Battle of Five Forks, 1 April 1865
Five Forks was the final battle during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond (American Civil War). After a winter of constant low-level fighting, General Lee had come to the conclusion that he would have to pull out of the ever-expanding lines around the two cities before they became too long for his army to defend. Accordingly, on 25 March he had launched an attack on Fort Steadman, hoping to force Grant to shorten his lines. After some initial successes this attack had failed badly, costing Lee men he could not afford to loose and further weakening his lines.
Grant had already been planning to attack Lee’s vulnerable right flank. The end of Lee’s line was already well to the south west of Petersburg, defending the last railroad into Petersburg. If Grant could cut that railroad, then Lee’s chances of escaping south would be seriously reduced.
Command of the expedition was given to General Sheridan, who joined Grant from the Shenandoah Valley on 26 March. He was given the entire Cavalry Corps and one infantry corps (the Fifth, under General G. K. Warren). Only three days after returning to the army, Sheridan set off again.
Lee had to respond. He scraped together a force of 10,000 men, composed of his remaining cavalry reserves, commanded by Fitz-hugh Lee, and George Pickett’s Infantry Division. On 31 March they managed to delay Sheridan. The next morning they took up a strong position at Five Forks. This was a key position – if Sheridan could capture the crossroads at Five Forks he would threaten both the Southside railway and Lee’s right flank.
Five Forks was what Grant had been working towards since the previous year – a chance to attack Confederate infantry away from their prepared defensive lines. After a morning taken up by skirmishing between Sheridan’s cavalry and the Confederate infantry, Warren was ordered to attack the Confederate left flank. This would cut Pickett’s force off, and hopefully result in the capture of a large part of his division. Warren’s corps went in at about 4 p.m., and achieved most of what was expected of it.
Outnumbered and out of their fortifications the Confederates were unable to stand up to the Union attack. 5,000 were captured, and the rest fled in rout. Despite this, Sheridan had not been happy with Warren’s performance, and rather spoilt the aftermath of the battle by removing him from command of his corps. Fifteen years later a court of enquiry requested by Warren entirely cleared him on two questions and partially on another two.
The results of the battle were dramatic. If Lee was to escape from Richmond, he would have to start by heading west, not south, and with Sheridan’s men in position to block any move. He had lost a tenth of his army in one day. Added to the losses suffered at Fort Steadman, the result of this was that the Confederate army was now too weak to hold their lines. The next morning (2 April), Grant launched his final attack on Lee’s lines, and for the first time was able to break through those lines. By 10.00 a.m. on 2 April, Lee was forced to telegraph back to Richmond with the dire news that he could no longer hold the lines, and the city would have to be evacuated. The battle at Five Forks triggered the final collapse of the Confederate position in Virginia. It was exactly what Lee had feared – his lines had been extended so far that they had become too thin to hold, but it had happened in part because of his own efforts to prevent it.
Battle of Five Forks - Sheridan Advances:
Entrenching, Pickett's forces awaited the anticipated Union assault. Eager to move quickly with the goal of cutting off and destroying Pickett's force, Sheridan advanced intending to hold Pickett in place with his cavalry while V Corps struck the Confederate left. Moving slowly due to muddy roads and faulty maps, Warren's men were not in position to attack until 4:00 PM. Though the delay angered Sheridan, it benefited the Union in that the lull led to Pickett and Rooney Lee leaving the field to attend a shad bake near Hatcher's Run. Neither informed their subordinates that they were leaving the area.
As the Union attack moved forward, it quickly became clear that V Corps had deployed too far to the east. Advancing through the underbrush on a two division front, the left division, under Major General Romeyn Ayres, came under enfilading fire from the Confederates while the Major General Samuel Crawford's division on the right missed the enemy entirely. Halting the attack, Warren desperately worked to realign his men to attack west. As he did so, an irate Sheridan arrived and joined with Ayres' men. Charging forward, they smashed into the Confederate left, breaking the line.
On the morning of April 1, 1865, Pickett withdrew his forces back from Dinwiddie Court House to the intersection of Five Forks. The Confederate left hung in the air that is, no geographical obstacle prevented the position from being flanked. Aware of this deficiency, the Confederates “refused” their left flank: some troops took positions at a perpendicular angle to the rest of the line in order to prevent flanking maneuvers.
Warren marched his Fifth Corps west, to be placed under the overall supervision of Sheridan. The cavalryman planned an attack that would hit the Confederate line head on with cavalry (fighting primarily as dismounted infantry) while the Fifth Corps slammed into the Confederate left. The Union attack did not begin until 4:15 p.m., mainly because of the difficulties rain-soaked roads and swampy terrain caused the Fifth Corps while trying to get into position. Sheridan had intended that the attack begin earlier, and, not realizing the logistical difficulties Warren faced, blamed the commander of the Fifth Corps.
At four thirty, the Fifth Corps struck the weak return line on the Confederate left. Although Sheridan and Warren had intended for the entire Fifth Corps to fall on the Confederates, both men believed the Confederate line extended farther east than it actually did. As a result, the divisions of Samuel W. Crawford and Charles Griffin proceeded far past the Confederate line, while the division of Romeyn B. Ayres shattered the return line. Warren chased after his lost divisions and redirected them toward the Confederate rear. Sheridan, wondering where Warren was, finally let his impatience and temper get the best of him and determined to relieve Warren from command.
George Pickett, accompanied by Rosser and Fitz Lee, had removed himself to a position behind the lines at Five Forks to enjoy a Virginia tradition—the shad bake. Sources conflict as to whether the Confederate leaders also imbibed a tipple of whiskey along with their fish. Intent on savoring this delicacy, the top three Confederate commanders had neglected to inform their subordinates where they might be found. Thus when Confederates on the lines detected Union movement that portended an attack, commanders shored up local defenses but received no coordination from above. By the time Pickett arrived on the field, it was too late to salvage the situation. Ayres’s attack had rendered the Confederate line untenable, and Sheridan’s cavalry troopers pressed hard along the entire front, preventing the Confederates from forming a secondary line.
By seven o’clock, the Union troops had driven the Confederates from the field in a stunning victory.
Map Battle of Five Forks 31st March and April 1st 1865 Copy of official plan by Col. W. H. Paine U.S. Engrs.
The maps in the Map Collections materials were either published prior to 1922, produced by the United States government, or both (see catalogue records that accompany each map for information regarding date of publication and source). The Library of Congress is providing access to these materials for educational and research purposes and is not aware of any U.S. copyright protection (see Title 17 of the United States Code) or any other restrictions in the Map Collection materials.
Note that the written permission of the copyright owners and/or other rights holders (such as publicity and/or privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item and securing any necessary permissions ultimately rests with persons desiring to use the item.
Credit Line: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Photo, Print, Drawing Battle of Five Forks, Va.--Charge of Genl. Sheridan April 1st 1865
The Library of Congress generally does not own rights to material in its collections and, therefore, cannot grant or deny permission to publish or otherwise distribute the material. For information about assessing rights, see the Rights and Restrictions Information page.
- Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
- Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-01848 (digital file from original print) LC-USZC4-1759 (color film copy transparency) LC-USZ62-301 (b&w film copy neg.)
- Call Number: PGA - Kurz & Allison--Battle of Five Forks, Va. . (D size) [P&P]
- Access Advisory: ---
If an image is displaying, you can download it yourself. (Some images display only as thumbnails outside the Library of Congress because of rights considerations, but you have access to larger size images on site.)
Alternatively, you can purchase copies of various types through Library of Congress Duplication Services.
- If a digital image is displaying: The qualities of the digital image partially depend on whether it was made from the original or an intermediate such as a copy negative or transparency. If the Reproduction Number field above includes a reproduction number that starts with LC-DIG. then there is a digital image that was made directly from the original and is of sufficient resolution for most publication purposes.
- If there is information listed in the Reproduction Number field above: You can use the reproduction number to purchase a copy from Duplication Services. It will be made from the source listed in the parentheses after the number.
If only black-and-white ("b&w") sources are listed and you desire a copy showing color or tint (assuming the original has any), you can generally purchase a quality copy of the original in color by citing the Call Number listed above and including the catalog record ("About This Item") with your request.
Price lists, contact information, and order forms are available on the Duplication Services Web site.
Access to Originals
Please use the following steps to determine whether you need to fill out a call slip in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room to view the original item(s). In some cases, a surrogate (substitute image) is available, often in the form of a digital image, a copy print, or microfilm.
Is the item digitized? (A thumbnail (small) image will be visible on the left.)
- Yes, the item is digitized. Please use the digital image in preference to requesting the original. All images can be viewed at a large size when you are in any reading room at the Library of Congress. In some cases, only thumbnail (small) images are available when you are outside the Library of Congress because the item is rights restricted or has not been evaluated for rights restrictions.
As a preservation measure, we generally do not serve an original item when a digital image is available. If you have a compelling reason to see the original, consult with a reference librarian. (Sometimes, the original is simply too fragile to serve. For example, glass and film photographic negatives are particularly subject to damage. They are also easier to see online where they are presented as positive images.)
- No, the item is not digitized. Please go to #2.
Do the Access Advisory or Call Number fields above indicate that a non-digital surrogate exists, such as microfilm or copy prints?
- Yes, another surrogate exists. Reference staff can direct you to this surrogate.
- No, another surrogate does not exist. Please go to #3.
To contact Reference staff in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room, please use our Ask A Librarian service or call the reading room between 8:30 and 5:00 at 202-707-6394, and Press 3.
Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865
The headstrong Gen. Philip Sheridan (left) had little patience for the careful battle tactics of Gen. Gouverneur Warren (right) and replaced him at Five Forks. But in 1880 Sheridan would be forced to justify his actions before a court of inquiry in New York. Photograph: Library of Congress
Did Philip Sheridan forever tarnish a major Union victory by abruptly relieving Gouverneur Warren of command?
The Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, is both militarily significant and historically notorious. It collapsed Confederate defenses before Richmond and Petersburg, leading directly to the Appomattox campaign that culminated in Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. But its notoriety stems from an incident immediately following the battle, when Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan relieved Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of his command. A great Union victory, then, became forever sullied by Warren’s replacement at its triumphant conclusion. And it became an issue that would not die, thanks to Warren’s obsessive determination to prove to the world that Sheridan’s reasons for taking away his command were without merit. N Removing American field officers for poor combat performance is not unprecedented. George Washington superseded Gen. Charles Lee on the field of Monmouth, and Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Gen. Lloyd Fredendall with George S. Patton
after the Kasserine Pass disaster. Yet what happened to Warren after Five Forks is in a class by itself. His relief had little to do with his conduct during the battle rather, it was predicated on what he might have done in the campaign to follow.
The price of such removals could-in theory-be steep, as Warren later so floridly wrote: “Upon the maintenance of individual rights in all places where the individual has a duty to perform, against the…caprice of his superior, depends the prominence eventually of our nation itself.”
The stage for the battle of Five Forks was set by General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant’s determination to bring a portion of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces to battle outside the formidable earthworks that had held the Federals at bay for 10 months. Grant’s first move was to probe Lee’s extreme western flank below Petersburg. There was fighting on March 29 across the Boydton Plank Road centered on the Lewis Farm as the Federal V Corps (under Warren) butted unsuccessfully against Lee’s line. Then, with the Confederate infantry fully occupied with holding Warren back, Grant sent Sheridan, just returned from the Shenandoah Valley, with 9,000 horsemen on a wide, sweeping maneuver, threatening the Southside Railroad, vital to supplying Lee’s army and the path of his retreat.
Lee reacted aggressively by cobbling together a combined infantry-cavalry reaction force of some 19,000 men under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett and dispatching it beyond the entrenched lines to stop Sheridan. The result was a sharp fight on March 31, near Dinwiddie Court House.
Pressed hard throughout the day from the north and west, the Yankee troopers managed to stabilize a perimeter close to the courthouse as night brought an end to the fighting. It had been touch and go at times, but at a cost of some 350 casualties the Union cavalrymen had staved off disaster. Sheridan, who had seen his share of battles, described March 31 as “one of the liveliest days in his experience.” Another field commander might have been satisfied with the draw and anxious to regroup, but not Phil Sheridan. When an aide from Grant reached him in the early evening, Sheridan pointed out that the enemy’s reaction force was “cut off from Lee’s army, and not a man in it should ever be allowed to get back to Lee.” Grant agreed. Looking at his battle maps, he quickly realized that the nearest infantry he could send to assist Sheridan was General Warren’s V Corps.
Grant’s eye had been on Warren since the start of the Overland Campaign. During the fighting on May 5 and 6, 1864, in the Wilderness Campaign, Warren had failed to deliver a decisive blow against the enemy’s lines. At Spotsylvania on May 12, Warren was supposed to carry out a critical attack meant to keep Lee from reinforcing his center, where Grant’s men had scored a breakthrough. When delay followed delay, Grant actually sent an officer to replace Warren but relented when the man reported that he could do no more than had Warren. Again, at Petersburg on June 18, Warren had ignored peremptory orders to attack, a pattern he repeated at the Crater on July 30. Looking back at his thinking on March 31, 1865, Grant reflected: “While appreciating Gen. Warren’s courage and his qualities as a soldier, from what I knew of his previous conduct, I was apprehensive that he might fail.”
Warren had an eventful day himself. Heavy rain falling on March 30 had limited his operations to resupply. In a series of telegrams between his headquarters and those of his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Warren had worried that he was too exposed and for that reason was reluctant to venture out very far from his newly constructed works along the Boydton Plank Road. Meade responded by directing Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys to extend the II Corps south and west to provide more cover, and reminded Warren that his primary mission was to fully develop the enemy’s position along the White Oak Road. Carrying out those instructions became Warren’s program for March 31.
The first two of Warren’s divisions to advance-led by Brevet Maj. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, who was closely supported by Brevet Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford-were struck by four Confederate brigades that sent them reeling back to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren’s reserve (Brevet Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division), backed by artillery and bolstered on its right by some of the II Corps, managed to hold the plank road line. Matters ground to an uneasy pause by midday with the Confederates lacking the manpower to overwhelm Warren’s last line, and the V Corps commander methodically reorganizing for a counterattack.
The riposte got underway at two thirty that afternoon, led by Griffin’s men. The attackers found the Confederates unable to hold their morning gains. Not only were they driven back into their White Oak Road entrenchments but also two of Griffin’s brigades crossed over the road itself just a short distance west of the works. At 3:40 p.m. a jubilant Warren informed army headquarters of his success. The reply he received at five o’clock was not what he expected. He was told to secure his position, to keep an especial watch over his left flank, and to try to establish contact with Sheridan’s troopers near Dinwiddie Court House. Instead of being allowed to rest on their laurels, it looked as if Warren’s infantrymen were being given another assignment.
Warren dutifully dispatched one brigade of Griffin’s division to feel down toward the courthouse. Other plans involving Warren’s men were rapidly evolving at army headquarters as the overall picture cleared. Sheridan needed help near Dinwiddie Court House to dispose of the enemy’s reaction force and Warren was to provide it. His efforts to comply were not helped by the imperfect knowledge at Meade’s headquarters of the locations and conditions of the V Corps divisions. Adding to the mix, the Boydton Plank Road was then blocked at its crossing of Gravelly Run by a destroyed bridge, made worse by high water from the recent storms. Even as engineers worked to restore the crossing, Warren was engaged in a frustrating exchange of messages with Meade trying to establish a common understanding of conditions.
What would afterwards be seen as a key message sent by Meade was received by Warren at 10:50 p.m. The entire V Corps was to disengage and march to assist Sheridan. “You must be very prompt in this movement,” Meade advised. (Not until an hour later did army headquarters become aware of the stoppage at Gravelly Run. Another exchange of notes explored various alternate routes, but Warren believed that it would be quicker just to wait for the Gravelly Run bridge to be fixed.) At 2:05 a.m., April 1, Warren received word that the way was clear. The V Corps began to march-Ayres in the lead, followed by Griffin and Crawford.
All this activity had not gone unnoticed by the Confederates, who had given Sheridan such a hard time. Just before 10 o’clock on the night of March 31, General Pickett learned of the probe by the Yankee brigade from Griffin’s division and realized that the enemy was threatening his left rear. He promptly ordered his mixed infantry-cavalry command to pull back. With delays because of darkness and the inevitable confusion following a large-scale action, it wasn’t until five o’clock in the morning on April 1 that the Confederates had cleared Sheridan’s front. Although the Yankee scouts kept close tabs on the retrograde movement, the cavalryman let them depart without any serious challenge.
Pickett had signaled to Lee his intention to fall back north as far as Hatcher’s Run, a strong natural defensive position. This Lee could not allow, since such a move would uncover the important road junction known as Five Forks, which was bisected by the White Oak Road. Allowing the enemy unfettered access to Five Forks would seriously undermine the extreme western flank of Petersburg’s contiguous defensive network. “Hold Five Forks at all hazards,” Lee commanded. Accordingly, Pickett took up a defensive position centered on the junction and facing south.
The first division of Warren’s arriving corps reached Sheridan’s outposts at sunrise, followed in the next couple of hours by the remaining pair. Sheridan had them mass around the John Boisseau farm, about two miles north of Dinwiddie. In the meantime he had his troopers aggressively exploring the enemy’s Five Forks position. The picture that their reports gave Sheridan was accurate save for one critical piece. Mistaking a strong cavalry outpost for part of the entrenched position, the Federal scouts placed the enemy’s eastern flank near the intersection of the White Oak and Gravelly Run roads. It was actually more than 4,000 feet farther west.
Sheridan and Warren first met at around 11 in the morning. By then Warren had been informed by Meade that he would be subordinated to Sheridan during their joint operation. The two were polar opposites. Sheridan was all hurry-up, an officer who led from the front and who judged his peers by their visibility along the firing line. Warren was careful, even cautious, a manager of military assets who preferred a central position in battle from which he could direct the deployment of his men. It was the first time the two had worked together.
Sheridan had no definite plan to discuss at their initial meeting, but when they met again after one o’clock that afternoon, he had fully sketched out the attack he intended to deliver. Also by one o’clock, the cavalryman was in receipt of a remarkable order personally conveyed to him by one of U.S. Grant’s aides. As Sheridan later recalled it, he was duly authorized “to relieve General Warren, if, in my judgment, the public service would be benefitted by doing so.”
Sheridan made no mention of this as he briefed Warren. His plan called for a cavalry feint against the enemy’s western flank, followed almost at once by a massive infantry blow (the entire V Corps) against the eastern side. Once the Confederate position began to crumble, the remaining cavalry would press ahead all along the front. Warren immediately began the process of moving his troops to their jump-off position, just south of Gravelly Run Church. His corps would advance as a whole with Ayres on the left, Crawford on the right, and Griffin in reserve. It was expected that Crawford would strike the bend, or return, in the enemy’s works. Ayres would be attacking the east-west line head-on, while Griffin would be ready to assist or turn the flank.
