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March 24-28, 1865: Planning Grant’s Ninth Offensive
From March 24-28, 1865, 150 years ago this week, Ulysses S. Grant was finalizing plans to end the Civil War with concerted moves on all fronts. Grant wanted to move as soon as the Spring sun dried up the Virginia roads, and his overriding fear was that Robert E. Lee would escape from the siege lines around Richmond and Petersburg before that movement could take place. If Lee did escape cleanly, he might get away into the mountains to the west, or worse yet, join General Joe Johnston’s force opposing Sherman in North Carolina. Grant believed the war might go on another full year, and he desperately wanted to prevent that possibility at all costs. The Army of the Potomac and Army of the James had been ordered quite some time ago to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, and Grant kept that a standing order indefinitely.
On March 24, 1864, Grant issued orders to army commanders Meade (Potomac), Ord (James), and Sheridan (Shenandoah). Grant’s Ninth and final offensive against Petersburg would get underway on March 29, 1865. His goals were simply stated:
“On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved by our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time, in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville railroads.”
Before that date however, there were some preliminary moves which needed to take place. Phil Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions would need to cross the James River on March 26, 1865, collect their wayward sister division which had been left with the Army of the Potomac since early August 1864, and settle in on the U. S. Military Railroad near Hancock’s Station. Edward O. C. Ord would remove two White infantry divisions from the Twenty-Fourth Corps, one Black division from the Twenty-Fifth Corps, and his lone cavalry division from the lines facing Richmond. He was to move with these forces on the night of March 27, 1865, taking two days to traverse the 38 mile distance to his destination. That destination was the current left of the Army of the Potomac.
Once Ord reached the far left of the Union lines, he would follow Fifth Corps and Second Corps, who had orders of their own:
“Two corps of the Army of the Potomac will be moved at first in two columns, taking the two roads crossing Hatcher’s Run nearest where the present line held by us strikes that stream, both moving toward Dinwiddie Court-House.”
Although Grant doesn’t state this explicitly, those two points would be:
- The Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.
- The Monk’s Neck Bridge over Rowanty Creek, just south of where Hatcher’s Run and Gravelly Run combine to form the larger stream.
Humphreys’ Second Corps would take the more northern approach on the Vaughan Road. The Second Corps had captured this crossing point during the February 5-7, 1865 Battle of Hatcher’s Run (or Dabney’s Mill) within Grant’s Eighth Offensive against Petersburg. Meanwhile Warren’s Fifth Corps would again cross Rowanty Creek at the exact same spot as they had on February 5, 1865 during the Eighth Offensive. This time, however, Warren would not necessarily be a point of safety for a cavalry raid.
That’s because Grant was sending out a much larger cavalry force to participate this time around. Rather than send one cavalry division, Grant would instead send Phil Sheridan to command the three cavalry divisions which had made up the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps up until early August 1864. Now, however, there was a slight name change. The former First and Third cavalry divisions of the Army of the Potomac had accompanied Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley. They had been merged into his Army of the Shenandoah, and were still labeled as such now. Wesley Merritt was the commander of this “Cavalry Corps, Army of the Shenandoah.” George Crook would be brought in by Grant on March 27 to take over Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac for this final push. David McM. Gregg had resigned shortly after the Hatcher’s Run battle in February 1865, and his cousin and then Henry Davies had taken over in the interim. Grant apparently felt Crook, a man who had worked with Sheridan closely during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, would better fit the bill.
