Appomattox, Virginia Campaign of the Civil War

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, by Major and Knapp

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, by Major and Knapp

Army of Northern Virginia

Army of Northern Virginia

The Appomattox Campaign was a series of Civil War battles fought in Virginia between March 29 and April 9, 1865, that concluded with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to forces of the Union Army under the command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the war.

After Sheridan’s Expedition to Petersburg ended, General Lee’s army was outnumbered and exhausted from a winter of trench warfare over an approximately 40-mile front, numerous battles, disease, hunger, and desertion. In the meantime, General Grant’s well-equipped and well-fed army was growing in strength.

General William T. Sherman, John Chester, 1800s

General William T. Sherman, by John Chester, 1800s

However, Lee’s concern stretched beyond the Confederate capital to Federal actions elsewhere in the south. By February of 1865, two federal armies, one under Major General William T. Sherman and the other under Major General John M. Schofield, were moving through the Carolinas. If not stopped, these armies could sever Virginia from the rest of the south, and if they joined Grant at Petersburg, Lee’s men would face four armies instead of two.

Realizing the danger, Lee wrote the Confederate Secretary of War on February 8, 1865:

“You must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”

By the time he wrote this letter, Lee knew he would have to abandon the Petersburg lines; the only question was when. Muddy roads and the poor condition of the horses forced the Confederates to remain in the trenches throughout March.

By the time this final campaign for Richmond began, three of the four railroads into Petersburg had been cut. The South Side Railroad remained the only means of rail transportation into Confederate lines. Once severed, the Army of Northern Virginia would have no other choice but to evacuate the capitol.

Ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Depot at Richmond, Virginia, 1865.

Ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Depot at Richmond, Virginia, 1865.

General Grant, in the meantime, seized the initiative and started giving orders. On March 29, 1865, the Union Army began an offensive that stretched and broke the Confederate defenses southwest of Petersburg and cut their supply lines to Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.

On April 1, 1865, 21,000 Federal troops smashed the 11,000 men Confederate force under Major General George Pickett at a vital road junction known locally as Five Forks. Grant followed up this victory with an all-out offensive against Confederate lines on April 2, winning the Third Battle of Petersburg.

With his supply lines cut, General Lee had no choice but to order Richmond and Petersburg evacuated on the night of April 2-3. Moving by previously determined routes, Confederate columns left the trenches they had occupied for ten months. Their immediate objective was to reach the Amelia Court House, where forces from Richmond and Petersburg would concentrate and receive rations sent from Richmond. Once his army was reassembled, Lee planned to march down the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad with the hope of meeting General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee coming from North Carolina. The two Confederate armies could establish a defensive line near the Roanoke River and assume the offensive against Sherman.

Confederate Troops

Confederate Troops

The march from Richmond and Petersburg started well enough as many of the Confederates, including Lee, seemed exhilarated at being in the field once again. However, after the first day’s march, signs of weariness and hunger began to appear. When Lee reached Amelia Court House on April 4, he found, to his dismay, that the rations for his men had not arrived. Although a rapid march was crucial, the hungry men of the Army of Northern Virginia needed supplies. While awaiting the arrival of troops from Richmond, delayed by flood conditions, Lee decided to halt the march and send wagons into the countryside to gather provisions. But, local farmers had little to give, and the wagons returned practically empty.

The immediate result of this delay at Amelia was a lost day of marching, which allowed the pursuing Federals time to catch up, and Amelia proved to be the campaign’s turning point.

Leaving the Amelia Court House on April 5, the columns of Lee’s army had traveled only a few miles before they found Union cavalry and infantry squarely across their line of march through Jetersville and on toward Danville and Johnston’s Army.

High bridge near Farmville, Virginia by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1865.

High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1865.

Rather than attack the entrenched federal position, Lee changed his plan. He would march his army west, around the Federals, and attempt to supply his troops at Farmville along the route of the South Side Railroad. The retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia was under constant Federal pressure, and Lee hoped that he could put the rain-swollen Appomattox River between his army and the Union troops. Grant realizing the essential nature of the “High Bridge” near Farmville, had dispatched a bridge-burning crew with hopes of beating Lee’s army to the crossing. On April 6, Confederate Cavalry under Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas Rosser intercepted the Federal raiding party and, in a fierce fight, destroyed or captured nearly the whole party. The short but severe fight for High Bridge resulted in the last two combat deaths of general officers during the war.

The Union cavalry then attacked the Confederate wagon train at Painesville, destroying many wagons. Because Lee had ordered night marches in an attempt to regain the day he lost, his men were tired and hungry and soon began falling out of the column or broke ranks searching for food. Mules and horses, also starving, collapsed under their loads.

As the retreating columns became more ragged, gaps developed in the line of march. At Sayler’s Creek, a few miles east of Farmville, the Union cavalry exploited one of these gaps to block two Confederate corps, under Lieutenant Generals Richard Anderson and Richard Ewell, until the much larger Union VI Corps arrived to crush them.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Watching the debacle from a nearby hill, Lee exclaimed:

“My God! Has the army been dissolved?”

In one stroke, nearly 8,000 men and eight generals were lost, either killed, captured, or wounded. The remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in Farmville on April 7, where rations awaited them. But the Union forces followed so quickly that the Confederate cavalry had to make a stand in the town’s streets to allow their fellow troops to escape, and most Confederates never received the much-needed rations.

Blocked once again by Grant’s army, Lee once more swung west, hoping that he could be supplied farther down the railroad line and then turn south. Lee turned west onto the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road north of Farmville and followed Union troops. Unbeknownst to Lee, however, the Federal cavalry and the V, XXIV, and XXV Corps were also moving along shorter roads south of the Appomattox River to cut him off. While in Farmville on April 7, Grant sent a letter to Lee asking for the surrender of his army. In the vicinity of Cumberland Church, Lee received the letter and read it. He then handed it to one of his most trusted corps commanders, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who tersely replied, “Not yet.”

Appomattox Station, virginia by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1865.

Appomattox Station, Virginia by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1865.

As Lee continued his march westward, he knew his army’s desperate situation. Suppose he could reach Appomattox Station before the Federal troops. In that case, he could receive rations sent from Lynchburg and then make his way to Danville via Campbell Court House in Rustburg and Pittsylvania County. If not, he would have no choice but to surrender.

On the afternoon of April 8, the Confederate columns halted a mile northeast of Appomattox Court House. That night, artillery fire could be heard from Appomattox Station, and the red glow to the west from Union campfires foretold that the end was near. The Federal cavalry and the Army of the James, marching on shorter roads, had blocked the way south and west. Lee consulted with his generals and determined that one more attempt should reach the railroad and escape.

At dawn on April 9, General John B. Gordon’s Corps attacked the Union cavalry blocking the stage road, but after an initial success, Gordon sent word to Lee around 8:30 a.m.

“… my command has been fought to a frazzle, and unless Longstreet can unite in the movement or prevent these forces from coming upon my rear, I cannot go forward.”
Receiving the message, Lee replied:
“There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”


Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, 1865 by Thomas Nast

Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, 1865 by Thomas Nast

General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2022.

Also See:

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia

Civil War Battles of Virginia

Civil War Main Page

Eastern Theater of the Civil War

Virginia Civil War Gallery


National Park Service