On March 25, 1865 Robert E. Lee launched his last true offensive of the war, and in reality the only true offensive he undertook during the Siege of Petersburg. The Battle of Fort Stedman placed all of Lee’s cards on the table. If successful, Confederate forces could break Grant’s siege line in two. Rebel forces could roll north and south, taking the enemy in the flank. At the same time, butternut soldiers could also threaten, if not capture, the 9th Corps supply hub at Meade’s Station, and possibly the Union nerves center at City Point. It was a tall task and the odds were heavily against the rebels, yet they played their hand for all it was worth.
Fort Stedman was a Confederate failure. The size and location of the action showed Ulysses S. Grant that the Confederates were growing desperate behind their works. In late March Grant and his army group sprung into action. In the days following Fort Steadman, Grant ordered elements of Edward O. C. Ord’s Army of the James south across the Appomattox River and into the Union siege lines southwest of Petersburg. Grant also ordered the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd and 5th Corps’ to extended the Federal lines to the west, in hopes of over extending Lee’s lines. Warren’s men represented the extreme left flank of the army group. Grant planned to dangle the 5th Corps out as bait for Lee, hopefully drawing his adversary into the open. If Lee took the bait, the wily old fox could be caught out of his formidable trenches and smashed by Warren and the last cog in Grant’s Plan.
Major General Philip H. Sheridan assumed command of the Army of the Shenandoah in late August of 1864. The bulk of his army consisted of what was the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan had driven Jubal Early’s Confederate’s out of the valley, and Sheridan had destroyed much of the useable war materials in the area. Sheridan’s mobile strike force arrived in Petersburg in late March and Grant looked to put them to work.
On March 24th, Grant told Sheridan that:
“You may go out the nearest roads in the 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 positions, 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 full reliance that the army will engage or follow….as circumstances will dictate. I shall be on the field and will probably be able to communicate with you…if you find the enemy keeps within his main entrenched line, you may cut loose and push for the Danville Road….I would like you to cross the South Side railroad between Petersburg and Burkesville and destroy it to some extent.”
If the 5th Corps was not an enticing enough target for Lee, Sheridan’s troopers threatening the Southside Railroad would be too much for Lee to resist.
By March 31st, Sheridan had made his way to the hamlet of Dinwiddie Court House, roughly ten miles south of the railroad, and some six miles from the closest Union infantry support, Warren’s 5th Corps. Lee took the bait. He sent forces into the open against both Warren and Sheridan. At the urging of his second-in-command James Longstreet, Lee sent a mobile task force of cavalry and infantry, some 10,000 men strong, to contest the Federal movements. The Confederate force was under the less than capable command of George Pickett.
Pickett surprised Sheridan’s men just outside of Dinwiddie Court House. In fact the rebels managed to push Sheridan’s 10,000 troopers back to the town itself. The position seemed precarious, and then night fell. Pickett pulled back to a small country crossroads simply called Five Forks. There the Confederates setup a weak one and three-quarter mile defensive line. At 4 A.M. Lee sent a directive Pickett. “Hold Five Forks at all hazards.” admonished Lee. “Protect [the] road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forces’ withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.”
For whatever reason, Pickett did not expect Sheridan to follow him to the key crossroads. Thus, Pickett and his mixed force built only scant earthworks, and his artillery was poorly positioned.
Phil Sheridan was not a man to be trifled with. Although he stood at a mere 5 feet 4 inches, his ire knew no bounds. The supposed New York native was born on March 6, 1831 and like G.K. Warren and George Pickett, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. Sheridan had been accepted to West Point on a technicality though; the potential plebe ahead of him failed the academy’s entrance exam. While at “The Point”, Sheridan showed his now famous temper. At one point he had a “quarrel of a belligerent character” with fellow cadet William Terrill. Sheridan in fact chased Terrill with a bayonet. Because of this incident Sheridan was dismissed for one year, and he came back to graduate in the bottom third of the class of 1853.
At the outbreak of the war Sheridan served in a staff role and chief quartermaster with the Army of Southwest Missouri. Through a mixture of skill and political influence Sheridan received command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry, in May 1862.
He was promoted to brigadier general for actions at the Battle of Booneville, Mississippi. After which, Sheridan also received his now famous horse Rienzi as a token of gratitude.
“Little Phil” went on to fight as an infantry division commander at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. During the Siege of Chattanooga, Sheridan’s division carried their sector on Missionary Ridge, catching the eye of Ulysses S. Grant.
When Grant came east in 1864 he brought with him two generals James Wilson, and Philip Sheridan. The two men would have a far reaching impact on the mounted wing of the Army of the Potomac. Abraham Lincoln described Sheridan as a “brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs [and] not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” An officer in the War Department commented to Grant that “The officer you brought from on from the West is rather a little fellow to handle your cavalry.” To which Grant responded, “You will find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him.”