Grant’s initial orders to Sheridan’s reunited cavalry corps portended something much bigger than had taken place in February, a raid on the final two railroads supplying Richmond and Petersburg:
“The cavalry under General Sheridan, joined by the division now under General Davies, will move at the same time by the Weldon road and the Jerusalem plank road, turning west from the latter before crossing the Nottoway, and west with the whole column before reaching Stony Creek. General Sheridan will then move independently, under other instructions which will be given him. All dismounted cavalry belonging to the Army of the Potomac, and the dismounted cavalry from the Middle Military Division not required for guarding property belonging to their arm of service, will report to Brigadier-General Parke will be left in command of all the army left for holding the lines about Petersburg and City Point, subject, of course, to orders from the commander of the Army of the Potomac.“
Those of you with knowledge of Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks can see the germination of those battles in this order. At this point the Ninth Offensive looked a lot like the Eighth before. The same two Union corps would move out from the left of the Union line, and they would be accompanied by a cavalry force on their left. But here the similarities ended. Grant’s purpose wasn’t to capture supply wagons, it was instead to capture and hold supply lines. The cavalry wouldn’t need Warren’s infantry force to act as a sort of safety net. It would instead be led by the aggressive Phil Sheridan, and at corps strength the reunited troopers would be able to fend for themselves. The goals for the infantry were different this time around as well. Whereas Grant had wanted to establish a bridgehead over Hatcher’s Run and protect Gregg’s vulnerable cavalry last time, this time the idea was to push for the vulnerable Boydton Plank Road and beyond, “turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg. “
Now that we’ve taken a look at the mobile force, let’s turn our attention to the troops left behind. The Ninth Corps held the far right of the Army of the Potomac, their right anchored on the Appomattox River east of Petersburg and their left past the Jerusalem Plank road southeast of the Cockade City. The Sixth Corps took up the line from here, holding much of the ground gained during the Fourth through Sixth Offensives. Ord would be massed behind the Union lines held by Humphreys’ Second Corps.
The Ninth Corps’ role was set in stone. No matter what, they would be attempting to hold Confederate troops in the trenches nearer Petersburg, preventing them from moving to reinforce the Confederate right in response to Grant’s movement. Worst case, if all other troops were ordered out to reinforce Grant’s flanking column, the Ninth Corps would hold approximately the same lines held by the Union Army after the Fourth Offensive in late August 1864. Grant was prepared to abandon a lot of hard earned territory, gambling that the troops who left could be used to finally break the stalemate at Petersburg, and by extension, Richmond.
The Sixth Corps had a potentially more fluid role. They might be called upon to reinforce the flanking column at any time, and were to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Note also that in the original plan Ord’s men were to follow Humphreys and Warren unless/until instructed otherwise:
“The Ninth Army corps will be left intact to hold the present line of works so long as the whole line now occupied by us is held. If, however, the troops to the left of the Ninth Corps are withdrawn then the left of the corps may be thrown back so as to occupy the position held by the army prior to the capture of the Weldon road. All troops to the left of the Ninth Corps will be held in readiness to move at the shortest notice by such route as may be designated when the order is given.
General Ord will detach three divisions, two white and one colored, or so much of them as he can, and hold his present lines and march for the present left of the Army of the Potomac. In the absence of further orders, or until further orders are given, the white divisions will follow the left column of the Army of the Potomac, and the colored division the right column. During the movement Major-General Weitzel will be left in command of all the forces remaining behind from the Army of the James.”
Grant, ever worried about Lee getting the jump on him and knowing that the heavily wooded terrain in the area meant artillery was less useful, ordered his artillery batteries stripped down to fighting trim:
“The densely wooded country in which the army has to operate making the use of much artillery impracticable, the amount taken with the army will be reduced to six or eight guns to each division, at the option of the army commanders.”
The Lieutenant General finished his orders by urging his commanders all the way down to the division level to look for and take advantage of any Confederate weakness this offensive might cause. The troops left along the lines at Petersburg and Richmond were to attack the enemy upon the first sign that they were weakening their areas of concern to stop Grant’s massive flanking movement:
“All necessary preparations for carrying these directions into operation may be commenced at once. The reserves of the Ninth Corps should be massed as much as possible. While I would not now order an unconditional attack on the enemy’s line by them, they should be ready, and should make the attack if the enemy weaken his line in their front, without waiting for orders. In case they carry the line, then the whole of the Ninth Corps could follow up, so as to join or co-operate with the balance of the army. To prepare for this the Ninth Corps will have rations issued to them, same as the balance of the army. General Weitzel will keep vigilant watch upon his front, and if found at all practicable to break thought at any point, he will do so. A success north of the James should be followed up with great promptness. An attack will not be feasible unless it is found that the enemy has detached largely. In that case it may be regarded as evident that the enemy are relying upon their local reserves, principally, for the defense of Richmond. Preparations may be made for abandoning all the line north of the James, except inclosed works—only to be abandoned, however, after a break is made in the lines of the enemy.
