March 30, 1865: Rain Causes a Lull
Rain filled the air on March 30, 1865, 150 years ago today at the Siege of Petersburg. While there was no major fighting today, the last time this would be true until Petersburg and Richmond fell, key decisions were made and some movements launched which would influence events in the last three days to come.
On March 29, 1865, a day before, Grant’s Ninth Offensive kicked off successfully. Sheridan’s newly reunited Cavalry Corps moved out on the far left, their aim to get to Dinwiddie Court House. Warren’s Fifth Corps was the leftmost Union infantry, staying south of Gravelly Run until Humphreys’ Second Corps could get in place to their right, and then moving north up the Quaker Road. Four divisions of Ord’s Army of the James filled in where Humphreys used to be, which meant the Union had a continuous line of troops from the Appomattox River nearly to Gravelly Run. The need to bridge Gravelly Run delayed Warren until mid-afternoon, but he soon moved north on the Quaker Road.
Starting at 4 p. m., the major action of March 29, 1865 occurred at the Battle of Lewis Farm (or Quaker Road), in which Joshua L. Chamberlain’s Brigade and others of Griffin’s Division, Fifth Corps faced off against Bushrod Johnson’s Confederates, then defending the White Oak Road line south of Hatcher’s Run. Johnson’s brigades had come out of their trenches to prevent the Fifth Corps from taking the Boydton Plank Road unmolested. The Federals eventually got the best of this back and forth meeting engagement, eventually moving north over and across Boydton Plank Road, one of Lee’s last surviving supply lines, cutting it permanently. Humphreys’ Second Corps had moved in as close to the Confederate trenches, holding Confederates there so they couldn’t be freed up for use elsewhere.
The results of March 29, 1865 had greatly alarmed Robert E. Lee. He already had three of George Pickett’s infantry brigades moving to Sutherland Station on the South Side Railroad, and they reached that spot in the evening. Moving by foot to the south, Pickett reached the White Oak Road line of Bushrod Johnson, settling in on the right flank of that line. They were earmarked to move west to Five Forks on March 30 in the rain. In addition, Lee pulled the Third Corps brigades of McGowan and MacRae out of their entrenchments on the Boydton Plank Road line and sent them to Hatcher’s Run, ready if needed to help repel the Union thrust on the Confederate right. The brigades of Lane and Cooke simply stretched to fill the gap left by their sister brigades, causing a dangerously low troop concentration on the front facing Wright’s Union Sixth Corps. Lastly, Willie Pegram’s twenty-gun artillery battalion from the Third Corps was sent to Anderson and Bushrod Johnson on the right on the White Oak Road line.
As night fell on March 29, 1865 then, Grant couldn’t have been more pleased with the day’s events. The Fifth Corps was astride the Boydton Plank Road at the Quaker Road, and further southwest, Sheridan’s Cavalry also had possession of this important thoroughfare at Dinwiddie Court House. Grant was so pleased, in fact, that he decided that evening to aggressively push to end the Siege of Petersburg. Sheridan would no longer go on a grand raid of the South Side and Danville railroads, now the last two supply lines out of Richmond and Petersburg. Instead, Grant wanted the diminutive Irishman to develop and push around the Confederate right flank. The Lieutenant General was looking to end four years of war right here and now. To make success more likely, Grant was willing to gamble and give up all of the permanent Union fortifications from the Jerusalem Plank Road to Hatcher’s Run, hard won over seven grinding offensives. The most successful Union general of the entire war was going all in to finish the game, and when the moment presented itself, he didn’t flinch. Grant’s orders to Sheridan ran as follows:
“GENERAL: Our line is now unbroken from the Appomattox to Dinwiddie. We are all ready, however, to give up all from the Jerusalem plank road to Hatcher’s Run, whenever the forces can be used advantageously. After getting into line was attacked near where the Quaker road intersects the Boydton road, but repulsed it easily, capturing about 100 men. Humphreys reached Dabney’s Mills and was pushing on when last heard from. I now feel like ending the matter, if it is possible to do so, before going back. I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s roads at present. In the morning push around the enemy, if you can, and get on to his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act all together as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy. The signal officer at Cobb’s Hill reported, at 11.30 a. m., that a cavalry column had passed that point from Richmond toward Petersburg, taking forty minutes to pass.”
Union and Confederate earthworks and units added by Brett Schulte.
Unit placement is solely based on an original map found in
by A. Wilson Greene, p. 164.
