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150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Dinwiddie Court House: March 31, 1865

March 31, 1865: Sheridan Survives a Confederate Counterattack

Note: Click here for maps on the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House.

The Battle of Dinwiddie Court House was fought on March 31, 1865, 150 years ago today, along with the Battle of White Oak Road.  This day’s actions were the twin penultimate battles of the Five Forks “mini-campaign,” and caused the fateful joining of Phil Sheridan’s cavalry force with Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac.  March 31 would see a surprise Confederate counterattack on Sheridan’s Cavalry, with the object of preventing the Northern troopers from getting anywhere near the important Five Forks intersection.  But first let’s take a step back and recall the cavalry skirmishing between Five Forks and Dinwiddie Court House on the previous day.

In my post yesterday, I discussed the situation on March 30, including the all-day rain, which prevented any heavy fighting.  General Fitz Lee, newly appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry Corps, recalled his movements:

“In compliance with verbal instructions received from [General Robert E. Lee], I marched the next day [30th] toward Dinwiddie Court-House, via Five Forks, to watch and counteract the operations threatened by the massing of the Federal cavalry at Dinwiddie Court-House under Sheridan. After passing Five Forks a portion of the enemy’s cavalry were encountered with success, and driven back upon their large reserves near the Court-House. Night put an end to further operations, and my division was encamped in the vicinity of Five Forks…I was joined during the evening by the divisions of Major Gens. W. H. F. Lee and Rosser, and, by order of the commanding general, took command of the Cavalry Corps.”

Fitz Lee’s Union counterpart Phil Sheridan wrote about the same jockeying for position from the opposite perspective:

“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.”

Notice particularly that Sheridan blocked the direct route the Confederates coming up from Stony Creek Station had always taken, through Dinwiddie Court House to Five Forks.  It was as simple as placing one brigade at the Boydton Plank Road crossing of Stony Creek, just southwest of Dinwiddie Court House.

Map No 3 Battle-Field of Dinwiddie C.H. Fought Friday March 31st, 1865 (OR Atlas 74:2)

As the sun rose on March 31 Sheridan’s plans for the day in conjunction with the Union infantry to the east was to move north to the White Oak Road.  The Confederates confronting these Union forces did not present an unbroken front, with Pickett’s Division and Fitz Lee’s Cavalry at Five Forks several miles west of the main Confederate army’s flank.  The rightmost Confederate troops in the main lines consisted of a mixed force under Bushrod Johnson near Burgess’ Mill and the Claiborne Road.  No less than three north-south roads pierced the east-west White Oak Road between the two Confederate forces, and these roads were vulnerable. As Sheridan’s troopers advanced on the morning of March 31, 1865, their vanguard managed to reach Five Forks, opposed only by Munford’s Cavalry Division.  That’s when all hell broke loose.

In an unexpected development from the Union perspective, the mixed infantry/cavalry force under Pickett and Fitz Lee attacked from the west across Chamberlain’s Run.  Two crossings, one at Danse’s Ford and the other further south at Fitzgerald’s Ford where the Ford Station Road intersected  the small stream, were utilized in the Confederate assault.   At around 11 am Rooney Lee’s Cavalry Division attempted to cross Fitzgerald’s Ford, the more southerly of the two crossings, in the face of a spirited defense by Charles H. Smith’s Union cavalry brigade of George Crook’s Second Cavalry Division.  After back and forth fighting George Pickett arrived with three brigades of his infantry division and Rosser’s Cavalry Division.  The stubbornness of the Yankee cavalry at Fitzgerald’s Ford caused Pickett to backtrack north to Danse’s Ford with these forces while Rooney Lee kept up pressure at Fitzgerald’s.  Two infantry brigades from Bushrod Johnson’s Division (Ransom’s and Wallace’s) would soon help Rooney Lee as well.

In mid-afternoon, Pickett’s attack smashed across Danse’s Ford, where only several battalions of the Union Second Cavalry Division brigade of Henry Davies held the position.  Davies had been ordered south to help Smith earlier in the day and he detached only a small portion of his brigade to watch Danse’s Ford before moving out.  When he reached Fitzgerald’s Ford, however, he quickly saw that Smith had things under control.  Davies logically turned about once again and moved back to cover Danse’s Ford.  Before he made it though, Pickett attacked.  The Confederate forces were across before Davies’ entire force had arrived in the vicinity, and once the blue clad troopers showed up all they could do was pump a few ineffective volleys into the gray ranks and flee to the east.  Meanwhile, to the south, Rooney Lee finally was able to get around Smith’s Yankee troopers, driving them to the east and the main north-south road between Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks.  As the Confederates pushed in behind the Yankee advance at Five Forks, the foremost Northern cavalrymen retreated to avoid being cut off and captured.  Munford’s Confederates dutifully pushed them south from Five Forks, meeting up with Pickett’s infantry where the road east from Danse’s Ford intersected with the main north-south route.

