Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The 48th/150th: "Every Heart Was Filled to Overflowing:" The Road To Appomattox & The Surrender of Lee's Army

U.S. Soldiers Stand Atop The Earthworks at the Captured Fort Mahone
April 1865
[National Archives]

150 Years Ago. . .and at long last, Petersburg, which according to Oliver Bosbyshell had been "so long invested, so hotly contested, and so stubbornly defended," had at last fallen. . .On April 3, 1865, United States soldiers entered the city and raised the American flag once more. Further to the north, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, had also fallen. The Confederate government was on the run, as was Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Union forces were fast upon their heels and quickly closing in. On April 9, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

The Appomattox Campaign
[Map by Hal Jespersen,]

For the past 290-some days, since mid-June, 1864, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry had spent its days in the trenches east and south of Petersburg and had participated in a number of engagements during this long tenure. Their final struggle came on April 2, 1865, when they participated in the charge upon Fort Mahone. The regiment had done well and had fought with characteristic doggedness and determination during the assault but though they, along with several other units, were able to pierce the defenses of Fort Mahone, they had a difficult time in advancing from there and had their hands full dealing with a series of equally determined Confederate counterattacks. Further to their left, however, the army's Sixth Corps was able to complete the breakthrough. This, along with other reverses, compelled Lee to retreat. The army soon took up the chase, with the Fifth Corps and Cavalry Corps leading the way. The soldiers of the Ninth Corps also took up the march, forming the extreme right wing of the army, with little time for rest after the long investment of Petersburg and less time to mourn for their comrades who had there lost their lives. By nightfall on April 4, the 48th had arrived at Sutherland; the next day, their route of march took them past Fords and Wellville and all the way to Nottoway Court House, where they encamped for the night. April 7, the 48th had reached Farmville and there learned that the Ninth Corps was now to serve as escorts for some 8,000 Confederate prisoners, including Generals Richard Ewell, Joseph Kershaw, and Custis Lee, who had all fallen into Union at the April 6 Battle of Sailor's Creek. With their prisoners in tow, the 48th set out on the journey to Burkeville on April 8 and it was there, on the morning of April 10, that they heard for the first time the "joyful news" of Lee's surrender to Grant the previous day.
Capturing in words the true sentiment of the men--the elation, the relief--upon hearing of Lee's surrender is an impossibility. No doubt, for the weary veterans, longing to return home, the thought that the war was, at last, drawing to an end, that it would at last soon be over, took a while to sink in. Thoughts of the days at Fort Monroe way back in the fall of 1861 may have crossed their minds, with fond memories of those days before all the slaughter. Perhaps the long-serving veteran troops also thought back to their eight-month stay in North Carolina, or their hard campaigns in Virginia, Maryland, and East Tennessee, to the bloodshed that was 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The men no doubt shook hands all around and embraced one another and many were the tears that were shed; shed in happiness at the thought that they would soon be heading home, and shed in sadness at the thought of so many of their friends, neighbors, and comrades who had fallen throughout the previous four years. And while it is impossible to accurately capture the feelings of the moment, regimental historian, Joseph Gould, tried when he recorded simply that "The news [of Appomattox] created the greatest enthusiasm amongst the troops. Great, strong, bearded men embraced, and, in many instances kissed each other and shouted. The bands tried to make as much noise as the men, and the greatest joy prevailed. All suffering and hardships that we had undergone were forgotten, every heart was filled to overflowing."
Artist Tom Lovell's Famed Rendering of the Surrender at Appomattox

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