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American Civil War: Battle of Sayler's Creek

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American Civil War: Battle of Sayler's Creek

Major General Philip H. Sheridan, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Sayler's Creek: Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Sayler's Creek (Sailor's Creek) was fought April 6, 1865, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Sayler's Creek Background:

In the wake of the Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, General Robert E. Lee was driven out of Petersburg by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Also forced to abandon Richmond, Lee's army began retreating west with the ultimate goal of re-supplying and moving south into North Carolina to join with General Joseph Johnston. Marching through the night of April 2/3 in several columns, the Confederates intended to rendezvous at Amelia Court House where supplies and rations were expected. As Grant was forced to pause to occupy Petersburg and Richmond, Lee was able to put some space between the armies.

Arriving at Amelia on April 4, Lee found trains loaded with munitions but none with food. Forced to pause, Lee sent out forage parties, asked the local populace for aid, and ordered food sent east from Danville along the railroad. Having secured Richmond and Petersburg, Grant tasked Major General Philip Sheridan with leading the pursuit of Lee. Moving west, Sheridan's Cavalry Corps and attached infantry fought several rearguard actions with the Confederates and rode ahead in an effort to cut the railroad in front of Lee. Learning that Lee was concentrating at Amelia, he began moving his men towards the town.

Having lost his lead on Grant's men and believing his delay to be fatal, Lee departed Amelia on April 5 despite securing little food for his men. Retreating west along the railroad towards Jetersville, he soon found that Sheridan's men had arrived there first. Stunned as this development precluded a direct march to North Carolina, Lee elected not to attack due to the late hour and instead conducted a night march to the north around the Union left with the goal of reaching Farmville where he believed supplies to be waiting. This movement was spotted around dawn and Union troops resumed their pursuit (Map).

Battle of Sayler's Creek - Setting the Stage:

Pushing west, the Confederate column was led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet's combined First and Third Corps, followed by Lieutenant General Richard Anderson's small corps, and then Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Reserve Corps which possessed the army's wagon train. Major General John B. Gordon's Second Corps acted as the rear guard. Harassed by Sheridan's troopers, they were also closely followed by Major General Andrew Humphrey's II Corps and Major General Horatio Wright's VI Corps. As the day progressed a gap opened between Longstreet and Anderson which was exploited by the Union cavalry.

Correctly guessing that future attacks were likely, Ewell sent the wagon train along a more northern route west. It was followed by Gordon who was under pressure from Humphrey's approaching troops. Crossing Little Sayler's Creek, Ewell assumed a defensive position along a ridge west of the creek. Blocked by Sheridan's cavalry, which was approaching from the south, Anderson was forced to deploy southwest of Ewell. In a dangerous position, the two Confederate commands were nearly back-to-back. Building up strength opposite Ewell, Sheridan and Wright opened fire with 20 guns around 5:15 PM.

Battle of Sayler's Creek - The Cavalry Strikes:

Lacking guns of his own, Ewell was forced to endure this bombardment until Wright's troops started advancing around 6:00 PM. During this time, Major General Wesley Merritt began a series of probing attacks against Anderson's position. After several small-scale advances were turned back, Sheridan and Merritt increased the pressure. Advancing with three cavalry divisions armed with Spencer carbines, Merritt's men succeeded in engaging Anderson's line in close combat and overwhelming his left flank. As Anderson's left disintegrated, his line collapsed and his men fled the field.

Battle of Sayler's Creek - The Hillsman Farm:

Unaware that his line of retreat was being cut by Merritt, Ewell prepared to engage Wright's advancing VI Corps. Moving forward from their position near the Hillsman Farm, the Union infantry struggled across rain-swollen Little Sayler's Creek before reforming and attacking. In the course of the advance, the Union center outdistanced the units on its flanks and took the brunt of the Confederate fire. Wavering, it was driven back by a small Confederate force led by Major Robert Stiles. This pursuit was halted by the Union artillery (Map).

Battle of Sayler's Creek - Lockett Farm:

Reforming, VI Corps again advanced and succeeded in overlapping the flanks of Ewell's line. In bitter fighting, Wright's troops succeeded in collapsing Ewell's line capturing around 3,400 men and routing the rest. Among the prisoners were six Confederate generals including Ewell. As Union troops were achieving victory near the Hillman Farm, Humphrey's II Corps closed on Gordon and the Confederate wagon train a few miles north near the Lockett Farm. Assuming a position along the eastern rim of a small valley, Gordon sought cover the wagons as they crossed the "Double Bridges" over Sayler's Creek at the valley floor.

Unable to handle the heavy traffic, the bridges caused a bottleneck leading to the wagons stacking up in the valley. Arriving on the scene, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys' II Corps deployed and began attacking around dusk. Steadily driving Gordon's men back, the Union infantry took the ridge and the fighting continued among the wagons. Under heavy pressure and with Union troops working around his left flank, Gordon retreated to the west side of the valley having lost around 1,700 captured and 200 wagons. As dark descended, the fighting petered out and Gordon began retreating west towards High Bridge (Map).

Aftermath of the Battle of Sayler's Creek

While Union casualties for the Battle of Sayler's Creek numbered around 1,150, the Confederate forces engaged lost around 7,700 killed, wounded, and captured. Effectively the death knell of the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate losses at Sayler's Creek represented approximately a quarter of Lee's remaining strength. Riding out from Rice's Depot, Lee saw the survivors of Ewell's and Anderson's corps streaming west and exclaimed, "My God, has the army dissolved?" Consolidating his men at Farmville early on April 7, Lee was able to partially re-provision his men before being forced out by early afternoon. Pushed west and eventually cornered at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his army on April 9.

Selected Sources

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