Tag Archives: Philip Sheridan

The Battle of Five Forks

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.

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

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 520-21; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 349-61; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 443-45; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18111-21, 18233-62, 18341-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 573-74; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8336; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 803; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 275-76; 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; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 661-63; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 803; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5612; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 261-62; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 73-75, 79-80, 99

The Dinwiddie Court House Engagement

March 31, 1865 – Confederates repelled a Federal advance in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg siege lines, but the Federals would not be denied for long.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The heavy rains had finally stopped by the morning of the 31st. Confederate infantry and cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia held Five Forks, a key intersection protecting the South Side Railroad west of Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, ordered this force to move south and drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry corps out of Dinwiddie Court House. This would secure Five Forks and isolate Sheridan from infantry support to the east.

As Lee inspected the lines, he saw a gap between Sheridan and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. He therefore ordered Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps, which by now consisted of just a single division, to attack and turn Warren’s left (west) flank away from Sheridan. In all, about 19,000 Confederates opposed some 50,000 Federals in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines.

Warren’s Federals held the Boydton Plank Road. To their right (east) was Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. Warren informed Humphreys:

“I cannot take up any regular line of battle on account of the woods and swamps, but have assembled each division at a point so they can fight in any direction with the line refused… I don’t think your left could be turned, even if I moved away, without you having full information.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, notified Warren, “Owing to the weather, no change will today be made in the present position of the troops. Three days’ rations of subsistence and forage will be brought up and issued to the troops and the artillery, and every one authorized to accompany them.” The Federals were unaware that a Confederate attack was imminent.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned an attack of his own, as Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin, known as “Sheridan’s hard hitter,” advanced his division north toward Five Forks. The Federals were unexpectedly met by a Confederate assault from their left, led by Major General George Pickett. Devin’s men gradually fell back across the rain-soaked ground, as Devin notified Sheridan that both his flanks were under threat and Dinwiddie might have to be abandoned.

Sheridan brought up his other two divisions and secured a defense line about a mile north of Dinwiddie. The Confederates charged around dusk, but the Federals held firm as Sheridan instructed all regimental bands to come up to the front and play joyful music as loud as possible to jar enemy morale.

Sheridan then ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer to lead his division in a counterattack, telling Custer, “You understand? I want you to give it to them!” However, this effort came to nothing as the men and horses became tangled in the mud. Both sides fell back out of firing range as the sun set.

Three miles east, Warren ordered his lead division under Major General Romeyn B. Ayres to seize the White Oak Road because this was “essentially necessary to the safety of our position.” The Federals were suddenly met by Anderson’s charging Confederates. Ayres reported: “As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak road, the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.”

Ayres tried holding his ground, but some Confederates moved around and attacked his left flank, thus forcing him to fall back into Major General Samuel W. Crawford’s division. Crawford’s men broke as well, and the Federals retreated to a branch of Gravelly Run. Warren ordered them to hold there while he brought up his last division, under Major General Charles Griffin.

Griffin’s men, led by Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain’s brigade, advanced and slowly regained all lost ground. The Federals ultimately seized the White Oak Road, which cut Anderson’s men off from Pickett’s to the west. Also, Warren dispatched a brigade westward to threaten Pickett’s left flank as he confronted Sheridan. Meade reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that Warren had stopped the Confederate advance, and Humphreys was sending a division to Warren’s support. Grant asked:

“If the enemy has been checked in Warren’s front, what is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or return in good order to his old entrenchments? I do not understand why Warren permitted his corps to be fought in detail. When Ayres was pushed forward he should have sent other troops to their support.”

By nightfall, Pickett had won a tactical victory, but the Confederates had failed to drive Sheridan out of Dinwiddie or prevent the Federal cavalry and infantry from joining forces. Recognizing the danger of his position, Pickett fell back to protect Five Forks. His infantry held the line to the left while Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry held the right. There was still a three-mile gap between this force and Anderson’s to the east.

