MHSM Papers V6: Operations of the Fifth Corps on the Left, March 29 to Nightfall March 31, 1865: Gravelly Run

   

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in Volume 6

VII

OPERATIONS OF THE FIFTH CORPS ON THE LEFT, MARCH 29, TO NIGHTFALL MARCH 31, 1865; GRAVELLY RUN1

BY

CAPTAIN CHARLES H. PORTER

Read before the Society January 11, 1886

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OPERATIONS OF THE FIFTH CORPS ON THE LEFT, MARCH 29 TO NIGHTFALL MARCH 81, 1865; GRAVELLY RUN

The army about Petersburg had occupied the position now held by it since the battle of Dabney’s Mill and the extension to the left in the movement executed February 5-7, 1865.

The Sixth Corps had returned in the previous December to its old comrades.

Sheridan and his cavalry, starting out in the storms of midwinter, had reached the lines in March, 1865, and all was in readiness to begin the grand movement which was to prove the final one in this great civil war, and the Army of the Potomac was to reap the reward of well doing after many years of weary and dispiriting waiting.

No movements of an offensive nature had been undertaken for six weeks.

The Army was distributed as follows:

The Ninth Corps held the lines from the Appomattox to Fort Howard, on the road from Petersburg to the Gurley house.

The Sixth Corps, from Fort Howard to Battery Cummings.

The Second Corps, from Battery Cummings to Armstrong’s Mill and the return, being substantially the ground occupied by them during the operations in February, 1865.

The Fifth Corps was in reserve, and occupied camps not protected by works, in rear of and to the left of the Second Corps.

Griffin’s Division (the First), on the right, closely connecting with the Second Corps; Ayres’ Division (the Second) was next in line on the left of Griffin; Crawford (Third Division) on Ayres’ left, and near the Halifax Road.

On March 24, 1865, General Grant issued his orders to General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, General Sheridan, commanding the cavalry, and General Ord, commanding the Army of the James, in which he designated March 29 as the day upon which the grand movement by the left should be made.

The Second Corps was to be relieved by three divisions from the Army of the James. The Sixth Corps were to hold their intrenched lines, but to be prepared to evacuate them, should it be deemed necessary to reenforce the movable column. The Ninth Corps were to hold their lines intact; but should the Sixth Corps be withdrawn from their left, its line was to be contracted, holding only to Fort Davis on the Jerusalem Plank Road, and thence occupying the return to the rear.

The absolute movable force, then, was the Second and Fifth Corps and Sheridan’s cavalry, and as Ord was to bring over the bulk of his cavalry under Mackenzie, this, too, should be considered as available. The total infantry force was on paper about 35,000. The present for duty, by morning report of March 31, 1865,(1) gives 18,507 enlisted men with 960 officers in the Second Corps, and 15,341 enlisted men with 632 officers in the Fifth Corps. Sheridan, reporting the same day,(2) gives 13,209 enlisted men with 611 officers; adding Mackenzie’s total(3) of 1734 enlisted men and 68 officers, we have a force of over 15,000 cavalry. It is probable, however, that the actual fighting force of infantry did not exceed 30,000 men, and of cavalry not over 11,000 men.

The day after this order was issued General Lee, on March 25, 1865, made a bold but unsuccessful attack upon our lines at Fort Stedman. Although successful at first, the attack was an absolute failure in its results, either to cause the siege to be raised, or to break the army in two, and thus make an avenue of escape for the Confederate force. It also did not

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(1) 95 W. R. 62.

(2) 97 W. R. 391.

(3) 97 W. R. 390.

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delay the movements originally planned. General Lee could ill afford the losses in men from his army caused by this attack. His army was suffering by desertion at a great rate, and the gaps could not be filled from the exhausted Confederacy. General Meade in return, on the same day, ordered assaults upon the intrenched picket lines to be made, and these assaults were successful. From these advantages gained at this time General Wright was able to deliver the successful assault on April 2, and he says in his official report that the positions gained this day made the assaults of April 2 possible.

Nothing daunted by this unexpected blow, General Grant persisted in his movements.

General Ord, with two divisions of the Twenty-fourth Corps and one of the Twenty-fifth Corps, began his part on March 27, leaving his lines on the north side of the James and Appomattox on that day. He concealed his movement so thoroughly that the enemy were entirely unaware of its being made. It seems almost incredible that this column of infantry and cavalry, about 16,000 men in all, could have made this march so close to the enemy and escaped detection. It would seem as if some bright-eyed signal officer would have seen it, or some scout have reported it. But we know from official Confederate sources that it entirely escaped detection, and Ord was safely in rear of Humphreys at night on March 28, and on March 29 relieved the Second Corps so it could take its full part in the campaign to open that day.

General Sheridan, under instructions of March 28, with his cavalry was to move on the extreme left of the infantry to near Dinwiddie Court House. He began his movement promptly on the morning of the 29th and reached his destination without delay or hindrance.(1)

He crossed Rowanty Creek at Malone’s Crossing, and then turned to the north and west and approached the Court House by all roads which were clear. He met no enemy

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(1) 95 W.R. 1101.

