THE MILITARY OPERATIONS ON THE WHITE OAK ROAD, VIRGINIA, MARCH 31, 1865.1
By Brevet Major-General Joshua L. Chamberlain.
THE operations of the Fifth Corps on the White Oak Road on the 31st of March, 1865, were more serious in purpose and action than has been generally understood; and with reference either to their intended and possible results, or to their actual effect upon the ensuing eventful campaign, they are entitled to better consideration than they have yet received. Moreover, the peculiar complications attending them, bearing upon the personal issues which made a memorable episode of the battle of Five Forks on the following day, give these incidents a picturesque interest as well as historic value. I have thought that a recital based on personal knowledge of these operations and intimate association with some of the chief actors in them, might tend to draw the facts from the obscurity in which they have been left in official reports and professed histories of the last campaign of the Army of the Potomac; and while necessarily exhibiting, might perhaps tend to clear up, some of the confusion in which they have been involved by the peculiar circumstances under which this record has been presented to the public judgment.
It had not been the habit in the Fifth Corps to invite or encourage detailed reports on the part of subordinates; and in the rush and pressure of this intense campaign there was less opportunity or care than ever for such matters, while the impressiveness of the momentous close left little disposition to multiply words upon subordinate parts or participants. The fact also of an early change in the grand tactics of the campaign confused the significance, and sometimes the identity, of important movements; and the change of commanders in the crisis of its chief battle induced consequences which, even in official reports
and testimony, affected the motive for sharply defining actions where personal concern had come to be an embarrassing factor.
At all events, the immediate reports of those days are meager in the extreme ; and very much of what has come out since has been under the disadvantage of being elicited as ex parte testimony before military courts where the highest military officers of the government were parties, and the attitudes of plaintiff and defendant almost inevitably biased expression.
It will be distinctly borne in mind that the view here presented is of things as they appeared to us who were concerned in them as subordinate commanders. This is a chapter of experiences,— including in this term not only what was done, but what was known and said and thought and felt, not to say suffered, and showing withal a steadfast purpose, patience and spirit of obedience deserving of record even if without recompense.
In order to throw all possible light on the otherwise inexplicable confusions of this day, I have incorporated with my original account some evidence not before available now brought out in recent volumes of the Records of the War. Such reference to what was not then within our knowledge I have endeavored to make perfectly distinct, so as not to disturb the essential unity of a picture seen from the interior of what may with literal appropriateness be called the transactions of that day.
Yet I find embarrassments in approaching this narration. These facts, however simple, cannot but have some bearing on points which have been drawn into controversy on the part of those who were dear to me as commanders and companions in arms, and who have grown still dearer in the intimacies of friendship since the war, and in the fact that they are no longer here to speak for themselves. I feel, therefore, under increased responsibility in presenting these matters, assuring myself that I know of no bias of personality or partisanship which should make me doubtful of my ability to tell the truth as I saw and knew it to be, or distrust my judgment in forming an opinion.
Another embarrassment is in the fact that the operations of this day are closely related parts of a series of movements which,
whether continuous or broken, were intended to be directed towards a distinct objective ; so that no one portion can be fully understood without reference to the rest, both before and after, and to the great controlling motive of the whole.
Indulge me, therefore, with your patience while I gather up as shortly as possible, the main preliminaries necessary to a fair understanding of the operations on the White Oak Road. Lee’s army during the previous winter had become much weakened by lack of supplies, desertions,(1) and general demoralization of the Confederate cause, and Grant was determined to take decisive measures to break the whole Confederate hold on Virginia. He planned a vigorous movement to cut Lee’s communications, and also those of Richmond; and at the same time to turn the right flank of Lee’s entrenched line before Petersburg and break up his army. For the first of these objects he was to send Sheridan, now commanding ” The Middle Military Division,” with the cavalry of the Army of the Shenandoah, two divisions, under General Merritt, and the cavalry division now commanded by General Crook, formerly belonging to the Army of the Potomac. For the second purpose he was to send out, with Sheridan though not under his command, the Fifth and Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac,— General Meade, its commander, accompanying the movement. The former places of these corps on the left of our entrenchments before Petersburg, were to be taken by troops of the Army of the James. On the right of these our Sixth and Ninth Corps were to hold their old positions in front of Petersburg, ready to break through the enemy’s works if they should be stripped somewhat of troops by the necessity of meeting our assault on their right.
The scope of Grant’s intentions may be understood from an extract from his orders to Sheridan, March 28, 1865 : —
“The Fifth Army Corps will move by the Vaughan Road at three A. M. to-morrow morning. The Second moves at about nine A. M.
(1) The desertions in Pickett’s Division alone from March 9 to 18 were 512 men. Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 1332, 1353. And they were shooting deserters at that time. Ibid. p. 1367.
. . . . . Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, . . . and passing 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 full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy 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 Southside Road between Petersburg and Burkesville, and destroy it to some extent. . . . . 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 or go on into North Carolina and join General Sherman. . . . .”
General Grant evidently intended to rely more on tactics than strategy in this campaign. In his personal letter to General Sherman, of March 22, giving the details of his plans for Sheridan’s movement, he adds : “I shall start out with no distinct view, further than holding Lee’s forces from following Sheridan. But I shall be along myself, and will take advantage of anything that turns up.”
The general plan was that Sherman should work his way up to Burkesville, and thus cut off Lee’s communications, and force him to come out of his entrenchments and fight on equal terms. Sherman says he and General Grant expected that one of them would have to fight one more bloody battle. He also makes the characteristic remark that his army at Goldsboro was strong enough to fight Lee’s army and Johnston’s combined, if Grant would come up within a day or two.(1)
(1) Sherman’s Memoirs, Vol. II, p. 325. This seems to imply a reflection on the fighting qualities of the Army of the Potomac, as at that time Sherman’s army did not exceed in number the Army of the Potomac but by about six thousand men. But it must be remembered that the Army of the Potomac confronted an enemy covered by entrenched works for sixteen miles,— a circumstance which gave the Confederates the great advantage of three to one in effective numbers.
The ground about to be traversed by us is flat and swampy, and cut up by sluggish streams, which, after every rain, become nearly impassable. The soil is a mixture of clay and sand, quite apt in wet weather to take the character of sticky mire or of quicksands. The principal roads for heavy travel have to be corduroyed or overlaid with plank. The streams for the most part find their way southeasterly into the tributaries of the Chowan River. Some, however, flow northeasterly into the waters of the Appomattox. Our available route was along the divide of these waters.
The principal road leading out westerly from Petersburg is the Boydton Plank Road; for the first ten miles nearly parallel with the Appomattox, and distant from it from three to six miles. The Southside Railroad is between the Boydton Road and the river. South of the Boydton is the Vaughan Road; the first section lying in rear of our main entrenchments, but from our extreme left at Hatcher’s Run, inclining towards the Boydton Road, being only two miles distant from it at Dinwiddie Court House. Five miles east of this place the Quaker Road, called by persons of another mood, the “Military Road,” crosses the Vaughan and leads northerly into the Boydton Road midway between Hatcher’s Run and Gravelly Run, which at their junction became Rowanty Creek.
A mile above the intersection of the Quaker Road with the Boydton is the White Oak Road, leading off from the Boydton at right angles westerly, following the ridges between the small streams and branches forming the headwaters of Hatcher’s and Gravelly Runs, through and beyond the “Five Forks.” This is a meeting-place of roads, the principal of which, called the Ford Road, crosses the White Oak at a right angle, leading from a station on the Southside Railroad, three miles north, to Dinwiddie Court House, six miles south.
The enemy’s main line of entrenchments west from Petersburg covers, of course, the important Boydton Plank Road; but only so far as Hatcher’s Run, where at Burgess’ Mill, their entrenchments leave this and follow the White Oak Road for
some two miles, and then cross it, turning to the north and following the Claiborne Road, which leads to Sutherland station on the Southside Railroad ten miles distant from Petersburg, covering this road till it strikes Hatcher’s Run, about a mile higher up. This “return” northerly forms the extreme right of the enemy’s entrenched line.
When the instructions for this campaign reached us, all were animated with confidence of quick success. If Lee’s lines before Petersburg were held in place, it would be easy work to cut his communications, turn his right, and roll him back upon Petersburg or Richmond; if, on the other hand, his main lines were stripped to resist our attack, our comrades in the old lines would make short work of Lee’s entrenchments and his army. We were all good friends,— those who were to constitute the turning column. Humphreys of the Second Corps had formerly commanded a division in the Fifth; Warren of the Fifth had commanded the Second; Miles in the Second had won his spurs in the Fifth; Meade, commanding the army, had been corps commander of the Fifth; the cavalry division of our army, now to go to Sheridan, had been our pet and pride; Sheridan was an object of admiration and awe.
At daylight on the twenty-ninth of March the Fifth Corps moved out toward the enemy’s right. As the movement was intended to mask its destination by a considerable detour to the rear, our column first moved southward to Arthur’s Swamp, crossing the Rowanty at Monk’s Bridge, and thence by way of the Old Stage Road into and down the Vaughan. My brigade, being the advance of the First Division, reached the Chapple House, about two miles from Dinwiddie, early in the forenoon, encountering only a few cavalry pickets. Sheridan, with the cavalry, moving by a still exterior route, reached Dinwiddie Court House only at about five o’clock in the afternoon, pressing before him also the enemy’s pickets.
