On this day (April 2) in 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued the order for the Confederate government to evacuate Richmond, Va., thereby hoping to avoid the total destruction of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s badly battered, outnumbered 3 to 1, Army of Northern Virginia at the hands of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s huge besieging Army of the Potomac.
Davis’ decision to evacuate the capital city was prompted by a telegram he received early on this Sunday morning from Lee in which the beleaguered general declared, “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight ...”
Later in the morning, while attending a worship service at St. Paul’s Church, Davis was approached by a messenger, while the minister was praying, who informed him of the precarious situation facing Lee’ army.
Davis already had sent Mrs. Davis and the children south a few days earlier. Davis and most of his Cabinet soon were seen departing on a special train for Danville, Va. Earlier on the morning of Saturday, April 1, Lee had told Gen. George Pickett to “hold Five Forks at all hazards.” However, Pickett was unable to withstand Gen. Philip Sheridan’s attack, and the crossroads at Five Forks fell into Union hands after a spirited skirmish.
With its acquisition, Grant had effectively encircled Petersburg. With the April 1 Confederate defeat at the hands of Sheridan in the Battle of Five Forks, the entire Confederate Petersburg-Richmond front collapsed, thereby closing Lee’s retreat route to the west.
Historians consider the Union victory at Five Forks the death blow to Lee’s army. The long, bloody months of Union siege, with Grant forcing Lee to extend his ever-thinning battle line to the breaking point, had come to a victorious conclusion. Lee is reported to have said to a member of his staff after learning of the Five Forks defeat: “This is a sad business, colonel. It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”
A reporter attached to Grant’s army wrote: “With that Sunday’s sun the hope of the Rebels set, never to rise again.” Clearly, Richmond was now doomed as was, it soon turned out, Lee’s exhausted army and the Confederate States of America (CSA) government.
Grant sent, on this day, to President Abraham Lincoln, who was staying on board Adm. David Porter’s flagship Malvern, anchored at nearby City Point on the James River, a bundle of captured Confederate battle flags. As he unfurled them, he is reported to have exclaimed: “Here is something material, something I can see, feel and understand. This means victory. This is victory.”
Late in the day, Grant telegraphed Lincoln the good news that Lee’s army had all but collapsed. Throughout the war, Lincoln had always kept close tabs on the fighting. He spent many an evening at the War Department telegraph office reading the battle reports the field commanders sent to the Secretary of War.
Now in early April 1865, when the conflict was clearly coming to a happy conclusion (at least for the North), Lincoln, as commander in chief, traveled by boat to City Point to be on hand when the occupation of Richmond and the surrender of Lee’s army took place.
On Tuesday, April 4, the president was able to enter Richmond, where he was feted, not by sullen whites, but by large crowds of cheering slaves. The long-anticipated surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia took place on Sunday, April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.
Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9 effectively ended America’s bloodiest war.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks, and workshops on American History. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.