Phil Sheridan’s single-minded pursuit of victory left a more cautious union general ruined after the battle of five forks.
The Battle of Five Forks had been brilliantly won. Nevertheless, Major General Philip H. Sheridan was angry. “Reconsider, hell!” he roared to a subordinate. “I don’t reconsider my decisions. Obey the order!” And with those words “Little Phil” refused to rescind his battlefield directive relieving Major General Gouverneur K. Warren of his command of the Union V Corps. Just hours earlier, Warren’s troops had been instrumental in crushing Major General George E. Pickett’s Confederate force. Among the most spectacular of Sheridan’s Civil War victories, it helped pave the way for his postwar career. One might think the triumph at Five Forks should have also been a splendid moment in Warren’s career. Instead, it delivered him into professional ruin and disgrace.
The stage had been set for the battle when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces repulsed an assault by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Fort Stedman outside Petersburg on March 25, 1865. Lee’s attack against the Federal siege lines had been a bold gamble. For the previous eight months, Grant’s armies had kept Lee’s men bottled up in the Petersburg trenches while Confederate supplies and replacements trickled to a virtual halt. During the siege, Grant had continually extended his left (western) flank in an effort to cut the railroads that supplied the city. Lee’s attack at Fort Stedman failed to reverse the tide of Confederate misfortune, and Grant saw an opportunity to make a decisive move on the Confederate right flank.
On the night of March 27, Grant set his forces in motion. He extended the Army of the James’ left flank farther to the west, which enabled Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to free both his II and V corps for mobile action. By midday on March 28, these infantry corps—as well as Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps—were moving to the far left flank of the Union lines. Sheridan’s cavalry was to play a key role in the upcoming campaign. Grant directed Sheridan to “reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can.” Once his force was in position, Grant’s plans would be flexible. If the enemy stayed in its trenches, Sheridan was to “cut loose” and push to the west. On the other hand, if part of Lee’s army moved out of its fortifications to meet Sheridan, Little Phil was to attack the Confederates in the open with his entire force. Grant relied on the aggressive Sheridan to take full advantage of either opportunity.
Sheridan was a tough commander with a fiery nature and an uncanny ability to inspire the volunteer soldiers of the Northern armies. Just 34 years old, the barrel-chested, 5-foot-5-inch-tall general had established himself as one of the Union’s most pugnacious leaders. The son of Irish immigrants, Sheridan was raised in the frontier town of Somerset, Ohio. He secured an appointment to West Point, but once there, “a quarrel of a belligerent character” with another cadet, as General William T. Sherman later characterized it, resulted in a one-year suspension. After graduating in the class of 1853 (34th out of 52), he served with the frontier army for eight years until the Civil War brought quick promotion and division command. In December 1862, Sheridan’s troops stubbornly held the center of the Union line at the Battle of Stone’s River, Tenn. In September 1863, his performance at Chickamauga was much less noteworthy; he removed his divisions from the battlefield after a Confederate attack penetrated and routed the Union right flank. Sheridan gained a measure of redemption two months later at the Battle of Chattanooga, Tenn., where he led his men in the assault up the slopes of Missionary Ridge. During the advance Sheridan was spattered with mud from a Confederate cannon shot. He cursed, took a drink from a silver flask and shouted to his men: “Forward, boys, forward! Give ’em hell! We will carry the line.” Advancing on foot, Sheridan inspired his men to surge over the Confederate entrenchments.
The young division commander’s bravado attracted the attention of Grant, who brought him east in 1864 to become commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. Sheridan’s first months were unspectacular and marked by conflicts with both Meade and Warren. New to cavalry command, Sheridan was slow to grasp the need for the mounted arm to perform reconnaissance missions.