Our whole division(1) had arrived at the Chapple House when
(1) Griffin’s Division at the opening of the campaign numbered in all present for duty, of all kinds, 6,547 men. Of these the First Brigade numbered 1,750; the Second, about the same; the Third, upwards of 3,000.
at about noon my command was ordered to retrace its steps by the Vaughan to the Quaker Road, and push up towards the salient of the enemy’s works near Burgess’ Mill. We soon found this road better entitled to its military than its Quaker appellation. The enemy’s skirmishers were pressed back upon their reserves in a fairly well fortified position on the north bank of Gravelly Run, where they had destroyed the bridge to check our advance. Fording the run and forcing the position, we soon developed a strong line which had entrenched itself as an advanced post to cover the important point at Burgess’ Mill, consisting of Gracie’s, Ransom’s, Wallace’s and Wise’s Brigades, of Bushrod Johnson’s Division,(1) under Lieutenant General R. H. Anderson. After stubborn fighting for over two hours, involving a loss to us of one hundred and sixty-seven killed and wounded, including some of our most valued officers, and a much heavier loss to the enemy of whom more than one hundred killed and fifty wounded, with one hundred and sixty prisoners taken by a sudden countercharge, fell into our hands, and aided late in the action by portions of Gregory’s and Bartlett’s brigades, which had then just arrived, and by Battery B, 4th U. S. artillery, we pushed the enemy quite back to the White Oak Road, and into their entrenchments behind it. The Second Corps now came up and formed on our right.
With customary cognizance of our purposes and plans, Lee had on the twenty-eighth, ordered General Fitz Hugh Lee, with his division of cavalry, from the extreme left of his lines to the extreme right in the vicinity of Five Forks, to oppose what he believed to be Sheridan’s intention of cutting his communications by way of the Southside Railroad.(2) Such despatch had Fitz Lee made that on the evening of the twenty-ninth he had
(1) Reported to be about 6.000 strong. Rebellion Records, Serial 97, page 116.
(2) Longstreet had advised Lee (March 28) that Grant would try to take Richmond by raiding on his communications rather than by attacking his lines of works, and suggesting putting a sufficient force in the field to prevent this. He says “the greater danger is from keeping too close within our trenches.” Rebellion Records, Serial 97, page 1360. This advice was exactly in the line of what Grant desired as his best opportunity. Longstreet’s discussion of the situation is interesting as given in “Manassas to Appomattox,” page 588.
arrived at Sutherland Station, within six miles of Five Forks, and about that distance from our fight that afternoon on the Quaker Road. Pickett’s Division, consisting of the brigades of Stuart, Hunton, Corse and Terry, about five thousand strong, was sent to the entrenchments along the Claiborne Road, and Roberts’ Brigade of North Carolina cavalry, to picket the White Oak Road from the Claiborne to Five Forks.
On the thirtieth, the Fifth Corps, relieved by the Second, moved to the left along the Boydton Road, advancing its left towards the right of the enemy’s entrenchments on the White Oak Road. Lee, also, apprehensive for his right, sent McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade and McRae’s North Carolina, of Hill’s Corps, to strengthen Bushrod Johnson’s Division in the entrenchments there; but took two of Johnson’s brigades — Ransom’s and Wallace’s — with three brigades of Pickett’s Division (leaving Hunton’s in the entrenchments), to go with Pickett to reenforce Fitz Hugh Lee at Five Forks. W. H. F. Lee’s Division of cavalry, about one thousand five hundred men, and Rosser’s, about one thousand,(1) were also ordered to Five Forks. These reenforcements did not reach Five Forks until the evening of the thirtieth.
The precise details of these orders and movements were, of course, not known to General Grant nor to any of his subordinates. But enough had been developed on the Quaker Road to lead Grant to change materially his original purpose of making the destruction of the railroads the principal objective of Sheridan’s movements. At the close of our fight there, Grant had despatched Sheridan : “Our line is now unbroken from
(1) I leave these figures as I had them from reports at the time. General Fitz Hugh Lee states in his testimony before the Warren Court of Inquiry that his division numbered about 1,300; W. H. F. Lee’s, about 1,000; and Rosser’s, 900. (Records, page 474.) But General W. H. F. Lee testifying before the same court gives his numbers as between 1,700 and 1,800. (Same, page 530.) His command in ordinary times seems to have been much larger. General Humphreys quotes the morning report of February 20, 1865, showing for W. H. F. Lee’s command, 3,935 sabers, and Fitz Lee’s, 1,825. (Virginia Campaign, page 434, Appendix L.)
Appomattox to Dinwiddie. I now feel like ending the matter, if possible, 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 together as one army here, until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”
The effect of this message reached to something more than a measure of tactics. It brought Sheridan at once to Grant. It will be borne in mind that he was not under the orders of Meade, but an independent commander, subject to Grant alone. His original orders contemplated his handling his command as a flying column, independently of others — all the responsibility and all the glory being his own. The new instructions would bring him to act in conjunction with the Army of the Potomac, and render quite probable under army regulations and usages his coming under temporary command of General Meade, his senior in rank,— a position we do not find him in during this campaign. The logic of the new situation involved some interesting corollaries beyond the direct issue of arms.
It was a dark and dismal night, that twenty-ninth of March, on the Quaker Road. The chilling rain poured down, soaking the fields and roads and drenching the men stretched on the ground, worn, wounded and dying, all alike shrouded in ghastly gloom. Here and there with strange, will-o’-the-wisp motion, some ministering lantern sailing and sinking low in its quest of flickering life, shone weirdly through the mist and mirk,— one knew not whether near or far. Before morning the roads were impassable for wagons or artillery, and nearly so for the ambulances that came up ghost-like in the shivering dawn.
Meanwhile, not far in rear of this scene, at General Grant’s headquarters, Sheridan was holding long and close conference with him, having ridden up through the rain and mud immediately on receiving the message announcing the change of plan. All that is known of this outside is that at the end Sheridan was directed to gain possession of Five Forks early in the morning.
He could easily have taken possession of that before; for all the afternoon and night of the twenty-ninth, there was nothing to oppose him there but the right wing of Roberts’ slender brigade, picketing the White Oak Road. But when he received a positive order to secure that point on the morning of the thirtieth, he seems to have moved so late and moderately that Fitz Hugh Lee had time to march from Sutherland Station to Five Forks, and thence half-way to Dinwiddie Court House to meet him; and even then, attacking with a single division, although this outnumbered the enemy by a thousand men,(1) he permitted his demonstration on Five Forks, to be turned into a reconnaissance half-way out,(2) his advance being checked at the forks of the Ford and Boisseau Roads, where it remained all night and until itself attacked the next morning.(3) It is true that the roads and fields were heavy with rain; but this did not prevent our two infantry corps from moving forward and establishing themselves in front of the White Oak Road, in face of considerable opposition; nor hinder Lee from zealously strengthening the right of his lines, and pressing forward his reenforcements of infantry and cavalry to Fitz Hugh Lee at Five Forks, where they arrived at about sunset. What we cannot understand is why previous to that time General Sheridan, with thirteen thousand cavalry,(4) had not found it practicable to make an effective demonstration on Five Forks, covered all the morning only by what few men Roberts had there picketing the White Oak Road, and after that time, all day, only by Fitz Hugh Lee with eighteen hundred cavalry.
(1) General Devin’s Division numbered, according to returns of March 30, 169 officers and 2,830 men, present for duty.
(2) General Merritt’s despatch of March 30. Rebellion Records : Serial 97, page 326.
(3) General Fitz Hugh Lee’s testimony. Warren Court Records, Vol. 1, page 469.
(4) This figure is what was understood by us at the time. General Humphreys, noted for painstaking accuracy, says in his “Virginia Campaign of 1864 and ’65” the numbers of Sheridan’s cavalry present for duty March 31, 1865 were 611 officers and 13,200 enlisted men. (Appendix, p. 433.) The official returns for that month, as compiled from subordinate returns, show for Sheridan’s cavalry, exclusive of artillery, present for duty,
(Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 391.)
(Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 1043.)
In a paper presented before the Warren Court of Inquiry, understood to be a copy of General Sheridan’s official report, he states the number of his effective command at the opening of this campaign to be: Merritt’s command 5,700, and Crook’s command, 3,300; a total of 9,000. He may have had in mind the effective numbers when dismounted; a fourth of the men being kept back holding horses.
Early on the morning of the thirty-first the Fifth Corps had all advanced northerly beyond the Boydton Road towards the enemy at the junction of the White Oak and Claiborne Roads : Ayres, with the Second Division, in advance, about six hundred yards from this junction; Crawford, with the Third Division, on Ayres’ right rear in echelon with him, about six hundred yards distant; and Griffin, with the First Division, in position about thirteen hundred yards in rear of a prolongation of Crawford’s line to the left, entirely out of sight of both, owing to woods and broken ground, but within what was thought to be supporting distance. This position was along the southeast bank of a swampy branch of Gravelly Run, half a mile north of the Boydton Road, and a mile and a half south of the White Oak Road. Miles’ Division of the Second Corps had extended to the left on the Boydton Road to connect with Griffin.
My command was the extreme left of our lines; my own brigade along the difficult branch of Gravelly Run, facing towards Ayres, with Gregory’s Brigade (which had reported to me for this campaign) “refused” — bent back at right angles so as to face westerly— along a country road leading from the Boydton to the Claiborne Road; a portion of the artillery of the division being placed also in my lines to strengthen the defense of that flank, where we had reason to believe the enemy, after
their old fashion, were very likely to make a dash upon our left while we were maneuvering to turn their right.
General Grant, understanding from General Sheridan that he was on the White Oak Road, near Five Forks, on the afternoon of the thirtieth, had replied to him that his position on this road was of very great importance, and concluded this answer with these words : “Can you not push up towards Burgess’ Mills on the White Oak Road ?”(1)
General Grant’s wishes, as now understood, were that we should gain possession of the White Oak Road in our front. This was indicated in a despatch from him March 30, to General Meade, the purport of which was known to us and had much to do with shaping our energies for action. The despatch was the following:
“As Warren and Humphreys advance, thus shortening their line, I think the former had better move by the left flank as far as he can stretch out with safety, and cover the White Oak Road if he can. This will enable Sheridan to reach the Southside Road by Ford’s Road, and, it may be, double the enemy up, so as to drive him out of his works south of Hatcher’s Run.”
In accordance with this understanding, Ayres had made a careful examination of the situation in his front, upon the results of which General Warren had reported to Generals Meade and Grant that he believed he could, with his whole corps, gain possession of the White Oak Road. This proposition was made in face of the information of Grant’s order of 7.40 this morning, that owing to the heavy rains the troops were to remain substantially as they were, but that three days’ more rations should be issued to the Fifth Corps; an intimation of a possible cutting loose from our base of supplies for a time.
