A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 15
A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF MAJOR-GENERAL CUSTER.
The final struggle for the possession of Richmond and Petersburg was now commenced by an extension of the Union lines westward, Grant's object being to attack the right flank of the Confederates.
On the 29th of March, Sheridan, with his cavalry, moved southwest to Dinwiddie C.H., where Devin's and Crook's divisions halted for the night. Custer was some distance in the rear protecting the train. In the morning, Devin pushed the enemy back northerly to their intrenchments at Five Forks; but being unable to advance further, he returned to Dinwiddie C.H. Gen. Warren, with the 5th Infantry Corps, had meantime been put under Sheridan's command as a support to the cavalry, but had not yet come up.
The next day, 31st, Lee's troops attacked Warren unexpectedly, and drove two of his divisions back upon a third, where their advance was stopped; and with the assistance of Humphrey's 2nd Corps, the enemy were driven back into their entrenched position along the White Oak road. Then the rebel infantry moved westward along the road to Five Forks, and attacked Devin, who, earlier in the day, had advanced to Five Forks and carried that position. Devin was driven out in disorder and forced back, and after some difficulty rejoined Crook's division at Dinwiddie C. H. The confederates now assailed Sheridan with a superior force, but could make no headway, and during the night they withdrew.
Meantime Custer, and Gen. McKenzie with 1,000 additional cavalry, had joined Sheridan, and Warren was within supporting distance. At daybreak the cavalry advanced steadily on the enemy, and by noon had driven them behind their works at Five Forks, and were menacing their front. Warren was now ordered forward, and after more delay than Sheridan deemed necessary, he reached his assigned position and charged furiously westward on the enemy's left flank. Custer and Devin at the same time charged their right flank and front. Thus assailed by double their numbers the rebel infantry fought on with great gallantry and fortitude; but at length their flank defenses were carried by Warren's troops, and simultaneously the cavalry swept over their works. A large portion of the enemy surrendered, and the balance fled westward, pursued by Custer and McKenzie; 5,000 prisoners were taken.
The next morning, Sunday, April 2nd, at daybreak, a general assault was made by Grant's army upon the defences of Petersburg, and some of them were carried. Lee telegraphed to Davis that Richmond must be evacuated; and by night the Confederate rule in that city was ended, and Davis and his Government on the way by railroad to Danville. Lee's troops withdrew from Richmond and Petersburg the same night, and marched rapidly westward to Amelia C.H. on the Danville railroad, where they halted, April 4th and 5th, to gather supplies of food from the country.
Meantime, the Union army was pursuing the retreating Confederates and making every effort to prevent their escape. Custer and Devin moved southwesterly toward Burkesville destroying the railroad, and then joined Crook, McKenzie, and the 5th Corps at Jetersville five miles west of Amelia C.H. Sheridan intrenched his infantry across the railroad, supported them by his cavalry, and felt prepared to stop the passage of Lee's whole army. Lee, however, finding his way to Danville thus blocked, moved northerly around Sheridan's left, and thence westerly toward Farmville on the Appomattox River. Gen. Davies, of Crook's division, made a reconnoisance and struck Lee's train moving ahead of his troops, destroying wagons, and taking prisoners. A fight followed, and Davies fell back to Jetersville where nearly the whole army was then concentrated.
On the morning of the 6th, Crook, Custer, and Devin started out in pursuit. Crook, who was in advance, was ordered to attack the trains, and if the enemy was too strong, another division was to pass him, while he held fast and pressed the enemy, and attack at a point further on—thus alternating until some vulnerable point was found. Crook came upon Lee's columns near Deatonsville, and charged upon them, determined to detain them at any cost. Crook was finally repulsed, but his action gave Custer time to push ahead, and strike further on at Sailor's Creek. Crook and Devin came promptly to Custer's support, and he pierced the line of march, destroyed 400 wagons, and took many prisoners. Elwell's division was separated from Lee, who was further ahead, and being enclosed between the cavalry in front and the infantry on their rear, the troops threw down their arms and surrendered.
That evening Lee crossed the Appomattox at Farmville, and tried to burn the bridges behind him, but troops arrived in season to save one of them. Lee halted five miles beyond Farmville, intrenched himself, and repulsed an attack from the infantry. At night he silently resumed his retreat.