In the fall of 1864, Grant gave Sheridan an independent command in the Shenandoah Valley in which he firmly established his reputation as an inspiring battlefield leader. At the Third Battle of Winchester, Sheridan, “with much energy and profanity,” according to one witness, unsnarled a traffic jam that threatened to ruin his attack and captured more than 2,000 prisoners in a smashing victory. One month later, Little Phil earned everlasting fame at Cedar Creek. The battle had begun while Sheridan was away at a meeting, and his army was caught by surprise. Later in the day, he rallied his men and turned seemingly certain defeat into a dramatic and decisive victory.
After rejoining Grant’s forces at Petersburg, Sheridan resumed his duties as cavalry commander for the Army of the Potomac, but Grant trusted Sheridan with a much greater role in the upcoming campaign. At the end of March, Sheridan’s cavalry and the II and V corps began to advance against the end of the Confederate line southwest of Petersburg.
The Federal movement could not be concealed from Southern pickets, and by March 29, Lee had correctly deduced that the Northerners were aiming for his vulnerable western flank. In response, he put together a force of infantry and cavalry under Pickett with the intent of crushing Sheridan’s cavalry at Dinwiddie Court House. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s Division of Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Corps was to attack the Union V Corps and prevent it from reinforcing Sheridan. Characteristically, Lee’s plans were aggressive in nature. But this time the odds were against him. The Union flanking force easily outnumbered the combined strength of Pickett and Johnson.
While Pickett received his marching orders, Warren’s V Corps moved up the Quaker Road against the western edge of the Petersburg entrenchments, and Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys deployed his II Corps to cover Warren’s right flank. Like Sheridan, Warren was young and already famous prior to Five Forks. Here the similarities ended. Warren was born and raised in New York, and he had graduated second in West Point’s class of 1850. Before the war, he served as topographical engineer and mathematics instructor at the academy. After the outbreak of the conflict, Warren served with the Army of the Potomac in a variety of positions and became its chief engineer in 1863. In that capacity he carved his place in history on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, by alerting the Union high command to the danger approaching Little Round Top, a move that likely saved the entire Federal line at Gettysburg.
After Gettysburg, Warren temporarily assumed command of the II Corps while Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock recovered from a wound. Upon Hancock’s return to duty, Warren was given command of the V Corps. As the 1864 campaign wore on, Warren found his reputation and his relationship with Meade eroding. During the Overland campaign, he ran afoul of Sheridan on the night of May 7 when the V Corps and Sheridan’s cavalry stumbled into each other, ruining the army’s timetable for beating the Confederates to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Partially as a result of this fiasco, Warren composed a confidential letter to Meade offering advice with thinly veiled criticisms of Meade’s actions and more blatant attacks on his fellow corps commanders, including Sheridan. Warren decided not to send the letter. Several days later, Meade nearly relieved Warren for failing to follow orders to attack enemy entrenchments at Spotsylvania. The touchy situation was defused by Humphreys, who was then Meade’s chief of staff, but the ill feelings continued.
By late March 1865, Warren’s relationship with his superiors was tenuous at best. In addition, he was probably suffering from battle fatigue as a result of the constant strain of the last year’s fighting. Temperamental and high-strung, Warren had been exhibiting drastic mood swings in the previous several weeks. Even though his subordinates held Warren in high regard, his chief of artillery, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, had to admit, “I am becoming more than ever convinced that he has a screw loose and is not quite accountable for all his freaks.” Still, as an engineer with an unfailing eye for terrain and undoubted courage, Warren was a capable tactician.
As Warren’s corps advanced on March 29, Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division was the first to encounter Confederates. Griffin’s men pushed the Southern skirmishers north along the Quaker Road but were soon stalled by Confederate breastworks near a sawmill. During the subsequent engagement at Lewis’ farm, Griffin’s lead brigade, under Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, came under heavy fire. Chamberlain, renowned for his courage, was in front of his brigade when a bullet passed through his horse’s neck and ripped through his arm. It ricocheted off a leather case and brass mirror in the general’s breast pocket. Finally the projectile struck Chamberlain’s aide on the holster and knocked him from his horse. Chamberlain also fell to the ground, blood dripping from his arm, but soon remounted and rode to the threatened sector. His men rallied and pushed the Southerners back into their main entrenchments near White Oak Road.
