Victory At Five Forks
By P. H. Sheridan (Excerpted from his memoirs)
The night of March 30 Merritt, with Devin's division and Davies's brigade, was camped on the Five Forks road about two miles in
front of Dinwiddie, near 3 Boisseau's. Crook, with Smith and Greggs brigades, continued to cover Stony Creek, and Custer was still back at Rowanty Creek, trying to get the trains up. This force had been counted while crossing the creek on the 29th, the three divisions numbering 9,000 enlisted men, Crook having 9,000, and Custer and Devin 5,00.
During the 30th, the enemy had been concentrating his cavalry, and by evening General W. H F. Lee and General Rosser had joined Fitzhugh Lee near Five Forks. To this force was added, about dark, five brigades of infantree from pickett's division, and two from Johnsons all - under command of Pickett. The infantry came by the White Oak road from the right of General Lee's intrenchments, and their arrival became positively known to me about dark, the confirmation intelligence being brought in then by some of Young's scouts who had been inside the Confederate lines.
On the 31st, the rain having ceased, directions were given at an early hour to. both Merritt and Crook to make reconnoissances preparatory to securing Five Forks, and about 9 o'clock Merritt started for the crossroads, Davies's brigade supporting him. His march was necessarily slow because of the mud, and the enemy's pickets resisted with 0bstinacy so, but the coveted crossroads fell to Merritt without much trouble, as the bulk of the enemy was just then bent on other things. At the same hour that Merritt started, Crook moved Smith's brigade out northwest from Dinwiddie to Fitzgerald's crossing of Chamberlain's Creek, to cover Merritt's left, supporting Smith by placing Gregg to his right and rear. The occupation of this ford was timely, for Pickett, now in corn mand of both the cavalry and infantry, was already marching to get in Merritt's rear by crossing Chamberlain's Creek.
To hold on to Fitzgerald's ford Smith had to make a sharp fight, but Mumford's cavalry attacking Devin, the enemy's infantry succeeded in getting over Chamberlain's Creek at a point higher up than Fitzgerald's ford, and assailing Davies, forced him back in a northeasterly direction toward the Dinwiddie and Five Forks road in company with Devin. The retreat of Davies permitted Pickett to pass between Crook and Merritt, which he promptly did, effectually separating them and cutting off both Davies and Devin from the road to Dinwiddie, so that to get to that point they had to retreat across the country to B. Boisseau's and then down the Boydton road.
Gibbs's brigade had been in reserve near the intersection of the Five Forks and Dabney roads, and directing Merritt to hold on there, I ordered Gregg's brigade to be mounted and brought to Merritt's aid, for if Pickett continued in pursuit north of the Five Forks road he would expose his right and rear, and I determined to attack him, in such case, from Gibbs's position. Gregg arrived in good season, and as soon as his men were dismounted on Gibbs's left, Merritt assailed fiercely, compelling Pickett to halt and face a new foe, thus interrupting an advance that would finally have carried Pickett into the rear of Warren's corps.
It was now about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and we were in a critical situation, but having ordered Merritt to bring Devin and Davies to Dinwiddie by the Boydton road, staff oftficers were sent to burty Custer to the same point, for with its several diverging roads the Court House was of vital importance, and I determined to stay there at all hazards. At the same time orders were sent to Smith's brigade, which, by the advance of Pickett past it's right flank and the pressure of W. H. F. Lee on its front, had been compelled to give up Fitzgerald's crossing, to fall back toward Dinwiddie but to contest every inch of ground so as to gain time.
When halted by the attack of Gregg and Gibbs, Pickett, desisting from his pursuit of Devin, as already stated, turned his undivided attention to this unexpected force, and with his preponderating infantry pressed it back on the Five Forks road toward Dinwiddie, though our men, fighting dismounted behind barricades at different points, displayed such obstinacy as to make Pickett's progress slow, and thus give me time to look out a line for defending the Court House. I selected a place about three-fourths of a mile northwest of the crossroads, and Custer coming up quickly with Capehart's brigade, took position on the of the road to Five Forks in some open ground along the crest of gentle ridge. Custer got Capehart into place just in time to lend a hand to Smith, who, severely pressed, came back on us here from his t along Chamberlain's 'ted"he vernacular for a woody swamp as that through which Smith retired. A little later the brigades of and Gibbs,. falling to the rear slowly and steadily, took up in the a line which covered the Boydton Road some distance to the Capehart, the intervening gap to be filled with Pennington's brigade. By this time our horse-artillery, which for two days had been
stuck in the mud, was all up, and every gun was posted in this line.