By these instructions a large part of the armies operating against Richmond is left behind. The enemy, knowing this, may, as an only chance, strip their lines to the merest skeleton, in the hope of advantage not being taken of it, while they hurl everything against the moving column, and return. It cannot be impressed too without taking advantage of it. The very fact of the enemy coming out to attack, if he does so, might be regarded as almost conclusive evidence of such a weakening of his lines. I would have it particularly enjoined upon corps commanders that, in case of an attack from the enemy, those not attacked are not to wait for orders from the commanding officer of the army to which they belong, but that they will move promptly, and notify the commander of their action. I would also enjoin the same action on the part of division commanders when other parts of their corps are engaged. In like manner, I would urge the importance of following up a repulse of the enemy.”
This is how Grant’s orders stood at the end of the day on March 24, 1865. But Lee was about to try to throw in a monkey wrench. Would it succeed? The short answer, as regular readers and others familiar with the Siege of Petersburg realize, is “no.” Lee’s last ditch assault on March 25, 1865 at Fort Stedman turned into a disaster. Losing thousands of literally irreplaceable men was bad enough, but the Second and Sixth Corps both gained a lot of ground on the skirmish lines west and southwest of Petersburg. These positions would be more favorable to utilize as a potential jumping off point for head on surprise rushes against the Confederate trenches. The events of March 25 didn’t delay Grant’s timetable one bit. March 29 would continue to be the starting date for the grand spring offensive.
On March 27, 1864 Grant met with Sherman at City Point, coordinating with his friend and trusted subordinate how this final campaign would play out:
“General Sherman having got his troops all quietly in camp about Goldsborough, and his preparations for furnishing supplies to them perfected, visited me at City Point on the 27th of March and stated that he would be ready to move, as he had previously written me, by the 10th of April, fully equipped and rationed for twenty days, if it should become necessary to bring his command to bear against Lee’s army, in co-operation with our forces in front of Richmond and Petersburg. General Sherman proposed in this movement to threaten Raleigh, and then, by turning suddenly to the right, reach the Roanoke at Gaston or thereabouts, whence he could move on to the Richmond and Danville Railroad, striking it in the vicinity of Burkeville, or join the armies operating against Richmond, as might be deemed best. This plan he was directed to carry into execution, if he received no further directions in the meantime. I explained to him the movement I had ordered to commence on the 29th of March; that if it should not prove as entirely successful as I hoped I would cut the cavalry loose to destroy the Danville and South Side railroads, and thus deprive the enemy of further supplies, and also prevent the rapid concentration of Lee’s and Johnston’s armies.
I had spent days of anxiety lest each morning should bring the report that the enemy had retreated the night before. I was firmly convinced that Sherman’s crossing the Roanoke would be the signal for Lee to leave. With Johnston and him combined, a long, tedious, and expensive campaign, consuming most of the summer, might become necessary. By moving out I would put the army in better condition for pursuit, and would at least, by the destruction of the Danville road, retard the concentration of the two armies of Lee and Johnston and cause the enemy to abandon much material that he might otherwise save. I therefore determined not to delay the movement ordered.”
