With Union victory at Five Forks, General Lee desperately shifted troops to the west to protect the Southside Railroad. Grant, realizing that Lee was thinning his lines around Petersburg and Richmond to protect the railroad, ordered a general assault against the Confederate fortifications.
The VI Corps achieved a major breakthrough up the Boydton Plank Road. Lee telegraphed Secretary of War Breckenridge:
I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here until night. I am not certain I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw to-night north of the Appomattox, and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line to-night from James River. I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight. I will advise you later according to circumstances.
The II Corps to the left of the VI Corps and the XXIV Corps to the right of the VI Corps also achieved breakthroughs. Union casualties were about 4,000 compared to 5000 Confederate, most of whom were taken prisoner. The siege of Petersburg and Richmond was at an end as Lee moved his army out of his lines and began the march to the west that would end at Appomattox Court House.
Here is General Longstreet’s account of the Third Battle of Petersburg in his memoirs:
General Grant had ordered assault for four o’clock, but it was near five before there was light enough for the men to see their way across the line and over the works. Our night-ride was beyond range of the enemy’s batteries. Crossing the Appomattox, we rode through the streets of Petersburg for General Lee’s head-quarters, some miles farther west. As no part of the command had reached the station when we passed, orders were left for the detachments to march as soon as they landed.
Before the first rays of morning we found general head-quarters. Some members of the staff were up and dressed, but the general was yet on his couch. When told of my presence, he called me to a seat at his bedside, and gave orders for our march to support the broken forces about Five Forks. He had no censure for any one, but mentioned the great numbers of the enemy and the superior repeating rifles of his cavalry. He was ill, suffering from the rheumatic ailment that he had been afflicted with for years, but keener trouble of mind made him in a measure superior to the
shooting pains of his disease.
From the line gained by the Sixth Corps on the 25th it was a run of but two or three minutes across to the Confederate works.
At 4.45, General Wright advanced as the signal for general assault. General Lee was not through with his instructions for our march when a staff-officer came in and reported that the lines in front of his head-quarters were broken. Drawing his wrapper about him, he walked with me to the front door and saw, as far as the eye could cover the field, a line of skirmishers in quiet march towards us. It was hardly light enoughto distinguish the blue from the gray.
General Wright drove in our picket line, and in desperate charges crowned the Confederate works. General Gibbon followed the move with his divisionsof the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Corps, one of his brigades (Harris’s) carrying part of the Confederate works. The troops, weary oftheir all-night watch and early battle, halted to close their ranks and wait for the skirmish line to open up the field. General Lee appealed to have me interpose and stop the march, but not a man of my command was there, nor had we notice that any of them had reached the station at Petersburg.
All staff-officers mounted and rode to find the parts of Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions that had been forced from their lines. The display of officers riding in many directions seemed to admonish the skirmishers to delay under cover of an intervening swale. The alarm reached General A. P. Hill, of the Third Corps, who rode off to find his troops, but instead came suddenly upon the enemy’s skirmishers in their concealment. He wheeled and made a dash to escape, but the Federal fire had deadly effect, the gallant general fell, and the Southern service lost a sword made
bright by brave work upon many heavy fields.
General Humphreys, of the Second, followed the move of the Sixth Corps, and General Parke assaulted on the Bermuda Hundred front and at Petersburg. He had partial success at the former, but was repulsed when he met Mahone’s strong line. At Petersburg he had more success, capturing twelve guns.
General Sheridan, reinforced by Miles’s division, was ordered to follow up his work on the right bank. The reinforcements sent under Lieutenant-General Anderson joined General Pickett at night of the 1st, and the combined forces succeeded in getting out of the way of the Union infantry, and they gave the cavalry a severe trial a little before night at Amazon Creek, where the pursuit rested; but the Union forces made some important captures of artillery and prisoners. The divisions of Heth and Wilcox moved to the right and left to collect their broken files. General Wright wheeled to the right and massed the Sixth Corps for its march to Petersburg, and was joined by General Gibbon.
Not venturing to hope, I looked towards Petersburg and saw General Benning, with his Rock brigade, winding in rapid march around the near hill. He had but six hundred of his men. I asked for two hundred, and led them off to the canal on our right, which was a weak point, threatened by a small body of skirmishers, and ordered the balance of his troops deployed as skirmishers in front of the enemy’s main force.
I rode then to Benning’s line of skirmishers, and at the middle point turned and rode at a walk to the top of the hill, took out my glasses, and had a careful view of the enemy’s formidable masses. I thought I recognized General Gibbon, and raised my hat, but he was busy and did not see me. There were two forts at our line of works,–Gregg and Whitworth. General Grant rode over the captured works and ordered the forts taken. Upon withdrawing my glasses I looked to the right and left, and saw Benning’s four hundred standing in even line with me, viewing the masses
preparing for their march to meet us.
During a few moments of quiet, General Lee despatched to Richmond of affairs at Petersburg, and to advise that our troops must abandon theirlines and march in retreat as soon as night could cover the move.
It was eleven o’clock of the morning when the despatch reached Richmond. It was the Sabbath-day. The city was at profound worship. The President was at St. Paul’s Church. My wife was there (rest her spirit!) and heard the pastor, Mr. Minnegerode, read, “_The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him_.” The full congregation rose, and
the air whispered silence. The solemnity was broken as a swift despatch-bearer entered the portals and walked with quiet but rapid steps up the aisle to the chancel. He handed the President a sealed envelope. After reading, the President took his hat and walked with dignity down the aisle. Service was resumed, but presently came another messenger for some of the ladies, then another, and still another, and in a few moments the congregation, followed by the minister, giving up the sacred service, passed out and to their homes to prepare, in silent resignation, for whatever was to come.
The tragic scenes of the south side, in a different way, were as impressive as these. General Gibbon prepared his divisions under Foster and Turner for assault upon Forts Gregg and Whitworth, and when the Sixth Corps lined up with him, he ordered the divisions to their work. As they advanced the other brigades of Field’s division came up, were aligned before the enemy’s heavy massing forces, and ordered to intrench. General Foster found his work at Fort Gregg called for all the force and skill that he could apply. He made desperate assault, but was checked, and charged again and again, even to the bayonet, before he could mount the parapets and claim the fort. It had been manned by part of Harris’s brigade (Twelfth Mississippi Regiment, under Captain J. H. Duncan, three
hundred men of Mahone’s division). Fifty-five dead were found in the fort; two hundred and fifty, including wounded, were prisoners.
General Turner attacked at Fort Whitworth, and had easier work. General Wilcox, thinking it a useless sacrifice to try to hold it, ordered his troops withdrawn, and many got out in time to escape the heavy assault, but many were taken prisoners. General Gibbon lost ten officers and one hundred and twelve men killed, twenty-seven officers and five hundred andsixty-five men wounded; two pieces of artillery and several colors were captured.
It was my time next. General Meade called Miles’s division back to the Second Corps, and prepared to march down upon Petersburg, but General Grant thought that the work might prove hazardous of delay to his plans for the next day; that General Lee was obliged to pull away from his lines during the night to find escape, and standing as he was he would have the start, while at Petersburg he would be behind him. He therefore ordered all things in readiness for his march westward at early light of the next morning.