The South, as we all knew, were conscripting every able-bodied
man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five; and now they
had passed a law for the further conscription of boys from
fourteen to eighteen, calling them the junior reserves, and men
from forty-five to sixty to be called the senior reserves. The
latter were to hold the necessary points not in immediate
danger, and especially those in the rear. General Butler, in
alluding to this conscription, remarked that they were thus
“robbing both the cradle and the grave,” an expression which I
afterwards used in writing a letter to Mr. Washburn.

It was my belief that while the enemy could get no more recruits
they were losing at least a regiment a day, taking it throughout
the entire army, by desertions alone. Then by casualties of
war, sickness, and other natural causes, their losses were much
heavier. It was a mere question of arithmetic to calculate how
long they could hold out while that rate of depletion was going
on. Of course long before their army would be thus reduced to
nothing the army which we had in the field would have been able
to capture theirs. Then too I knew from the great number of
desertions, that the men who had fought so bravely, so gallantly
and so long for the cause which they believed in–and as
earnestly, I take it, as our men believed in the cause for which
they were fighting–had lost hope and become despondent. Many of
them were making application to be sent North where they might
get employment until the war was over, when they could return to
their Southern homes.

For these and other reasons I was naturally very impatient for
the time to come when I could commence the spring campaign,
which I thoroughly believed would close the war.

There were two considerations I had to observe, however, and
which detained me. One was the fact that the winter had been
one of heavy rains, and the roads were impassable for artillery
and teams. It was necessary to wait until they had dried
sufficiently to enable us to move the wagon trains and artillery
necessary to the efficiency of an army operating in the enemy’s
country. The other consideration was that General Sheridan with
the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was operating on the north
side of the James River, having come down from the Shenandoah. It
was necessary that I should have his cavalry with me, and I was
therefore obliged to wait until he could join me south of the
James River.

Let us now take account of what he was doing.

On the 5th of March I had heard from Sheridan. He had met Early
between Staunton and Charlottesville and defeated him, capturing
nearly his entire command. Early and some of his officers
escaped by finding refuge in the neighboring houses or in the
woods.

On the 12th I heard from him again. He had turned east, to come
to White House. He could not go to Lynchburg as ordered, because
the rains had been so very heavy and the streams were so very
much swollen. He had a pontoon train with him, but it would not
reach half way across some of the streams, at their then stage of
water, which he would have to get over in going south as first
ordered.

I had supplies sent around to White House for him, and kept the
depot there open until he arrived. We had intended to abandon
it because the James River had now become our base of supplies.

Sheridan had about ten thousand cavalry with him, divided into
two divisions commanded respectively by Custer and Devin.
General Merritt was acting as chief of cavalry. Sheridan moved
very light, carrying only four days’ provisions with him, with a
larger supply of coffee, salt and other small rations, and a very
little else besides ammunition. They stopped at Charlottesville
and commenced tearing up the railroad back toward Lynchburg. He
also sent a division along the James River Canal to destroy
locks, culverts etc. All mills and factories along the lines of
march of his troops were destroyed also.

Sheridan had in this way consumed so much time that his making a
march to White House was now somewhat hazardous. He determined
therefore to fight his way along the railroad and canal till he
was as near to Richmond as it was possible to get, or until
attacked. He did this, destroying the canal as far as
Goochland, and the railroad to a point as near Richmond as he
could get. On the 10th he was at Columbia. Negroes had joined
his column to the number of two thousand or more, and they
assisted considerably in the work of destroying the railroads
and the canal. His cavalry was in as fine a condition as when
he started, because he had been able to find plenty of forage.
He had captured most of Early’s horses and picked up a good many
others on the road. When he reached Ashland he was assailed by
the enemy in force. He resisted their assault with part of his
command, moved quickly across the South and North Anna, going
north, and reached White House safely on the 19th.