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whatever, and accomplished his work this day without loss. He left one division of his corps at the crossing to look after W. H. F. Lee’s and Rosser’s brigades of cavalry, which were on Stony Creek, but were under orders to concentrate elsewhere.

General Meade, on March 27, issued the following instructions to General Humphreys:(1) “After being relieved by General Ord’s troops, the Second Corps will cross Hatcher’s Run by the Vaughan Road, also cross Gravelly Run and open communication with the Fifth Corps, and finally move to junction of the Quaker Road and the Vaughan Road. The movement to begin at 6 A. M. March 29.” These instructions were modified on the 28th, as follows:(2) “General Humphreys will cross Hatcher’s Run by the Vaughan Road and take up position with his right resting on the Run, and his left extending to the Quaker Road. This movement to begin at 9 A. M. March 29.”

General Warren was directed by the order of March 27(3) to move at 3 A. M., March 29, and cross Hatcher’s Run at W. Perkins’s house, and thence to the junction of the Old Stage Road and the Vaughan Road, and from this point to open communication with the Second Corps. Having accomplished this, he was to move to a position in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Court House. These instructions were modified on the 28th,(4) so that General Warren was not to move beyond the junction of the Quaker and Vaughan Roads, until notified that General Humphreys was in position, or nearly so. When so informed General Warren was to advance to the Boydton Plank Road, and have his right connect with the left of the Second Corps. General headquarters were with the Second Corps. The headquarters escort of both Generals Meade and Warren were the only cavalry actually moving with the Fifth Corps.

General Ord relieved the Second Corps early on the morning

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(1) 97 W. R. 198.

(2) 97 W. R. 224.

(3) 97 W. R. 198.

(4) 97 W. R. 224.

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of the 29th, and at 9 A. M., as directed, General Humphreys commenced his movement, and at nightfall his right was on the west bank of Hatcher’s Run, and his left quite near but not reaching the Quaker Road.

General Warren began his movement at 3 A. M., as directed, General Griffin’s division in the advance, General Chamberlain’s brigade leading the column. The march was rapid and met with no opposition. I should here mention that Warren really crossed Rowanty Creek, that being the name which is given to the stream below the junction of Gravelly and Hatcher’s Runs. The creek was not fordable and the crossing was made upon a pontoon bridge which accompanied this column. The Quaker Road was soon reached, and the corps was halted. However, to cover as much ground as possible, and to observe the enemy, if any were found, and to push them back, our advanced guard and supports were pushed to within two miles of Dinwiddie Court House.

At 10.20 A.M. General Warren was directed by General Meade, in a despatch received by him at that hour,(1) to move up the Quaker Road to Gravelly Run, and from thence to throw out parties to the right to find General Humphreys’ left. At 12 M. he received another despatch from General Meade,(2) which directed him to cross Gravelly Run and advance to the Boydton Plank Road. This was done. A considerable delay ensued at the crossing by reason of the run not being fordable. Another pontoon bridge had to be laid; and as the banks were very steep and artillery could not cross the bridge until proper approaches had been made, it took considerable time to effect a passage. General Chamberlain was in advance. The enemy, who had up to this time been absent, were met within a few hundred yards of this crossing, a line of skirmishers being deployed directly across the Quaker Road. These were rapidly driven off, however, and our march was uninterrupted until about a mile from the

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(1) 97 W. R. 254.

(2) 97 W. R. 255.

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junction of the Quaker Road and Boydton Plank Road, at which point the enemy was met in force.

The advance up to this time were the escorts. The enemy were in a position astride the Quaker Road near the old sawmill. The force consisted of Wise’s and Wallace’s brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s division, Anderson’s corps.(1) An assault was made at once by Chamberlain supported by Gregory, and was successful at all points. The enemy were driven back with considerable confusion to beyond the junction of the Quaker Road and Boydton Plank Road. A battery of artillery, which had succeeded in getting over the run, went into position and added materially to the success. Crawford’s division came up and was formed in support of Griffin, but was not engaged. This assault upon the enemy was made about 6 P. M. The sun was about half an hour high. Our losses in this affair were 400 killed, wounded, and missing; 360 being in Chamberlain’s brigade, the remainder in Gregory’s. We captured about 100 prisoners, and we inflicted quite as serious punishment on the two brigades as we received.

Our men were pushed forward directly to the Boydton Plank Road, and at 9 p. M. went into bivouac and held the Plank Road from near Gravelly Run to Rainey’s house, which was the point which Griffin reached and where he halted for the night. He was astride the Plank Road with his right thrown out towards Humphreys, and by means of pickets the connection was made with the Second Corps.

Ayres with his division was in line on the Plank Road, his right reaching Griffin. On his left was Crawford, who had the extreme left, and was holding down the road to near Gravelly Run.