It was now near sunset, and the enemy's cavalry thinking the day was, theirs, made a dash at Smith, but just as the assailants appeared in the open fields, Capehart's men opened so suddenly on their left flank as to cause it to recoil in astonishment, which permitted Smith to connect his brigade with Custer unmolested. We were now in good shape behind the familiar barricades, and having a continuous line, excepting only the gap to be filled with Pennington, that covered Dinwiddie and the Boydton Road. My left rested in the woods about half a mile west of the Court House, and the barricades extended from this flank in a semicircle through the open fields in a northeasterly direction, to a piece of thick timber on the right, near the Boydton Road.
A little before the sun went down the Confederate infantry was armed for the attack, and, fortunately for us, Pennington's brigade came up and filled the space to which it was assigned between Capehart and Gibbs, just as Pickett moved out across the cleared fields in front of Custer, in deep lines that plainly told how greatly we were outnumbered.
Accompanied by Generals Merritt and Custer and my staff, I now rode along the barricades to encourage the men. Our enthusiastic reception showed that they were determined to stay. The cavalcade drew the enemy's fire, which emptied several of the saddles-among others Mr. Theodore Wilson, correspondent of the New York Herald, being wounded. In reply our horse-artillery opened on the advancing Confederates, but the men behind the barricades lay still till Pickett's troops were within short range. Then they opened, Custer's repeating rifles pouring out such a shower of lead that nothing could stand up against it The repulse was very quick, and as the gray lines retired to the woods from which but a few minutes before they had so confidently advanced, all danger of their taking Dinwiddie or marching to the left and rear of our infantry line was over, at least for the night. The enemy being thus checked, I sent a staff-offlcer captain Sheridan to General Grant to report what had taken place during the afternoon, and to say that I proposed to stay at Dinwiddie, but if ultimately compelled to abandon the place, I would do so by retiring on the Vaughn road towar Hatcher's Run, for I then thought the attack might be renewed next morning. Devin and Davies joined me about dark, and my troops being now well in hand, I sent a second Staff offlicer Colonel John Kellogg explain my situation more fully, and to assure General Grant that I would hold on at Dinwiddie till forced to let go.
By following me to Dinwiddie the enemy's infantry had completely isolated itself, and hence there was now offered the Union troops a rare opportunity. Lee was outside of his works, just as we desired, and the general-in chief realized this the moment he received the first report of my situation;
-With daylight came a slight fog, but it lifted almost immediately, and Merritt moved Custer and Devin forward. As these divisions advanced the enemy's infantry fell back on the Five Forks road, Devin pressing him along the road, while Custer extended on the left over' toward Chamberlain's Run, Crook being held in watch along Sto Creek, meanwhile, to be utilized as circumstances might require when Warren attacked.
The order of General Meade to Warren the night of March 31 copy being sent me also was positive in its directions, but as tmidnight came without a sign of or word from the Fifth Corps, notwithstanding that was the hour fixed for its arrival, I nevertheless assumed that there were good reasons for its nonappearance, but never once doubted that measures would be taken to comply with my despatch of 3 A., M., and therefore hoped that, as Pickett was falling back slowly toward Five Forks, Griffin's and Crawford's divisions would come in on the Conf erate left and rear by the Crump road near J. Boisseau's house.
But they did not reach there till after the enemy had got by. As a matter of fact, when Pickett was passing the all-important point Warren's men were just breaking from the bivouac in which their chief had placed them the night before, and the head of Griffin's division did not get to Boisseau's till after my cavalry, which meanwhile had been joined by Ayres's division of the Fifth Corps by way of the Boydton and Dabney roads. By reason of the delay in moving Griffin and Crawford, the enemy having escaped, I massed the Fifth Corps at J. Boisseau's so that the men could be rested, and directed it to remain there; General War ren himself had not then come up. General Mackenzie, who had re ported just after daybreak, was ordered at first to stay at Dinwiddic Court House, but later was brought along the Five Forks road to Dr Smith's, and Crook's division was directed to continue watching th( crossings of Stony Creek and Chamberlain's Run.