The Petersburg Front, 29-31 Mar 1865 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sheridan planned a frontal assault on Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee the next day. In conjunction, he wanted infantry to march through the gap and come up on Pickett’s left and rear. The nearest infantry was Warren’s V Corps, but Sheridan wanted Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, which had served under him in the Shenandoah Valley, to join him. Sheridan wrote Grant on the night of the 31st: “If the ground would permit I could, with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy’s right, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” Grant later wrote:

“I replied to him that it was impossible to send Wright’s corps because that corps was already in line close up to the enemy, where we should want him to assault when the proper time came, and was besides a long distance from him; but the 2d and 5th corps were on our extreme left and a little to the rear of it in a position to threaten the left flank of the enemy at Five Forks, and that I would send Warren… and put himself in communication with Sheridan as soon as possible, and report to him.”

Just as the men of V Corps settled down from the all-day fight, Warren received orders to march them westward all night to link with Sheridan by dawn. This proved extremely difficult, not only because the troops were exhausted, but because they would have to move in darkness across swollen creeks, swamps, and mud. They also had to stop and build a 40-foot bridge to span Gravelly Run. Warren informed Meade of the delay, but this was not forwarded to Sheridan, who wrote Warren at 3 a.m. on the 1st:

“I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-fourths of a mile, with General Custer’s division… I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s; if so, you are in rear of the enemy’s line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, have this division attack instantly and in full force.”

Sheridan did not receive any specific details as to where Warren was or when he might arrive. He also knew nothing about the difficulties Warren’s men faced in trying to reach Sheridan’s line. Moreover, Sheridan did not trust Warren, so if there was to be any delay in arriving in time for the next day’s fight, Warren would get the blame.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 346-49; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-43; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17855-95, 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572-73; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8312-36; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 533; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273-75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-61; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20, 261-62, 821

Petersburg: Both Sides Prepare to Attack

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.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 520; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 344-46; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-42; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 660; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78-79

Petersburg: Grant Looks to Destroy Lee

March 29, 1865 – Federal troops encircling Richmond and Petersburg embarked on a movement that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and end the war.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By the 29th, the Federals were poised to make their grand movement to the southwest. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to turn the right flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. In so doing, Grant sought to cut Lee’s last major supply lines and block his escape route to the west.

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

Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps led the Federal movement. The troopers began moving out at 3 a.m. on the 29th, a day marked by torrential rain. Sheridan later wrote:

“Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads from the winter’s frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a (detour) was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks.”

Sheridan was supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac, led by Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Men from these two corps moved south and west toward the end of the Confederate siege line, which was defended by the lone division of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps. Despite their numerical advantage, the Federals were not overly confident. One private wrote, “Four years of war, while it made the men brave and valorous, had entirely cured them of imagining that each campaign would be the last.”

Meanwhile, Lee received reports that Federals were moving toward Dinwiddie Court House. This was dangerously close to Five Forks, a crucial intersection that Lee needed to hold if he hoped to continue being supplied by the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by transferring all but one brigade of his cavalry to his right flank, led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee. He also transferred Major General George Pickett’s infantry division; Lee chose Pickett’s force because it was scattered, making its movement more difficult for the Federals to discern.

Warren’s leading elements moved up the Quaker Road to its key intersection with the Boydton Plank Road, and they clashed with Anderson’s Confederates near the Lewis Farm. After heavy fighting, the Confederates fell back to a defense line along the White Oak Road. Lee needed this road if he hoped to send troops west to block Sheridan. The Federals seized the Quaker-Boydton Plank intersection, but the Confederate line was not yet broken. Both sides lost about 375 men each.

Back east, Grant and his staff began transferring headquarters from City Point to the Boydton Plank Road. President Abraham Lincoln, still visiting from Washington, would stay behind at City Point. As Grant and his staff boarded the westbound train, Lincoln told them, “Good-by, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.” Grant boarded the train and told his staffers, “I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.” Grant’s chief of staff, Major General John Rawlins, urged him to postpone the offensive until the rain stopped, but Grant refused.

