The winter of 1864-65 was ending, but to the soldiers in the trenches dug into the tortured landscape around Petersburg, Virginia, the onset of spring in the devastated region simply promised a wet, muddy agony brought on by the heavy rainfall of the season. While both sides suffered in the inclement weather, the Southern troops and the Confederacy were in a particularly perilous position. General Robert E. Lee’s vastly outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia manned a long arc of earthworks and trenches that protected the city of Petersburg and thinly shielded the Southside Railroad — Lee’s only remaining line of supply and communication. If Petersburg fell, that railroad would be his last line of retreat and the only possible avenue he could take to link up with General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee.
Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant also realized the strategic importance of the Southside Railroad and decided to open his spring offensive — which would become known as the Appomattox campaign — with a thrust at Lee’s vulnerable right flank in an effort to pierce the rail line and force the Southern general to evacuate Petersburg. Desiring to move swiftly, Grant ordered elements of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry division, toughened by their trouncing of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s force in the Shenandoah Valley during the preceding fall, to lead the advance while the Federal II and V corps followed in support. Grant directed Sheridan to strike out for Dinwiddie Court House, a small hamlet that lay beyond the right of the Confederate line and that would serve as a launching point for further assaults upon the Rebels.
Lee divined Grant’s intentions, and to protect his right he ordered his cavalry and two infantry divisions, an overall strength of about 19,000 soldiers, to the crossroads of Five Forks, a few miles north of Dinwiddie Court House. The road from Dinwiddie Court House led directly to the Confederate rear and the Southside Railroad. The sleepy little courthouse town was suddenly the focal point of the spring campaign, and absolutely critical to the Confederate cause.
On March 28, 1865, the day before the Union troopers were to move out, they readied their mounts and drew five days’ rations and ammunition. Sheridan’s force totaled about 9,500 men, many armed with repeating rifles, a decisive advantage over their foes. Early on March 29, the horsemen broke camp and headed out for the right flank of the Confederate army.Brigadier General Charles H. Smith’s 3rd Brigade of Maj. Gen. George Crook’s 2nd Division left before dawn. Saving the better roads for the infantry, Smith’s blue-coated cavalry moved cross-country through woods and fields, following rough back roads when possible. The troopers reigned up at Rowanty Creek, dismayed to find that the bridge had been burned by the Confederates, who glared insolently at them from the other side of the stream. Nonplussed by the temporary setback, some troopers swam their horses across the muddy, rain-swollen stream, chased off the Rebel pickets and felled two large trees over the floodwaters. The enterprising Yankees soon fashioned a temporary bridge by lashing the trees together and laying down hay-covered fence rails as footboards. ‘It was a rickety structure,’ remembered an officer of the 13th Ohio Cavalry, ‘but we crossed safely in columns of four.’
The Federal advance guard arrived at Dinwiddie Court House around sunset after a 25-mile march. A.D. Rockwell of the 13th Ohio observed that the country was ‘low and flat, covered with forest and thick underbrush, and abounding in swamps and sluggish streams that drained the water slowly. The soil, in its mixture of clay and mud, was most uncertain and treacherous.’ A chilling rain began to fall, and the saturated woods and fields soon took on the appearance of a swamp.Major General George Armstrong Custer’s 3rd Division had followed behind the advance, escorting the wagon train, and became hopelessly bogged down in the red Virginia mud. By nightfall the wagons had traveled a mere seven miles before camp was set up at Rowanty Creek. Cursing troopers worked all night in the cold rain and muck to move the heavily laden wagons, their efforts gaining another three miles by morning.While Custer’s men struggled with the recalcitrant supply train and Crook’s soldiers spent a miserable night near Dinwiddie Court House, straining to listen for the approach of hostile troops over the rain and wind, Sheridan and his staff escaped the downpour and mud by taking over a ramshackle tavern for their headquarters. The atmosphere was pleasantly enhanced when the officers compelled two young women residents of the tavern to play the piano and sing songs. Overall, Sheridan was pleased with the day’s events. The advance had gone well despite the rough weather and stuck wagons, and Sheridan retired upstairs to a feather bed.The following morning, March 30, found the bulk of Crook’s division in camp around Dinwiddie Court House while scattered detachments picketed the roads and stream crossings leading to the area from the west and north. The rain continued to pelt the Federals. ‘The ground soon became so wet,’ remembered Carlos MacDonald of the 6th Ohio, ‘that it was impossible to sleep on it, so we got up and stood around our camp fires….Boots and saddles sounded and we prepared to move, but did not, on account of the rain, which fell steadily all day.’