The left of the Second Corps was not so far advanced as Griffin; in fact, their line was refused somewhat along the Plank Road and faced northwest.

During the night it began to rain severely. This storm

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(1) 92 W. R. 1286. [SOPO Editor’s Note: Should read 95 W. R. 1286.]

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was a severe one, lasting until the afternoon of the 31st. The rain fell in torrents all the while. This country is full of swamps and ravines, and while in summer weather they would offer little impediment to the movement of troops, during such a storm as this they would become full and present severe obstacles to be overcome. The roads were absolutely impassable for the artillery and wagons until corduroyed. A great deal of the country was covered with dense forest and undergrowth, and it being rather flat the rainfall was not quickly carried off. The clay and sand became almost quicksand. Rowanty Creek rose so rapidly that the pontoon bridge, over which the Fifth Corps crossed on the 29th, was over a hundred feet too short. It was not until midday of the 31st that it was possible to send over the wagons of the corps at this crossing.

Notwithstanding the rain and almost impassable roads, early on the morning of the 30th, in accordance with instructions received the night before from General Meade,(1) Warren pushed forward Griffin from his position in front of Rainey’s directly up the Plank Road until the enemy were driven into their main line of works along the White Oak Road. Griffin’s skirmishers were pushed close to the rifle-pits of the enemy’s pickets, and their line was closely observed. Our advanced troops reached and intrenched their position, about three fourths of a mile from Burgess’s mill or store, and extended their line to the right so as to cover the Dabney Mill Road, and connected with the left of the Second Corps near this point. The left was refused and covered the Plank Road to below the Rainey house. Ayres came next, a little to the north and west of the Plank Road, holding from Rainey’s to Mrs. Butler’s. Crawford continued the line to near Gravelly Run. As soon as our troops could get into position, they began to intrench, so that by midday our lines were well protected and our left secure. The lines were much longer in being

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(1) 97 W. R. 244.

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built than usual owing to the scarcity of intrenching tools, those only being available that were with the pioneers, not one from the wagons being available.

General Humphreys advanced his corps so that his right was opposite the Crow house intrenchment, and his left was in close connection with Griffin at the Dabney Mill Road. His skirmishers pushed the enemy into their intrenched line, which was a solidly and substantially built one. If well manned, this line could not have been easily carried. Abatis covered its entire front, and the picket line was well intrenched. Substantially, our advance was where Hancock was in October, 1864. This long line of earthworks was not at that time built. The enemy at that time had no force west of Hatcher’s Run. Practically, as now formed, by noon of the 30th we held in force from the Appomattox to Dinwiddie.

General Grant had at first determined, after everything was well established, to send Sheridan and his cavalry on a raid against the enemy’s communications. On the 29th, however, he changed these instructions to others, directing him to push on around the enemy and if possible reach his right rear.

The movements of early morning of the 30th had resulted in determining the exact position of the enemy and the establishing of our own lines. It was determined, about noon, to make a reconnoissance out towards the north and west.(1) General Ayres was directed to send one of his brigades out on this business. The headquarters escort was to accompany the column. The advance was over a road which leads from Mrs. Butler’s on the Plank Road by the Holliday house to the White Oak Road, entering that road near B. Butler’s house, and somewhat to the east of the Claiborne Road. His advance reached the Holliday house without opposition, crossing a stream, which was to play so important a part in the next day’s operations, with ease, and did not deem it of suffi-

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(1) 97 W. R. 301.

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cient importance to report it as an obstacle, although at this time it was raining furiously.

This brigade advanced to within about 600 yards(1) of the White Oak Road, and pushed out skirmishers to within about 400 yards of the road. Captain Horrell with the mounted men pushed on in advance and actually got on to the road.

General Ayres says that at this time, when he got to the front, there were no intrenchments of the enemy in his front.(2) While he is correct in this statement, as he understood his front, he looked northwest and directly on to the White Oak Road, below, or west of, the junction of the Claiborne Road and the White Oak Road. Had he called his front north, which really was the fact, he would have seen an intrenched line running westerly, slightly in advance of the White Oak Road, until it reached the Claiborne Road, thence, turning northerly, running to Hatcher’s Run. Meanwhile, Crawford had relieved the remaining brigades of Ayres’ division and occupied the line from Rainey’s to Gravelly Run. The two brigades of the Second Division were advanced in a northwesterly direction quite up to the branch of Gravelly Run, and on the wood road by Mrs. Butler’s. They were about one third of a mile in advance of the Plank Road, and, as was the custom, the troops immediately set about intrenching, and in a short time were well covered.

The ground held by the advanced brigade of Ayres was open and all movements along the White Oak Road could be easily observed. The movement of the enemy’s infantry and trains down the road to Five Forks was discovered and Captain Horrell gathered in an officer and men from Pickett’s division which had passed over this road to the extreme right. A portion of this division, as well as part of Bushrod Johnson’s division, were moving to hold their position at Five Forks. Warren,(3) in giving this information, added that he thought that Griffin could be relieved by Humphreys and

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(1) Warren Ct. 1265.

