After a ten-month siege, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant capture the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee leads his troops on a desperate retreat westward.
The ragged Confederate troops could no longer maintain the 40-mile network of defenses that ran from southwest of Petersburg to north of Richmond, the Rebel capital 25 miles north of Petersburg. Through the winter, desertion and attrition melted Lee’s army down to less than 60,000, while Grant’s army swelled to over 120,000. Grant attacked Five Forks southwest of Petersburg on April 1, scoring a huge victory that cut Lee’s supply line and inflicted 5,000 casualties. The next day, Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “I think it absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight…”
Grant’s men attacked all along the Petersburg front. In the predawn hours, hundreds of Federal cannon roared to life as the Yankees bombarded the Rebel fortifications. Said one soldier, “the shells screamed through the air in a semi-circle of flame.” At 5:00 in the morning, Union troops silently crawled toward the Confederates, shrouded in darkness. Confederate pickets alerted the troops, and the Yankees were raked by heavy fire, but the determined troops poured forth and began overrunning the trenches. Four thousand Union troops were killed or wounded, but a northern officer wrote, “It was a great relief, a positive lifting of a load of misery to be at last let at them.”
Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia and one of Lee’s most trusted lieutenants, rode to the front to rally his men. As he approached some trees with his aide, two Union soldiers emerged and fired, killing Hill instantly. Hill had survived four years of war and dozens of battles only to die during the final days of the Confederacy. When Lee received the news, he quietly said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.”
By nightfall, President Davis and the Confederate government were in flight and Richmond was on fire. Retreating Rebel troops set ablaze several huge warehouses to prevent them from being captured by the Federals and the fires soon spread. With the army and government officials gone, bands of thugs roamed the streets looting what was left.