The V Corps’ success prompted Grant to modify Sheridan’s orders. The Union commander now felt “like ending the matter if it is possible to do so before going back.” He instructed Sheridan to cut the Confederates’ last rail supply line into Petersburg, the South Side Railroad, and hoped the move would compel Lee to order his forces out of their trenches into open battle or stretch the Confederate line so thin that a general assault might carry the Southern fortifications.
Late in the evening of March 29, a deluge started that continued into the next morning. The roads turned into quagmires that brought movement to a standstill. The souplike mud led some Union soldiers to wisecrack to their officers, “When are the gunboats coming up?” But having received an order to suspend operations, Sheridan did not feel much like joking. At a meeting, Little Phil pleaded with Grant to change his mind, and the commander in chief relented and allowed Sheridan to continue the offensive. The next morning the aggressive cavalry commander pushed Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Devin’s division and a brigade from Maj. Gen. George Crook’s division toward a road intersection called Five Forks.
Warren’s V Corps barely moved at all on the 30th. Poor orders were more to blame than the rain. The confusion began with an initial exchange between Meade and Warren that was somewhat clarified by forwarding a copy of Grant’s original instructions. Warren replied to Meade with characteristic sarcasm, “Your instructions have never said definitely how far I was expected to extend nor the object desired.” In the meantime, Warren deployed his three divisions in depth for the next day’s advance. Major General Romeyn B. Ayres’ division was farthest to the north, followed by Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford’s division and then Griffin’s division. The formation was more disposed to a flank defense than an attack, and it demonstrated Warren’s fears for his open left flank.
The sun broke through the clouds early on March 31, giving a foretaste of drier roads and increased mobility. Optimism was soon lost in the wake of alarming reports Sheridan received of Confederate plans to launch an attack against the Federal troopers. Around 10 a.m. Southern infantry and cavalry hit Sheridan’s force north of Dinwiddie Court House. Fighting dismounted, the Northern troopers used their repeating rifles effectively. Even so, the outnumbered Federals were slowly forced back. Undaunted, Sheridan acted to restore the situation, ordering up the regimental bands to have them play among the soldiers in the front lines. One Northern officer noted the music’s “great effect on the spirits of the men.” In addition, Sheridan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. Custer to abandon his guard duties with the cavalry’s supply train and come to the aid of his hard-pressed comrades. Riding hard with his lucky guidon—a gift made by his wife—beside him, Custer arrived just in time to enable Sheridan to hold Dinwiddie Court House. It had been a close battle. Sheridan, however, recognized that his opponents were now in an exposed position outside the protective cover of the Petersburg fortifications.
Several miles northeast of Sheridan, Warren’s V Corps fought a battle that started badly for the Federals. Much controversy has surrounded the early morning rout of the V Corps on March 31. On one hand, the corps’ echelon formation prevented all its divisions from simultaneously engaging the Confederates. Warren later argued that his formation in depth had enabled his soldiers to rally after their initial surprise. Whatever the cause, Ayres and Crawford failed to prepare their divisions for the Confederate onslaught. As Chamberlain later recalled, “Ayres advanced soldier-like as was his nature; resolute, firm-hearted, fearing nothing, in truth not fearing quite enough.” Ayres’ brigades moved forward without the usual force of skirmishers in front to provide early warning of the enemy’s approach. Bushrod Johnson’s attack surprised and routed Ayres’ entire division. To make matters worse, when the retreating Union soldiers began to overrun Crawford’s troops, these soldiers also panicked and joined in the flight.
