The Battle of Five Forks

April 1, 1865 – Federals routed Confederates west of Petersburg, beginning the campaign to end the war in Virginia.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals cut the Confederates’ supply line at Stony Creek after the previous day’s engagement near Dinwiddie Court House. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that this “seriously threatens our position and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg… I fear he can cut both the South Side and the Danville railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry. This in my opinion obliges us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.”[1]

Confederates under Major General George Pickett held Lee’s right flank, and they had withdrawn to Five Forks after holding off yesterday’s Federal attack near Dinwiddie. Knowing that a defeat at Five Forks would threaten his army’s escape route out of Petersburg, Lee warned Pickett: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.”[2]

By 1 p.m. on the 1st, General Wesley Merritt’s Federal cavalry deployed against Pickett’s entrenched lines. Sheridan, the overall Federal commander of the operation, planned for Merritt to pin the Confederates down while V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren attacked the enemy left. Meanwhile, Pickett and the other high-ranking Confederate commander, General Fitzhugh Lee, inexplicably left their troops for a shad bake. Neither Pickett nor Lee informed their subordinates of their whereabouts.[3]

The Federal cavalry attacked as scheduled, but Warren’s V Corps did not begin attacking until around 4 p.m. Even then, Warren attacked the wrong point due to faulty intelligence and nearly missed his goal. Even so, overwhelming Federal numbers virtually wiped the Confederates out by 7 p.m. When Pickett finally returned from the shad bake, some 5,200 of his men had already been either shot or taken prisoner, roughly half his force. Federals also captured 13 battle flags and six cannon while suffering about 1,000 casualties.[4]

Sheridan received permission from U.S. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to remove Warren from corps command due to tardiness and lack of aggression, even though the delay had not been Warren’s fault and did not affect the massive Federal victory. Warren later cleared his name, but his military career was over.[5]

President Abraham Lincoln, staying at Grant’s former headquarters in City Point, Virginia, received a wire from Grant this evening hailing Sheridan’s victory: “He has carried everything before him,” including capturing “several batteries” and “several thousand prisoners.” Lincoln received several trophies from the battle, including captured battle flags. Lincoln held up one of them and said, “Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand. This means victory. This is victory.”[6]

With this rout at Five Forks, the Federals now surrounded Petersburg south of the Appomattox River and moved even closer to the vital South Side Railroad. This convinced Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond to save his army. Eager to destroy Lee’s force as soon as possible, Grant wired orders for “an immediate assault along the lines” for 4:30 the next morning.[7]

—–

[1] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18111-18121

[2] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18233-18262; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 661-63

[3] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18233-18262; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82-91; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 102, 203-04

[4] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18233-18262; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 82-91; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 661-63

[5] Catton, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, p. 566, 574; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 661-63

[6] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18735-18755; Long with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 661-63

[7] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18341-18351; Linedecker, (ed.), The Civil War A to Z, p. 102, 203-04; Long with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 661-63; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68

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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Five Forks

  1. […] Battle of Five Forks occurred, in which Federals routed George Pickett’s Confederates and compelled General Robert […]

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  2. […] Battle of Five Forks occurred, in which Federals routed George Pickett’s Confederates and compelled General Robert […]

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