By Brevet Major-General Joshua L. Chamberlain.
I PRESENT some reminiscences of things which fell under my observation on the first day of April, 1865, the day of Five Forks. This paper is the outcome of notes made within a few days of the occurrences, and written out soon after the stress of that campaign was over, and while the images of its experiences were vivid in the mind. It will be understood, therefore, that this is a description of facts as they occurred and appeared to me.
Since that was written, an unusual amount of light has been cast, through various atmospheres, on the proceedings of that day; first in official reports of prominent participants, then in published brochures of actors, claimants or advocates, and especially in the remarkable disclosures before the Court of Inquiry called to investigate the conduct of General Warren.
It seems best not to disturb the singleness of the point of view and simple unity of this sketch by incorporating corroborative or qualifying material; but to let it stand for what it may be worth in itself. I shall permit myself, however, to pay passing notice,— as it were, in parenthesis,— to certain collateral testimony or relevant remark of others, which may assist in setting facts in their true lines and light.(1)
Comparison and study of this later material give occasion for the reminder that even official reports, made often under first impressions,— from personal observation, indeed, but therein limited or partial,— are quite liable to disturb the true balance and perspective of the whole field of action. This liability is greater as the individual impression or experience is stronger.
(1) In printing this, these added collateral references are thrown into footnotes, or into a separate discussion at the close.
Such testimony is valuable as giving what was done, or seen at particular points or believed at the time; and is to be weighed by the credibility of the narrator, as to character, temperament, or state of mind. It is only by gathering, sifting and comparing these that the truth in detail or in the whole can be comprehended.
I present this paper, subject perhaps to the criticism I have just indicated, as being mainly a contribution of the partial kind, and standing on the general credibility of the narrator; but claiming also as to certain specific conclusions to rise to the more comprehensive view afforded by enlarged opportunities for judgment.
The vicissitudes of that day, and the grave and whimsical experiences out of which we emerged into it, exhibited the play of that curious law of the universe seen in tides, reactions, or reversals of polarities at certain points of tension or extremes of pressure, and which appears also in the mixed relations of men and things. There are pressure-points of experience at which the unsupportably disagreeable becomes “a jolly good time.” When you cannot move in the line of least resistance, you take a very peculiar pleasure in crowding the point of greatest resistance. No doubt there is in the ultimate reasons of human probation special place for that quality of manhood called perseverance, patience, pluck, push, persistence, pertinacity,— or whatever other name beginning with this “explosive mute,” — the excess of which, exhibited by persons or things, is somewhat profanely referred to as ” pure cussedness.”
After such a day and night as that of the thirty-first of March, 1865, the morning of April 1 found the men of the Fifth Corps strangely glad they were alive. They had experienced a kaleidoscopic regeneration. They were ready for the next new turn,—whether of Fortunatus or Torquemada. The tests of ordinary probation had been passed. All the effects of “humiliation, fasting and prayer,” believed to sink the body and exalt the spirit, had been fully wrought in them. At the weird midnight trumpet-call they rose from their sepulchral fields as those over whom death no longer has any power. Their pulling out for the march in the ghostly mists of dawn looked like a passage in the transmigration of souls — not sent back to work out the remnant of their sins as animals, but lifted to the “third plane” by that three days of the under-world,— eliminating sense,— incorporating soul.
The pleasantries associated with April 1 were not much put in play: none of those men were going to be “fooled” that day.
When we joined the cavalry, some of us were aware of a little shadow cast between the two chief luminaries,— him of the cavalry2 and him of the infantry3; but that by no means darkened our disks. If not “hale fellows,” we were “well met.” The two arms of the service embraced each other heartily, glad to share fortunes. Particularly we; for the cavalry had the habit of being a little ahead, and so got all the chickens,— as we knew by the kind of bones we found when we came after them. And we thought the cavalry, though a little piqued at our not going down and picking up what they had left at Dinwiddie the night before, were quite willing we should share whatever they should get to-day. Sheridan had also come to the opinion that infantry was “a good thing to have around,”—however by some queer break in the hierarchy of honor subordinated to the chevaliers,— the biped to the quadruped, and by some freak of etymology named infantry — the “speechless”—whether because they couldn’t talk, or because they mustn’t tell. We were glad to be united to Sheridan, too, after the broken engagements of the day before, perhaps renewed reluctantly by him; glad to fight under him, instead of away from him, hoping that when he really struck, the enemy would get hurt more than friends.
Griffin’s and Crawford’s Divisions were massed near the house of J. Boisseau, on the road leading from Dinwiddie Court House to Five Forks. Ayres was halted a mile back at the junction of the Brooks Road, which he had reached by his roundabout, forced march during the night. We were waiting for Sheridan, at last. And he was waiting until the cavalry should complete one more “reconnoissance,” to determine the enemy’s position and disposition at Five Forks, three miles northward.
Although the trains which had got up were chiefly ammunition wagons, a considerable halt was indicated and the men seized the occasion to eat, to rest, to sleep,— exercises they had not much indulged in for the last three days,— and to make their toilets, which means to wring the water out of their few articles of clothing, seriatim, and let the sun shine into the bottom of their shoes; and also,— those who could — to make their three days’ vital equation of rations,— hard-tack, pork, coffee and sugar,— concluding by stuffing their haversacks and pockets with twenty rounds extra ammunition for dessert.
Meantime those of us who were likely to have some special responsibilities during the approaching battle, had anxious thoughts. We had drawn away from the doubly confused conflict of yesterday; we were now fairly with Sheridan, cut off from reach of other wills, absolved from the task of obeying commands that made our action seem like truants driving hoops,— resulting mostly in tripping up dignitaries, and having a pretty hard time ourselves, without paternal consolations when we got home. We knew there would be some fighting of no common order now. General Griffin came and sat by me on the bank-side and talked quite freely. He said Sheridan was much disturbed at the operations of the day before, as Grant’s language to him about this had been unwontedly severe,(1) and that all of us would have to help make up for that day’s damage. He told me also that Grant had given Sheridan authority to remove Warren from command of the corps, when he found
(1) Griffin knew of the dispatch sent by Grant to Sheridan from the Butler house on the Boydton Plank Road at about 2 P. M. of the thirty-first of March, just as I was advancing, after Ayres’s repulse. This read: “Warren and Miles’s Division are now advancing. I hope your cavalry is up, where it will be of assistance. Let me know how matters stand now with the cavalry; where they are; what their orders, etc. If it had been possible to have had a division or two of them well up on the right hand road taken by Merritt yesterday, they could have fallen on the enemy’s rear as they were pursuing Ayres and Crawford.” * * * Records, Warren Court, p. 1313.
occasion, and that we should see lively times before the day was over. We remarked how these things must affect Sheridan: Grant’s censure of his failures the day before; the obligation to win a decisive battle to-day; and the power put in his hands to remove Warren. We could not but sympathize with Sheridan in his present perplexities, and, anxious for Warren, were resolved to do our part to make things go right.(1)
The troops had enjoyed about four hours of this unwonted rest, when, the cavalry having completed its reconnoissance, we were ordered forward. We turned off on a narrow road said to lead pretty nearly to the left of the enemy’s defences at Five Forks on the White Oak Road. Crawford led, followed by Griffin and Ayres,—the natural order for prompt and free movement. The road had been much cut up by repeated
(1) Much after-light is thrown on the elements of the situation by observing, as we are now able to do in the published records of the war, the tenor of the Hon. Charles A. Dana’s dispatches to the War Office of May 9 and 12, 1864, referring to Warren’s movements as slow and piece-meal, so as to fail of the desired effect in the plans of the general commanding the army. He accuses him of not handling his corps in a mass, and even implies a positive disobedience of orders on his part in attacking with a division when ordered by Grant to attack with his whole corps. (Serial No. 67, pp. 64, 68.)
Still the Fifth Corps “got in” enough to lose ten thousand six hundred and eighty-six men in the first two fights. (Dana’s report, War Records, Serial 6, p. 71.)
Even more light is turned on. For no dispatch of Dana’s concerning Warren compares in severity with Dana’s to the Secretary of War, July 7, 1864, denouncing General Meade, and advising that he be removed from the command of the army. (Serial No. 80, p. 35.)
It now appears that Warren was in great disfavor with Meade also, after arriving before Petersburg. Meade called upon Warren to ask to be relieved from command of his corps on the alternative that charges would be preferred against him. (Dana’s dispatch, June 20, 1864, War Records, Serial No. 80, p. 26.)
Meade was much displeased too with Warren for his characteristic remark to the effect that no proper superior commanding officer was present at the time of the Mine explosion, to take control of the whole affair.
And now, with Sheridan against him, poor Warren may well have wished at least for David’s faculty of putting his grievances into song, with variations on the theme: “Many bulls have compassed me about; yea, many strong bulls of Bashan.”
scurries of both the contending parties, and was even yet obstructed by cavalry led horses, and other obstacles,— which it would seem strange had not been got off the track during all this halt. We who were trying to follow closely were brought to frequent stand-still. This was vexatious; — our men being hurried to their feet in heavy marching order, carrying on their backs perhaps three days’ life for themselves and a pretty heavy instalment of death for their antagonists, and now compelled every few minutes to come to a huddled halt in the muddy road, “marking time” and marking place also with deep discontent. In about two hours we get up where Sheridan wants us, in some open ground and thin woods near the Gravelly Run Church, and form as we arrive, by brigades in column of regiments. The men’s good nature seems a little ruffled on account of their manner of marching, or being marched. They have their own way of expressing their wonder why we could not have taken a shorter road to this cavalry rendezvous, rather than to be dragged around the two long sides of an acute-angled triangle to get to it,— why the two-legged and four-legged elements of animal geometry had not been balanced by a better equation,— in short, what magic relics there were about “J. Boisseau’s,” that we should be obliged to make a painful pilgrimage there before we were purified enough to finish dying at Five Forks.