Sheridan’s first test was in the Wilderness, where his troopers failed to accurately locate the enemy. Sheridan again failed on the march to Spotsylvania Court House. The latter failure led to a blow-up between George Meade and Phil Sheridan.
As Sheridan and Meade had at each other, “[o]ne word brought on another,” Sheridan recalled. “Meade was very much irritated, and I was none the less so . . .” [F]inally, I told him that I could whip Stuart if he (Meade) would only let me, but since he insisted on giving the cavalry directions without consulting or even notifying me, he could henceforth command the Cavalry Corps himself—that I would not give it another order.
Meade tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, but Sheridan stormed out. Flabbergasted by such insubordination, the army commander could do nothing about it because of Sheridan’s favored status with Grant. So Meade appealed to the General-in-Chief directly, repeating Sheridan’s assertion that he could whip Stuart. “Did Sheridan say so?” Grant replied. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”
Sheridan and his cavalry were dispatched on a raid towards Richmond, where they managed to mortally wound Jeb Stuart, but accomplished little else. The raid left the Army of the Potomac blind, since Sheridan took the vast majority of the cavalry with him, and those units left behind were the dregs of the army.
By mid-June of 1864, Sheridan had won over the cliquish Cavalry Corps and Grant trapped Lee at Petersburg. Lee had to find a way to break the impasse on the Petersburg front, so he dispatched his “Bad Old Man”, Jubal Early to the Shenandoah Valley. Early mad a great nuisance of himself, and had even threatened Washington, surely the cranky old Virginian had to be dealt with.
Grant came to the decision to create a new army. In August of 1864 Sheridan was given command of the Army of the Shenandoah and was unleashed on Early, and the products of the Shenandoah. Sheridan proved up to the task. Through a sloppy series of battles, where the value of strong subordinate officers shined through, Sheridan was able to crush Early and bring the Shenandoah Valley to its knees.
By late March of 1865 Sheridan had been recalled to Grant’s side, still besieging Lee’s army at Petersburg. In Sheridan, Grant had an unrelenting force. He was an officer that would carry out his orders to the fullest extent, or die trying. It was this force of nature that Grant unleashed on Lee’s western most flank, with hopes of drawing his astute adversary into the open. Even if Lee did not take the bait, Sheridan could destroy Lee’s last remaining railroad, and it would only be a matter of time before William T. Sherman dispatched the enemy before him, and arrived at Petersburg.
Robert E. Lee did in fact take the bait Grant laid before him. Following the defeat at Fort Stedman, Lee assumed that Grant would start pressing the issue. Thus, Lee put together his aforementioned mobile strike force under Pickett. He also bolstered his extreme right flank with more infantry, and recalled “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division from Stony Creek Station, some 40 miles away.
By dusk on March 28th all of Grant’s pieces were on the board. On the 29th Warren moved into the open and pushed hard for the Boydton Plank Road, in hopes of cutting off this vital road. Warren’s men had strict marching orders. “Any man may be justifiable shot…who falls out without permission from the division commander,” read the directive. “The column should be…as little encumbered as possible and prepared for action so that nothing will have to be sent to the rear when fighting begins.” Musicians were left behind. The artillery was stripped to just four five gun batteries (2-rifled batteries, 3-smoothbore). It seemed that Warren was up for the task and felt the weight of responsibility he would hold once in the open.
By the afternoon of March 29th Warren’s corps had located the enemy. His men drove back elements of Bushrod Johnson’s southern division at the Battle of Lewis Farm (also called the Battle of Quaker Road). (Click here to read about the battle). Rains hampered much of the operations. The roads were turning into quagmires, streams were breaching the embankments. It was a tough go for Warren’s foot soldiers, as well as Sheridan’s troopers, who were churning up a muddy mess.
Lee struck back on the 31st. Pickett set off and gave Sheridan a bloody nose in the fighting at Dinwiddie Court House, while another force fell upon Warren’s 5th Corps along the White Oak Road, some 6 miles to the northeast of Dinwiddie. (Click here to read about the action at White Oak Road.) Warren too had been roughly handled, but solid leadership from him and grizzled division commander Charles Griffin gave Warren the win.
Federal dispatches to Grant revealed that the enemy was out of his works. While both Sheridan’s and Warren’s battles were sloppy, they did give both Grant and Meade hope. Sheridan reported that Pickett, “is cut off from Lee’s army, and not a man in it should be allowed to get back to Lee.”
George Meade suggested to Grant that “Would it not be well for Warren to go down with his whole Corps [14,000 strong] and smash up the force in front of Sheridan? Humphreys [2nd Corps] can hold the line to the Boydton plank-road…Warren could go at once that way, and take the force threatening Sheridan in [the] rear at Dinwiddie, and move on the enemy’s rear with the other two [divisions].”
