The two armies raced to reach the "neck of the jug" first at Appomattox. For the Federals, General Phillip Sheridan assigned the task to his favorite subordinate, General George Armstrong Custer.
(Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, 1862)
George Armstrong Custer is remembered today for his reckless decisions on June 25, 1876 when he decided, against orders, to have his 7th Cavalry Regiment attack a large Indian village along the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Dividing his 600 trooper command into three detachments, Custer led 209 of his men along a high ridge overlooking the Indian encampment, which turned out to be the largest such gathering ever of the Plains Indians. Custer and all his men would be dead within two hours and, six decades later, have the added ignominy of being subject to perhaps the least historically accurate, albeit very popular, Hollywood movie ever made (see They Died With Their Boots On).
The Custer of the Civil War is far less well known. Born in 1839, Custer entered West Point in 1858 in the class of 1862 which, because of the outbreak of the Civil War, graduated a year early in 1861. Custer ranked dead last academically in his class of 34, accumulating a then-record of 726 demerits for personal misconduct and coming near expulsion on several occasions. With that record, and absent the war, Custer would have been assigned to some obscure frontier outpost. Instead, he participated in the first Battle of Bull Run and was assigned to the staff of the Army of the Potomac. Handling his assignments with alacrity and elan he quickly rose to command a brigade, becoming Brigadier General of Volunteers on June 28, 1863. He was 23 years old.
(Custer in 1862 with a former classmate captured by the Federals)
On the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 he led his outnumbered brigade in a series of charges against the Confederate cavalry commanded by the famed and feared J.E.B. Stuart, thwarting his attack on the Union rear. Throughout 1863 and 1864 he was successful in actions throughout Virginia and was promoted to command of a division in May 1864. Later that year he helped destroy Jubal Early's army in the Shenandoah Valley.
Custer led his troops from the front and was solicitous of their welfare, a combination that made him very popular. His aggressiveness made him a favorite of General Sheridan. And he's all over the Appomattox Campaign.
(Custer, with dog on lower right, with his staff)
Custer played a key role at the battles of Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks at the start of the campaign. On April 3 it was Custer's division that defeated General Barringer (see General Barringer's Ride) at Namozine Church. Two days later, his troops were part of the force blocking Lee's advance towards Jetersville and North Carolina. The next day at Sailor's Creek, his division made the assault that broke the Confederate lines. In that action, Custer captured Edward Porter Alexander's former artillery battalion commanded by Colonel Frank Huger. Alexander wrote:
Custer & Huger had been great friends & class mates, & Custer made him ride along all day, & sleep with him that night, & treated him nicely.For much of April 8, 1865 there was little contact between the armies. Lee was north of the Appomattox River marching hard towards the neck of the jug, pursued by much of Grant's army. Parallel to Lee, Sheridan's cavalry, led by Custer's division and trailed by General Ord's infantry was south of the river trying to reach Appomattox Station and Court House before the rebels.
Late that afternoon, Custer's troopers reached the Southside Railroad at Appomattox Station and captured a train with 300,000 rations intended for the hungry Confederate soldiers. The rebel forces, mostly artillerymen, in the vicinity were startled to see Union troops in the area while most of Lee's army was still strung out on several miles of road to the east of Appomattox Court House.
After skirmishing, Custer ordered a full assault on the Confederates around 8pm under a full moon, scattering the enemy force and capturing 30 cannon and almost 1,000 prisoners. Custer's division was now positioned directly in front of Lee's advancing army, blocking the only road to the west. To locate Lee, Custer sent a unit under Colonel Augustus Root to Appomattox Court House. Entering the village, they encountered Confederates and Root was killed in the fighting.
Lee knew that in the morning he would have to move west from the Court House and try to push aside the Union cavalry. But if the Federal infantry under Ord reached the field before that could be accomplished the game would be up for the Army of Northern Virginia.
The plight of the Army of Northern Virginia was obvious to its general officers. General Alexander recounts in his memoir that sometime on the 8th several rebel generals conferred and "agreed that a speedy surrender was inevitable" and that they "thought it desirable that they should first suggest the necessity to Gen. Lee, that the blame or odium, if any, might be laid upon them instead of upon him". Alexander reports that General Pendleton, who delivered the message to Lee, was "coldly received".
Despite Lee's rejection of his own officers suggestion of surrender, he and Grant continued their correspondence that day. Grant sent a note:
Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, - namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.Lee's response reached Grant around midnight:
I received at a late hour your note of today. I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desire to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Va., but, as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, & tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the picket lines of the two armies.Grant's Chief of Staff, General John Rawlins, upon reading Lee's note aloud, pronounced it "a positive insult" reminding the Union commander that he had no authority to meet with Lee to discuss the subject of a general peace, but the imperturbable Grant, echoing Lincoln's sentiments of April 4, responded that "Lee was only trying to be let down easily".