It is now about four o’clock. Near the church is a group of restless forms and grim visages, expressing their different tempers and temperaments in full tone. First of all, the chiefs: Sheridan, dark and tense, walking up and down the earth, seeking,— well, we will say, some adequate vehicle or projectile of expression at the prospect of the sun’s going down on nothing but his wrath ; evidently having availed himself of some incidental instrumentalities to this end, more or less explicit or expletive,— for Warren is sitting there like an eagle brought to bay in forced restraint,— all his moral energies compressed into the nerve-centers somewhere behind his eyes, and masked by his sallow, sunken cheeks; Griffin, alert and independent, sincere to the core, at his ease, ready for anything,— for a dash at the enemy with battery front, or his best friend with a bit of satire when his keen sense of the incongruous or pretentious is struck; Bartlett, with drawn face, like a Turkish cimetar, sharp, springy, curved outward, damascened by various experience and various emotion; Crawford, a conscious gentleman, having the entrie at all headquarters, somewhat lofty of manner; not of the iron fibre, nor spring of steel, but punctilious in a way, obeying orders in a certain literal fashion that saved him the censure of superiors; a pet of his State, and likewise, we thought, of Meade and Warren, judging from the attention they always gave him; possibly not quite fairly estimated by his colleagues as a military man,— but the ranking division commander of the corps. Ayres comes up after a little, ahead of his troops, bluff and gruff at questions about the lateness of his column; twitching his moustache in lieu of words, the sniff of his nostrils smelling the battle not very much afar; sound of heart, solid of force, all the manly and military qualities ready in reserve; — the typical old soldier.
During this impatient waiting for the seemingly slow preparatory formation, our spiritual wheels were lubricated by the flow of discussion and explanation about the plan of attack. Sheridan took a saber or scabbard and described it graphically on the light earth. The plan in general was for the cavalry to occupy the enemy’s attention by a brisk demonstration along the right front of their works, while the Fifth Corps should fall upon their left and rear, by a sort of surprise if possible, and scoop them out of their works along the White Oak Road, and capture or disorganize them. The report of the cavalry reconnoissance, as it came to us, was that the enemy had fortified this road for nearly a mile westward, and about three-quarters of a mile eastward from Five Forks, and at the extreme left made a return northerly for perhaps one hundred and fifty yards, to cover that flank. As I understood it, the formation and advance were to be such that Ayres should strike the angle of the “return,” and Crawford and Griffin sweep around Ayres’s right, flanking their “return” and enfilading their main line. This was perfectly clear, and struck us all as a splendid piece of tactics, cyclone and Sheridan-like, promising that our success was to be quick and certain. Our somewhat jaded faculties were roused to their full force.
As Ayres’s troops were forming, officers of the other two divisions were taking their respective stations. I was in my place but had not yet mounted, when General Fred Winthrop of Ayres’s leading brigade came over and said: “Dear old fellow, have you managed to bring up anything to eat? We moved so suddenly I had to leave everything. I have had scarcely a mouthful to-day.” I sent back an orderly and hurried up whatever we had. The best was poor, and there was not much of it. We sat there on a log, close behind the lines, and acted host and guest, while he opened his heart to me as men sometimes will quite differently from their common custom, under the shadow of a forecasting presence. It was a homely scene and humblest fare; but ever to be held in memory as the last supper of high companionship, and vision of the higher. Half an hour afterwards, in the flame and whirl of battle, leading his brigade like a demigod, as in a chariot of fire he was lifted to his like.
The corps formation was: Ayres on the left, west of the Church Road, the division in double brigade front in two lines, and Winthrop with the First Brigade in reserve, in rear of his center; Crawford on the right, east of the road, in similar formation; Griffin in rear of Crawford, with Bartlett’s Brigade in double column of regiments, three lines deep; my own brigade next, somewhat in echelon to the right, with three battalion lines in close order, while Gregory at first was held massed in my rear. General Mackenzie’s cavalry, of the Army of the James, had been ordered up from Dinwiddie, to cross the White Oak Road and move forward with us covering our right flank. Nevertheless, just as we were moving, General Griffin cautioned me: “Don’t be too sure about Mackenzie; keep a sharp look-out for your own right.” Accordingly I had Gregory throw out a small battalion as skirmishers and flankers, and march another regiment by the flank on our right, ready to face outwards, and let his other regiment follow in my brigade column.
At four o’clock we moved down the Gravelly Run Church Road, our lines as we supposed nearly parallel to the White Oak Road, with Ayres directed on the angle of the enemy’s works. Just as we started there came from General Warren a copy of a diagram of the proposed movement. I was surprised at this. It showed our front of movement to be quite oblique to the White Oak Road,— as much as half a right angle,— with the center of Crawford’s Division directed upon the angle, and Ayres, of course, thrown far to the left, so as to strike the enemy’s works half way to Five Forks. Griffin was shown as following Crawford; but the whole direction was such that all of us would strike the enemy’s main line before any of us could touch the White Oak Road. The diagram, far from clearing my mind, added confusion to surprise. The order read: “The line will move forward as formed till it reaches the White Oak Road, when it will swing around to the left, perpendicular to the White Oak Road. General Merritt’s and General Custer’s cavalry will charge the enemy’s line as soon as the infantry get engaged.” This was perfectly clear. The whole corps was to reach the White Oak Road before any portion of it should change direction to the left; Ayres was to attack the angle, and the rest of us swing round and sweep down the entrenchments along the White Oak Road.
The diagram showed the Gravelly Run Church Road as leading directly to and past the angle of the enemy’s works. The formation shown led us across the Church Road and not across the White Oak Road at all, which at the point of direction was behind the enemy’s entrenched lines. Advancing to the White Oak Road over the enemy’s breastworks, and then changing front to flank in a hand-to-hand melee was a thing absurd to conceive, and could not be intended to command.
Ill at ease at such confusion of mind, I rode over to General Griffin, who with General Warren was close on my left at this early stage of the movement, and asked for an explanation.
Griffin answers quickly: “We will not worry ourselves about diagrams. We are to follow Crawford. Circumstances will soon develop our duty.” In the meantime we were moving right square down the Church Road, and not oblique to it as the diagram indicated. However, I quieted my mind with the reflection that the earth certainly was a known quantity, and the enemy susceptible to discovery, whatever might be true of roads, diagrams or understandings.
Crawford crossed the White Oak Road, his line nearly parallel to it, without encountering the expected angle. This road, it is to be remarked, made a considerable bend northerly at the crossing of the Church Road, so that Ayres had not reached it when Crawford and even Griffin were across. We naturally supposed the angle was still ahead. Crawford immediately ran into a sharp fire on his right front, which might mean the crisis. I had been riding with Griffin on the left of my front line, but now hastened over to the right, where I found Gregory earnestly carrying out my instructions to guard that flank. I caught a glimpse of some cavalry in the woods on our right, which I judged to be Roberts’s North Carolina Brigade, that had been picketing the White Oak Road, and so kept Gregory on the alert. The influence of the sharp skirmish fire on Crawford’s right tended to draw the men towards it; but I used all my efforts to shorten step on the pivot and press the wheeling flank, in order to be ready for the “swing” to the left. Still, the firing ahead kept me dubious. It might mean Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry making a demonstration there; but from the persistence of it was more likely to mean infantry reinforcements sent the enemy from the Claiborne entrenchments where we had left them the day before. It was afterwards seen how near it came to being that.(1)
(1) Wise’s, Grac[i]e’s and Hunton’s Brigades had been ordered out of the Claiborne entrenchments that afternoon to attack the right flank of the Fifth Corps; but being obliged to take a roundabout way and getting entangled among the streams and marshes north of the White Oak Road, they were too late to reach the scene of action until all was over. Records, Warren Court: Lee’s testimony, p. 473: McGowan’s, p. 651: Hunton’s, p. 626.
I had managed, however, to gain towards the left until we had fairly got past Crawford’s left rear. Some firing we had heard in the supposed direction of our cavalry, but it did not seem heavier than that in Crawford’s front. We were moving rapidly, and had been out about twenty minutes from the Church, and perhaps nearly a mile distant, when a sudden burst of fire exactly on our left roused very definite thoughts. This could only be from Ayres’s attack. I halted my line and rode ahead through the woods to some high, cleared ground, the southeastern corner of a large field, known as the ” Sydnor field,” along the opposite edge of which I could see strong skirmishing along Crawford’s front; and turning southerly, looking across broken, scrubby ground, could see Ayres’s troops engaged in a confused whirl of struggling groups, with fitful firing. This was about as far away, I judged, as Crawford’s skirmishing,— about six hundred yards. The great gap between these engagements made me feel that something was “all wrong.” I was anxious about my duty. My superiors were not in sight. Bartlett had closely followed Crawford, away to my right. But I could see the corps flag in the Sydnor field, moving towards Crawford, and on the other side, in a ravine half way to Ayres, I saw the division flag. There was Ayres fighting alone, and that was not in the program. There was Griffin down there; that was order enough for me, and I took the responsibility of looking out for the left instead of the right, where my last orders committed me. I pulled my brigade out of the woods by the left flank, telling Gregory to follow; and, sending to Bartlett to let him know what I was doing, pushed across a muddy stream and up a rough ravine towards Ayres. Half way up, Griffin came to meet me,— never more welcome. He gave the look I wanted, and without coming near enough for words waved me to follow up to the head of the ravine and to attack on my right, along the bank where, hidden by brush and scrub, the enemy had a line perpendicular to their main one on the White Oak Road, and were commencing a slant fire in Ayres’s direction. Griffin rode past me towards Warren and Bartlett.
At the head of the gully all we had to do was to front into line of battle, and scramble up the rough, brambly steep. The moment we showed our heads, we were at close quarters with the enemy. We exchanged volleys with good will, and then came the rush. Our lines struck each other obliquely, like shutting jaws. It was rather an awkward movement; for we had to make a series of right half wheels by battalion to meet the fire, and all the while gain to the left. Thus we stopped that cross-fire on Ayres, who was now lost from sight by intervening scrubby woods. The brunt of this first fell on my stalwart 185th New York, Colonel Sniper; but Gregory(1) soon coming in by echelon on their right took the edge off that enfilading fire.
