150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Five Forks: April 1, 1865



in 150 Years Ago Today

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Gordon Meade

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

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….


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Norm Ramil April 2, 2015 at 12:15 am

Superb summary of the tactical situation on each day between Ft Stedman and Five Forks. Really appreciate your untangling of the Federal communications and highlighting all of the uncertainties that the commanders had to deal with. All of the crosstalk among Meade/Grant/Warren has a tone that reminds us that even though the strategic outcome seemed certain, there was plenty of tactical drama to be played out in those last couple weeks of fighting between these two great armies. Thanks for the maps–they really help a ton!

Brett Schulte April 2, 2015 at 8:14 am

Thanks Norm. When I went into this sesquicentennial my goal was to try to create maps for situations which didn’t have them readily available. I didn’t do as much as I wanted to, but I hope the maps I was able to add help people visualize what was going on.


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