The day after Fort Stedman, on March 26, 1864, Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade suggested the following tweaks to Grant’s original orders:
“Instead of placing Ord’s command on the two roads used by Warren and Humphreys, let Ord mass on the Halifax road in rear of our works, and when Humphreys moves out on the Vaughan Road let Ord move to the crossing of Hatcher’s Run by this road and await developments. This will keep up communication with Wright [and his Sixth Corps] and will cover my supply trains, which I shall order to park at the crossing of Hatcher’s Run by the stage road, the one Warren takes…I propose also to have Humphreys’ pickets from Hatcher’s run to Wright’s left to be relieved by Ord, unless you direct otherwise.”
So Ord would now wait to see how the flanking move developed, using a portion of his force to man the picket lines vacated by Humphreys. This would give the illusion to the Confederates that these lines were still fully manned all the way to Hatcher’s Run. In reality, however, Ord’s men would be massed very near Hatcher’s Run, with the ability to be ready to quickly help Humphreys and Warren if needed.
After Grant’s orders and Meade’s tweaks were discussed and finalized, George Meade issued detailed instructions to the Army of the Potomac for the coming campaign on March 27, 1865. They are extremely detailed, and worth repeating here in full:
“First. At 3 a. m. of the 29th instant the Fifth Army Corps, Major-General Warren commanding, will move to the crossing of Hatcher’s Run at W. Perkins’ house; thence west to the junction of the old stage road and the Vaughan road, and from this point will open communications with the Second Corps on the Vaughan road. This accomplished, the Fifth Corps will be moved to occupy a position in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Court-House.
Second. At 6 a. m. of the same day the Second Corps, Major-General Humphreys commanding, leaving their pickets to be relieved by troops from Major-General Ord’s command, will move down the Vaughan road, cross Hatcher’s Run and Gravelly Run, and open communication with Major-General Warren’s corps. This done, the Second Corps will be posted at the intersection of the old stage road and Quaker or military road.
Third. The Sixth Army Corps will be held in readiness to abandon the line of works now held by it, under orders from these headquarters, when its line of march will be indicated. The commanding officer of the Sixth Army Corps will occupy the line of works to Fort Cummings, putting the surplus artillery in the rear line of works.
Fourth. The commanding officer of the Ninth Army Corps will hold his present line until notified of the abandonment of the Sixth Corps line by that corps, when he will take up the return from Fort Davis to his left.
Fifth. The Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Corps will be supplied as directed in circular of March 14, 1865, from these headquarters.
Sixth. The trains of the Second and Fifth Corps not directed to go with the troops, and the general headquarters train, will be parked under the direction of the chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, in the neighborhood of W. Perkins’ house, on Hatcher’s Ran, and will be guarded by the Provisional Brigade and Colonel Spaulding’s command, Engineer Brigade.
Seventh. The trains of the Sixth and Ninth Corps will be held in readiness to move, under the direction of the chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac.
Eighth. The chief engineer Army of the Potomac will detail a pontoon train of about 100 feet of bridge, to accompany the Fifth Corps to Hatcher’s Run. The remainder of the train will await orders in their present camps, and will be prepared to move within lines of the Ninth Corps, and eventually to City Point, unless other orders be sent to them.
Ninth. The commanding officer cavalry division will at once prepare his command to move under the special instructions sent to him.
Tenth. Each corps will be prepared to move with five four-gun batteries (three smooth-bore and two rifled), instead of with nine four-gun batteries, ordered in paragraph 6 of circular of March 14. But one battery wagon will be taken with Second and Fifth Corps, the remainder will be parked with general train at W. Perkins’ house. The artillery will in all other respects be made to correspond to instructions of that paragraph.
Eleventh. With each corps will be taken the intrenching tools, one-half the ambulances, one medical wagon, one army wagon with hospital supplies to each brigade, and one army wagon with forage to each division ambulance train. The remainder of the ambulance train of the Second and Fifth Corps will be parked with the general train at W. Perkins’.
Twelfth. Ammunition wagons sufficient to carry twenty rounds of ammunition per man will accompany each division.
