91st PA: April 1865

What might have been

[source: Thomas Moore. 'What might have been. The significant closing days of the Great Rebellion'. National Tribune 21 February 1895.]

The Significant Closing Days of the Great Rebellion.

EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: In your issue of the 20th the biographical sketch of the late Gen. Robert S. Foster was read by me with interest. A paragraph in it arrested my attention and awakened in my mind a few dormant memories, and touched, as it were, the pride which an old soldier always feels in any affair of the war with which he was connected.

The paragraph referred to is: "The great problem will never be answered as to what might have been the result had Fowler slept and reported to Sheridan an hour later, after the cavalry had been driven in. In all probability the surrender of Lee might not have been at Appomattox."

For the last 29 years I have thought that the word just quoted could only be applied to the First Division, Fifth Corps, and our lamented Gen. Chas. Griffin.

What I saw at that time and what I have read since have convinced me that had that grand old division failed on several occasions during that memorable campaign, the order of history would not be the same that it is at present--"Lee would not have surrendered at Appomattox," etc.

Let me here remark that the last campaign of the war, although brief, was for the Fifth Corps a hard campaign. There were hard fighting, hard marching, and hard luck accompanied by those privations which the rain and sand and dust of Virginia can furnish without stint to a hungry man.

On the 29th of March we broke camp, and started to the left and rear of Petersburg. That day our Second and Third Divisions were driven back by the rebels in their effort to crack the left flank of Grant's army.

The FIrst Division was brought up that night by a forced march, and posted along a ridge, near an old saw-mill. We threw up some temporary works here during the night, and in the morning, when the rebels renewed the fight, we not only repulsed, but drove them from the field. I think there is a problem to solve here as to what would have been the result if Griffin and the First Division had slept that night.

We took up our march, and the next day drove the enemy again at White Oak road. I would like to draw attention to a little night work done by the Third Brigade, which, in light of after events, becomes of sufficient historical interest to be mentioned.

The night after the battle of White Oak road the Third Brigade kept advancing out an old country road, till about 10 or 11 p.m., in our efforts to form a junction with Gen. Sheridan. It was a miserable road to travel in the dark, and we were glad when we were ordered to camp that night. We had hardly lain down to rest when an orderly came into camp inquiring for Col. Sellers, in command of the brigade. As soon as he found him he said: "Colonel, you must get back out of here; you are six miles from your main line, and nearly on to the rebel camp."

Very quietly we folded our tents and went back over that old stubby road again to our main line, which we reached about 2 or 3 a.m. We cooked some coffee and thought we would get a few hours' rest, when the first thing we heard was old "Dan" Butterfield blowing "Forward!" and out we started with the whole division on this same old stub road, to the place we had been the night before, when we were joined by Sheridan about 11 a.m., and in the afternoon the famous charge of Five Forks was made, where Sheridan wrote to Grant that the Fifths Corps came down upon the rebel flank "like a whirlwind."

Now, if you will read the rebel accounts of this time you will find that on the night of the 31st of March their scouts came in and reported to Gen. Pickett that the Fifth Corps was up in force, and on the strength of this report they withdrew from in front of Sheridan, and fell back on Five Forks, thus making our junction with him the next morning an easier task than it might have been. I have never doubted that our small brigade of about 1,500 were taken by their scouts to be the advance of the whole corps. So that I think our night work on the 31st of March had some bearing on the events of the next few days.

Now began that long hard chase to head off Lee before he could gain Lynchburg or unite with Johnston, which we all thought was his object. On the 2d or 3d of April we drew one and a half day's rations, which was all the regular rations we drew till after the surrender. We managed to make our coffee hold out pretty well, and we drew some rations of fresh beef that were driven along with the army. So you can imagine what kind of meat it was, so stringy and lean that only the pangs of hunger induced us to eat it. A comrade and I managed to forage about a pint of cornmeal and made a little cake of it on the last day of our march. A colored soldier came along and offered us a $10 bill for a piece of it; there were not bills enough in that country to buy it. I mention this to show to what straits our larder was reduced at that time.

On the 8th of April we realized that we were closing in on Lee pretty fast. On that day we marched till near midnight. Some of the boys claimed we marched near 30 miles that day. On the morning of the 9th we heard that the 24th Corps had come up, and soon we saw some of the colored troops of that command. The morning when we renewed our march we felt "like as if we was gwine to have a storm."

We had not been more than a couple of hours on the road when heavy firing was heard in front. We were hastily formed in line, and, if I recollect aright, in doing so we cut off a column of the Twenty-fourth Corps which was advancing. The firing soon ceased and we stood there waiting.

Very soon we saw Gregory's Brigade assemble en masse, and some of us went over to see what was up. Gen. Gregory was telling his men that a flag of truce had come in from Gen. Lee, proposing to surrender, and then added: "Now, men, let us return thanks to Almighty God," and right then and there the Chaplain returned thanks for our great victory. [see 'Gregory at Appomattox' for other versions of this story] That night I was on picket where one road joined another main road, and right opposite this junction was an old deserted building like a tobacco-drying place, and here was our post. In front of it we dug a foot or two in the ground to get some roots off an apple-tree, which rumor said that day was where Grant and Lee met.

And now, after this narration of events, can you blame any member of the Fifth Corps for thinking that he was there as promptly as any other, and the First Division staid there and received the surrender?

During the armistice many of the rebels came over to our camp, and I recollect some of them saying that it looked like they could not get away from that red Maltese cross. They gave us credit for being there and stopping them. Our commander, the chivalrous Warren, was unjustly put under a cloud during the campaign, but his men, true to him and themselves, followed Gen. Griffin with that loyalty and devotion which won for them the approval of Gen. Warren, which he bestowed on the boys when he reviewed us at Petersburg on our return from Appomattox.

Without disparagement to any other command, I think for sleepless vigilance on the part of both commanders and men during this campaign, the Fifth Corps need take second place to none.

THOS. MOORE, Co. E, 91st Pa., 3718 Rutger street, St. Louis, Mo.

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