(2) Warren Ct. 1267.

(3) 97 W. R. 300.

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with his whole corps he should support the advance of Ayres. Should he be allowed to do this, he thought he could block White Oak Road and prevent its further use by the Confederates. It was not until 9 p. M. that Humphreys was ordered to relieve Griffin, Warren not being advised of it until 11 P. M. The despatch is as follows:(1) “General Humphreys has been ordered to relieve General Griffin with Miles and a brigade of General Mott’s division, in all 10,000 men, and is directed to hold the Plank Road and General Griffin’s line. Griffin relieved, you will support General Ayres in his position and strengthen yourself at this point. You will hold your corps ready to attack and await orders.” Immediately upon receipt of this, Warren at 11 P. M. issued the following circular:(2) “General Ayres will reenforce his advance at daylight tomorrow morning with his whole division. General Crawford will hold his command ready to follow General Ayres. General Griffin, as soon as he is relieved by General Humphreys’ troops, will move down the Boydton Plank Road to where General Ayres now is.” The Second Division was on the branch of Gravelly Run with its advance between Holliday’s and W. Dabney’s, its pickets thrown to the right; Crawford and Griffin in their old positions.

Let us now turn and find out what General Lee was doing to meet this formidable and determined advance on his right. He had learned on the 28th that Sheridan and his cavalry were on the left of the Federal army. He ordered General Fitzhugh Lee, who was on the extreme left of the Confederate army near Hanover Court House, to move to Five Forks on the extreme right. He began his march on the 29th and reached Sutherland’s Station on the Southside Railroad during the night, having marched quite forty miles. On the 30th he moved out to Five Forks. The entire Confederate cavalry had been placed under his command. W. H. F. Lee’s and

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(1) Warren Ct . 1268, and 97 W. R. 305.

(2) Warren Ct. 1269, and 97 W. R. 306.

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Rosser’s divisions, which were at Stony Creek, were ordered to concentrate at Five Forks. Infantry was ordered to his assistance, with which he was to crush Sheridan. The force sent was three brigades of Pickett’s division, and Ransom’s and Wallace’s brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s division. They reached the Forks about sundown, March 30, coming down to this point by the White Oak Road. This is an important fact, as in the official report of General Grant he charges Warren with allowing infantry to move down the White Oak Road as late as March 31, after Ayres and Crawford had been driven back. In fact, he assumes that the attack upon those troops was made for the purpose of allowing reenforcements to go to the support of Fitz Lee down this road, and attributes the successful driving of Sheridan back to near Dinwiddie Court House to infantry supports sent that day over this road. In the light of to-day we know that this assumption was unjust to Warren, and in fact was absolutely untrue.

Having thus arranged for the crushing of Sheridan, General Lee extended his lines so that his troops should occupy the intrenchments along the White Oak Road and meet the extension of the Federal lines made by the Second and Fifth Corps. This line of works was built late in the fall and winter of 1864-65. General Anderson was the first to move. He had Bushrod Johnson’s division and Wise’s independent brigade. They moved to the extreme right of the line along the White Oak Road. We have already met some of these troops. You will remember that General Griffin became engaged on the afternoon of the 29th near the old mill on the Quaker Road, with Wise’s and Wallace’s brigades, and forced them back into their intrenchments with considerable loss.

General A. P. Hill, whose command reached to the northerly bank of Hatcher’s Run, began on the night of March 29 to extend his lines to the right. By morning of the 30th McGowan’s and McRae’s brigades moved into the intrench-

ments on Johnson’s left. Scale’s and Cook’s brigades moved into the lines near Burgess’s mill or store, and to the Crow house redoubt on the south side of Hatcher’s Run. The lines on the south side of the run were commanded by General Heth, while General Wilcox commanded on the north side of the run.

The line of the Confederates was now as complete as that of the Federals, and was stretched to correspondingly as great a length. At all points the troops were in close contact with each other.

In addition to the crushing of Sheridan, General Lee determined to assail the left flank of the Union army on the morning of March 31, and double it up and thus relieve the pressure at this flank. He hoped that he could frustrate this movement against his right and gain more time. This determination resulted in the battle of Gravelly Run.

General Grant had instructed Sheridan to postpone his raid, and on the 30th advised him to push on for the enemy’s right rear.(1) To help him in this work, he had determined to give him the Fifth Corps. Sheridan believed he could use the infantry, but decided for some reason that he would not like the Fifth,(2) but any other corps would do, and named the Sixth as desirable. I fail to see the justice of his declination to use the Fifth, but I can readily understand that from his thorough knowledge of the Sixth, gained in the brilliant and successful campaigns in the Valley, he would feel more confidence, and hope for better results, than with a body of men whom he did not know, commanded by generals he had hardly seen.

General Grant advised him, however, that the Sixth could not be sent, but that he could relieve the Second by the Fifth, and give him that command. Events, however, over which we have little control, settled this question. The Fifth Corps was sent to Sheridan, but the battle was entirely unlike the

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(1) Warren Ct 1307, 1308.

