The city fathers of Petersburg surrender their rebel town to a war correspondent
Before it was fairly light on the morning of March 29th 1865, Meade, Ord and Sheridan had all broken camp, and the army was once more in motion. Sheridan’s cavalry, nine thousand strong reached Dinwiddie before dark, and camped for the night. On the morning of the 31st he held Five Forks, but was obliged to fall back temporarily.
After breakfast on the 29th, Grant and most of the staff left for the front, distant about twenty miles. I remained behind till the middle of the afternoon, and then accompanied by George Alfred Townsend (“Gath”) rode to Gen. Meade’s headquarters for the night. On the 30th, Meade’s and Grant’s headquarters were within a half mile of each other on Gravelly Run, and remained there till Richmond and Petersburg were evacuated on the night of May 2d.
Warren’s Fifth Corps advanced on White Oak road, [Samuel W.] Crawford’s Division leading the attack. It was severely repulsed in the forenoon and driven back in great confusion. While Crawford was attempting to reform and renew the fighting, Gen. Warren rode up white with rage, and without waiting for explanations, commenced the most abusive tirade on Crawford that a mortal ever listened to. He called him every vile name at his command, in the presence of officers and privates, and totally forgot what was due to his self-respect as an officer and a gentleman. Crawford sat on his horse, stolid as a block of marble, and so far as I can remember, did not utter a syllable in reply. When he had emptied his last vial of abuse on Crawford, Warren rode away, and I never saw him afterwards.
That afternoon Sheridan rode to Grant’s headquarters to see about the infantry reinforcements which had been promised him, to retake Five Forks, destroy [George E.] Pickett’s command, and thus completely turn the enemy’s right flank. He had asked for Wright’s Sixth Corps to be sent to his assistance. But Grant had other work laid out for Wright and notified Sheridan that Warren would be sent to him. To this Sheridan had strong objections and came to headquarters to express them.
His plea was that the Sixth Corps had been with his cavalry in the Shenandoah Campaign; officers and men knew and trusted each other; that the Fifth Corps were strangers; and when hard pressed said he had no confidence in Warren, under such circumstances. He would not like to be subordinated to him (Sheridan) and he expected nothing but trouble. Grant explained to him the impossibility of moving Wright so far within the time required, whereas Warren was on our extreme left but a few miles from Five Forks, and was, on every account the suitable one to be detached for that service. Noting Sheridan’s dissatisfied countenance, Grant said: “Gen. Warren will be ordered to report to you for duty,” speaking slowly and emphasizing every word.
Warren was ordered to move to Sheridan’s support on the night of March gist, so as to cooperate with Sheridan by nine o’clock next morning, at the latest. He reported to Sheridan about eleven o’clock in the forenoon of April 1st, but his corps did not arrive on the field, so as to go into battle, till late in the afternoon. All this time Sheridan was waiting, fuming, and fighting. The chances of success were growing fainter hourly. The enemy was changing his position, and might escape unhurt.
To add to this Sheridan’s aides who had been sent to hurry up Warren’s infantry, and lead them into position, claimed to have received scant courtesy on delivering their orders; and when Warren’s Corps finally arrived, instead of moving forward into line as ordered by Sheridan, it was halted until Warren actually rode over the ground to inspect it personally, as if distrusting Sheridan’s judgment, and rebelling against his authority. Warren’s tardy arrival, his apparent unwillingness to render cheerful obedience so incensed Sheridan that he removed him from command on the spot, sent him to the rear to await orders and placed Gen. Griffin, next in rank, in command. The whole corps was rushed into battle and nothing but the lateness of the attack prevented the capture of the entire rebel force.
There is no doubt but his removal from command of the corps with which he had been so long identified, came like a clap of thunder to Gen. Warren. I have reason to know that such a possibility had never entered his mind. He had a good opinion of himself, and so far as such thoughts ever projected themselves into his reflections, considered his position as secure as that of Meade, Sheridan, or even Grant. And for a while afterward, he never seemed to doubt that he would be vindicated, restored to command, and Sheridan be in some manner reprimanded for his action. It was a pitiful chapter in the war; and Gen. Warren was driven to a premature grave, as his friends always believed, by what he felt to be an undeserved punishment. The close of the war turned public attention away from individual cases. Grant, Sheridan, Sherman and others were the popular idols, and many deserving officers and men were overlooked and forgotten.