Grant concurred with Meade’s assessment, and plan of action. “Let Warren move in the way you propose, and urge him not to stop for anything.”
The time of Grant’s dispatch to Meade was 10:15 P.M. Shortly after this message to Meade, Grant sent a message to Sheridan informing him that the 5th Corps was to join him, and Sheridan “will assume command of the whole force sent to operate with you.” Little Phil did not want to operate with the 5th Corps. One day earlier he asked Grant if he could not work with the 6th Corps instead. Sheridan had developed a rapport with the men, and their commander, Horatio Wright during the ’64 Valley Campaign. The 6th Corps was in no position to be moved, so Sheridan was stuck with Warren’s corps.
Sheridan was told to expect the lead elements of 5th Corps at 12 A.M., April 1st. This was an impossible task. Although Warren had already pushed one of his divisions in the direction of Sheridan, before he received the directive from headquarters, the majority of 5th Corps was close to the enemy along the White Oak Road. Thus, 5th Corps would have to disengage from the enemy, execute a roughly 6 mile march, across muddy roads, in the dark. Not to mention the fact that the bridge over Gravelly Run had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt, plus the telegraph line at Meade’s headquarters was malfunctioning. All of the cards seem to be stacking against Warren. Yet, at first, it almost seemed as if Little Phil was happy to receive Warren’s assistance. A 3 A.M. dispatch from Sheridan read “I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court House, on the road leading to Five Forks…The enemy are in his [Custer’s] immediate front…..I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, attack instantly and in full force….Do not fear my leaving here. If the enemy remains, I shall fight at daylight.”
As the Federal infantry slogged across the dark and muddy roads, the Confederate’s were doing the same, though instead of going at the enemy they were going away from them. Pickett pulled his force back to Five Forks. Five Forks held no town, there was a blacksmith shop in the area which was torn down to use in the makeshift Confederate fortifications. The intersection itself was the key to the area. Fords Road sprang to the north, leading to Ford’s Depot on the Southside Railroad. Court House Road ran southeast to Dinwiddie Court House. Scott’s Road ran due south from the crossroads, and White Oak Road ran roughly east to west. Pickett set his main battle line along White Oak Road. His orders were to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards….”
The head of the 5th Corps column came into Sheridan’s sight sometime after 7 A.M. on April 1st. Federal troopers had been scouting since before dawn and found that Pickett had withdrawn his forces. Sheridan was livid that the opportunity to crush Pickett seemed to have slipped through his fingers. Twice in two days it seems that the Virginian had got the better of his adversary.
Little Phil approached the first ranking officer he found and growled, “Where is Warren?” The officer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, replied “He is at the rear of the column, sir.” “That is where I expected to find him. What is he doing there?” retorted Sheridan. “Disengaging form the enemy,” was all that Chamberlain could get out. The general was clearly in a foul mood.
As the remainder of the 5th Corps rolled up, Sheridan’s horsemen located the enemy, and Sheridan came up with a plan. Unbeknownst to Warren, Grant had received misinformation about the 5th Corps march. At 10 A.M. Grant was misinformed that Warren still had not crossed Gravelly Run. It would appear to Grant that Warren was still not on the field. Grant, believing that Warren was being slow, as he had been in the past sent Orville Babcock back to Sheridan with a directive straight from the General in Chief. “General Grant directs me to say to you that if, in your judgment, the Fifth Corps would do better under one of its division commanders, you are authorized to relieve Warren and order him to report to him [General Grant] at headquarters.”
Before Grant’s new orders for Sheridan arrived though, the infantry commander arrived at Sheridan’s headquarters, sometime near 11 A.M. The reception was barely professional, and quite cold. It took hours for Warren to report to Sheridan, which in his estimation was an insult. Warren attempted to apologize for the slight, but his mannerisms and the time that passed though the day set Sheridan’s temper boiling. The two discussed the plan of attack. Sheridan’s troopers would dismount and hold the Confederate’s in place. Warren would arrange the infantry; however he liked, on the Federal right flank. Warren would march up Gravelly Run Church Road, and strike the enemy. Sheridan’s information put the enemy’s left at the intersection of said road and the White Oak Road.
The two commanders looked to get everything in order. Warren’s tired men slogged to the assembly area, the Gravelly Run Methodist Episcopal Church. Sheridan felt that Warren was dragging his feet getting into position. He later claimed that he thought that “Warren was waiting for the sun to go down.”
Near 4:15 P.M. all was ready for the assault. Warren aligned the 5th Corps in an upside down pyramid formation. Romeyn Ayres division would form the left of the column, Samuel Crawford’s division the right, and Charles Griffin’s men would act as a mobile reserve following closely behind.
As the 5th Corps approached the White Oak Road they came to a stunning realization. There were no Confederate’s. For all the blustering that Sheridan had done about Warren’s actions throughout the day, the cavalry commander had actually failed to secure an accurate reconnaissance of the enemy position.
