By The Rev. William E. Thompson, former College Chaplain
On February 4, 1861, an assembly of representatives from six seceded states convened in the State Capitol building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, and declared themselves to be The Confederate States of America. By this same body’s consent to a shelling of Fort Sumter ten weeks later, that assembly initiated a civil war, allegedly a war for states rights, a war that has indelibly marked the way each of us was raised.
Ironically, that 1861 convention met just one little city block away from the eventual site of a small, black Baptist church on Dexter Avenue where about 90 years later, first, a Prince Edward County black pastor named Vernon Johns (born and raised and eventually buried about five miles from Hampden-Sydney out the Darlington Heights Road), and then secondly, Vernon Johns’s successor, a pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., would initiate in the very shadows of that first Confederate Capitol, yet another war, this time a war for civil rights, similarly an awesome war that has indelibly marked the way that we were raised. So many of us are both a child and also a victim of both wars.
I have been working for the past 15 years on a book entitled Bad Friday, which tells the story of what happened two days before Appomattox in a small triangle of land whose three points we know as Kingsville (just off campus at the traffic light on Route 15) and Worsham, which of course back then was our county seat named Prince Edward Court House, and here, a place then generally referred to as “The Hill”—the College (Cushing Hall) and the seminary (Venable Hall), two buildings where many Hampden-Sydney men lived during their college years.
So, return with me now to those thrilling days of yester-year (in fact, 146 years ago on a “Bad Friday,” April 7, 1865). “From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse …” no, not Silver, but Rienzi, a horse named for the last of the great Roman tribunes, a tribune commemorated in Richard Wagner’s dark and haunting Rienzi Overture. Riding on Rienzi’s back on April 7, 1865, is the fearsome lone stranger, U.S. Major General Philip H. Sheridan, 5’6” tall, bandy-legged, and possibly possessing the foulest mouth in the entire Union Army. “Foul Phil Sheridan” is the Union Army’s point man who is directing Grant’s advance across Virginia.
On Sunday, April 2, 1865, the front-lines around both Richmond and Petersburg are flanked by Grant’s great army of approximately 125,000 men, but Lee is still able to pull off one of his final war-time miracles by successfully extracting, from 50 miles of continuous trenches, his own army of about 50,000 men, plus artillery pieces and horses and mules and wagons. Lee’s retreat begins along two iron lifelines, known as the South Side Rail Road and the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Lee desperately hopes that somewhere, somehow, rations from either Lynchburg or Danville can be sent up forward on these slender lifelines toward his stumbling men and animals, who have been on half-rations for the past six months. Lee is moving west from Petersburg.
Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis’s all-important secretary of war, John C. Breckinridge, is also moving west from Richmond, hoping to encounter Lee and to get to a telegraph office, so he can advise from the battlefront plans for President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, who are hunkered down in Danville. War Secretary Breckinridge, of course, was the man who had regretfully—but successfully—sent the VMI cadets into the New Market battle a year earlier. He is the last and best Secretary of War that the Confederacy ever had. John Cabell Breckinridge, by the way, is the grandson of Hampden-Sydney College’s first president, Samuel Stanhope Smith.
The two railroad-lifelines cross one another at Burkeville Junction, and, to have any hope of success, Lee’s army has to clear that junction before either part of Grant’s intercepting army can get there. While Lee’s scattered army is still re-assembling at Amelia Court House, Phil Sheridan’s cavalry rides cross-country and blocks the Danville Railroad on Tuesday, April 4, at a little depot stop called Jetersville. Now, with that railroad blockaded, Lee has no hope for any rescuing rations coming forward from Danville, and his faint hopes are also dashed about moving farther that way toward a possible junction with General Joe Johnston’s troops, who are then in the Durham-Hillsboro area of North Carolina.
But on Wednesday, April 5, Lee gets word from a cavalry scout that there are 80,000 rations waiting on the South Side Rail Road at Farmville (on a siding just east of present-day Walker’s Diner). Lee then takes a look at his map and decides—or rather Lee and Longstreet sorta say to one another—“If we can possibly drag our army cross-country from Amelia to Farmville, even though there are hardly any passable roads thereabouts, and if we can get to those Farmville rations ahead of the pursuing Union army and feed our men and horses, then perhaps the Army of Northern Virginia can either go out High Street or South Main Street on by that little college in the woods and its nearby court house and perhaps then get back to the Danville Railroad at Keysville.”
Well, of course it didn’t work out that way. The Union’s energized army left Jetersville and came this way and annihilated a quarter of Lee’s army on Thursday in the day-long battles of Sailors Creek.