Two of Sheridan’s three divisions reached Dinwiddie Court House in the pouring rain around 5 p.m. This was about four miles west of the end of the Confederate line and five miles south of Five Forks. Sheridan’s third division, led by Brigadier General George A. Custer, stayed about seven miles back to protect the rear. The troopers bivouacked without tents despite the rain.

Sheridan’s original orders were to continue pushing northward and seize Five Forks. But that night, he received a message from Grant:

“I now feel like ending the matter if it is possible to do so 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 round the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act altogether as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”

Thus, the plan had changed from cutting off Lee’s supplies and path of escape to destroying Lee’s army. Sheridan recalled, “I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 519-20; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343-44; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 439-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8300; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 659; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5601; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78

Petersburg: The Federal Offensive Begins

March 28, 1865 – Federal forces prepared to move west, around the Confederate right flank southwest of Petersburg, in what Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would be the final offensive of the war.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee conceded that his army’s defeat at Fort Stedman meant that Petersburg and Richmond had to be abandoned. The defeat also ended any hopes Lee might have had to keep Grant and Major General William T. Sherman from joining forces. Now Lee’s only chance was to lead his Army of Northern Virginia southwest to link with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. And even then victory would be nearly impossible; the best that Lee could hope for was to fend off the Federals long enough for northerners to lose patience with the war and demand its end.

The day after the battle, Lee explained to President Jefferson Davis why he authorized the assault on Fort Stedman and the subsequent withdrawal. He stated that as a result, “I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near.”

Lee relayed a report stating that Johnston had just 13,500 effectives in his army, or about 8,000 less than previously reported. Lee wrote, “This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion.” In his own Army of Northern Virginia, Lee counted 1,061 desertions in just a nine-day span between March 9 and 18, not including cavalry or artillery. Lee wrote that “the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

Estimating enemy manpower, Lee guessed that Sherman had about 60,000 men and Grant had about 80,000. This was far greater than the combined total of 63,000 for Lee and Johnston. But reality was even worse: Sherman actually had about 100,000 men and Grant had nearly 131,000. Lee concluded:

“If General Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter, after crossing the Roanoke, has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former, moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies. I have thought it proper to make the above statement to Your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.”

Richmond officials began planning to leave town. President Davis would stay behind, but he arranged for his wife Varina and their children to leave. Davis told Varina, “My headquarters for the future may be in the field, and your presence would embarrass and grieve me instead of giving comfort.” When Mrs. Davis asked what she could do to help, Davis said, “You can do this in but one way: by going yourself and taking the children to a place of safety. If I live, you can come to me when the struggle is ended,” but he did not “expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.” Davis also asked her not to take any food because “the people need it.”

On the Federal side, Grant arranged for Rear Admiral David D. Porter to send gunboats up the Appomattox River to protect the supply base at City Point against a potential Confederate attack. Also, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry troopers returned to the Petersburg front after wiping Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Sheridan had spent the last four weeks laying waste to the Valley, which included destroying the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal. After determining that Lynchburg was too strong to attack, Sheridan headed back east. He had been ordered to cross the James and move southeast to join forces with Sherman. However, Confederates destroyed nearby bridges and rains swelled the river. Since Sheridan wanted to stay with Grant and help destroy Lee’s army anyway, he headed back to Petersburg rather than North Carolina. He later wrote, “Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.”

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan hurried back because he feared that Sherman might persuade Grant to give him Sheridan’s command. To Sheridan’s delight, Grant told him that prior messages suggesting that he link with Sherman were a ruse. Sheridan was instead assigned to an independent command of Federal cavalry that would lead the drive to finish off Lee’s army.

