Fall - Winter '64-'65Last updated June 18th, 2007 by Jenny
The Confederacy was engaged in a numbers game that it could never win. Coupled with the loss of Atlanta and the later disasters in Tennessee such as Franklin and the loss of Nashville, the former which virtually assured Lincoln would be reelected, the South was literally bleeding to death. By the end of the siege, boys as young as 14 and men as old as 60 or 70 would be manning the Petersburg defenses, with Lee's men stretched as far apart, as one man noted, as telegraph poles.
On September 30, Hill's men engaged Warren's Fifth Corps at Peebles Farm. The Federal attack at first met with success, but then reinforcements slowed their advance. The following day, Hill launched a counterattack but it was repulsed. The reinforced Federals again advanced, having limited successes. But they succeeded in establishing a new line -- again closer to Petersburg.
The fighting again became sporadic for a time. During this period a soldier noted Hill appeared "weather-beaten" with a "heavy, long sandy beard." He rode a "splendid grey horse" and that he seemed both in perfect control of both himself his mount and "seemed to be very lively and talkative." At a dinner party, Hill noted that he would prefer McClellan, now running against Lincoln in the North's presidential race, to win the election "because if it becomes necessary to surrender, I would prefer to do so to McClellan."
The Battle of Peebles Farm & Boydton Plank Road
A brief description of the battle of Peeble's Farm:
In combination with Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s offensive north of the James River, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant extended his left flank to cut Confederate lines of communication southwest of Petersburg. Two divisions of the IX corps under Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, two divisions of the V Corps under Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren, and Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s cavalry division were assigned to the operation. On September 30, the Federals marched via Poplar Spring Church to reach Squirrel Level and Vaughan Roads. The initial Federal attack overran Fort Archer, flanking the Confederates out of their Squirrel Level Road line. Late afternoon, Confederate reinforcements arrived, slowing the Federal advance. On October 1, the Federals repulsed a Confederate counterattack directed by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. Reinforced by Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott’s division, the Federals resumed their advance on the 2nd, captured Fort MacRae which was lightly defended, and extended their left flank to the vicinity of Peebles’ and Pegrams Farms. With these limited successes, Meade suspended the offensive. A new line was entrenched from the Federal works on Weldon Railroad to Pegram’s Farm.
A brief description of the battle of Boydton Plank Road:
Directed by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, divisions from three Union corps (II, V, and IX) and Gregg’s cavalry division, numbering more than 30,000 men, withdrew from the Petersburg lines and marched west to operate against the Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad. The initial Union advance on October 27 gained the Boydton Plank Road, a major campaign objective. But that afternoon, a counterattack near Burgess’ Mill spearheaded by Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division and Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s cavalry isolated the II Corps and forced a retreat. The Confederates retained control of the Boydton Plank Road for the rest of the winter.
On October 27, Hancock, commanding elements of all three Army of the Potomac corps, moved on Hill's positions along the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. The objective was to seize the road. The initial advance by Hancock's men brushed aside the Southern pickets holding the road near Burgess Mill and took control of the road. Hill moved quickly to counter this threat, although he was again plagued by illness. Hill decided he was too sick to remain in command; he turned over effective command of the battle to Heth, but remained nearby to off help if needed.
Heth threw two divisions at Hancock, but Hancock continued his drive up the road. But Hancock drove too fast, too far and his corps became isolated from the rest of the Army. Meade therefore called for him to halt. In the meantime, Grant had made a personal reconnaissance of the Confederate work, and perhaps remembering Cold Harbor, deemed them too strong to take by frontal assault. But a problem still remained -- Hancock's corps was trapped on three sides by Heth's and Mahone's divisions and the Confederate cavalry.
A lesser commander may have gone into panic, but Hancock was made of sterner stuff. He turned his men and attacked both Confederate flanks, routing Mahone and the cavalry. The Confederates were forced to retreat back up the Boydton Road. During the night, Hancock, considering the new line too tenuous and unstable, retreated back to his original position. In short, nothing was gained or lost, except more soldiers the Confederacy could ill afford to lose.
Among the soldiers killed was Confederate cavalry commander Wade Hampton's son. This led Hill to write Hampton a short note:
October 28, 1864 My dear General: I take the liberty of writing to you, to express my deep sympathy with you in the end of your noble boy, and my earnest desire, were such a thing possible, to alleviate your grief. Any assistance which I can give you in forwarding your wishes in any way, please do not hesitate to call upon me. --- With great sympathy, being truly your friend, A.P. Hill.
Hill knew what it was like to lose a child; his daughter had died right before Fredericksburg two years before. It was a nice gesture from one father to another and Hampton must have appreciated it.