Two-thirds of the V Corps was now in disarray. Warren turned to Griffin and Chamberlain to reverse the defeat. “General Chamberlain, will you save the honor of the V Corps?” Warren asked. Chamberlain answered affirmatively and readied his men for a counterblow. On the south side of Gravelly Run, Griffin’s men held firm while Warren rounded up the fugitives from Ayres’ and Crawford’s commands. In about an hour, the V Corps was ready to attack, but the stream to Griffin’s front presented an obstacle. Warren offered to have his engineers build a bridge, but Chamberlain declined. “It will not do to stop for that now,” he said. “My men will go straight through.” Chamberlain formed his lead regiment, the 198th Pennsylvania, into a column and sent them splashing through waist-deep water. Soon Warren had parts of Ayres’ and Crawford’s units assisting in the attack while Griffin’s other brigade, under Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Bartlett, advanced on Chamberlain’s right flank. The mounting pressure forced Johnson’s Confederates to withdraw, and the Southerners were soon routed. The Union soldiers finally halted their pursuit at sunset. The day had begun as an unmitigated Union disaster, but by nightfall Warren’s corps had blunted the Army of Northern Virginia’s flank attack and was astride the White Oak Road, thus cutting Pickett’s most direct line of communication to Petersburg.
More than any other Union officer, Sheridan clearly understood the opportunity for decisive victory that presented itself on the evening of March 31. Restless and enthusiastic, Sheridan told one of Grant’s staff, “This force [Pickett’s] is in more danger than I am…if I am cut off from the Army of the Potomac, it is cut off from Lee’s army, and not a man in it should ever be allowed to get back to Lee.” Sheridan needed infantry to complete the task. Little Phil wanted the VI Corps, his trusted companions from the Valley campaign. But Grant recognized that Warren’s V Corps was closer and in the best position to hit Pickett’s exposed left flank.
At about 8 p.m. on the night of March 31, Grant ordered Meade to have Warren pull back the left flank of his corps and send one division to assist Sheridan. Thus began a night of orders and counterorders that caused needless confusion, delay and bitter recriminations. First, Meade partially fulfilled Grant’s instructions by ordering Warren to send one brigade to Sheridan. Later, Meade sent two more orders to Warren. The first changed the march route, and the second canceled the movement of Warren’s reinforcing brigade altogether. Finally, Meade corrected these mistakes by ordering Warren to “send a division down to Dinwiddie Court House to report to General Sheridan.” After sending this order, Meade began to wonder if Grant’s directive was too cautious. After all, one division did not really give Sheridan enough infantry to defeat Pickett decisively. At 9:45 p.m., Meade suggested to Grant that Warren move his whole corps “and take the force threatening Sheridan in the rear.” Grant agreed. Soon a new set of orders directed Warren to follow his lead division with the rest of his corps. In addition to this mire of jumbled orders, Warren discovered that the bridge over Gravelly Run on the Boydton Plank Road had been destroyed. That prompted another exchange of correspondence between Warren and Meade, which further delayed the movement of the corps.
The net result was a sleepless night of marching for the soldiers of Warren’s corps and a missed opportunity for an early-morning attack. Sheridan had hoped that Warren’s entire corps could strike Pickett’s flank near Dinwiddie Court House early on April 1. But as dawn broke, the lead division under Griffin was only just arriving, and Pickett was falling back to Five Forks. Sheridan met Chamberlain, whose brigade was the first unit in Griffin’s column, with a curt greeting: “Why did you not come before? Where is Warren?” Chamberlain tried to explain that Warren was arranging the disengagement of the V Corps’ other divisions. Sheridan would have none of it. He caustically commented that the rear was exactly “where [he] expected to find him.”
Dawn developed into a sunny, dry midmorning. Little Phil was directing his energies toward organizing an attack. Once Crawford’s division had closed on Dinwiddie, Warren reported to the cavalry commander for orders, as Grant had transferred the V Corps from Meade’s control to Sheridan’s for the upcoming battle. Looking “dark and tense” and angry “at the prospect of the sun’s going down on nothing but his wrath,” Sheridan outlined his plan to Warren. First, the cavalry was to press the Confederates directly to their front. Then Warren’s men were to advance east of Five Forks, wheel to the left and strike Pickett’s exposed flank. It was an elegantly simple plan with every prospect of crushing Pickett’s force.
