On the afternoon of the March 29, Griffin's division of the Fifth Corps clashed with units on the Confederate far right at Lewis Farm. The Union troops defeated the Confederates and pushed them back. This success convinced Grant that victory was close at hand, and he determined to convert Sheridan's proposed raid into a full-fledged flanking maneuver.
Concerned with Grant's maneuver, Lee attempted to block it. The only troops available to blunt the Union advance, however, were the infantry division of George E. Pickett and the cavalry divisions of Rooney Lee, Fitz Lee, and Thomas Rosser. This task force, under the overall command of Pickett, marched westward, arriving in the vicinity of Five Forks on the afternoon of March 30, 1865.
Two battles on March 31, 1865, set the stage for Five Forks. The engagement that began first, and lasted until nightfall, was the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House, which developed between Sheridan's cavalry, operating beyond the Union left flank, and Pickett's task force. Both Sheridan and Pickett probed along the White Oak Road, which ran north to south. The opposing scouts met at Dinwiddie Court House, and a general engagement began as both generals fed more troops into the fight. Pickett managed the Confederate side of the encounter brilliantly, but failed to defeat Sheridan. The second engagement, along White Oak Road, involved units on Lee's far right near Burgess's Mill and Hatcher's Run, and Union troops from the Fifth Corps and the Second Corps. The Union troops managed to push the Confederates back. By the end of the day, the tenuous link between Pickett's exposed men near Five Forks and the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia had been severed. Grant had turned Lee's flank, and in doing so had cut off Pickett's force.
Warren marched his Fifth Corps west, to be placed under the overall supervision of Sheridan. The cavalryman planned an attack that would hit the Confederate line head on with cavalry (fighting primarily as dismounted infantry) while the Fifth Corps slammed into the Confederate left. The Union attack did not begin until 4:15 p.m., mainly because of the difficulties rain-soaked roads and swampy terrain caused the Fifth Corps while trying to get into position. Sheridan had intended that the attack begin earlier, and, not realizing the logistical difficulties Warren faced, blamed the commander of the Fifth Corps.
At four thirty, the Fifth Corps struck the weak return line on the Confederate left. Although Sheridan and Warren had intended for the entire Fifth Corps to fall on the Confederates, both men believed the Confederate line extended farther east than it actually did. As a result, the divisions of Samuel W. Crawford and Charles Griffin proceeded far past the Confederate line, while the division of Romeyn B. Ayres shattered the return line. Warren chased after his lost divisions and redirected them toward the Confederate rear. Sheridan, wondering where Warren was, finally let his impatience and temper get the best of him and determined to relieve Warren from command.
By seven o'clock, the Union troops had driven the Confederates from the field in a stunning victory.
Sheridan's removal of Warren sparked acrimony that lasted far beyond the end of the war. Sheridan's actions effectively ended Warren's military career, although Warren would press for a formal court of inquiry to review Sheridan's decision to relieve him. In 1879, Warren finally got his review, which found that Sheridan had acted improperly. By that late date, however, the verdict rendered nothing more than a moral victory to Warren.
April 1, 1865, nightfall - Union forces under Philip H. Sheridan complete their stunning victory over Confederate infantry and cavalry under George E. Pickett. Confederate lines before Petersburg have been flanked and the city, along with the capital at Richmond, will fall the next day.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: March 24, 2010 | Last modified: December 6, 2012