’s final battle of the war.

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