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Welcome the Hour of Conflict: William Cowan McClellan and the 9th Alabama

By John C. Carter | Go to book overview

11
Prison and Home Again
January 2–June 5, 1865

I can see but little hope for these confederate states in these times.

—William Cowan McClellan

By 1865, there were few men on either side who didn’t believe the war was almost over. With a Confederate victory seemingly no longer possible, the only question was when the Confederate states would be brought back into the Union. The Army of the Potomac had finally forced the Army of Northern Virginia to go into the ground around Richmond, and Ulysses S. Grant’s main concern was to prevent Robert E. Lee from escaping Petersburg and joining up with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina.

In January 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered 150,554 aggregate present and absent, but with only 61,748 present for duty.1 Lee’s army had been greatly reduced by casualties in battle, desertions, and the loss of key officers. It had been pinned down for nearly a year in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and could not openly mount an effective offensive against Grant’s forces. As one historian has observed, Lee found out how much his army had changed during the Petersburg campaign.2 Their weakness also showed on March 25, when Confederate major general John B. Gordon launched his offensive at Fort Stedman; Gordon’s forces overwhelmed the Union defenders in the morning but were unable to maintain the momentum after the initial assault. The Confederates were quickly pushed back to their own lines with more than two thousand casualties.3

On March 29, Union general Philip Sheridan and two divisions of cavalry, supported by two infantry corps under G. K. Warren and A. A. Humphreys, moved on Lee’s right flank, extending the Confederate lines to the breaking point. Rain slowed the Union advance, but skirmishing occurred at Hatcher’s Run on March 30, and heavy fighting continued the next day on White Oak Road. Despite a spirited Confederate resistance, on April 1 Union forces overwhelmed George Pickett’s division at Five Forks and succeeded in almost encircling Petersburg.4 Lee had no choice but to abandon Richmond on April 2, as Grant ordered an assault all along the Petersburg line that day. The Army of Northern Virginia, along with William Cowan

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