The Confederates Dig In
On Thursday, April 6, 1865, this high ground above Little Sailor's Creek was protected by troops from the Richmond fortifications under Confederate General Richard S. Ewell. They hurriedly threw up a line of breastworks consisting of fence rails and earth in preparation for the inevitable attack. For many, this would be their first and last battle.
Shortly after 5 p.m., Union artillery under Major Andrew Cowan, positioned directly across the valley at the Hillsman farm, began a thirty minute bombardment along this line. The Confederates had to endure the cannonade without returning fire as they had no artillery with them.
After the shelling stopped, the Southerners anxiously watched as two divisions (about 7,000 men) of General Horatio Wright's Sixth Corps formed into a line of battle and waded the waist-deep creep below them.
As the Federal soldiers moved up the slope toward the waiting Confederates, many of them taunted Ewell's men by waving handkerchiefs, trying to induce them to surrender. Instead, the Confederates rose and fired two deadly volleys into the Union ranks, causing a portion of the line to break and retreat to the creek. The Southerners then counterattacked, during which fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out.
Soon Ewell's men, realizing their desperate situation, began surrendering. At the battle's end, about 3,400 men and six generals laid down their arms and were sent off as Northern prisoners. In total, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would lose approximately 7,700 men in the fighting around Sailor's Creek, nearly one-fifth of his fighting force. Lee would surrender close to 30,000 men 72 hours later at Appomattox Court House.
"The battle degenerated into a butchery of brutal personal conflicts. I saw ? men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other's throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts."
- Confederate Major Robert Stiles
: One Union soldier, Private Samuel Eddy, was pinned to the ground by a bayonet that had been thrust through his body. A Southern soldier tried to take Eddy's rifle from him, but Eddy, despite his awful wound, managed to shoot and kill his assailant, withdraw the bayonet from his body, rise to his feet and walk to the Hillsman house where he was treated. He survived this wound and was eventually given the Medal of Honor. Fifty-six others also received the medal for their actions at Sailor's Creek.