Ayres’s fitful fire was approaching, and I rode over towards it. Somewhere near the angle of the works I met Sheridan. He had probably seen me putting my men in, and hence I escaped censure for appearing. Indeed his criticism seemed to be that there was not more of me, rather than less. “By G—, that’s what I want to see !” was his greeting, “general officers at the front. Where are your general officers?” I replied that I had seen General Warren’s flag in the big field north of us, and that seeing Ayres in a tight place I had come to help him, and by General Griffin’s order. “Then,” cried he, with a vigor of utterance worthy of the “army in Flanders,” “you take command of all the infantry round here, and break this dam —” I didn’t wait to hear any more. That made good grammar as it stood. I didn’t stand for anything, but spurred back to some scattered groups of men, demoralized by being so far in the rear, and not far enough to do them any good, yet too brave to go back. Captain Brinton of Griffin’s staff came along, and I took him with me down among these men to get them up.(2) I found one stalwart fellow on his hands and knees behind a
(2) Captain Laughlin of Griffin’s staff, says he also joined in this. Records, Warren Court, p. 542.
stump, answering with whimsical grimaces to the bullets coming pretty thick and near. “Look here, my good fellow,” I called down to him, “don’t you know you’ll be killed here in less than two minutes? That would be a shame. This is no place for you. Go forward!” “But what can I do?” he cried ;” I can’t stand up against all this alone!” “No, that’s just it,” I replied. “We’re forming here. I want you for guide center. Up, and forward!” Up and out he came like a hero. I formed those “reserves” on him as guide, and the whole queer line,— two hundred of them,— went in right up to the front and the thick of it. My poor fellow only wanted a token of confidence and appreciation to get possession of himself. He was proud of what he did, and so I was for him.
I let the staff officers take these men in, for I had caught sight of Ayres’s Third Brigade coming out of the woods right behind me, and standing in the further edge of the scrubby field. The men were much excited, but were making a good line. General Gwyn was riding up and down their front in a demonstrative manner, but giving no sign of forward movement. I thought this strange for him and bad for us all, in the pinch things then were at, and with the warrant Sheridan had given me galloped down to him and asked him if he was acting under any particular orders from General Ayres. “No, General,” he replied with an air of relief, “I have lost Ayres. I have no orders. I don’t know what to do.” “Then come with me,” I said,” I will take the responsibility. You shall have all credit. Let me take your brigade for a moment!” His men gave me good greeting as I rode down their front and gave the order, “Forward, right oblique!” On they came, and in they went, gallantly, gladly, just when and where they were needed, with my own brigade fighting the “return,” and ready to take touch with Ayres. His fire was advancing rapidly on my left, and I rode over to meet him. Sheridan was by my side in a moment, very angry. “You are firing into my cavalry!” he exclaims,— his face darkening with a checked expletive. I was under a little pressure, too, and put on a bold air. “Then the cavalry
have got into the rebels’ place. One of us will have to get out of the way. What will you have us do, General?” “Don’t you fire into my cavalry, I tell you!” was the fierce rejoinder. I felt a little left out in the cold by General Sheridan’s calling them “my cavalry,” as if we were aliens and did not belong to him also; but, whosesoever they were, I could not see what business they had up here at the “angle.” This was our part of the field. The plan of the battle put them at the enemy’s right and center, a mile away on the Dinwiddie Road and beyond.
Fortunately for me, Ayres comes up, his troops right upon the angle,— the right, the Maryland Brigade, on the “return,” — brave Bowerman down — and Winthrop’s Brigade, — gallant Winthrop gone,— reaching beyond, across the White Oak Road, driving a crowd before them. I have only time to say to Ayres, “Gwyn is in on the right;” for Sheridan takes him in hand. “I tell you again, General Ayres, you are firing into my cavalry!”
“We are firing at the people who are firing at us!” is the quick reply. “These are not carbine shot. They are minieballs. I ought to know.”
But I felt the point of Sheridan’s rebuke. As my oblique fire across the “return ” was now so near the enemy’s main line on the White Oak Road, it was not unlikely that if any of the cavalry were up here on their front, I might be firing into them and they into me. There was a worse thing yet: if we continued advancing in that direction, in another minute we should be catching Ayres’s fire on our left flank. He was already in, with his men. Griffin coming up, detains me a moment. Sheridan greets him well. “We flanked them gloriously!” he exclaims with a full-charged smile implying that all was not over yet. After a minute’s crisp remark, Griffin wheels away to the right, and I am left with Sheridan. He was sitting right in the focus of the fire, on his horse “Rienzi,”— both about the color of the atmosphere,— his demon pennon, good or ill, as it might bode, red and white, two-starred, aloft just behind him. The stream of bullets was pouring so thick it crossed my mind that what had been to me a poet’s phrase,— “darkening the air,” — was founded on dead-level fact. I was troubled for Sheridan. We could not afford to lose him. I made bold to tell him so, and begged him not to stay there;— the rest of us would try to take care of things, and from that place he could be spared. He gave me a comical look, and answered with a peculiar twist in the toss of his head, that seemed to say he didn’t care much for himself, or perhaps for me,— “Yes, I think I’ll go!” and away he dashed, right down through Ayres’s left, down the White Oak Road, into that triple cross-fire we had been quarreling about.
I plunged into my business, to make up for this minute’s lost time. My men were still facing too much across Ayres’s front, and getting into the range of his fire. We had got to change that, and swing to the right, down the rear of the enemy’s main works. It was a whirl. Every way was front, and every way was flank. The fighting was hand to hand. I was trying to get the three angles of the triangle into something like two right angles, and had swung my left well forward, opening quite a gap in that direction, when a large body of the enemy came rushing in upon that flank and rear. They were in line formation, with arms at something like a “ready,” which looked like “business.” I thought it was our turn to be caught between two fires, and that these men were likely to cut their way through us. Rushing into the ranks of my left battalion I shouted the order, “Prepare to fire by the rear rank!” My men faced about at once, disregarding the enemy in front; but at this juncture our portentous visitors threw down their muskets, and with hands and faces up cried out, “We surrender,” running right in upon us and almost over us. I was very glad of it, though more astonished, for they outnumbered us largely. I was a little afraid of them, too, lest they might find occasion to take arms again and revoke the “consent of the governed.” They were pretty solid commodities, but I was very willing to exchange them for paper token of indebtedness in the form of a provost marshal’s receipt. So getting my own line into shape again, I took these well-mannered men, who had been standing us so stiff a fight a few minutes before, with a small escort out over the “return,” into the open field in rear, and turned them over to one of Sheridan’s staff, with a request for a receipt when they were counted.(1)
In the field I find Ayres, who is turning over a great lot of prisoners. The “angle” and the whole “return” are now carried, but beyond them the routed enemy are stubbornly resisting. I have time for a word with Ayres now, and to explain my taking up Gwyn so sharply. He is not in the mood to blame me for anything. He explains also. He had been suddenly attacked on his left, and had been obliged to change front instantly with two of his brigades. Their two commanders, Winthrop and Bowerman, falling almost at the first stroke, he had taken these brigades in person, and put them in, without sending any word to Gwyn on his right. I could see how it was. Losing connection, Gwyn was at a loss what to do, and in the brief time Ayres was routing the enemy who had attacked him, I had come upon Gwyn and had put him in, really ahead of the main line of Ayres, who soon came up to him. So it all came about right for Ayres.(2)
(1) The receipt sent me bore the whole number of prisoners turned over by me during the battle; but most of them were taken in this encounter. This acknowledges from my command two colonels, six captains, eleven lieutenants, and a thousand and fifty men sent in by my own brigade; and four hundred and seventy men by Gregory’s. It is not impossible that some of these prisoners turned over to General Sheridan’s provost marshal, may have been counted twice,— with the cavalry captures as well as my own. It should be said that the prisoners taken by us were due to the efficiency and admirable behavior of all the troops in our part of the field near the “angle,” and not alone to that of my immediate command.
(2) To complete this reference, I will mention that Brevet Brigadier-General Gwyn was colonel of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, in Griffin’s Division, and had been assigned to command one of Ayres’s Brigades. Not long afterwards I came in command of the division, and, a general court martial being convened, charges were preferred against Gwyn by some who did not understand the facts of this occurrence as well as I did. When the papers reached me, I disapproved them and sent them back with the endorsement that General Gwyn had done his best under peculiarly perplexing circumstances, and had gone in with his brigade handsomely, under my own eye at a critical moment of the battle. I believed this to be justice to a brave officer.
General Bartlett now came appealing for assistance. Two of his regiments had gone off with Crawford, and Bartlett had more than he could do to make head against a stout resistance the enemy were making on a second line turned back near the Ford Road. I helped him pick up a lot of stragglers and asked Gregory to give him the 188th New York for assistance.
Meanwhile Warren, searching for Crawford, had come upon his First Brigade, Kellogg’s, and had faced it southerly towards the White Oak Road, as a guide for a new point of direction for that division, and had then gone off in search of the rest of these troops to bring them in on the line. Thereupon one of Sheridan’s staff officers came across Kellogg standing there, and naturally ordered him to go forward into the “fight.” Kellogg questioned his authority, and warm words took the place of other action, till at length Kellogg concluded it best to obey Sheridan’s representative, and moved promptly forward, striking somewhere beyond the left of the enemy’s refused new flank. It seems also that Crawford’s Third Brigade, Coulter’s, which was in his rear line, had anticipated orders or got Warren’s, and moved by the shortest line in the direction Kellogg was taking. So Crawford himself was on the extreme wheeling flank, with only Baxter’s Brigade and two regiments of Bartlett’s of the First Division immediately in hand. His brigades were now moving in echelon by the left, which was in fact about the order of movement originally prescribed, and that which the whole corps actually took up, automatically as it were, or by force of the situation. Our commands were queerly mixed; men of every division of the corps came within my jurisdiction, and something like this was probably the case with several other commanders. But that made no difference; men and officers were good friends. There was no jealousy among us subordinate commanders. We had eaten salt together when we had not much else. This liveliness of mutual interest and support, I may remark, is sometimes of great importance in the developments of a battle.
