A few days ago the Confederate lines around Petersburg were finally breached, one of the Confederates’ best generals was shot in the heart, and Richmond fell. From there Robert E. Lee began his epic retreat west, with all going about as well as you might expect until … well, until this day in 1865. That’s when a gap opened up in the Confederate lines and the once-fearsome Army of Northern Virginia, spread too thin behind little Sailor’s Creek, was nearly swallowed whole. The one-legged up-and-comer Stapleton Crutchfield was killed, while the one-legged whatever’s-the-opposite-of-up-and-comer Richard E. Ewell was captured with eight other generals and pretty much everyone else who was around, including Lee’s eldest son, the impressively named George Washington Custis Lee. Our entry sums up the damage:
At Sailor’s Creek, Lee’s army suffered the largest field surrender in American history—or at least the largest that was not followed by specific terms—and was reduced by more than 8,700 men, 7,700 of whom were captured. That equaled about 20 percent of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, who had been traveling with [James] Longstreet, viewed the disaster from a distant ridge and exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” The following day, he relieved Generals [Richard H.] Anderson, [Bushrod R.] Johnson, and [George E.] Pickett of duty, the men they commanded having largely been captured anyway. The remnants of his army, meanwhile, marched overnight the eight miles to Farmville, with their Union pursuers close behind.
There would be little sleep for the next three days.
IMAGE: Cannon at Sailor’s Creek (Civil War Trust)