Late in the afternoon of April 1st, I returned from the Union front, tired, muddy and hungry. Gen. Grant said his staff were all away on duty, scattered in all directions, and asked me if I felt equal to a ride to City Point. I answered in the affirmative, as a matter of course. He said Sheridan had just sent him a number of regimental and Confederate battle flags, captured during the day at Five Forks, which he wished me to carry to the President, with his compliments, as an evidence of the good work which had been done in that quarter. I swallowed a hasty lunch, changed my saddle to the back of my favorite horse which had been held in reserve for any unexpected emergency, and soon mounted and started, with a heavy armful of captured colors. The roads were execrable, filled with moving troops and trains, and the ride a distressing one to myself and horse.
Reaching the City Point landing between sundown and dark, Mr. Lincoln (who had been notified of my coming by telegraph) sent his tug to the shore, and on its return met me at the hatchway of the lower deck with a beaming countenance and outstretched arms. As soon as I could convey my orders, he seized the flags, unfurled them one by one, and burst out: “Here is something material—something I can see, feel, and understand. This is victory.”
Taking me up into the after cabin of the River Queen , he had me repeat over and over, my message from Gen. Grant—what I knew about affairs at the front—what I had personally witnessed—and manifested the joy of a schoolboy, as I narrated each bit of good news. Turning to some large maps spread out on the tables, where he had marked the lines of Union and Confederate forces with red-headed and blackheaded pins, with such changes as our rapid movements had made to the date of his last dispatch from the front, he asked me to go over them with him, and correct them, wherever I knew them to be faulty. An hour or two was spent with him, when I went ashore; saw my horse attended to; stretched myself on a cot for rest, and sleep if possible; gave strict orders to be called at a certain hour; and was at headquarters again on Gravelly Run soon after daylight, April 2d.
Sometime during the day of April 2d, headquarters were moved up to within four or five miles of the Petersburg public square. By night of that day, the entire outer line of the city’s intrenchments, had [been] carried by our troops, and the Union army lay strongly posted from the Appomattox river below Petersburg, to the river above it. Sheridan had cut off large detachments of rebel troops, as he followed up his victory at Five Forks, which had been driven up the river towards Burkesville Junction, or across it to join Lee towards Richmond. Our troops went into camp at night, with orders to assault everywhere as soon after daylight next morning, as they could be put in motion.
The noise and commotion in Petersburg that night, gave positive assurance that Gen. Lee was evacuating. I started into the city alone, on the morning of April 3d, at daylight. When I reached the head of the main street leading to the center of the city from that side, I saw a procession of old men, in homespun, butternut clothing, coming towards me on the sidewalk, bearing an improvised flag of truce that looked suspiciously like a dirty linen table cloth. They came along at a sober gait, as if attending a funeral. Seeing me approaching, with staff equipments on my horse, they faced to the curbstone, made an awkward attempt to give me a military salute, when their spokesman began a pompous official address, stating: “That on behalf of the municipal government, and the people of the City of Petersburg, he had the honor of tendering the formal surrender of the place, &c., &c.”
The hour, the place, the simple ignorance of these town councilmen—for such they declared themselves to be—the apparent honesty of their intentions—their mistake in supposing such an humble individual as myself to be in position to receive the surrender of a city—conspired to make it the most ridiculous event of my life. They were very slow to believe that so jaunty and self-possessed a horseman as I evidently was that morning, was not clothed with a large measure of military and civil authority.
With more impatience of manner, perhaps, than their simplicity deserved, I told them I should have been glad to have met them on that errand at any time for many months last past; but it was now too late—that we were already in possession of the city—no surrender had been asked for, nor would be formally received by Gen. Grant, or anyone else—and advised them to hurry to their respective domiciles—to remain closely in their own premises—and there await future events. “But,” they enquired, “was property not to be respected and the rights of unarmed citizens observed?” I was obliged to ride away from their questionings and protests. By the time I reached Jarratt’s Hotel, Union cavalry were swarming through the streets, soon followed by infantry, and thus I have always jestingly claimed, this celebrated rebel stronghold was officially surrendered to me.