The hardest hold-up was in front of my left center, the First Battalion of the 198th Pennsylvania. I rode up to the gallant Glenn, commanding it and said, “Major Glenn, if you will break that line you shall have a colonel’s commission!” It was a hasty utterance, and the promise unmilitary, perhaps; but my every energy was focussed on that moment’s issue. Nor did that earnest soldier need a personal inducement; he was already carrying out the general order to press the enemy before him, with as much effect as we could reasonably expect. But it was deep in my mind how richly he already deserved this promotion, and I resolved that he should get it now. It was this thought and purpose which no doubt shaped my phrase, and pardoned it. Glenn sprung among his men, calling out, “Boys, will you follow me?” wheeled his horse and dashed forward, without turning to see who followed. Nor did he need. His words were a question; his act an order. On the brave fellows go with a cheer into the hurricane of fire. Their beautiful flag sways gracefully aloft with the spring of the brave youth bearing it, lighting the battle-smoke; three times it goes down to earth covered in darkening eddies, but rises ever again passing from hand to hand of dauntless young heroes. Then bullet-torn and blood-blazoned it hovers for a moment above a breastwork, while the regiment goes over like a wave. This I saw from my position to the left of them where I was pressing on the rest of my command. The sight so wrought upon me that I snatched time to ride over and congratulate Glenn and his regiment. As I passed into a deeper shadow of the woods, I met two men bearing his body,— the dripping blood marking their path. They stopped to tell me. I saw it all too well. He had snatched a battle flag from a broken regiment trying to rally on its colors, when a brute bullet of the earth once pronounced good, but since cursed for man’s sin, struck him down to its level. I could stop but a moment, for still on my front was rush and turmoil and tragedy. I could only bend down over him from the saddle and murmur unavailing words. “General, I have carried out your wishes !” — this was his only utterance. It was as if another bullet had cut me through. I almost fell across my saddle bow. My wish? God in heaven, no more my wish than thine, that this fair body, still part of the unfallen “good,” should be smitten to the sod,— that this spirit born of thine should be quenched by the accursed!
What dark misgivings searched me as I took the import of these words! What sharp sense of responsibility for those who have committed to them the issues of life and death! Why should I not have let this onset take its general course and men their natural chances? Why choose out him for his death, and so take on myself the awful decision into what home irreparable loss and measureless desolation should cast their unlifted burden? The crowding thought choked utterance. I could only bend my face low to his and answer: “Colonel, I will remember my promise ; I will remember you!” and press forward to my place, where the crash and crush and agony of struggle summoned me to more of the same. War! — nothing but the final, infinite good, for man and God, can accept and justify human work like that!
I feared most of all, I well remember,— such hold had this voice on me,— that it might not be given me to be found among the living, so that I could fulfill my word to him. But divine grace and pity granted me this. As soon as the battle was over, I sent forward by special messenger my recommendation for two brevets for him, in recognition of his conspicuous gallantry and great service in every battle of this campaign, up to this last hour. These were granted at once, and Glenn passed from us to other recognition, “Brevet-Colonel of United States Volunteers,”—and that phrase, so costly won, so honorable then, made common since, has seemed to me ever after, tame and something like travesty.(1)
(1) I sought for him from the Governor of Pennsylvania lineal promotion in his regiment, though he had but few hours to live. But that grade was held by an accomplished gentleman detached from his regiment on office duties in the cities, and there was no place for Glenn. The colonel, dear old Sickel, was in hospital with an amputated arm, shattered at the Quaker Road three days before. Within that time this regiment had now lost in battle colonel, major and adjutant, and all we could secure for the rest of the service, that great regiment of fourteen companies, was a major’s rank. This, indeed, was worthily bestowed. It came to Captain John Stanton, who after the fall of Sickel and Macuen, had acted as a field officer with fidelity and honor, and had distinguished himself in the struggle for the flag snatched by Glenn with more than mortal energy and at mortal cost.
By this time Warren had found Crawford, who with Baxter’s Brigade had been pursuing Munford’s dismounted cavalry all the way from where we had crossed the White Oak Road, by a wide detour reaching almost to Hatcher’s Run, until he had crossed the Ford Road, quite in rear of the breaking lines which Ransom and Wallace and Wood were trying to hold together.(1) Hence he was in position to do them much damage, both by cutting off their retreat by the Ford Road and taking many prisoners, and also by completing the enemy’s envelopment. To meet this, the enemy, instead of giving up the battle as they would have been justified in doing stripped still more their main works in front of our cavalry by detaching nearly the entire brigade of General Terry, now commanded by Colonel Mayo, and facing it quite to its rear pushed it down the Ford Road and across the fields to resist the advance of Warren with Crawford.
We, too, were pressing hard on the Ford Road from the east, so that all were crowded into that whirlpool of the fight. Just as I reached it, Captain Brinton of Griffin’s staff dashed up at headlong speed and asked if I knew that Griffin was in command of the corps. I was astonished at first, and incredulous afterwards. I had heard nothing from General Warren since I saw his flag away in the Sydnor field when I was breaking out from the column of march to go to Ayres’s support. My first thought
(1) To my grief over the costs of this struggle was added now another, when borne past me on the right came the form of Colonel Farnham of the 16th Maine, now on Crawford’s staff, who, sent to bear an order into this thickening whirl, was shot through the breast and fell as we thought mortally wounded ; but the courage and fortitude, which never forsook him, carried him through this also.
was that he was killed. I asked Brinton what he meant. He told me the story. General Warren when he got to the rear of the Ford Road sent an enthusiastic message by Colonel Locke, his chief of staff, to Sheridan saying that he was in the enemy’s rear, cutting off his retreat, and had many prisoners. This message met scant courtesy. Sheridan’s patience was exhausted. “By G—, sir, tell General Warren he wasn’t in the fight!” Colonel Locke was thunderstruck. “Must I tell General Warren that, sir?” asked he. “Tell him that, sir;” came back the words like hammer-blows. “I would not like to take a verbal message like that to General Warren. May I take it down in writing?” “Take it down, sir; tell him, by G—, he was not at the front!” This was done. Locke, the old and only adjutant-general of the Fifth Corps, himself just back from a severe wound in the face on some desperate front with Warren, never felt a blow like that. Soon thereafter Sheridan came upon General Griffin, and without preface or index, told the astonished Griffin, “I put you in command of the Fifth Corps!” This was Brinton’s story; dramatic enough, surely; pathetic, too. I hardly knew how to take it. I thought it possible Sheridan had told every general officer he met, as he had told me, to take command of all the men he could find on the field and push them in. I could not think of Warren being so wide-off an exception.
Pressing down towards the Forks, some of Ayres’s men mingled with my own, on emerging into a little clearing I saw Sheridan riding beside me like an apparition. Yet he was pretty certain flesh and blood. I felt a little nervous ; — not in the region of my conscience, nor with any misgiving of the day’s business; but because I was alone with Sheridan. His expression was at its utmost bent; intent and content, incarnate will. But he greeted me kindly, and spoke freely of the way things had been going. We were riding down inside the works in the woods covering the Forks and Ford Road, now the new focus of the fight. Just then an officer rode flightily up from that direction, exclaiming to General Sheridan, “We are on the enemy’s rear, and have got three of their guns.” “I don’t care a d— for their guns, or you either, sir. What are you here for? Go back to your business, where you belong! What I want is that Southside Road.” The officer seemed to appreciate the force of the suggestion, and the distant attraction of the Southside Road. I looked to see what would happen to me. There were many men gathered round, or rather we had ridden into the midst of them, as they stood amazed at the episode. The sun was just in the tree-tops; — it might be the evening chill that was creeping over us. Then Sheridan, rising in his stirrups, hat in hand waving aloft at full arm’s length, face black as his horse, and both like a storm-king, roared out: “I want you men to understand we have a record to make before that sun goes down that will make hell tremble !— I want you there!” I guess they were ready to go; to that place or any other where death would find them quickest; and the sooner they got there, the safer for them.
Griffin came down now from the right, dashed ahead of me and jumped his horse over the works. I thought myself a pretty good rider, but preferred a lower place in the breastworks. My horse saw one and made for it. Just as he neared the leap, a bullet struck him in the leg, and gave him more impetus than I had counted on. But I gave him free rein and held myself easy, and over we went, and down we came, luckily feet-foremost, almost on top of one of the enemy’s guns, which we were fortunate enough not to “take.” In truth, there was a queer “parliament of religions” just then and there, at this Five Forks focus. And it came in this wise. As Ransom’s and Wallace’s and Wood’s reinforced but wasting lines had fallen back before us along the north and east side of their works, our cavalry kept up sharp attacks upon their right across the works, which by masterly courage and skill they managed to repel, replacing as best they could the great gaps made in their defences by the withdrawal of so many of Steuart’s and Terry’s Brigades, to form the other sides of their retreating “hollow square.” Driven in upon themselves, and over much “concentrated,” they were so penned in there was not a fair chance to fight. Seizing the favorable moment Fitzhugh’s and Pennington’s Brigades of Devins’s and Custer’s cavalry made a magnificent dash right over the works each side the Forks, just an instant before Ayres’s and Griffin’s lines had reached that focus. Bartlett also, with some of Crawford’s men following, came down nearly at the same time from the north on the Ford Road. All, therefore, centered on the three guns there; so that for a moment there was a queer colloquy over the silent guns. The cavalry officers say, and perhaps with good reason, that they captured the guns, but Griffin would not let them “take” them. Crawford and Bartlett also both report the capture of the guns; but as the enemy had abandoned them before these troops struck them, the claimants of the capture should be content to rank their merits in the order of their coming. There were, however, some guns further up the Ford Road,— whether those at first under Ransom on the “refused” flank, or those hurried from Pegram’s command on the White Oak Road to the support of the breaking lines vainly essaying to cover the Ford Road. Of the capture of these there is no doubt. These Major West Funk,— a strange misnomer, but a better name in German than in English, showing there is some “sparkle” in his blood,—actually “took,” by personal touch,— both ways. First dodging behind trees before their canister, then shooting down the horses and mules attached to the limbers, as well as the gunners who stood by them, his two little regiments made a rush for the battery, overwhelmed it, unmanned it, and then swept on, leaving the guns behind them, making no fuss about it, and so very likely to get no credit for it. This little episode, however, was not unobserved by me; for these two regiments—the 121st [Pennsylvania] and 142d Pennsylvania, now attached to Crawford’s Division, were all that was left to us of the dear lost old First Corps, and of my splendid brigade from it in Griffin’s Division, in the ever memorable charge of “Fort Hell,” June 18, 1864.
