With the Confederate disaster at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Robert E. Lee knew that he and his army were in dire straits. Not only was the Southside Railroad cut, but Sheridan’s cavalry was now poised to potentially cut off his lines of retreat. Further, Pickett’s men had functioned as Lee’s only mobile reserve. With the loss of those men, he had been forced to begin emptying the fortifications in front of Richmond, ordering Longstreet to bring his force south. This might allow him enough strength to forestall another calamity should Ulysses S. Grant attack, giving the Army of Northern Virginia a chance to escape, which now seemed their only option. He was hoping to buy time, but must have feared that his opponent, the always aggressive Grant, might see the opportunity before him and strike quickly.
In fact, Grant had already ordered a massive attack on Petersburg’s entrenchments for the next morning, Sunday, April 2. Grant’s plan for the assault was fairly simple. A massive bombardment would begin around midnight and continue until 4:00 a.m., when the infantry of IX and VI Corps would move forward. IX Corps would form on the right and attack the trenches in and around Fort Mahone, while the VI Corps assaulted the Confederate trenches along the so-called Boydton Plank Road line. Meanwhile, the newly formed XXIV Corps would form on the left of VI Corps and either swing in behind them to exploit any breakthrough or attack the Confederate line to VI Corps’ left, as the situation dictated.
That night, as the orders for the next morning were distributed in the Union camps, the soldiers received them with a fatalistic resolve. They had all participated in previous attacks on the formidable Confederate defenses and had seen them all turned back. Just before midnight, the men of VI and IX Corps began to form up. The night was chilly and damp, which added to what was a growing sense of dread. One officer in VI Corps heard a soldier tell his comrades, “Well, goodbye boys; this means death.” Another, Captain Thomas Beals of IX Corps, would later write, “There can be no doubt that few of us expected to emerge alive from this affair: for one, I did not.”
At midnight, the Union guns opened fire on the Confederate fortifications. In the ten months that Lee’s army had held the line at Petersburg, they had endured many bombardments, but nothing like this one. The Union artillerymen were using every gun available and the night sky was filled with the burning arcs of shells as they made their way towards the Confederate fortifications. The noise was deafening, so much so that, when the signal gun for the attack was fired, no one could hear it.
Around 4:00 a.m., both IX and VI Corps advanced with teams of “pioneers” in the lead. These men carried axes and their job was to quickly hack through the hedges of abatis and chevaux-de-frise that formed the first line of Confederate defense. The pioneers were followed by rank upon rank of infantry, who advanced with fixed bayonets. Their rifles were loaded, but not capped, to prevent an accidental firing that might reveal their position. The hope was that the infantry could approach the first line of Southern pickets in their rifle pits undetected, then quickly rush and subdue them. This, they hoped, might limit the warning to the main Confederate defensive line.
General Parke’s IX Corps reached the Confederate lines first, attacking Fort Mahone, known to the Union troops as “Fort Damnation.” The lines around Mahone were defended by about 3,600 men under General John B. Gordon. Their numbers were so small, that they could only post about 1,000 men per mile. However, despite the thinness of their ranks, they made "Fort Damnation” live up its name as they raked the waves of Union infantry with salvos of double-canister and volley after volley of rifle fire. Despite this, the Union troops kept coming, tearing their way through the abatis, and plunging into the rain-flooded ditch at the base of the Confederate breastworks, where many wounded Federals would fall and drown. From there, they scrambled up the sides of the earthworks, and jumped into the stronghold, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and rifle butts.
At first the IX Corps attack was successful, taking three Confederate batteries and gaining partial possession of another. But, soon, the attack bogged down amid the maze of entrenchments and no breakthrough could be made. One Confederate soldier recalled that, “the open space inside Fort Mahone was literally covered with blue-coated corpses.” By 11:00 a.m., Gordon and his men had contained Parke's breach and began to work on counterattacks to push the Union attackers out of the fort.
Map image used with permission by the Civil War Preservation Trust
However, further to the west, things were not going so well for Lee’s men. There, the battle-hardened VI Corps, under the command of General Horatio Wright, advanced in a massive wedge formation, sweeping over the Southern rifle pits and crashing into the fortifications like a great surging wave. The Confederate lines here were held by Wilcox's and Heth's divisions of A.P. Hill's Corps, a total of six brigades holding a front of about six miles along the Boydton Plank Road. As was the case at Fort Mahone, the Confederate line was very thin. As a result, the Federal infantry breached the entrenchments at several points as the defenders clawed and fought hand-to-hand with their attackers.
The first man into the Confederate trenches was Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont Infantry. As he leaped into the trench leading his men, he was bayoneted through the cheek and mouth by a North Carolinian. Gould killed his assailant with a saber as he fired his service revolver at other converging Confederates. One of the defenders then struck him down with a rifle butt, while yet another bayoneted Gould in the back. Gould, who would be awarded the Medal of Honor, fought back ferociously and was finally saved by his color sergeant, who clubbed the attackers with his own rifle, then grabbed the young captain by the collar and pulled him up out of the trench, sending him to safety in the rear.
