April 7, 1865: “Let the thing be pressed.”

Fresh from victory at Sailor’s Creek, Union forces continued to press westward against the Confederate rearguard. This time it was the Confederates who attempted to set High Bridge on fire, and this time it was the Yankees who doused the flames in the nick of time.

Within hours of Robert E. Lee’s departure from Farmville, Ulysses S. Grant entered the small town. As he had urged Sherman the previous day, “let us finish up this job all at once.” He conveyed his sense of urgency to Meade: “Every moment now is important to us.” But he was not quite sure when the end would come, so he urged his wife Julia that perhaps she should leave City Point and return home to Burlington, New Jersey.

Grant established headquarters on the plaza of a local hotel. He watched column after column of soldiers march past, and conferred with several generals as to what might happen next. As evening came he learned from Horatio Wright that Richard S. Ewell, who had been captured at Sailor’s Creek the previous day, believed that it was time to bring things to an end. Grant agreed. “I have a great mind to summon Lee to surrender,” he remarked, and proceeded to do exactly that, writing his counterpart as follows:

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Back at City Point, President Lincoln, sifting through the telegrams announcing the victory at Sailor’s Creek, came upon a missive from Phil Sheridan. Immediately he wired Grant: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”

He need not have worried.

4 thoughts on “April 7, 1865: “Let the thing be pressed.”

  1. John Foskett April 7, 2015 / 12:54 pm

    Good point on the President being unduly worried about the ting being pressed but i’ve always attributed that to PMSD – Post McClellan Stress Disorder. Let’s face it – if Mac had been in charge, by April 7 everybody would still have been in their respective positions outside Richmond/Petersburg as the Federals continued to stockpile enough men, horses, ordnance, food, etc. for Operation Barbarossa. Even with that, however, Abe should have had the measure of his man by now – Grant was going to run Lee to ground come hell or high water.

    • SF Walker April 7, 2015 / 1:44 pm

      I think it may have been AOPSD in particular–“Army of the Potomac Stress Disorder.” In addition to experiencing the creeping it did under Little Mac, poor Abe had seen this army lose the race to Spotsylvania CH, dash itself against the Rebel defenses at Cold Harbor, stand pat with a practically empty Petersburg before it, and allow its worst corps commander to put Ledlie and Ferrero in charge of the assault that could have ended the siege. Fortunately, the AOP and the Army of the James moved with the alacrity of Western Federals during this final campaign. The Army of the Potomac just might have benefited had courts-martial like Warren’s from Sheridan been meted out to some of its generals earlier in the war.

  2. Christopher Shelley April 7, 2015 / 1:26 pm

    This is so exciting! But at this point in the story, I can’t help but think about the men on both sides who died in this last futile attempt at flight. How much would it have sucked to survive four years of war, only to get killed at Saylors Creek or Five Forks?

    Lee & Co. still have a lot to answer for.

  3. tcgreen April 7, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    I always took Lincoln’s comment in this context as an excited utterance by a man caught up in the chase but wholly unable to influence events or do anything other than monitor the telegraph. He was probably at least as nervous as Grant that Lee might yet escape to North Carolina.

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