April 1, 1865 – Federals routed an isolated Confederate force southwest of Petersburg. This began the campaign to end the war in Virginia.
Following the engagement north of Dinwiddie Court House on March 31, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry cut the Confederate supply line at Stony Creek. 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.”
The Confederates had not yet been defeated on any part of the Petersburg siege line, but Lee knew that the superior Federal numbers and armament would soon prove too overwhelming to bear. He therefore started arranging to evacuate to the west. It would require a nearly unprecedented feat of logistics to move some 50,000 men out of a 37-mile long network of trenches while holding the enemy at bay and keeping the escape route unclogged. To ensure that his army remained fed, Lee worked with the Commissary Department to have 350,000 rations shipped from Richmond to Amelia Court House, a stop along the westward retreat.
Meanwhile, on the southwestern-most point of Lee’s line, Major General George Pickett’s isolated Confederate force fell back northward to Five Forks after the Dinwiddie engagement. Five Forks was a key position because it facilitated the flow of supplies from the South Side Railroad to Lee’s army. It would also be Lee’s key escape route when needed. Pickett’s men positioned themselves behind hastily built fortifications and trenches.
Sheridan sought to destroy Pickett’s force and seize both Five Forks and the South Side Railroad beyond. He later wrote, “I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks–he had to, so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan of battle.” Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack designed to isolate Pickett’s force from the rest of the Confederate army and clear a path to the railroad:
- Major General Wesley Merritt’s two cavalry divisions would launch a diversionary attack on Pickett’s front.
- Brigadier General Ranald S. Mackenzie’s cavalry division would feign an attack on the Confederates’ far left, exploiting the gap between Pickett and the main Confederate line to the east.
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would come up to attack Pickett’s left and rear.
On the Confederate side, Pickett and the other ranking Confederate commander, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, inexplicably left their troops for a shad bake, two miles in the rear. This left Brigadier General Rooney Lee in charge of the cavalry and Brigadier General George H. Steuart in charge of the infantry. Neither Rooney nor Steuart knew that their superiors had left, or that they were now the ranking commanders.
Federal cavalry under Merritt and Mackenzie advanced as scheduled, but Warren’s infantry did not. As Sheridan waited impatiently, a courier handed him a dispatch from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “General Grant directs me to say to you, that if in your judgment the Fifth Corps would do better under one of the division commanders, you are authorized to relieve General Warren, and order him to report to General Grant, at headquarters.”
Warren’s 12,000 men finally advanced, but due to a faulty map supplied by Sheridan, the leading two divisions marched past the Confederate left flank instead of directly into it. Warren reported:
“After the forward movement began, a few minutes brought us to the White Oak road, distant about 1,000 yards. There we found the advance of General Mackenzie’s cavalry, which, coming up the White Oak road, had arrived there just before us. This showed us for the first time that we were too far to our right of the enemy’s left flank.”
This caused more delays and isolated Warren’s remaining division in an enemy crossfire. Enraged, Sheridan redirected the leading two divisions and the assault resumed. Noting that Warren was not at the front to handle these matters himself, Sheridan told his chief of staff, “By God, sir, tell General Warren he wasn’t in that fight!” When the officer asked if he could put this message in writing, Sheridan fumed, “Take it down, sir! Tell him by God he was not at the front!”
Sheridan ordered Major General Charles Griffin, Warren’s ranking division commander, to replace Warren. Sheridan later explained that this was “necessary to protect myself in this critical situation, and General Warren having sorely disappointed me, both in the moving of his corps and in its management during the battle, I felt that he was not the man to rely upon under such circumstances, and deeming that it was to the best interest of the service as well as but just to myself, I relieved him, ordering him to report to General Grant.”
Such an order meant professional ruin, so when Warren received it, he rode to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. Sheridan snapped, “Reconsider, hell! I don’t reconsider any decisions! Obey the order!” This marked the first time that a commander in the Army of the Potomac had ever been relieved of duty for lacking aggression in combat. Grant upheld Sheridan’s decision, later writing:
“He (Warren) was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.”
However, the delays had not been Warren’s fault, and they ultimately did not affect the battle’s outcome. A court of inquiry later cleared Warren’s name, but the court’s findings were not published until after he died.
The Federals made progress all along the line once Griffin took over, but Sheridan would accept nothing but total victory. When an officer proudly announced that his troops had penetrated the enemy rear and captured five guns, Sheridan shouted, “I don’t care a damn for their guns, or you either, sir! What I want is that Southside Railway!”
Ultimately, Griffin’s Federals overwhelmed the enemy left, while dismounted cavalry pushed the enemy right. The Confederates could only offer a token resistance; many fled or were taken prisoner, and they were virtually wiped out by 7 p.m. A northern correspondent reported: “They had no commanders, at least no orders, and looked in vain for some guiding hand. A few more volleys, a new and irresistible charge… and with a sullen and tearful impulse, 5,000 muskets are flung upon the ground.”
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. Moreover, Mackenzie’s Federal troopers blocked the main line of Confederate retreat, thus ensuring that Pickett would remain isolated from the rest of Lee’s army.
This was the most overwhelming Federal victory of the war. It was also Lee’s first decisive defeat since this campaign began in northern Virginia nearly a year ago. This battle and the fighting at Fort Stedman on March 25 cost Lee nearly a quarter of his whole army.
The remnants of Pickett’s force, numbering no more than 800 men, retreated to the Appomattox River. The Federals now surrounded Petersburg south of the Appomattox River and moved even closer to the vital South Side Railroad. Lee could now do nothing except retreat before his army was destroyed.
Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff witnessed the battle and rode back to headquarters that night to report the resounding victory. Grant listened to Porter’s account and then disappeared into his tent. He came out a few minutes later and announced, “I have ordered an immediate assault all along the lines.”
Grant informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, that his two corps under Major Generals John G. Parke and Horatio G. Wright were to launch a general assault on the eastern sector of the Petersburg line: “Wright and Parke should be directed to feel for a chance to get through the enemy’s line at once, and if they can get through should push on tonight. All our batteries might be opened at once, without waiting for preparing assaulting columns. Let the corps commanders know the result of the left, and that it is being pushed.”
President Abraham Lincoln, monitoring the action from Grant’s former headquarters at City Point, received a wire from Grant that night hailing Sheridan’s victory: “He has carried everything before him,” including capturing “several batteries” and “several thousand prisoners.” Federals brought Lincoln several trophies from the fight, 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.”
Federal artillery opened all along the Petersburg siege line, from the Appomattox River to Hatcher’s Run, at 10 p.m. and continued through the night. This was meant to soften the Confederate defenses for the next morning’s assault. It was the heaviest Federal bombardment of the war, heavier than even the barrage at Gettysburg. A gunner later wrote of the “constant stream of living fire” blazing forth.
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