Griffin’s Division, being entrusted with a double duty — that of guarding the exposed left flank of the Fifth and Second
(1) Sheridan’s despatch to Grant, March 30, 2.45 P. M., and Grant’s reply thereto ; Records, Warren Court of Inquiry, Vol. II, page 1309. It afterwards transpired that Sheridan’s cavalry did not long hold this position. Grant’s despatch to Meade, March 31, Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 339.
Corps, and that of being in readiness to render prompt assistance in case of trouble arising from the demonstrations against the White Oak Road front — our adjustments had to be made for what in familiar speech is termed a “ticklish situation.” Vague rumors from the direction of Five Forks added to what we knew of the general probabilities, justified us in considerable anxiety. There was a queer expression of Griffin’s face when he showed me a copy of a message from Grant to Sheridan, late the evening before, which gave us the comical satisfaction of knowing that our inward fears had good outside support. This was what we thus enjoyed: “From the information I have sent you of Warren’s position, you will see that he is in danger of being attacked in the morning. If such occurs, be prepared to push up with all your force to assist him.” The morning had now come. It is needless to remark that there was no lethargy in the minds of any on that left flank of ours, in a situation so critical, whether for attack or defense.
It may seem strange that in such a state of things Warren should have made the suggestion for a movement to his front. But he was anxious, as were all his subordinates, to strike a blow in the line of our main business; which was to turn Lee’s right and break up his army. Wet and worn and famished as all were, we were alive to the thought that promptness and vigor of action would at all events determine the conditions and chances of the campaign. And if this movement did not involve the immediate turning of Lee’s right in his entrenchments, it would secure the White Oak Road to the west of them, which Grant had assured Sheridan was of so much importance, and would enable us to hold Lee’s right in check, so that Sheridan could either advance on the White Oak Road towards us and Burgess’ Mill, as Grant had asked him to do, or make a dash on the Southside Railroad, and cut their communications and turn their right by a wider sweep, as Grant had also suggested to him to do.
Late in the forenoon Warren received through General Webb, chief of staff, the following order: “General Meade directs that
should you determine by your reconnaissance that you can gain possession of, and hold the White Oak Road, you are to do so, notwithstanding the order to suspend operations to-day.” This gave a sudden turn to dreams. In that humiliation, fasting and prayer, visions arose like prophecy of old. We felt the swing and sweep; we saw the enemy turned front and flank across the White Oak Road; Sheridan flashing on our wheeling flank, cutting communications, enfilading the Claiborne entrenchments; our Second Corps over the main works, followed up by our troops in the old lines seizing the supreme moment to smash in the Petersburg defenses, scatter or capture all that was left there of Lee’s army, and sweep away every menace to the old flag between us and the James River. Mirage and glamor of boyish fancy, measuring things by its heart! Day dreams of men familiar with disaster, drenched and famished, but building, as ever, castles of their souls above the level river of death!
It was with mingled feelings of mortification, apprehension and desperation, that in the very ecstacy of these visions, word came to us of Sheridan’s latest despatch to Grant the evening before, that Pickett’s Division of infantry was deployed along the White Oak Road, his right reaching to Five Forks; and the whole rebel cavalry was massing at that place, so that Sheridan would be held in check by them instead of dashing up, as was his wont, to give a cyclone edge to our wheeling flank. Grant’s despatch to Meade, transmitting this, was a dire disenchantment. The knell rang thus: “From this despatch Warren will not have the cavalry support on his left flank that I expected. He must watch closely his left flank.”
Although Grant had given out word that there should be no movement of troops that day, Lee seems not so to have resolved. Driven to seize every advantage or desperate expedient, he had ordered four brigades, those of Wise, Gracie and Hunton, with McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade, to move out from their entrenchments, get across the flank of the Fifth Corps and smash it in. We did not know this, but it was the very situation
which Grant had made the occasion for attacking ourselves. It was a strange coincidence, but it was to both parties a surprise.
This was the condition of things and of minds when the advance ordered for the White Oak Road was put into execution. Ayres advanced, soldier-like, as was his nature; resolute, firm-hearted, fearing nothing; in truth not fearing quite enough. Although he believed his advance would bring on a battle, he moved without skirmishers, but in a wedge-like formation guarding both flanks. His First Brigade, commanded by the gallant Winthrop, had the lead in line of battle, his right and rear supported by the Third Brigade, that of Gwyn, who was accounted a good fighter; and Denison’s Maryland Brigade formed in column on Winthrop’s left and rear, ready to face outward by the left flank in case of need; while a brigade of Crawford’s was held in reserve in rear of the center. This would seem to be a prudent and strong formation of Ayres’ command. The enemy’s onset was swift and the encounter sudden. The blow fell without warning, enveloping Ayres’ complete front. It appears that McGowan’s Brigade struck squarely on Winthrop’s left flank, with an oblique fire also on the Maryland Brigade, while the rest of the attacking forces struck on his front and right. General Hunton(1) says they were not expecting to strike our troops so soon and that the attack was not made by usual orders, but that on discovering our advance so close upon them, a gallant lieutenant in his brigade sprung in front of his line, waving his sword with the shout, “Follow me, boys;” whereupon all three brigades on their right dashed forward to the charge. Winthrop was overwhelmed and his supports demoralized. All he could hope for was to retire in good order. This he exerted himself to effect. But this is not an easy thing to do when once the retreat is started before a spirited foe superior in numbers, or in the flush and rush of success. In vain the gallant Denison strove to stem the torrent. A disabling wound struck down his brave example, and the effect of this shows how much the moral forces have to do in sustaining
(1) Records, Warren Court, p. 623.
the physical. Brigade after brigade broke; that strange impulse termed a “panic” took effect and the retreat became a rout.
Ayres, like a roaring lion, endeavors to check the disorder, and make a stand on each favoring crest and wooded ravine. But in vain. His men stream past him. They come back on Crawford’s veteran division and burst through it in spite of all the indignant Kellogg can do, involving this also in the demoralization; and the whole crowd comes back reckless of everything but to get behind the lines on the Boydton Road, plunging through the swampy run, breaking through Griffin’s right, where he and Bartlett reform them behind the Third Brigade. The enemy pursuing, swarm down the bank opposite us, and are met by a sharp fire of musketry and artillery which we had made ready on hearing the noise of the retreat. We were expecting them to fall in force on our left in Gregory’s front, and I was riding along that line, anxious about this, when General Warren and General Griffin came down at full speed, both out of breath with their efforts to rally the panic-stricken men whose honor was their own, and evidently under great stress of feeling. Griffin breaks forth first, after his high-proof fashion: “General Chamberlain, the Fifth Corps is eternally damned !” I essayed some pleasantry : “Not till you are in heaven!” Griffin does not smile nor hear, but keeps right on: “I tell Warren you will wipe out this disgrace, and that’s what we’re here for.” Then Warren breaks out, with stirring phrase, but uttered as if in a delirium of fever: “General Chamberlain, will you save the honor of the Fifth Corps ? That’s all there is about it.” That appeal demanded a chivalrous response. Honor is a mighty sentiment, and the Fifth Corps was dear to me. But my answer was not up to the keynote: I confess that. I was expecting every moment an attack on my left flank now that the enemy had disclosed our situation. And my little brigade had taken the brunt of things thus far; but the day before the last, winning a hard-fought field from which they had come off grievously thinned and torn and
worn, and whence I had but hardly brought myself away. I mentioned Bartlett, who had our largest and best brigade, which had been but little engaged. “We have come to you; you know what that means,” was the only answer. “I’ll try it, General; only don’t let anybody stop me except the enemy!” I had reason for that protest as things had been going. “I will have a bridge ready here in less than an hour. You can’t get men through this swamp in any kind of order,” says Warren. “It may do to come back on, General; it will not do to stop for that now. My men will go straight through.” So at a word the First Battalion of the 198th Pennsylvania, Major Glenn, commanding, plunges into the muddy branch, waist deep, and more,(1) with cartridge boxes borne upon the bayonet sockets above the turbid waters; the Second Battalion keeping the banks beyond clear of the enemy by their well-directed fire, until the First has formed in skirmishing order and pressed up the bank. I followed with the rest of the brigade in line of battle and Gregory’s in column of regiments. The enemy fell back without much resistance until finding supports on broken strong ground, they made stand after stand. Griffin followed with Bartlett’s Brigade, in reserve. In due time Ayres’ troops got across and followed up on our left rear, while Crawford was somewhere to our right and rear, but out of sight or reach after we had once cleared the bank of the stream. It seems that General Warren sent to General Meade the following despatch : “I am going to send forward a brigade from my left, supported by all I can get of Crawford and Ayres, and attack. . . . This will take place about 1.45, if the enemy does not attack sooner.” This was the only recognition or record we were to have in official reports ; it was not all we were to achieve in unwritten history.
At about this time Miles, of the Second Corps, had after the fashion of that corps gone in handsomely in his front, somewhat to the right of our division, and pressed so far out as to flank
(1) General Warren states in his testimony before the Court of Inquiry that this stream was sixty feet wide and four or five feet deep. Records, page 717.
