Meade’s Confusion All Along the White Oak Road

March 31, 1865 (Friday)

Warren!
Warren!

“Owing to the weather,” wrote General Meade to Gouverneur K. Warren, commanding the Fifth Corps, “no change will today be made in the present position of the troops. Three days’ rations of subsistence and forage will be brought up and issued to the troops and the artillery, and every one authorized to accompany them.”

The night had been nothing but rain, and anything with wheels more than likely had them stuck in the mud. To the right of his own corps was the Second, commanded by Andrew Humphreys, who was understandably worried about his left. Warren had only managed to slide a division to within a mile of the Second Corps, while the rest of his forces were scattered.

Offering to send Humphreys a sketch of the ground he was on, Warren informed his compatriot that “I cannot take up any regular line of battle on account of the woods and swamps, but have assembled each division at a point so they can fight in any direction with the line refused. […] I don’t think your left could be turned, even if I moved away, without you having full information.” Warren vowed to work all day to get through the woods to give better support.

Romeyn Ayres’ Division, which Warren had placed far to the front, soon reported that the Rebel pickets held the White Oak road, protecting well the Confederate right flank. Warren sent orders to drive them back, deeming this “essentially necessary to the safety of our position.” With orders from Meade to make no major movements, he had to make sure now more than ever that his lines were secure.

Union positions shortly after sunrise.
Union positions shortly after sunrise.

Come the late morning, Meade seemed to be reconsidering this idea, telling Warren that taking and holding the White Oak road was fully up to his own discretion. With that in mind, Warren ordered Ayres forward to take White Oak road and entrench just beyond it. Ayers unleashed a brigade.

“As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak road,” wrote Ayres in his report, “the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.” By Ayres’ reckoning, the entire brigade about faced and “marched back across the field in good order,” though other reports indicated something more akin to a route.

“I expected to form my lines along the southern line of the field and fight it out,” continued Ayres, “but the supports could not be held. This was party due to the fact that the enemy sent a division past Dabney’s and attacked my left at the same time that the front attack was made. I then endeavored to form the troops along a ravine which ran north and south along the eastern edge of the field, but in this I also failed. The result was that the troops fell back to the position occupied the day before, behind the swamp, and where the First Division, with artillery, was in line of battle.”

Mind the dates again.
Mind the dates again.

As Ayres’ division fell back into line with Samuel Crawford’s, that of Charles Griffin spanned the large gap between the Fifth and Second Corps. His entire corps now more or less together, Warren ordered Ayres and Crawford to hold, and the battle along White Oak road began in earnest.

“Severe fighting at the creek now ensued,” wrote Warren of Gravelly Run. General Humphreys soon received word of the engagement and sent a division and more into the fray, but they were mauled by the Rebels and driven back, until they rallied, reformed and gave it back.

Union positions at nightfall.
Union positions at nightfall.

Things were now at a near stalemate Warren desperately wanted to break. Reporting to Meade, he informed him that a brigade “supported by all I can get of Crawford and Ayres” would be sent forward to attack, sweeping from his right and clearing out the gap between the two corps. This was not simply task, but made all the more effective by General Humphreys having the same idea.

There then fell much confusion over the whole affair, with Ayres insisting that George Pickett’s troops were before them (they were not). He also indicated to General Warren that his men would attack the Rebel works (they didn’t). By the tone of his message, he was chiding Warren for taking far too long.

Still, Griffin’s Division was ordered to retake the ground lost, and they strode forward pushing back the Rebel skirmish line for nearly a mile. At the edge of the field they were about to retake, they received a tremendous fire from the enemy. Warren thought best for them to halt and dig in.

“As it appeared that the enemy’s position might be carried with no greater loss than it would cost us merely to hold our ground, and the men were eager to charge over the field,” recorded Joshua Chamberlain, commanding a brigade under Griffin, “I reported this to General Griffin and received permission to renew the attack.”