The time for Sherman to move had to be fixed with reference to
the time he could get away from Goldsboro where he then was.
Supplies had to be got up to him which would last him through a
long march, as there would probably not be much to be obtained
in the country through which he would pass. I had to arrange,
therefore, that he should start from where he was, in the
neighborhood of Goldsboro on the 18th of April, the earliest day
at which he supposed he could be ready.

Sherman was anxious that I should wait where I was until he,
could come up, and make a sure thing of it; but I had determined
to move as soon as the roads and weather would admit of my doing
so. I had been tied down somewhat in the matter of fixing any
time at my pleasure for starting, until Sheridan, who was on his
way from the Shenandoah Valley to join me, should arrive, as both
his presence and that of his cavalry were necessary to, the
execution of the plans which I had in mind. However, having
arrived at White House on the 19th of March, I was enabled to
make my plans.

Prompted by my anxiety lest Lee should get away some night
before I was aware of it, and having the lead of me, push into
North Carolina to join with Johnston in attempting to crush out
Sherman, I had, as early as the 1st of the month of March, given
instructions to the troops around Petersburg to keep a sharp
lookout to see that such a movement should not escape their
notice, and to be ready strike at once if it was undertaken.

It is now known that early in the month of March Mr. Davis and
General Lee had a consultation about the situation of affairs in
and about and Petersburg, and they both agreed places were no
longer tenable for them, and that they must get away as soon as
possible. They, too, were waiting for dry roads, or a condition
of the roads which would make it possible to move.

General Lee, in aid of his plan of escape, and to secure a wider
opening to enable them to reach the Danville Road with greater
security than he would have in the way the two armies were
situated, determined upon an assault upon the right of our lines
around Petersburg. The night of the 24th of March was fixed upon
for this assault, and General Gordon was assigned to the
execution of the plan. The point between Fort Stedman and
Battery No. 10, where our lines were closest together, was
selected as the point of his attack. The attack was to be made
at night, and the troops were to get possession of the higher
ground in the rear where they supposed we had intrenchments,
then sweep to the right and left, create a panic in the lines of
our army, and force me to contract my lines. Lee hoped this
would detain me a few days longer and give him an opportunity of
escape. The plan was well conceived and the execution of it very
well done indeed, up to the point of carrying a portion of our
line.

Gordon assembled his troops under the cover of night, at the
point at which they were to make their charge, and got
possession of our picket-line, entirely without the knowledge of
the troops inside of our main line of intrenchments; this reduced
the distance he would have to charge over to not much more than
fifty yards. For some time before the deserters had been coming
in with great frequency, often bringing their arms with them, and
this the Confederate general knew. Taking advantage of this
knowledge he sent his pickets, with their arms, creeping through
to ours as if to desert. When they got to our lines they at once
took possession and sent our pickets to the rear as prisoners. In
the main line our men were sleeping serenely, as if in great
security. This plan was to have been executed and much damage
done before daylight; but the troops that were to reinforce
Gordon had to be brought from the north side of the James River
and, by some accident on the railroad on their way over, they
were detained for a considerable time; so that it got to be
nearly daylight before they were ready to make the charge.

The charge, however, was successful and almost without loss, the
enemy passing through our lines between Fort Stedman and Battery
No. 10. Then turning to the right and left they captured the
fort and the battery, with all the arms and troops in them.
Continuing the charge, they also carried batteries Eleven and
Twelve to our left, which they turned toward City Point.

Meade happened to be at City Point that night, and this break in
his line cut him off from all communication with his
headquarters. Parke, however, commanding the 9th corps when
this breach took place, telegraphed the facts to Meade’s
headquarters, and learning that the general was away, assumed
command himself and with commendable promptitude made all
preparations to drive the enemy back. General Tidball gathered
a large number of pieces of artillery and planted them in rear
of the captured works so as to sweep the narrow space of ground
between the lines very thoroughly. Hartranft was soon out with
his division, as also was Willcox. Hartranft to the right of
the breach headed the rebels off in that direction and rapidly
drove them back into Fort Stedman. On the other side they were
driven back into the intrenchments which they had captured, and
batteries eleven and twelve were retaken by Willcox early in the
morning.