Thirteenth. Major-General Parke will assume command of the line of works from Fort Cummings to the Appomattox, including the defenses of City Point and the troops now garrisoning that post and line of works. He will keep up a threatening attitude with the force at his disposal, and in case he should discover any weakness on the part of the enemy he will attack at once, and with his whole force if necessary. With the cavalry now at his disposal and to be assigned to him he will watch and picket the roads in rear of his line.
Fourteenth. The commanding officer of the cavalry division will, before leaving, detail a mounted regiment to report to Major-General Parke.
Fifteenth. General headquarters will be near Second Corps.”
Let’s take some time to dissect these orders as issued. Nothing much had really changed from Grant’s original March 24 orders. Meade had simply taken those more vague instructions and tailored them to suit his army. He gave more specific destinations to his flanking columns under Warren and Humphreys. Note that in this original version of the orders, Warren was to move in the direction of Dinwiddie Court House, as it will come into play multiple times in the coming week. Humphreys would cross Hatcher’s Run and move up the western bank in a northwesterly direction, making sure to try to stay in contact with Warren. Warren would again cross Rowanty Creek at Monks’ Neck Bridge, near the Perkins house, as he had during the Eighth Offensive. Staying south of Gravelly Run, he would move down the Monks’ Neck (or “Old Stage”) Road, then on to the Vaughan Road, following it to its intersection with the north-south Quaker (or “Military”) Road. The Sixth Corps and Ninth Corps would hold in their trenches for now.
Grant’s repeated desire to travel light is reflected in Meade’s orders. Note the instructions to move with far less artillery than normal. The flanking corps would each bring along only five batteries, three containing smoothbores and two using rifles. In addition, the batteries had been reorganized that spring to contain only four, rather than the previous six, gun tubes. This meant artillery support for the Second Corps and Fifth Corps would be 12 smoothbores and 8 rifled pieces each.
Lastly, the orders for a pontoon train capable of building a bridge 100 feet long to accompany Fifth Corps would come in handy. The pontoon train was supposed to be used mainly to get across Rowanty Creek, but it would be needed urgently on the afternoon of March 29 when orders were changed. But more on that later.
Meade’s was only one of three armies Grant issued instructions to. Ord’s Army of the James would have an active role to play, unlike in the previous offensive. Like Meade, Ord took Grant’s instructions, and, after asking several clarifying questions on March 27, issued more detailed orders to the Army of the James:
Three divisions of the Army of the James, two of the Twenty-fourth, and one of the Twenty-fifth Corps will march to-night, General Turner’s division leading. His wagons will cross in advance at Deep Bottom this p. m. and at Broadway as soon after dark as practicable. He will camp near the railroad from City Point to the left of the Army of the Potomac.
General Birney’s division will start at dark this p. m., trains in advance, crossing at Aiken’s, and in crossing at Broadway its trains will follow General Turner’s division and in advance of its troops (Birney’s), and when crossed will encamp in rear of General Turner’s division.
Shortly after dark General Foster’s division, trains leading, will start, crossing at Deep Bottom, and move across to the bottom on this side of the Appomattox, resting where the one year’s Pennsylvania troops were encamped, remaining there until the division of General Birney has crossed that stream, and, if possible, put their trains and men across that night so as to encamp with the leading divisions. If that cannot be done, they will remain in camp this side of the Appomattox and follow the leading divisions to-morrow night
The cavalry under command of General Mackenzie will to-morrow night [March 28, 1865] cross at the Aiken bridge, crossing as early as possible after dark, and follow the infantry as rapidly as may be.
The whole command is expected to reach the ground occupied by the Second Corps Wednesday morning [March 29, 1865]. Arrangements will be made by division commanders to collect and punish stragglers at each bridge and not to let them pass the bridges scattered. The engineer troops will form the rear of the other infantry and camp with headquarters of the army. All the troops will move with four days’ rations in haversacks and eight days’ in wagons. To avoid hauling as much as possible, commissaries and quartermasters will have sufficient supplies delivered by rail at the railroads at a point which will be designated to till up the wagons. Sixty rounds of ammunition per man will be taken in wagons, and as much grain as the transportation on hand will carry after taking the specified amount of supplies. In regard to other details, commanders will be governed by the verbal instructions received from these headquarters.