So it looked like a decisive movement would start early on the morning of March 30, 1865, but mother nature put a temporary damper on the proceedings, preventing any major fighting or even any swift movement, on this day. Rain fell steadily and turned the roads to muck. If anyone wanted to move an appreciable distance, they needed to corduroy the roads first. Given the weather, Grant’s army group was as busy as it could be. The time spent waiting was put to good use. In his report on the last campaign, Grant gave this description of the events for the day:
“From the night of the 29th to the morning of the 31st the rain fell in such torrents as to make it impossible to move a wheeled vehicle, except as corduroy roads were laid in front of them. During the 30th Sheridan advanced from Dinwiddie Court-House toward Five Forks, where he found the enemy in force. General Warren advanced and extended his line across the Boydton plank road to near the White Oak road, with a view of getting across the latter; but finding the enemy strong in his front and extending beyond his left, was directed to hold on where he was and fortify. General Humphreys drove the enemy from his front into his main line on the Hatcher, near Burgess’ Mills. General Ord, Wright, and Parke made examinations in their fronts to determine the feasibility of an assault on the enemy’s lines. The two latter reported favorably. The enemy confronting us, as he did, at every point from Richmond to our extreme left, I conceived his lines must be weakly held, and could be penetrated if my estimate of his forces was correct. I determined, therefore, to extend our line no farther, but to re-enforce General Sheridan with a corps of infantry, and thus enable him to cut loose and turn the enemy’s right flank, and with the other corps assault the enemy’s lines. The result of the offensive effort of the enemy the week before, when he assaulted Fort Stedman, particularly favored this. The enemy’s entrenched picket-line captured by us at that time threw the lines occupied by the belligerents so close together at some points that it was but a moment’s run from one to the other. Preparations were at once made to relieve General Humphreys’ corps to report to General Sheridan, but the condition of the roads prevented immediate movement.”
Keep that last part in mind. For whatever reason, Phil Sheridan wanted nothing to do with Gouverneur Warren and his Fifth Corps. In addition, the rain fell so heavily that some in the Union high command wanted to postpone the offensive. Sheridan claimed in his memoirs that he rode over and convinced Grant to keep going in person. Wil Greene, among others, wisely suggests this be taken with a grain of salt. Sheridan also asked for Wright’s Sixth Corps in person during this conference, and Grant turned him down. There was no way to get the Sixth Corps from their location facing the Boydton Plank Road line just southwest of Petersburg all the way out to Sheridan on the far left. These familiar allies from the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign would not be available to Sheridan in the deciding moments of the campaign. Instead, despite Sheridan’s misgivings, it would be Warren’s Fifth Corps moving to Sheridan on the night of March 31. Events would play out tragically for at least one man as a result, but much more on that later.
Sheridan’s Cavalry had a rough go of it through the heavy rain on March 30. In his official report, he describes his movement that day:
“Early on the morning of the 30th of March I directed General Merritt to send the First Division, Brigadier-General Devin commanding, to gain possession of the Five Forks, on the White Oak road, and directed General Crook to send General Davies’ brigade of his division to the support of General Devin. Gregg’s brigade, of Crook’s division, was held on the Boydton plank road, and guarded the crossing of Stony Creek, forcing the enemy’s cavalry, that was moving from Stony Creek Depot to form a connection with the right of their army, to make a wide detour, as I had anticipated, on the roads south of Stony Creek and west of Chamberlain’s Bed-a very fatiguing march in the bad condition of the roads. A very heavy rain fell during this day, aggravating the swampy nature of the ground, and rendering the movements of troops almost impossible. General Merritt’s reconnaissance developed the enemy in strong force on the White Oak road, in the vicinity of the Five Forks, and there was some heavy skirmishing throughout the day.”
The Army of the Potomac had an important role to play as well. On March 29, 1865, Meade issued the following orders for Warren’s Fifth Corps and Humphreys’ Second Corps for the next morning:
“Major-General Warren will advance his line at 6 a. m. to-morrow, letting his right rest over and across the Quaker road and his left extending as far as consistent with a due covering and guarding of his flank. Major-General Humphreys will at the same time advance his line, keeping his left connected with Major-General Warren and throwing his right forward as far as Crow’s [near Hatcher’s Run]. The object of this movement is to force the enemy into his line of works and develop the same, and if he is found out of his line to give battle. Corps commanders will endeavor to have reserves suitably posted along their lines, and will render each other such mutual support as the exigencies of the hour may demand.”
