Five Forks (April 1, 1865)

A print depicts Sheridan's attack at Five Forks. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

A print depicts Sheridan’s attack at Five Forks. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

George Meade writes a short note to his wife on April 1. He mentions that her brother, Willie, had been injured in the fighting for the White Oak Road, but underestimates the severity of the wound. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman provides a more detailed account of the fighting, including the battle of Five Forks, where Philip Sheridan relieved the V Corps’ Gouverneur Warren of command. Here’s how I describe the events of April 1 in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Grant had ordered a movement to get around Lee’s right, with Sheridan’s cavalry moving to Dinwiddie Court House, south of Five Forks, and operating in conjunction with the V Corps. Sheridan and Warren didn’t get along, apparently ever since Warren had complained about Sheridan’s cavalry blocking his way en route to Spotsylvania Court House the previous spring. The relationship did not improve after one of Warren’s divisions had to extricate Little Phil from difficulties with George Pickett’s Confederates at Dinwiddie Court House on March 31. Sheridan did not like to admit he needed help from anyone, much less a cautious Army of the Potomac engineer like Warren.

Admittedly, Warren possessed a natural talent for irritating generals. Meade had reached the end of his patience with his onetime protégé. Grant, too, had tired of Warren’s quirks and, like Meade, had discovered a “defect” in Warren’s character: “He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.” Grant told Sheridan he was free to relieve Warren and replace him if he felt it was necessary, thus sowing the seeds for Warren’s downfall.

PortraitSheridan wanted to attack the Confederate lines around Five Forks at noon on April 1. He fumed and fretted when Warren wasn’t ready until 4:00. . . . Warren finally put his three divisions into motion, heading north toward the White Oak Road, but Sheridan had misinformed him about the enemy’s position. Two divisions veered left to correct their advance, but Samuel Crawford’s men kept marching straight ahead and missed the Confederate lines altogether. Warren rode off to find Crawford and get him back on track.

A soldier in the 20th Maine recalled the excitement as the other two divisions swept over the enemy’s lines at the Angle, a spot where the rebel defenses bent back on themselves. “Sheridan went dashing past us, wild with the excitement of victory, shouting, as he swung his clenched hand through the air, ‘Smash ’em! Smash ’em! We have a record to make before the sun goes down; we must have the Southside road.’”

In the meantime Warren found Crawford’s men and got them heading the right way. In what turned out to be a great stroke of luck, their errant march had put them in a perfect position to attack the rebel flank and rear. Warren led the soldiers over the barricades and had his horse shot out from under him. “General Warren caught the corps flag from the hand of the man who carried it, and dashed across this field, leading on a column of soldiers he had hastily formed for the charge,” the same soldier recalled. “It was the most gallant deed of the whole day’s battle, and the whole rebel line was now in our possession.”

The Battle of Five Forks marked the beginning of the end for Lee’s army—it was “the Waterloo of the Confederacy.” The rebels had suffered a severe blow. Now that the Union army could move forward and sever the South Side Railroad, Petersburg and Richmond were doomed. Warren and the V Corps had delivered the blow that ensured the victory. Yet Sheridan, still livid over what he perceived as Warren’s inexcusable slowness–and probably unwilling to share any credit for the victory—decided that Warren had not participated in the fighting at all. He ordered Charles Griffin to take over the V Corps and sent a note to Warren relieving him of command.

Warren was stunned. He rode to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. “I don’t reconsider my decisions!” Sheridan barked. “Obey the order!”

Meade received word of the victory at Five Forks by telegram–but nothing about Warren. He sent a message to Grant. “I am truly delighted with the news from Sheridan,” he said. “What part did Warren take? I take it for granted he was engaged.”

“The Fifth Corps was in and did splendidly,” Grant replied, “but Sheridan had to relieve Warren on the field after the fight began.”

The word of Warren’s relief hit his subordinates like a thunderbolt. “I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was,” said Charles Wainwright. “The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to.” Wainwright used his journal to vent about Warren’s ill temper, but he didn’t agree with Sheridan’s decision. “To me his removal at this time, and after the victory had been won, appears wrong and very cruel,” he wrote.

We have been moving and fighting the last three days, and I have not gone to bed till after one and two in the morning, and then up at five. We have had considerable fighting with the enemy out of his works, into which we have invariably driven him; but when there he is too strong for us, and the farther we go round to our left, we still find a formidable entrenched line. I think, however, we will this time reach the Southside Railroad, and if we do so, I should not be surprised if Lee evacuated his Petersburg lines and withdrew north of the Appomattox. Should he remain in them, he will have to stretch out so far that we may find a chance to pierce him.

Your brother Willie was wounded yesterday, not dangerously, as I telegraphed you. He left this morning, and I sent George to accompany him to City Point, and if necessary to Philadelphia. Jim Biddle arrived yesterday.

Now Lyman describes the Battle of Five Forks.

You will see the April Fool was on the Rebels; for they did not know that, the night before, we had sent down an entire corps of infantry (the 5th) to aid the worsted Sheridan. Their infantry had contented itself with retiring from Sheridan’s front, half-way to the White Oak road, and going into camp with a precautionary breastwork in their front. As they lay there, resting, Warren struck them in the flank and swung round, even into their rear, while the cavalry charged their front. After a brief but determined resistance, the enemy broke and fled in wild confusion; 4000 and over were captured and a large part of the rest hopelessly scattered in the woods. Thus our movement, which had begun in simple advantage, now grew to brilliant success, and was destined to culminate, within twenty-four hours, in complete victory.

We were up pretty early, as usual, and at 6.30 A.m. were already at Grant’s Headquarters. These were close to Dabney’s Mill, now marked only by a huge pile of sawdust — a veteran battle-ground, marked by two considerable actions and many minor skirmishes. Indeed that whole tract is a network of picket-pits and hasty breastworks. After visiting Humphreys, on the Quaker road, we returned to the Lieutenant-General’s, and here it was that a note from Sheridan told that he was driving the enemy. Grant folded the slip of paper, and, looking at Meade, said, very quietly: “Very well, then I want Wright and Parke to assault to-morrow morning at four o’clock.” These dozen words settled the fate of Petersburg and of Richmond! It was midnight when General Warren suddenly came into our camp, followed by only one Staff officer. I got him something to eat, but was surprised to see no look of gratification at his victory to-day. Poor man! he had been relieved from command of his Corps. I don’t know the details, but I have told you of the difficulties he has had with the General, from his tendency to substitute his own judgment for that of his commanding officer. It seems that Grant was much moved against him by this. The General had nothing to do with it. I am sorry, for I like Warren.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 268-9. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 332-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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