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Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • MHQ

In a written statement submitted to the court, Sheridan said that the “order to Warren to move and the exigencies which General Grant and Meade considered that the situation demanded, were of such a nature that they did not admit of anything but prompt and resolute compliance; and I felt that there were no circumstances in existence during the night which should have prevented the movement.”

Even after admitting under direct questioning that he had no firsthand knowledge of the conditions confronting Warren’s men, Sheridan was adamant that whatever they were, they were of no consequence. Meade’s 10:50 p.m. message was, said Sheridan, “one that required prompt obedience.” Regarding how long the march should have taken, Sheridan opined that two hours would have been about right. His irritation at being grilled on this estimate by Warren’s counsel showed when he testified that before the war he had marched infantry at a rate of five miles an hour. Pressed further by Mr. Stickney, a thoroughly riled Sheridan insisted that he had maintained this pace for 12 continuous hours. (Upon reading this statement in a preliminary transcript, Sheridan sought to change it, but Stickney insisted that it be left as he stated it, and it was.) Sheridan never wavered in his conviction that had Warren fully exerted himself the “thing might be done in an emergency, but it would be very difficult.”

Warren’s witnesses included the engineer (from Meade’s staff) who rebuilt the Gravelly Run bridge. He declared that the stream at that point was not fordable by infantry. What also emerged was the near total dysfunction of the communication chains. Warren reported to Meade, who then briefed Grant. Sheridan reported to Grant and got his orders from him. Meade seems not to have acted with the degree of urgency that Grant felt, so when it became clear at his headquarters that Warren’s men were to be unavoidably delayed getting over Gravelly Run, word did not get back to Grant.

The third charge levied against Warren was that once he knew Sheridan’s plan on April 1 he did not “exert himself to get up his corps as rapidly as he might have done, and his manner gave me [Sheridan] the impression that he wished the sun to go down before dispositions for the attack could be completed.” Here the testimony broke along party lines. Wesley Merritt, a brigadier general in 1865 commanding the Union cavalry at Five Forks, having met Warren before the attack, recalled him as “reluctant, quiet, and uninterested…with what might possibly be the results of the day.” A Sheridan staff officer, Francis T. Sherman, had the court spectators smiling as he struggled to explain his depiction of the V Corps commander as “earnestly impassive.”

Warren’s side was eloquently stated by another Civil War hero, Joshua L. Chamberlain, in 1865 a brigadier general in the V Corps: “I should say that those who do not know General Warren’s temperament might think him to be negative when he was deeply intent. General Warren’s temperament is such that he, instead of showing excitement, generally shows an intense concentration in what I call important movements, and those who do not know him might take it to be apathy when it is deep, concentrated thought and purpose.”

Charge four was that during the actual battle of Five Forks, Warren failed to be where he was most needed (with Ayres’s men) and that his lack of confidence in the enterprise spread to the troops “which General Warren did not exert himself to inspire.” It was here that Sheridan felt most aggrieved at Warren’s behavior. In his way of thinking, the capture of the enemy’s eastern flank was the key to victory. “The battle was over, I considered, as soon as we had captured that angle,” he declared. Warren’s inability to keep his initial formation intact “destroyed the tactics that I intended to make in the battle,” Sheridan said. The cavalryman admitted knowing nothing of what Warren actually did and cared even less to explore it 15 years later. As far as he was concerned, in 1865 and 1880, “Ayres’s division…and the cavalry, I think, won the battle; the others didn’t get in in time.”

Much testimony was introduced by and for Warren addressing the conditions on the field that day and the steps he took to rectify matters once the plan went awry. (The mislocation of the enemy’s flank was mentioned, but not wanting to attack Sheridan’s war record, Warren’s counsel did not press the matter.) From where he had been, Warren was certain that Crawford’s advance against the intersection from the north “was the cause of the final break that occurred in the enemy’s lines; it was the attack General Crawford made south on that road.”

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