Warren’s Fifth Corps spent March 30, 1865 sidling in closer to the Confederate White Oak Road line commanded by Bushrod Johnson, but Warren had to watch out for his open left flank. That said, the Confederates simply couldn’t “out stretch” Grant’s armies, and they were at their breaking point. Warren managed to push Ayres’ Division, Fifth Corps to the White Oak Road itself. This was an important development because it prevented Bushrod Johnson from moving directly west down the White Oak Road to Five Forks. This gap between Johnson and Pickett’s combined infantry/cavalry force at Five Forks would be a major issue for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Humphreys was to move his Second Corps forward on Warren’s right to determine if the Confederate White Oak Line had both flanks anchored (it did). This move resulted in skirmishing in which Humphreys pushed the Confederates on their front into the White Oak Road line proper.
By the evening of March 30, despite the rain, Humphreys had the Second Corps’ right anchored firmly on Hatcher’s Run at the Crow house, and his left tied into Warren’s right at “the intersection of the Dabney’s Mill and Boydton plank roads.” Ayres’ Fifth Corps division was considered to be dangerously out in front on the White Oak Road, and a morning Confederate attack was expected. That evening, Humphreys was ordered to send Miles’ Division to Warren to replace Griffin’s Division, which allowed that division and Crawford’s division to more closely support Ayres by the morning of March 31. The support would be needed.
Meanwhile, on the portion of the Union lines which were manning the permanent fortifications, Grant had his corps/army commanders look for opportunities to strike weakened Confederate lines nearer Petersburg. Edward Ord, out on the left, had the least knowledge, not knowing the area he had just been assigned to since his march to the area originated over 30 miles and two major rivers away. He spent the day asking a lot of questions, but eventually got his troops from the Army of the James to connect their picket line with Second Corps pickets located west across Hatcher’s Run. Parke’s Ninth Corps on the far right, after fighting off an aggressive picket line attack by the Confederates near Stedman in pre-dawn darkness, really didn’t see any good opportunities to attack east and southeast of Petersburg. Wright with his Sixth Corps, in the middle, wanted Meade and Grant to give him as much forewarning as possible with regards to attack orders for the morning of March 31. Wright pointed out that he had a large distance to cover along his lines, that there was one specific point where he wanted to attack, and that it would take some time to get his entire corps massed for that attack. As a result, he wanted orders no later than 10 p. m. for an attack the next day. The prickly Meade shot back that orders would come when they came, that it was impossible to guarantee attack orders by 10 p. m., and that perhaps Wright should hold his lines with only two Sixth Corps divisions, massing the third at the point of attack and making the attack with only that division. Wright pretty quickly realized he wasn’t going to “win” this argument and backed down. During this exchange, Wright also mentioned that he thought he had a fair chance of making a successful attack. Despite this favorable assessment, Grant ultimately decided to postpone any assault along the lines on March 31, instead preferring to continue trying to work around Lee’s right flank a little longer. Regardless, the noose was tightening. It would only be a matter of time before Grant gave the go ahead for an all-out assault.
While Grant and his commanders were tightening the noose, Lee was attempting to prevent a stranglehold. On March 30, Lee held a council of war at Sutherland Station attended by George Pickett, Richard H. Anderson, and Harry Heth among others. Pickett would take his division minus Hunton’s Brigade, two brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s Division (Ransom and Wallace’s brigades), and 6 artillery pieces of Willie Pegram’s artillery battalion, about 10,600 men in all, and move west down the White Oak Road to Five Forks. There he would join Fitz Lee’s Cavalry Corps (the divisions of Munford, Rooney Lee, and Rosser) and attack Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House. It was the cavalry of Munford and Pickett’s arriving infantry which Sheridan skirmished with near Five Forks late in the day. Since Lee was again weakening Bushrod Johnson’s White Oak Road line, he again stripped the trenches southwest of Petersburg, sending Scales’ Brigade south of Hatcher’s Run to Johnson’s aid. As night fell on March 30, Johnson had the brigades of, from east to west, Scales, McGowan, MacRae, Wise, and Moody. Only the last two were from his division. This ad hoc force would have to fight off any future attacks by the Union Fifth Corps and Second Corps from the south.
The stage was set for more action on March 31, 1865, resulting in the twin battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House. Lee needed to keep the Union forces off of his right flank and the vulnerable South Side Railroad. This time it was the Confederates, with Lee remaining at the critical point and directing operations in person at White Oak Road, who would be the aggressors. How long they could keep the Union forces at bay was an open question. Tune in tomorrow to see how it all turns out…
- History and Tour Guide of Five Forks, Hatcher’s Run and Namozine Church by Chris Calkins, pages 42-44
- The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion by A. Wilson Greene, pages 159-169
- The Petersburg Campaign Volume II: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865 by Ed Bearss, edited by Bryce Suderow, pages 348-379
- In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat by Earl J. Hess, pages 257-258
- The Petersburg Campaign June 1864-April 1865 by John Horn, pages 222-223