(2) Warren Ct. 1312.

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one intended to be fought and five miles from the proposed point of contact.

We left the Fifth Corps observing the White Oak Road, and in the rear towards the Plank Road. Early on the morning of March 31 General Ayres(1) had his whole division massed slightly in advance of Holliday’s. Under instructions he advanced his whole column to the position occupied by his advanced troops. At 7 A. M. General Crawford(2) was directed to assemble his division, relieve Ayres’ pickets, and mass at the Holliday house, making that house his headquarters.

General Warren,(3) in reporting his position this morning at 7.45 A. M., says: “General Griffin’s command will be massed at Mrs. Butler’s, General Ayres near S. Dabney’s, and General Crawford about halfway between the two. They are along a wood road running from Mrs. Butler’s to W. Dabney’s; there is a difficult branch of Gravelly Run to cross, making it impossible for wheels to go over the road. This branch has now become, from the severe rainstorm, a rapid stream.” There is an error in the part of the despatch which relates to the direction of this wood road. By looking at the map you will see that it enters the White Oak Road near B. H. Butler’s, not W. Dabney’s.

At 8.15 General Ayres(4) was informed by General Warren that the cavalry under General Merritt, which had gained the White Oak Road, had been driven from it, and that by reason of this he must look after his left with great care, as he would be open to an attack from the west as well as from the north. General Ayres was also advised that Crawford was at Holliday’s, and Griffin in his old camps of the 30th.

The rain, which began on the night of the 29th, still continued to fall. It was not until afternoon that the clouds broke. The streams were rising rapidly and the smallest brooks were torrents, growing deeper all the while. The

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(1) Warren Ct. 1269.

(2) Warren Ct. 1269.

(3) Warren Ct. 1270.

(4) Warren Ct. 1271.

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branch in front of Griffin was this morning over three feet deep, and the high banks prevented artillery from getting over. Pioneers were at work upon an old bridge to facilitate the passage of troops. From the same cause it was an excellent defensive position, and well did it serve that purpose later on.

At 8.50 A. M. General Meade(1) advised corps commanders that, by reason of the extremely bad weather, no change in the position of the troops would be made, but all exertions were to be directed to making practicable the roads to the rear and those necessary for communication among the troops.

General Ayres had been busy with his advance all this time. He had formed his division in conformity to General Warren’s orders. He put his second brigade on his extreme left and faced it westward. It was along a heavily wooded, rugged, deep ravine, just northwest of Holliday’s, and was in an excellent position. The General himself had been out on the skirmish line quite a while this morning, and had detected the enemy in their movements. He therefore felt sure of their intentions, and reported to General Warren that he did not hold the White Oak Road, and that there was great danger of an attack.

At 9.40 General Warren advised General Meade of this fact, and the enemy’s position; also added that he had instructed Ayres to try to drive them off, or to develop with what force the road was held by them.(2)At 10.30 A. M. General Meade(3) advised Warren that his despatch was received, and that, if he could get possession of and hold the White Oak Road, he was to do so notwithstanding the orders to suspend operations.

In accordance with the instructions from General Warren, General Ayres proceeded to carry them out. He placed his troops as follows: the 2d Brigade on the wooded ravine looking west; north of the Holliday house, facing north, he placed his 1st Brigade. To Winthrop’s right and rear he posted his 3d Brigade. Under the 7 A. M. circular General Crawford had moved his division to the support of General Ayres. To reenforce the Second Division, Ayres requested of Crawford that a brigade be sent forward. In compliance with this request, General Coulter’s (the Third) brigade was sent, and it reported and was assigned a position somewhat in rear of Winthrop, but north of the Holliday house, facing north, he

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(1) Warren Ct. 1272.

(2) Warren Ct. 1274.

(3) Warren Ct. 1275.

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placed his 1st Brigade. To Winthrop’s right and rear he posted his 3d Brigade. Under the 7 A. M. circular General Crawford had moved his division to the support of General Ayres. To reenforce the Second Division, Ayres requested of Crawford that a brigade be sent forward. In compliance with this request, General Coulter’s (the Third) brigade was sent, and it reported and was assigned a position somewhat in rear of Winthrop, but north of the Holliday house.

The two remaining brigades of Crawford’s, viz., Baxter’s (Second) and Kellogg’s (First), were somewhat in rear and to the east. They were massed about 300 yards away. Pickets were at once thrown out from this division and they looked north directly toward the White Oak Road intrenchments.

In obedience to the final instructions of Warren, Ayres advanced Winthrop’s brigade at 10.30 A. M. towards the road. It reached our skirmish line, when the enemy, who were almost in position and ready to begin their advance, came down upon him with great force. Perceiving that he could not meet this large force, Winthrop withdrew his brigade back to its original position. The troops were hurried into line, but with no avail. Hardly had the line from the north got fairly to work when a heavy column of Confederates from the west were discovered advancing from that direction. Bowerman was unable to withstand this advance on his front, and, although something of a stand was made, our men were unable to withstand the advance, and were obliged to give ground, which they did in considerable confusion. Crawford, when he heard the firing of the assault, was out on the skirmish line, and hurried back to get his two brigades into line and reenforce Ayres, or at least stem the tide of disaster. His division, however, was quite unready and in no condition to repel the advancing column of the enemy, so he, too, fell into the general retreat before the enemy.