Wise’s Brigade on the left of the troops that had attacked Ayres, and drove them back half-way to their starting-point. This had the effect to induce the enemy in my front to retire their line to a favorable position on the crest of a ravine where they made another determined stand. After sharp fighting here we drove them across an extensive field into some works they seemed to have had already prepared, of the usual sort in field operations,— logs and earth,— from which they delivered a severe fire which caused the right of my line to waver. Taking advantage of the slight shelter of a crest in the open field I was preparing for a final charge, when I received an order to halt my command and defend my position as best I could. I did not like this much. It was a hard place to stay in. The officer who brought me the order had his horse shot under him as he delivered it. I rode back to see what the order meant. I found General Griffin and General Warren in the edge of the woods overlooking the field, and reported my plans. We had already more than recovered the ground taken and lost by the Second and Third Divisions. The Fifth Corps had been rapidly and completely vindicated, and the question was now of taking the White Oak Road, which had been the object of so much wishing, and worrying. It was evident that things could not remain as they were. The enemy would soon attack and drive me back. And it would cost many men even to try to withdraw from such a position. The enemy’s main works were directly on my right flank, and how the intervening woods might be utilized to cover an assault on that flank, none of us knew. I proposed to put Gregory’s Brigade into those woods, by battalion in echelon by the left, by which formation he would take in flank and reverse in succession any attacks on my right. When Gregory should be well advanced I would charge the works across the field with my own brigade. My plan being approved, I instructed Gregory to keep in the woods, moving forward with an inclination towards his left to keep him closed in toward me, and at the same time to open the intervals in his echelons so that he would be free to deliver a strong fire on his
own front if necessary ; and the moment he struck any opposition to open at once with full volleys and make all the demonstration he could, and I would seize that moment to make a dash at the works in my front. Had I known of the fact that General Lee himself was personally directing affairs in our front,(1) I might not have been so rash, or thought myself so cool.
Riding forward I informed my officers of my purpose and had their warm support. Soon the roar of Gregory’s guns rose in the woods like a whirlwind. We sounded bugles “Forward,” and that way we go; mounted officers leading their commands; pieces at the right shoulder until at close quarters.
What we had to do could not be done by firing. This was foot-and-hand business. We went with a rush; not minding ranks nor alignments; but with open front to lessen loss from the long-range rifles. Within effective range, — about three hundred yards,— the sharp, cutting fire made us reel and shiver. Now, quick or never! On and over! The impetuous 185th New York rolls over the enemy’s right, and seems to swallow it up; the 198th Pennsylvania, with its fourteen companies, half veterans, half soldiers “born so,” swing in upon their left striking Hunton’s Brigade in front; and for a few minutes there is a seething wave of countercurrents, then rolling back leaving a fringe of wrecks, and all is over. We pour over the works ; on across the White Oak Road; swing to the right and drive the enemy into their entrenchments along the Claiborne road, and then establish ourselves across the road facing northeast, and take breath.(2)
Major Woodward in his history of the 198th Pennsylvania giving a graphic outline of the last dash, closes with an incident I had not recorded. “Only for a moment,” he says, “did the sudden and terrible blast of death cause the right of the line to waver. On they dashed, every color flying, officers leading,
(1) Testimony of General Hunton and General McGowan ; Warren Court Records, Vol. I, page 625 and 648.
(2) General Hunton, since Senator from Virginia, said in his testimony before the Warren Court, speaking of this charge, “I thought it was one of the most gallant things I had ever seen.” Records, Part I, page 625.
right in among the enemy, leaping the breastworks,— a confused struggle of firing, cutting, thrusting, a tremendous surge of force, both moral and physical, on the enemy’s breaking lines,— and the works were carried. Private Augustus Zieber captured the flag of the 46th Virginia in mounting one of the parapets, and handed it to General Chamberlain in the midst of the melee, who immediately gave it back to him, telling him to keep it and take the credit that belonged to him. Almost that entire regiment was captured at the same time.” It scarcely need be added that the man who captured that battle flag was sent with it in person to General Warren, and that he received a medal of honor from the Government.
In due time Gregory came up out of the woods his face beaming with satisfaction at the result to which his solid work, so faithfully performed, had been essential. His brigade was placed in line along the White Oak Road on our right, and a picket thrown out close up to the enemy’s works. This movement had taken three hours, and was almost a continuous fight, with several crescendo passages, and a final cadence of wild, chromatic sweeps settling into the steady key-note, thrilling with the chords of its unwritten overtones and undertones. It had cost us a hundred men, but this was all too great, of men like these,— and for oblivion. It was to cost us something more,— a sense of fruitlessness and thanklessness.
It seems that in the black moment, when our two divisions were coming back in confusion, Meade had asked Grant to have Sheridan strike the attacking force on their right and rear, as he had been ordered to do in case Warren was attacked. For we have Grant’s message to Meade, sent at 12.40, which is evidently a reply : “It will take so long to communicate with Sheridan that he cannot be brought to cooperation unless he comes up in obedience to orders sent him last night. I understood General Forsyth to say that as soon as another division of cavalry got up, he would send it forward. It may be there now. I will send to him again, at once.”
So far, to all appearance, all was well. The Fifth Corps was across the White Oak Road. General Grant’s wish that we should extend our left across this road as near to the enemy as possible, so that Sheridan could double up the enemy and drive him north of Hatcher’s Run, had been literally fulfilled. It had cost us three days’ hard work and hard fighting, and more than two thousand men. It had disclosed vital points. General Grant’s notice of all this as given in his Memoirs (Vol. II, page 435 ), representing all these movements as subordinated to those of General Sheridan is the following: “There was considerable fighting in taking up these new positions for the Second and Fifth Corps, in which the Army of the James had also to participate somewhat, and the losses were quite severe. This is what was known as the battle of the White Oak Road.”(1)
The understanding of this affair has been confused by the impression that it was the Second Corps troops which attacked and drove back the forces of the enemy that had driven in the Second and Third Divisions of the Fifth Corps. In the complicated rush and momentous consummation of the campaign, and particularly in the singular history of the Fifth Corps for those days, in which corps and division and brigade commanders were changed, there was no one specially charged with the care of seeing to it that the movements of this corps in relation to other corps were properly reported as to the important points of time as well as of place. General Miles, doubtless, supposed he was attacking the same troops that had repulsed
(1) When the very assault we were in the act of making, or rather, of following up, on the enemy’s right on the thirty-first of March, was triumphantly taken up by General Miles on the second of April, after the disaster at Five Forks had called away most of the defenders of the Claiborne entrenchments,— Generals Anderson and Johnson, with Hunton’s, Wise’s, Gracie’s and Fulton’s Brigades being of the number,— and the whole rebel army was demoralized, General Grant, now free to appreciate such action, despatches General Meade at once: “Miles has made a big thing of it, and deserves the highest praise for the pertinacity with which he stuck to the enemy until he wrung from him victory.” Verily, something besides circumstances can “alter cases.”
part of the Fifth Corps. He moved promptly when Griffin, with infantry and artillery was checking the onrushing enemy now close upon our front; and attacking in his own front,— that of the Second Corps,— fought his way valiantly close up to the enemy’s works in that part of their line. Miles reported to Humphreys that he was “ahead of the Fifth Corps,” which subsequently bore off to the left of him and left a wide interval. This expression must not be understood as direction in a right line. It is used rather as related to the angular distance between the Boydton and the White Oak Roads,— this being less where Miles was, on the right, and widening by a large angle towards the left, where the Fifth Corps was. It is as one line is ahead of another when advanced in echelon; or as a ship tacking to windward with another is said to be “ahead” of the latter when she is on the weather beam of it. Miles did not come in contact with a single regiment that had attacked the Fifth Corps. He struck quite to the right of us all, attacking in his own front. But it got into the reports otherwise, and “went up.” Grant accepted it as given; and so it has got into history, and never can be got out. General Miles did not get ahead of the Fifth Corps that day, but he came up gallantly on its flank and rendered it great assistance by turning the flank of General Wise and keeping the enemy from massing on our front. He reports the capture of the flag of the 47th Alabama, a regiment of Law’s old brigade of Longstreet’s Corps, which was nowhere near the front of the Fifth Corps on this day.
In the investigations before the Court of Inquiry, General Warren felt under the necessity of excusing himself from the responsibility of the disastrous results of Ayres’ advance on the morning of the thirty-first. He is at pains to show that he did not intend an attack there, although he had suggested the probable success of such a movement.(1) What then was this advance? Surely not to create a diversion in favor of Sheridan before Dinwiddie. At all events, there was an endeavor to get
(1) Records, Warren Court, Part II, page 1525.
possession of the White Oak Road. And that could not be done without bringing on a battle, as Ayres said he knew, beforehand,(1) and afterwards knew still better, and we also, unmistakably. Warren stated his intention correctly, no doubt; but then was he aware as he should be, of the condition of things in Ayres’ front?
But, however this may have been, when Ayres’ advance was repulsed, why was it felt necessary to recover that field and “the honor of the Fifth Corps?” Unless it was the intention to take forcible possession of the White Oak Road, the recovery of that field was not a tactical necessity, but only,— if I may so speak, — a sentimental necessity. And there was no more dishonor in this reconnaissance,— if it was only that,— being driven back than for Sheridan’s reconnaissance toward Five Forks to be driven back upon Dinwiddie, for his conduct in which he received only praise. It is evident that General Grant thought an attack was somehow involved; for hearing of Ayres’ repulse, he blames General Warren for not attacking with his whole corps, and asks General Meade, “What is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or retire in good order to his old entrenchments?” This is exactly what was done, before receiving this suggestion; but it did not elicit approval, or even notice, from Grant or Meade, or Warren. As things turned, Warren was put under a strong motive to ignore this episode; and as for Grant, he had other interests in mind.
In our innocence we thought we had gained a great advantage. We had the White Oak Road, and were across it, and as near to the enemy as possible, according to Grant’s wish. Now we were ready for the consummate stroke, the achievement of the object for which all this toil and trial had been undergone. It needed but little more. The splendid Second Corps was on our right, close up to the enemy’s works. We were more than ready. If only Sheridan with but a single division of our cavalry could disengage himself from his occupation before
(1) Testimony, Warren Court, Part I, page 247.
Dinwiddie, so far away to our rear, and now so far off from any strategic point where he had first been placed for the purpose of raiding upon the Danville and Southside Railroads,—which objective had been distinctly given up in orders by General Grant,— if with his audacity and insistance Sheridan could have placed himself in position to obey Grant’s order, and come to Warren’s assistance when he was attacked, should dash up between us and Five Forks, we would have swiftly inaugurated the beginning of the end, — Grant’s main wish and purpose latest expressed to Sheridan, of ending matters here, before he went back. But another, and by far minor objective interposed. Instead of the cavalry coming to help us complete our victories at the front, we were to go to the rescue of Sheridan at the rear.
