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Battle of Five Forks, VA
in the American Civil War

Union Battle Summary

Five Forks, Va., April 1, 1865. 5th Army Corps and Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. Five Forks was about 12 miles in a south-westerly direction from Petersburg, some 4 miles north of west from Dinwiddie Court House, and was so called because roads ran in five different directions; the Ford road, running north and south, crossed the White Oak road, running east and west, the fifth road running southeast to Dinwiddie Court House. Toward the close of March Gen. Grant grew apprehensive that Lee might any night abandon his intrenchments about Richmond and Petersburg, gain the Danville or Lynchburg railroad, and endeavor to form a junction with Gen. J.E. Johnston, whose forces were then opposing Gen. Sherman's army in North Carolina. To prevent any maneuver of this character Grant resolved upon a movement against Lee's right, the objective points being the South Side and Danville railroads, the destruction of which would hold Lee's army at Richmond and ultimately force it to surrender. Orders were issued on the 24th, the movement to begin on the 29th. Maj.-Gen. Ord, commanding the Army of the James, left the north side of the James river on the night of the 27th, taking with him Gen. Gibbon, with Foster's and Turner's divisions of the 24th corps, Birney's colored division of the 25th, and Mackenzie's cavalry and moved to the left of the Army of the Potomac, relieving the 2nd corps on the evening of the 28th. This movement was made with such secrecy that the enemy did not discover it until April 2. As soon as Ord was in position on the left Grant ordered Sheridan to move out with his cavalry early on the following morning, cross Hatcher's run at Monk's Neck bridge, pass through Dinwiddie Court House and gain Lee's right flank. In support of this movement the 2nd and 5th corps, respectively commanded by Maj.-Gen. A.A. Humphreys and Maj.-Gen. G.K. Warren, were to take position on the Vaughan road, extending the line to Dinwiddie. If the Confederates refused to come out and attack, Sheridan was to move against the railroads without delay.

The movement began at 3 a.m. on the 29th and that evening the Union army held an unbroken line from the Appomattox river east of Petersburg to Dinwiddie Court House. A heavy rain during the night of the 29th precluded active operations the next day, though Sheridan pushed out Devin's division, which encountered a small force of the enemy and forced it back toward Five Forks. Maj. Morris, with 150 men of the 5th and 6th U.S. cavalry, pursued this force to within less than a mile from Five Forks, when he was suddenly surrounded by overwhelming numbers and forced to cut his way out. Reinforcements were ordered to him and a second attempt made to occupy the junction of the roads, but the enemy's force was too large. During the day Warren advanced his left across the Boydton road toward Five Forks and also found the Confederates in force in his front, though he was directed to fortify and hold his new position. Humphreys drove the enemy behind his main line on Hatcher's run near Burgess' mill and also along the White Oak road, and extended his line of battle as close to these works as he could without bringing on an engagement. Lee discovered the movement to his right almost as soon as it was commenced, and hurried Gen. Anderson with Bushrod Johnson's division to the right of the Confederate works on the White Oak road. It was this force that Warren met on the afternoon of the 29th. Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division was moved to Five Forks early on the morning of the 30th and advanced from there toward Dinwiddie Court House. About dark that evening he was joined by the cavalry under Rosser and W.H.F. Lee. Pickett's division of Longstreet's corps was also sent to the right and late on the afternoon of the 30th took position at Five Forks, where it was joined by Ransom's and Wallace's brigades of Johnson's division. Altogether the Confederate general had massed about 18,000 troops on his right against Sheridan. His plan was to sweep the Union cavalry out of the way, get on Warren's left flank, and roll up the Federal line, the troops inside the intrenchments to join the attack in order as the flanking force came in front of their positions.