It took several hours for Warren to brief his subordinates and position his corps. Nothing moved fast enough to suit Sheridan, while Warren was concerned that his troops be properly placed and prepared. “I know nothing that I could have done to hasten the formation,” he said afterward. At last, at about 4:15 p.m., with everything set, the order to attack was given. The 12,000 Federal infantry began advancing and quickly covered the 1,500 feet between the starting line and the White Oak Road. Much to the amazement of the infantry officers, the leading files crossed the road virtually unopposed.
A burst of musketry off the left flank of Ayres’s division was the first indication that the enemy’s entrenched position was not where it was supposed to be. In an instant an entirely new plan of attack had to be improvised under fire. The complex actions that followed reflected the confusion of the immediate decision-makers-division and even brigade commanders reacting to imminent or perceived threats-and Warren trying to corral his units back into something approximating the original scheme.
What unfolded was this: Stung by the fire against his left flank, General Ayres pivoted his division to advance westward, perpendicular to the White Oak Road. While this brought him directly against the enemy’s refused flank, it also broke his connection with Crawford’s division on his right. General Crawford, instead of maintaining station off Ayres’s right flank, stuck to his original orders by continuing to tramp in a northerly direction, each minute increasing the gap between the two. When General Griffin finally realized what was happening, he swung his division around to face toward the west and came in alongside Ayres, where Crawford was supposed to be. A few brigades got even more jumbled in these movements.
Both Sheridan and Warren reacted to the sudden breakdown of the plan. Sheridan rode among Ayres’s men, personally rallied a portion that was wavering, and led the assault against the enemy’s eastern flank. Warren went after Crawford. Unknown to both, the Confederates had materially assisted them by poor judgments and even worse management. Convinced that the Federals would not bother him this day, Pickett and his second-in-command enjoyed a late but leisurely shad bake along Hatcher’s Run, nearly a mile and a half behind the Five Forks line. Then a rare phenomenon known as an acoustic shadow so muffled the sounds of combat that no one in Pickett’s party was aware that a major battle was raging nearby. Pickett’s infantry and cavalry subcommanders reacted as best they could to the sudden onslaught, but without a chain of command in place, their actions were fatally disjointed.
Under Sheridan’s personal leadership, Ayres’s infantry (with much help from Griffin) caved in the eastern flank of the Confederate position and began rolling up the line toward the five-way junction. Warren, at last getting control of Crawford’s wayward division, brought it down against the intersection from the north. Some 2,400 Confederates were captured and perhaps 545 killed or wounded. The rest of Pickett’s force fell back to the west, badly mauled and now completely out of contact with Lee’s main force at Petersburg.
At about seven o’clock, even as he was regrouping his command near Five Forks, General Warren was handed an order from Sheridan relieving him of duty. When he confronted the cavalryman to ask that the decision be reconsidered, Sheridan snapped: “Reconsider? Hell! I don’t reconsider my determination.” Following Sheridan’s instructions, Warren reported to U.S. Grant at about 11 o’clock that night.
As Grant later recalled their meeting: “[I told him] that I was not surprised, and I informed him that I had given the authority for his removal, and I also stated to General Warren that while I had a very great regard for his capacity and personal courage, yet he had certain defects which I then told him of as a subordinate commander.” Unhappy with Grant’s refusal to reverse Sheridan’s decision, Warren sought out his immediate superior, General Meade. Warren’s meeting with Meade was equally unsatisfactory. As the disconsolate Warren left Meade’s tent, an aide reflected, “I am sorry, for I like Warren.”
Following Five Forks, Warren was given administrative command of the Petersburg region and was at this post when history-making events unfolded at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the day that Lee surrendered his army, Warren vowed to his wife, “I will have justice done me yet.” That same mail carried his letter to Grant’s chief of staff seeking “a full investigation” into the circumstances at Five Forks. To this first request there was no reply. Later that month, a sympathetic New York senator pressed Grant on Warren’s behalf. Grant’s answer, which Warren would hear repeated endlessly in the years ahead, was that an inquiry would be too expensive and that it was impossible to gather all the necessary witnesses. By May 1, Warren’s wife was telling her father that he was “almost crazy sometimes over this affair of his.”
Warren took command of the Department of the Mississippi, and at Vicksburg, on May 19, formally resigned his commission as a major general of volunteers. He returned to his regular army posting as a lieutenant colonel of engineers and in so doing rejected an offer to join a private firm, fearing that leaving the army would prevent him from ever obtaining redress. In this capacity he played a significant role improving the navigation and crossings of the upper Mississippi, evaluating the routing of the Union Pacific Railroad, and surveying the waterways of coastal New England. But constant work and equally intense stress sapped his health.
Warren never gave up his determination to overturn the decision relieving him of his command after Five Forks, however. His efforts to have a court of inquiry convened at war’s end proved fruitless as the Andrew Johnson administration imploded over Reconstruction policies. Johnson was succeeded by America’s great war hero, U.S. Grant, who had more important things for Phil Sheridan to do than explain the decisions he made on April 1, 1865. Not until Grant left office after his second term did Warren persuade the new president (and former Union major general), Rutherford B. Hayes, to convene the board-nearly 15 years after he had been summarily relieved of his command.
The board first met on Governor’s Island on December 11, 1879, to begin a series of preliminary hearings that continued intermittently until the first witness was called on May 4, 1880. One key procedural decision was to limit all testimony to the actual events of those two critical days. The circumstances of Warren’s removal from command of the V Corps made it a challenge to exactly identify the specific charges against him. Four imputations finally emerged to justify his replacement, one (from U.S. Grant’s official report) concerning his handling of the March 31 fight, and three (noted in Sheridan’s) involving his performance just before and during the battle of Five Forks.
A total of 103 witnesses would be heard in 75 hearing sessions, 27 of the men spending more than one day answering questions from Warren’s counsel, Albert Stickney, or Sheridan’s legal representative, Maj. Asa Bird Gardiner. Warren-described in one press report as “following every word of the stenographer, and slowly and methodically tracing on the chart before him his movements during the days in question”-would be present for every day of testimony, while Sheridan remained only for the days he was examined.
The witness scheduling was necessarily opportunistic, so the men appeared in no particular order. Several were ex-Confederates whose participation was controversial. Some spoke to all four charges, others to just one or two. Most were officers, a couple came from the enlisted ranks, and one was the civilian engineer who drafted the maps that were habitually spread about the hearing room and along its walls when the court was in session. In such a piecemeal manner, points for and against the four charges were introduced to the official record of the proceedings.
The first imputation, and the only one concerning Warren’s actions on March 31, came from General Grant’s campaign summary, which stated that Warren had “reported favorably on getting possession of the White Oak Road, and was directed to do so.” However, in carrying out this assignment “he moved with one division instead of his whole corps, which was…driven back on the second division before it had time to form, and it in turn forced back upon the third division when the enemy was checked.” At the hearing itself, Grant could not recall any of the “exact occurrences” that led him to the conclusions he drew in his report.
Warren’s defense produced communications showing that while Warren had wanted to deploy all his divisions in the effort, orders from Meade and Grant had limited him to the two he sent forward. Also put on the record was the fact of Warren’s eventually successful counterattack.
The second, third, and fourth charges were the crux of the matter, for they all represented Sheridan’s official reasons for relieving Warren. Number two, as stated in Sheridan’s campaign report, was “had General Warren moved according to the expectations of the Lieutenant-General [Grant], there would appear to have been but little chance for the escape of the enemy’s infantry in front of the Dinwiddie Court House.” Here Sheridan and his supporters pointed to a dispatch sent to him by Grant at 10:45 p.m. promising that all of Warren’s infantry “should reach you by 12 to-night.”
How Grant arrived at that time estimate was never made clear, especially as he testified that he had no recollection of making it. Still, his deadline was a matter of record so Sheridan argued that he was fully justified in setting expectations based on that standard. Meade’s 10:50 p.m. note to Warren advising him to “be very prompt in this movement” sealed the argument as far as Sheridan was concerned.
In a written statement submitted to the court, Sheridan said that the “order to Warren to move and the exigencies which General Grant and Meade considered that the situation demanded, were of such a nature that they did not admit of anything but prompt and resolute compliance and I felt that there were no circumstances in existence during the night which should have prevented the movement.”
Even after admitting under direct questioning that he had no firsthand knowledge of the conditions confronting Warren’s men, Sheridan was adamant that whatever they were, they were of no consequence. Meade’s 10:50 p.m. message was, said Sheridan, “one that required prompt obedience.” Regarding how long the march should have taken, Sheridan opined that two hours would have been about right. His irritation at being grilled on this estimate by Warren’s counsel showed when he testified that before the war he had marched infantry at a rate of five miles an hour. Pressed further by Mr. Stickney, a thoroughly riled Sheridan insisted that he had maintained this pace for 12 continuous hours. (Upon reading this statement in a preliminary transcript, Sheridan sought to change it, but Stickney insisted that it be left as he stated it, and it was.) Sheridan never wavered in his conviction that had Warren fully exerted himself the “thing might be done in an emergency, but it would be very difficult.”
Warren’s witnesses included the engineer (from Meade’s staff) who rebuilt the Gravelly Run bridge. He declared that the stream at that point was not fordable by infantry. What also emerged was the near total dysfunction of the communication chains. Warren reported to Meade, who then briefed Grant. Sheridan reported to Grant and got his orders from him. Meade seems not to have acted with the degree of urgency that Grant felt, so when it became clear at his headquarters that Warren’s men were to be unavoidably delayed getting over Gravelly Run, word did not get back to Grant.
