It is very easy for us to get caught up in the significance of a historical event, and forget that those living through the times were, just as you and I do today, living each day as moment to moment. We all track that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. And he died the following morning after 7 a.m. But the news of that calamity, and thus reaction to it, did not spread for hours… and for some points on the map … days to come.
Indeed, just as Lincoln’s last breath passed that morning, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant penned a message (close to the same moment in time, mind you) to Major-General Philip Sheridan, advising him to prepare for another campaign:
General Sherman is in motion after Johnston’s army. It may be that instead of surrendering, Johnston may follow his usual tactics of falling back whenever too hard pressed. If so, Sherman has not got cavalry enough to head off and capture his army. I want you to get your cavalry in readiness to push south and make up this deficiency if it becomes necessary. Sherman expected to occupy Raleigh on the 13th, but does not say which way the enemy is moving. I hope to hear further from him almost any hour, and will inform you when I do.
That was sent at 7 a.m. the morning of April 15. Several things were in play at that time. But let us step back from the chain of events that would follow and consider what Grant, Sheridan and others had pressing at the fore.
The armies which had pursued General Robert E. Lee’s command were strung out across Virginia’s Southside. But they were not actively campaigning, but rather occupying. One of the worst things that can befall an army configured for campaign is to stop. When in light marching order and moving, “just enough” is often sufficient. There is an efficiency which comes, down to the individual soldier’s level, from being dependent on the knapsack, haversack, and cartridge box. But when that same army stops, such frugality seems to disappear. The army still needs that “just enough” and yet more.
Compounding the inactivity after April 9, the armies in the field had but one main supply line feeding them. It ran from City Point to Burkeville. Colonel Richard Batchelder, Quartermaster for the Army of the Potomac, complained about this on April 13:
I ordered yesterday 2,000,000 pounds of grain for this army; but 60,000 pounds have been received to-day. The trains do not run on regular time, and are from twelve to fifteen hours on the road from City Point to this place. Instead of filling up our supplies the present management of the road will starve the army in about two days more time. The trains should commence running on regular time to-morrow. There ought not to be a single day’s delay, and the trains should be compelled to run promptly by the time-table. A separate telegraph line should also be established. There is no reason why the army cannot be fully supplied if the road is properly managed, and I have to request that you give such instructions as will cause it to be at once placed in the most effective working condition.
Emphasis for the moment on the concern – “will starve the army in about two days….” The Army of the Potomac and other forces still in the field were in a logistical pinch.
On the same day (April 13), Sheridan sent an inquiry to Grant’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier-General John Rawlins, also touching upon logistical matters.
The officers and men of the First and Third Divisions of cavalry brought with them from Winchester only the clothes they wore on their persons and are badly off. All the trains and baggage of these divisions are at Harper’s Ferry. Would it be best to order them down?
Again, step into the situation. Sheridan’s troopers had campaigned out of the Shenandoah Valley in March, with, as he put it, just what they carried. The command only brought eight pontoon bridges, for example. With Grant’s message at 7 a.m. on April 15, Sheridan’s logistical concerns would increase by multiples.
Now this is not to say Sheridan could not have driven into North Carolina with his force. Rather to say the effort would have been difficult, logistically, while perhaps not so much tactically. And that was the pressing matter of the day at 7 a.m. on April 15.
What Grant and Sheridan did not know at that moment were the messages crossing in route to them. Sherman had already sent dispatches informing Grant that Johnston was proposing a truce and seemed willing to come to terms. Sherman’s message of the day included the line, “If any cavalry have started toward me caution them that they must be prepared to find our work done.” Sheridan was not going to North Carolina to fight Johnston.
But while waiting on that dispatch, another would arrive which would completely alter the situation. Major-General John Parke, commanding the Ninth Corps, confirmed that news of Lincoln’s death, coming across the lines later in the day:
I am afraid it is indeed true. Army headquarters asked City Point to reference the genuineness of the dispatch and City Point replies it is reliable and has been since confirmed. It is too horrible to contemplate with composure.
From Washington, Grant ordered the arrest of former Confederate political figures in Richmond. But was talked out of that by Major-General E.O.C. Ord, reasoning they were not involved with the plot, and further, “Should I arrest them under the circumstances I think the rebellion here would be reopened.”
As word of Lincoln’s death spread, and at the same time, word from North Carolina spread, the focus of the armies changed. Movement orders rescinded. In some cases, new orders issued. New instructions issued with respect to civilians and paroled Confederates. Heightened suspicions leading to tighter security.
Pressing matters of logistics became small annoyances as news arrived on April 15, 1865.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 730, 733, and 760-1; Volume 47, Part III, page 221.)