March 29, 1865 (Wednesday)
It had been planned for days, and the small battle at Fort Stedmen did nothing to deter or postpone it. General Grant had ordered a general movement “made for the purpose of extending our lines to the west as far as practicable towards the enemy’s extreme right, or Five Forks.” The van of this push was Philip Sheridan’s cavalry.
Grant’s orders to Sheridan gave the latter a wide berth:
“Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his intrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us, or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way, and with the full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy, as circumstances will dictate.”
Sheridan’s mission was to gut both the Southside and Danville Railroads, which served as Lee’s life lines, and would serve him as well in his retreat into North Carolina to link up with Joe Johnston. After the two railroads were destroyed, Grant allowed Sheridan leeway to either return to the Army of the Potomac, or move south to link up with Sherman.
“Early on the 29th,” wrote Sheridan, “I moved my cavalry out toward Ream’s Station on the Weldon road […] Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads from the winter’s frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a a£tour was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks.”
By evening, most of Sheridan’s men were at Dinwiddie, where several roads, including the Boydton Plank road and the road to Five Forks intersected. “Any of these routes leading to the south or west,” Sheridan continued, “might also be the one on which, in conformity with one part of my instructions, I was expected to get out toward the Danville and Southside railroads, and the Five Forks road would lead directly to General Lee’s right flank, in case opportunity was found to comply with the other part. The place was, therefore, of great strategic value, and getting it without cost repaid us for floundering through the mud.”
This small village was hardly welcoming, constructed only of a handful of shacks and a tavern, which Sheridan commandeered for his own headquarters. Since his command didn’t use tents, the men had to sleep where they could while the cold spring rains poured upon them.
Without food, Sheridan took comfort in a message arriving then from Grant. The commanding general explained how the infantry faired – pushing forward south of Petersburg, facing a small attack and sending the Rebels running.
“I now feel like ending the matter if it is possible to do so before going back,” wrote Grant. “I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s roads at present. In the morning push round the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act altogether as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”
Sheridan later wrote the change of plans “made my mind easy with respect to the objectionable feature of my original instructions… so, notwithstanding the suspicions excited by some of my staff concerning the Virginia feather-bed that had been assigned me, I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.”