The third charge levied against Warren was that once he knew Sheridan’s plan on April 1 he did not “exert himself to get up his corps as rapidly as he might have done, and his manner gave me [Sheridan] the impression that he wished the sun to go down before dispositions for the attack could be completed.” Here the testimony broke along party lines. Wesley Merritt, a brigadier general in 1865 commanding the Union cavalry at Five Forks, having met Warren before the attack, recalled him as “reluctant, quiet, and uninterested…with what might possibly be the results of the day.” A Sheridan staff officer, Francis T. Sherman, had the court spectators smiling as he struggled to explain his depiction of the V Corps commander as “earnestly impassive.”
Warren’s side was eloquently stated by another Civil War hero, Joshua L. Chamberlain, in 1865 a brigadier general in the V Corps: “I should say that those who do not know General Warren’s temperament might think him to be negative when he was deeply intent. General Warren’s temperament is such that he, instead of showing excitement, generally shows an intense concentration in what I call important movements, and those who do not know him might take it to be apathy when it is deep, concentrated thought and purpose.”
Charge four was that during the actual battle of Five Forks, Warren failed to be where he was most needed (with Ayres’s men) and that his lack of confidence in the enterprise spread to the troops “which General Warren did not exert himself to inspire.” It was here that Sheridan felt most aggrieved at Warren’s behavior. In his way of thinking, the capture of the enemy’s eastern flank was the key to victory. “The battle was over, I considered, as soon as we had captured that angle,” he declared. Warren’s inability to keep his initial formation intact “destroyed the tactics that I intended to make in the battle,” Sheridan said. The cavalryman admitted knowing nothing of what Warren actually did and cared even less to explore it 15 years later. As far as he was concerned, in 1865 and 1880, “Ayres’s division…and the cavalry, I think, won the battle the others didn’t get in in time.”
Much testimony was introduced by and for Warren addressing the conditions on the field that day and the steps he took to rectify matters once the plan went awry. (The mislocation of the enemy’s flank was mentioned, but not wanting to attack Sheridan’s war record, Warren’s counsel did not press the matter.) From where he had been, Warren was certain that Crawford’s advance against the intersection from the north “was the cause of the final break that occurred in the enemy’s lines it was the attack General Crawford made south on that road.”
Final testimony was taken on November 22, 1880. Months passed, then a year, with no word on the results. In May 1882, Warren considered personally appealing to the commanding general of the United States Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, to have the findings released, but decided not to. Sheridan remained incensed over having to explain his Five Forks decisions 15 years after making them. It was, he said, “the most painful thing I ever had [to do] in my life.” Like his friends Grant and Sherman, Sheridan never looked back. (Ignoring the great national issues left unresolved when the fighting ended in 1865, Sheridan declared: “It is all over. The problem is worked out.”)
In the summer of 1882 the court’s still unreleased findings were reviewed by the army’s judge advocate general, who questioned some of the procedural methods used during the hearings but did not invalidate its conclusions. The judge advocate general did observe that a great deal of what took place in the hearing room was very much “in the nature of a contest between General Warren as plaintiff, and Generals Grant and Sheridan as defendants.” Indeed, matters did get personal at one point during the testimony Warren believed that his courage had been questioned by Sheridan’s counsel. “It is the unpardonable offense, and it is base to even insinuate a charge of it, without sufficient cause,” he complained to his lawyer.
Issues around publishing the court’s findings were still churning within the War Department when Warren fell ill. An examination revealed acute liver failure made even worse by an existing diabetic condition. His health continued to deteriorate and Gouverneur K. Warren died on August 8, 1882. Shortly before the end, he told his wife: “When I am dead, see that I am not buried in uniform have no military emblems or trappings near me. Allow no military escort. Convey me quietly to my grave without pageant or show, I die a disgraced soldier.” Three months after his passing, the court of inquiry’s findings were made public.
On the first charge, the court agreed that Warren was following orders in setting up his March 31 advance, so the fault was not his. However, he was chided for not being with his leading elements where trouble was expected. The court diplomatically refrained from noting that much of Grant’s opinion, as expressed in his report, was based on inaccurate hearsay.
The court also split hairs when it considered Warren’s march to Sheridan. It was “not practicable for the V Corps to have reached General Sheridan at 12 o’clock on the night of March 31,” the presiding officers concluded, adding that nevertheless, Warren should have made a greater effort to comply with Meade’s 10:50 p.m. directive.
When it came to consider Warren’s preparations for the April 1 assault, the court sided wholeheartedly with him, finding that “there was no unnecessary delay in this march of the V Corps, and that General Warren took the usual methods of a corps commander to prevent delay.” About his state of mind, the court said that the testimony “appears to be too intangible and the evidence on it too contradictory” for a judgment to be rendered.
In its consideration of the fourth charge, the court also sided with Warren, concluding that the “continuous exertions of himself and staff substantially remedied matters” during the actual April 1 attack. So, in sum, the court of inquiry vindicated Warren on the most important points of the first two imputations and fully exonerated him on the last two.
There was a larger issue at stake in these proceedings that was not addressed in the court’s judgments. U.S. Grant’s decision to provide Sheridan advance authorization to relieve Warren, in the absence of any actions that might have justified such a severe judgment, raised serious questions. How much latitude an army leader had to ignore military protocols and normal standards of justice at a time of great urgency was at the heart of what happened to Gouverneur Warren on April 1, 1865.
“One of the most anxious periods of my experience during the rebellion was the last few weeks before Petersburg,” Grant wrote in his memoirs. His great fear was that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would manage to slip away from his embrace “and the war might be prolonged another year.” The cost to the country in terms of blood and treasure if this were allowed to happen was too awful to contemplate. At such a momentous period, Grant believed that he had the full authority to put into place people who could accomplish the task of swiftly ending the war.
Grant’s point of view found a ready ally in the postwar army’s top commander, William T. Sherman. In his opinion of the court’s findings, Sherman argued that a democracy must allow its military leaders wide latitude at critical times. A commander in combat “is responsible for results,” declared Sherman, “and holds the lives and reputations of every officer and soldier under his orders as subordinate to the great end-victory.” Bold, decisive leaders like Sheridan “must be fully and entirely sustained if the United States expects great victories by her armies in the future.”
Warren felt otherwise, believing that such a course of action ran against the grain of the American military tradition. In a letter written in 1868 but never sent to the U.S. army adjutant general, Warren wrote: “There will be no power to prevent some commander in chief in a future day overthrowing the government whom it allows…
subordinate officers to be disposed on the caprice of the superior.”
Ulysses S. Grant believed that General Warren was not the right officer demanded by circumstances. Twice before-at Spotsylvania and at the start of the Petersburg siege-he had come within a hairsbreadth of removing Warren for finding reasons not to carry out his part of a plan. The prospect of having the querulous Warren in a key position when the nation’s future was in the balance was something Grant could not accept, so he took the extraordinary step of giving Sheridan unsought authority to relieve Warren in a manner that had every appearance of a peremptory order. Sheridan admitted as much when he stated that without Grant’s prior approval he would not have even considered removing Warren. “I would have had no right to do it,” he said. “It required authority.”
Grant never wavered from his belief that he had made the right decision at that time and place. He said as much in testimony that was not allowed into the official transcript of the hearings, but which was dutifully set down by some of the newspaper reporters present:
“It had been determined to strike a blow, and I meant that it should be a final blow to the Confederate army. I thought of the consequences if the movement should fail, and I intended to give Sheridan to understand that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of success, so that if necessary, he should not hesitate to remove any officer….What I want is men who will obey orders promptly, not men who will stop to think for themselves before obeying. I once removed an officer [here the newspaper record indicates that Grant nodded in the direction of Warren] for just that thing, and I presume I should remove another under like circumstances.”
Battle of Five Forks, 1 April 1865 - History
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan [US] Maj. Gen. George Pickett [CS]
Estimated Casualties: 3,780 total (US 830 CS 2,950)
|Battle of Five Forks Virginia, April 1, 1865|
|Painting by Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers (1866)|
Summary: Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett with his infantry division and Munford’s, W. H. F. Lee’s, and Rosser’s cavalry divisions to hold the vital crossroads of Five Forks at all hazard. On April 1, while Sheridan’s cavalry pinned the Confederate force in position, the V Corps under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren attacked and overwhelmed the Confederate left flank, taking many prisoners. Sheridan personally directed the attack, which extended Lee’s Petersburg lines, during the Siege of Petersburg , to the breaking point. Loss of Five Forks threatened Lee’s last supply line, the South Side Railroad. The next morning, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that Petersburg and Richmond must be evacuated. Union general Winthrop was killed “Willie” Pegram, beloved Confederate artillery officer, was mortally wounded. Dissatisfied with his performance at Five Forks, Sheridan relieved Warren of command of the V Corps.
The resounding Union triumph heralded the end of the stalemate outside Petersburg and set the stage for the breakthrough that followed the next day. On April 2, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that Petersburg and Richmond would have to be evacuated. Lee surrendered to Grant only seven days later.
The Battle of Five Forks: April 1, 1865
Name: The Battle of Five Forks
Other Names: None
Location: Dinwiddie County
Campaign: Appomattox Campaign (March-April 1865) 1
Date: April 1, 1865
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan [US] Maj. Gen. George Pickett [CS]
Forces Engaged: Corps
Estimated Casualties: 3,780 total (US 830 CS 2,950)
Description: Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett with his infantry division and Munford’s, W.H.F. Lee’s, and Rosser’s cavalry divisions to hold the vital crossroads of Five Forks at all hazard. On April 1, while Sheridan’s cavalry pinned the Confederate force in position, the V Corps under Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren attacked and overwhelmed the Confederate left flank, taking many prisoners. Sheridan personally directed the attack, which extended Lee’s Petersburg lines to the breaking point. Loss of Five Forks threatened Lee’s last supply line, the South Side Railroad. The next morning, Lee informed Jefferson Davis that Petersburg and Richmond must be evacuated. Union general Winthrop was killed “Willie” Pegram, beloved Confederate artillery officer, was mortally wounded. Dissatisfied with his performance at Five Forks, Sheridan relieved Warren of command of the V Corps.