Custer’s troopers found the going especially rough on March 30. Foot by foot, mile by agonizing mile, the mud-covered men pushed the wagons forward. They had worked 24 hours the previous day, and the 30th was no different, except the rain fell even harder. To make progress, Custer’s men had to corduroy the road, a thankless and infuriatingly slow task. ‘Nothing short of corduroying every inch would enable the train to move, and then it must be very slowly and carefully, or legs of mules will be broken,’ wrote a Northern soldier. The troopers had to unload wagons and physically lift them to move them forward. Cavalryman John Hannaford recalled that ‘first a force was cutting down the pine trees that grew near by, these flung into the road were laid as near together as the[y] would lie, then other[s] were covering these with fence rails, & still another force were dragging the tops of the pine trees & covering the rails with pine limbs, even all this was disappear[ing] a foot or two under the water & mud when the wagons were on it, the bottom seemed literally to have tumbled out.’
The water was so deep that the logs literally floated, and ‘were an obstacle instead of a benefit.’ Hannaford also recalled the plight of a fellow soldier whose horse plunged into a water-filled hole in the road. Loaded down with weapons, ammunition and a full haversack, he tumbled off his floundering horse and ‘came blame near drowning, disappearing entirely in the mud & water.’ Working all day and night, the train advanced another 10 miles, but was still five miles from Dinwiddie Court House.Throughout the day, Sheridan’s scouting patrols had probed north of Dinwiddie Court House, occasionally exchanging desultory gunfire with sodden Rebel pickets, a portion of the 10,000 troops commanded by Maj. Gen. George Pickett and hidden behind entrenchments dug near Five Forks. It became all too apparent to the Union soldiers that a rugged fight was in the offing. Despite such ominous reports, Sheridan spent another festive evening at his tavern headquarters as the rainstorm continued to rage outside. Officers ‘betook [them]selves to merry song, and harmony ruled the hour,’ claimed one staff member.After another cold and wet night, the rains ceased at dawn on March 31 and sunny skies prevailed by 10 a.m. The improving weather did a great deal to boost the spirits of the soldiers on both sides, despite impending battle. ‘I never saw the men in better spirits,’ wrote one of Crook’s regimental commanders. They had complete faith in Sheridan, and they knew that they had infantry support on their right. Custer’s men, after 48 tortured hours in the mud with wagons and mules, were especially eager to reach the front.
The Southern troops, equally energized by the sun’s warming rays, were on the move by 9 a.m. Pickett hoped to smash his opponents and regain some of the luster his reputation had lost after his division’s debacle at Gettysburg. His plan for attack was sound: Brig. Gen. Thomas T. Munford’s cavalry would remain at Five Forks, holding the road to Dinwiddie Court House, while Maj. Gen. William H. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry swung south along the west bank of Chamberlain’s Run to strike the Union left flank. Pickett’s infantry division would follow closely behind. Chamberlain’s Run was normally a narrow, sluggish Virginia stream, but after two days of downpours it had turned into a raging torrent nearly 100 yards wide. The first Confederates to arrive gazed uneasily at the roiling, muddy water.