“Taking guns” is a phrase associated with very stirring action. But words have a greater range than even guns. There is the literal, the legal, the moral, the figurative, the poetic, the florid, the transcendental. All these atmospheres may give meaning and color to a word. But dealing with solid fact, there is no more picturesque and thrilling sight, no more telling, testing deed, than to “take a battery” in front. Ploughed through by booming shot; torn by ragged bursts of shell; riddled by blasts of whistling canister; — straight ahead to the guns hidden in their own smoke; straight on to the red, scorching flame of the muzzles,— the giant grains of cannon-powder beating, burning, sizzling into the cheek; then in upon them! — pistol to rifle-shot; saber to bayonet; musket-butt to handspike and rammer; the brief frenzy of passion; the wild “hurrah “; then the sudden, unearthly silence; the ghastly scene; the shadow of death; the aureole of glory ;— much that is telling here, but more that cannot be told. Surely it were much better if guns must be taken, to take them by flank attack, by skilful manoeuver, by moral suasion, by figure of speech, or even by proxy.
But this is digression, or reminiscence. For the matter in hand, the guns taken at the Forks and on the Ford Road, with due acknowledgements of individual valor, were taken by all the troops who closed in around them, front, flank and rear; by the whole movement, indeed, from the brain of the brilliant commander who planned, to the least man who pressed forward to fulfil his high resolve.
We had pushed the enemy a mile from the left of their works,-—the angle, their tactical center,—and were now past the Forks. Something remained to be done, according to Sheridan’s biblical intimation. But the enemy made no more resolute, general stand. Only little groups, held back and held together by individual character, or the magnetism of some superior officer, made front, and gave check. For a moment, after the deafening din and roar, the woods seemed almost given back to nature, save for the clinging smoke and broken bodies and breaking moans which betokened man’s intervention.
Our commands were much mixed, but the men well moving on, when in this slackening of the strain, Griffin and Ayres, who were now riding with me, spoke regretfully, sympathizingly of Warren. They thought he had sacrificed himself for Crawford, who had not proved equal to the demands of the situation. “Poor Warren, how he will suffer for this!” they said with many variations of the theme. Griffin did not say a word about his being placed in command of the corps. He was a keen observer, a sharp critic, able and prompt to use a tactical advantage; but he was not the man to take pleasure which cost another’s pain, or profit from another’s loss. It was high promotion, gratifying to a soldier’s ambition; it was special preferment, for he was junior to Crawford. But he took it all modestly, like the soldier and man he was, thinking more of duty and service than of self.
Sheridan came upon us again, bent to his purpose. “Get together all the men you can,” he says, “and drive on while you can see your hand before you!” The men were widely scattered from their proper commanders. Griffin told me to gather the men of the First Division and bring them to the White Oak Road. I rode in along the ground of the wide pursuit, and kept my bugler sounding all the brigade calls of the division. This brought our officers and men to the left. Among others General Warren came riding slowly from the right. I took pains to greet him cheerfully, and explained to him why I was sounding all the bugle calls. “You are doing just right,” he replies, “but I am not in command of the corps.” That was the first authoritative word I had heard spoken to this effect. I told him I had heard so, but that General Sheridan had been putting us all in command of everything we could get in hand, and perhaps after the battle was over we would all get back where we belonged. I told him I was now moving forward under Sheridan’s and Griffin’s order, and rode away from him towards the left with my gathered troops, shadowed in spirit for Warren’s sake. I could not be sorry for the corps, nor that Griffin was in command of it: he had the confidence of the whole corps. And however sharp was Griffin’s satire, he had the generosity which enables one to be truly just, and never made his subordinates vicarious victims of his own interior irritations.
We had now come to the edge of a wide field across the road and the works on the enemy’s right, known as the Gilliam field. Here I came to Sheridan and Griffin, my troops all up, and well in hand. A sharp cavalry fight was going on, in which some of Ayres’s men and my own had taken part. On the right, along the White Oak Road were portions of Crawford’s infantry that had swung around so quickly as to get ahead of us and they were the ones now principally engaged.
Here Warren took his leave of the corps, himself under a shadow as somber as the scene and with a flash as lurid as the red light of the battle-edge rolling away into the darkness and distance of the deep woods. When our line was checked at this last angle, Griffin had ordered one of Crawford’s colonels to advance. The colonel, a brave and well-balanced man, replied that where soldiers as good as Griffin’s men had failed, he did not feel warranted in going in without proper orders. “Very well I order you in!” says Griffin, without adding that he did it as commander of the corps. The gallant colonel bows,— it is Richardson, of the 7th Wisconsin,— grasps his regimental colors in his own hand, significant of the need and his resolution in face of it, and rides forward in advance of his men. What can they do but follow such example? General Warren, with intensity of feeling that is now desperation, snatches his corps flag from the hands of its bearer, and dashes to Richardson’s side. And so the two leaders ride, the corps commander and his last visible colonel,— colors aloft, reckless of the growing distance between them and their followers, straight for the smoking line — straight for the flaming edge; not hesitating at the breastworks, over they go; one with swelling tumult of soul, where the passion of suffering craves outburst in action; the other with obedience and self-devotion, love-like, stronger than death. Over the breastworks, down among the astonished foe; one of whom, instinct overmastering admiration, aims at the foremost a deadly blow, which the noble youth rushes forward to parry, and shielding with his own the breast of his uncaring commander, falls to earth, bathing his colors with his blood.
Need more be told? Do men tarry at such a point? One crested wave sweeps on; another, broken, rolls away. All is lost; and all is won. Slowly Warren returns over the somber field. At its forsaken edge a staff officer hands him a crude field order. Partly by the lurid flashes of the last guns, partly by light of the dying day, he reads: “Major-General Warren, commanding the Fifth Army Corps, is relieved from duty and will at once report for orders to Lieutenant-General Grant, commanding Armies of the United States. By command of Major-General Sheridan.”
With almost the agony of death upon his face, Warren approaches Sheridan and asks him if he cannot reconsider the order. “Reconsider. Hell! I don’t reconsider my decisions. Obey the order!” fell the last thunder-bolt on Warren’s heart.
The battle has done its worst for him. The iron has entered his soul. With bowed head and without a word, he turns from the spectral groups of friend and foe mingled in the dark, forbidding cloud of night, to report to the one man on earth who held power over what to him was dearer than life,— and takes his lonely way over that eventful field, along that fateful White Oak Road, which for him had no end on earth.
After nightfall the corps was drawn in around Five Forks, for a brief respite. We were all so worn out that our sinking bodies took our spirits with them. We had reasons to rejoice so far as victory gives reasons; but there was a strange weight on the hearts of us all. Of things within? or things without? We could not tell. It was not wholly because Warren had gone; although in the sundering of old ties there is always a strain, and Warren had been part of the best history of the Fifth Corps from the beginning. And even about victory,— it is not for itself; it looks to a cause and an end. And we thought of this; pondering on the worth and the cost, and to what that end might unfold to which this was the beginning. There were other emotions, too, which will arise when night draws over a scene like that, and with it the thoughts come home.
We grouped ourselves around Griffin at the Forks, center of the whirling struggle,— we who were left of those once accustomed to gather about him in field or bivouac,— alas for those who came no more ! — half-reclining against the gloomy tree-trunks and rudely piled defences so gallantly lost and won, torn by splintering shot and rush of men; half-stretched on the ground moistened by the dews of night and the blood of the mingled brave; hushed at heart, speaking but in murmurs answering to the whispers of the night; with a tremulous sensitiveness, an awe that was not fear. Few things we said; but they were not of the history that is told.
Suddenly emerged from the shadows a compact form, with vigorous stride unlike the measure and mood of ours and a voice that would itself have thrilled us had not the import of it thrilled us more. “Gentlemen,” says Sheridan, as we half started to our feet, “I have come over to see you. I may have spoken harshly to some of you to-day; but I would not have it hurt you. You know how it is: we had to carry this place, and I was fretted all day till it was done. You must forgive me. I know it is hard for the men, too; but we must push. There is more for us to do together. I appreciate and thank you all.”
And this is Phil Sheridan! A new view of him surely, and amazingly. All the repressed feeling of our hearts sprung out towards him. We were ready to blame ourselves if we had been in any way the cause of his trouble. But we thought we had borne a better part than that.
We had had a taste of his style of fighting, and we liked it. In some respects it was different from ours; although this was not a case to test all qualities. We had formed some habits of fighting too. Most of us there had been through Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Mine Run, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Bethesda Church, The North Anna, Petersburg; — we had formed habits. We went into a fight with knowledge of what it meant and what was to be done. We went at things with dogged resolution;— not much show; not much flare; not much accompaniment of brass instruments. But we could give credit to more brilliant things. We could see how this voice and vision, this swing and color, this vivid impression on the senses, carry the pulse and will of men. This served as the old “fife and drum,” and “Hail Columbia,” that used to stir men’s souls. We had a habit, perhaps, drawn from dire experience, and for which we had also Grant’s quite recent sanction(1), when we had carried a vital point or had to hold one, to entrench. But Sheridan does not entrench. He pushes on; carrying his flank and rear with him,— rushing, flashing, smashing. He transfuses into his subordinates the vitality and energy of his purpose; transforms them into part of his own mind and will. He shows the power of a commander,— inspiring both confidence and fear.
As a rule, our corps and army commanders were men of brains rather than of magnetism. They relied on brains in others. Warren was one of these. He was well capable of organizing an entire plan of battle on a great field. He would have been an admirable chief of staff of the army. There brains outweigh temperament. He could see the whole comprehensively and adjust the parts subordinate to it. But he had a certain ardor of temperament which, although it brought him distinction as a subordinate commander, seemed to work against him as corps commander. It led him to go in personally with a single division or brigade, when a sharp fight came on. Doing this when having a larger command, one takes the risk of losing grasp of the whole. That was what he did in trying to change front with Crawford’s Division under fire. It was a difficult thing. He put his personality into it; just as Sheridan would do and did in this very fight. It was the crudest thing to say of him that he “was not in the fight.” This blamed him for the very opposite of what had been complained of as his chief fault; and this time the accusation was not true. He was in the fight; and that in fact was his fault; at any rate it was his
(1) The order to entrench on the White Oak Road, March 31. See War Papers, Vol. I, p. 235.
evil fate. That he felt this accusation keenly was manifest in that last reckless onset in the charge in the Gilliam field: he would let Sheridan see whether he was in the fight or not. But this did no good. It was too late. If he had so brought Crawford in where Griffin came, it might have saved him. But that long labor of his out of Sheridan’s sight missed the moment. It was too late. The day was done. So he rode through into the night.
