1865: The War Does Come to Halifax County

Talk Given to the John M. Jordan Camp 581, SCV, on January 25, 2010
By Douglas Powell.

Much of my source material comes from The Final Bivouac: The surrender Parade at Appomattox and the Disbanding of the Armies April 10 – May 20, 1865, written in 1988 by Chris Calkins for the “Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series.”

A portion of that material was also published in 1998 by Chris in a small booklet entitled The Danville Expedition of May and June 1865. Chris was then the historian at Petersburg National Battlefield and previously was at Appomattox.

He has now retired from Federal employment to take the newly created job of Park Manager for Saylor’s Creek State Park.

Some of it also came from Danville historian and past SCV Virginia Division Commander, Lawrence McFall’s 2001 book, Danville and the Civil War.

And just released in 2010 is a new book of interest entitled Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution & Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis by Clint Johnson, now living in the mountains of North Carolina.

And of course much came for the correspondence found in the Official Records, also the main source of the more recent published works.

(All three of these gentlemen would make good speakers for future local events.)

As we look forward to the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the war we should be looking at events that relate to Halifax County and how we can commemorate them.

Who can remember what the highway marker in front of the Halifax County Courthouse says?

The last sentence says, “Union Gen. George Custer camped in the region in Apr. 1865.”

There is nothing else to my knowledge in the county that interprets what happened here at that time.

The Battle of Staunton River Bridge was not the only war action in the county.

Before I begin, it will help if you are familiar with the routing of the major railroads that passed through Halifax County.

What began as the Lynchburg & Durham Railroad and became the Norfolk & Western crosses the Staunton River below Brookneal, and continues through Clarkton, Nathalie, Lenig, Crystal Hill, Halifax and South Boston before going down into North Carolina by today’s Hyco and Mayo power plants.

But that one was built in the 1890’s so just ignore that railroad.

The Richmond & Danville was competed in 1856 and was, of course, in place when the war came.

It comes down from Richmond by Amelia, Burkeville (then called Burkeville Junction as the Southside Railroad crossed it there), Keysville, Drakes Branch, Roanoke Station at Randolph where it crossed the Staunton River Bridge, Clover, Scottsburg, Wolf Trap, and then followed the Dan River by South Boston, Barksdale Station, and on west to Danville. (In the 1890’s it became the Southern Railway.)

The covered bridge across the Dan River was built in the 1850’s and was in place during the war.

On March 2, 1865, the Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley was defeated.

Joe Johnson, after losing to Sherman at Bentonville, North Carolina, on March 19-21, limped toward Greensboro as Sherman continued north toward Raleigh.

It had been on March 31 that President Jefferson Davis, realizing that Lee’s evacuation of Petersburg was near, had Mrs. Davis and their children put on a special Richmond and Danville train for the beginning of their trip to Charlotte.

That train broke down and did not arrive in Danville until Sunday, April 2 and had passed through Halifax County sometime during that trip. They then moved over to the Piedmont Railroad for the continuation of their journey to Greensboro, and then on south.

On that same April 2, Grant broke Lee’s lines at Petersburg led by Major General Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps, a force with whom we will soon become more familiar.

It was also on Sunday, April 2, that President Jefferson Davis learned that the Confederate government needed to evacuate Richmond. Trains were made ready and the presidents train left after 11 P. M.

One of the cars carried horses, so if Union cavalrymen had cut the railroad ahead of them, the leaders could have ridden on to Danville.

One source states that two trains preceded it and six followed it. On a train behind the President’s train and leaving 4 hours later, the Confederate treasury was carried. But that, and the mystery that surrounds it, is another story for another time.

The president’s train made only an average of about 10 mph and arrived at Burkeville Junction early the next morning. By mid-morning that day, April 3, the train pulled in to Clover Depot for one of its stops and received fuel and water. A few miles further the train stopped again 2 miles east of South Boston.

Most will recall our research during the last several years on the small mass grave located near Wolf Trap that resulted from an accident involving a train in front of the president’s train.

That, you might recall, happened on that April 3, as it passed through Halifax County enroute to Danville. And that is still another story.

Later that afternoon, in the rain, the president arrived in Danville. That was the same day that Abraham Lincoln arrived in Richmond. From the depot, Mayor Sutherland took President Davis to his home that became known as the last capital of the Confederacy.

Davis had lost contact with General Lee. So, on Wednesday, April 5, Lt Wise, an officer stationed at Clover Depot was chosen to go back up the railroad to learn the status of the army.

A locomotive with a tender and one baggage car left Danville and picked up Wise at 8 P. M. in Clover.

Approaching Green Bay, they, as expected, ran into the Union army. It was busy changing the track gauge to accommodate its own trains.

Lt. Wise’s crew quickly reversed the engine and Wise detrained at Meherrin Station to search for Lee by horseback as the engine returned to Danville.