The 6th and 13th Ohio Cavalry, 1st Maine Cavalry and 2nd New York Mounted Rifles — all of General Smith’s brigade — were charged with guarding Sheridan’s extreme left flank and posted in the woods bordering Chamberlain’s Run near a crossing point known as Fitzgerald Ford. Suddenly aware of the Confederate column bearing down upon their position, the Union men began to quickly construct breastworks of logs, rails and ‘anything that would stop a bullet.’A contingent from the 1st Maine crossed the flooded stream at about 11 a.m. and immediately ran into a detachment of Rebel cavalry. Carbines popped as sharp skirmishing began, and the outnumbered Northerners prudently withdrew under heavy fire, throwing themselves into the water alongside their horses in an attempt to avoid enemy fire.
That fire came from Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer’s brigade, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th North Carolina Cavalry. Barringer had deployed the dismounted 1st and 5th regiments in the woods at the edge of the ford. Colonel William H. Cheek, commander of the 1st North Carolina, recalled that ‘the stream was very swollen by recent heavy rains, and at places was impassable by reason of briars and swamp undergrowth. In my immediate front it was over one hundred yards wide and as deep as the men’s waists.’
The Southern men advanced into the cold, fast-moving water and took their turn at facing a galling fire from a larger enemy force. Bullets from the repeating rifles of the 13th Ohio and 1st Maine peppered the water, and several Tarheels were shot down in the ford or swept away by the raging current to drown. The high water rendered the Confederates defenseless, for the men had to carry their weapons and cartridge boxes above their heads as they advanced and could not return fire.
When they reached the other side, Cheek’s dripping troopers took shelter in the heavy woods, which afforded some degree of protection. Colonel James H. McNeill’s 5th North Carolina, however, had the misfortune to emerge into an open field.
The heavy firing brought the rest of the 1st Maine, stationed along the road about a mile to the rear, and the 6th Ohio on the run. The 13th Ohio held the woods against Cheek and the 1st North Carolina. The detachment of the 1st Maine that had just recrossed Chamberlain’s Run continued to deliver hot repeater fire into the exposed flanks of McNeill’s regiment, though the Federals were badly outnumbered and falling back into the open field. The rest of the 1st Maine and 6th Ohio appeared opportunely on the field and shot down many of McNeil’s men. When McNeil himself fell with a bullet through his head, the entire gray line gave way and struggled back across the creek. The fight, which lasted about 30 minutes, was over.
As the cavalry was fighting desperately at Fitzgerald Ford, Pickett succeeded in crossing his infantry over Chamberlain’s Run about a mile upstream. The Southern infantrymen drove toward Sheridan’s center and right, assisted by Munford’s cavalry moving down from Five Forks. Heavy Federal gunfire and spirited countercharges slowed the Confederate advance, but Pickett succeeded in isolating Sheridan’s right flank, held by cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin. The hard-pressed Federal position began to crumble. A New Yorker remembered that ‘the woods were alive with Johnnies, and we were all mixed up in hand-to-hand encounters.’ Union horses, soldiers, bands and separated regiments all clogged the woods in confused retreat. Determined to press his advantage, Pickett wheeled his men to the south in order to concentrate his attack on Sheridan’s center, which was falling back steadily toward Dinwiddie Court House.
Sheridan was in desperate trouble. His forces were scattered, his right wing was falling back in confusion and a much larger infantry force was assailing his center. One ray of hope remained for Sheridan — the dogged resistance of Smith’s men at Fitzgerald Ford had stabilized the Union left flank, their stand buying time for Custer to come up and for the Federals to construct a defensive line in front of Dinwiddie Court House.
The Confederate success to this point in the engagement had not been without cost, as the Southerners had suffered appalling losses in the morning fight. Tabulating his casualties from the combat at Fitzgerald Ford, Barringer ruefully reported that ‘in this short conflict…twenty officers [were] killed and over one hundred men killed and wounded’ — a testament to the effectiveness of the Union’s breechloading carbines. The bloody fighting in this sector was not finished, however. In the afternoon, Pickett once again ordered the cavalry to take Fitzgerald Ford and join the advance on the fragile Union line. One of Barringer’s staff officers expressed shock that the ‘bloody work had to be done all over again.’
