The Battle of Sailor's Creek (also known as Sayler's Creek, Hillsman Farm, or Lockett Farm) was fought on April 6, 1865, near Farmville, Virginia, as part of the Appomattox Campaign, in the final days of the American Civil War. It was the last major engagement between the armies of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant before the capitulation of Lee's Confederate army at Appomattox Court House three days later.
After Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant broke the Confederate defenses at the Siege of Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia evacuated Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2–3 and began a retreat in hopes of linking up with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina. As the Union Army pursued, and engaged the Confederates in the Battle of Namozine Church (April 3) and the Battle of Amelia Springs (April 5), Lee discovered that his route to Danville was blocked by fast-moving Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. His only remaining option was to move west on a long march, without food, to Lynchburg. But the Confederate Commissary General promised Lee that he would send 80,000 rations to Farmville, 25 miles (40 km) to the west.
On April 6 at Sailor's Creek, nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army was cut off by Sheridan's cavalry and elements of the II and VI Corps. Two Confederate divisions, led by Maj. Gens. Custis Lee and Joseph B. Kershaw, under the command of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, fought the VI Corps along the creek. VI Corps attacked after an artillery bombardment. The Confederates counter attacked but were driven back at last. Union artillery under Maj. Andrew Cowan deployed at the Hillsman Farm played a key role in their repulse. Soon after, the Union cavalry cut through the right of the Confederate lines. Most Confederates surrendered, including generals Ewell, Kershaw, Custis Lee, Seth M. Barton, James P. Simms, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr., Dudley M. Du Bose, Eppa Hunton, and Montgomery D. Corse. Col. Stapleton Crutchfield was killed leading a detachment of artillery personnel who had participated in the defenses of Richmond. Also present at this battle was Confederate Commander John Randolph Tucker and his naval squadron (300–400 strong), and so sailors were fighting at Sayler's Creek. Farther away, II Corps pushed back Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon, who had mistakenly been on a different road.
Upon seeing the survivors streaming along the road, Lee exclaimed in front of Maj. Gen. William Mahone, "My God, has the army dissolved?" to which he replied, "No, General, here are troops ready to do their duty." Touched by the faithful duty of his men, Lee told Mahone, "Yes, there are still some true men left ... Will you please keep those people back?"
Naming the battle
The current official name for the tributary of the Appomattox River is Sayler's Creek, as established in 1959 by the United States Board on Geographic Names; this spelling is used on topographic maps issued by the U.S. Geological Survey. Many prominent Civil War historians (James M. McPherson, Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, Douglas Southall Freeman, etc.) have used this spelling. Chris M. Calkins of the National Park Service used this spelling in his 1980 work, Thirty-Six Hours before Appomattox, and also in the nomination he wrote to preserve the battlefield in the National Register of Historic Places inventory. However, Calkins noted in his 1997 work, The Appomattox Campaign, that at the time of the Civil War and previously, maps used the spelling Sailors. These include the 1752 Joshua Fry–Peter Jefferson map of Virginia and the 1867 Michler survey maps of 1867 (included in the Official Records Atlas). He therefore judges that the correct name for the Civil War battle should be Sailor's Creek. The American Battlefield Protection Program (National Park Service Civil War Sites Advisory Commission), the Civil War Trust, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation use the spelling "Sailor's Creek".
- National Park Service battle description
- CWSAC Report Update
- Calkins, Chris M. The Appomattox Campaign, March 29 – April 9, 1865. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-938-28954-8.
- Calkins, Chris M. Thirty-Six Hours Before Appomattox: April 6 and 7, 1865: The Battles of Sayler's Creek, High Bridge, Farmville and Cumberland Church. Farmville, VA: Farmville Herald, 1980. OCLC 7216968.
- Freeman, Douglas S. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command. 3 vols. New York: Scribner, 1946. ISBN 0-684-85979-3.
- Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8117-2868-4.
- Salmon, p. 479. The estimate is based on 7,000 infantry present from the divisions of Frank Wheaton and Truman Seymour, and 8,000–9,000 cavalrymen in three divisions.
- Salmon, p. 480. The estimate is based on 5,200 men in the corps of Richard S. Ewell, 6,300 under Richard H. Anderson, and 7,000 under John B. Gordon. The CWSAC Report update cites 36,500 Union and 16,900 Confederate.
- Salmon, p. 480.
- Freeman, vol. 3., p. 711.
- Calkins, The Appomattox Campaign, p. 118.
- National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form
- CWSAC Report Update
- Battle of Sailor's Creek
- Sailor's Creek State Park
- National Historic Landmarks Program website, accessed September 10, 2013.
- Animated history of the Siege of Petersburg and Surrender at Appomattox
- Battle of Sailor's Creek: Maps, histories, photos, and preservation news (Civil War Trust)
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