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Morton: The beginning of the end of the Civil War

On this day (April 1) in 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac waged the last of their major Civil War battles at Five Forks, Va. – a junction about 10 miles southwest of Petersburg.

In the early morning of this fateful rainy Saturday, Lee ordered Gen. George E. Pickett to, “Hold Five Forks at all hazards,” which proved to be impossible. Superior Union forces under field commanders Gens. Philip H. Sheridan and Gourverneur Warren attacked and successfully dislodged the outmanned Confederate forces at Five Forks.

Deemed a Union victory because it forced Lee to abandon his plan to break out from the ever-tightening siege at Petersburg and escape southward via the Southside Railroad and join Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army in North Carolina, it additionally forced him to evacuate Petersburg and the Confederate capital city of Richmond.

On April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who days earlier sent his family southward, led the morning Confederate evacuation of Richmond and headed south. Thereupon, Union forces entered the Confederate capital to a scene of utter confusion and raging fires started by Confederates destroying government documents and looters.

President Abraham Lincoln, who was a guest of General Grant at his nearby army headquarters at City Point, Va., toured with his 12-year-old son, Tad, the almost completely destroyed capital city April 4. The presidential party traveled up the James River from City Point on the USS Malvern and landed in Richmond near the infamous Libby Prison.

Upon his arrival, Lincoln was confronted by a group of African-Americans, one of whom exclaimed, “Bless the Lord, there is the great Messiah!” and knelt down before the president. Lincoln quickly responded that “you must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”

With his small escort, Lincoln wanted to tour the Confederate White House. He sat in the Confederate president’s office chair and was heard to exclaim, “Thank God that I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is over.”

Lee, for his part, was forced to take his beaten army westward (not southward) hoping to somehow later be able to link up with Johnston’s forces in the Carolinas. On April 7, Grant wrote Lee that “the result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel ... it is my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood.”

The following day, Lee replied to Grant that he did not agree with “the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance,” however, “I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and, therefore, ... ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

On April 8, a number of Lee’s subordinate generals confronted him with the unpleasant fact that the army was trapped and would not be able to break out and join Johnston.  They then urged their commander to commence surrender negotiations, which he did.

The Confederate defeat at the Battle of Five Forks led inevitably to the Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, celebrated surrender of Lee’s the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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