On the morning of the 7th, Custer and Devin, under Merritt, were sent on a detour to the left, to cut off retreat toward Danville should it be attempted; while Crook forded the Appomattox and attacked a train. On the 8th, Sheridan concentrated the cavalry at Prospect Station, and sent Merritt, Custer, and Devin swiftly ahead 28 miles to Appomattox Station, where, he had learned from scouts, were four trains loaded with supplies for Lee, just arrived from Lynchburg.
Gen. Custer took the lead, and on reaching the railroad station he skillfully surrounded and captured the trains. Then, followed by Devin, he hurried on five miles further to Appomattox C.H., where he confronted the van of Lee's army, immediately attacked it, and by night had turned it back on the main column, and captured prisoners, wagons, guns, and a hospital train. The balance of the cavalry hurried up, and a position was taken directly across the road, in front of Lee's army.
By a forced march the infantry under Griffin and Ord, supporting the cavalry, reached the rear of Sheridan's position by daybreak the next morning. Grant and Mead were pressing closely on Lee's rear, and Lee saw there was no escape for him unless he could break through the cavalry force which he supposed alone disputed his passage. He therefore ordered his infantry to advance. The result of this charge, the last one made by the Army of Virginia, is thus described in Greeley's "American Conflict":—
The next day, April 9th, Gen. Custer, who had been brevetted Major-General after the battle of Cedar Creek, issued the following complimentary order to his troops:—
SOLDIERS OF THE THIRD CAVALRY DIVISION:—
With profound gratitude toward the God of battles, by whose blessings our enemies have been humbled and our arms rendered triumphant, your Commanding General avails himself of this his first opportunity to express to you his admiration of the heroic manner in which you have passed through the series of battles which to-day resulted in the surrender of the enemy's entire army.
The record established by your indomitable courage is unparalleled in the annals of war. Your prowess has won for you even the respect and admiration of your enemies. During the past six months, although in most instances confronted by superior numbers, you have captured from the enemy, in open battle, 111 pieces of field artillery, 65 battle-flags, and upward of 10,000 prisoners of war including seven general officers. Within the last ten days, and included in the above, you have captured 46 field-pieces of artillery and 37 battle-flags. You have never lost a gun, never lost a color, and have never been defeated; and notwithstanding the numerous engagements in which you have borne a prominent part, including those memorable battles of the Shenandoah, you have captured every piece of artillery which the enemy has dared to open upon you. The near approach of peace renders it improbable that you will again be called upon to undergo the fatigues of the toilsome march, or the exposure of the battle-field; but should the assistance of keen blades wielded by your sturdy arms be required to hasten the coming of that glorious peace for which we have been so long contending, the General Commanding is firmly confident that, in the future as in the past, every demand will meet a hearty and willing response.
Let us hope that our work is done, and that blessed with the comforts of peace, we may be permitted to enjoy the pleasures of home and friends. For our comrades who have fallen, let us ever cherish a grateful remembrance. To the wounded and to those who languish in Southern prisons, let our heartfelt sympathy be tendered.And now, speaking for myself alone, when the war is ended and the task of the historian begins; when those deeds of daring which have rendered the name and fame of the Third Cavalry Division imperishable are inscribed upon the bright pages of our country's history, I only ask that my name may be written as that of the Commander of the Third Cavalry Division.
Lee's flag of truce at Appomattox—a white towel—and also the table on which Grant and Lee signed the capitulation agreement, were presented to Mrs. Custer by Gen. Sheridan, and are now in her possession. In a letter accompanying them Sheridan wrote, that he "knew of no person more instrumental in bringing about this most desired event than her own most gallant husband."
In the great parade of the Army of the Potomac at Washington in May 1865, Sheridan's cavalry were at the head of the column; and the Third Division, first in peace as it had been first in war, led the advance. Custer, now a Major-General of volunteers, at the age of 26 years, rode proudly at the head of his troopers, a prominent figure in the stirring pageant, and the observed of all beholders. He had put off for the occasion his careless dashing style of dress, and wore, with becoming dignity, the full regulation uniform of a Major-General.
Shortly after the parade, Custer was sent to Texas, where he had command of a cavalry division at Austin, but no active service became necessary. In March, 1866, he was mustered out of service as a Major-General, and took rank as a Captain, assigned to the 5th Cavalry, U.S.A. Soon afterward, he applied to Senor Romero, Minister from Mexico, for a position as chief of President Juarez's cavalry, in his struggle with Maximilian. He presented a letter of introduction from General Grant in which he was spoken of in the most complimentary terms. Romero was anxious to secure his services, and made him liberal offers; but as Custer could not obtain leave of absence from his Government, the contemplated arrangement was not completed.