Result: Union victory 2
April 1, 1865: Sheridan, Warren, and a Shad Bake Sink Southern Hopes
On April 1, 1865, 150 years ago today, Phil Sheridan struck the Confederate army defending Petersburg and Richmond a significant blow from which it could not recover. The Battle of Five Forks saw a Federal flank attack, confusion and critical absences in the Confederate high command, thousands of Confederate prisoners bagged, and a humiliating end result for Gouverneur K. Warren on a victorious battlefield.
I covered the earlier portions of the “Five Forks Mini-Campaign” earlier with posts on the March 29 Battle of Lewis Farm, movements on a rainy March 30, and the twin battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House on March 31. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to go back and read through these articles to get a better sense of how the Battle of Five Forks came about.
Idealized version of Five Forks created by Kurz and Allison, c. 1886.
As night fell on March 31, 1865, the two leftmost Union forces facing Petersburg were perceived to be in very different levels of safety. Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac had reversed a disaster earlier in the day, counterattacking and driving the Confederates into their entrenchments on the White Oak Road line. This uncovered the White Oak Road to the west, and Warren’s men took possession. The road was important to the Confederates because it was the direct line of communication with George Pickett’s expeditionary force out on the Confederate left. Though Warren still had to look out for his left (more on the why in a minute), he was relatively secure and had achieved a moderate success on the day. Phil Sheridan’s reunited cavalry corps, now styled somewhat inaccurately as the “Army of the Shenandoah,” was in a much more precarious position to the southwest at Dinwiddie Court House. All day long, Pickett’s Confederate force of infantry and cavalry pounded on Sheridan’s troopers, forcing them east and south almost to the county seat. Sheridan barely held on, and when word of his near disaster reached Grant and Meade, the former sent off a slew of messages, trying to get his favorite general some support. It was this perception that Sheridan needed support, and in a hurry, which led to the Battle of Five Forks occurring as it did on April 1, 1865. Gouverneur Warren’s fairly good day on March 31 was about to turn into his own personal nightmare.
Confused and Confusing Union Orders: March 31-April 1, 1865
Fifth Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren: Was this deliberate and arrogant general his own worst enemy?
Warren faced a slew of sometimes contradictory messages from Grant and Meade on the night of March 31 into the early morning of April 1, all with the goal of supporting Sheridan in mind. I went through this message traffic page by page and attempted to put it into chronological order for those of you interested in studying the details. Around 4:30 pm, Meade sent Warren a message that Sheridan, who had been expected to move on Five Forks on March 31, was probably coming up on Warren’s left. He followed that up at 5:15 with an order for Warren to send a brigade west down White Oak Road to open the way for Sheridan. By 5:30, there were indications things might not be all that they seemed on Sheridan’s front. Meade reported to Grant that firing had been heard in Sheridan’s direction. Just before 6 pm, Warren sent Meade the particulars, and they weren’t good. Warren had just interviewed two men from Sheridan’s command who had been cut off from Sheridan’s main body by a Confederate attack. Warren could hear the firing slowly receding to the south in the direction of Dinwiddie Court House, which could only mean that Sheridan’s force was not only not at Five Forks to Warren’s west, but nearly six miles southeast of that point and being pushed further away. He told Meade he had sent Bartlett’s Brigade and his personal cavalry escort in that direction, but feared they would be too late to help. Meade heard the same news independently and fired off a dispatch to Warren, each man essentially confirming the others’ news nearly simultaneously. At this point, Meade changed his 4:30 orders [change #1] to send a brigade down White Oak Road, and wanted Warren to send this brigade sized force down Boydton Plank Road instead. Warren replied at 6:30 pm that Bartlett had already gone out the White Oak Road to the west, so he was now sending Pearson with three regiments on the direct route southwest to Dinwiddie Court House via Boydton Plank Road.
Meade sent the bad news to Grant about Sheridan at 6:35 on the night of March 31, but Grant had already heard, and had sent Col. Horace Porter to investigate. When Grant found out the details, he set about finding reinforcements for Sheridan. Remember, Sheridan had earlier specifically asked not to be reinforced by the Fifth Corps, preferring the familiar Sixth Corps instead. To Grant, time was of the essence, and the only infantry in realistic reach of Sheridan happened to be Warren’s Fifth Corps. Like it or not, Sheridan was about to get the exact troops he didn’t want. Beggars can’t be choosers after all. Grant also told Meade to have Warren watch his flank, though Sheridan’s position should prevent the Confederates from going too far or risk being cut off in turn. Meade dutifully forwarded the advice to Warren about watching out for his left flank around 7:30 that evening. He also changed his mind again [change #2] and told Warren to halt the force heading down White Oak Road at Gravelly Run.
Further word of Sheridan’s retrograde movement on March 31 reached Meade that evening in the form of Captain Sheridan, one of Little Phil’s ADC. Meade forwarded the news he gleaned from this interview to Grant at 7:40 pm, telling Grant that Sheridan would retire west down the Vaughan Road if pressed any further. Meanwhile, Meade recognized that Sheridan would be needing help, and he fretted over his ability to cover the ground currently held by Second Corps and Fifth Corps south of Hatcher’s Run if significant reinforcements went southwest to Dinwiddie Court House. He asked Grant if Turner’s Independent Division, Twenty-Fourth Corps, Army of the James, just northeast across Hatcher’s Run, could be sent to Little Phil’s assistance instead, but the Lieutenant General replied in the negative, believing there wasn’t enough time. Warren at this time correctly ascertained that if the Confederates were between his position and Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House, they couldn’t stay or risk being cut off due to Warren’s control of White Oak Road. Warren wanted to stay where he was in order to allow his stragglers to rejoin their commands, but further dispatches and some reflection on Warren’s part meant this wasn’t going to happen.
Meade, reacting to new news as it came in and altered the situation as he knew it, now changed Warren’s orders again [change #3], asking him at 8:30 pm to be prepared to shorten his lines that night. Holding the Boydton Plank Road from its junction with the Dabney Mill Road southwest to Gravelly Run. Meade makes no further mention in this dispatch of sending Sheridan any additional help. Warren responded to Meade at 8:40 and indicated his Fifth Corps artillery under Charles Wainwright and a division of infantry could hold this line. He asked Meade if Humphreys could provide that division, allowing Warren to move with the majority of his corps southwest down Boydton Plank Road and attack the enemy in rear while Sheridan kept them busy in front. He also pointed out that Bartlett’s Brigade, now at J. Boisseau’s farm just north of Gravelly Run, a point to Warren’s west on a road leading to the White Oak Road, would force any Confederate retreat away from their main lines near Burgess Mill to Warren’s north.
Ulysses S. Grant was thinking along the same lines as Warren, though he may have been surprised had he been made aware. Grant sent a dispatch to Meade at 8:45 pm telling Meade to have Warren send one full division down Boydton Plank Road to Sheridan’s aid [change #4], which Meade dutifully passed on to Warren 15 minutes later. In this order, Meade (or possibly Grant?) specifically mentioned Griffin’s Division be earmarked for this task. At 9:20 pm, Meade sent a follow-up insisting Warren sent Griffin immediately. In response to the first message from Meade at 8:45 (he hadn’t yet received the 9:20 follow-up), Warren issued the following orders to his command at 9:35 pm:
“I. General Ayres will immediately withdraw his division back to where it was massed yesterday near the Boydton plank road.
II. General Crawford will follow General Ayres and mass his troops behind the intrenchments near Mrs. Butler’s.
III. General Griffin will immediately withdraw General Bartlett to his present position, then move back to the plank road and down it to Dinwiddie Court- House and report to General Sheridan.
- Captain Horrell with the escort will remain where General Griffin’s headquarters now are till daybreak and then come back to the plank road bringing in all stragglers.
- Division commanders in executing this movement, which is ordered by General Meade, [sic] to See that none of their pickets or any portion of their troops are left behind.
- General Ayres and General Crawford will have their troops under arms at daybreak, and the chief of artillery will have all the batteries in readiness to move.“
Clearly, Warren was listening to Meade and attempting to do everything he could to comply with his chief’s and Grant’s orders. However, once Meade realized Warren would need to send Bartlett back east to join Griffin, he sent a 9:40 dispatch directing Warren to leave Bartlett where he was, and send a replacement brigade with Griffin [change #5]. But Meade continued to noodle on the problem of how to help Sheridan.
George G. Meade, Army of the Potomac commander. He faced an awkward situation as Grant’s second in command.