Let us turn now and see whence this column came, and the causes which led to this attack.

General Lee had determined to turn the left flank of the Union army. Having occupied his works on the right in force, he prepared to deliver his blow on the morning of the 31st. He rode over to his right, reaching there about 8 A. M., and made the following dispositions of his men, using all the men he could spare in the attack which he hoped would succeed.

He ordered Hunton’s brigade of Pickett’s division to move to the front of the works and deploy so that his line of battle would be near W. Dabney’s, almost exactly in front and facing south to where Ayres was to demonstrate with Winthrop’s brigade. He ordered McGowan with his own and Gracie’s brigade (commanded by Colonel Sanford) to move down the White Oak Road, and get into position so that he would face east, and look directly to the left flank of Ayres, being directly opposite Bowerman, who was overlapped by these men. These troops, when formed, were to advance together, and drive back, if possible, whatever force of the enemy might be encountered. As these troops moved forward, their line of march being southeasterly, they would necessarily uncover their intrenched lines, and the troops in these lines, seeing the enemy routed and their front clear, were to come out of them and form on the left of the advancing column. The troops of Hunton, McGowan, and Gracie were a long time in forming, and in fact the order to advance was never given. It came about in this way. Ayres, as we have seen, advanced Winthrop on his reconnoissance. He had been a close observer of these formations of the enemy. From the skirmish line he could see the enemy preparing for his attack. His instructions were not to bring on a fight, but he knew that if he started out his brigade, the ball would open at once. He could not develop the intentions of the enemy without precipitating a battle. However, when all was ready, he sent forward Winthrop, as has been told. As this brigade reached the skirmish line, Hunton’s men, who were almost ready to advance, awaiting

news from McGowan that he was ready to attack, seeing the Federal troops come forward, advanced upon them without orders. It came about in this manner. An officer of the front line, seeing the advance of Winthrop, sprang to the front, waved his sword, and shouted ” Forward!” The men, all ready to go forward, followed this call and rushed on after him and the battle began. McGowan was not quite ready. His line was not formed, but his men, hearing the shouts of Hunton’s men as they advanced, could not be restrained and they rushed forward also. The assault from the north and west was therefore almost simultaneous. Winthrop fought his men as long as they would stand. Gwyn faced his brigade so as to help Winthrop who was hard pressed and Coulter strove to help Bowerman. Crawford was notified of the attack, and he hurried his men into line. The 39th Massachusetts Volunteers,(1) of Baxter’s brigade, was thrown forward as skirmishers and looked towards the Holliday house. Our men held their positions with considerable steadiness, but Gracie’s brigade, which was on the extreme right of the Confederate force, outflanked Bowerman, and his men came tumbling in upon Coulter, who did all that was possible; but his men, made unsteady by the retreat of Bowerman, could not hold their line long enough to rally the retreating troops, and they soon fell back in confusion. Winthrop had tried to hold Hunton, but with as little success as on the left, and his troops and Gwyn’s came back on to Crawford. Baxter began deploying his brigade as rapidly as possible. He strengthened his advance of the 39th Massachusetts with the 11th Pennsylvania. Both of these regiments were composed of hardened troops, and as soon as their front had been cleared opened fire upon the enemy, but unsuccessfully. The advance of the enemy was plainly seen, being all in open ground. Although but small in numbers compared with the assaulting column, these two regiments

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(1) The writer’s regiment, with which he was present throughout the Appomattox campaign.

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made Hunton stop and hesitate for a moment, however. They slowly yielded and left the ground, retreating, as they supposed, upon the rest of the division; but upon reaching their old position nothing was to be seen of them. They had fallen back to the branch of Gravelly Run. Colonel Tremlett, who received his baptism of fire at Ball’s Bluff, was mortally wounded and brought from the field in a shelter tent. It was not clear to us why our men were all gone. I think, however, that the flanking column was felt and this caused their retreat. Offering no opposition to the enemy, our men fell back without much order to the branch which we had crossed four hours before.

