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NP: April 1, 1965 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 39: Five Forks: Signal For Evacuation

Five Forks: Signal For Evacuation

(The following is the thirty-ninth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the campaign for Petersburg.)

A century ago today the Battle of Five Forks wrote finis to the campaign for Petersburg and spelled out in terms which could not be mistaken the necessity for evacuating Petersburg and Richmond without delay. Less than a week earlier the failure of the Confederate attack on Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg, had turned in much the same report, but without filling in the details.

The period between these two peaks of action, Fort Stedman and Five Forks, had not been a time of inaction, although the developments merely can be suggested here. Grant was stepping up the tempo of his preparations already under way. Lee was preparing to deal as well as he could with the hammer blows which were coming.

Having completed his task in the Valley of Virginia, General Sheridan, preceded by thousands of horses, arrived at City Point soon after Fort Stedman. Then came General Sherman to confer with General Grant, and the sight of his successful collaborator must have applied a stimulus to Grant’s desire to be able to report striking results. Already he was shifting his forces in preparation for offensive action.

Although Sheridan had resisted an urge to make a raid against the Southside Railroad, Lee had sent Fitzhugh Lee’s division up the tracks to Sutherland Station. On the evening of the 29th [of March, 1865] Pickett’s division was sent by rail to the same point. Fitzhugh Lee and Pickett fortified their position at Five Forks to protect the Confederate right. They repulsed minor attacks, as did Gordon on the Confederate left. March 30 [1865] saw more rain than action. Observers opined that the same rain which seemed to depress Grant’s spirits stimulated Sheridan’s desire to strike out and start smashing.

March 31 [1865] brought somewhat better weather and sharp reminders of past behavior of the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Hatcher’s Run area spirited attacks were made against the Union V Corps. Although initial successes could have little effect on the Union troops being massed, the gallantry displayed had a visibly tonic effect upon Lee’s spirits.

Farther to the right, Fitzhugh Lee and Pickett gave Sheridan what he admitted to be one of the liveliest days of his career. He was driven back almost to Dinwiddie Courthouse in an engagement which some have called the last offensive Confederate victory.

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All of these moves and actions were preliminary to the great Battle of Five Forks, at a country crossroads which was vital to the defense of the Southside Railroad, which was equivalent to the continued defense of Petersburg. Lee’s decision to defend a position isolated from his main line exhibited once more his proverbial daring, but his order to defend it at all hazards was not executed very literally. Indeed few Confederate performances have provoked more Confederate recriminations than the battle which raged a century ago today.

Having struck at Five Forks and having been pushed back upon Dinwiddie Courthouse, Sheridan began calling for infantry reinforcements. He received the V Corps, although he preferred the VI Corps. He was placed in charge of the operation. One division of the V Corps, commanded by General Warren, reached him during the night, but arrival of the other two was delayed until day.

According to Sheridan’s plan for capture of Five Forks, his cavalry would hold the front and demonstrate against the confederate right, while Warren’s infantry attacked the Confederate left. Sheridan left Dinwiddie Courthouse at daybreak and began to push back, with less ease and speed than he expected, the small Confederate forces which had been left to guard the approaches to Five Forks. But it was Warren’s lack of speed which concerned Sheridan, for the commander of the V Corps did not report and receive instructions until about 11 o’clock in the morning.

At Five Forks the Confederate forces were strengthening their works along the north side of White Oak Road extending across the forks. They sang “Annie Laurie” and “Dixie” as they added logs and branches for protection. Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Pickett, evidently not anticipating the large – scale cavalry – infantry movement which was in the making, went off to enjoy a shadbake provided by General Rosser.

The opposing forces made contact about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but it was 4 o’clock before the battle was joined. The Union artillery fire was called some of the most terrific ever heard. Sheridan, as described by General Porter, who observed the battle for Grant, performed as “the very incarnation of battle.” Riding on his black horse, Rienzi, he was waving his flag, shaking his fist, threatening, praying, and swearing. But his theatrical performance seems to have been effective.

To the east Warren played his role in more deliberate and less dramatic fashion. Because the information which Sheridan had given him was not accurate and because he had not checked it, Warren was headed toward a point east of the intended point of attack. His infantry was going past the battle. After the infantry was discovered and corrected, the V Corps turned to the left and struck the Confederate rear. The error contributed something to the Union victory by enabling the attackers almost to surround the Confederate force and cut off the route of retreat to Petersburg.

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Five Forks was the scene of about two hours of some of the most desperate fighting of the campaign for Petersburg or of the Civil War. The Confederate defeat was a rout. More than 3,000 were captured, and the remainder fled north and reorganized under cover of darkness. Pickett returned from the wagon park on Hatcher’s Run too late to affect the course of battle. Later he would criticize Lee for the choice of the place to be defended and Fitzhugh Lee for the performance of his cavalry, but the story of the untimely shadbake would not see the light of print for some years. There was little chance that the defending force could have held off Sheridan’s cavalry and Warren’s infantry, but it might have prevented the rout.

Confederate casualties included the mortally wounded Colonel William Johnson Pegram, who in life had become a legend of courage. On the Union side, Sheridan, angry over what he considered to be Warren’s delay and knowing that Warren was not in favor with Grant, relieved him of command and placed General Griffin in charge of the V Corps. The skids seem to have been well greased. Apparently Warren’s past services and the victory itself counted for nothing, while he was held accountable for errors which were his and errors which were not his. Eventually, and not at all easily, he succeeded in obtaining an investigation by a court of inquiry. The findings criticized his slowness on March 31 but found no serious fault with his actions on April 1. Warren died a few weeks before the climax of his long fight for vindication.

Informed of the victory at his Dabney’s Mill headquarters, Grant notified Lincoln and the corps commanders and instructed General Weitzel before Richmond to take advantage of any withdrawal of troops there. He was tempted to make a general and immediate attack but set the time at 4 o’clock on the morning of April 2.

A large part of the Confederate force had been cut off from the army defending Petersburg; the mobile force which Lee had created to defend his right had been eliminated. At long last the Union force was within striking distance of the Southside Railroad. The evacuation of Petersburg had become a matter of imminent necessity rather than one of discretion. Lee’s problem now was to hold off the enemy long enough to make an orderly evacuation of Petersburg.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “Five Forks: Signal For Evacuation.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  April 1, 1965, p. 4, col. 1-2
{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Horn May 28, 2016, 9:02 pm

    Pickett’s failure to recapture Dinwiddie Court House provided the signal for evacuation. From Dinwiddie Court House, the Federals had the angle on the Confederates in any retreat toward North Carolina from Richmond and Petersburg.

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