Deadly sharpshooting had continued across Chamberlain’s Run during the lull in the combat at Fitzgerald Ford, turning the open field at the crossing into a killing ground. The constant shooting had exhausted the ammunition of the Ohio troopers in the woods by the ford, and a courier was sent to bring more rounds to the Buckeyes. George Fisher, a member of the 6th Ohio, galloped his horse through a hail of bullets to get his comrades a box of cartridges. Fisher leaped from his saddle with his precious cargo, and the box was quickly split open with a saber and the ammunition passed along the line. A soldier remembered that ‘the regimental band came down in rear of the line, and before the boys knew it was there, struck up ‘Yankee Doodle,’ making those woods ring as they probably never did before. The boys received it with hearty cheers, and the rebels with yells and shouts of derision. In short time a rebel band, over across struck up ‘Dixie,’ at which the boys in blue yelled….Till late in the afternoon the two bands kept up a musical duel.’
As this symphonic warfare was being waged, Sheridan searched for a point on which his scattered brigades could make a defensive stand. He found a suitable location in a slight rise of ground northwest of Dinwiddie Court House. Sheridan wrote that ‘it was now about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we were in a critical situation.’ As the tired troopers straggled to the summit of the rise, Sheridan ordered them to entrench. The horsemen checked and loaded their weapons, nervously eyeing the enemy-held ground to the north while they awaited Custer’s arrival.
Custer was, in fact, making haste to join his beleaguered comrades, and after two days of fussing with mud and sinking wagons, the flamboyant general was ready for a fight. After receiving Sheridan’s entreaty for assistance, Custer quickly gathered Colonels Henry Capehart’s and Alexander C.M. Pennington’s brigades and began advancing the three or four miles to the fighting at a gallop. Although Custer rode zestfully to succor Sheridan, many of his troopers went with attitudes made somber by the sound of heavy firing ahead of them. Major L.H. Tenney of Pennington’s brigade remembered that he was ‘very uneasy to know how the day [was] going.’
A nervous 2nd Ohio cavalryman recalled that ‘on the route we passed hundreds of dead and wounded that lay in the mud or sat braced up by trees….Some had arms in slings, and with their clothes cut open to bind up their wounds, and their faces and hands besmeared with blood and powder smoke.’ The cavalrymen steeled themselves against such ghastly remnants of the morning’s battle and pounded toward Sheridan’s smoke-shrouded position.
The rising crescendo of gunfire only seemed to make Custer more gleeful. ‘General Sheridan and those fellows up there don’t know whether school is going to keep or not!’ he shouted. Upon reaching the ridge, Custer had his men quickly dismount and take up positions in the center of the Union line, where they built, said one Federal, the ‘most miserable apology for breastworks [that] ever was seen, consisting of rotten fence rails [and] brushwood, with a little earth.’ To make matters worse, wrote another Union soldier, Custer’s men ‘could see their comrades retreating before long lines of Confederate infantry, and ‘knew that there was work ahead.’ To bolster the sprits of his men, Custer added another musical touch to the scrape by ordering his band to play the rousing tune ‘Garry Owen.’
By 4 p.m., Barringer’s North Carolinians were girded and ready to resume their push at Fitzgerald Ford. As the Confederates moved toward the water, an officer from the 1st Maine Cavalry remembered that ‘a Rebel yelled out ‘wind up them guns, Yanks!” — a reference to the Federal breechloaders. Moments later, with Cheek’s 1st North Carolina in the van, the gray line swept forward and moved boldly into the fast current as bullets swept the water around them. From his vantage point on the east bank of Chamberlain’s Run, a Federal horse-soldier noted that ‘the enemy advanced within 15 or 20 steps of us, while we mowed them down like grain before a reaper. Their line wavered, but their officers urged them on.’ The Rebels gave as good as they got. A member of the 13th Ohio Cavalry remembered that ‘our comrades were falling all around us; we lost more than half of our company in less than half an hour.’ It was about as ‘unhealthy in the rear as it was in the front,’ recalled another Yankee, ‘as a rebel battery had range of the road, and was playing havoc with our wounded.’
