His horse responding quickly to tugged reins and applied spurs, a one-armed warrior from Stetson rode among his exhausted Maine men as they stumbled, bumbled, and grumbled across rural Virginia on Saturday, April 8, 1865.
Less than a week earlier, Union assaults had broken the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Forced to abandon that city and Richmond, Robert E. Lee had shoved his Confederate veterans west. If they could slip past the Federal armies pursuing them, the starving Johnnys might escape into North Carolina and continue the war.
Ulysses S. Grant pushed his men hard after their enemies. Union cavalrymen commanded by Phil Sheridan nipped at Lee’s heels and left flank as Confederates retreated along the Appomattox River. Behind the Union riders tramped battle-hardened Federal infantrymen, including those belonging to the Army of the James, commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward Ord.
Among his units was the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment.
Sensing the war’s terminus, sleep-deprived Union soldiers hustled westward. “All day long” on Saturday, April 8, Ord’s veterans “pressed forward, the men, although tired and footsore, requiring neither urging nor command to put forth every effort to head Lee off from Lynchburg,” recalled 2nd Lt. Robert Brady Jr. of Enfield and Co. B, 11th Maine.
Led by Col. Jonathan Hill of Stetson, the 11th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade, which was commanded by Co. Thomas Osborne.
The Maine boys knew why Ord relentlessly drove his Army of the James as the Virginia spring flowered in the fields and forests. “All understood that it was [Ulysses S.] Grant’s purpose for us to march by Lee’s army and head him off,” Brady commented.
“It was now a question of legs and endurance,” Brady described that staggering April 8 advance. “On and on our men plodded, none falling out until worn out.”
Except for breaks when he dismounted and walked his horse, Hill stayed in the saddle that day. Hailing from Stetson in rural Penobscot County, he had joined the 11th Maine’s Co. K as its captain in November 1861. Promoted later to major and lieutenant colonel, Hill had led the regiment during midsummer 1864. Then in August at Deep Bottom, Va., a Confederate bullet had shattered Hill’s right arm. Hill now rode one-handed with his right sleeve pinned shut.
With the 11th Maine marched other men from the lower Penobscot Valley. With Co. A was Pvt. Robert Douglas, a 32-year-old from Hudson. In Co. B was Manuel Raymond, 32, a Prospect soldier.
First Sgt. Charles F. Wheeler kept an eye on the Co. E boys; he came from Alton. In the same company were two Bangor privates: Charlees Reinbold and Charles Trask.
And over in Co. K was Sgt. Augusta D. Locke of Bangor.
Onward marched Ord’s troops, now privy to the disintegration eviscerating Lee’s army. “As the day passed we found ourselves on the track of Sheridan ” Brady remembered. “Prisoners, guns, and trains of wagons captured by his vigorous advance lined the roadside, encouraging our tired men to put forth every exertion.”
Sunset “found us still pressing on,” and “not until after midnight” did the 3rd Brigade halt, Brady recalled. “We moved into the woods and lay down in line of battle for a few hours’ rest.”
Lee had aimed for Appomattox Station on the South Side Railroad; there he anticipated finding badly needed supplies, especially rations for his famished soldiers. Lee expected to arrive at the station on April 9, Palm Sunday.
But George Custer and his Federal cavalry captured the station and four trains on Saturday. After fighting off a Confederate counterattack, the Union troopers rode northeast along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road and straddled it just outside Appomattox Court House.
Suddenly finding his best escape route blocked, Lee scheduled an infantry attack to open the road on Sunday morning. Aware that Custer’s troopers could not hold long against hard-bitten infantry, Sheridan summoned Ord’s soldiers.
The 11th Maine boys “were on the march again” between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., Sunday, according to Brady. Soon after dawn the 3rd Brigade emerged into the field where Sheridan had camped; while Ord conferred with Sheridan, “our infantry stacked arms and breakfasted” on coffee, hard bread, and raw bacon, Brady recalled.
Suddenly “firing began a short distance in front of us,” he noticed. Forming the regiment, Hill led his men “on a quick step; then, as the firing grew fiercer and fiercer, the order was, ‘Double quick,’” Brady recalled
“Up the pike (stage road) we sped, soon to meet the cavalry falling back,” he said. Deploying into line of battle, the 3rd Brigade “broke through the woods to where the dismounted cavalrymen were falling back, firing rapidly as they retreated, mounting as fast as they reached their horses.”