That we had accomplished nothing but to oblige our foe to retreat was to me bitterly disappointing, but still feeling sure that he would no give up the Five Forks crossroads without a fight, I pressed him back there with Merritt's cavalry, Custer advancing on the Scott road, whil Devin drove the rear-guard along that leading from J. Boisseau's to Five Forks.
By 2 o'clock in the afternoon Merritt had forced the enemy inside his intrenchments, which began with a short return about three quarters of a mile east of the Forks and ran along the south side of the White Oak road to a point about a mile west of the Forks. From the left the return over toward Hatcher's Run was posted Mumford's cavalr dismounted. In the return itself was Wallace's brigade, and next on 1 right came Ransom's, then Stewart's, then Terry's, then Corse's. On ti right of Corse was W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry. Ten pieces artillery also were in this line, three on the right of the works, three near the centre at the crossroads, and four on the left, in the return. r's cavalry was guarding the Confederate trains north of Hatcher's beyond the crossing of the Ford road.
I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks he had to so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan battle. This was to attack his whole front with Merritt's two cavalry divisions, make a feint of turning his right flank, and with the Fifth rps assail his left. As the Fifth Corps moved into action, its right was to be covered by Mackenzie's cavalry, thus entirely cutting off
Pikett's troops from communication with Lee's right flank, which rested near the Butler house at the junction of the Claiborne and White Oaks roads. In execution of this plan, Merritt worked his men close in toward the intrenchments, and while he was thus engaged, I ordered Warren bring up the Fifth Corps, sending the order by my engineer officer, tain Gillespie, who had reconnoitred the ground in the neighborbood of Gravelly Run Church, where the infantry was to form for attack.
Gillespie delivered the order about 1 o'clock, and when the corps "us put in motion, General Warren joined me at the front. Before then, I had received, through Colonel Babcock, authority from General Grant to relieve him, but I did not wish to do it, particularly on the eve of battle; so, saying nothing at all about the message brought me, 1 entered at once on the plan for defeating Pickett, telling Warren how the enemy was posted, explaining with considerable detail, and concluding by stating that I wished his troops to be formed on the Gravelly Church road, near its junction with the White Oak road, with two divisions to the front, aligned obliquely to the White Oak road, and one in reserve, opposite the centre of these two.
General Warren seemed to understand me clearly, and then left to join his command, while I turned my attention to the cavalry, instructing Merritt to begin by making demonstrations as though to turn the enemy's right, and to assault the front of the works with his dismounted cavalry as soon as Warren became engaged. Afterward I rode around to Gravelly Run Church, and found the head of Warren's col umn just appearing, while he was sitting under a tree making a rough etch of the ground. I was disappointed that more of the corps was not already up, and as the precious minutes went by without any apparent effort to hurry the troops on to the field, this disappointment grew into disgust. At last I expressed to Warren my fears that the cavalry might expend all their ammunition before the attack could be made, that the sun would go down before the battle could be begun, or that troops from Lee's right, which, be it remembered, was less than three miles away from my right, might, by striking my rear, or even by threat. ening it, prevent the attack on Pickett.
Warren did not seem to me to be at all Solicitous; his manner exhibited decided apathy, and he remarked with indifference that "Bobby
Lee was always getting people into trouble." With unconcern
such as this, it is no wonder that fully three hours' time was consumed in marching his corps fromj Boisseau's to Gravelly Run Church; though the distance was but two miles. However, when my patience was almost worn out, Warren reported his troops ready, Ayres's divisio being formed on the west side of the Gravelly Church road, Crawford's on the east side, and Griffin in reserve behind the right of Crawford, a little different from my instructions. The corps had no artillery present its batteries, on account of the mud, being still north of Gravelly Run.
Meanwhile Merritt had been busy working his men close up to the in trenchments from the angle of the return west, along the White Oak road.
About 4 o'clock Warren began the attack. He was to assault the left flank of the Confederate infantry at a point where I knew Pickett's intrenchments were refused, almost at right angles with the White Oak road. I did not know exactly how far toward Hatcher's Run this part of the works extended, for here the videttes of Mumford's cavalry were covering, but I did know where the refusal began. This return, then, was the point I wished to assail, believing that if the assault was made with spirit, the line could be turned. I therefore intended that Ayres and Crawford should attack the refused trenches squarely, and when these two divisions and Merritt'5 cavalry became hotly engaged, Griffin's division was to pass around the left of the Confederate line; and I per. sonally instructed Griffin how I wished him to go in, telling him also that as he advanced, his right flank would be taken care of by Mackenzie, who was to be pushed over toward the Ford road and Hatcher's Run.
The front of the corps was oblique to the White Oak road; and on getting there, it was to swing round to the left till Perpendicular to fle road, keeping closed to the left. Ayres did his part well, and to the letter, bringing his division square up to the front of the return near the angle; but Crawford did not wheel to the left, as was intended. On the contrary, on receiving fire from Mumford's cavalry, Crawford swerved to the right and moved north from the return, thus isolating his division from Ayres; and Griffin, uncertain of the enemy's position, naturally followed Crawford.
The deflection of this division on a line of march which finally brought it out on the Ford road near C. Young's house, frustrated the purpose I had in mind when ordering the attack, and caused a gap between Ayres and Crawford, of which the enemy quickly took advantage and succeeded in throwing a part of Ayres's division into confusion At this juncture I sent word to General Warren to have Crawford recalled; for the direction he was following was not only a mistaken but, in case the assault at the return failed, he ran great risk of being captured. Warren could not be found, so I then sent for Griffin-first by Colnel Newhall, and then by Colonel Sherman-to come to the aid of Ayres
who was now contending alone with that part of the enemy's infantry at the return. By this time Griffin had observed and appreciated Crawford's mistake, however, and when the staff officers reached him, already faced to the left; so, marching across Crawford's rear, he joined Ayres, who meanwhile had rallied his troops and carried the return.
When Ayres's division went over the flank of the enemy's works, 'Devins division of cavalry, which had been assaulting the front, went in company with it; and hardly halting to reform, the intermingling try and dismounted cavalry swept down inside the intrenchments, pushing to and beyond Five Forks, capturing thousands of prisoners. The only stand the enemy tried to make was when he attempted to near the Ford road. Griffin pressed him so hard there, however, he had to give way in short order, and many of his men, with three es of artillery, fell into the hands of Crawford while on his circuitous march.
The right of Custer's division gained a foothold on the enemy's Its simultaneously with Devin's, but on the extreme left Custer had very severe combat with W H. F. Lee's cavalry, as well as with Corse's and Terry's infantry. Attacking Terry and Corse with Pennington's brigade dismounted, he assailed Lee's cavalry with his other two brigades unmounted, but Lee held on so obstinately that Custer gained but littleground till our troops, advancing behind the works, drove Corse and Terry out. Then Lee made no further stand except at the west side of
the Gillian field, where, assisted by Corse's brigade, he endeavored to save the retreat, but just before dark Custer, in concert with some fifth Corps regiments under Colonel Richardson, drove the last of the enemy westward on the White Oak road.
Our success was unqualified; we had overthrown Pickett, taken six - guns, thirteen battle-flags, and nearly six thousand prisoners. When the battle was practically over, I turned to consider my position with reference to the main Confederate army. My troops, though victorious, were isolated from the Army of the Potomac, for on the 31st of March the extreme left of that army had been thrown back nearly to the Boydton plank-road, and hence there was nothing to prevent the enemy's issuing from his trenches at the intersection of the White Oak and Claiborne roads and marching directly on my rear. I surmised that he might do this that night or early next morning. It was therefore necessary to protect myself in this critical situation, and General Warren having sorely disappointed me, both in the moving of his corps and in its management during the battle, I felt that he was not the man to rely upon under such circumstances, and deeming that it was to the best interest of the service as well as but just to myself, I relieved him, ordering him to report to General Grant.
I then put Griffin in command of the Fifth Corps, and directed him to withdraw from the pursuit as quickly as he could after following the enemy a short distance, and form in line of battle near Gravelly Run Church, at right angles with the White Oak road, with Ayres and Crawford facing toward the enemy at the junction of the White Og and Claiborne roads, leaving Bartlett, now commanding Griffin's dim sion, near the Ford road. Mackenzie also was left on the Ford road at the crossing of Hatcher's Run, Merritt going into camp on the widow Gillian's plantation. As I had been obliged to keep Crook's division along Stony Creek throughout the day, it had taken no active part in the battle