The marching orders that Grant had issued on the 24th went into effect as planned, as if the fight at Fort Stedman never even happened. Grant’s goal was to draw Lee out into an open fight. If he could not do that, he would cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last two supply lines. According to Grant’s plan:

  • Sheridan would lead three cavalry divisions south across the James River. They would turn west and move around Lee’s right flank, seizing Dinwiddie Court House.
  • Three divisions from Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James would move out of their trenches in front of Richmond and Bermuda Hundred, and follow Sheridan’s force. Ord’s remaining three divisions would hold the Richmond-Bermuda Hundred line.
  • Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac would come out of their trenches south and west of Petersburg to support Sheridan.
  • Ord’s moving divisions would take Humphreys’s and Warren’s place on the siege line.
  • VI and IX corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and John G. Parke would continue holding the eastern sector of the Petersburg line, looking for any exploitable weakness in the Confederate line.

Sheridan’s cavalry began crossing the James on the 28th. Grant instructed Sheridan:

“Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near 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 intrenched 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 the full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy, as circumstances will dictate.”

The cavalry troopers were followed by Ord’s infantry, which was embarking on a 36-mile march. Interestingly, Grant placed Ord in overall command of the infantry movement, ahead of Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade.

Meanwhile, Lee planned to withdraw his army along the South Side Railroad to its junction with the Richmond & Danville Railroad. From there the Confederates would follow the Danville line southwest into North Carolina. But the move had to be delayed because troops were still recovering from the Fort Stedman fight, the roads were still too muddy for wagons, and President Davis still hoped to hold Petersburg and Richmond. But whether they were ready or not, the spring campaign was about to begin.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 439; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22413; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17687-97, 17885-95, 17983-18003; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 571; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8272, 8284-300; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-59; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 680

Grant’s Spring Offensive Takes Shape

March 6, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued preparing to launch the spring offensive, which looked promising considering the growing number of Confederate desertions.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James had held General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last summer. Grant hurried to mobilize these armies and destroy Lee before he could escape to the southwest and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

Grant also planned to launch offensives in other theaters of operations to prevent Lee from being reinforced. In North Carolina, separate Federal armies were joining forces to keep Johnston away from Virginia. Major General E.R.S. Canby and Brigadier General James H. Wilson were moving into Alabama to seize the important factory town of Selma and the port city of Mobile. And Major General George Stoneman was leading a cavalry force into eastern Tennessee.

Grant also needed help from the navy to protect his supply base at City Point, on the James River. Grant sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 4th: “The James River is very high, and will continue so as long as the weather of the past week lasts. It would be well to have at once all the ironclads that is intended should come here.”

Welles quickly responded by directing Captain Oliver S. Glisson at Hampton Roads to bring ironclads up from Wilmington. Glisson responded early on the 5th: “Your telegram was received at 15 minutes after midnight; blowing a gale of wind at the time, U.S.S. Aries sailed at daylight this morning. The monitors are expected every moment from Cape Fear, and I shall send them up the river immediately.” Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was notified to send two ironclads from his command north to City Point as well.

Another part of Grant’s preparation was to bring Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, fresh off their resounding victory at Waynesboro, back to the Federal armies outside Richmond and Petersburg. With the Shenandoah Valley now firmly in Federal hands, Sheridan marched unopposed and arrived at Charlottesville on the 3rd.

Grant had urged Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, which was one of Lee’s main supply lines. The Federals spent two days finally getting this done before heading south toward the James River. Sheridan planned to wreck the James River Canal and then move east to join the spring offensive.

Sheridan’s Federals moved through Goochland Court House, Beaver Dam Station, and Hanover Court House on their way back east. Sheridan reached White House, on the Pamunkey River, on the 19th. Grant arranged for him to pick up fresh horses and supplies, and he wrote to Sheridan that once his force was ready, “Start for this place as soon as you conveniently can.”

Grant explained that he planned to move on Lee’s southwestern flank with 50,000 troops, and Sheridan’s men were needed to destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. Once that was done, Sheridan was to “then either return to this army or go on to Sherman (in North Carolina), as you may deem most practicable.” Whichever option Sheridan chose, “I care but little about, the principal thing being the destruction of the only two roads left to the enemy at Richmond.”