Little did we dream that on the evening of the thirtieth Grant had formed the intention of detaching the Fifth Corps to operate with Sheridan in turning the enemy’s right. This was consistent, however, with the understanding in the midnight conference on the twenty-ninth. The proposition to Sheridan was this: “If your situation in the morning is such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy’s right with the assistance of a corps of infantry entirely detached from the balance of the army, I will so detach the Fifth Corps and place the whole under your command for the operation. Let me know early in the morning as you can your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. …” Precisely what Warren had proposed to do at that very time on Gravelly Run, only Sheridan would not have been in chief command. His assistance had however been promised to Warren in case he was attacked. Sheridan replies to this on the morning of the thirty-first. “. . .If the ground would permit, I believe I could with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy’s left, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” By “turning the enemy’s right,” and “breaking through his lines,” he meant only the isolated position at Five Forks, where for the two days past there was nothing to prevent
his handling them alone, and easily cutting the Southside Railroad. Fortunately for our cause, Lee was so little like himself as to allow the detachment of a considerable portion of his infantry from the entrenchments on the evening of the thirtieth to reenforce this position,— for the sake, probably of covering the Southside Road; to which however, this was not the only key.
Asking for the Sixth Corps shows a characteristic concentration of self-consciousness and disregard of the material elements of the situation wholly unlike the habits of our commanders in the Army of the Potomac. The Sixth Corps was away on the right center of our lines,— even beyond Ord with the Army of the James, and the roads were impracticable for a rapid movement like that demanded. Grant’s predilection for his forceful and brilliant cavalry commander could not overcome the material difficulty of moving the Sixth Corps from its place in the main line before Petersburg: he could only offer him the Fifth. And Meade, with meekness quite suggestive of a newly regenerate nature, seems to have offered no objection to this distraction from the main objective, and this inauguration of proceedings which repeatedly broke his army into detachments serving under other commanders, and whereby in the popular prestige and final honors of the campaign, the commander of the Army of the Potomac found himself subordinated to the cavalry commander of the newly made “Middle Military Division.”
So while Warren was begging to be permitted to take his corps through fields sodden saddle-girt deep with rain and mire, and get across the right of Lee’s entrenched position, the purpose had already been formed of sending him and his corps to try to force the enemy from the position where they were gathering for a stand after having forced his cavalry back upon its base at the Boisseau Cross Road, and holding his main body inactive at Dinwiddie a whole day through. And after Warren had accomplished all that he had undertaken in accordance with the expressed wishes of his superiors, this purpose was to be put into execution.
I do not know that Warren was then aware of General Grant’s loss of interest in this movement for the White Oak Road since the new plan for Sheridan and the Fifth Corps. Let us recall: at eight o’clock on the evening before, Meade had sent Grant a despatch from Warren, suggesting this movement. Meade forwarded it to Grant, with the remark : “I think his suggestion the best thing we can do under existing circumstances;—that is, let Humphreys relieve Griffin, and let Warren move on to the White Oak Road, and endeavor to turn the enemy’s right.” To this Grant replied at 8.35, “It will just suit what I intended to propose; to let Humphreys relieve Griffin’s Division, and let that move further to the left. Warren should get himself strong to-night. Orders being sent out accordingly, and reported by Meade, General Grant replies late that evening: “Your orders to Warren are right. I do not expect him to advance in the morning. I supposed, however, that he was now up to the White Oak Road. If he is not, I do not want him to move up without further orders.”(1) Meade replies: “He will not be allowed to advance unless you so direct.”(2)
It is impossible to think that Warren knew of this last word of Grant on the subject of the White Oak Road; but as we read it now, it throws light on many things then “dark.” It was consistent with Grant’s new purpose; but it must have perplexed Meade. And at the turn things took,— and men also,— during the next forenoon and midday, what must have been the vexation in Grant’s imperturbable mind, and the ebullition of the few unsanctified remnants in Meade’s strained and restrained spirit, those who knew them can freely imagine.
And as for Warren, when all this light broke upon him, in the midst of his own hardly corrected reverses, into what sullen depths his spirit must have been cast, to find himself liable to a suit for breach of promise for going out to a clandestine
(1) Records, Warren Court, Vol. II. p. 1242.
(2) This is to be compared with Meade’s order of 10.30 A. M., March 31, through General Webb: see ante, p. 220.
meeting with Robert Lee, when he was already engaged to Philip Sheridan!
A new anxiety now arose. Just as we had got settled in our position on the White Oak Road, heavy firing was heard from the direction of Sheridan’s supposed position. This attracted eager attention on our part; as with that open flank, Sheridan’s movements were all important to us. At my headquarters we had dismounted, but had not ventured yet to slacken girths. I was standing on a little eminence, wrapped in thoughts of the declining day and of these heavy waves of sound, which doubtless had some message for us, soon or sometime, when Warren came up with anxious earnestness of manner, and asked me what I thought of this firing,— whether it was nearing or receding. I believed it was receding towards Dinwiddie; that was what had deepened my thoughts. Testing the opinion by all tokens known to us, Warren came to the same conclusion. He then for a few minutes discussed the situation and the question of possible duty for us in the absence of orders. I expressed the opinion that Grant was looking out for Sheridan, and if help were needed, he would be more likely to send Miles than us, as he well knew we were at a critical point, and one important for his further plans as we understood them, especially as Lee was known to be personally directing affairs in our front. However, I thought it quite probable that we should be blamed for not going to the support of Sheridan even without orders, when we believed the enemy had got the advantage of him. ” Well, will you go ?” Warren asked. “Certainly, General, if you think it best; but surely you do not want to abandon this position.” At this point, General Griffin came up and Warren asked him to send Bartlett’s Brigade at once to threaten the rear of the enemy then pressing upon Sheridan. That took away our best brigade. Bartlett was an experienced and capable officer, and the hazardous and trying task he had in hand would be well done.
Just after sunset Warren came out again, and we crept on our hands and knees out to our extreme picket within two hundred
yards of the enemy’s works, near the angle of the Claiborne Road. There was some stir on our picket line, and the enemy opened with musketry and artillery, which gave us all the information we wanted. That salient was well fortified. The artillery was protected by embrasures and little lunettes, so that they could get a slant and cross-fire on any movement we should make within their range.
I then began to put my troops into bivouac for the night, and extended my picket around my left and rear to the White Oak Road, where it joined the right of Ayres’ picket line. It was an anxious night along that front. The darkness that deepened around and over us was not much heavier than that which shrouded our minds, and to some degree shadowed our spirits. We did not know what was to come, or go. We were alert,— Gregory and I,— on the picket line nearly all the night through. Griffin came up to us at frequent intervals, wide awake as we were.
In the meantime many things had been going on, and going back. It came to us now, in the middle of the night, that Sheridan had been attacked by Fitz Hugh Lee and Pickett’s infantry, and driven pell-mell into Dinwiddie. He could hardly hold himself there. The polarities of things were reversed. Instead of admitting the Fifth Corps to the contemplated honor of turning Lee’s right, or breaking through his lines, between Dinwiddie and Five Forks, orders and entreaties came fast and thick, in every sense of these terms, for the Fifth Corps to leave the White Oak Road, Lee’s company, and everything else, and rush back five miles to the rear, floundering through the mire and dark, to help Sheridan stay where Pickett and Fitz Hugh Lee had put him. Indeed, the suggestive information had leaked out from Grant’s headquarters that Sheridan might be expected to retreat by way of the Vaughan Road, quite to the rear of our entire left. This would leave all the forces that had routed Sheridan at perfect liberty to fall upon our exposed flank, and catch the Fifth Corps to be bandied to and fro between them and the enemy in their fortifications, near
at hand. By the time the Fifth Corps began to be picked to pieces by divisions and brigades, and finally made a shuttlecock as an entire organization, the situation of things and of persons had very much changed.
At 6.30 P. M. General Warren received an order to send a brigade to Sheridan’s relief by threatening the rear of the enemy then in his front. Soon other orders followed,— the last of these being to send the brigade by the Boydton Road. This would have been quite a different matter. But Bartlett had already been gone an hour when this order came, and to the Crump Road, reaching this by aid of a cart track through woods and mire. Of course, Warren could not recall Bartlett. But to comply as nearly as possible with the order, he at once directed General Pearson, who with three of Bartlett’s regiments was guarding the trains on the Boydton Road, to move immediately down towards Dinwiddie. Pearson got to the crossing of the main stream of Gravelly Run, and finding that the bridge was gone, and the stream not fordable, halted for orders. But things were crowding thick and fast. Pearson’s orders were countermanded, and orders came from army headquarters for Griffin’s Division to go.
On the news of Sheridan’s discomfiture, Grant seems first to have thought of Warren’s predicament. In a despatch to Meade early in the evening he says: “I would much rather have Warren back on the Plank Road than to be attacked front and rear where he is. He should entrench, front and rear of his left, at least, and be ready to make a good fight of it if he is attacked in the morning. We will make no offensive movement ourselves to-morrow.”
That was on the evening before the battle of Five Forks!
This was a significant despatch; showing among other things Grant’s intention of holding on, if possible, for the present at least, to the White Oak Road, at the Claiborne salient; for that was where our two advanced brigades of the Fifth Corps were holding. This evidence has not been well appreciated by those who have formed their judgment, or written the history, of
those three days’ battles. And Meade had been trying all day to get up entrenching tools and implements for making the roads passable for wheels. A thousand men had been working at this for the two days past.
At 8.30 came the notice,— communicated confidentially, I remember,— that the whole army was going to contract its lines. At nine o’clock came an order from Grant to Meade : “Let Warren draw back at once to his position on the Boydton Road, and send a division of infantry to Sheridan’s relief. The troops to Sheridan should start at once, and go down the Boydton Road.” Meade promptly sent orders for the corps to retire, and for Griffin to go to Sheridan, and go at once.