He found Lee past midnight on Thursday, April 6, encamped north of Rice’s Station. General Lee and gave Lt. Wise a message for President Davis.

He delivered that message to the Davis at Sutherlin’s house about 8 P. M. on Saturday, April 8.

As we all know, the surrender at Appomattox came on Palm Sunday, April 9.

And that night at 11 P. M. a train pulled out of Danville to take the President south.

Appomattox did not end the war. Lee’s surrender only included the Army of Northern Virginia, not Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, in North Carolina, where it was trying to hold back Sherman’s march north toward Virginia.

After their work was complete following the retreat to Appomattox and the surrender of General Lee, all of the Federal army did not immediately go back north.

General Sheridan’s cavalry had been permitted to return east from Appomattox on April 10, prior to the formal surrender ceremony, and on to Petersburg, arriving there on April 17.

Meanwhile many in the Union army were returned to a staging area at Burkeville Junction to be discharged to go back home up north.

One of those Union infantry units was Gen. Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps. It had followed General Humphreys’ 2nd Corps during the retreat to Appomattox.

After the surrender, they left Appomattox on April 11 and reversed their march with the 6th Corps leading the way back to Burkeville Junction.

When General Joe Johnston, who was then camped at Greensboro, did not follow Lee’s example and surrender, and with the death of Lincoln on April 22, Grant ordered Sheridan’s cavalry toward Greensboro and a corps of infantry to Danville, and they were to leave the next day.

They were to help Sherman force Johnston to surrender.

Since Wright’s 6th Corps had worked well with Sheridan’s cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley the previous year, it was selected to make the march.

The 6th Corps was outfitted with 6 batteries of artillery, 4 days subsistence on the person, and 8 days of rations and forage in the supply train. The 1st Division alone had 226 wagons and ambulances.

A bridge team was to accompany them to enable them to cross the Staunton River.

Along with the subsistence, the men were ordered to carry 40 rounds of ammo with 60 more rounds per man in the wagons.

To get from Burkeville and Petersburg to Danville and Greensboro, you have to cross Halifax County!

And in those days to get from Halifax to Danville, you traveled the River Road out by Berry Hill and along the Dan River where also ran the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Since there was no road where U. S. 58 goes today from Turbeville to Danville, the only other way was to cross the Dan and go west to today’s Turbeville and then down through Milton and back up to Danville.

To fully understand the size of the invading force that came into Halifax County at that time we can look at the returns for the Union army for April 30, 1865.

The 6th Corps had 19,842 at that time. Sheridan’s cavalry had 11,229.

That is a lot of Yankee men and horses and supply wagons that were here! And most of them passed through Halifax County twice, coming and going, and stayed overnight several nights in the process.

The 6th Corps began their march from Burkeville on at 2 A. M. on Sunday, April 23, generally following the route of the R&D.

They stopped for the night at Keysville.

Meanwhile, Sheridan and his cavalry left Petersburg, at 6 A. M. the next day, Monday, April 24.

They were to follow the Boydton Plank Road south to Boydton and then meet at “some point on the railroad north of Danville.”

They passed Dinwiddie Court House and camped for the night.

Of Sheridan’s 3 divisions one was commanded by General George Crook of the Army of the Potomac, and the other two were commanded by General Thomas Devin and General George Custer and designated the Army of the Shenandoah under the overall command of General Wesley Merritt.

When Wright’s 6th Corps arrived at the Staunton River railroad bridge on that same Monday, April 24, they found the bridge has been burned following Lee’s surrender.

They camped there as a pontoon bridge was constructed at Clark’s Ferry, the site of what is now Watkins Bridge. (This is apparently why many relic hunters have found items north of Watkins Bridge.)

The next day, Tuesday, April 25, the 6th Corps crossed the Staunton River, marched through Mount Laurel, and bivouacked near Halifax Court House, many on the farm of a Dr. Coleman. I have not researched that location but it needs to be done.

One soldier with the 2nd Rhode Island wrote, “Halifax Court House is a quit little settlement on a hill. The people received us very coolly and seem to be bitter against the Yankees. We took possession of the town and planted the Stars and Stripes upon the Court House. This is probably the firs U. S. flag seen in this part of Virginia for several years. Yesterday the citizens held a meeting here and denounced the Union, but we did not find any of the parties when we arrived.”

Some perhaps had tired of walking. It was also not unusual for stragglers to run ahead of the troops to get the best choice of items to take as they were living off of the land in many cases.

On that April 25 at 5:45 P. M., the General Superintendent of the Richmond and Danville RR, then in Danville, sent a message to General Mead, the Commander of the Army of the Potomac stating the following.
“I learn for agent at Boston Station, fourteen miles west of Clover, that a party of soldiers, no officer in charge, are preparing an engine which is on the siding at that place to start for Danville. I am about to start a train from Danville to Clover, and would respectfully request that orders be given that the soldiers should not be allowed to interfere with the trains, and would particularly request that they should not be allowed to approach Danville in this manner. The citizens wish to meet the troops when they are informed they are coming regularly forward, to surrender the town.”