As the sun began to set, and long shadows crossed the fields and woodlots near Chamberlain’s Run, the troops of Smith’s brigade began to fall back before the Southern attack with a ‘dogged obstinacy,’ said one North Carolinian. The Federals ‘would rally and re-form, only to be broken and dispersed,’ wrote another Confederate. A.D. Rockwell of the 13th Ohio remembered it more frankly as ‘a pell mell retreat. It was getting dark, everything was confusion and disorder.’ The Federals came to a turn in the road, and, according to Colonel Stephen R. Clark of the 13th Ohio, spied the Union troops in Sheridan’s defensive line ‘on the ridge in front of us throwing up a line of works. We were soon with them, filling the place that had been left for us.’As Smith’s fought-out troopers clambered behind their earthworks, Pickett’s men advanced steadily southward toward Sheridan’s ridge-top stronghold. Sheridan’s confidence had returned with the arrival of Custer’s division, and his blood was up. As he watched the Rebels approach through the deepening dusk, he turned to Custer and roared: ‘Do you understand? I want you to give it to them!’ Custer quickly assented and sent groups of his horsemen forward as skirmishers. The men galloped to the shelter of a hillock topped with a house and dismounted. As his unit drove to the knoll and pushed back the skirmishers screening the Southern onslaught, a 2nd Ohio cavalryman remembered passing by the retreating remnants of the center of Sheridan’s morning position. Hunkering down by the homestead, the Ohioan watched as ‘the Rebels [kept] coming and it was really magnificent to see them as they came, a double line, the men standing shoulder to shoulder…as tho’ on parade. [Their] line halts and fires a unified volley at the house. From their open mouths I could see the rebel yell was echoing, but not a sound of it was heard, owing to the racket made by the balls on the weatherboards.”
The face of the sun had now half descended behind the western hills, and the whole surface of the ground about it was bathed in one immense crimson bath,’ remembered another Union veteran. The 2nd Ohio held the position for five minutes before mounting up and retreating to a fence line. A wounded Ohio man wrote: ‘I…sat behind a stump and pulled off my boot, which was full of blood. I think at least one dozen balls struck the stump while I was there. There was such a storm of lead I thought it best to follow up [a] swale….My clothes were [still] cut in several places.’ The Confederates swirled around the house and fired at the retreating cavalry that ‘[flew] over the field like leaves in wild weather.’It was nearly dark. A mounted column arrived behind the Union line, carrying all sorts of banners and flags. Sheridan, Custer and their staff officers rode along the breastworks, drawing enemy fire. Confederate bullets emptied several saddles, including that of a reporter for the New York Herald.
As Pickett’s men tramped across the open plain in the dusk, accurate Union horse-artillery opened gaping holes in their ranks. A Federal recalled that ‘every time the guns were discharged the grape swept that part of the line away, and the line would wheel into column and fill up the gap just vacated, only to meet the same fate.’ The Southern infantry continued to advance despite the iron hail.
On the ridge, the Union cavalry crouched behind their meager barricades and waited until Pickett’s troops were within close range before they opened fire. With a blinding flash, Custer’s fresh soldiers used their repeating rifles to pour out what was described as’such a shower of lead that nothing could stand up against it.’ Somehow the Confederates weathered this storm of shot and were able to return fire. A witness recalled: ‘I saw volleys fired at Copeland’s and Pennington’s brigades of such extent as to make a perfect sheet of lead. It seemed as if no man within the range could escape….[I was] expecting to see the ground covered with killed and wounded. Fortunately most of the volleys were fired too high.’The weapons of both sides spat flame for the next few minutes, until it became too dark to see. ‘Gradually the fire from the enemy became fitful and irregular, and soon ceased all together,’ recalled an Ohio soldier behind the barricade. ‘The fight was short. The darkening hours of night now closed the murderous work.’