General Warren determined to leave for the front about 10.30 A. M. and take charge of the movements. He reached the branch when the disaster began, and the rapid retreat of the troops told him that Crawford and Ayres were routed. Crossing the stream he endeavored to rally the troops; seizing the colors of a Pennsylvania regiment, he galloped up and down the lines, but could not hold them. It was evident that the men would not stop on the westerly bank of the stream. Therefore he crossed, and, still waving the colors and inspiring the men, he made them halt on the easterly bank and form lines. The troops that could be held formed on the right of Griffin, who was in line on the easterly side of the branch. His men, when we came in sight, were busily at work extending the works made by the Second Division. A battery of artillery had been lifted through the mud and was in position. It was a most welcome sight to see these men in line and ready to meet the advancing enemy. Generally the Confederate advance followed our retreat on the line of the wood road. Halting to rearrange their lines, they came forward to attack Griffin. No sooner were they in sight than our men opened on them and with excellent results, for they never seriously assaulted Griffin, but fell back about four hundred yards. No sooner was the attack stayed than General Warren,

riding down to Griffin, ordered him to cross the stream and engage the enemy. Chamberlain went over, supported by Gregory; Bartlett, on Chamberlain’s left, pushed out and covered the left flank. The two divisions of the corps were re-formed behind the branch. Many men did not halt until they reached the Plank Road, but there they stopped.

In accordance with the plan of General Lee, as Hunton uncovered the works, Wise’s brigade came out of the works and formed upon Hunton’s left, but none of his men engaged the Fifth Corps.

General Humphreys, perceiving that an engagement was in progress and the stragglers coming to rear on the Plank Road, ordered Miles to be in readiness to repulse the enemy, who were manifestly advancing on his position. Miles threw forward one of his brigades at once to the right of Griffin, but separated from him by a deep ravine. As the enemy came down, this brigade met Wise and caused him to halt. This ended the advance of the Confederates. They never seriously attacked either Griffin or Miles.

It was now about twelve o’clock. The men of Ayres and Crawford were re-formed as rapidly as possible. Crawford was put on the right of Griffin, and Ayres on his left. Warren thought that he could advance by 1.30 on the enemy.

Miles strengthened his advance with his whole division, and at one o’clock made a demonstration upon Wise, but with little result, as the enemy caused this brigade to come back in considerable confusion. About two o’clock Miles with his whole division advanced to the front, and the Confederates retreated at once. Wise in falling back uncovered Hunton’s left, and he yielded ground. So, in turn, did McGowan and Gracie. Miles advanced well towards the White Oak Road; Wise went into the works; Hunton’s column fell back to near Holliday’s, taking possession of our skirmish-pits and reversing them.

Warren was ready to advance at 2.30. Chamberlain’s brigade was in advance, supported by Gregory, Bartlett on his

left rear; Ayres was on the left and protected that flank; Crawford was on the right and protected that flank.(1) But little resistance was made to the advance until Holliday’s was reached. The enemy were prepared to give us quite a warm reception. Our advance being in the general line of the wood road, Hunton, who was still on the left, was directly in our front. The pits that had been turned formed an excellent cover for his men, although they were quite slight. He opened fire as soon as we came in sight.

Halting for an instant to re-form and rearrange the lines, broken to some extent by marching over the rough and broken country and dense woods between the branch and Holliday’s, Chamberlain, when all was ready, dashed forward and drove the enemy in confusion from the position held by him, capturing an entire regiment with their colors. The line never halted until it was on the White Oak Road. Hunton says this charge was one of the most gallant he ever saw, and, although his men stood their ground well and gave a good account of themselves, nothing could withstand the gallantry of our troops, and that his own as well as McGowan’s troops were driven back over the road and into their intrenched lines. Our skirmishers were thrown out at once and drove the enemy into their pits, which were strong and well built.

Chamberlain crossed the road in force just below the junction of the Claiborne Road, a little to the west of where the enemy’s intrenched line turns to the north. Crawford, who during this whole advance had not fired a shot, now reached the road and, following the line of the rebel intrenchments to the east, connected with Miles, who had advanced and driven the enemy into their works to the east and to the Plank Road. Ayres, who had not fired a musket in this advance, was halted just before reaching the road, and, still covering

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(1) This advance was made by the whole corps, with the exception of three regiments nnder the command of General Pearson, which were stationed on the Plank Road near the extreme left of the line of earthworks.

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the left near the house of W. Dabney, looked down the road towards Five Forks. General Warren and his troops reached the road about quarter-past three o’clock.(1) The battle, which had begun so disastrously, had terminated in a well-won victory. The enemy, having gallantly turned our flank and gained ground, were in turn obliged to retreat and lost all control of the to them important White Oak Road, and were penned up in their works. Pickett, who had been able to send his despatches over it, was now obliged to send them in a roundabout way over ten miles long. The enemy had absolutely failed in his intention to double up the Federal left, and in turn was badly discomfited, and suffered a severe loss, which he could ill afford.

Meanwhile, Sheridan at Dinwiddie was having a troublous time. The gallant victor of the Shenandoah, with his redoubtable cavalry, was faring ill at the hands of Pickett’s and Johnson’s infantry and Fitz Lee’s cavalry. From being an aggressor and gaining the right rear of the enemy, he was being driven back slowly but surely. He was sorely pressed.

This whole engagement on the extreme left had been very clearly heard by the Fifth Corps after their battle had ended. All ears were turned to determine, if possible, whether the firing was receding or advancing. At first it was supposed that Sheridan was forcing his way up the White Oak Road to our left in order to get at the right rear of the enemy.