Warren’s men moved across the road. In their front was a dense pine woods, in it they found Thomas Munford’s mobile southern cavalry force, but not the main Confederate battle line. The first indication of the rebel position was when the southern infantry fired into Ayres flank, some 200 yards to the west. With that, Ayres swung his division westward, roughly using the road as his access of advance. Warren oversaw Ayres initial movements. In the meantime, Crawford’s division and at least three regiment’s of Ayres division wandered aimlessly north away from the action. A gap grew in the 5th Corps line, into which Griffin pushed his men. “What is up?” asked Griffin, to which Ayres replied nothing much, nothing new; the same old story. Crawford has gone off and left me to fight alone.”
The Confederate line began to crumble. Near a return (or angle) in the Confederate line, both Sheridan and Warren worked to cave in the line. Sheridan took up his guidon and vaulted on horseback over the work. The general shouted “See the sons of bitches run! Give them hell!” Scores of Confederates surrendered.
Warren had set off in search of his lost division. Warren caught up with his lost division piece by piece, turning each toward the west and the enemy rear. Gouv was finally able to rein in all of his men. By the time he did so half of the Rebel line had crumbled. Butternut soldiers attempted to flee up Ford’s Road and across Hatcher’s Run. The Confederate’s found the road sealed off by Crawford’s men. In fact, Pickett and his command staff had been having a late lunch north of Hatcher’s Run. As the men sipped brandy and dined on shad, the battle raged to the south. Sitting in an acoustic shadow, Pickett was made aware of his men’s demise far too late. The Virginian barely made it back to his men in time to control the route. General Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas Rosser were too late in getting across the run and were trapped on the wrong side of the waterway.
Warren led his men toward a pocket of Confederate’s when he was unhorsed. Now on foot, and leading his men from the front, which was his custom, Warren looked to finish off the enemy. Carrying his corps guidon Warren shouted “Now, boys, follow me, [and] this will be the last fight of the war!” The Federal foot soldiers rolled down the line, and down into the Confederate rear. On the Federal left flank, George Custer failed to cut off the last southern line of retreat, a small farm lane, which allowed a great many Confederate’s to fall back towards Ford’s Depot.
The battle was a resounding success. Pickett was driven entirely off the field. The path to the South Side Railroad lay open. When Grant received word of the victory at Five Forks he “ordered a general assault along the lines.”
In the midst of it all Sheridan was still holding an unnecessary grudge against Warren. The horseman was “dissatisfied” with Warren’s actions. He felt that portions of the 5th Corps had given way during the assaults, which was completely false. Sheridan also could not quickly locate Warren, who had been unhorsed. With Grant’s directive in mind, Sheridan chose to allow his temper get in the way of better judgment (which he seemed to lack even on the best occasions). Staff officer George Forsyth delivered the message that “Major-General Warren, commanding Fifth Army Corps, is relieved from duty, and will report at once for orders to Lieutenant-General Grant, commanding Armies of the United States.” Warren was stunned. He had performed above and beyond the call on April 1st, won the battles of Lewis Farm and White Oak Road, and now was relieved of command. “With almost the agony of death upon his face,” Warren rode over to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. “Hell, I don’t reconsider my decisions obey the order.” With that, Warren’s career with the Army of the Potomac was over. Charles Griffin assumed command of the corps. In the days following Five Forks a whirlwind of activity took place. Comparatively speaking, the relief of Warren was a minor blip on the radar.
Sheridan tried to justify his decision in his after action report by claiming “…General Warren did not exert himself to get his corps as rapidly as he might have done, and his manner gave me the impression that he wished the sun go down before dispositions for the attack could be completed.” The general went on to say in his memoirs that “The occasion was not an ordinary one, and as I thought that Warren had not risen to its demand in battle, I deemed it injudicious and unsafe under the critical conditions existing to retain him longer.” Since Sheridan relived Warren after a stunning and complete Federal victory, how critical the conditions were are highly questionable.
Warren made his way to headquarters where he met with Grant. The commanding general told him that “he thought well of my judgment but that I [Warren] was too much inclined to use it in questioning orders before executing them; that I did not co-operate well with others, doubted too much the sense of my superiors, and interfered with my subordinates.” Sheridan had done what Grant did not have the fortitude to do, relieve Warren. In Grant’s summation of the topic, he was making Warren pay for his past mistakes, while not considering that fact that Warren, more than Sheridan, was the reason that Pickett was driven from the field; and Grant now could open the general assault on the lines.
In the end Warren’s pleading fell on deaf ears. Grant had written off the New Yorker long ago. Warren would have to find justice elsewhere; he would never have imagined it would take 14 years to do so.
With all of the 150th posts coming up I will conclude the series in a few weeks.