As a result, at 9:45 pm, Meade suggested to Grant that Warren take his entire Fifth Corps to help Sheridan. Meade offered Grant two alternatives. First, Warren could take his entire corps to where Bartlett’s Brigade was at J. Boisseau’s, moving southwest to take Pickett’s Confederate force in the rear. Second, Warren could still send one division to Sheridan via the direct Boydton Plank Road route, and then use his remaining two divisions to attack from the rear. At 10 pm, Warren replied to Meade’s earlier 9:20 dispatch. He forwarded his orders I explicitly listed out earlier, but also made the decision to withdraw the divisions of Ayres and Crawford from the front prior to Griffin, because getting Bartlett back to Griffin would take time anyway. Warren also noted for the first time a critical fact. The bridge over Gravelly Run on the Boydton Plank Road, the direct route to Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House, was out. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, as Gravelly Run was generally fordable in normal conditions. However, the rainfall from the night of March 29 to the morning of March 31 had caused Gravelly Run to turn into a raging torrent, relatively speaking, and a bridge would be required for even the infantry to cross. This bridge and the need to rebuild it is critical to this whole story. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be ready until 2 am on the morning of April 1. It caused Warren to be “late” to reinforce Sheridan, in both Sheridan’s and Grant’s eyes, though they weren’t in the area and didn’t care to find out the truth, both in the moment and in the decades which followed.
At 10:15 pm, Grant made up his mind. He directed Meade to have Warren send a division down Boydton Plank Road, not knowing of the bridge being out, and he wanted Warren to move to help Bartlett at J. Boisseau’s and take Pickett in the rear. Meade dutifully passed along these orders [change #6], though they wouldn’t be received until 10:48 pm, instructing Warren to hurry to help Sheridan. Meade also wanted Warren to send word when Bartlett started and when Warren moved west with his other two divisions. In reading this dispatch, it seems clear that Meade had not yet received Warren’s 10 pm message indicating the bridge was out over Gravelly Run. After sending along Grant’s orders, Meade sent along a message which, in my reading, adds to the confusion of what happened that night. The message is dated 10:45 pm, but is recorded in the Official Records as having been sent at 2:25 am on April 1. I cannot account for the delay unless the same telegraph outage Warren experienced at times this night also factors into this message from Meade to Grant being sent much later. In the dispatch, Meade indicated Warren “was ordered some time since to push Griffin promptly down the plank road to Sheridan” and that Warren was to move to J. Boisseau’s.
However, as often happens in war, circumstances made it impossible for Warren to literally follow Meade’s orders. At 11 pm, Warren had obviously received Meade’s orders of 10:15 pm, halting Griffin and Crawford where they were to receive a change in orders from the one he had sent at 9:35 pm. In addition, Ayres was at this point tapped to be the one division reinforcement for Sheridan. Rather than literally obey, Warren decided to make this change based on the position of his forces in order to get Sheridan men as soon as possible. To make matters worse, the telegraph line went down, and Warren couldn’t let Meade know of these changes until around 12:30 am on the morning of April 1. Warren followed up this message with another at 12:30 am indicating that he didn’t believe he could change the orders he had given until daylight arrived and erased the confusion darkness would cause. Warren also contacted Second Corps commander Andrew A. Humphreys at 12:40 am to let him know he had orders to send a division to Sheridan and move to J. Boisseau’s with his remaining force, and that he would leave his artillery with Humphreys along the Boydton Plank Road.
Meanwhile, on Meade’s side, he had received Warren’s message that the bridge over Gravelly Run had been destroyed, and tried to report this fact to Grant at 11:45 pm. That message, though, didn’t reach Grant until 1:30 am of April 1. Meade also ordered Warren to send troops via the Quaker Road, further east, if he thought they might reach Sheridan more quickly. Warren responded at 1:20 am that the bridge would be finished soon and that heading east to Quaker Road would waste time. Warren followed up at 2:05 am indicating the bridge was finally ready and that Ayres was moving to Sheridan. This message was received by Meade at 2:40 am. So Ayres was still several miles from Sheridan at 2 am through no fault of Warren’s. Keep in mind that Grant had earlier told Sheridan that Warren should reach him by midnight, not knowing of and hence not taking into account the busted bridge, the darkness of the night, and the need for Warren to disengage from the enemy along the White Oak Road. Meade got a few hours’ sleep, as presumably so did most of the rest of the Union high command.
Ulysses S. Grant: Commander of the Army group facing Richmond and Petersburg. He was always looking to continue hammering Lee’s army.
At 6 am, Meade sent Grant word that Warren would soon be at Dinwiddie Court House with his whole command. He also told Warren at 6 am that once he got to Sheridan, he would be subject to that general’s orders until directed otherwise. As a result, Warren didn’t even know he was to report to Sheridan until 6 am on April 1! One of Sheridan’s issues with Warren was that he wasn’t at the head of his column to meet with Sheridan as it arrived near Dinwiddie Court House. Consider what you’ve read in the paragraphs above and tell me how Warren was supposed to be at the head of the one division sent to Sheridan when he was supposed to be attacking Pickett in the rear somewhere south of J. Boisseau’s house well to the north. This criticism, like many others from Sheridan, doesn’t hold up. Warren reached the J. Boisseau house with the divisions of Crawford and Griffin at 7 am, and Ayres reached Sheridan even earlier. In any case, Warren’s Fifth Corps was up in good time considering the obstacles they had to overcome.
You’re probably wondering why I spent this much time on the build-up to Warren moving to Sheridan’s aid. It’s because I wanted readers to really read and understand what happened on the night prior to the Battle of Five Forks. Misunderstandings, no less than six changes of orders, an unforeseen delay due to a broken bridge, and other things made this an incredibly confusing night. Grant and Sheridan came to the unfounded conclusion that Warren had been “slow” to help Sheridan. Grant sent a courier to Sheridan on the morning of April 1 to let him know he had the authority to relieve Warren from command and have him report to Grant.
Grant recalled this decision in his Memoirs (Mem. Vol. 2. p. 445):
“I was so much dissatisfied with Warren’s dilatory movements in the battle of White Oak Road and in his failure to reach Sheridan in time, that I was very much afraid that at the last moment he would fail Sheridan. He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move. I had sent a staff officer to General Sheridan to call his attention to these defects, and to say that as much as I liked General Warren, now was not a time when we could let our personal feelings for any one stand in the way of success and if his removal was necessary to success, not to hesitate.”
Sheridan would deem it necessary, incredibly, after Warren contributed greatly to a victory at the Battle of Five Forks, but more on that below.
Confederate Retreat: Early Morning, April 1, 1865
George Pickett, commander of an expeditionary force meant to defend Five Forks and Lee’s far right.
George Pickett was in a tight spot on the night of March 31, 1865. His tactical victory at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House was in fact a strategic defeat. The fact that Sheridan’s troops still held Dinwiddie Court House as an organized force combined with the fact that his direct route back to the main Confederate lines had been cut by Warren meant he was almost directly between two enemy forces with no support in sight. Realizing that the Federals might execute the sort of attack they in fact were planning that night and with patrols running into Warren’s men at various places in his left rear, Pickett figured that discretion was the better part of valor and retreated in the direction of Five Forks around 4 am. Tom Rosser’s cavalry division covered the retreat of the infantry on the direct road to Five Forks, while the divisions of Munford and Rooney Lee went back the way they had come the day before over Chamberlain’s Run, easing any potential traffic jam on a day where Pickett needed to get away in a hurry.
As the Confederates moved north on parallel paths, Pickett wasn’t planning to stop at Five Forks, preferring instead to move north across Hatcher’s Run with the intention of putting that natural barrier between his isolated force and his Northern counterparts. The problem with this plan is that an uncovered Five Forks meant the Federals could move west and reach the Southside Railroad, Lee’s last supply line out of Petersburg. If that fell, Petersburg would fall. As Pickett was moving north he received a message from a probably furious Robert E. Lee, insisting Five Forks was the key:
“Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you gained.”
To be fair to Pickett, he was in a tough spot here. If he had stayed where he was, Warren could and in all likelihood would have taken him in the left flank and rear. Perhaps he could have taken up a position further north, but still short of Five Forks, but the odds were against him. Due to lack of available Confederate material, I don’t have much more than the famous Lee quote. If you know of other sources, primary or otherwise, which cover this topic, I’d love to hear from you.
Once Pickett’s men reached the vicinity of, they began digging in according to Lee’s orders. The problem was that Pickett’s 9,000-10,000 man force wasn’t nearly strong enough to reach the four plus miles east to the main Confederate lines at White Oak Road. As a result, his line covered Five Forks and points west and east, but both flanks were in the air. The left flank bent back sharply east of Five Forks and a return ran for about 150 yards north. To defend this line, Pickett had two brigades from Bushrod Johnson’s Division (Ransom and Wallace), three of his own brigades (Steuart, Mayo, and Corse), the three cavalry divisions of Fitz Lee’s Cavalry Corps (Rooney Lee, Rosser, and Munford), and portions of Willie Pegram’s artillery battalion, led by Colonel Pegram himself. Johnson’s two brigades held the return on the left flank, the present brigades of Pickett’s Division the center, and Rooney Lee’s cavalry the right of the main line. Munford’s cavalry were off to the east of the left flank, keeping an eye on White Oak Road. Tom Rosser’s cavalry division had moved up Ford’s Road north of Hatcher’s Run to guard the wagon train. Rosser was preparing to bake some shad he had caught earlier, and invited Pickett and Fitz Lee to join him. They accepted, with disastrous consequences…
Union Advance on Five Forks: Afternoon April 1, 1865
While Pickett was busy escaping the trap the Federals had hastily put together on the night of March 31, Warren’s Fifth Corps moved on and reported to Sheridan on the morning of April 1. Prior to Warren’s arrival, Sheridan received the dispatch from Grant giving him authorization to remove the Fifth Corps commander if he felt it necessary. It’s clear based on the existing evidence, especially Sheridan’s testimony at the Warren Court of Inquiry, that neither Grant nor Sheridan cared much for Warren. To make matters worse, Sheridan was already miffed at Warren for not being at the head of the column marching to J. Boisseau’s, and for being “late,” as we’ve already discussed earlier. Sheridan found division commander Griffin instead at the head of the column. Warren had stayed in the rear making sure his divisions disengaged from the Confederate White Oak Road line without incident. It’s debatable to me where the proper place for the corps commander was during this movement.