While not as long as Meade’s orders (Ord had a much smaller force to command in the coming operations), they were just as detailed. The goal was to start early enough to enable this mobile force from the Army of the James (3 infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division) to replace Humphreys’ Second Corps skirmishers by the morning of March 29, 1865, the day the offensive began.
This corps sized force would be difficult to remove from in front of Richmond without being recognized by the Confederates manning the trenches opposite any movement. Ord recalled in his report of the final operations around Richmond and Petersburg how he took every precaution to disguise this movement:
“In obedience to orders from the lieutenant-general commanding, I took Turner’s and Foster’s divisions, of Gibbon’s corps, Birney’s division, Twenty-fifth Corps, and Mackenzie’s cavalry division, and placed them on the left front of the Petersburg defenses, by a march of thirty-six miles. This was done secretly, and although my lines were within rifle shot of the rebels and I had to cross two bridges overlooked by them, the movement was not, as I afterward learned from rebel officers, even suspected. As the success of our movement depended in a great measure upon its secrecy I will detail the measures I took to attain that end. Some days before the intended movement I withdrew quietly most of the forces required for it, and after a demonstration on the right with them, placed them in camps where they could not be seen or heard; the remainder of my command I kept in motion, changing camps frequently. Pickets for several nights previous to the move were detailed only from the regiments to remain behind. On the night of the movement, and for some time afterward, the camps of the troops taken were kept lighted and tents standing, bands playing calls as usual. The bridges across which my troops had to pass were the day before covered with moist straw and compost, and no changes were shown in any part of my lines visible to the enemy.”
Now the infantry was ready to move and had their orders. The next day, March 28, 1865, Grant sent a dispatch to Phil Sheridan, giving him instructions for the role he was to play on the far left flank of the Union offensive:
“The Fifth Army Corps will move by the Vaughan road at 3 a. m. to-morrow morning [March 29, 1865]. The Second moves at about 9 a. m., having but about three miles to march to reach the point designated for it to take on the right of the Fifth Corps, after the latter reaching Dinwiddie Court-House. Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in the rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his entrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us, or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way, and with the full reliance that the army will engage or follow, as circumstances will dictate. I shall be on the field and will probably be able to communicate with you. Should I not do so, and you find that the enemy keeps within his main entrenched line, you may cut loose and push for the Danville road. If you find it practicable, I would like you to cross the South Side road between Petersburg and Burkeville, and destroy it to some extent. I would not advise much detention, however, until you reach the Danville road, which I would like you to strike as near to the Appomattox as possible. Make your destruction on that road as complete as possible. You can then pass on to the South Side road, west of Burkeville, and destroy that in like manner.
After having accomplished the destruction of the two railroads, which are now the only avenues of supply to Lee’s army, you may return to this army, selecting your road further south, or you may go on into North Carolina and going General Sherman. Should you select the latter course, get the information to one as early as possible, so that I may send orders to meet you at Goldsborough.”
Sheridan had quite a bit of leeway in what he could do, reacting to circumstances as he saw fit. If the Confederates came out of their entrenchments, he was to go at them. If they remained behind cover, he was authorized change his role into a large scale cavalry raid on the Danville and South Side railroads. One key point not stated in then orders above was that Sheridan was not to go off on his railroad raid until/unless Grant told him so. Grant wrote in his report of the campaign that he had “previously informed [Sheridan] verbally not to cut loose for the raid contemplated in his orders until he received notice from me to do so.” Whether Sheridan would ever receive the “cut loose” orders remained to be seen.