The Mead’s chief of staff, General Webb, responded at 6:15.
“General Wright, commanding the Sixth Corps, enroute to Danville, has been notified of the contents of your dispatch of 5:15 p. m., and is ordered to stop unauthorized expeditions. You had better send out to meet General Wright and confer with him.”

At 6:35 the railroad general superintendent then replied,
“Will you please inform me where I can communicate with General Wright, commanding the Sixth Corps?”

To which General Webb responded,
“General Wright left Staunton River at 6 a. m. today. He is marching toward Danville. He has probably taken the nearest dirt road to the railroad. It is probably some of his stragglers who are interfering with the locomotive.”

Then at 7:45 from the railroad general superintendent,
“Finding that I cannot reach General Wright, as he is not on the line of the railroad, I must be excused for reporting a party of stragglers now on the road with four hand carts, between New’s Ferry and Barksdales. As they have not arrived at the latter place may be stopped there by telegraph. This is not the same party as one engaged in taking the engine at Boston.”

Then at 8 p. m. from General Webb,
“It is impossible to stop stragglers and marauders by telegraph. General Wright, if informed by sending across from one of your stations to the road he is on, will be found with the will and force to prevent outrages. You will have to communicate from one of your stations ahead of these scamps. He is not in our reach.”

Meanwhile from Halifax Court House was sent a message at 3:30 p. m. from General Wright to General Webb, Chief of Staff that ended as follows.
“. . . I shall leave here tomorrow at 6 a. m. and camp well on the other side of Birch Creek tomorrow so as to reach Danville about noon the following day. I shall send a small force in advance to South Boston Station with orders to stop all trains going in the direction of Danville until I can reach the former place, when I can better judge the propriety of permitting them to go father.”

General Webb then tells General Wright about the report of the men on the locomotive in South Boston to which General Wright the receipt and ends another message as follows.
“. . . . A small force sent to Boston Station this afternoon reached there just as the squad referred to in your dispatch were about to leave; put them off the train and had fire put out in locomotive. They found there one locomotive, about twenty-five box cars, and a full set of telegraph instruments. They captured one operator and are looking for the other one.”

Latter on, stragglers would enter Danville ahead of the main body of troops and got in some trouble as they took what they needed.

This kind of correspondence can be found in the Official Records.
Series I, Volume XLVI, Part III, Correspondence.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s cavalry on that same day had crossed the Nottaway River on an iron bridge and camped on both sides of a ford at the Meherrin River.

On Wednesday, April 26, the 6th Corps left Halifax and halted for dinner at Birch Creek, and then shortly reached Brooklyn, a village of one house, a store, a tobacco factory, and 3-4 Negro huts.

There they camped on the night and prepared to go into Danville the next day.

Meanwhile, the cavalry passed though Boydton and camped near the old Randolph-Macon College (east of town) on that night of April 26.

On Thursday, April 27, the 6th Corps entered and occupied Danville as Mayor Walker surrendered the city.

They had marched the 110 miles from Burkeville Junction to Danville in 4 days and 4 hours. The occupation of Danville is another story for another day.

Just as the 6th Corps of infantry and artillery left our county, Sheridan’s cavalry entered.

When they arrived at the Staunton River across from Clarksville that same day they found they could not ford it there.

So they rode 6 miles upstream to Abbeville (now under water) near where the Dan River joined the Staunton which of course in near Staunton River State Park today.

There they crossed using a 200 yard bridge built with ferry boats that scouts had built and camped for the night of April 27 spread out over an area of 7 miles from the river.

The following day, Friday, April 28, the cavalry crossed the R&D at Scottsburg and crossed the Banister River at John Clark’s farm over a covered bridge.

They eventually rode as far as South Boston and went into camp north of South Boston at 5 P. M. as they continued to rendezvous with Wright’s 6th Corps, already by then in Danville.

General Merritt’s headquarters was at Berry Hill. (This General Merritt was kin to the Merritt family whose graveyard we cleaned some years ago in Cluster Springs.)

Some apparently also crossed the covered bridge over the Dan to encamp.

The cavalry was here on the evening of April 28 when news came that General Joe Johnston had surrendered at the Bennett Place in Durham on April 26 and while here General Sheridan was ordered to return his cavalry to Petersburg.

They returned on a different route than they had used to arrive.

While Sheridan himself continued on to Danville to meet with General Wright of the 6th Corps, the cavalry left here on Saturday, April 29, and rode toward the Staunton River.

They recrossed the Banister over the same bridge they had earlier used, passed Scottsburg and Clover Stations and reached the Staunton River about 2 P. M.

