‘At the Bayonet’s Point’ – The Battle of Five Forks

April 1, 1865 (Saturday)

Philip Sheridan at Five Forks!
Philip Sheridan at Five Forks!

General Philip Sheridan, holding the Union left, had it pretty hot the previous day. While the Fifth Corps was tangled in the mire and confusion to his right, George Pickett’s Confederates attacked him, pushing him all the way from Five Forks to where he stood now – Dinwiddie Court House. And just as the Rebels were about to launch a final attack at dusk to flatten Sheridan, the Federals were reinforced and the Virginian thought better.

The night for everyone but Sheridan was full of mishap and misunderstanding. All he wanted was for the Fifth Corps to back him up, and for reasons great and small this didn’t happen as hoped. In truth, Sheridan had petitioned Grant for use of the Sixth Corps, having little faith in Gouverneur K. Warren, but that simply wasn’t happening.

Sketch of Five Forks by Andrew Waud
Sketch of Five Forks by Andrew Waud

Come dawn, Warren’s mishaps were unknown to Sheridan. Figuring that General Warren’s Fifth Corps would soon appear on the enemy’s left, he ordered the brigades of George Custer and Thomas Devin forward. For a time, the pushed them back, their eyes to the Confederate left hoping to see masses of blue forming in the mists. The Sheridan figured that Warren would use was Crump Road, running across Gravelly Run and by the J. Boisseau house.

But as Sheridan’s host pushed the men of Pickett northward along the road to Five Forks, they did not materialize. To and even beyond Crump Road, leading in on his right, there was nothing.

Map showing the entire day, including the roads used by Warren, etc.
Map showing the entire day, including the roads used by Warren, etc.

“But they did not reach there till after the enemy had got by,” penned Sheridan after the war. “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…”

They were, however, on their way, though much later than Sheridan would have liked. He was first enjoined by Romeyn Ayres’ division, which used a more southerly road, marching at Sheridan’s troops from behind. When Warren’s other two divisions, those of Charles Griffin and Samuel Crawford, finally made their appearance, Sheridan formed the entire Fifth Corps at the J. Boisseau house to rest and wait for Warren himself to arrive.

The cavalry charing at Five Forks.
The cavalry charing at Five Forks.

“That we had accomplished nothing but to oblige our foe to retreat was to me bitterly disappointing,” Sheridan continued, “but still feeling sure that he would not give up the Five Forks crossroads without a fight, I pressed him back there with [Wesley] Merritt’s cavalry, Custer advancing on the Scott road, while Devin drove the rearguard along that leading from J. Boisseau’s to Five Forks.”

For the rest of the morning, across the meridian, and two hours after, Sheridan’s troopers drove the Rebels slowly back into their own entrenchments at Five Forks. And here the Rebels stood, 10,000-strong and desperate, names such as Ransom, Fitz Lee, Rosser and Pickett to hold the Confederate left.

“I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks—he had to,” Sheridan recalled, “so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan of battle.”

Confederate rifle pits as sketched by Waud.
Confederate rifle pits as sketched by Waud.

The Confederate front was to be assailed by two divisions of dismounted cavalry under Merritt, while still more feigned an attack on Pickett’s right, while the actual assault would be launched by the entire Fifth Corps upon the enemy’s left. If accomplished, Pickett would be fully isolated from the rest of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

When Gouverneur Warren managed to get himself to Sheridan’s side, the latter told the former the plan, explaining just how Pickett’s men were posted, and explaining precisely how he wished for them to make the attack. Sheridan had been gifted by Grant the right to relieve General Warren of his post at the head of the Fifth Corps. Not wanting to do this on the very eve of battle, however, Sheridan demurred as all seemed well enough.

“General Warren seemed to understand me clearly,” Sheridan wrote, “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.”

Map sketched by Warren.
Map sketched by Warren.

After his own affairs were in order, Sheridan rode to find the Fifth Corps, which was again moving much more slowly than he had hoped.

“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 threatening it, prevent the attack on Pickett.

 "My beloved son Carl taken from me on April 1, 1865, at age 18, killed at Dinwiddie. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
“My beloved son Carl taken from me on April 1, 1865, at age 18, killed at Dinwiddie. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

“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 from J. 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 division 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 intrenchments from the angle of the return west, along the White Oak road.” – Philip Sheridan

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Sheridan was not pleased at all with Warren’s formation, and Warren, writing after the war, would debate over the wording of said order. Additionally, Warren contested Sheridan’s knowledge of how long it took a corps of infantry to get into position. But finally, at 4pm, the Fifth Corps was ready to attack, and they stepped off.

