March 30, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee planned a Confederate assault, while Major General Philip Sheridan pleaded with the Federal high command to launch an attack of his own.
By this time, most of the Federal and Confederate manpower involved in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond was concentrated southwest of Petersburg, on the extreme right flank of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee arrived in this sector on the morning of the 30th to inspect positions and confer with his commanders at Sutherland Station.
Lee ordered Major General George Pickett’s Confederate infantry division and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to move west, beyond the right flank, and occupy Five Forks. This was a key intersection that Lee needed to hold if he was going to continue receiving supplies from the South Side Railroad. From Five Forks, Pickett and Fitzhugh were to drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry away from Dinwiddie Court House, five miles south.
To the east, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps was posted on the extreme Confederate right. Anderson’s men held the White Oak Road, including Burgess’s Mill, but there was a four-mile gap between these troops and those under Pickett and Fitzhugh. R.E. Lee worked to plug this gap before the Federals could exploit it.
Sheridan’s troopers at Dinwiddie were supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Warren’s corps was the closest to Sheridan, with Humphreys’s corps farther east. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee hoped to not only drive Sheridan away from Dinwiddie, but to isolate him from Warren and Humphreys as well.
The pouring rain continued throughout the 30th and slowed movements to a crawl. Sheridan sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to probe the Confederate defenses, and skirmishing ensued until Merritt finally withdrew. Warren’s men also conducted probing actions which delayed Pickett from reaching Five Forks until around 4:30 p.m. The Confederates deployed along the White Oak Road, and Pickett and Fitzhugh agreed to attack in the morning.
Meanwhile, Sheridan planned to advance on Five Forks the next day, despite the continuing rain. He directed Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division to corduroy the roads so the advance could proceed. However, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, finally gave in to pleas from his staff officers to postpone the action until the rain stopped.
Grant notified Sheridan that it was “impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired.” Therefore, he was to hold his position with a token force and withdraw the rest until the weather improved. Sheridan, believing “that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake,” rode as fast as he could to Grant’s headquarters on the Vaughan Road near Gravelly Run. Sheridan later recalled that upon his arrival:
“General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud, and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside’s army was after the mud march of 1863.”
Sheridan insisted that he could destroy Lee’s right flank if he had infantry support. When a staff officer asked Sheridan how he expected to find forage for 13,000 men and horses, Sheridan snapped: “Forage? I’ll get all the forage I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads, and corduroy every mile of them from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.” Liking what he heard, Grant wrote out new orders for Sheridan:
“If your situation 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, as early in the morning as you can, your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. Orders have been given Ord, Wright and Parke to be ready to assault at daylight tomorrow morning. They will not make the assault, however, without further directions… If the assault is not ordered in the morning, then it can be directed at such time as to come in co-operation with you on the left.”
Major General Horatio G. Wright and Major General John G. Parke commanded VI and IX corps respectively. These two corps had been assigned to hold the Petersburg line to the northeast, and both Wright and Parke reported that the Confederate line across from them was so thin that they could easily break through. They were poised to do so as soon as word arrived that Sheridan had succeeded.
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