So, on Sunday afternoon, April 2, Dr. Dabney begs, borrows, or perhaps even steals, two horses and a wagon and outraces both armies. Finally, about midnight, as Wednesday turns into Thursday, while Lee’s army is still desperately slogging its way in the rain to reach Farmville, Dabney comes in by Leigh’s Mountain on the Green Bay Road, past the Court House, down Via Sacra, and awakens Lavinia and their boys. The longtime oral tradition has been that they roll up the manuscript and tie a rope around it and lower it from the attic, either between the outer and inner walls, or down an unused flue. Dabney is fed and flees to his sister-in-law’s plantation in Buckingham County.
All day long that next day Sheridan’s cavalry and Meade’s infantry are virtually wiping out a quarter of Lee’s army in the three battles of Sailor’s Creek, where Major General George Custer captures no fewer than 32 Confederate battle flags, and Sheridan, Custer, and Meade’s men capture eight Confederate generals on that single day.
At a campfire near Sailor’s Creek on Thursday night, April 6, Sheridan lays out his plans for the next day: (1) a third of the army will push into Farmville, (2) another third will cross High Bridge and swing around on Lee’s northern flank, and (3) he and Custer, with their 8,000 cavalry, will ride to Kingsville, Worsham, and Hampden-Sydney in order to block Lee’s last, best route south. It is snowing in Burkeville that Thursday, when at 2 a.m. Grant dispatches Major General Ranald McKenzie’s 2,000 cavalrymen toward Worsham. They get there at noon on “Bad Friday,” April 7, and actually fight a two-hour skirmish there against home guardsmen and possibly some Hampden-Sydney folks, although President Atkinson had closed the College and dismissed the students four days earlier. Sheridan and Custer’s 8,000 cavalrymen get to Worsham at 3 p.m. Because the lumbering Union V Corps of approximately 12,000 infantry is marching down U.S. Route 15 to make camp at Kingsville, Prince Edward Court House, and The Hill for the night, all those early-arriving cavalrymen are sent on from the Court House toward Prospect Station; only they don’t get there right away. Most of the cavalrymen make evening camp out on the Five Forks Road about two miles from the present-day gates of the College.
Ah, but before they do that, many of the cavalry joy-ride all over this campus for several hours that late Friday afternoon, and then the V Corps infantry arrive. All 12,000 foot soldiers—camping out between the Kingsville signal light, Worsham, and up near where Mercy Seat African-American Church will be built two years later, and behind Penshurst—tear down fences for the suppertime fires and cut down the woodlands that formerly stood where today’s Johns Auditorium and Bagby Hall stand.
Modern science is wonderful: several years ago I asked physics professor Stan Cheyne if he had a computer program that could give me the exact time of sunset at Hampden-Sydney College’s coordinates on April 7, 1865, and of course he could, so I could nail down my manuscript’s accurate description of sunset that “Bad Friday” evening.
The Union troops carried on mightily in front of Penshurst and Venable and Middlecourt and in the parlor and in front of Hampden House. Those stories can be found in my book. I can tell you now, though, that the most remarkable thing that occurred on The Hill that Friday afternoon came about while some Yankee cavalry were lightly plundering the two schools.
President Atkinson sent a horseback courier over to the Court House to ask General Sheridan if he could possibly place provost guards on all the private and public property here, and, believe it or not—in what we Presbyterian pastors ascribe to God’s providential predestination—there happened to be a former Hampden-Sydney College student from New Jersey who was standing within earshot. When General Sheridan was about to turn down the request, this former student spoke up and explained that he had once attended this college and he volunteered to take a group of his trustworthy friends with him to guard these properties, which they did, and reasonable order was thereby restored.
In all seriousness, this is part of what happened on The Hill on what the locals thereafter referred to as “Bad Friday,” the Friday before the Palm Sunday afternoon surrender at Appomattox, about 30 hours later.
For more than 40 years, nearly every winter and spring I taught confirmation classes for new teenage church members. And almost without fail, when we talked about Jesus’s crucifixion kids would ask me, “Why in the world do we call the crucifixion day, ‘Good Friday,’ when there was nothing at all good about it?” I would of course try to explain that while that day itself was as bad as it could possibly be for Jesus, yet because he somehow took our sins upon himself, this made the day finally “good” for all of us.
That’s also how I like to think about “Bad Friday” of 1865 at Hampden-Sydney. Yes, it was as bad as it could get for the folks who lived through it, but because Abraham Lincoln had told General Grant “to let them down easy,” in less than 30 hours there would be unbelievably gracious surrender terms at Appomattox. And there followed two great results, which I think make it possible for our predecessors’ “Bad Friday” to become a “Good Friday”: a splintered nation had survived its greatest challenge and could now be completely at peace, and an enslaved race was set free … although it would definitely require another kind of war almost a century later to make those freed slaves’ latter-day generations truly “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!”
The Rev. William E. Thompson retired as College Chaplain and Pastor of College Church in 2002. He now devotes much of his time to his lifelong interest in the Civil War and regional history. His book, Bad Friday, which includes fascinating stories from the final days of the Civil War, will be available this fall at the College Bookstore and the Sailors Creek Battlefield Visitors Center.