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Battle of Sailor’s Creek

April 6, 1865

The Battle of Sailor's Creek, also known as the Battle of Sayler's Creek, the Battle of Hillsman Farm, and the Battle of Lockett Farm, took place in Prince Edward and Nottoway Counties, Virginia on April 6, 1865, during the Appomattox Campaign.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed native Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia; native Ohioan Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee's army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade's flank.

The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg, Virginia area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee's defenses but to no avail. Despite being well entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as supplies dwindled. By the spring of 1865, Lee knew that when the weather allowed, his army must escape the Union stranglehold or be starved into submission.

On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon's pre-dawn attack was successful initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines.

Grant's spring offensive, the Appomattox Campaign, began in late March 1865 when Sherman's troops south of Petersburg moved west with orders to threaten or to capture Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which connected to Petersburg from the southwest. Grant intended to cut off supplies coming into Petersburg and to prevent Lee from using the two arteries as avenues of escape from the city. On March 29, Major General G.K. Warren's 5th Corps defeated several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis's Farm. Two days later, the action resumed at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House as Lee shored up his right wing to halt the federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Ohioan Major General Philip H. Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett's forces at the Battle of Five Forks. The loss of that strategic crossroads further threatened Lee's already limited supply lines.

Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments around Petersburg on April 2. Federal troops breached the Confederate defenses during the Battle of Petersburg III and forced the Rebels to withdraw to the city's inner defenses. By 10:00 a.m., Lee realized that the day was lost, and he advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee spent the afternoon preparing his withdrawal from Petersburg.

Lee's plan was to march his beleaguered army west to Amelia Court House where he expected to find much-needed provisions. From there, he intended to move south and join forces with Major General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of North Carolina. As the Confederates moved west Sheridan's cavalry began hounding them almost immediately. Three minor engagements took place during the next three days at Sutherland's Station, Namozine Church, and Amelia Springs.

On April 6, Lee was marching the Army of Northern Virginia west toward Farmville, where supplies awaited. Lee's 1st and 3rd Corps, commanded by Major General James Longstreet, led the march. Major General Richard Anderson, commanding the army's 4th Corps, followed Longstreet. Two more divisions, led by Major General Custis Lee and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw, under the command of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, trailed Anderson. The Confederate 2nd Corps, consisting of three cavalry divisions commanded by Major General John B. Gordon, served as Lee's rearguard.

As Lee, who was with Longstreet, moved ahead of Anderson to Rice's Station, Union cavalry commanded by Colonel Charles Smith, hit Anderson's corps at Holt's Cross Roads around noon on April 6. The attack delayed Anderson, further separating him from Lee and Longstreet. Around 2:00 p.m., Ohioan Brigadier General George Custer's cavalry attacked and pinned down Anderson's corps near Marshall's Crossroads west of Sailor's Creek.

Meanwhile, Ewell and Gordon, protecting the Confederate army's main supply train, diverted to a more northerly road at Holt's Cross Roads to avoid the Union cavalry ahead. The wagon train slowed to a crawl as it crossed a bridge at Sailor's Creek. Between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., the Union 2nd Corps caught up to Gordon and attacked, capturing more than 1,700 Rebels and 300 wagons. Back at Marshall's Crossroads, between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m., Major General Wesley Merritt's cavalry joined the Union assault and routed Anderson's corps, capturing 2,600 more Rebels, including Ewell. On the other side of Sailor's Creek, Major General Horatio Wright's 6th Corps hit Ewell's reserves, capturing an additional 3,400 Confederates, including Lee's oldest son, Major General Custis Lee.

As refugees from the battle began streaming ahead to Rice's Station, Lee rode back toward the scene of the action. As he watched the rout from a knoll overlooking Sailor's Creek, Lee exclaimed, "My God! Has the army been dissolved?"

The Battle of Sailor's Creek was catastrophic for the Confederacy. Lee lost nearly twenty percent percent of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 6. Official casualties totaled 7,700 killed, wounded and captured or missing. Approximately 7,000 of that number were captives, including nine generals. The Union suffered only 1,200 casualties. With Lee's army devastated, Grant continued his relentless pursuit, which ended with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House three days later.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Sailor's Creek included:

Infantry units:

4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company A and Company G

122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cavalry Units:

2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

13th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

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