There they had to use the pontoon bridge as the railroad bridge was still be rebuilt by the Union engineer and pioneers and went into camp.

At Roanoke Station they were issued rations and forage.

They continued through Wylliesburg and on to Blacks and Whites, now Blackstone, and camped for the night before continuing to Petersburg on May 3.

In preparation for the departure of the 6th Corps from Danville, General Wright on May 1 assigned the 3rd Division under Ricketts to guard the Richmond and Danville Railroad with one brigade to be stationed at Keysville and one at South Boston with a force of 100 men at smaller stations.

Then the 6th Corps began leaving Danville on that day, May 1, some by train and some walking.

One of the men recorded an interesting tidbit.

“In this service, too, many of us saw for the first time instances of snuff-dipping. The practice seemed well-nigh general mong the women, black and white. A line of feminist seated on a depot platform with a pine stick projecting at a common angle from each one’s mouth was not calculated to inspire much admiration of the fair sex in a Northern man’s mind.”

When they reached the Staunton River railroad bridge the cavalry too had to cross the pontoon bridge at Clark’s Ferry until the bridge was reopened on May 3.

By May 16 all of the 6th Corps has left Danville, leaving the 12th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Division, 24th Corps to act as provost guard from May 19 to June 13.

They missed being in the Grand Review at Washington on May 23-24 but received a separate review on June 8.
In case you wondered how these two corps made it with their wagons and artillery across the many rivers and streams in our area, this will help.
(Series I Volume XLVI Part I Page 646 of 1326 – APPOMATTOX)
This was a report made later in June of 1865 back in Washington from Colonel Ira Spaulding of the 50th New York Engineers.
GENERAL: I have the honor to submit the following report of engineering operations of this command from the commencement of the campaign in March last to the arrival of the army near Washington:
April 23, with Companies C and E of the 50th New York Engineers, and the pontoon trains under their charge, consisting of 24 canvas pontoon boats and their equipments, and Captain Manger’s company of the 15th New York Engineers, I joined the 6th Corps and marched with it to Clark’s Ferry, on the Staunton River, where we arrived at 6 p.m. of the 24th, when I immediately laid a pontoon bridge of 19 boats, making a bridge 315 feet long.
Remained at this place until the morning of the 26th, when I took up the bridge and started for Danville with Companies C and E and their pontoon trains, leaving Captain Manger at the Staunton River to report to General Benham on his arrival at that place.
Reached Laurel Hill, [Laurel Grove?] 16 miles from Danville, at 12 m. of the 27th, when I received orders from Major-General Wright to report to Major-General Sheridan at Abbyville, on the Staunton River.
While enroute for Abbyville, and when near South Boston, I received notice from General Sheridan that he had already crossed the Staunton River, and therefore did not require the bridge.
During the same day [April 28], in compliance with orders of General Sheridan, I started with my bridge trains for Moseley’s Ferry, on the Staunton River, with instructions to lay a bridge at that place for the cavalry to recross the river.
Had this bridge, which was composed of 23 boats, making a bridge 350 feet long, laid at 12 m. of the 29th, having marched a distance of 20 miles that day.
This bridge was taken up by order of Brigadier-General Benham at 10 p.m. of the 30th, and moved during the night to Roanoke Station, where it was relaid across the Staunton River near the crossing of the railroad at 8 a.m. of the following morning.
This bridge was composed of 17 boats and was 270 feet long.
In consequence of the heavy rains while marching from Moseley’s Ferry, I was obliged to lay a pontoon bridge 50 feet long across the Little Roanoke River at Roanoke Station for the purpose of crossing.
Remained at Roanoke Station until the morning of May 17, under orders from Major-General Wright, when the pontoon bridge was taken up and moved to Clark’s Ferry, 3 miles above, on the same river, where a bridge was laid of 18 boats, being 300 feet long.
The supply trains and artillery of the 6th Corps crossed in the afternoon.
The bridge was taken up the following morning, May 18, and moved with the trains of the 6th Corps to Manchester, via Burkeville and Amelia Court-House, where we arrived at 10 a.m. of the 21st, having laid a pontoon bridge of 5 boats at Goode’s Bridge, on the Appomattox River.
Remained in Manchester until the afternoon of the 23rd, when I moved my trains to the crossing of the Chickahominy River by the Mechanicsville pike, having Captain Kenyon with a portion of his company in charge of a pontoon bridge which had been laid the previous day across the canal at the foot of Eighteenth street, in Richmond, for the purpose of crossing the trains of the 6th Corps.
With that I will close.
Apparently few local citizens wrote about the Union army passing through our county.
Can you imagine living here then with our soldiers coming home from Appomattox and elsewhere, tired, hungry, many wounded and sick, only to have the Yankees all over the place?

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