On the morning of the 31st Warren reported that it was possible for him to get possession of the White Oak road, and he was directed to do so. At 9 a.m. Devin was reinforced by Davies' brigade of Gen. Crook's cavalry division, Gen. Merritt assumed command, and the cavalry advanced against Five Forks, while Warren moved against the enemy on the White Oak road. Merritt's advance gained possession of Five Forks, but Warren, instead of advancing with his entire command, sent forward Ayres' division only, which met a heavy resistance and was forced back on Crawford's division. This division also fell back until Griffin's line was reached, when the whole corps was rallied and the enemy repulsed. The Confederates now turned their attention to the cavalry at Five Forks. Merritt's advance was driven back and the enemy advanced by the roads west of Chamberlain's creek against Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House. In the meantime Crook, with Gregg's and Smith's brigades, had moved to the left. Smith was stationed at one of the fords on Chamberlain's creek and Gregg was sent to a position on the right. Smith dismounted two regiments and sent a battalion of the 1st Me. across the creek to reconnoiter. This battalion was quickly driven back by an overwhelming force, the enemy pursuing in hot haste and forcing a passage of the stream. The two dismounted regiments retired in some confusion, but they were soon rallied, when the whole brigade charged and drove the Confederates back across the creek. They then crossed higher up, struck Davies' brigade, which was forced back on Devin's division. Sheridan sent orders to Merritt to cross over to the Boydton road, come down that road and take place in the line of battle at Dinwiddie Court House. As the enemy followed Merritt his rear was presented to Sheridan, and when the lines were nearly parallel Gibbs' and Gregg's brigades made a gallant attack, forcing the Confederates to abandon their movement, leaving a number of wounded in the hands of the Union troops. In changing front to meet this attack the enemy gave Merritt his opportunity to join Sheridan, and then followed an obstinate and fiercely contested battle for the possession of Dinwiddie Court House. Two divisions of Confederate infantry and practically all their cavalry were unable to force five brigades of Federal cavalry from their position behind some slight breastworks on the open plain in front of Dinwiddie Court House, and shortly after dark the firing ceased, the enemy lying on his arms that night not more than 100 yards in front of Sheridan's position.

On the afternoon of the 31st Warren advanced with Griffin's division, supported by portions of Ayres' and Crawford's, with Miles' division of the 2nd corps on the right, and regained the ground lost by Ayres in the morning, after which Griffin attacked with Chamberlain's brigade and drove the enemy from the White Oak road. About 5 p.m. the sound of Sheridan's engagement reached Warren, who immediately ordered Bartlett's brigade to Sheridan's support, with instructions to attack the enemy on the flank. When the position of the Confederate force in front of Sheridan was learned at headquarters, Grant determined to make an effort to cut it off from the main body, and at 9 o'clock that evening Warren was ordered to report to Sheridan and to send Griffin's division at once down the Boydton road to Dinwiddie. Mackenzie's cavalry was also ordered to Sheridan's support. At the time Warren was ordered to report to Sheridan it was expected that his troops would reach Dinwiddie by midnight or a little later. Several messages passed between him and headquarters, in which he was urged to be prompt and move at once, but for some inexplicable reason Griffin did not receive his orders to move until 5 o'clock on the morning of April 1. Sheridan was advised at 10 p.m., on the 31st, of the dispositions of troops to aid him and at 3 a.m. sent the following despatch to Warren: "I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-quarters of a mile, with Gen. Custer's division. The enemy are in his immediate front, lying so as to cover the road just this side of A. Adams' house, which leads out across Chamberlain's bed or run. 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 flanks. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, attack instantly and in full force. Attack at daylight anyhow, and I will make an effort to get the road this side of Adams' house, and if I do you can capture the whole of them. Any force moving down the road I am holding, or on the White Oak road, will be in the enemy's rear, and in all probability get any force that may escape you by a flank attack. Do not fear my leaving here. If the enemy remains I shall fight at daylight."

Had Warren reached his assigned position in time to attack simultaneously with Sheridan, there would have been but little chance of escape for the Confederate force at Dinwiddie. Sheridan made his attack at daylight, according to his despatch, thinking that the 5th corps was near enough to strike the enemy in the rear. The Confederate officers had learned that Warren was coming up, and, as soon as Sheridan began his attack, fell back across Chamberlain's creek, not halting until they were behind their works along the White Oak road at Five Forks, where Pickett formed his forces with Corse's brigade on the right, three-fourths of a mile west of Five Forks, then the brigades of Terry, Steuart, Ransom and Wallace in the order named, Wallace's left being refused for about 100 yards to meet any attack coming from the east along the White Oak road. On Corse's right were 3 guns of Pegram's artillery battalion; 3 more were placed at Five Forks between Terry and Steuart, and McGregor's battery of 4 guns was placed on the left. W.H.F. Lee's cavalry division covered the right flank and Munford's, dismounted, was posted on Wallace's left. Sheridan decided to attack the enemy in his intrenchments. His plan was to make a feint of turning Pickett's right flank with Custer's and Devin's cavalry, while Warren was to move up with his entire corps and attack the left flank, the cavalry feint to be made a real attack as soon as Warren became engaged. The divisions of Griffin and Ayres were ordered to halt near the Boisseau house until Crawford could come up, when the corps was to be formed with two divisions in front and one in reserve, and be ready to advance when required to do so. Sheridan's object was either to crush Pickett or cut him off and drive him westward, thus isolating him from the Confederate army at Petersburg. It was a repetition of the maneuver that he had so successfully employed at Fisher's hill, when Early's army was almost completely destroyed. Custer was pushed well out on the western road, Devin advanced on the road running from Dinwiddie to Five Forks, and by noon the enemy's skirmish line had been driven into the trenches. About 1 p.m. Sheridan sent orders to Warren to bring up his infantry, but it was 4 o'clock before his corps was in position to begin the attack. While Warren was getting ready to open the battle Sheridan learned that the left of the 2nd corps had been swung back parallel to and fronting the Boydton road, thus opening a way for the enemy to march down the White Oak road and attack his right and rear. Mackenzie, who had been held near Dinwiddie Court House, was therefore ordered to move up the Crump road, gain the White Oak road, drive back any force he might find there, and then join Sheridan in front of Five Forks. Mackenzie encountered a force on the White Oak road and drove it back toward Petersburg, then countermarched and came up on Warren's right just as that officer was beginning his advance. He then moved to the right of the infantry and gained a position on the Ford road near Hatcher's run, from which he attacked the Confederate flank and rear, capturing a number of prisoners.

