After shattering a large part of Lee's army at Sailor's Creek, Phil Sheridan telegraphed U.S. Grant:
I have the honor to report that the enemy made a stand at the intersection of Burke's Station road with the road upon which they were retreating. I attacked them with two divisions of the Sixth Army Corps and routed them handsomely, making a connection with the cavalry. I am still pressing on with both cavalry and infantry. Up to the present time we have captured Generals Ewell, Kershaw, Baron, Corse, De Foe [Du Bose], and Custis Lee, several thousand prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery, with caissons and a large number of wagons. If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.The next morning, as he prepared to leave City Point to return to Washington, President Lincoln saw Sheridan's message and telegraphed Grant:
General Sheridan says: "If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender". Let the thing be pressed.________________________________________________________________________
The night of April 6-7 had been the second consecutive night march for Lee's shrinking and weary army. In his essential memoir, Fighting For The Confederacy, Longstreet's artillery chief General Edward Porter Alexander wrote of that march:
. . . this night was actively wretched. I was 8 hours in riding the 6 miles to Farmville. The road was one sea of mud through which men, horses, ambulances, artillery, & cavalry splashed & foundered & stopped in the darkness & splashed & floundered & stopped again. And if it was that to me on horseback what must it have been to the poor fellows on foot loaded with muskets, blankets, & ammunition & worn with continuous marching & digging & lack of food.
April 7 was another day of drama at High Bridge but on this day it was the retreating Confederates who were trying to burn the bridge in order to thwart the Federal pursuit rather than the Federals trying to burn it to cut off the Confederate retreat as happened on the previous day. The rebels were only partly successful burning the railroad bridge but unable to destroy the lower wagon bridge before it was captured by Union troops ending Lee's hopes of being able to break contact with the pursuing Grant.
It was on that day that Alexander noted the Confederate soldiers were "beginning to foresee the inevitable end" and heard his cannoneers shouting to him "Don't surrender no ammunition!" and "Let us shoot up this ammunition first if we got to surrender!".
That afternoon U.S. Grant decided to open communications with Lee writing him at 5pm:
General: The events 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 that it is so, & regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of the Confederate States Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.Grant's message reached Lee sometime after 9pm when he was with General Longstreet. He showed it to Longstreet who replied "not yet". Lee responded (Grant received it the next morning):
General: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.Lee knew he was in a trap. Alexander summarized the situation:
We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River & the Appomattox, & there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox C.H. [Court House], and to that Grant had the shortest road! [See Map on April 3 post]The only way out for Lee was to beat the Union army to the railroad (and rations) at Appomattox Station, three miles to the west of the Court House. He ordered yet another night march.