After arriving in the vicinity of Sheridan, Warren waited several hours before realizing that maybe he should go talk to his new temporary superior. When he did visit Sheridan, he found the diminutive Irishman to be pleasant and cordial. Sheridan already had his cavalry moving north after the Confederates. He knew they were on the run and he wanted to keep it that way. Custer’s Division, which had seen action late the previous day at Dinwiddie Court House after being pulled up from guarding the wagons, led off. Devin’s Division followed. Crook’s Division was tasked today with guarding the trains and Sheridan’s left flank, and missed the Battle of Five Forks entirely as a result.
Warren’s infantry spent the late morning and early afternoon moving into position near Gravelly Run church, southeast of the Confederate “angle” on their left flank. Sheridan wasn’t happy with this performance either, commenting later that Warren appeared as if he wished the sun would set before a fight could take place. A court of inquiry later (MUCH later) found this claim baseless. Regardless, after some time spent gathering information, Sheridan formulated a plan. He wanted to keep Pickett from ever getting back to the main Confederate army, so the weight of his attack would need to fall on the Confederate left, or eastern, flank. This would drive the Confederates north and west, away from the Confederate White Oak Road line to the east. Sheridan’s cavalry would perform holding attacks in front, keeping the Confederates’ attention there. Meanwhile, Warren’s Fifth Corps would move north to the White Oak Road, with Ayres’ Division striking the angle and the other two divisions moving around the exposed Confederate flank. This was a sound plan, but there was one issue. The Federals didn’t know exactly where the angle was. And it was hidden from direct sight by woods. According to the sketch provided to Warren by Sheridan, the angle was supposed to be further east than it really was. This misunderstanding would cause initial confusion during the battle.
By 4 pm, all was ready. Custer’s Division had the left, with Devin in the center. They were ready to perform their holding attacks after Warren’s fifth Corps became engaged. Warren’s men were southeast of the angle. Each Fifth Corps infantry division was to attack in three lines. Ayres held the left, and Crawford the right. Griffin’s Division was in reserve directly behind the two leading divisions. Mackenzie’s small cavalry division from the Army of the James was out on the far right, protecting the Union flank and keeping an eye out for Confederate reinforcements from the east. All that was left was for Sheridan to order the attack. Satisfied, he did so, and the Union troops moved forward. It was approximately 4:15 pm on April 1, 1865. The decisive engagement of the Siege of Petersburg was about to get under way…
The Battle of Five Forks: 4:15 pm April 1, 1865
In a prequel to the main battle, Mackenzie drove away Roberts’ North Carolina cavalry brigade to the east. This duty complete, he stayed on the Union right, ready to move and continue protecting that flank. The main action was about to begin. From the start, Warren’s attack faced confusion. In the right front, the Fifth Corps hit elements of Munford’s cavalry division, which was out beyond the Confederate left. For a time, the Union leaders wondered if this was the angle, and if so, why there weren’t troops to their left front. After moving to White Oak Road, however, Ayres’ Division started to draw fire from its left flank. Ayres moved his men in that direction, having finally found the elusive angle. However, when he did so, his right lost contact with Crawford’s left. To make matters worse, Crawford kept moving due north into the woods, away from the developing battle. Luckily, Griffin’s reserve division moved into the hole created by Crawford, and his brigades eventually helped Ayres collapse the Confederate left held by Ransom and Wallace.
While Ayres was wrestling with the Confederate angle, Sheridan sent in his two available cavalry divisions, wildly exhorting him in the personal style he had become famous for. He encouraged his troopers to drive the Confederates, saying they were ready to leave and all they needed was a little push. He wanted his men to follow up swiftly, capturing as many prisoners as possible. Before they could do that, however, they’d need to break through the breastworks. Early attempts failed with considerable losses, but Sheridan kept his men to the work. Eventually, as the Union infantry attack told on the right, the Confederates were forced to shift troops from their main line to stem the tide. Custer tried to move around the Confederate right, but Rooney Lee was able to intercept him and fighting bogged down there as well. Eventually, the cavalry too was able to break through, and a complete victory was underway.
That complete victory was made even greater by the efforts of Gouverneur Warren. When Crawford’s Division veered away from the battle to the north, he rode after it, intent on getting it back into the fight. Warren was able to stop Crawford’s leftmost brigade and face it west, there to wait for further orders. One of Sheridan’s staffers later discovered it there and ordered it in on Griffin’s front. Warren went after the remainder of Crawford’s Division and eventually turned it west, its right flank at times so close to Hatcher’s Run that Mackenzie’s cavalry was partially forced to cross that waterway due to lack of room. Crawford kept moving west and eventually hit Ford’s Road, the direct Confederate escape route north across Hatcher’s Run. He moved south and overran McGregor’s Confederate battery, trapping thousands of Confederates in a three-sided net, escape only possible to the west.
When the battle started, Pickett and Fitz Lee were north of Hatcher’s Run with Rosser along Ford’s Road at Rosser’s shad bake. The thick woods between their position and the battlefield proper prevented them from hearing the majority of the firing. Their first inkling of the disaster befalling their men at the front was Munford’s troopers fleeing from the east, desperately trying to hold off Crawford and Mackenzie from Ford’s Road. Pickett asked Munford to delay long enough for the general to cross Hatcher’s Run and join his main force at Five Forks. Munford was barely able to do so for Pickett, but Fitz Lee was cut off, the road closing before he could make it. When Pickett reached the front, he found a disaster. His line was disintegrating from left to right, and there was nothing further to be done. He fled west with the remnants of his command who were able to make it out in that direction.
A final word is in order about artillery chief Willie Pegram. Less than two months earlier, Willie’s brother John had been killed at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run. Willie met his fate at Five Forks. Three of his battalion’s guns were stationed at and left of the all-important crossroads. While Pegram was directing his artillery on horseback, he was hit in the left side by a bullet. The young artillerist was taken to the rear on a stretcher, and died the next day. Both he and his brother, Petersburg natives, died defending their homes, and too late for their deaths to have mattered in the final outcome.
Robert E. Lee did his best to send Pickett reinforcements during the day, but the Federals had blocked the White Oak Road, Lee’s firect route to Pickett. Instead, they had to move north up Claiborne Road, cross Hatcher’s Run and proceed to Sutherland Station on the South Side Railroad, and then head southwest in Pickett’s direction. They were, just barely, too late. Fourth Corps commander Richard H. Anderson arrived in the area north of Hatcher’s Run where the shad bake occurred at 5:45 pm. With him were the brigades of Wise, Stansel, and Hunton. By that time, however, Pickett was fleeing west with the remnants of his forces while Rosser helped Anderson hold the Federals south of Hatcher’s Run. Lee had stretched his White Oak Road and Boydton Plank Road lines even more, manning the White Oak Road line with McGowan, Hyman, MacRae , and Cooke. This left the Boydton Plank Road lines dangerously thin, a fact which would have dire consequences on the morning of April 2.
Results and Larger Meaning for Lee’s Ability to Hold Petersburg
The Battle of Five Forks, though it did not cut Lee’s final supply line, the Southside Railroad, was decisive in that it made the cutting inevitable. Once the Five Forks road network was in Union hands, the Southside was doomed. Sheridan could easily move west and cut this rail link to what remained of the south. More importantly, Lee’s direct escape route west had also been cut. He would be forced to put the Appomattox River between himself and Joe Johnston. Moreover, portions of his army had also been trapped south of the Appomattox. Casualties were lopsided in the battle, but not as lopsided as has sometimes been reported, according to Chris Calkins. He puts the Confederate casualties at around 545 killed, and 2000 to 2400 captured. This captured estimate is lower than others, but Calkins points out that prisoners captured the next day were accidentally grouped with those at Five Forks, inflating the battle’s captured numbers. The Federals lost 634 total, with only 75 killed, 506 wounded, and 53 missing. Lee’s army was starting to crack, and Pickett’s ill-timed sojourn to the rear made this outcome all but inevitable.
Robert E. Lee’s options were limited as the Siege of Petersburg, and the Civil War, wound inexorably to a close.
Robert E. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge about the battles of Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks. He recognized the day had been a disaster:
“Sir: After my dispatch of last night I received a report from General Pickett, who, with three of his own brigades and two of General Johnson’s, supported the cavalry under General Fitz Lee near Five Forks, on the road from Dinwiddie Court-House to the South Side road. After considerable difficulty, and meeting resistance from the enemy at all points. General Pickett forced his way to within less than a mile of Dinwiddie Court-House. By this time it was too dark for further operations, and General Pickett resolved to return to Five Forks to protect his communication with the railroad. He inflicted considerable damage upon the enemy and took some prisoners. His own loss was severe, including a good many officers. General Terry had his horse killed by a shell and was disabled himself. General Fitz Lee’s and Rosser’s divisions were heavily engaged, but their loss was slight. General W. H. F. Lee lost some valuable officers. General Pickett did not retire from the vicinity of Dinwiddie Court-House until early this morning, when, his left flank being threatened by a heavy force, he withdrew to Five Forks, where he took position with General W. H. F. Lee on his right, Fitz Lee and Rosser on his left, with Roberts’ brigade on the White Oak road connecting with General Anderson. The enemy attacked General Roberts with a large force of cavalry, and after being once repulsed finally drove him back across Hatcher’s Run. A large force of infantry, believed to be the Fifth Corps, with other troops, turned General Pickett’s left and drove him back on the White Oak load, separating him from General Fitz Lee, who was compelled to fall back across Hatcher’s Run. General Pickett’s present position is not known. General Fitz Lee reports that the enemy is massing his infantry heavily behind the cavalry in his front. The infantry that engaged General Anderson yesterday has moved from his front toward our right, and is supposed to participate in the operations above described. Prisoners have been taken to-day from the Twenty-fourth Corps, and it is believed that most of that corps is now south of the James. Our loss to-day is not known.”
