History #1: Battle of Sailor’s Creek

Command House at Saylor's Creek

Taken in September, this farmhouse was built pre-1860, and has been restored by Virginia’s State Park dept. Taken with my Canon Rebel t5i with my aperture set at 8. The approaching thunderstorm was deafening and added a mystique to the battlefield. I couldn’t help but feel something when the storm approached. If anyone can describe what I was feeling then please, do tell!

This location is the Sailor’s (Saylor’s) Creek Battlefield State Park in Rice, Commonwealth of Virginia, an unincorporated community within Prince Edward County and at the time of the American Civil War, was known as Rice’s Depot. The battlefield is situated off U.S. Route 620 all there is to alert you to the significant battle is a small, and I do mean small, green sign that says, “Sailor’s Creek Battlefield” and an arrow pointing left. The battlefield is little known, and sits upon 321 acres of land that encompasses Amelia, Nottoway, and Prince Edward Counties. When I drove up to the visitors center on that warm day, I was the only person there.

To be honest, I also never heard of this battle, but I was aware that the Civil War had been fought in over 10 thousand places, so there’s enough battles for someone to try to remember. When I walked into the visitor center, the ranger I spoke to showed me around the small museum. It was an eye-opener. The Ranger told me that the battle started by accident, the Union skirmishers came upon the rear of the Army of Northern Virginia and the battle ensued.

The Ranger told me about efforts being taken by Virginia to restore the park to its original condition when the battle happened. Since the battle, the area had been used for farmland, and artifacts as well as deceased bodies had been and are being uncovered almost weekly. After the man showed me around the museum and told me the path I should take, he left me alone.

The battlefield is full of hills. It’s based in the Northern Piedmont, and the battle was apart of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign. Well, today historians refer to this particular battle as the Appomattox Campaign, but at that time, it was called the Overland Campaign. I would say that the battle was the aftermath of the Overland Campaign which resulted with the sacking of Richmond and the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia by Grant’s combined Armies of the Shenandoah, James, and Potomac. Grant’s armies were in hot pursuit of Lee’s army and the battle at Sailor’s Creek were actually three separate engagements.

After the fall of Petersburg, Gen. Lee split his Army into three elements. He ordered his elements southward in an attempt to link up with Rebel armies in North Carolina under the command of Gen. Joseph Johnston. The plan would have worked, but the Federal forces were making sure to continue flanking maneuvers on Lee’s elements. These maneuvers were constantly causing the Rebel forces to turn and fight, and attempt retreats with Federal forces so close that virtually hours separated the main bodies of the armies from clashing.

For instance, the Federal vanguard under the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac clashed with Lt. Gen. Ewell’s corps at Hillman’s Farmhouse after stumbling upon them in the early morning hours of 6th of April, 1865, and virtually simultaneously Federal and Rebel cavalry engaged each other at Marshall’s Crossing. After a running battle that had been ongoing for well over four miles, the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac engaged Maj. Gen. Gordon’s Corps at Locketts farm.

The battle was chaotic due to multiple movements happening with both armies on secondary roads surrounding Amelia Court House. Grant’s plan was to keep Lee moving, never being able to stop for rest and re-supply. Lee’s original plan was to rest and re-supply at Jetersville but the 5th Corps of the Army of Potomac took the town and cut the original route down to Burkeville. This movement forced Lee to move his Army southward to Rice’s Station.

The push towards Rice’s Station was out of necessity for the Army of Northern Virginia. Not only were the men starving, but they were virtually out of supply. The men had not rested in over three days, and Maj. Gen. Gordon’s Crops were in constant combat with the Federal Army as he was assigned to cover the retreat of the army. The Army of Northern Virginia was suffering from desertion at a rate of over 100 an hour!

The battle began when the Federal cavalry under Maj. Gen. Custer attacks the wagon trains at Marshall’s Crossings. The cavalry is driven back twice by Maj. Gen. Anderson’s Corps. However, the third charge was successful as Rebel troops virtually gave up when they found rations meant for the army in the wagons they were trying to protect. Due to Custer’s movements, the cavalry and infantry were able to force the surrender of Maj. Gen Anderson’s corps and caused Anderson and his staff officers to turn tail and run. Later on, when Gen. Robert Lee saw this as he was attempting to rally the panic-stricken and fleeing troops, he later relieved Anderson of his command and forced him out of the Army.

At five p.m. the battle swung right south of Deatonsville and at Hillsman Farm which was about 0.25 miles from Sailor’s Creek. When I came to the battlefield and saw the creek I was shocked at how deep it is. The creek was a good ten feet deep, and from bank to bank was greater than 15 feet. I am only assuming it must be due to flooding that has caused such eroding because the creek itself;f is nothing but a small running, slow-moving creek. On the day of the battle, the creek was flooded, and bad. When Gen. Ewell‘s corps moved into the area to close up the line left by Anderson, they were attacked by the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps and cavalry under Gen. Philip Sheridan. The result of the battle was outstanding, a complete Rebel route, and over 7,000 POW’s taken including Gen. Ewell himself.

The last of the three-part battle was at Lockett’s Farm, which is of the picture above. The Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps engaged the 21st North Carolina Infantry Regiment. The battle began to be what is called a “rolling battle” This is a term meant to describe pressure being placed upon defense, and instead of stopping to defend, the defenders cover each other as they retreat to find better tactile ground to make a defense.

The attempt to retreat was thwarted by the wagon trains, and this forced Gen. Gordon’s corps to make a stand against both the 5th and 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The remnants of Anderson’s, Ewell’s, and Gordon’s corps got together along with sailors and marines of the Confederate States of America’s Navy to make a stand just north of Lockett’s farm. With the persistence of the 2nd and 5th Corps of the Army of Potomac and the Army of Shenandoah’s Calvary, the Rebel line was rolled-up, and obliterated. I do mean that word in its entirety. The scene was one of utter hand-to-hand combat , some of the fiercest reported in the war. It was brief and brutal. The Rebels were repulsed and forced to flee towards Rice’s Station.

The aftermath of this engagement is significant indeed. At Sailor’s Creek, Gen. Lee lost exactly one/fourth of his overall fighting aspect of his army. The loss of thousands of rounds of ordnance and food stuffs was even more significant. It was such a demoralizing defeat that Gen. Lee declared, “May God, has the army been dissolved?!” to which some other Gen. said something overly patriotic and everybody was hunky-dory again. Truth is a bitch, and the bitch of the matter was that, indeed, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in a state of absolute devastation. Not only were men deserting at a rate far exceeding 100 a day, but casualties related to non-combat were over 1,500 daily. Lee’s army was indeed, dissolved.

Why this battle and its significance is foreshadowed by the inevitable surrender three days later at Appomattox Court House in the parlor of the farmer, Wilmer McLean, is surprising to me. This battle is historically significant because it was the last major action of the war. It showed the Federal Forces that the Rebels were in no state to carry on fighting, but honor is a blinding thing in Southern culture, and it blinded everyone. The war was lost since Petersburg, and the Rebels knew it, but they continued to omit bloodshed, and many families lost sons, and fathers, and were lost to history because of these actions. It is because of this battle that Gen. Lee knew defeat.

“There is no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending”~ Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.

God bless,

-Anthony.

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