In the later dispositions of the corps the several divisions were moved out in directions which would best guard against sudden attack, not unexpected : Crawford, down the Ford Road, half way to the Run; Ayres out the White Oak Road on the right, and Bartlett on the left, facing towards the enemy supposed to be gathered in their last stronghold where we had left their main body the day before,— the Claiborne entrenchments. It fell to me to be held in reserve, and by midnight my command was left alone on the field over which the sweeping vision of power had passed. The thunder and tumult of the day had died with it. Now only the sighing of the night winds through the pine tops took up the ghostly refrain; and moans from the darkened earth beneath told where we also belonged. So the night was not for sleep; but given to solemn and tender duties, and to thoughts that passed beyond that field.
This is the story of Five Forks within my knowledge of what was done and suffered there. It shows confusions and struggles besides those of the contending lines. It shows extent and complexity quite beyond what would appear from an outside view of the movement or the orders concerning it. The story that went out early, and has taken lodgment in the public mind, is more simple. Taking its rise and keynote from Sheridan’s report, somewhat intensified by his staff officers, and adopted by Grant without feeling necessity of further investigation, this story is that Sheridan and his cavalry, with the assistance of a part of Ayres’s Division, carried Five Forks with all its works, angles and returns, its captives, guns and glory.(1)
The widely drawn and all-embracing testimony before the Warren Court of Inquiry in 1879 and 18804, although in some instances confused and even contradictory,— the result, however, in no small degree of the preoccupation in the witnesses’ minds by the accounts so early and abundantly put forth, and without rectification for so long a time,— yet reveals for all some spreading of the plan of battle, a steadfast, well-connected and well-executed conformity to the ideas under which the battle was ordered. It also affords ample means of understanding the confusions and frictions which were actual passages in the battle, and not artificial and intensified in statement under the necessity of sustaining a thesis or vindicating an act of authority. The light shed by these records and the official War Records lately published enables us now, by some effort of attention it is true, to see in proper perspective, sequence and comprehension, the complex details of that battle.
The whole trouble and disturbance of Sheridan’s preconceived image of the battle arose from a wide misunderstanding of the relative positions of the Fifth Corps formation and that of the enemy. We took the latter to be an entrenched line, which was to be turned by a flank and rear attack. The general plan as given to us verbally was well understood by all. The specific written orders were in accordance with the idea in our minds. “The line will move forward as formed till it reaches the White Oak Road, when it will swing around to the left, perpendicular to the White Oak Road. General Merritt’s and General Custer’s
(1) See for instance, Sheridan’s statement before the Warren Court, Records, p. 118, and those of his officers all through this investigation. Also Grant’s account of this battle: Memoirs, Vol. II, pp. 443–446 ; the details of which, however, are so erroneous as to movements, their time and place and bearing on the result, that they would not be recognized as pertaining to that battle by anyone who was there ; — an observation which adds to our sorrow at the distressing circumstances under which the distinguished writer was compelled to conclude his last volume without opportunity for examining the then existing evidence in that case.
cavalry will charge the enemy’s line as soon as the infantry get engaged.” The intention evidently was that the left of the Fifth Corps (Ayres) should strike the left of the enemy’s entrenched line on the White Oak Road, and on this pivot the corps should make a great left turn, and flank and envelop the rebel position; the cavalry in the meantime engaging the enemy’s attention by vigorous demonstrations on their right and center. It was a brilliant piece of tactics, and if properly carried out its success was as certainly predicted as anything in warfare can be. There was no lack of loyalty and earnestness. The importance of the battle was felt, and Sheridan’s impatience shared by all.
It will seem strange that at the very start the diagram furnished for our guidance was the cause of serious confusion in our minds by the disagreement of figure and fact, and of more serious confusion of movement attending.
- The diagram showed Crawford,— the extreme right of the corps, directed on the angle, instead of Ayres,— the extreme left. By this, not a man of the Fifth Corps could reach the White Oak Road without doing so on top of the enemy entrenched upon it. Swinging to the left on reaching it, would have to be done inside the enemy’s lines, or in front of them at close touch, presenting the right flank of each subdivision to their raking fire.
- The diagram placed the angle of the enemy’s works at the crossing of the White Oak Road and the road we were formed on,— the Gravelly Run Church Road; while as matter of fact, the angle was twelve hundred yards west of this crossing. So that “the line as formed” moving forward, instead of its right striking the angle, as the diagram indicated, the left of the line would pass it at the distance of nearly five hundred yards.
- The line as formed was not so oblique to the Church Road as represented in the diagram. In fact, for our whole right,— Crawford’s and Griffin’s Divisions,— it was nearly parallel to the White Oak Road. But we soon discovered that at the crossing of these roads the course of the latter bends northerly at an angle of nearly forty-five degrees. This shows how it was that Crawford and Griffin struck the White Oak Road squarely ; and how it was that Ayres’s right crossed it some time before his left, and was struck, as was Crawford, by the enemy’s dismounted cavalry posted there.
- It is now perfectly shown, although not clearly held in mind by all, even at the Warren investigation, that the celebrated “angle” and “return” were not the extreme left of the enemy’s lines, nor of his fortified position, as would appear by the diagram.(1) East of the angle as given there, was an extended work of similar character on the White Oak Road, but across it,— south of it,— running at least one hundred and sixty yards. It was this from which Ayres was struck on the left, when he had to change front. A thousand yards still east of this, near the Church Road crossing, was also a considerable breastwork thrown up by Munford’s dismounted cavalry early in the afternoon. It was from this that the center of our advance, Ayres and Crawford, was first struck.(2)
- Nor were the troops in the main works and about the “angle” and the “return,” as both the orders and the diagram indicated, by any means all the force we had to contend with that day. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, dismounted, now commanded
(1) The confusing effect of this diagram was manifest in much of the testimony from remembrance given at the Warren Court of Inquiry. The “diagram” as impressed upon all, gave only the “return” and the “angle” at it, as the easternmost extent of the Confederate works. Judging from this, whatever force should be encountered would be assumed to be at the angle and the return: whereas, it is now the certain result of somewhat rapid and confused experience at the time, and of very careful examinations and measurements made since, that the main works extended one hundred and sixty yards still east of the angle, on the south side of the White Oak Road. But the witnesses before the court frequently spoke of this advanced work, from which Ayres was struck, the “angle” and even the “return.” This explains Sheridan’s remark to Griffin: “We flanked them gloriously.” A remark which would not apply to an assault on a solid angle like that at the “return.” It is pretty hard to flank a right angle,— especially when manned by such men as were there.
(2) Testimony of General Munford, Warren Court Records, p. 442.
by Munford,— among them Stuart’s old brigade,— and as their officers said, “as good marksmen as ever fired a gun,”(1) were confronting our advance with the solid resistance of twelve hundred to fifteen hundred men(2) west of the Church Road, and Roberts’ North Carolina cavalry, six or eight hundred men, on the east side of it.(3) Thus all our way around was contested by not less than two thousand skilled and veteran soldiers,— no sort of people to be ignored by us, nor by those reporting the battle to be wholly on the angle and on our cavalry front.
Now who is responsible for this misapprehension? Warren made the diagram from information received from Sheridan. It is to be presumed that the staff-officer who reported the situation to General Sheridan was carefully cross-examined. It is, indeed, quite possible that as the enemy were busily at work every moment after they were aware of the approach of the Fifth Corps by the Church Road, these extended works were not thrown up at the time of the staff-officer’s reconnoissance. Nor perhaps had Munford’s cavalry then reached that portion of the field. But a discrepancy of one thousand yards for a vital point like that, is a pretty wide error. Warren is perhaps responsible for accepting and acquiescing in the information so given, and for not assuring himself more perfectly of the conditions in his front of attack. But Sheridan saw and approved the diagram; and if anybody is to be blamed, he must be considered ultimately, and in a military sense, responsible for these misapprehensions. We are not demanding perfection for General Sheridan. His objective was the enemy. If he cared less for diagrams or graphic sketches, it must be pardoned. To err is human; but the whole of that characteristic of humanity should not be charged to the Fifth Corps or its commander.
(3) Testimony General Munford, Records Warren Court, p. 443.
First there is the accusation of a manner of indifference on Warren’s part previous to the action. As to this, opinions would differ as different minds or tempers might take it. There is no doubt this feeling on General Sheridan’s part was very deep and disturbing. That must be considered. Those who knew Warren best saw no indifference. He was not in his usual spirits,— and we cannot wonder at it,— but he was intense rather than expressive. He knew what was depending, and what was called for, and put his energies into the case more mentally than muscularly. His subordinates understood his earnestness.
It was charged by General Sheridan and some of his staff that the right of Ayres’s line, which they call skirmishers, behaved badly on receiving the first fire,—that they threw themselves on the ground and fired into the air; that they even broke and ran; and that General Warren did not exert himself to correct the confusion. As if the corps commander’s duty was to be on a brigade skirmish line in a great wide-sweeping movement of his entire corps! Sheridan and Ayres would seem to be assistance enough for Gwyn in handling his little skirmish line. But Sheridan says more deliberately and explicitly before the Warren Court: “Our skirmish line lay down; the fire of the enemy was very slight. The line became confused, and commenced firing straight in the air.” A somewhat difficult operation, it may be remarked parenthetically, for men lying down,— unless the resultant of two such compound forces as the enemy in front and Sheridan behind made them roll over flat on their backs, calling on heaven for aid. “The poor fellows,” he continues, “had been fighting behind breastworks for a long period, and when they got out to attack breastworks, they seem to have been a little timid.”(1) They were attacking breastworks then, out at the Church Road crossing! But this is perhaps a fling at the Army
(1) Testimony, Warren Court Records, p. 254.
of the Potomac in the soft places of “Grant’s Campaign,” in which they lost more men than Lee had in his entire army, and saved the other quarter by now and then entrenching when put momentarily on the defensive. Ayres does not relish this remark, whether intended for excuse or sarcasm. He answers that his troops, most of them, had fought at Gettysburg, and through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and the Weldon Railroad, and none of them had ever but once fought behind breastworks.(1)
The unsteadiness of Ayres’s skirmishers was no vital matter. It was a trifling circumstance, hardly relevant to the charge of indifference and incompetency on Warren’s part. It was not cause enough to set thunderbolts flying over the whole Fifth Corps. At the worst, the commander of the skirmish line might have been reprimanded and “relieved;” but hardly the commander of the corps.