As the afternoon wore on Confederate attacks slowly pushed the scattered Union cavalry brigades back in the direction of Dinwiddie Court House.  This also had the effect of moving these Union forces closer to together.  In addition Sheridan called up Custer’s Cavalry Division which had been guarding the trains to the south of Dinwiddie Court House.  The final Confederate attacks of the day ran up against a strong Yankee line formed on a ridge north of Dinwiddie Court House.  These last Confederate assaults failed to drive Sheridan from the field and Pickett ordered a halt to the attacks at sunset.

Sheridan wrote a rather pessimistic (for him anyway) note that night to Ulysses S. Grant, detailing the day’s action:

“The enemy’s cavalry attacked me about 10 a. m. to-day on the road coming in from the west and little north of Dinwiddie Court-House. This attack was very handsomely repulsed by General Smith’s brigade of Crook’s division, and the enemy driven across Chamberlain’s Creek. Shortly afterward the enemy’s infantry attack[ed] on the same creek in heavy force and drove in General Davies’ brigade, and advancing rapidly gained the forks of the roads at J. Boisseau’s. This forced Devin, who was in advance, and Davies to cross to the Boydton road. General Gregg’s brigade and General Gibbs’ brigade, which were toward Dinwiddie Court-House, then attacked the enemy in rear very handsomely. This stopped their march toward the left of our infantry, and finally caused them to turn toward Dinwiddie and attack us in heavy force. The enemy then again attacked at Chamberlain’s Creek and forced General Smith’s position. At this time Pennington’s and Capehart’s brigades of Custer’s division came up and a very handsome fight occurred. The enemy have gained some ground, but we still hold in front of Dinwiddie Court-House and Devin and Davies are coming down the Boydton road to join us. The opposing force was Pickett’s division, Wise’s independent brigade, and Fitz Lee’s, Rosser’s, and W. H. Lee’s cavalry commands.

The men have behaved splendidly. Our loss in killed and wounded will probably number 450 men; very few men were lost as prisoners. We have of the enemy a number of prisoners. This force is too strong for us. I will hold on to Dinwiddie Court-House until I am compelled to leave.”

Despite driving Sheridan’s Cavalry from Five forks almost back to Dinwiddie Court House in one afternoon of fighting, the Confederates suffered almost twice as many casualties as their Yankee counterparts.  In addition, Pickett was in a very exposed and untenable position, and Sheridan knew it.  He reasoned that if he was cut off from Grant then Pickett was also cut off from Lee, in which case the Confederates were the more vulnerable force.  Earlier that day, he had asked Grant for his old friends in the Sixth Corps to help him get around the Confederate flank, but those troops were too far away.  When Sheridan was sent help after being driven back almost to Dinwiddie Court House, Grant chose the Fifth Corps instead because it was closest and Sheridan was thought to be in mortal danger.  This is significant because in that earlier dispatch, Sheridan had specifically called out that he did NOT want the Fifth Corps.  Based on later events, it seems his problem was with Gouverneur Warren.

On the Confederate side, Pickett knew he was too exposed just the same as Sheridan did, and the Confederates pulled back to Five Forks during the night. Robert E. Lee reported the day’s work to Secretary of War Breckinridge the next day (OR XLVI P3 page 1371):

“Sir: After my dispatch of last night I received a report from General Pickett, who, with three of his own brigades and two of General Johnson’s, supported the cavalry under General Fitz Lee near Five Forks, on the road from Dinwiddie Court-House to the South Side road. After considerable difficulty, and meeting resistance from the enemy at all points, General Pickett forced his way to within less than a mile of Dinwiddie Court-House. By this time it was too dark for further operations, and General Pickett resolved to return to Five Forks to protect his communication with the railroad. He inflicted considerable damage upon the enemy and took some prisoners. His own loss was severe, including a good many officers. General Terry had his horse killed by a shell and was disabled himself. General Fitz Lee’s and Rosser’s divisions were heavily engaged, but their loss was slight. General W. H. F. Lee lost some valuable officers.”

The stage was set for a stunning Union breakthrough on April 1, 1865, Palm Sunday. But this victory was not without controversy.  Stay tuned for a recounting of the Battle of Five Forks tomorrow, April 1.  As for the controversy, there will be two separate posts tomorrow featuring a debate between Jim Epperson and me.  In those posts, we argue the question: “Was Phil Sheridan justified in relieving Gouverneur Warren of command of Fifth Corps after the Battle of Five Forks?” Stay tuned.


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