ELEPHANT TOWARD THE NEW SOUTH
We could not remain at home unless we took the oath. This we had
made up our minds to do, so in we went and swallowed the elephant.
—Edgar Tschiffel, July 8, 1865
The Federals opened a coordinated attack on Petersburg from all directions in the early morning of April 2, and Lee retreated to avoid complete destruction. With the loss of Petersburg, Richmond lay undefended. Confederates frantically packaged official papers and supplies and shipped them south. With the government stored in crates on a freight train, Lee’s army remained the last active presence of the Confederate state. His troops had little energy left to fight. Creed Davis recorded the retreat as the procession of an already beaten army. “Richmond is certainly evacuated and our army is in full retreat, whither no one knows, sickness, hunger, and privation of every kind has completely demoralized the army—or rather the handfull of men left Genl Lee.”1 John Walters issued a similarly solemn assessment, noting, “I fear that the last day for the Army of Northern Virginia is near at hand.”2 On April 3, the U.S. Army seized control of Richmond.3 Abraham Lincoln arrived in person the following day, greeted by thousands of cheering African Americans. Their control of the public space in the capital of a nation devoted to maintaining slavery signaled the end of the Confederacy in a way as profound as Lee’s surrender several days later.
Lee’s Confederates marched west, seeking rations and escape from the Union army. They found neither. On April 6 a Union force caught a portion of Lee’s army. The resulting battle at Saylor’s Creek produced 7,000 Confederate casualties. The army also deteriorated from the unauthorized exit of men. Beginning with the fall of Richmond, soldiers departed at a rapid rate. Several thousand men, mostly Virginians and North Carolinians, took opportunities along the retreat to leave the army and return home. Just as they had at the war’s start, these soldiers acted on their enlistment as a contract with the state; the imminent defeat of the army ended their service. As Lee’s army moved west away from Richmond, soldiers abandoned it in direct proportion to the proximity of their homes. Virginians lived the closest and