BackgroundThe movements that would culminate in the Battle of Five Forks began on March 29, 1865. With the arrival of the spring campaigning season, Union general-in-chief decided to continue his strategy of stretching Union lines farther and farther to the Union left (the Confederate right) in an attempt to force Confederate general Robert E. Lee to extend his lines to the breaking point. Grant shifted his forces at Petersburg in order to concentrate on Lee’s right. The Union Fifth Corps, under the command of Gouverneur K. Warren, took up a position on the far left flank. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s cavalry swung far west, preparing to strike toward Dinwiddie Court House and then move north to sever the and the , the last remaining supply lines for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the other Confederate troops in the entrenchments around Richmond and Petersburg.
On the afternoon of the March 29, Griffin’s division of the Fifth Corps clashed with units on the Confederate far right at Lewis Farm. The Union troops defeated the Confederates and pushed them back. This success convinced Grant that victory was close at hand, and he determined to convert Sheridan’s proposed raid into a full-fledged flanking maneuver.
Concerned with Grant’s maneuver, Lee attempted to block it. The only troops available to blunt the Union advance, however, were the infantry division of George E. Pickett and the cavalry divisions of Rooney Lee, Fitz Lee, and Thomas Rosser. This task force, under the overall command of Pickett, marched westward, arriving in the vicinity of Five Forks on the afternoon of March 30, 1865.
Two battles on March 31, 1865, set the stage for Five Forks. The engagement that began first, and lasted until nightfall, was the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House, which developed between Sheridan’s cavalry, operating beyond the Union left flank, and Pickett’s task force. Both Sheridan and Pickett probed along the White Oak Road, which ran north to south. The opposing scouts met at Dinwiddie Court House, and a general engagement began as both generals fed more troops into the fight. Pickett managed the Confederate side of the encounter brilliantly, but failed to defeat Sheridan. The second engagement, along White Oak Road, involved units on Lee’s far right near Burgess’s Mill and Hatcher’s Run, and Union troops from the Fifth Corps and the Second Corps. The Union troops managed to push the Confederates back. By the end of the day, the tenuous link between Pickett’s exposed men near Five Forks and the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia had been severed. Grant had turned Lee’s flank, and in doing so had cut off Pickett’s force.
On the morning of April 1, 1865, Pickett withdrew his forces back from Dinwiddie Court House to the intersection of Five Forks. The Confederate left hung in the air; that is, no geographical obstacle prevented the position from being flanked. Aware of this deficiency, the Confederates “refused” their left flank: some troops took positions at a perpendicular angle to the rest of the line in order to prevent flanking maneuvers.
Warren marched his Fifth Corps west, to be placed under the overall supervision of Sheridan. The cavalryman planned an attack that would hit the Confederate line head on with cavalry (fighting primarily as dismounted infantry) while the Fifth Corps slammed into the Confederate left. The Union attack did not begin until 4:15 p.m., mainly because of the difficultiesand swampy terrain caused the Fifth Corps while trying to get into position. Sheridan had intended that the attack begin earlier, and, not realizing the logistical difficulties Warren faced, blamed the commander of the Fifth Corps.
At four thirty, the Fifth Corps struck the weak return line on the Confederate left. Although Sheridan and Warren had intended for the entire Fifth Corps to fall on the Confederates, both men believed the Confederate line extended farther east than it actually did. As a result, the divisions of Samuel W. Crawford and Charles Griffin proceeded far past the Confederate line, while the division of Romeyn B. Ayres shattered the return line. Warren chased after his lost divisions and redirected them toward the Confederate rear. Sheridan, wondering where Warren was, finally let his impatience and temper get the best of him and determined to relieve Warren from command.
George Pickett, accompanied by Rosser and Fitz Lee, had removed himself to a position behind the lines at Five Forks to enjoy a Virginia tradition—the shad bake. Sources conflict as to whether the Confederate leaders also imbibed a tipple of whiskey along with their fish. Intent on savoring this delicacy, the top three Confederate commanders had neglected to inform their subordinates where they might be found. Thus when Confederates on the lines detected Union movement that portended an attack, commanders shored up local defenses but received no coordination from above. By the time Pickett arrived on the field, it was too late to salvage the situation. Ayres’s attack had rendered the Confederate line untenable, and Sheridan’s cavalry troopers pressed hard along the entire front, preventing the Confederates from forming a secondary line.
By seven o’clock, the Union troops had driven the Confederates from the field in a stunning victory.
The Battle of Five Forks rendered the Confederate position at Petersburg and Richmond untenable. Grant’s plan, to move gradually past the Confederate right forcing Lee to extend his lines until they broke, had worked. Sheridan and the Fifth Corps sat poised to cut off the supply line of the South Side Railroad. They also occupied a position from which they could attempt to cut off the Army of Northern Virginia’s line of retreat, should it attempt a flight westward. Even if they failed to interdict Lee’s retreat, they would force Confederate troops to proceed farther westward before any swing south to effect a junction with the troops of Joseph Johnston.
Sheridan’s removal of Warren sparked acrimony that lasted far beyond the end of the war. Sheridan’s actions effectively ended Warren’s military career, although Warren would press for a formal court of inquiry to review Sheridan’s decision to relieve him. In 1879, Warren finally got his review, which found that Sheridan had acted improperly. By that late date, however, the verdict rendered nothing more than a moral victory to Warren.