General Warren was advised by a despatch, dated 4.30 p. M., from General Meade,(2) that Sheridan was pushing up to protect his flank, that Humphreys would connect on his right, and that he might send a small force, if he thought advisable, down the White Oak Road to meet him. This met General Warren on the White Oak Road.(3) At 5.15 General Meade ordered Warren to send a brigade down the White
Oak Road to Sheridan and support the same, if necessary.(4) This was received by Warren at 5.45 P. M.

***

(1) Warren Ct. 1276.

(2) Warren Ct. 1276.

(3) Warren Ct. 1276.

(4) Warren Ct. 1277.

***

At 5.50 p. M. General Warren advised General Meade, giving the first authentic news from Sheridan.(1) He says: “Have just seen an officer and sergeant from Sheridan’s command who had been cut off by the enemy from their command. That Sheridan was being driven towards Dinwiddie. I have sent Bartlett and my escort in that direction, but think they cannot be in time.”

Previous to the reception of the 5.15 order General Warren had sent General Bartlett’s brigade of Griffin’s division, about 2800 men, and his escort, with orders to march across the country towards the sound of the firing, the fact being plainly established that the firing was receding from us.

I need only say that Bartlett moved with commendable rapidity across the country by a wood road which entered the Crump Road near the house of Dr. G. Boisseau. He met the enemy’s pickets on Gravelly Run, just south of Boisseau’s house. We know now that this advance of Bartlett’s was the occasion of the withdrawal of Pickett and Fitz Lee to Five Forks early on the morning of April 1; and the relief of Sheridan, so earnestly and urgently pushed by Generals Grant, Meade, and Warren, was already accomplished by the presence of this brigade on Gravelly Run in rear of the Confederate force actively at work upon Sheridan. About 6.30 p. M.(2) General Meade advised General Warren that the enemy were between him and Sheridan, and that the troops ordered to be sent by the White Oak Road must be sent by the Plank Road. General Warren immediately despatched an aide to General Pearson,(3) who was on the Plank Road with three regiments of Bartlett’s brigade, to advance with his command at once right down to Dinwiddie. In the same despatch Warren says he can see the enemy’s intrenchments for two miles to the east, and if well manned they cannot be carried. That he would let Bartlett work and report results, as it was too late to stop him.

***

(1) Warren Ct. 1277.

(2) Warren Ct. 1278.

(3) Warren Ct. 1278.

***

The losses in this engagement were quite severe, a total of 1407 being killed, wounded, or missing. The enemy must have lost about 1000 men. The force of the enemy that was engaged in the original movement is put at 5000 men. General Hunton says that his first impression was that there were about 7500 men in the three brigades. He changes his mind later on, and thinks that 5000 is as large a number as was present. This of course represents that this number of men were actually in line. Wise had probably between 1700 and 1800 men. Ayres had about 3000 men in his division. Crawford had about 5000 men; his third brigade was the smallest and was 1000 strong. Ayres had, assembled about the Holliday house, including Coulter, about 4000 men, who were to receive the assault of 5000 men. Baxter, with rather more than 2000, and Kellogg, with the same force, were about 400 yards away.

Crawford was, as usual, unready; his troops were in hand but not deployed, and before they could be formed so as to really support Ayres, the enemy were upon them, and confusion reigned in their ranks. Griffin had about 6200 men; quite one half of his command was in one brigade, that of Bartlett; Chamberlain had 2000, Gregory about 1200.

It is greatly to be regretted that General Warren(1) could not have been with Ayres at an early hour, so that he could have formed these two divisions after his own liking, and I feel sure results would have been different with those two divisions that day had he reached them by 10 o’clock A. M.

Griffin proved himself, as he always did, a model commander, and, as is the result of good leadership, his troops reflected the courage, audacity, and coolness of this skilful general. Their behavior this day was all that could be desired, both in bringing to an end the successful advance of the

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(1) General Warren gives us the reason for not being with Ayres that General Meade and himself were telegraphing each other and therefore he could not go to the front.

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Confederates, and the subsequent advance and successes of the day. Nothing could be finer than the gallant bearing of General Warren when rallying the troops in retreat at the branch. His determination to assume the offensive at once, when the advance of the enemy was repulsed, stamps him as a man of courage and clear understanding of what was the correct thing to do. While we may feel that his presence at the extreme front at an earlier hour would have been better for his troops, no one can restrain his admiration of his gallantry and courage later in the day. I believe every Fifth Corps man will sustain me in this assertion that, with his gallant spirit and fearless exposure on this and every field where it was his fortune to be, it would have been better for him had he been unable to command the Fifth Corps in its glorious success of April 1 than to have received such unmerited treatment as he did on that day.

***

ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 6 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS

Source:

  1. Porter, Charles H. “Operations of the Fifth Corps on the Left, March 29 to Nightfall March 31, 1865; Gravelly Run.” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 6, pp. 209-234

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