One last change also occurred on March 28, 1865, the day before the Ninth Offensive was to begin. George Meade made two changes to the March 27 orders to the Army of the Potomac spelled out in detail above:
“Paragraphs 1 and 2 of instructions of March 27 are modified as follows:
Major-General Humphreys will not move before 9 a. m., unless previously notified that the troops of the Army of the James are in position. On moving, Major-General Humphreys will take up a position, his right resting on or near Hatcher’s Run and his left extending to the Quaker road. He will advance his skirmishers, well supported, and feel for the enemy. If found in force outside his works, he will attack and endeavor to force him into his works.
Major-General Warren will move at the hour designated, but will not proceed beyond the junction of the Vaughan and Quaker roads till notified that Major-General Humphreys is in position or nearly so. On being so notified, Major-General Warren will advance on the Boydton plank road, taking position with his right in connection with General Humphreys and reserving sufficient force to refuse and guard his left. Major-General Warren will also advance skirmishers, well supported, and in case the enemy is found outside his works, attack and endeavor to force him back to them. The Second Corps train will be parked in the vicinity of the Cummings house. Corps commanders are notified that the cavalry will be operating on the left of the Fifth Corps.”
Meade was worried that if Humphreys’ Second Corps moved out too early on the morning of March 29, 1865 (i.e. before Ord’s men from the Army of the James reached their destination from over 30 miles away), the Confederates might get between the flanking column (Second and Fifth Corps plus Sheridan’s Cavalry) and the men left behind to man the trenches in front of Petersburg (Sixth and Ninth Corps). By tweaking the March 27 orders to cause Humphreys to move out later, or at least after Ord arrived, he’d keep one continuous line with no easily discernable weakness from the Appomattox River to Gravelly Run, too long a distance for the Confederates to properly guard without fatally compromising at least portions of their line.
Meade’s second tweak was another manifestation of his customary cautiousness. Warren was to stay closer to where Humphreys would be rather than pushing all the way to Dinwiddie Court House. Moreover, he was not to make his assigned move up the Boydton Plank Road until Humphreys had crossed Hatcher’s Run and Warren had been notified of this fact. The goal, of course, was to prevent the Confederates from massing between any of his moving parts, hitting a vulnerable flank. Meade wasn’t concerned with the connection between Warren and Sheridan’s cavalry at this point. Sheridan was moving up to Dinwiddie Court House well beyond Warren’s flank, and as Warren moved northeast up the Boydton Plank Road, he would need to watch out for his left, the left of the entire moving infantry force. There would be no protection in that regard from Sheridan.
So the orders were essentially complete pre-offensive. Complicated movements, sometimes requiring secrecy and long marches, were needed to get troops into place prior to the move proper on March 29, 1865. Once the movement started, infantry forces were to work to push the Confederates inside of their trenches. Sheridan’s Cavalry would threaten Five Forks from Dinwiddie Court House. Grant was looking to stretch the Confederates to their breaking point. Once this happened, opportunities would certainly present themselves, and Grant wanted his commanders on the ground from army to division command to act aggressively without waiting for further orders when this happened. The goal was the same as it had been for most of the previous offensives against Petersburg and Richmond: cut Lee’s remaining supply lines and invest the Cockade City so that Grant’s flanks touched the Appomattox River east and west of Petersburg. At that point Petersburg, and by extension Richmond, would become untenable. In addition, if things went according to Grant’s plans, Sheridan would have already cut the railroads Lee could use to quickly evacuate his army in the direction of Joe Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. How this offensive played out remained to be seen. The stage was set for what would prove to be the final five days of the Siege of Petersburg. Tune in tomorrow to see how the first day’s movements played out…
- Official Records, Volume XLVI, Part 3, pages 96-241
- History and Tour Guide of Five Forks, Hatcher’s Run and Namozine Church by Chris Calkins, pages 30-35
- The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion by A. Wilson Greene, pages 149-158
- The Petersburg Campaign Volume II: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865 by Ed Bearss, edited by Bryce Suderow, pages 310-329
- In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat by Earl J. Hess, pages 254-256
- The Petersburg Campaign June 1864-April 1865 by John Horn, pages 219-222