A little after 4 o'clock Ayres' division of Warren's corps advanced obliquely toward the White Oak road, receiving only a light fire in front, but soon after crossing the road a heavy fire was poured on the left from the short line of intrenchments where Wallace's left was refused. In moving forward the corps had not kept far enough to the left, throwing Ayres in front of the return, where it was intended for Crawford to strike the enemy's line. It was therefore necessary for Ayres to change front to the left. While executing this movement, which was done under fire and in a piece of woods, Crawford lost the connection and Ayres' right flank was thrown in the air. As a result Gwyn's brigade, which occupied the right, became somewhat unsteady. Part of the line gave way and one or two regiments began to retire in disorder, when Sheridan, with some of his staff, rode up to reassure the men and the line was soon reestablished. Concerning the battle at this juncture, Badeau, in his Military History of U.S. Grant, says: "Meantime the fire of Ayres' division was heard by Merritt, and the cavalry promptly responded to the signal for their assault. They had the brunt of the battle to bear, for their attack was directly in front, on the main Five Forks road, and the angle where Ayres joined the cavalry right was the key of the entire position. If this could be gained, Ayres would completely enfilade the enemy's line on the White Oak road, and render the direct assault comparatively easy; while if the rebels held the 5th corps in check, they could probably repulse the cavalry with heavy loss, for their works were strong and difficult to approach in front, and, sheltered by these, they could pour out a deadly fire. It was therefore vital that the rebel flank should be promptly attacked and broken. The burden of this now fell upon Ayres, for Crawford, on the right, had deflected so far from the line pointed out by Sheridan that he was of no use at all at this juncture. After crossing the White Oak road, he failed to wheel to the left, as ordered, and pushed straight for Hatcher's run, leaving, as we have seen, a gap between himself and Ayres. This deflection was occasioned by Crawford's obliquing his line to avoid the fire of the enemy, instead of pushing directly upon the rebel work. Griffin, who was in reserve on the right, naturally followed Crawford for awhile, so that Ayres was left to contend alone with the enemy."

Warren was on the right with Crawford, and Sheridan remained with Ayres during the greater part of the battle. Winthrop's brigade was double-quicked to the left of Ayres' line to connect with Devin, and Coulter's brigade - the reserve of Crawford's division - was hurried into the gap on the right. Every one of Warren's staff officers and several of Sheridan's were sent to bring Griffin and Crawford against Pickett's rear. The direction of the two divisions was finally changed to the left, but they did not come up in time to join in the assault until after Ayres had carried the angle. Griffin attacked Ransom's brigade and part of Wallace's, that had formed a new line, behind slight breastworks and at right angles to the old one. After a half an hour of stubborn fighting Gwyn's and Coulter's brigades were sent to Griffin's assistance, the line was carried and the Confederate left was doubled up in confusion. When the battle began Pickett was on the north side of Hatcher's run. He reached the field about the time his left gave way and threw Terry's brigade, commanded by Col. Mayo, back to the Ford road to check the attack from the rear. Finding that Mayo was unable to maintain his position, Pickett next ordered Corse to form a new line at right angles to the main line of intrenchments to cover the retreat. Mayo began to fall back to this line, but about the time he passed the battery at the junction of the roads some of Merritt's cavalry charged the works there, captured the 3 guns and turned them on the panic-stricken Confederates. Then dashing down the White Oak road the Federal cavalry completely demoralized the enemy and drove him from the field. Pickett himself was almost surrounded while vainly striving to stem the tide. As he galloped away the remnant of what had once been the flower of the Army of Northern Virginia fled in disorder, hotly pursued for 6 miles by Merritt and Mackenzie, a number of the enemy being captured during the chase. The official records of the war give no detailed statement of the casualties at Five Forks. Sheridan's loss was estimated at 700, and Warren reported a total loss of 634 in the 5th corps. The Confederate loss, according to Lee's adjutant-general, was 7,000, most of whom were captured.

Source: The Union Army, Volume 6, Cyclopedia of Battles, 1908


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