Parke then threw a line around outside of the captured fort and
batteries, and communication was once more established. The
artillery fire was kept up so continuously that it was
impossible for the Confederates to retreat, and equally
impossible for reinforcements to join them. They all,
therefore, fell captives into our hands. This effort of Lee’s
cost him about four thousand men, and resulted in their killing,
wounding and capturing about two thousand of ours.

After the recapture of the batteries taken by the Confederates,
our troops made a charge and carried the enemy’s intrenched
picket line, which they strengthened and held. This, in turn,
gave us but a short distance to charge over when our attack came
to be made a few days later.

The day that Gordon was making dispositions for this attack
(24th of March) I issued my orders for the movement to commence
on the 29th. Ord, with three divisions of infantry and
Mackenzie’s cavalry, was to move in advance on the night of the
27th, from the north side of the James River and take his place
on our extreme left, thirty miles away. He left Weitzel with
the rest of the Army of the James to hold Bermuda Hundred and
the north of the James River. The engineer brigade was to be
left at City Point, and Parke’s corps in the lines about
Petersburg. (*42)

Ord was at his place promptly. Humphreys and Warren were then
on our extreme left with the 2d and 5th corps. They were
directed on the arrival of Ord, and on his getting into position
in their places, to cross Hatcher’s Run and extend out west
toward Five Forks, the object being to get into a position from
which we could strike the South Side Railroad and ultimately the
Danville Railroad. There was considerable fighting in taking up
these new positions for the 2d and 5th corps, in which the Army
of the James had also to participate somewhat, and the losses
were quite severe.

This was what was known as the Battle of White Oak Road.

CHAPTER LXIV.

INTERVIEW WITH SHERIDAN–GRAND MOVEMENT OF THE ARMY OF THE
POTOMAC–SHERIDAN’S ADVANCE ON FIVE FORKS–BATTLE OF FIVE
FORKS–PARKE AND WRIGHT STORM THE ENEMY’S LINE–BATTLES BEFORE
PETERSBURG.

Sheridan reached City Point on the 26th day of March. His
horses, of course, were jaded and many of them had lost their
shoes. A few days of rest were necessary to recuperate the
animals and also to have them shod and put in condition for
moving. Immediately on General Sheridan’s arrival at City Point
I prepared his instructions for the move which I had decided
upon. The movement was to commence on the 29th of the month.

After reading the instructions I had given him, Sheridan walked
out of my tent, and I followed to have some conversation with
him by himself–not in the presence of anybody else, even of a
member of my staff. In preparing his instructions I
contemplated just what took place; that is to say, capturing
Five Forks, driving the enemy from Petersburg and Richmond and
terminating the contest before separating from the enemy. But
the Nation had already become restless and discouraged at the
prolongation of the war, and many believed that it would never
terminate except by compromise. Knowing that unless my plan
proved an entire success it would be interpreted as a disastrous
defeat, I provided in these instructions that in a certain event
he was to cut loose from the Army of the Potomac and his base of
supplies, and living upon the country proceed south by the way of
the Danville Railroad, or near it, across the Roanoke, get in the
rear of Johnston, who was guarding that road, and cooperate with
Sherman in destroying Johnston; then with these combined forces
to help carry out the instructions which Sherman already had
received, to act in cooperation with the armies around
Petersburg and Richmond.

I saw that after Sheridan had read his instructions he seemed
somewhat disappointed at the idea, possibly, of having to cut
loose again from the Army of the Potomac, and place himself
between the two main armies of the enemy. I said to him:
“General, this portion of your instructions I have put in merely
as a blind;” and gave him the reason for doing so, heretofore
described. I told him that, as a matter of fact, I intended to
close the war right here, with this movement, and that he should
go no farther. His face at once brightened up, and slapping his
hand on his leg he said: “I am glad to hear it, and we can do
it.”

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