When Ulysses S. Grant heard the news that evening, he immediately began writing out orders while his staffers wildly celebrated. When he emerged, he calmly mentioned he had ordered an attack all along the lines for the morning of April 2. The end of the Siege was here….
The Battle of Five Forks
April 1, 1865 –Federals routed an isolated Confederate force southwest of Petersburg. This began the campaign to end the war in Virginia.
Following the engagement north of Dinwiddie Court House on March 31, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry cut the Confederate supply line at Stony Creek. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that this–
“–seriously threatens our position and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg… I fear he can cut both the South Side and the Danville railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry. This in my opinion obliges us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.”
The Confederates had not yet been defeated on any part of the Petersburg siege line, but Lee knew that the superior Federal numbers and armament would soon prove too overwhelming to bear. He therefore started arranging to evacuate to the west. It would require a nearly unprecedented feat of logistics to move some 50,000 men out of a 37-mile long network of trenches while holding the enemy at bay and keeping the escape route unclogged. To ensure that his army remained fed, Lee worked with the Commissary Department to have 350,000 rations shipped from Richmond to Amelia Court House, a stop along the westward retreat.
Meanwhile, on the southwestern-most point of Lee’s line, Major General George Pickett’s isolated Confederate force fell back northward to Five Forks after the Dinwiddie engagement. Five Forks was a key position because it facilitated the flow of supplies from the South Side Railroad to Lee’s army. It would also be Lee’s key escape route when needed. Pickett’s men positioned themselves behind hastily built fortifications and trenches.
Sheridan sought to destroy Pickett’s force and seize both Five Forks and the South Side Railroad beyond. He later wrote, “I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks–he had to, so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan of battle.” Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack designed to isolate Pickett’s force from the rest of the Confederate army and clear a path to the railroad:
- Major General Wesley Merritt’s two cavalry divisions would launch a diversionary attack on Pickett’s front.
- Brigadier General Ranald S. Mackenzie’s cavalry division would feign an attack on the Confederates’ far left, exploiting the gap between Pickett and the main Confederate line to the east.
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would come up to attack Pickett’s left and rear.
On the Confederate side, Pickett and the other ranking Confederate commander, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, inexplicably left their troops for a shad bake, two miles in the rear. This left Brigadier General Rooney Lee in charge of the cavalry and Brigadier General George H. Steuart in charge of the infantry. Neither Rooney nor Steuart knew that their superiors had left, or that they were now the ranking commanders.
Federal cavalry under Merritt and Mackenzie advanced as scheduled, but Warren’s infantry did not. As Sheridan waited impatiently, a courier handed him a dispatch from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “General Grant directs me to say to you, that if in your judgment the Fifth Corps would do better under one of the division commanders, you are authorized to relieve General Warren, and order him to report to General Grant, at headquarters.”
Warren’s 12,000 men finally advanced, but due to a faulty map supplied by Sheridan, the leading two divisions marched past the Confederate left flank instead of directly into it. Warren reported:
“After the forward movement began, a few minutes brought us to the White Oak road, distant about 1,000 yards. There we found the advance of General Mackenzie’s cavalry, which, coming up the White Oak road, had arrived there just before us. This showed us for the first time that we were too far to our right of the enemy’s left flank.”
This caused more delays and isolated Warren’s remaining division in an enemy crossfire. Enraged, Sheridan redirected the leading two divisions and the assault resumed. Noting that Warren was not at the front to handle these matters himself, Sheridan told his chief of staff, “By God, sir, tell General Warren he wasn’t in that fight!” When the officer asked if he could put this message in writing, Sheridan fumed, “Take it down, sir! Tell him by God he was not at the front!”
Sheridan ordered Major General Charles Griffin, Warren’s ranking division commander, to replace Warren. Sheridan later explained that this was “necessary to protect myself in this critical situation, and General Warren having sorely disappointed me, both in the moving of his corps and in its management during the battle, I felt that he was not the man to rely upon under such circumstances, and deeming that it was to the best interest of the service as well as but just to myself, I relieved him, ordering him to report to General Grant.”
Such an order meant professional ruin, so when Warren received it, he rode to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. Sheridan snapped, “Reconsider, hell! I don’t reconsider any decisions! Obey the order!” This marked the first time that a commander in the Army of the Potomac had ever been relieved of duty for lacking aggression in combat. Grant upheld Sheridan’s decision, later writing:
“He (Warren) was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.”
However, the delays had not been Warren’s fault, and they ultimately did not affect the battle’s outcome. A court of inquiry later cleared Warren’s name, but the court’s findings were not published until after he died.
The Federals made progress all along the line once Griffin took over, but Sheridan would accept nothing but total victory. When an officer proudly announced that his troops had penetrated the enemy rear and captured five guns, Sheridan shouted, “I don’t care a damn for their guns, or you either, sir! What I want is that Southside Railway!”
Ultimately, Griffin’s Federals overwhelmed the enemy left, while dismounted cavalry pushed the enemy right. The Confederates could only offer a token resistance many fled or were taken prisoner, and they were virtually wiped out by 7 p.m. A northern correspondent reported: “They had no commanders, at least no orders, and looked in vain for some guiding hand. A few more volleys, a new and irresistible charge… and with a sullen and tearful impulse, 5,000 muskets are flung upon the ground.”
When Pickett finally returned from the shad bake, some 5,200 of his men had already been either shot or taken prisoner, roughly half his force. Federals also captured 13 battle flags and six cannon while suffering about 1,000 casualties. Moreover, Mackenzie’s Federal troopers blocked the main line of Confederate retreat, thus ensuring that Pickett would remain isolated from the rest of Lee’s army.
This was the most overwhelming Federal victory of the war. It was also Lee’s first decisive defeat since this campaign began in northern Virginia nearly a year ago. This battle and the fighting at Fort Stedman on March 25 cost Lee nearly a quarter of his whole army.
The remnants of Pickett’s force, numbering no more than 800 men, retreated to the Appomattox River. The Federals now surrounded Petersburg south of the Appomattox River and moved even closer to the vital South Side Railroad. Lee could now do nothing except retreat before his army was destroyed.
Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff witnessed the battle and rode back to headquarters that night to report the resounding victory. Grant listened to Porter’s account and then disappeared into his tent. He came out a few minutes later and announced, “I have ordered an immediate assault all along the lines.”
Grant informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, that his two corps under Major Generals John G. Parke and Horatio G. Wright were to launch a general assault on the eastern sector of the Petersburg line: “Wright and Parke should be directed to feel for a chance to get through the enemy’s line at once, and if they can get through should push on tonight. All our batteries might be opened at once, without waiting for preparing assaulting columns. Let the corps commanders know the result of the left, and that it is being pushed.”
President Abraham Lincoln, monitoring the action from Grant’s former headquarters at City Point, received a wire from Grant that night hailing Sheridan’s victory: “He has carried everything before him,” including capturing “several batteries” and “several thousand prisoners.” Federals brought Lincoln several trophies from the fight, including captured battle flags. Lincoln held up one of them and said, “Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand. This means victory. This is victory.”
The Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865
On September 23, 1897 Horatio Collins King, a member of Dickinson College Class of 1858, received a Medal of Honor for his acts of bravery during the battle of Five Forks. As quartermaster of the first cavalry division of the Army of the Shenandoah, King fought in one of the final Eastern battles of the Civil War in Five Forks, Virginia on April 1, 1865. Maj. General Philip Sheridan led 50,000 Union troops in a victory over a Confederate force only one-fifth the size. In his military history, Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (2008), William Swinton explains the Union victory and capture of the Southside Railroad at Five Forks in terms the battle’s greater significance in the war. Within the eight days following the battle of Five Forks the Confederate Army had retreated from Petersburg and Richmond and General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Nonetheless, for the soldiers who fought at Five Forks, the battle remained a personal experience. In his Civil War Journal (digitized in the Dickinson College database “Their Own Words”), Horatio King did not go to lengths to discuss the meaning of the battle and the Confederate retreat. Instead, King wrote a poignant passage describing a dead Southern soldier he encountered while collecting the wounded: “his face was raised toward heaven and the open eyes & sweet expression of countenance together with the hands uplifted as in prayer gave me the impression that he still lived.” Battles were personal affairs for generals as well, as exemplified by Gouverneur Kemble Warren’s obsession with Five Forks. After the battle, Sheridan relieved Warren of his command of the V Corps, and when Warren “personally sought of General Sheridan a reason for his order,” “he would not or could not give one.” After more than a decade of seeking an explanation, Warren finally received official recognition of his unjust treatment when President Rutherford B. Hayes authorized a court of inquiry on December 9, 1879.
The National Park Service has preserved Five Forks as part of the larger Petersburg National Battlefield. Their website contains Five Forks resources including multiple battle maps. J. Tracy Power’s Lee’s Miserables : Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (1998) is a unique military history of the last year of the war that uses Confederate soldier’s letters and diaries as a primary source of evidence, giving readers a different angle on the battle of Five Forks.
To view a Flickr slideshow on this battle, click on any of the images below: