Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • Army Of Northern Virginia, Civil War 1864, Civil War 1865, Civil War Battlefields, Civil War Soldiers, Confederate Army, Dwight Eisenhower, MHQ, Peninsular Campaign, Tecumseh, Ulysess S Grant, Union Soldiers, William T Sherman

The first two of Warren’s divisions to advance-led by Brevet Maj. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, who was closely supported by Brevet Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford-were struck by four Confederate brigades that sent them reeling back to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren’s reserve (Brevet Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division), backed by artillery and bolstered on its right by some of the II Corps, managed to hold the plank road line. Matters ground to an uneasy pause by midday with the Confederates lacking the manpower to overwhelm Warren’s last line, and the V Corps commander methodically reorganizing for a counterattack.

The riposte got underway at two thirty that afternoon, led by Griffin’s men. The attackers found the Confederates unable to hold their morning gains. Not only were they driven back into their White Oak Road entrenchments but also two of Griffin’s brigades crossed over the road itself just a short distance west of the works. At 3:40 p.m. a jubilant Warren informed army headquarters of his success. The reply he received at five o’clock was not what he expected. He was told to secure his position, to keep an especial watch over his left flank, and to try to establish contact with Sheridan’s troopers near Dinwiddie Court House. Instead of being allowed to rest on their laurels, it looked as if Warren’s infantrymen were being given another assignment.

Warren dutifully dispatched one brigade of Griffin’s division to feel down toward the courthouse. Other plans involving Warren’s men were rapidly evolving at army headquarters as the overall picture cleared. Sheridan needed help near Dinwiddie Court House to dispose of the enemy’s reaction force and Warren was to provide it. His efforts to comply were not helped by the imperfect knowledge at Meade’s headquarters of the locations and conditions of the V Corps divisions. Adding to the mix, the Boydton Plank Road was then blocked at its crossing of Gravelly Run by a destroyed bridge, made worse by high water from the recent storms. Even as engineers worked to restore the crossing, Warren was engaged in a frustrating exchange of messages with Meade trying to establish a common understanding of conditions.

What would afterwards be seen as a key message sent by Meade was received by Warren at 10:50 p.m. The entire V Corps was to disengage and march to assist Sheridan. "You must be very prompt in this movement," Meade advised. (Not until an hour later did army headquarters become aware of the stoppage at Gravelly Run. Another exchange of notes explored various alternate routes, but Warren believed that it would be quicker just to wait for the Gravelly Run bridge to be fixed.) At 2:05 a.m., April 1, Warren received word that the way was clear. The V Corps began to march-Ayres in the lead, followed by Griffin and Crawford.

All this activity had not gone unnoticed by the Confederates, who had given Sheridan such a hard time. Just before 10 o’clock on the night of March 31, General Pickett learned of the probe by the Yankee brigade from Griffin’s division and realized that the enemy was threatening his left rear. He promptly ordered his mixed infantry-cavalry command to pull back. With delays because of darkness and the inevitable confusion following a large-scale action, it wasn’t until five o’clock in the morning on April 1 that the Confederates had cleared Sheridan’s front. Although the Yankee scouts kept close tabs on the retrograde movement, the cavalryman let them depart without any serious challenge.

Pickett had signaled to Lee his intention to fall back north as far as Hatcher’s Run, a strong natural defensive position. This Lee could not allow, since such a move would uncover the important road junction known as Five Forks, which was bisected by the White Oak Road. Allowing the enemy unfettered access to Five Forks would seriously undermine the extreme western flank of Petersburg’s contiguous defensive network. "Hold Five Forks at all hazards," Lee commanded. Accordingly, Pickett took up a defensive position centered on the junction and facing south.

The first division of Warren’s arriving corps reached Sheridan’s outposts at sunrise, followed in the next couple of hours by the remaining pair. Sheridan had them mass around the John Boisseau farm, about two miles north of Dinwiddie. In the meantime he had his troopers aggressively exploring the enemy’s Five Forks position. The picture that their reports gave Sheridan was accurate save for one critical piece. Mistaking a strong cavalry outpost for part of the entrenched position, the Federal scouts placed the enemy’s eastern flank near the intersection of the White Oak and Gravelly Run roads. It was actually more than 4,000 feet farther west.

Sheridan and Warren first met at around 11 in the morning. By then Warren had been informed by Meade that he would be subordinated to Sheridan during their joint operation. The two were polar opposites. Sheridan was all hurry-up, an officer who led from the front and who judged his peers by their visibility along the firing line. Warren was careful, even cautious, a manager of military assets who preferred a central position in battle from which he could direct the deployment of his men. It was the first time the two had worked together.

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