‘To Severe for All Their Resources’ – Lee Stretches Thin to Counter Grant

March 30, 1865 (Thursday)

E. Porter Alexander
E. Porter Alexander

“It has been sometimes said that if General Lee had been allowed to do so, he would have evacuated Richmond and Petersburg at some time in 1864, and marched rapidly to Georgia to unite with Johnston or Hood and destroy Sherman. […] But I do not at all believe he would ever have evacuated Richmond. Apart form the military value of the morale which would have been lost by such a step, was the strategic value of the position as a railroad centre and head of navigation, and the enormous value of the Tredegar Iron Works and Richmond Arsenal and all the store and factories and machinery and skilled labor concentrated there, which could never be moved. Civilized armies cannot fight like savages without bases of supply. Should they try it their fighting would at once degenerate even below the value of savages.” – E. Porter Alexander, Confederate chief of artillery.

In the only response he could make against the previous day’s advance by the Federals, General Lee dispatched George Pickett’s division and his entire cavalry force. It was clear that Grant eyed Five Forks, an intersection behind Lee’s right flank, and Lee had to hold this to remain any longer in Petersburg.

This was no simple movement. Lee simply didn’t have a spare division at rest behind the lines. To do this without the notice of the enemy was impossible, and so speed was then essential. Pickett’s division had been somewhat scattered, with one brigade being in the trenches west of Petersburg, and the other north of the James River. If spotted, it was unlikely that anyone would deduce their meaning.

With little detection, this was accomplished, and the troops were loaded onto rail cars and driven ten miles west of the city. The night of the 29th, Pickett received orders to position his brigades along Hatcher’s Run, becoming the extreme right of the entire army. By dawn of this date, they were in position, and by 10am, General Lee arrived.

At the subsequent council of war, General Heth that his division attack the two Federal corps now marching swiftly along the Confederate right, with Pickett as support. Lee wasn’t fond of this idea, and instead, it was decided to swing Pickett’s enlarged division and the cavalary wide around Five Forks and toward Dinwiddie Court House. This would sandwich the two Federal corps between the Confederate right and Pickett’s men.


But as this was being finalized, a message was run in from Fitz Lee’s cavalry. Sheridan, it read, was at Five Forks and was driving in the Rebel pickets. This message was accompanied by a Union prisoner who confirmed that 15,000 cavalrymen, along with a mess of infantry were at Dinwiddie.

Lee had a hard time believing such a thing, but acted on it nevertheless. Fitz Lee was told to drive the Federals from Five Forks, and Pickett was to act as support. Should this be accomplished, Pickett was then to march the next day upon Dinwiddie Court House, blocking the Federal thrust, while General Robert Anderson’s Division was to launch an assault upon the Federal left.

Behind the Federal lines, however, Grant was about to do Lee an incredible favor. He sent to Philip Sheridan a message explaining that the heavy rains now made it “impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired.” He proposed that Sheridan leave enough cavalry on the left to hold it, but to send the rest back for resupply.

Sheridan thought this a particularly horrible idea, writing after the war that “it seemed to me that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake.” He mounted a horse name Breckenridge and rode through the mires and deluge as he could to Grant’s new headquarters on the Federal left. There, he found the commanding general talking about suspending operations until the weather cleared.

“General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud,” Sheridan continued, “and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside’s army was after the mud march of 1863.” Grant, Sheridan claimed, had no stomach for this stoppage, and “needed little argument to convince him” that the plans should remain unchanged.

“We will go on,” Grant was to have said. Sheridan offered then to break the enemy’s lines if Grant would loan him the Sixth Corps. This Grant wouldn’t do, but ordered Sheridan to take Five Forks with his cavalry force alone. With what was most definitely a wry smile, Sheridan left and rode back to his headquarters at Dinwiddie.

Once returned, Sheridan learned for certain that Lee, with Pickett’s men, intended to hold Five Forks. This he told to Grant who then offered him the Fifth Corps. Sheridan, having just passed through Fifth Corps headquarters, turned it down, and again petitioned for the Sixth, telling Grant that “with it I believed I could turn the enemy left, or break through his lines.” By the time Grant’s reply could reach Sheridan, it was moot.

Philip Sheridan
Philip Sheridan

Through the day, the Fifth Corps extended its lines (and the Federal left) across Boydton Plank road, almost to White Oak Road. There, they met the Rebels and could go no farther. Grant ordered them to fortify. The Second Corps fell in on the Fifth’s right, driving the Rebels, but only back to their main lines. The three other corps held their places, scouting the Confederate lines and reporting all ripe for an attack.

“The enemy confronting us as he did, at every point from Richmond to our extreme left,” wrote Grant in his memoirs, “I conceived his lines must be weakly held, and could be penetrated if my estimate of his forces was correct.”

Commenting upon this sentiment, long after the war, E. Porter Alexander, Lee’s chief of artillery, penned these thoughts:

“If there ever was a general who was a past master in the art of stretching a thin line and of audacious aggressiveness, under cover of woods and brushes, against a superior enemy in motion, it was General Lee. And in A.P. Hill, Heth, Mahone, Wilcox, Johnson, and his Petersburg army generally, he had assistants who were veterans as hard as nail and thoroughly at home in their business.

“But, at last, the conditions had become too severe for all their resources.”

Weather or no, the next morning would bring blood.1

  1. Sources: Pickett’s Men by Walter Harrison; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. []


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