On the evening of April 6th 1865 the Black Thursday of the Confederacy – Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lost 7,700 men, including eight generals, in the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. This defeat was key to Lee’s decision to surrender at Appomattox Court House 72 hours later, thus ending the war in Virginia. As night began to fall here on, April 6, 1865, the hard fought battles of Little Sailor’s Creek and the crossroads near the Marshall Farm draw to a close. Federal surgeons work by the little natural light that’s still available. They are inside the main doorways trying to save as many of the wounded as possible from both armies. Hospital stewards prepare men for surgery and assist with the gruesome task of amputating limbs, bandaging wounds, and trying to comfort the wounded.This house, built by Moses Overton in the early 1770’s, is occupied by the James Moses Hillsman family. Hillsman, a former Captain in the 44th Virginia Infantry, was captured at Spotsylvania in May, 1864, while commanding a detachment of sharpshooters, and is still a prisoner of war as battle rages across his farm. His wife Lucy Blanton Hillsman and mother Martha Overton Hillsman, two children and eight servants are forced to reside in the basement warming kitchen during the fight. The home will be used as the Sixth Corps field hospital. The family will experience the grim realities of war as the floor in the entry hall becomes soaked with blood and they hear the cries of the wounded and dying above.
It is April 6th, 1865. With a bullet lodge in his back and another that passed through his arm, a young man in tattered cloths and bare feet lies bleeding near a small home among hundreds of his dead and dying countrymen. The home, owned by the Hillsman family whose members have retreated to the basement, has been converted into a makeshift hospital on the upper level. What this poor fellow wouldn’t give to see the inside of that house. Being inside would mean that someone has final come to help ease his agony, but for now he lies dying in the dirt, surrounded by a living nightmare. In a small way, he can’t help but feel lucky to even be alive after the day he witnessed through the smoke of the battlefield near Sailor’s Creek. The first bullet was just a graze and it was the first time he’d been hit in six skirmishes during his short military career. “Only a scratch” he thought, and kept fighting. But as the cannons roared and more bullets whizzed all around, a Rebel Yell made him feel invincible and he still expected to make it though the day. That all changed with the second bullet. Now, lying in the dirt, the pain he had felt in his stomach for days from going without food is forgotten as a more powerful pain overtakes him. His only thought of food now is wondering if he’ll ever taste his mother’s apple pies again.
Now, fast forward to the Sailor’s Creek of today. Similar events as this are getting a brand new stage to be told upon at the new Sailor’s Creek Historic Battlefield Visitor Center at Sailor’s Creek Historic Battlefield State Park. Highlighting the events that unfolded just days before the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox will not only be retold, but some will virtually come to life though the use of modern technology that will transform visitors back in time, immersing them in the Civil War experience.
The battle at Sailor’s Creek – actually three separate engagements – took place on April 6, 1865 and is the site where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lost 7,700 men, including eight generals. This defeat was monumental to Lee’s decision to surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, thus ending the war in Virginia. Sailor’s Creek was the largest surrender on the battlefield without terms, and many of the greatest leaders of both the Union and Confederate armies fought against each other here for the last time including Philip Sheridan, George Custer, and George Picket. It was the only engagement of the entire war for Curtis Lee, son of Gen. Lee.
The new visitor center and restoration of the Hillsman House that will commemorate these events and the end of the Civil War is being overseen by longtime National Parks Service historian Chris Calkins. A civil war fanatic since he was a child, Chris has spent the better part of his life searching for facts as well as artifacts related to the Civil War. During his career as historian at Fredericksburg, Appomattox, and eventually chief of interpretation at Petersburg, he has written several books on the subject which includes filling in many of the blanks regarding the events at Sailor’s Creek and the surrounding area, making him the perfect choice to oversee the development of Virginia’s final battle grounds.
The restoration of the Hillsman House itself was just recently completed, transforming it back to its 1865 condition. The main room of the house is furnished as a Federal Army hospital similar to what it would have looked like during the fighting and in the days following the battle at Sailor’s Creek. In furnishing the house, Calkins donated many antiques from his own collection, trying to closely match an original inventory list of what was in the home during the battle. Only officers were treated inside the home. The remaining 500 plus causalities, including men from both sides of the war, were treated out on the ground immediately surrounding the Hillsman House.
The new 4,070 square foot visitor center will be located not far from the Hillsman House and will feature over 1,500 square feet of exhibit space along with a research library and dozens of artifacts, most of which were donated by Calkins. One exhibit in particular will feature a wounded soldier similar to the one from the beginning of this article along with a Union officer, both of whom give their own perspective of how the day unfolded through an immersion exhibit that virtually brings them to life to tell their own story. Visitors will experience the story first hand, listening to the two soldiers relive the day and give their perspective on the future.
In addition to the buildings, landscape restorations based on eye witness accounts will return the grounds to their 1865 condition, similar to how they appeared during the battle. And walking trails and interpretive programs are hoped to be complete by 2015, the 150th anniversary of this historic battle.
Calkins has a mind full of interesting and rarely heard stories just waiting to be told at what many feel is the last pristine battlefield in Virginia. So make plans to visit Sailor’s Creek this summer and immerse yourself in history.