Led by Gen. John B. Gordon, Confederate infantry and artillery pushed the Federal troopers away from Appomattox Court House. Gordon figured he faced only cavalry; he did not hear a Maryland trooper holler, “Three cheers for the Eleventh Maine!” after recognizing Hill, “who was riding at our head in his usual gallant manner,” Brady recalled.
Then the Union brigades “rushed on Gordon’s advance,” fought a “short and sharp” struggle, and drove “the retreating Confederates through … a wide ox-bow-shaped field,” Brady said. In the distance “the roofs of the hamlet of Appomattox Court House could be seen.”
The 11th Maine gradually shifted position to place its right flank against the stage road. Then a Union staff officer rode to Hill and ordered him to capture a Confederate artillery battery “that stood (some distance away) on the crown of a ridge running across the field,” Brady said.
“Our regiment sprang eagerly forward, broke through the wood, pushed into the field, faced a storm of grape [shot], and charged the guns,” he recalled. Two companies, A and B, occupied “a few log houses situated near the pike,” and Maine boys started dueling with “Confederate cavalry that resisted their advance.”
The other companies obliqued to the left. Shot from his horse, the wounded Hill was captured; “they lifted him to a horse, seating him behind its rider, with the intention of carrying him away,” Brady said. With angry 11th Maine boys “pressing them sharply,” the Confederates pulled Hill from the horse, stole his sword and watch, and fled as his men reached him.
As the other eight companies went belly to earth “by a slight rise” that prevented enemy artillery from firing into their ranks, Cos. A and B shot it out with Confederate cavalry now swarming around the log cabins. The company commanders ordered a “double-quick” retreat across the field to rejoin the 11th Maine.
Enemy cavalry scooped up some Maine boys during that wild retreat, and the Confederate guns showered the running soldiers “with grape, canister, and bullets,” Brady recalled. “Several men of these companies were killed and wounded before they reached the regiment.”
The 11th Maine shifted its position after brigade commander Osborne “directed … the regiment to its place in the new line of battle. Our position was now to the left of that we had charged from, and at something of an angle to it,” Brady noticed.
The badly damaged Cos. A and B formed a skirmish line and crossed the field “to take position in the edge of the woods beyond” it, he said. The advancing skirmishers scooped up “a number of Ohio men under command of a sergeant.”
The Ohioans formed on the far right of the skirmish line. “We were well beyond the ravine, and were getting so close to the edge of the woods that we were beginning to wonder what sort of a reception we would meet,” remembered Brady.
Suddenly “a tremendous yell sounded in our rear, and then a terrible rifle fire broke out from the same quarter,” he heard the disaster unfolding behind him. “Looking back to where our line of battle ought to be emerging from the woods, we saw a scene of confusion as of a battle — firing, cheering, yelling, men moving to and fro, which spirals of gunpowder rising and drifting away.”
The skirmishers “wavered,” with “one thought in the minds of all, officers and men — that the Confederates had attacked, and were between our slender skirmish line and our army,” Brady sensed the fear.
“What was to be done?” he asked.
The officers (including Brady) held “a swing exchange of opinion … and it was determined to push to the edge of the woods we had been ordered to reach, and from there take observations,” he indicated.
Telling their men that “it’s none of your —— business what’s in your rear,” the officers got the boys moving. “And forward it was, with anxiety filling the mind of each responsible officer,” Brady admitted.
Then a wild shout caught his attention. “A mounted Union officer was seen galloping from our rear towards us, waving his cap over his head as he spurred his horse at full speed,” Brady held his breath.
“We halted our men, and as the officer, a staff one we now recognized, came flying on, full of some great news — that was plain by his abandon — he swept into calling distance and shouted, ‘Halt, boys! Halt!
“‘Lee has surrendered, and the war is over!’” the officer bellowed.
The 11th Maine Infantry suffered 59 casualties (seven men killed, 32 wounded, and 20 captured) on April 9, 1865. The last battle in Virginia killed Charles Wheeler from Alton and Robert Douglas of Hudson. Wounded in the last advance of the 11th Maine Infantry were Augustus Locke from Bangor and Manuel Raymond from Prospect (and Hill of Stetson, of course).
And in the war’s ultimate indignity, Confederate cavalrymen briefly captured Charles Reinbold and Charles Trask of Bangor.
Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.