Apparently nobody at general headquarters seems to have remembered two incidents concerning the selection of Griffin’s Division for this movement; first, that Bartlett of this division was already by this time down upon the enemy’s rear, by another, more direct, though more difficult road, and in a far more effective position for the main purpose than could be reached by the Boydton; and secondly, that the two remaining brigades of this division were with me on and across the White Oak Road,— the farthest off from the Boydton Road, and most impeded by difficult ground, of any troops remaining on our lines. Another circumstance, forgotten or ignored, was that the bridge at the Plank Road crossing of Gravelly Run was gone,(1) and that the stream was not fordable for infantry. Warren, in reporting his proceeding to comply with the order, reported also the destruction of the bridge and his intention to repair it; but this seems somehow from first to last, to have added to the impatience felt towards him at those headquarters.
Grant had experienced a sudden change of mind,— a complete and decided one. His imperative order now received meant giving up entirely the position we had just been ordered
(1) Colonel Theodore Lyman, aid-de-camp on the staff of General Meade, wrote in his diary on the night of March 30, “Roads reduced to a hopeless pudding. Gravelly Run swollen to treble its usual size, and Hatcher’s Run swept away its bridges and required pontoons.” Records, Warren Court of Inquiry, Vol. I, p. 519.
to entrench, across the hard-won White Oak Road. Within ten minutes from the receipt of this order, Warren directed his division commanders to gather up their pickets and all outlying troops, and take their position on the Boydton Road. Griffin was directed to recall Bartlett and then move down the Plank Road and report to Sheridan. But as it would take time for Griffin to get his scattered division together and draw back through the mud and darkness to the Boydton Road, ready to start for Sheridan, Warren, anxious to fulfil the spirit and object of the order, rather than render a mechanical obedience to the letter of it, sends his nearest division, under Ayres, the strong, stern old soldier of the Mexican war, to start at once for Sheridan. Meantime, the divisions of Griffin and Crawford were taking steps to obey the order to mass on the Boydton Road. For my own part, I did not move a man; wishing to give my men all possible time for rest, until Bartlett should arrive, who must come past my rear.
This was the situation when at half past ten in the evening came an order throwing everything into a complete muddle. It was from Meade to Warren : “Send Griffin promptly as ordered by the Boydton Plank Road, but move the balance of your command by the road Bartlett is on, and strike the enemy in rear, who is between him and Dinwiddie. Should the enemy turn on you, your line of retreat will be by J. M. Brooks’ and R. Boisseau’s on Boydton Road. You must be very prompt in this movement, and get the forks of the road at Brooks’ so as to open to Boisseau’s. Don’t encumber yourself with anything that will impede your progress, or prevent your moving in any direction across the country.” The grim humor of the last suggestion was probably lost on Warren, in his present distraction. “Moving in any direction” in the blackness of darkness across that country of swamps and sloughs and quicksands, would be a comedy with the savage forces of nature and of man in pantomime, and a spectacle for the laughter of the gods. Nor was there much left to encumber ourselves with,— more especially in the incident of food. Grant had been very anxious
about rations for us ever since early morning, when he had said that although there were to be no movements that day, the Fifth Corps must be supplied with three days’ rations more. But all the day no rations had been got up. Indeed, I do not know how they could have found us, or got to us if they had. Grant had repeated imperative orders to Meade to spare no exertions in getting rations forward to the Fifth Corps; whereupon Meade, who had himself eaten salt with his old Fifth Corps, gave orders to get rations to us anyway; — if not possible for trains, then by pack-mules. The fortunate and picturesque conjuncture was that some few rations were thus got up by the flexible and fitting donkey-train, while we were floundering and plunging from every direction for our rendezvous on the Boydton Road or elsewhere, just at that witching hour of the night when the flying cross-shuttle of oscillating military orders was weaving such a web of movements between the unsubstantial footing of earth and the more substantial blackness of the midnight sky, matched only by the benighted mind.
By this order the Corps was to be turned end for end, and inside out. Poor Warren might be forgiven if at such an order his head swam and his wits collapsed. He responds thus,— and has been much blamed for it by those under canvas, then and since ; — “I issued my orders on General Webb’s first despatch to fall back; which made the divisions retire in the order of Ayres, Crawford, and Griffin, which was the order they could most rapidly move in. I cannot change them to-night without producing confusion that will render all my operations nugatory. I will now send General Ayres to General Sheridan, and take General Griffin and General Crawford to move against the enemy, as this last despatch directs I should. I cannot accomplish the object of the orders I have received.(1)”
But what inconceivable addition to the confusion came in the following despatch from General Meade to Warren at one o’clock
(1) See this despatch of 10.55 P. M. March 31st. War Records, Serial 97, p. 367. General Warren in his testimony before the Court of Inquiry, claimed that the word “Otherwise” should be prefixed to the last sentence of this order, as it was dictated. Records, page 730, note.
at night: “Would not time be gained by sending troops by the Quaker Road? Sheridan cannot maintain himself at Dinwiddie without reenforcements, and yours are the only ones that can be sent. Use every exertion to get the troops to him as soon as possible. If necessary, send troops by both roads, and give up the rear attack.”
Rapidly changing plans and movements in effecting the single purpose for which battle is delivered are what a soldier must expect; and the ability to form them wisely and promptly illustrates and tests military capacity. But the conditions in this case rendered the execution of these peculiarly perplexing. Orders had to pass through many hands; and in the difficulties of delivery, owing to distance and the nature of the ground, the situation which called for them had often entirely changed. Hence some discretion as to details in executing a definite purpose must be accorded to subordinate commanders.
Look for a moment at a summary of the orders Warren received that evening, after we had reached the White Oak Road, affecting his command in detail.
1. To send a brigade to menace the enemy’s rear before Sheridan.
But he had already of his own accord sent Bartlett’s Brigade, of Griffin’s Division, the nearest troops, by the nearest way.
2. To send this brigade by the Boydton Road instead of the Crump.
This was a very different direction, and of different tactical effect. But impossible to recall Bartlett, Warren sent Pearson, already on the Boydton Road, with a detachment of Bartlett’s Brigade.
3. To send Griffin’s Division by the Boydton Road to Sheridan, and draw back the whole corps to that road.
Griffin’s Division being widely and far scattered, and impossible to be collected for hours, Warren sends Ayres’ Division, nearest, and most disengaged.
4. To send Ayres and Crawford by the way Bartlett had gone, and insisting on Griffin’s going by Boydton Road.
This would cause Ayres and Bartlett to exchange places, crossing each other in a long, difficult and needless march.
5. Ayres having gone, according to Warren’s orders, Griffin and Crawford to go by Bartlett’s way.
But Griffin had sent for Bartlett to withdraw from his position and join the division ready to mass on the Boydton Road.
It is difficult to keep a clear head in trying to see into this muddle now: we can imagine the state of Warren’s mind. But this was not all. Within the space of two hours, Warren received orders involving important movements for his entire corps, in four different directions. These came in rapid succession, and in the following order :
1. To entrench where he was (on the White Oak Road), and be ready for a fight in the morning. (This from Grant.)
2. To fall back with the whole corps from the White Oak Road to the Boydton, and send a division by this road to relieve Sheridan. (This from Grant.)
3. Griffin to be pushed down the Boydton Road, but the rest of the corps — Ayres and Crawford,— to go across the fields to the Crump Road, the way Bartlett had gone, and attack the enemy in rear who were opposing Sheridan. (This from Meade.)
This required a movement in precisely the opposite direction from that indicated in the preceding order,— which was now partly executed. Ayres had already started.
4. Meade’s advice to send these troops by the Quaker Road, (ten miles around), and give up the rear attack.
5. To these may be added the actual final movement, which was that Ayres went down the Boydton Road, and Griffin and Crawford went by the “dirt” road across the country to the Crump Road as indicated in Meade’s previous orders.
There is one thing more. General Grant thought it necessary, in order to make sure that Sheridan should have complete and absolute command of these troops,— to send a special message asking Meade to make that distinct announcement to Sheridan. (Despatch of 10.34 P. M., March 31.) To this Meade replies that he had ordered the Fifth Corps to Sheridan, and
adds, “The messenger to Sheridan has gone now, so that I cannot add what you desire about his taking command, but I take it for granted he will do so, as he is senior. I will instruct Warren to report to him.”
So General Grant’s solicitude lest Sheridan should forget to assume command, as the regulations clearly provided, was faithfully ministered to by that expert in nervous diseases,— Meade.
The orders which came to General Warren that night were to an amazing degree confused and conflicting. This is charging no blame on any particular person. We will call it, if you please, the fault of circumstances. But of course, the responsibility for the evil effects of such conditions must naturally, in military usage and ethics, rest upon the officer receiving them. And when he is not allowed to use his judgment as to the details of his own command, it makes it very hard for him, sometimes. Indeed it is not very pleasant to be a subordinate officer; especially if one is also at the same time, a commanding officer.
But in this case I think the trouble was the result of other recognizable contributory circumstances, — if I might not say, causes.
1. The awkwardness of having in the field so many superior, or rather coordinate commanders: Grant, commanding the the United States Armies, with his headquarters immediately with those of the commander of the Army of the Potomac; unintentionally but necessarily detracting from the dignity and independence of this subordinate ; Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, only two corps of which were with him, — the two others being on the extreme right of our entrenched lines, with Ord and the Army of the James between them; Sheridan, with an independent cavalry command, guaranteed so to remain, yet in such touch with the Fifth Corps that there was danger of more friction than support between the commanders.(1)
(1) How serious the practical effect was of having orders or despatches on the same point from several superior or coequal commanders, is brought out by General Sheridan’s answers under close and almost “cross” examination at the Warren Court of Inquiry. See Records, pages 64–73. As to the embarrassments experienced by General Meade in giving orders to his subordinates, and by General Warren in handling his own corps, an example is seen in the following note to General Sheridan by General Webb, chief of Meade’s staff, on the evening of March 31. Consider especially the last sentence.
