Once the Petersburg defenses were breached, there was not much chance that Lee's army could make good its escape and reach Joe Johnston’s Confederate forces in North Carolina. Yet being the general he was, Lee would make the attempt. On April 2 the Army of Northern Virginia began its final campaign.
Lee’s immediate problem was logistics. He must get his army to a railroad still in Southern hands in order to feed the hungry men and to furnish them transport southward. To reach a railroad, however, he had to march almost due west from Petersburg, and a vigorous pursuit could cut him off from his objective. Often in the past four years the men of the Army of the Potomac had suffered from lackluster leadership, but this time was different. Phil Sheridan was in charge of the pursuit, and Sheridan was aggressive and hard-driving. With his cavalry and a corps of fast-marching infantry, he stayed on Lee s flank, slashing at the tired Confederates. On April 6, at a place called Sayler’s Creek, the Federals fell on the Southerners as they made a crossing of the Appomattox River and cut off the entire rear guard, capturing 8,000 men. Sheridan telegraphed Grant, “If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender. Monitoring dispatches, Lincoln saw this message and wired Grant the simple admonition, “Let the thing be pressed.”
By April 8 the end was near. That evening, near the village of Appomattox Court House, Sheridan threw a strong force squarely across Lee’s line of march. Coming up fast from the rear was the rest of the Army of the Potomac. On April 9, as the powerful Union forces prepared one final massive assault on the surrounded Rebel army, a horseman galloped into the Federal lines under a flag of truce with a message from Lee to Grant requesting an armistice pending agreement on terms of surrender.
When the two generals met that day at Appomattox, both had made decisions that would guarantee true peace between North and South. Earlier, Lee rejected suggestions that his troops scatter and continue the fight in a wearing and bloody guerrilla campaign; Robert E. Lee had made his fight on the battlefield, and that was where he would end it. For his part, Grant insured that the close of the fighting would not be followed by harsh and vengeful treatment of the losing army. He concluded his surrender terms with the simple and magnanimous statement, “Each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities...” The same terms would later be applied to Johnston’s surrender to Sherman in North Carolina. The fighting at last was done.
Grant ordered rations issued to the starving Confederate troops. On April 12 the Army of Northern Virginia made its last march, to lay down its arms. As the Southerners filed by, there was silence in the Union ranks, for it was a solemn moment and no time for boisterous celebration.