Pickett’s force camped on the damp battlefield about a hundred yards from the Union works, built fires and began the grim work of tallying their dead and wounded. Barringer’s North Carolina brigade had suffered nearly 50 percent casualties, and only two field officers were left in his three regiments. Company H of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry was particularly hard hit; every man except the captain had been killed or wounded. One Confederate counted 27 bullet holes in his clothing and equipment.
Total Confederate losses were estimated at between 800 and 1,000 men, while Sheridan had lost about 400 men killed, wounded or missing. The lighter number of losses did not mean the Union men did not mourn: Major T.H. Tenney of the 2nd Ohio wrote simply in his diary that ‘many good men [were] lost.’
From the ridge the Yankees glared down with envy at their blaze-warmed foes, for Sheridan had forbade the lighting of fires. ‘It was a miserable night, & to make it still worse, the rebels…had built up rousing great fires, around which they were moving, singing, yelling & shouting until near midnight, we could hear the sound of their voices plain,’said a Federal trooper. ‘By midnight the fires were mostly but a tinkel, a few still burned bright, flaring up every once in a while, showing it had been replenished & a figure could be seen moving about….The night was cold, with slight frost, & we suffered bitterly,’ recalled an Ohioan. Some Union troopers spent the night digging and improving the works, an activity that traded lack of sleep for the warmth of physical labor. By morning, the once weak earthworks ‘were now fit to resist horse, foot, or dragoons,’ recalled another Union trooper.
Although the day had gone generally in favor of the Confederates, Sheridan remained in control of Dinwiddie Court House, and he was therefore still in a position to launch another threat toward Five Forks and the Southside Railroad. Furthermore, Pickett’s men were on their own, separated from the main Rebel fortifications encircling Petersburg. The enemy’s ‘force is in more danger than I am in [for] it is cut off from Lee’s army, and not a man in it should ever be allowed to get back to Lee,’ determined Sheridan, who also vowed to hold on to Dinwiddie Court House at all costs.
Early the next morning, Pickett learned that Federal infantry — soldiers of the V Corps — were coming up on his left flank to reinforce Sheridan. Reading the situation and the danger it portended, he ordered his troops to fall back to their breastworks at Five Forks. The exhausted men were roused, and the first of the infantry trudged back to Five Forks at 3 in the morning. By 10 all of Pickett’s men were back safely behind the breastworks.
At dawn, a thick covering of fog hid the battlefield and its gory crop of dead and wounded. As the mist began to lift, Sheridan, Custer and a flock of staff officers rode forward to inspect the ground. Trooper Hannaford remembered that Sheridan ‘passed out behind our lines, peering toward the rebel camp, with his hand up over his eyes. Every minute added to the light & we soon saw that the rebels were indeed gone….We mounted, moving toward the rebel camp, meeting some of our boys bearing back [one of our men] who had lain all night badly wounded out in the bitter cold.’
Satisfied that the Rebels had fled, Sheridan mobilized his men for another advance that approached the Confederate works at Five Forks in midafternoon. Reinforced by heavy columns of infantry, the Union troops rushed the Rebel position, spilling over the log-and-earth defenses at twilight and swallowing the outnumbered Southerners in a blue tide. The fighting was furious, brutal and hand to hand. The Confederates broke and retreated with heavy casualties. Amazingly, Pickett and several of his generals were satisfying their appetites at an ill-advised shad bake when the fight began. By the time the well-supped officers arrived on the scene, their tardy efforts at direction could do little to stop the Northern advance.
The Battle of Five Forks sealed the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia. The skeletal remains of this once-potent fighting force struggled westward out of Petersburg in a losing race with the Federal army that would end at another courthouse town — Appomattox — on April 9, 1865.Although overshadowed by the momentous events surrounding the Confederate surrender and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the tough engagement at Dinwiddie Court House gave Grant the lodgment on the Confederate flank he had been hoping for. Far more than just another bloody fight, the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House was the linchpin that led to final Union victory in the east.
This article was written by Mark Crawford and originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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