I am pained on more accounts than one to find that General Grant in his notice of our action that afternoon, as given in his Memoirs, Volume II, page 443, uses the following language: “Griffin’s Division, in backing to get out of the way of a severe cross-fire of the enemy, was found marching away from the fighting.” He adds, however, that after awhile it was “brought back” and did excellent Service. This is an extraordinary statement,— or at any rate it is to be hoped it is not an ordinary one in writing history,— to put down authoritatively as the record of our conduct and spirit that day.
“Backing to get out of the way of fire?” Griffin’s Division? At what point in their history?” Backing from a cross-fire” here? The fire first followed was that of Munford’s cavalry on their front and right while advancing according to orders; and “backing” from this would have thrown them directly on the celebrated “angle,”—where indeed they did arrive most timely, and on purpose to meet a “cross-fire,” which they did not back out of. “Away from the fighting?” Let Ayres, and Ransom, and Wallace, and Wood, and Sheridan, answer. “Found.”
(1) Testimony, Warren Court Records, p. 450.
By whom ? “Brought back.” By what? They were found at the “angle,” and brought themselves there ahead of the finders. Saul, the seeker of old, got more lost than the domestic wanderers he was after: they were in their place before he was; but the seeker found a kingdom, and doubtless forgave himself and the asses.
But this is a very serious charge against Griffin’s Division, and in time of active service would warrant a court of inquiry. And even now the statement of one so revered cannot but be injurious to its reputation, and its honor.
To have stated this authoritatively as fact without being sure of it is so unlike the truthfulness and magnanimity of that great character, we are forced to believe he has here fallen before his only weakness,—that of trusting too implicitly to those whom he liked. If General Grant was to honor us by his notice at all, we should suppose he would acquaint himself with the facts. He seems, however, on so comparatively unimportant a topic, to have innocently absorbed the impression made upon him by parties interested in justifying an arbitrary act of authority. If General Grant could have looked into the case, he would have seen that this statement was not only unjust, but the very reverse of truth. The pressing sense of his approaching end compelled General Grant to finish his book in haste. However painful it be to review words written under circumstances so affecting, it is but just to inquire into the grounds of the accusation.
Griffin’s orders were to follow Crawford; but the spirit of his position was that of a reserve; and this is held in hand ready to go in at a critical moment when and where most needed. All the facts necessary to adduce are that this division strictly, and with painstaking fidelity,—not in stupid quiescence,— followed its orders, until a moment came when it promptly acted in accordance with the spirit of its orders and of the whole plan of battle. It was “reserved” for that very kind of thing. And no one can say it fell short of its duty or the standard of its ancient honor.
The evidence is explicit and ample that the head of this division was at the angle of the works with Ayres and helped him to carry it. This is directly testified to by commanding officers of the “Maryland Brigade” on Ayres’s right, and of the 4th Delaware on Gwyn’s right, who say that Griffin’s troops were on the flank and rear of the rebel line at the angle before they attacked it in front.(1) This is confirmed by officers of the highest character in Ransom’s Brigade on the left of the angle.(2) General Ayres says substantially the same in his testimony before the Warren Court.(3) General Sheridan himself admits this.(4) It is evident, however, that in recounting his impression of the fight at the angle he failed to give prominence to the fact,— of no consequence to him, or to the general result, as to the particular troops engaged; and moreover, if acknowledged, making against his charge that Warren did not bring in his other divisions to support Ayres,—that Griffin’s troops quite as much as Ayres’s took part in carrying that angle. Indeed, he most probably regarded the troops of Griffin’s whom he met here as part of Ayres’s command. For this would explain most of the discrepancies in his statements compared with established and admitted facts.
(1) Colonel Stanton, who succeeded Bowerman in command of Ayres’s Second Brigade, says the enemy were struck on their left and rear and forced in confusion on his front at the angle. Captain Buckingham, commanding 4th Delaware, the extreme right of Ayres’s Division, says our troops had struck the enemy’s works from the north at the time he reached them in front, facing west.
(2) Captain Faucette, 56th North Carolina, Ransom’s Brigade, fully confirms this ; and Honorable Thomas R. Roul[h]ac, 49th North Carolina, says that when the angle was carried, his troops had been attacked from the north and west, as well as on their proper front; and this by troops he saw moving down on them from the north, and that it was a ” hand to hand” fight, “with clubbed muskets.” See also North Carolina Regiments; 1861-65; Vol. III, p. 143 [sic, 145–147].
(4) Testimony, Warren Court Records, p. 123.
But in truth the fight was by no means over when the angle was carried. Although tactically the result was a foregone conclusion when this was done, and although the fighting there was for a few minutes sharp, yet the hard fighting was in the whole field where the enemy made their successive stands with such courage and desperation. Griffin’s part in this, and even Crawford’s, cannot be ignored.
But it is insisted that Crawford’s Division marched out of the fight. What is true is that it did not swing in promptly on Ayres’s when he changed front to the left. That was an error, and an inexcusable departure from positive orders, not being warranted by the developments of the battle. But something is to be said about its cause, and its practical results. The diagram indicated to Crawford that his division would strike the enemy first at the “angle.” Encountering serious resistance on crossing the White Oak Road, and naturally drawn towards it, he kept on, expecting perhaps that he was shortly to encounter the main force of the enemy in their works, and not observing the more severe attack which fell on Ayres’s left,—where, indeed, the general orders for the battle should have prepared him to understand it, and take accordant action. In such case, Griffin would have taken in hand what was opposing Crawford. But the enemy before him led him to a wider sweep, in the course of which he confronted not only the two thousand dismounted cavalry, but at length large bodies of the infantry broken from their first hold and trying to make a stand on the Ford Road. He had fighting all the way around. Calling our fight at the angle, on our extreme left, “the front,” and saying that General Warren was not “in the fight,” while it might be pardoned as an excited ejaculation in the heat of battle, will not stand as sober truth, or as the premise for so violent a conclusion. And all those people who ring changes on the “obliquing off” of Crawford and Griffin from the center of action; “marching away from the fighting,” or ” drifting out of ” what they call (by a familiar figure of speech) “the fight,” do not tell us that this appearance was because Ayres was suddenly compelled to make a square change of front, and those who did not instantly conform and follow might seem to be obliquing to the right, when in fact they were “swinging to the left” according to orders,— unfortunately by too wide a sweep, having a very active enemy in their front. In this concern, some minds were unduly affected by that very natural notion that the fight is where they are; although in the case of General Sheridan it must be admitted that “the point was well taken.” Crawford’s wide movement was undoubtedly an error, and a costly one for Warren; but the simple fact that Crawford lost more men in the battle than both the other divisions together,— more indeed than all the rest, cavalry and infantry together,— goes to show that some of the fight was where he was.
These accusations against the conduct of each of Warren’s divisions, while susceptible of being magnified and manipulated so as to produce a certain forensic effect, are of no substantial weight. Even if true in the sharpest sense, they would be overstrained and uncalled for considering how the battle ended, and by whom it was mainly fought.
The broad ground of reason,— and a valid one if substantiated by fact,— for dissatisfaction with General Warren’s conduct in the battle, and for his removal from command in consequence, would be that he was not in proper position during the battle to command his whole corps, and did not effectually command it. That at a sharp and critical point he was not present where General Sheridan wanted him is another matter, which does not in itself support the former conclusion.
In a military and highly proper sense, General Warren was responsible for the conduct of his corps, and ultimately for that of each of his divisions. There are two ways in which such control might be exercised: by prevention, or by correction. It was Crawford’s duty to keep his vital connection with Ayres, and, if in any way it should be broken, to be on the alert to see and to act. Warren should hold him responsible for that. And if he could not at the start rouse Crawford, whose peculiarities he knew, to a vivid conception of the anatomy and physiology of the case, he should have had a staff officer charged with the duty of keeping Crawford closed on Ayres, while he himself at the point where he could keep in touch with his whole corps should hold Griffin under his hand as the ready and trusted reserve prepared for the unexpected.
It may be questioned, perhaps, whether it was wise to give Crawford that front line and wheeling flank in a movement of such importance, and make him a guide for Griffin. It would have been better, (as Griffin and Ayres said later in the day), to put Griffin on Ayres’s right, in the order in which, curiously enough, Griffin’s brigades put themselves as if by some spiritual attraction, or possibly only common sense.
But it may be justly said that, whatever errors the development of the battle disclosed, Warren should have made his troops conform to the state of facts. He did. We can well understand how exasperating it must have been to General Sheridan when Ayres was so suddenly, and it seems unexpectedly, struck on the left flank, to find the largest division of the corps not turning with him, but drawing away from the tactical focus and the close envelopment of it intended, and getting into the place on the wheeling flank which was assigned to Mackenzie’s cavalry, and crowding Mackenzie “out of the fight.” Griffin, when the exigencies on the left disclosed this error, hastened to put in his rear brigade,— the nearest — now become the leading one. Warren with the same intent, passing him, pushed on for Crawford with feverish effort not short of agony. Indeed he did more than could be legally required. He performed acts of “supererogation,”—voluntary works and above the commandments,— which certainly should have saved him from perdition. He undertook the duties of staff-officer for Crawford. He got hold of Kellogg’s Brigade and posted it as a “marker” in the midst of the Sydnor woods, while he went off to find the rest of Crawford, and make him execute the grand left wheel; when one of Sheridan’s staff coming along, astonished at this dumb-show, a brigade stationary, “marking time” at such a crisis, orders the marker into the “fight;” which the gallant commander begins right there, but ends soon after with a more exacting antagonist and with equal glory.