Although sick, A.P. Hill still could inspire awe. An aide recalled that:
He was constantly on the lines, riding with a firm, graceful seat, looking every inch a soldier. Like General Lee, he was rarely much attended. One staff officer and a single courier formed his usual escort, and often he made the rounds alone. Of ordinary height, his figure was slight but athletic, his carriage erect, and his dress plainly neat. His expression was grave but gentle, his manner so courteous as almost to lack decision, but was contradicted by rigidity about the mouth and chin, and bright flashing eyes that even in repose told another tale. In moments of excitement he never lost self-control nor composure of demeanor, but his glance was as sharp as an eagle's, and his voice could take a metallic ring.
The Army went into winter quarters in November, ending the major fighting for 1864. Hill had Dolly with him, as well as the girls. Lee was a frequent visitor; Dolly noted that he "comes very frequently to see me. He is the greatest and best man on earth, brought me the last time some delicious apples."
That Lee was fond of Hill and his family is evident in the 1875 writings of J. William Jones. Jones, the former chaplin for Hill's 13th Virginia and the source for much information on him, recalled a story about Lee and one of Hill's daughters:
In calling one day in Petersburg upon the accomplished lady of the gallant and lamented General A. P. Hill, his bright little girl met him at the door and exclaimed, with that familiarity which the kind-hearted old hero had taught her: " O General Lee, here is ' Bobby Lee ' (holding up a puppy): " do kiss him."
The general pretended to do so, and the little creature was delighted.
Hill and his men made one more attempt to retake the Weldon Railroad but were unsuccessful. After the raid, Hill wrote a letter to his beloved sister Lucy:
Dolly and the children are with me, and we are just as comfortable as people can expect to be in these times. The children are growing so rapidly, doing so well. Russy is as fat as a butterball and the greatest talker you ever saw. And your little namesake, Lucy Lee, is certainly the sweetest little cherub ever born, gentle and genial as a May morning, and easily managed.
I have just returned from the hardest trip I have ever had, down the rail road after Warren. I could not succeed in bringing him to fight, though I marched 40 miles one day and night. We succeeded however in turning him back from Weldon.
Our army here, as always, is ready to do its duty, and men and officers in good spirits. I suppose now we shall, in addition to Grant, have Sherman on our hands. Well the Army of Northern Virginia is equal to it, and however much you task its powers, will always respond, and I hope successfully.
But not even Dolly and the children's presence could seem to restore Hill to health. Like the Confederacy, he appeared to be wasting away. Pegram's adjutant recalled later: "Much he suffered during the last campaign from a grevious malady, yet the vigor of his soul disdained to consider the weakness of his body and accepting without murmur the privations of that terrible winter, he remained steadfastly to his duty."
Still, there were times when the "old" Hill appeared. Spying his old friend Rev. J. William Jones at Petersburg, "distributing tracts and religious newspapers," Hill engaged his "life-long friend" in the following good-humored exchange:
"John [Jones notes Hill "always familiarly addressed me"], don't you think the boys would prefer 'hard-tack' to tracts just now?"
Jones had an answer: "I have no doubt that many of them would but they crowd around and take the tracts as eagerly as they surround the commissary when he has anything to 'issue;' and besides other advantages, the tracts certainly help them to bear the lack of 'hard-tack." "
Hill undoubtly smiled as he replied, "I have no doubt of it and I am glad that you able to supply the tracts more abundantly than we can the rations."
During the winter, G. Moxley Sorrel -- Longstreet's long time chief of staff -- received a long over due promotion to Brigadier General with orders to report for duty with the Third Corps to take command of Wright's old Georgia brigade. Sorrel was worried about taking command of a Third Corps brigade due to his role in the old Hill-James Longstreet feud. When he expressed that he was a bit apprehensive about taking a command in Hill's corps for he always felt Hill was stiff and menacing around him, an officer in Richmond showed Sorrel the paper that had secured his promotion: a letter from Hill recommending Sorrel for command of the brigade. Sorrel wrote later in his memoirs that, "nothing could exceed his [Hill's] kindness in receiving me it continued all through my service in his corps, and I had every evidence of the good feeling of this distinguished officer."
Although often criticized as a corps commander, A.P. Hill and his Third Corps had amassed a good record at Petersburg. With feeling, J. William Jones noted, "the old, grand Third Corps. A. P. Hill's corps had been most conspicuously gallant and successful in the last campaign, having killed, wounded, and captured a far larger number of the enemy than it numbered, with guns, flags and other trophies, while its own battle line was never broken, and it lost no guns, and was driven from no position to which it was assigned."
On March 3, 1865, a member of his staff commented, "Gen. Hill has been exceedingly sick but is now recovering slowly. I am trying to prevail on him to go to Fall Hill and stay, as soon as he is able to move. I would not be much surprised if Mrs. Hill and himself accepted the offer." Lee also attempted to convince Hill to take an extended sick leave. Finally, on March 20, Hill relented and went to Richmond. But the confused and fallen state of the once proud Confederate capital depressed him. He remarked at least once that he did not want to live to see the fall of Richmond.
On March 31st, a headquarter clerk noted that Hill "will be back today off sick furlough -- which will please us all." Hill would only suffer for two more days. The bitter end was very near.