On this day in 1865, the final campaign of the Civil War begins in Virginia when Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant move against the Confederate trenches around Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Rebels were soon forced to evacuate the city and begin a desperate race west.
Eleven months earlier, Grant moved his army across the Rapidan River in northern Virginia and began the bloodiest campaign of the war. For six weeks, Lee and Grant fought along an arc that swung east of the Confederate capital at Richmond. They engaged in some of the conflict’s bloodiest battles at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor before settling into trenches for a siege of Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond. The trenches eventually stretched all the wayto Richmond, and during the ensuing months the armies glowered at each other across a no man’s land. Periodically, Grant launched attacks against sections of the Rebel defenses, but Lee’s men managed to fend them off.
Time was running out for Lee, though. His army was dwindling in size to about 55,000, while Grant’s continued to grow–the Army of the Potomac now had more than 125,000 men ready for service. On March 25, Lee attempted to split the Union lines when he attacked Fort Stedman, a stronghold along the Yankee trenches. His army was beaten back, and he lost nearly 5,000 men. On March 29, Grant seized the initiative, sending 12,000 men past the Confederates’ left flank and threatening to cut Lee’s escape route from Petersburg. Fighting broke out there, several miles southwest of the city. Lee’s men could not arrest the Federal advance. On April 1, the Yankees struck at Five Forks, soundly defeating the Rebels and leaving Lee no alternative. He pulled his forces from their trenches and raced west, followed by Grant. It was a race that even the great Lee could not win. He surrendered his army on April 9, 1865,at Appomattox Court House.