The next day, Grant sent Sheridan a more urgent message:

“I do not wish to hurry you. There is now such a possibility, if not probability, of Lee and Johnston attempting to unite that I feel extremely desirous not only of cutting the lines of communication between them, but of having a large and properly commanded cavalry force ready to act with in case such an attempt is made… I think that by Saturday next you had better start, even if you have to stop here to finish shoeing up.”

Grant also reported on the progress of the other offensives starting this month:

“Stoneman started yesterday from Knoxville with a cavalry force of probably 5,000 men to penetrate southwest Virginia as far toward Lynchburg as possible.… Wilson started at the same time from Eastport toward Selma with a splendidly equipped cavalry force of 12,000 men. Canby is in motion, and I have reason to believe that Sherman and Schofield have formed a junction at Goldsboro.”

Sheridan later wrote:

“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”

Meanwhile, to further hamper the Confederate war effort, the Federal high command encouraged enemy desertions by offering to pay deserters for bringing their rifles into Federal lines. Grant had asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to enact this program, and Stanton replied, “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full and fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”

Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James around Bermuda Hundred, wrote how his troops promoted the program: “On the Bermuda front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.” One of Ord’s corps commanders, Major General John Gibbon, asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”

Grant wrote to Stanton on the 19th, “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters. A great many are coming in now, bringing their arms with them.” Three days later, Chief Ordnance Officer F.H. Parker issued a directive: “It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm…”

Desertions in the Army of Northern Virginia totaled 2,934 between February 15 and March 18, or nearly 10 percent of Lee’s whole army. Some deserted for the money, but most left to ease the suffering of loved ones at home. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote to Grant, “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning. The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.”

Meanwhile, Grant continued planning his offensive, which would start as soon as the Virginia roads were dried enough for his men, horses, and guns.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 517; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 429; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 542, 546-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17835-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561, 563-67; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8134; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47, 654-55

The Battle of Waynesboro

March 1, 1865 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry advanced to within seven miles of the last substantial Confederate force in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The Federals attacked the next day.

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

“Little Phil” Sheridan had left Winchester with 10,000 cavalry troopers under Major General Wesley Merritt in late February. They had orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, to destroy what remained of the Valley to increase pressure on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s starving army under siege at Petersburg. The Federals marched through Harrisonburg early on the 1st and continued toward Staunton.

Their only opposition was what was left of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley near Staunton. This once formidable force now consisted of just two decimated brigades and some artillery. Cavalry was also scattered throughout the region. When “Old Jube” learned that the Federals were heading his way, he called for the cavalry to concentrate. Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser and 100 troopers rode out to stop the Federals.

Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division led the Federal advance and tried seizing a key bridge over the Middle Fork of the Shenandoah River, also known as the North River. Rosser’s Confederates set the bridge on fire and waited for the Federals in rifle pits on the other side. The Federals outflanked Rosser by fording the river above and below the bridge, thus forcing the Confederates to retreat.

Merritt reported, “This command, under Rosser, was dispersed, captured, or killed. A number of wagons were taken and destroyed by the advance.” The Federals also saved the bridge from destruction, which ensured a quick crossing by the rest of Sheridan’s men. Custer later wrote, “The importance of our success in securing the bridge over North River cannot be over-estimated. Had the enemy succeeded in destroying the bridge it would have compelled a long delay on our part, as there were no fords practicable in the vicinity.”

Rosser and just 30 remaining men joined the main Confederate force at Staunton, where Early ordered a withdrawal to Waynesboro, 15 miles southeast. The Confederates fell back and set up a defense line just west of that town. Their backs were to Rockfish Gap, an important defile in the Blue Ridge. Early wrote:

“My object, in taking this position, was to secure the removal of five pieces of artillery for which there were no horses, and some stores still in Waynesboro, as well as to present a bold front to the enemy, and ascertain the object of his movement, which I could not do very well if I took refuge at once in the mountain. I did not intend making my final stand on this ground, yet I was satisfied that if my men would fight, which I had no reason to doubt, I could hold the enemy in check until night, and then cross the river and take position in Rockfish Gap; for I had done more difficult things than that during the war.”

