Of all the battles that comprise the 292 day Petersburg Campaign, the March 31, 1865 engagement at White Oak Road is becoming one of my favorites to study. The second battle in the campaign that includes fighting at Lewis Farm, Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, and Sutherland Station, it once more pits the audacious Lee versus the relentless Grant on a dynamic chessboard across some of the worst terrain–and even worse weather.
The sharp Confederate thrust into Romeyn B. Ayres’ exposed V Corps division illustrates the optimistic southern fighting spirit in the last weeks of the war, while the swift Union counterattack from Charles Griffin’s previously unmolested brigades demonstrates the extreme challenge the southern army faces to maintain, much less win, the war.
While writing Dawn of Victory I struggled to find many decent southern voices for the fighting on April 2, 1865. March 31 is a different story with a rich tapestry of sources–mostly because the Confederates, at that time and again after the war, were under the mistaken impression that they won the battle.
From a quick glance it appears they were correct. Three southern brigades had thrown two full V Corps divisions back in chaos before the swollen impasse of Gravelly Run brought their charge to a halt. After Griffin’s successful counterattack stabilized the scene, the front line appeared relatively the same as it stood during the morning, with far more bluecoat casualties on the ground.
“I have no idea that the brigade ever killed more men,” claimed a South Carolina officer. A Pennsylvanian later wrote that “I am satisfied it was hot if not hotter than the slaughter-pen on Marye’s Heights.”
But the Confederates overlooked an important footnote at the end of the fighting. Part of Gouverneur Warren’s maligned corps had secured a foothold on the White Oak Road as it left the Confederate earthworks and continued to the west. This effectively cut of George Pickett’s command four miles to the west at Five Forks and set the stage for the next day’s fight that would ruin his division and doom the Confederate hold on Petersburg.
Beginning with almost five acres of Confederate earthworks along the road saved in 1989, the Civil War Trust now preserves 898 acres of the White Oak Road battlefield. A gravel parking lot a the Claiborne Road intersection provides public access to the battlefield and a two thirds of a mile trail with seven interpretive waysides follows Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s line to the west past two well-preserved artillery positions. Much of the land between White Oak Road and Gravelly Run, where the bulk of the combat raged, is also preserved and I can only hope it will one day too be interpreted.
I will be doing my part tomorrow, June 20th, with a two-hour car caravan tour that meets at 10:30 at Pamplin Historical Park and would love to see any and all there!