Decision at The Battle of Five Forks - 1865 | Page 3 of 7 | HistoryNet MENU

Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • MHQ

Sheridan had no definite plan to discuss at their initial meeting, but when they met again after one o’clock that afternoon, he had fully sketched out the attack he intended to deliver. Also by one o’clock, the cavalryman was in receipt of a remarkable order personally conveyed to him by one of U.S. Grant’s aides. As Sheridan later recalled it, he was duly authorized “to relieve General Warren, if, in my judgment, the public service would be benefitted by doing so.”

Sheridan made no mention of this as he briefed Warren. His plan called for a cavalry feint against the enemy’s western flank, followed almost at once by a massive infantry blow (the entire V Corps) against the eastern side. Once the Confederate position began to crumble, the remaining cavalry would press ahead all along the front. Warren immediately began the process of moving his troops to their jump-off position, just south of Gravelly Run Church. His corps would advance as a whole with Ayres on the left, Crawford on the right, and Griffin in reserve. It was expected that Crawford would strike the bend, or return, in the enemy’s works. Ayres would be attacking the east-west line head-on, while Griffin would be ready to assist or turn the flank.

It took several hours for Warren to brief his subordinates and position his corps. Nothing moved fast enough to suit Sheridan, while Warren was concerned that his troops be properly placed and prepared. “I know nothing that I could have done to hasten the formation,” he said afterward. At last, at about 4:15 p.m., with everything set, the order to attack was given. The 12,000 Federal infantry began advancing and quickly covered the 1,500 feet between the starting line and the White Oak Road. Much to the amazement of the infantry officers, the leading files crossed the road virtually unopposed.

A burst of musketry off the left flank of Ayres’s division was the first indication that the enemy’s entrenched position was not where it was supposed to be. In an instant an entirely new plan of attack had to be improvised under fire. The complex actions that followed reflected the confusion of the immediate decision-makers-division and even brigade commanders reacting to imminent or perceived threats-and Warren trying to corral his units back into something approximating the original scheme.

What unfolded was this: Stung by the fire against his left flank, General Ayres pivoted his division to advance westward, perpendicular to the White Oak Road. While this brought him directly against the enemy’s refused flank, it also broke his connection with Crawford’s division on his right. General Crawford, instead of maintaining station off Ayres’s right flank, stuck to his original orders by continuing to tramp in a northerly direction, each minute increasing the gap between the two. When General Griffin finally realized what was happening, he swung his division around to face toward the west and came in alongside Ayres, where Crawford was supposed to be. A few brigades got even more jumbled in these movements.

Both Sheridan and Warren reacted to the sudden breakdown of the plan. Sheridan rode among Ayres’s men, personally rallied a portion that was wavering, and led the assault against the enemy’s eastern flank. Warren went after Crawford. Unknown to both, the Confederates had materially assisted them by poor judgments and even worse management. Convinced that the Federals would not bother him this day, Pickett and his second-in-command enjoyed a late but leisurely shad bake along Hatcher’s Run, nearly a mile and a half behind the Five Forks line. Then a rare phenomenon known as an acoustic shadow so muffled the sounds of combat that no one in Pickett’s party was aware that a major battle was raging nearby. Pickett’s infantry and cavalry subcommanders reacted as best they could to the sudden onslaught, but without a chain of command in place, their actions were fatally disjointed.

Under Sheridan’s personal leadership, Ayres’s infantry (with much help from Griffin) caved in the eastern flank of the Confederate position and began rolling up the line toward the five-way junction. Warren, at last getting control of Crawford’s wayward division, brought it down against the intersection from the north. Some 2,400 Confederates were captured and perhaps 545 killed or wounded. The rest of Pickett’s force fell back to the west, badly mauled and now completely out of contact with Lee’s main force at Petersburg.

At about seven o’clock, even as he was regrouping his command near Five Forks, General Warren was handed an order from Sheridan relieving him of duty. When he confronted the cavalryman to ask that the decision be reconsidered, Sheridan snapped: “Reconsider? Hell! I don’t reconsider my determination.” Following Sheridan’s instructions, Warren reported to U.S. Grant at about 11 o’clock that night.

As Grant later recalled their meeting: “[I told him] that I was not surprised, and I informed him that I had given the authority for his removal, and I also stated to General Warren that while I had a very great regard for his capacity and personal courage, yet he had certain defects which I then told him of as a subordinate commander.” Unhappy with Grant’s refusal to reverse Sheridan’s decision, Warren sought out his immediate superior, General Meade. Warren’s meeting with Meade was equally unsatisfactory. As the disconsolate Warren left Meade’s tent, an aide reflected, “I am sorry, for I like Warren.”

Following Five Forks, Warren was given administrative command of the Petersburg region and was at this post when history-making events unfolded at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the day that Lee surrendered his army, Warren vowed to his wife, “I will have justice done me yet.” That same mail carried his letter to Grant’s chief of staff seeking “a full investigation” into the circumstances at Five Forks. To this first request there was no reply. Later that month, a sympathetic New York senator pressed Grant on Warren’s behalf. Grant’s answer, which Warren would hear repeated endlessly in the years ahead, was that an inquiry would be too expensive and that it was impossible to gather all the necessary witnesses. By May 1, Warren’s wife was telling her father that he was “almost crazy sometimes over this affair of his.”

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