All along the Boyden Plank Road line, men of the VI Corps poured over the Confederate entrenchments and all resistance was “swept away and scattered like chaff before a tornado.” Wright’s troops boiled over and through the trenches, pushing past the Boyden Plank Road and reaching the Southside Railroad, a mile behind Confederate lines. By shortly after 5:00 a.m., the Confederate line was completely smashed, and the defenders were fleeing in all directions. Wright managed to reform his exuberant men and swing them left, sweeping down the Confederate line toward Hatcher’s Run, where they linked up with General Gibbon’s XXIV Corps, which had achieved an easier breakthrough.
As the VI Corps was overrunning the Boyden Plank Road line, General James Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters. He found Lee still in bed, not asleep but suffering from rheumatism. Longstreet sat on the edge of the bed as Lee discussed the events at Five Forks and instructed him where to place his men once they arrived. While they were talking, one of Lee’s staff burst into the room, telling him, “General, the lines have broken out front. You’ll have to go.” Lee calmly rose from his bed and walked to the front door, where he could clearly see the lines of blue-clad infantry advancing towards them. The general quickly dressed, mounted his horse, and rode off with his staff. Knowing that all was lost here, he put a plan in motion to send his army into retreat through Petersburg, across the Appomattox River, then west where he hoped to eventually link up with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Before leaving, he sent one last telegram to his Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge, in which he told him, “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”
When Lee’s message reached Breckenridge, he sent a copy via messenger to President Jefferson Davis, who was attending Sunday morning services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Davis was sitting his usual pew when the messenger strode up the aisle and handed him the telegram. Davis read it silently, and then he “arose, and was noticed to walk rather unsteadily out of the church.” Parishioners said later that they could read nothing by his expression, but, as more messengers arrived and more government officials hurried out, they all knew what must be happening: the Yankees had finally broken through.
Back in front of Petersburg, the fighting continued. The breakthrough by Wright’s corps, now threatened the entire Confederate position at Petersburg. If the Federal troops could advance quickly enough, they might actually enter the city and seize the bridges over the Appomattox River, the very ones the Lee needed to get his army safely away. Lee needed to slow that advance until Longstreet could get into position. The only things stopping the Federals now were Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth, occupied by about 300 troops from various Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia brigades.
About 11:00 a.m., Wright’s VI Corps was approaching Fort Gregg. However, Wright deferred the attack to Gibbon and XXIV Corps. VI Corps had been up for almost 18 hours straight, and had been fighting and marching since before 5:00 a.m., so Gibbon's men would have to make the effort to take Fort Gregg. Gibbon was more than happy to take on the assignment and his men advanced at 1:00 p.m.
The fort's garrison, outnumbered 10 to 1, was too small to break up the attack, but in too strong a position to be overrun by brute force. Plus, they fought with uncommon ferocity, cutting down the attacking Federal infantry with a deadly hail of cannon and rifle fire. Each defender had two rifles and, as they fired one, a man behind them would reload the other. Still, Gibbon’s men pressed forward and, soon, they were piling in and over the ramparts. The fighting inside Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth would be some of the most desperate of the war. The Confederate defenders refused to go down, despite calls for their surrender. Finally, they would be subdued, but, of the 300 Confederate defenders inside Fort Gregg, only 30 were left standing. Gibbon, meanwhile, had lost 714 men killed, wounded, or missing.
The determined defense of Fort Gregg gave Lee time to deploy Longstreet’s men. As Longstreet watched the assault through his glasses, he saw his old friend, John Gibbon, near the front. Longstreet raised his hat, hoping Gibbon would see the salute of his old comrade. However, Gibbon did not see his friend in the distance across the lines of battle. Then, Longstreet recognized another man through his glasses, someone for whom he had stood up as best man at a wedding long ago in St. Louis: Ulysses Grant. Longstreet did not know it at that moment, but they would be reunited in only a week’s time.
As the firing at Fort Gregg died down, on the other end of the Petersburg line, John Gordon launched his counterattack at Fort Mahone. The assault hit the Union IX Corps hard, nearly driving them out of the fortifications. However, the timely arrival of reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac provost brigade, plus one brigade from VI Corps, stopped Gordon in his tracks, and the Georgian fell back. Gordon, however, would not give up and he prepared his men for another counterattack. But, just as he was about to move forward, word came that VI Corps had broken through to the west and the evacuation of Petersburg was inevitable. So, he abandoned his plans and, instead, began the retreat.
Grant now ordered his corps commanders to push forward and close the ring around Lee. However, Longstreet’s men were able to hold them back, and, with no fresh troops available, the exhausted soldiers of VI, IX, and XXIV Corps could not continue the fight. By late afternoon Grant decided to call a halt to the offensive and plan an attack for the next morning. However, during the night, Lee would get across the river and begin his retreat. Grant, for his part, would then mount the great pursuit that would end a week later at Appomattox Court House.