The V Corps, however, seemed to be moving too slowly for the impatient Sheridan, and a perceptible tension was growing between the impetuous cavalry leader and the meticulous engineer. Even the normally optimistic Chamberlain perceived that “a voice of doom was in the air.” As the worn Union infantrymen filed into battle formations, Sheridan remarked: “This battle must be fought and won before the sun goes down. All the conditions may be changed in the morning; we have but a few hours of daylight left us.”
Around 4 p.m., the V Corps was deployed just southeast of Five Forks near Gravelly Run Church. On the left was Ayres’ division. On the right were Crawford’s men. Griffin’s soldiers were positioned in the rear behind Crawford, thus weighting the right flank of the corps. Ayres was most likely to hit the Rebel line first, and once he was engaged, Crawford and Griffin were to pivot on Ayres’ troops and overlap the end of the Confederate position. Ayres’ soldiers formed their ranks and started their march north toward the White Oak Road, moving with paradeground alignment, officers barking out commands, and men keeping in perfect step.
As Warren’s men finally began their move against Pickett’s flank, Sheridan’s cavalry attacked the entrenched Confederate line along White Oak Road in hopes of keeping the Southerners from realigning to meet the infantry attack. Sheridan thrust Devin’s dismounted troopers directly at the Southern breastworks at Five Forks. On Devin’s left, Custer’s division pressured the Confederate positions to the west of the crossroads. One of Custer’s brigades, under Colonel Alexander C.M. Pennington, was dismounted. Custer kept his other two brigades mounted as a reserve to exploit any opening. Pennington’s men, along with Devin’s three brigades, were working their Spencer repeating carbines feverishly to keep pressure on the Confederates. Although the Union cavalry was not involved in an all-out assault, their fight was still vicious. In fact, Private William Smith of the 2nd Ohio called the Five Forks battle “one of the hottest” fights he had been in.
Sheridan’s plan was working well in part due to the hard fighting of his dismounted cavalry troopers and in part because the Confederates at Five Forks were without leadership. Unfortunately for the Southerners—and the reputations of their leaders—Pickett and his chief cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, had picked the worst possible time to join Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser for a shad bake at Rosser’s headquarters, north of Hatcher’s Run. Compounding the mistake, Pickett and Fitz Lee committed the unpardonable error of not telling any of their subordinates where they were going.
With Pickett’s force so unprepared, Warren’s attack should have simply fallen on the Southerners’ left flank and ended the battle with one stroke. But rarely in war do things go as planned. Only Ayres’ division was far enough to the west to brush up against the Confederate lines. Southern volleys surprised the Federals, but Ayres reacted aggressively and began to reorient his men toward the firing. On his right, Crawford continued marching his division northward, away from the battle. Warren was able to catch Griffin’s division before it could follow Crawford’s men on that same path. After turning Griffin toward the Confederate lines, Warren set out to retrieve Crawford’s errant troops. The V Corps commander probably made the correct decision, but it later cost him his job.
Ayres, meanwhile, slowly turned his brigades toward the enemy. Although under a galling fire, he was helped by the formation in which his division initially advanced—two brigades forward with one brigade trailing on the left. The leading unit on the left, the Maryland Brigade, was the first to go into action. Its commander was wounded, but Colonel David L. Stanton took charge and pushed the 8th Maryland Regiment forward as skirmishers to cover the deployment of the rest of the brigade. One by one, the Marylanders came into action against the Confederates who held the angle where the refused Southern entrenchments met the main fortified line along the White Oak Road. Trailing the Maryland Brigade was Ayres’ 1st Brigade, consisting of four New York regiments. The New Yorkers came up on Stanton’s left flank and joined the fight. Ayres’ 3rd Brigade, under Colonel James Gwyn, advanced too far north and got separated from their comrades on the left. Gwyn halted his brigade and waited for orders. As the firing grew heavier, the Federals momentarily stalled. They needed reinforcements—and inspiration.
Two Union officers acted decisively to rejuvenate the offensive. One was Chamberlain, whose calm and competent performance belied his lack of professional military training. He took control of errant Union units and deftly rerouted them into the battle. The other was none other than Phil Sheridan. In the midst of Ayres’ stalled attack, Sheridan and Chamberlain briefly met. Chamberlain had sensed that something was awry when he first saw Ayres’ men redeploy to the left. On his own initiative, he took his brigade and the brigade of Brig. Gen. Edgar M. Gregory toward the firing. Sheridan saw Chamberlain at work and shouted excitedly, “By God, that’s what I want to see—general officers at the front!” He told Chamberlain to “take command of all the infantry round here, and break this damned….” Before completing his oath, Sheridan turned his horse and rode toward the angle.
Chamberlain understood his orders and immediately set to work. In addition to his and Gregory’s men, Chamberlain soon controlled Bartlett’s brigade, while Griffin continued to chase down other disoriented regiments. Chamberlain’s own men struck the Confederate lines first. Moving into action on the right flank of Ayres’ Marylanders, Chamberlain’s brigade exchanged one volley with the Confederates before their “lines struck each other obliquely, like shutting jaws.” The attack was able to relieve the crossfire that had plagued the Marylanders’ right flank, while Chamberlain extended the line by bringing Gregory’s men into action in echelon on his right. Part of Bartlett’s command also joined the fight and extended the Union line even farther. The commander of the 155th Pennsylvania, Major John A. Cline, stated that in the ensuing combat, “the butts of muskets were used by both parties.” Cline’s men took 140 prisoners, but a Southern counterattack drove them back. Chamberlain countered this threat by pulling Gregory’s New Yorkers out of the line and ordering them to move behind Bartlett’s units and strike the Confederates in their exposed flank. Gregory’s men executed their difficult maneuver with precision, sweeping away the Southern threat to Bartlett’s brigade and endangering the Confederate position.
As Chamberlain maneuvered reinforcements into the battle, Sheridan was riding furiously along the front and inspiring the soldiers. Little Phil was on his favorite mount, a black charger named Rienzi, and he moved from regiment to regiment accompanied by Grant’s representative, Brig. Gen. Horace Porter. The two generals rode to the right of the angle, where they encountered Ayres’ division. Porter described the scene: “Bullets were humming like a swarm of bees. One pierced the battleflag, another killed the sergeant who had carried it, another wounded Captain A.J. McGonigle in the side, others struck two or three of the staff-officer’s horses. All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, threatening, praying, swearing, the very incarnation of battle.”
Clearly, Sheridan was at his finest. At one point, he rode right through the thickest firing at the angle and shouted to his men: “Go at ’em with a will. Move on at a clean jump or you’ll not catch one of them. They’re all getting ready to run now, and if you don’t get on to them in five minutes, they’ll every one get away from you!” Most of the V Corps was up now, and Sheridan met Chamberlain once more in order to coordinate the final assault. Chamberlain begged the commander to move out of the fierce fire at the angle, but as Chamberlain noted, Sheridan “gave me a comical look, and answered with a peculiar twist in the toss of his head, that seemed to say he didn’t care much for himself or perhaps for me.” Disregarding Chamberlain’s pleas, Sheridan guided his mount into another sector of the line where the firing was even heavier.
In the gathering dusk, after many fitful starts and restarts, the Union attack finally gathered an irresistible momentum. Chamberlain brought Ayres’ 3rd Brigade, which amazingly had been inactive for more than an hour, into the fray. He rode over to the brigade commander, Colonel Gwyn, and shouted: “Come with me, I will take the responsibility, you shall have all credit. Let me take your brigade for a moment!” The Union troops were hopelessly intermingled, but it didn’t matter. As the blue-coated soldiers readied for the final advance, the ever-present Sheridan was in front, his battle-worn red-and-white flag held by an aide dutifully at his side. Soon the Federals were at a run, and Sheridan urged them on. One soldier was shot in the throat right at Little Phil’s side. The soldier struggled to speak and managed to utter, “I’m killed,” but Sheridan would have none of it. He glared at the man and said: “You’re not hurt a bit! Pick up your gun, man, and move right on!” The Union soldier advanced a few more steps before falling lifeless to the ground. Undaunted, Sheridan spurred his horse over the Southern breastworks as the blue lines behind him swarmed into the enemy trenches.
Although outnumbered, the Confederates fought desperately. Bespectacled artillery Colonel William “Willie” Pegram wheeled his cannons around and engaged the Federals at pointblank range. Pegram was mounted, and miraculously he continued to direct the fire of his guns while seemingly oblivious to the storm of fire. Leaning down to direct one of his crews, Pegram instructed, “Fire your canister low.” Moments later, a bullet knocked the colonel from his horse. He turned to a companion and cried, “Oh, Gordon, I’m mortally wounded—take me off the field.” Pegram was borne from the battle while the Confederate defense collapsed around him. Any attempt at organizing the fleeing Southerners was fruitless, and the retreat quickly degenerated into a rout.
By some acoustic quirk, the noise of the collapsing Confederate defense at the angle did not reach the Confederate leaders at their shad bake. Sometime after 4 p.m., Pickett decided to send some of Rosser’s couriers to the front lines to deliver a message. As the Confederate leader stared in disbelief, one of the messengers was captured by Union cavalrymen, who suddenly appeared out of the woods on the other side of Hatcher’s Run. The party broke up while Rosser’s cavalry held the Northern troopers at bay. Although Pickett’s judgment was sometimes questionable, his courage was not. He mounted his horse and rode straight for the battle, but he was much too late. The Confederate general was only able to rally a few remnants of his command and sullenly join the withdrawal to the north and west.
Not content with what was already a decisive victory, Sheridan continued to drive his troops mercilessly on toward the annihilation of Pickett’s force. On the Union left flank, Little Phil ordered Custer to take the Southern breastworks. With his typical dramatic flair, Custer rose in his saddle and shouted, “We are going to take those works, and we will not come back again until we get them.” Then the impetuous cavalryman spurred his horse forward and over the Confederate fortifications. Behind him, troopers from the 2nd Ohio and 1st Connecticut regiments followed their division commander, sending the Confederates into full retreat.
On the other Union flank—unknown to Sheridan—Warren had finally caught up with Crawford’s errant division and was busy guiding it back toward White Oak Road so as to cut off the Southern retreat. One of Warren’s staff officers, overly impressed with the efforts to get Crawford’s division into the battle, greeted Sheridan by saying, “We are on the enemy’s rear, and have got three of their guns.” Little Phil was not pleased and replied: “I don’t care a d—for their guns, or you either, sir! What are you here for? Go back to your business where you belong!” Sheridan need not have been so concerned about crushing the Confederate force. For all practical purposes, Pickett’s command had already ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. With more than 5,000 prisoners and numerous enemy cannons, the Federal victory was complete.
Although the fighting was just about over for the day, there remained one last scene to be played out. After the fiasco of the V Corps’ late-night movement on March 31—when little of the fault actually belonged to Warren—Grant had given Sheridan the authority to relieve Warren if he so desired. In his memoirs, Grant explained that “I was very much afraid that at the last moment he [Warren] would fail Sheridan.” Sheridan was unhappy with the V Corps’ late arrival in the morning and even less pleased with Warren’s misdirected attack in the afternoon. Probably more than anything else, Sheridan could never forgive Warren for not being at the front no matter what sound reasons the V Corps commander might have for chasing down his disoriented units.
Late in the day, Colonel Frederick Locke, Warren’s chief of staff, rode up to Sheridan to give a report on the V Corps’ activities. Sheridan startled Locke with a tart response: “By G—, sir, tell General Warren he wasn’t in the fight!”
Locke pleaded, “Must I tell General Warren that, sir?”
“Tell him that, sir!”
“May I take it down in writing?”
“Take it down, sir; tell him, by G—, he was not at the front.” When Locke rejoined Warren, the V Corps commander was with Griffin and Chamberlain. As Locke relayed Sheridan’s harsh words, Warren seemed stunned. He watched in silence while Griffin instructed Lt. Col. Hollen Richardson and his 7th Wisconsin Regiment to break the Southern rear guard at the other end of Gilliams’ field. Richardson formed up his soldiers and, grabbing his regimental colors, led his men forward. Chamberlain described what happened next: “General Warren, with the intensity of feeling which is now desperation, snatches his corps flag from the hands of its bearer, and dashes to Richardson’s side…colors aloft, reckless of the growing distance between them and their followers, straight for the smoking line, straight for the flaming edge; not hesitating at the breastworks, over they go.”
Richardson courageously sought to shield his corps commander from the enemy fire, and a bullet struck the colonel, mortally wounding him. In all probability, Warren would have preferred that the bullet had hit him rather than face the disgrace that was to be his fate. At about 7 p.m., a messenger brought formal orders from Sheridan that relieved Warren and placed Griffin in command of the V Corps. Shortly thereafter, Sheridan’s brutal refusal to reconsider his decision sealed Warren’s fate.
Warren spent the rest of his life attempting to clear his name. Finally, in 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes granted him a court of inquiry. The officers of the court ruled on four charges about Warren’s conduct at Five Forks. First, the court exonerated Warren for the dispositions of his corps during the morning rout of March 31 near White Oak Road (although Warren was criticized for not moving to the front earlier in the day). The general was also cleared of the next two charges, both of which related to the alleged slow movements of the V Corps.
The most serious accusation was Sheridan’s charge that “Portions of his [Warren’s] line gave way, when not exposed to a heavy fire, had [done so] simply for want of confidence on the part of the troops which General Warren did not exert himself to inspire.” On this crucial point, the court also exonerated Warren. Correcting the misdirected advance of Griffin’s and Crawford’s divisions “was for him the essential point to be attended to, which also exacted his whole efforts to accomplish.” In one final tragic irony, Warren did not live to see his name cleared. He had died of heart failure three months before the court finally published its findings.
Even with the problems between Sheridan and Warren, the Union victory was tangible and conclusive. Lee’s right flank was crushed, his positions around Petersburg were no longer tenable, and the losses in Pickett’s force were irreplaceable. Grant ordered an assault on the main Confederate lines on April 2. The attack broke the Confederate line and forced the Southerners into a retreat that eventually ended in surrender at Appomattox.
For four long years the Army of the Potomac had battled its adversaries with few victories to show for its efforts. Now, at last, the Union army had crushed the Confederates in a decisive attack. While Union numbers and materiel probably ensured that the war would end sometime in 1865, the suddenness and decisiveness of the Union victory at Five Forks was a tribute to the unbounded energies of Phil Sheridan. Grant had laid the basic plan, and soldiers like Chamberlain—and the hard fighters of the cavalry and V Corps—had provided the execution. But Sheridan was the driving force of victory. He had marched his cavalry long and hard to Lee’s flank, refused to be daunted by rain and mud, fought alone to stem Pickett’s initial assault and devised the final plan that brought Warren’s corps on Pickett’s open flank.
More important, Sheridan was always in the thick of the fight, cajoling, cursing and providing vital personal leadership. His sheer will toward victory, plus the impetuousness and cruelty often accompanying such will, made Little Phil a hero at Five Forks—and left Warren ruined in its aftermath.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.