Brig Gen G.A. Custer | Image Credit: claseshistoria.com

The Federals entered Staunton later on the 1st and found that the Confederates had stripped it of all supplies before retreating. The Federals camped just outside town that night and then resumed their advance in the morning, with Custer’s division in the lead. Custer reported:

“My orders were to proceed to Waynesborough, ascertain something definite in regard to the position, movements, and strength of the enemy, and, if possible, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South River at that point. The roads were almost impassible, owing to the mud caused by the heavy rains of the past few days. Our march was necessarily slow.”

The Federals easily drove off Confederate pickets at Fisherville before approaching the main enemy line. Custer stated that the Confederates were “posted behind a formidable line of earth-works. His position was well chosen, being upon a range of hills west of the town, from which his artillery could command all approaches, while his infantry could, by their fire, sweep the open space extending along their entire front.”

Custer dismounted his men and determined that Early’s front was too strong to break. “But one point seemed favorable to attack,” Custer wrote. “The enemy’s left flank, instead of resting on South River, was thrown well forward, leaving a short gap between his left and the river. The approach to this point could be made under cover of the woods.”

Custer dispatched three regiments under Colonel Alexander Pennington to assault the Confederate left, which was commanded by Major General Gabriel Wharton. Early saw the movement and later wrote, “I immediately sent a messenger with notice of this fact to General Wharton, who was on that flank, and with orders for him to look out and provide for the enemy’s advance; and another messenger with notice to the guns on the left, and directions for them to fire towards the advancing force, which could not be seen from where they were.”

But Wharton was with Early when the Federals poured out of the woods at 3:30 p.m., and he could not alert his men in time. Early “pointed out to him the disorder in his line, and ordered him to ride immediately to that point and rectify it. Before he got back, the troops gave way on the left, after making very slight resistance, and soon everything was in a state of confusion and the men commenced crossing the river.”

As the Confederate left crumbled, two mounted Federal regiments rode straight through the center of the line, leaping over the fortifications and sending the Confederates fleeing through the mud and snow. The Federals chased them through the streets of Waynesboro until nearly all were killed, wounded, or captured. Early rode to the river and implored his men to turn back and fight, “but they could not be rallied, and the enemy forded the river above and got into our rear.”

Pennington wrote, “The movement was completely successful. The entire line of the enemy was thrown into confusion and obliged to retreat, many throwing away their arms and accouterments to enable them to do so more effectually.” Custer reported, “The rout of the enemy could not have been more complete; no order or organization was preserved. The pursuit was taken up by my entire command, and continued through Rockfish Gap for a distance of twelve miles.”

Early barely escaped capture as he rode off with some of his staff to Jarman’s Gap, out of the Federal pursuers’ reach. He wrote that he “rode aside into the woods, and in that way escaped capture. I went to the top of a hill to reconnoiter, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners, and a force of the enemy moving rapidly towards Rockfish Gap.”

Early and the few Confederates not captured eventually returned to Richmond. Public opinion turned against Early for the many defeats he had sustained leading up to the virtual destruction of his army. General Lee was therefore forced to relieve him of command.

Meanwhile, Custer tallied the spoils of the Federal victory:

“Among some of the substantial fruits of this victory we had possession of about 1,800 prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery, 17 battle-flags, and a train of nearly 200 wagons and ambulances, including General Early’s headquarters’ wagon, containing all his official desks and records. The result of this engagement was of the highest value and importance to us for another reason; it opened a way across the Blue Ridge Mountains through Rockfish Gap, and thereby saved us from several days’ delay and marching.”

The Waynesboro rout permanently ended Confederate opposition in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only did it deprive Lee of a final infantry reserve, but it gave Sheridan free reign to spend most of this month laying waste to the region before rejoining the Federals at Petersburg. Sheridan’s Valley campaign, which had begun last August, was a stunning Federal success from which the Confederates would never recover.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 341-42; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 426; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16797-816, 16874-84, 17569-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 679-80; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 265; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 644-46; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 482; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491-92, 677-80, 810-11