By the first of February Sherman was on his way north through the Carolinas with sixty thousand picked men, drawing in reinforcements as he advanced against Johnston's dwindling forty thousand, until the thousands that faced each other at the end in April were ninety and thirty respectively. On the ninth of February (the day Lee became Commander-in-Chief) Sherman was crossing the rails between Charleston and Augusta, of course destroying them. A week later he was doing the same at Columbia in the middle of South Carolina. By this time his old antagonist, Johnston, had assumed command; so that he had to reckon with the chances of a battle, as on his way against Atlanta, and not only with the troubles of devastating an undefended base, as on his march to the sea. The difficulties of hard marching through an enemy country full of natural and artificial obstacles were also much greater here than in Georgia. How well these difficulties could be surmounted by a veteran army may be realized from a recorded instance which, though it occurred elsewhere, was yet entirely typical. In forty days an infantry division of eight thousand men repaired a hundred miles of rail and built a hundred and eighty-two bridges.
Sherman took a month to advance from Columbia in the middle of South Carolina to Bentonville in the middle of North Carolina. Here Johnston stood his ground; and a battle was fought from the nineteenth to the twenty-first of March. Had Sherman known at the time that his own numbers were, as he afterwards reported, "vastly superior," he might have crushed Johnston then and there. But, as it was, he ably supported the exposed flank that Johnston so skillfully attacked, won the battle, inflicted losses a good deal larger than his own, and gained his ulterior objective as well as if there had not been a fight at all. This objective was the concentration of his whole army round Goldsboro by the twenty-fifth. At Goldsboro he held the strategic center of North Carolina, being at the junction whence the rails ran east to Newbern (which had long been in Union hands), west to meet the only rails by which Lee's army might for a time escape, and north (a hundred and fifty miles) to Grant's besieging host at Petersburg. Sherman's record is one of which his men might well be proud. In fifty days from Savannah he had made a winter march through four hundred and twenty-five miles of mud, had captured three cities, destroyed four railways, drained the Confederate resources, increased his own, and half closed on Lee and Johnston the vice which he and Grant could soon close altogether. Nevertheless Grant records that "one of the most anxious periods was the last few weeks before Petersburg"; for he was haunted by the fear that Lee's army, now nearing the last extremity of famine, might risk all on railing off southwest to Danville, the one line left. Lee, consummate now as when victorious before, masked his movements wonderfully well till the early morning of the twenty-fifth of March, when he suddenly made a furious attack where the lines were very near together. For some hours he held a salient in the Federal position. But he was presently driven back with loss; and his intention to escape stood plainly revealed.
The same day Sherman railed down to Newbern over the line repaired by that indefatigable and most accomplished engineer, Colonel W. W. Wright, took ship for City Point, Virginia, and met Lincoln, Grant, and Admiral Porter there on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth. Grant explained to Lincoln that Sheridan was crossing the James just below them, to cut the rails running south from Petersburg and then, by forced marches, to cut those running southwest from Richmond, Lee's last possible line of escape. Grant added that the final crisis was very near and that his only anxiety was lest Lee might escape before Sheridan cut the Richmond line southwest to Danville. Lincoln said he hoped the war would end at once and with no more bloodshed. Grant and Sherman, however, could not guarantee that Davis might not force Lee and Johnston to one last desperate fight. Lincoln added that all he wanted after the surrender was to get the Confederates back to their civil life and make them good contented citizens. As for Davis: well, there once was a man who, having taken the pledge, was asked if he wouldn't let his host put just a drop of brandy in the lemonade. His answer was: "See here, if you do it unbeknownst, I won't object." From the way that Lincoln told this story Grant and Sherman both inferred that he would be glad to see Davis disembarrass the reunited States of his annoying presence.
This twenty-eighth of March saw the last farewells between the President and his naval and military lieutenants at the front. Admiral Porter immediately wrote down a full account of the conversations, from which, together with Grant's and Sherman's strong corroboration, we know that Lincoln entirely approved of the terms which Grant gave Lee, and that he would have approved quite as heartily of those which Sherman gave to Johnston.
Next morning the final race, pursuit, defeat, and victory began. Grant marched all his spare, men west to cut Lee off completely. He left enough to hold his lines at Petersburg, in case Lee should remain; and he arranged with Sherman for a combined movement, to begin on the tenth of April, in case Johnston and Lee should try to join each other. But he felt fairly confident that he could run Lee down while Sherman tackled Johnston.
On the first of April Sheridan won a hard fight at Five Forks, southwest of Petersburg. On Sunday (the second) Lee left Petersburg for good, sending word to Richmond. That morning Davis rose from his place in church and the clergyman quietly told the congregation that there would be no evening service. On Monday morning Grant rode into Petersburg, and saw the Confederate rearguard clubbed together round the bridge. "I had not the heart," said Grant, "to turn the artillery upon such a mass of defeated and fleeing men, and I hoped to capture them soon." On Tuesday Grant closed his orders to Sherman with the words, "Rebel armies are now the only strategic points to strike at," and himself pressed on relentlessly.
Late next afternoon a horseman in full Confederate uniform suddenly broke cover from the enemy side of a dense wood and dashed straight at the headquarter staff. The escort made as if to seize him. But a staff officer called out, "How d'ye do, Campbell?" This famous scout then took a wad of tobacco out of his mouth, a roll of tinfoil out of the wad, and a piece of tissue paper out of the tinfoil. When Grant read Sheridan's report ending "I wish you were here" (that is, at Jetersville, halfway between Petersburg and Appomattox), he immediately got off his black pony, mounted Cincinnati, and rode the twenty miles at speed, to learn that Lee was heading due west for Farmville, less than thirty miles from Appomattox.
On Thursday the sixth, Lee, closely beset in flank and rear, lost seven thousand men at Sailor's Creek, mostly as prisoners. The heroes of this fight were six hundred Federals, who, having gone to blow up High Bridge on the Appomattox, found their retreat cut off by the whole Confederate advanced guard. Under Colonel Francis Washburn, Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, and Colonel Theodore Read, of General Ord's staff, this dauntless six hundred charged again and again until, their leaders killed and most of the others dead or wounded, the rest surrendered. They had gained their object by holding up Lee's column long enough to let its wagon. train be raided.