- Historic Sites
This Is Victory
The city fathers of Petersburg surrender their rebel town to a war correspondent
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
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.