“Gen. Meade has directed all the spare ambulances he can get hold of to go down to Dinwiddie. Bartlett’s Brigade is at Crump’s house, on Gravelly Run. Griffin, with three brigades, is ordered down Boydton Plank, to attack in rear of force menacing you. Gen. Grant is requested to authorize the sending of Warren’s two other divisions down the dirt road past Crump’s, to hold and cover that road, and to attack at daylight.”
Thus the Fifth Corps had three immediate commanders to order its divisions.
2. A double objective: one point being Sheridan’s independent operations to cut the enemy’s communications; the other, the turning of Lee’s right and breaking up his army by our infantry. It is true this double objective was in terms given up when Sheridan was informed all were to “act together as one army ;” but the trouble is, this precept was never strictly carried into effect; inasmuch as General Sheridan was not inclined to serve under any other commander but Grant, and it became difficult to humor him in this without embarrassing other operations. And, as matter of fact, the communications were not cut, either on the Southside or the Danville Roads, until our infantry struck them,— Sheridan, however, contributing in his own way to this result.
3. These supreme commanders being at such distance from the fields of operation on the thirty-first of March, that it was impossible to have a complete mutual understanding when orders were to be put into effect. Nor could they make themselves alike familiar with material conditions, such as grounds and bridges, or with the existing state of things at important junctures, owing to rapid, unforeseen changes.
4. Time lost, and sequence confused, by the difficulty of getting over the ground to carry orders, or to obey them; owing to the condition of the roads, or lack of them, and the extreme darkness of the night.
We had very able officers of the general staff, at each headquarters ; otherwise things might have been worse. The responsibilities, labors, tests and perils,— physical and moral,— that
often fall upon staff officers in the field, are great and trying. Upon their intelligence, alertness, accuracy of observation and report, their promptitude, energy and endurance, the fate of a corps or a field, may depend.
The frictions, mischances and misunderstandings of all these circumstances falling across Warren’s path, might well have bewildered the brightest mind, and rendered nugatory the most faithful intentions.
Meantime, it may well be conceived we who held that extreme front line had an anxious night. Griffin was with me most of the time, and in investigating the state of things in front of our picket lines some time after midnight, we discovered that the enemy were carefully putting out their fires all along their own visible front. Griffin regards this as evidence of a contemplated attack on us, and he sends this information and suggestion to headquarters, and thus adds a new element to the already well-shaken mixture of uncertainty and seeming cross-purposes. But with us, the chief result was an anxiety that forbade a moment’s relaxation from intense vigilance.
Meantime Ayres had kept on, according to Warren’s first orders to him, getting a small instalment of rations on the way, and arriving at Warren’s “Bridge of Sighs” on the Gravelly Run, just as it was ready, at about two o’clock in the morning, whence he pushed down the Plank Road and reported to Sheridan before Dinwiddie just as the day was dawning. Whereupon he was informed that he advanced two miles further than General Sheridan desired, and he had to face about his exhausted men and go back to a cross road which he had passed for the very sufficient reason that Sheridan had no staff-officer there to guide him where he was wanted.
At three o’clock I had got in my pickets, which were replaced by Crawford’s, and let my men rest as quietly as possible, knowing there would be heavy burdens laid on them in the morning. For, while dividing the sporadic mule-rations, word came to us that the Fifth Corps, as an organization, was to report to Sheridan at once and be placed under his orders. We kept our
heads and hearts as well as we could; for we thought both would be needed. It was near daylight when my command,— all there was of Griffin’s Division then left on the front,— drew out from the White Oak Road; Crawford’s Division replacing us, to be brought off carefully under Warren’s eye. We shortly picked up Bartlett’s returning brigade, halted, way-worn and jaded with marching and countermarching, and struck off in the direction of the Boisseau houses and the Crump Road, following their heavy tracks in the mud and mire marking a way where before there was none; one of those recommended “directions across the country,” which this veteran brigade found itself thus compelled to travel for the third time in lieu of rest or rations, churning the sloughs and quicksands with emotions and expressions that could be conjectured only by a veteran of the Old Testament dispensation.
I moved with much caution in approaching doubtful vicinities, throwing forward an advance-guard, which as we expected to encounter the enemy in force, I held immediately in my own hand. Griffin followed at the head of my leading brigade, ready for whatever should happen. Arrived at the banks of the south branch of Gravelly Run, where Bartlett had made his dispositions the night before, from a mile in our front the glitter of advancing cavalry caught my eye, saber-scabbards and belt-brasses flashing back the level rays of the rising sun. Believing this to be nothing else than the rebel cavalry we expected to find somewhere before us, we made dispositions for instant attack. But the steady on-coming soon revealed the blue of our own cavalry, with Sheridan’s weird battle-flag in the van. I reduce my front, get into the road again, and hardly less anxious than before move forward to meet Sheridan.
We come face to face. The sunlight helps out the expression of each a little. I salute: “I report to you, General, with the head of Griffin’s Division.” The courteous recognition is given. Then, the stern word, more charge than question: “Why did you not come before ? Where is Warren ?” “He is at the rear of the column, sir.” “That is where I expected to
find him. What is he doing there?” “General, we are withdrawing from the White Oak Road, where we fought all day. General Warren is bringing off his last division, expecting an attack.” Griffin comes up. My responsibility is at an end. I feel better. I am directed to mass my troops by the roadside. We are not sorry for that. Ayres soon comes up on the Brooks Road. Crawford arrives at length, and masses his troops also, near the J. Boisseau house, at the junction of the Five Forks Road. We were on the ground the enemy had occupied the evening before. It was Bartlett’s outstretched line in their rear, magnified by the magic lens of night into the semblance of the whole Fifth Corps right upon them, which induced them to withdraw from Sheridan’s front and fall back upon Five Forks.(1) So after all Bartlett had as good as fought a successful battle, by a movement which might have been praised as Napoleonic had other fortunes favored.
We cannot wonder that Sheridan might not be in the best of humor that morning. It is not pleasant for a temperament like his to experience the contradiction of having the ardent expectations of himself and his superior turned into disaster and retreat. It was but natural that he should be incensed against Warren. For not deeply impressed with the recollection that he had found himself unable to go to the assistance of Warren as he had been ordered to do, his mind retained the irritation of vainly expecting assistance from Warren the moment he desired it, without considering what Warren might have on hand at the same time. Nor could Warren be expected to be in a very exuberant mood after such a day and night. Hence the auguries for the cup of loving-kindness on this crowning day of Five Forks were not favorable. Each of them was under the shadow of yesterday: one, of a mortifying repulse; the other, of thankless success. Were Warren a mind-reader he would have known it was a time to put on a warmer manner towards Sheridan. For a voice of doom was in the air.
(1) Testimony of Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee, Warren Court, Vol. I, p. 481.
That morning, two hours after the head of the Fifth Corps column had reported to General Sheridan, an officer of the artillery staff had occasion to find where the Fifth Corps was,— evidently not knowing that under orders from superiors it had been like “all Gaul” divided into three parts, if not four quarters,— and went for that purpose to the point where Warren had had his headquarters the night before. Warren, in leaving at daybreak, had not removed his headquarters’ material; but in consideration for his staff, who had been on severe duty all night, told Colonel Locke, Captain Melcher and a few others to stay and take a little rest before resuming the tasking duties of the coming day. It was about nine o’clock in the morning when the artillery officer reached Warren’s old headquarters, and suddenly rousing Colonel Locke asked where the Fifth Corps was. Locke, so abruptly wakened, his sound sleep bridging the break of his last night’s consciousness, rubbed his eyes, and with dazed simplicity answered that when he went to sleep the Fifth Corps was halted to build a bridge at Gravelly Run on the Plank Road. No time was lost in reporting this at headquarters, without making further inquiries as to the whereabouts of the Fifth Corps,— now for three hours with Sheridan on the Five Forks Road. Thereupon General Grant forthwith sends General Babcock to tell General Sheridan that “if he had any reason to be dissatisfied with General Warren,” or as it has since been put, “if in his opinion the interests of the service gave occasion for it,” he might relieve him from command of his corps.(1)
“So do we walk amidst the precipices of our fate.”
(1) Records, Warren Court; testimony of Capt. Warner, page 38; of General Babcock, page 901 ; also of General Sheridan, page 93; and General Grant, page 1028.
General Grant afterwards stated that although this information about the bridge was the occasion, it was not the reason, of his authorization of General Sheridan to depose General Warren from his command. Ibid, page 1030.
That bridge,— for a non-existent one,— had a strange potency. Considering how various were the tests of which it was made the instrument, it well rivals that other “pons asinorum” of Euclid; and certainly the associated triangle was of surpassing attributes; for the squares described on the two “legs” of it were far more than equal to that so laboriously executed on its hypothenuse.
All was left to Sheridan’s judgment and feeling. The power was his. Still one must justify himself in the exercise of rights and powers. We too must realize the situation. Sheridan, with his habit of intense, concentrated purpose, and indomitable, virile will, was indispensable to Grant in the field. None other of the commanders reminded us of Attila, king of the Huns. Warren, with his bright mind, analytic rather than synthetic, seeing things in their details, quick to seize a situation, yet lacking that tornado force that sweeps only the path before it, was scarcely suited to wield the thunderbolt of Sheridan. He was a good fighter; but he thought of too many things.
General Warren has been blamed, and perhaps justly, for attacking with a single division on the White Oak Road. As he denies that he intended this for an attack, we will put it that he is blamed for not sufficiently supporting a reconnaissance; so that the repulse of it involved the disorderly retreat of two divisions of his corps. It is to be said to this that he very shortly more than recovered this ground, driving the enemy with serious loss into his works. But at the worst, was that a fault hitherto unknown among corps or army commanders? Sheridan attacked with a single division when he was ordered to take Five Forks on the day before, and was driven back by a very inferior force to that he had in hand. He was not blamed, although the result of this failure was the next day’s dire misfortunes. And on this very day, driven back discomfited into Dinwiddie, he was not blamed; he was praised,— and in this high fashion. General Grant in his official report and subsequent histories speaking of this repulse says: “Here General Sheridan displayed great generalship. Instead of retreating with his whole command on the main army, to tell the story of superior forces encountered, he deployed his cavalry on foot, leaving only mounted men enough to take charge of the horses. This compelled the enemy to deploy over a vast extent of wooded and broken country and made his progress slow.”