Meantime finding Crawford disporting himself on the tangent of a two-mile curve, Warren stuck to him like a tutor, leading him in on a quick radius to the supposed center,— which, be it borne in mind, we were all the time shifting off to the westward, making his route exhibit all the marvels of the hyperbola. His guide had gone into the vortex, and all he could do, in coming back with Crawford’s recovered men, was to follow the fire, which we were battering off to the Forks. The cyclone had become a cycloid. So that Crawford was constantly obstructed by fugitives from the fight crowding him worse and worse all the way around; and when at last he struck the enemy’s works, it was by no fault of Warren’s that he struck them at their western end, near the Gilliam field, instead of at the left and center through the Sydnor fields. Things being as they were, Warren got his corps into the “fight” as quickly and effectively as he or anybody else possibly could.
But it is charged that the failure to close quickly on Ayres imperiled the result of the whole battle.(1) Recalling the fact that Griffin did not fail to close very promptly on Ayres, striking the “return ” before Ayres struck the “angle,” and the fact that the battle went on in the general way intended, only by a wider sweep and more complete envelopment, we should give attention to this remark, made in a manner so forcible. General Sheridan’s judgment as a tactician can hardly be questioned; nor can his deliberate statement of it. But as we are now on the line of hypothesis, we may be entitled to consider what would have been the result in case Ayres had been withstood, or even repulsed, in his first attack. In the assertion before us, no account is made of Griffin’s troops. Is it assumed that they were a flock of stray sheep, engaged in backing out of fire? What they would do may be judged from what they did. And
(1) General Sheridan says: “If Ayres had been defeated, Crawford would have been captured: the battle would have been lost.” Testimony, Warren Court Records, p. 125.
can any one suppose the enemy would consider themselves in a very triumphant position between three bodies of our troops: — Ayres in front; the cavalry in rear; and two divisions of the Fifth Corps on their left flank as they would then front? How long does any one believe it would be, at such a signal, before the whole Fifth Corps and our cavalry also would whirl in, and catch the enemy in a maelstrom of destruction? What did happen, as it was, would have happened quicker had Ayres fared harder.
Or suppose Ayres was not so fortunately struck from the extended out-work, and had marched past the left of the enemy’s entrenched line two hundred and fifty yards away, as he says he was doing.(1) Being on Griffin’s left, he must have struck the left flank of the “return,” and soon the rear of the enemy’s main line on the White Oak Road. Griffin would then have been in immediate connection and would have swung with him. It would have taken a little longer; but the enemy would have been enveloped all the same. Sheridan’s brilliant tactics would have been triumphant. Only Warren would have shared the glory.
Another consideration. Take things exactly as they were said to be,—Ayres at the “angle;” Griffin and Crawford out. What if those three Confederate brigades, ordered out of the Claiborne entrenchments that afternoon to fall on the flank of the Fifth Corps attacking at Five Forks, had come straight down, and not gone a long roundabout way as they did, striking too late and too far away for any good or harm,—what would have been the effect in such case had not these two divisions of the Fifth Corps been out there to stop them?
But suppose, again, all had gone as ordered and intended, and Crawford and Griffin had swung in on the rear of the lines on the White Oak Road. Would it not have been awkward to have these five thousand fresh men(1) come down on the backs of
our infantry, while having its hands full in front? What could Mackenzie have done with these men and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry together? Lucky was it for us, in either case, that these five thousand infantrymen did not get down there. Lucky would it have been in such case, that Crawford and Griffin should happen to be out as flankers.
So much for the tactics of that battle. In spite of errors it was a great victory. It was Sheridan’s battle. The glory of it is his. With his cavalry there was no error nor failure. Their action was not less than magnificent; the central thought carried into every brilliant act;—a picture to satisfy any point of view, idealist or impressionist.
As to the strategic merits of the battle, a few reflections may be permitted. Undoubtedly, as things were, it was an important battle. But our isolated position there invited fresh attack; and we only escaped it by the blundering or over-cautious course of the forces sent out by Lee from the Claiborne front that afternoon, and which in Sheridan’s solicitude we were pushed out to meet that night.(1) Then, too, we were much further off from the Petersburg front, and the opportunity for concerted action with the other corps in the line for general assault. And finally, we were in no more advantageous position now than we should be if we had turned the Claiborne flank of the enemy’s entrenchments, and cut the Southside Road at Sutherland’s the day before.(2) Indeed, the very first thing we did the next morning after Five Forks was to move back to turn this same flank on the Claiborne Road and gain possession of Sutherland’s. But Miles had taken care of this, as we might have done before him. Only Lee had now got a day’s start of us; the head of his
(1) General Hunton, before the Warren Court, placed the numbers of these three brigades, when they attacked us the day before, first at seven thousand five hundred, but was induced by the effect of cross examination afterwards to reduce this to five thousand. Records, pp. 629 and 630.
(2) The right of the enemy’s entrenchments on the Claiborne Road after they were driven in on the afternoon of March 31, was by no means strongly held. Testimony of General Hunton, Warren Court Records, p. 629.
column well out on its retreat, necessitated not by Five Forks alone but by gallant work along our whole confronting line,—which might have been done the day before, and saved the long task of racing day and night, of toils and tribulations and losses recorded and unrecorded, which brought fame to Appomattox, and the end of deeds rewarded and unrewarded.
A study of this battle shows vexing provocations, but does not show satisfactory reasons for the removal of General Warren from command of the Fifth Corps. The fact is that much of the dissatisfaction with him was of longer standing. We recall the incident that General Sheridan did not wish to have the Fifth Corps with him at the start;(1) also the suggestion by General Grant that Sheridan might have occasion to remove him, and the authority to do so;(2) then the keen disappointments of the Dinwiddie overture the day before, and the exasperation at Warren’s not reporting to Sheridan that night.(3) We recall General Griffin’s remark in the morning that something like this would happen before the day was through.(4) We recur also to the complaints earlier noticed.(5) There was an unfavorable judgment of Warren’s manner of handling a corps; an uncomfortable sense of certain intellectual peculiarities of his; a dislike of his self-centered manner and temperament and habit generally, and his rather injudicious way of expressing his opinion on tender topics. There was a variety of antagonism towards General Warren stored up and accumulating in General Sheridan’s mind, and the tension of a heated moment brought the catastrophe.
No one can doubt General Sheridan’s “right” to remove Warren; but whether he was right in doing so is another question, and one involving many elements. It is necessary that a chief commander, who is under grave responsibilities, should have
(2) Idem, p. 246.
(4) Ante, p. 223.
(5) Ante, p. 224, note.
the power to control and even displace the subordinates on whom he depends for the execution of his plans. Nor is it to be expected that he can properly be held to give strict account of action so taken, or be called upon to analyze his motives and justify himself by reasons to be passed upon by others. In this case, there are many subjective reasons,—influences acting on the mind of General Sheridan himself and not easily made known to others,—impressions from accounts of previous action, the appearance of things at the moment, and his state of mind in consequence,— which go to strengthen the favorable presumption accorded to his act. But as to the essential equity of it, the moral justification of it, opinions will be governed by knowledge of facts, and these extending beyond the incidents or accidents of this field.
The simple transfer of a corps commander is not a disgrace, nor necessarily an injury. General Warren had no vested right to the command of the Fifth Corps. And if Sheridan expected to have this corps with him in this campaign, in which he held assurances of a conspicuous and perhaps pre-eminent part, and General Warren was to him a persona non grata, we cannot wonder that he should wish to remove him. He had already objected to having this corps with him; but after trial he did not send back the corps, but its commander. It was the time, place and manner of this removal, the implications involved in it, and the vague reasons given for it, which made the grievance for General Warren. He was immediately assigned to another command; but even if Grant had restored him to the Fifth Corps, this would not wipe out that record, which stood against his honor. It is highly probable that a court martial would not have found him guilty of misconduct warranting such a punishment as dismissal from his command. There was not then, as there is not now, any tribunal with power to change the conclusion so summarily given by Sheridan, or to annul or mitigate the material effects of it. But such reasons as were given for this affected Warren’s honor, and hence he persistently invoked a court of inquiry. All that he could hope for from such a court was the opportunity thus given for the facts and measurably the motives and feelings affecting the case to be brought out and placed upon the public records.
The posture of the parties before that court was peculiar. The members of the court were general officers of the active army. The applicant was then a lieutentant-colonel of engineers. The respondent —virtually the defendant — was lieutenant-general of the armies of the United States,— the superior of course, and the commander, of every member of the court, as also of most of the witnesses before it, then in the military service. The “next friend” and chief witness,—called by the applicant, but necessarily for the respondent,— was General Grant, ex-president of the United States, who still carried an immense prestige and influence. The traditions of the whole War Department were for sustaining military authority. We could not expect this court to bring in a verdict of censure on General Sheridan, or anything that would amount to that. We can only wonder at the courage of all who gave Warren any favorable endorsement or explanation, and especially of the court which found so little to censure in the conduct of General Warren as commander of the Fifth Corps in those last three days. The court sustained General Sheridan in his right, but General Warren felt that the revelation of the facts was of the nature of vindication. It came too late to save much of his life; it may have saved what was dearer.
I am by no means sure but that injustice must be taken by a military officer as a necessary part of his risks, of the conditions and chances of his service, to be suffered in the same way as wounds and sicknesses, in patience and humility. But when one feels that his honor and the truth itself are impugned, then that larger personality is concerned wherein one belongs to others and his worth is somehow theirs. Then he does not satisfy himself with regret,—that strange complex feeling that something is right which is now impossible,—and even the truth made known becomes a consolation.
The Fifth Corps had an eventful history. Two passages of it made a remarkable coincidence. It was its fortune to lose two of its commanders,— the first and the last in the field of action,— by measures so questionable as to call for a court of review, by which, long after, both were substantially vindicated: Fitz John Porter, accounted the most accomplished corps commander on the Peninsula, and “heir apparent” to the command of the army, and Warren, whom Grant says he had looked upon for commander of the army in case anything should take from the field the sterling Meade. Who from such beginning could have foretold the end! And Meade,—he, too, went from the Fifth Corps to the command of the army, and found there a troubled eminence and an uncrowned end.
Shakespeare tells us, poetizing fate or faith:
“There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
To our common eyes it often seems a dark divinity that rules; and the schoolmaster might interchange the verbs.
- Chamberlain, Joshua L. “Five Forks.” War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 2, pp. 220-267 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Union Cavalry Corps/Army of the Shenandoah commander Philip H. Sheridan ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Union Fifth Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Both full volumes of the Warren Court of Inquiry are freely available online: Volume 1 and Volume 2. ↩
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