At Petersburg, by early 1865, there was but a single railroad left under Confederate control to supply both Lee’s army and Richmond. This posed a grim dilemma for General Lee: if Grant made a major effort to break this line, as he would surely do as soon as spring weather dried the muddy roads, the Virginian could only defend the railroad by thinning his Petersburg defenses beyond the danger point. The Army of Northern Virginia was fast wasting away. As one of its generals recalled, “Everything was exhausted except devotion and valor.” Characteristically, Lee sought to meet this problem with a sudden and unexpected offensive designed to short-circuit the Federal plans.
On March 25 a Rebel assault force struck at a soft spot in the Federal Petersburg lines called Fort Stedman and gained a clean break three-quarters of a mile wide. But no longer was there strength enough to exploit the momentary triumph. The Yankees poured in reinforcements and soon mended the break, and the last offensive of the Army of Northern Virginia was finished.
Methodically, Grant completed his plans to break the siege. The blow was struck beyond Lee’s right flank on April 1, at a place called Five Forks. Phil Sheridan overwhelmed the defenders, taking 5,000 prisoners. The next day, the center of Lee’s weakened lines caved in under a second massive blow. The ten-month siege of Petersburg was finally ended. In a telegram to President Davis, Lee underscored the need to abandon his position without delay; his one hope to prolong the war was a rapid retreat, evading Grant’s pursuit, to join Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Richmond must be given up.
The Confederate capital was soon a scene of utter chaos. Government leaders fled, followed closely by the garrison troops. As they retreated, they set fire to warehouses full of military supplies and to the arsenals that had supplied the Rebel armies. Flame and billowing smoke engulfed the city, punctuated by the thunder of exploding ammunition. Bands of looters roamed the streets. Chaos reigned as drunken men ran amuck. Richmond was a city out of control, consumed by the final frenzies of civil war.
The Federal troops who marched into Richmond on April 3 came not as conquerors but as rescuers. Order was restored and the fires extinguished. The next day, Abraham Lincoln toured the city. When the commander of the occupying force asked how to deal with the citizenry, the President, convinced that the residents of the Confederate capital had been punished enough, advised him to be lenient.