If Warren had the benefit of this definition of great generalship, he might have known better what to do on the White Oak
Road. Perhaps also Pickett and Fitz Hugh Lee might have profited by this implied rebuke for allowing themselves to be so “bluffed,” and “compelled to deploy,” instead of following their old fashion of concentrating on a vulnerable point and launching javelin-like through their enemy’s lines. Perhaps, however, they had a wise diffidence of so exhibiting themselves before our stalwart dismounted cavalry, having a well grounded opinion also that our cavalry breech-loaders, Spencers and repeaters were quite a match for the unwieldy muzzle-loading Richmond or Springfield rifles, and that for all purposes except running, a man on two legs is better than a man on four.
Warren was deposed from his command at Five Forks mainly, I have no doubt, under the irritation at his being slow in getting up to Sheridan the night before from the White Oak Road. But he was working and fighting all day to hold the advanced left flank of Grant’s chosen position, and harrassed all night with conflicting and stultifying orders, while held between two threatening forces; his left with nothing to prevent Lee’s choice troops disengaged from Sheridan from striking it a crushing blow; and on the other hand, Lee himself in person, evidently regarding this the vital point, with all the troops he could gather there, ready to deliver on that little front a mortal stroke. For it is not true as has been stated by high authority, that any troops that had fought us on the White Oak Road had gone to Pickett’s support at Five Forks that day. And when in the gray of the morning he moved out to receive Sheridan’s not over-gracious welcome to the Fifth Corps, Warren withdrew from under the very eyes of Lee, his rear division faced by the rear rank, ready for the not-improbable attack, himself the last to leave the field that might have been so glorious,— now fated to be forgotten.
It may be presumption to offer opinions on the operations of that day under such commanders. But having ventured some statements of fact that seem like criticism, it may be required of me to suggest what better could have been done, or to show reason why what was done was not the best. I submit therefore, the following remarks:
1. Five Forks should have been occupied on the thirtieth as Grant had ordered, and when there was nothing formidable to oppose. The cavalry could then easily strike the Southside Railroad, and the Fifth and Second Corps be extended to envelope the entire right of the enemy’s position, and at the opportune moment the general assault could be successfully made, as Grant had contemplated when he formed his purpose of acting as one army with all his forces in the field.
2. This plan failing, there were two openings promising good results; one, to let the cavalry linger about Dinwiddie and threaten Lee’s communications, so as to draw out a large body of his troops from the entrenchments into the open where they could be attacked on equal ground, and his army be at least materially crippled; the other, to direct the assault immediately on the right of Lee’s entrenched lines on the Fifth Corps front,— the cavalry, of course, sweeping around their flank so as to take them in reverse, while the infantry concentrated on their weakest point.
A third thing was to do a little of both; — and this is what we seem to have adopted, playing from one to the other, fitfully and indecisively, more than one day and night.
Beyond doubt it was Grant’s plan when he formed his new purpose on the night of the twenty-ninth, to turn the enemy on their Claiborne flank, and follow this up sharply by vigorous assault on the weakest point of their main line in front of Petersburg. The positions taken up by the Fifth and Second Corps are explained by such a purpose, and the trying tasks and hard fighting required of them for the first three days are therein justified. The evidence of this purpose is ample.(1)
(1) As evidence that a general attack was intended, we may cite the order suspending it. It is from Grant to Meade, received by the latter at about one o’clock in the morning of the thirty-first. “I think it has now got to be so late forgetting out orders, that it would be doubtful whether Wright could be fully cooperated with by all parts of the army if he was to assault as he proposes. . . . You might notify him to arrange his preliminaries and see if Parke can get ready also; and if so, give him definite orders as soon as it is known. I will telegraph to Ord and ascertain if he can get ready. Warren and Humphreys would have nothing to do but to push forward where they are. . . .” But a later order to Meade reads: “You may notify Parke and Wright that they need not assault in the morning. … I have pretty much made up my mind what to do, and will inform you in the morning what it is.” Rebellion Records, Serial 97, pages 285, 286, and following. But the understanding of these orders is made difficult by their not being arranged in the order of their delivery.
Everything was made ready, but the attack was suspended. I am not upon the inquiry whether this was postponed until Sheridan should have done something; my point is that if, or when, this purpose was abandoned for another line of action, other dispositions should have been promptly made, and information given to officers charged with responsibilities and environed with difficulties as Warren was, so that they could catch the change of key. Grant had set the machinery in motion for the White Oak Road, and it was hard and slow work to reverse it when he suddenly changed his tactics, and resolved to concentrate on Sheridan. Why was the Fifth Corps advanced after Ayres’ repulse ? The “reconnaissance ” had been made; the enemy’s position and strength ascertained, and our party had returned to the main line. There was no justification in pressing so hard on that point of the White Oak Road, at such costs, unless we meant to follow up this attack to distinct and final results. This may possibly be laid to Warren’s charge in his anxiety and agony to “save the honor of the Fifth Corps.” But this was not essential to the grander tactics of the field. I sometimes blame myself,— if I may presume to exalt myself into such high company,— for going beyond the actual recovery of Ayres’ lost field, and pressing on for the White Oak Road, when it was not readily permitted me to do so. It may be that my too youthful impetuosity about the White Oak Road got Warren into this false position across this road, where all night, possessed with seven devils, we tried to get down to Sheridan and Five Forks. But I verily believed that what we wanted was the enemy’s right, on the White Oak Road. How could we then know Grant’s change of purpose? However, it was all a mistake if we were going to abandon everything before morning. We should have been withdrawn at once, and put in position for the new demonstration. That order to mass on the
Boydton Road, received at about ten o’clock at night, should have been given much earlier,— as soon as we could safely move away from the presence of the enemy,— if we were to reenforce Sheridan on his own lines.
3. But better than this, as things were, it would have been to leave a small force on the White Oak Road to occupy the enemy’s attention, and move the whole Fifth Corps to attack the rear of the enemy then confronting Sheridan, as Meade suggested to Grant at ten o’clock at night.(1) It would have been as easy for us all to go, as for Bartlett. With such force we would not have stopped on Gravelly Run, but would have struck Pickett’s and Fitz Hugh Lee’s rear, and compelled them to make a bivouac under our supervision, on that ground where they had “deployed.” They would not have been able to retire in the morning, as they were constrained to do by Bartlett’s demonstration.
4. No doubt it was right to save the honor of the cavalry before Dinwiddie, as of the Fifth Corps before the White Oak Road; and Sheridan’s withdrawal to that place having lured out so large a force,— six thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry,— from a good military position to the exposed one at Five Forks, it was good tactics to fall upon them and smash them up. Lee, strangely enough, did not think we would do this; for he held himself in his main lines on his right, as the point requiring his presence ; and sent reenforcements from there for his imperiled detachment only so late that they did not report until after the struggle at Five Forks was all over.
But we owe much to fortune. Had the enemy on the thirty-first let Fitz Hugh Lee with his cavalry reenforcements occupy Sheridan, and rushed Pickett’s division with the two brigades of Johnson’s down the White Oak Road upon the flank of the momentarily demoralized Fifth Corps, while Hunton and Grade and Wallace and Wise were on its front, we should have had trouble. Or had they, after repulsing Sheridan towards evening, left the cavalry deployed across his front to baffle his
(1) Records, Warren Court, p. 1251.
observation, while Pickett should make the converse movement on us to ours on him with Bartlett’s Brigade, and come across from that Crump Road to fall upon our untenable flank position, it would have opened all eyes to the weakness and error of our whole situation. What would have become of us, some higher power than any there only could say.
The battle of Five Forks was also the battle of the White Oak Road, on an extended front, in an accidental and isolated position, and at a delayed hour. It was successful, owing to the character of the troops, and the skill and vigor of the commander. Appomattox was a glorious result of strong pushing and hard marching. But both could have been forestalled, and all that fighting, together with that at Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge and Farmville have been concentrated in one grand assault, of which the sharp-edged line along the White Oak Road would have been one blade of the shears, and Ord and Wright and Parke on the main line the other, and the hard and costly ten days’ chase and struggle would have been spared so many noble men. Lee would not have got a day’s start of us in the desperate race. Sheridan cutting the enemy’s communications and rolling up their scattering fugitives would have shown his great qualities, and won conspicuous, though not supreme honors. Warren would have shared the glories of his corps. Humphreys and Wright with their veterans of the Second and Sixth, whose superb action compelled the first flag of truce contemplating Lee’s surrender, would not have stood idly around the headquarters’ flag of the Army of the Potomac, with Longstreet’s right wing brought to bay before them, waiting till Lee’s final answer to Grant should come through Sheridan to the Fifth Corps front, where Ord, of the Army of the James, commanded. And Meade, the high-born gentleman and high-borne soldier, would have been spared the slight of being held back with the main body of his army, while the laurels were bestowed by chance or choice, which had been so fairly won by that old army in long years of heroic patience in well-doing and suffering; — might have been spared the after humiliation of experiencing in his
own person how fortune and favor preside in the final distribution of honors in a Country’s recognition.
So we leave again,—the Fifth Corps and the White Oak Road. But it was by one of those strange overrulings of Providence, or what some might call poetic justice, and some the irony of history, that it befell Sheridan to have with him at Five Forks and at Appomattox Court House,—not slow nor inconspicuous,— the rejected old Fifth Corps.
- WAR PAPERS READ BEFORE THE STATE OF MAINE COMMANDERY OF THE MILITARY ORDER OF THE LOYAL LEGION OF THE UNITED STATES, Volume 1, pages 207-253 ↩