They continued, but came under an oblique fire on the right, as well as the guns from the Rebel works before them. Chamberlain called for support on his right and together they changed. “This plan was so handsomely executed by all that the result was completely successful,” he continued. “The woods and the works were carried, with several prisoners and one battle-flag, and the line advanced some 300 yards across the White Oak road.”

Despite the confusion and resistance to Warren’s orders, he was thrilled with the result of having driven the Rebels back into their main works. “With the elation due to our success,” wrote Warren, “I thought we might be able to carry the enemy’s breast-works at once, and thus force in their right flank and carry all their line south of Hatcher’s Run.”

Warren personally scouted the ground and sent forward the skirmishers, drawing a gauling fire from the enemy. He hesitated, seeing the works for what they were. There could be no such attack.

It was then, around 5pm, when he received word from Meade’s headquarters that there would be another thrust. General Philip Sheridan, believed Meade, was having a fine day far to the left, and it was hoped that Humphreys’ Second Corps could connect with Warren’s own. In so doing, Warren could then extend his left to reach out toward Sheridan’s command.

But Warren could hear for himself that the Rebels seemed to be driving Sheridan’s forces, not the other way around. Still, this wasn’t so bad. He ordered a brigade under Joseph Bartlett to make time for the sound and fall upon the enemy’s flank. But this was worse than he imagined. The Rebels of Pickett’s Division had pushed Sheridan back so far that they were now between the main Union line and the cavalry. Warren’s brigade, sent to the Rebel flank, was in danger of being isolated and consumed whole.

By the time he learned this news, it was too late to stop him, and all he could do was order the rest of his command to entrench. Well after dark, with still no word from the wayward brigade, Warren learned from Meade that Sheridan had been driven all the way from near Five Forks to Dinwiddie Court House. “This leave your rear and that of the Second Corps on the Boydton plank road open,” wrote Meade, “and will require great vigilance on your part.”

Siege of Petersburg: A Night Attack, March 31, 1865 by Andrew McCallum
Siege of Petersburg: A Night Attack, March 31, 1865 by Andrew McCallum

It was fortunate that Bartlett’s brigade could not easily cross Gravelly Run, and it was there where they stopped, inadvertently guarding Warren’s rear. His position now basically secured, Warren believed that Pickett’s Confederates could not long remain between his own and Sheridan’s men, especially if Sheridan kept up the fight. They would have to fall back to Five Forks come morning.

Warren believed his line to be impenetrable, but General Meade had other ideas. Around 9pm, Warren was ordered to contract his lines, pulling back to the Boydton Plank road. Additionally, he was to send Griffin’s division to Dinwiddie Court House and General Sheridan. This required Griffin to peel itself away from the enemy pickets, which caused considerable delay. Additionally, the bridge over Gravelly Run had to be repaired. Having no other materials for construction, Warren ordered a house to be torn down.

From Meade came a series of orders that did not take into account the missing bridge and the delay it would cause. This maximized the confusion and in the end, Warren decided to send Ayres division instead of Griffin’s. Meade then changed the orders so that Warren’s Corps would be broken in three along three different roads.

Basically ignoring this (and there was much more to this befuddlement), Warren “determined that it was best to abide the movements already begun, and keep the two divisions – Griffin’s and Crawford’s – where they were, till I could hear that General Ayres had certainly reinforced General Sheridan.”

The night wore on until 3am, when Warren received this message from General Sheridan:

“I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-fourths of a mile, with General Custer’s division. […] I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s; if so, you are in rear of the enemy’s line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, have this division attack instantly and in full force.”

If true, the results would be a splendid victory. But it was not. The division spoken of by Sheridan had been but a brigade, and even that had been pulled back by Meade’s orders. Come dawn, Sheridan would be almost on his own.1

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  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p53-54, 812-824, 868-869. []

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One thought on “Meade’s Confusion All Along the White Oak Road

  1. So Sheridan thinks Warren can link up with him but Meade told Warren to shorten his lines. This the beginning of conflict between Sheridan and Warren?

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