“After the forward movement began,” related Warren in his official report, “a few minutes brought us to the White Oak road, distant about 1,000 yards. There we found the advance of General Mackenzie’s cavalry, which, coming up the White Oak road, had arrived there just before us. This showed us for the first time that we were too far to our right of the enemy’s left flank.” With frustration, Warren realigned his men, so as to bring his line on Pickett’s left.

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“Fortunately for us,” Warren continued, “the enemy’s left flank so rested in the woods that he could not fire at us as we crossed this open field, and the part of it that face us formed a very short line. This General Ayres attacked at once, the firing being heavy, but less than usually destructive, on account of the thick woods. The rapid change of front by General Ayres caused his right flank to first get in advance of General Crawford’s, owing to the greater distance the latter had to move, and exposed the former to being taken in flank by the enemy.”

This was a mess. By Sheridan’s original orders (as related by Sheridan), he wanted Ayres and Crawford to attack the Rebel flank squarely and together. What Warren was doing was as tangled as the night previous. The situation slid into disarray when Crawford’s entire division became isolated from the rest of Warren’s line, drawing Griffin’s Division along with it.

Last Charge of the Fifth Corps by Waud
Last Charge of the Fifth Corps by Waud

“The deflection of this division on a line of march,” Sheridan wrote, “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 one, but, in case the assault at the return failed, he ran great risk of capture.”

But nobody could find Warren. Sheridan then sent for Griffin, who had seen Crawford’s mistake and was doing his best to pull his own division out of the debacle. Even before Sheridan’s staff could find him, Griffin accomplished this and more, joining Ayres. This was, perhaps, not as pretty as Sheridan would have liked, but it was enough.

“After this change of front,” recorded Ayres in his report, “the troops were pushed forward and soon came upon the left flank of the enemy, which was thrown back at right angles with his main line and covered by a strong breast-work, screened behind a dense undergrowth of pine and about 100 yards in length. This breast-work my troops charged and took at the bayonet’s point, capturing in carrying it over 1,000 prisoners and several battle-flags.”

Last Stand of Pickett's Men by Waud.
Last Stand of Pickett’s Men by Waud.

Sheridan added:

“When Ayres’s division went over the flank of the enemy’s works, Devin’s division of cavalry, which had been assaulting the front, went over in company with it; and hardly halting to reform, the intermingling infantry 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 form near the Ford road. Griffin pressed him so hard there, however, that he had to give way in short order, and many of his men, with three pieces 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 works simultaneously with Devin’s, but on the extreme left Custer had a 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 mounted, but Lee held on so obstinately that Custer gained but little ground 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 cover 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.”

Spot where many of Pickett's men surrendered. By Waud.
Spot where many of Pickett’s men surrendered. By Waud.

That day was Sheridan’s, no thanks to Warren. Sheridan had never wanted the Fifth Corps, and used it because he had no other choice. Now that the battle was at its end, Sheridan felt it “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.”

According to Warren, “General Sheridan gave no reason for this order of his, but I at once set out to obey it, reaching General Grant about midnight.”

Grant had been troubled by Warren’s performance over the past couple of days, and was worried he’d fail Sheridan. He had written to Sheridan explaining, “as much as I liked General Warren, now was not a time when we could let our personal feelings for any one stand in the way of success; and if his removal was necessary to success, not to hesitate.”

Confederate prisoners captured at Five Forks.
Confederate prisoners captured at Five Forks.

Warren’s generalship was described by Grant after the war: “He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. 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.”

And so, with General Lee’s left at Five Forks crumbled, Grant issued orders for an assault upon the Petersburg lines themselves for the predawn of the next morning. He had wanted to make a night assault, but his corps commanders thought it a poor idea as it was too dark for such an important move. Grant ultimately agreed, but “kept up a continuous artillery fire upon the enemy around the whole line including that north of the James River, until it was light enough to move, which was about a quarter to five in the morning.”1

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The next morning, George Pickett would be found along the Appomattox River in command of only 800 men, the rest killed, captured or scattered to the winds.

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  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p828, 830-836; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. []

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3 thoughts on “‘At the Bayonet’s Point’ – The Battle of Five Forks

  1. Warren was cleared after a long drawn out hearing with the findings only announced after his death. Sheridan ruined this man’s reputation, & Warren was shunned for the remainder of his life. Here we have a man who graduated second in his class at West Point. Perhaps he was just too intelligent for his own good as a military subordinate.

    1. It seems Grant would agree with you from what he wrote describing Warren’s “generalship”. It seems that he may have put too much into analytical intelligence, without that “gut” instinct that some of the really great generals possessed which immortalized their reputations, and continues to amaze history!
      This project and it’s wonderful presentation has truly been a tour de force– much appreciation!

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