Five Forks

The South Side Railroad was Grant’s primary target in the fighting around Petersburg in the spring of 1865. It represented the last remaining Confederate supply line, critical to Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. Ordered by Lee to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards” General Pickett placed his 10,000 man force across the Five Forks intersection. It was the Confederacy’s last hope to hold this line.

In the attack on the first of April, Union cavalry and infantry approached the Forks, overwhelming and forcing Pickett to retreat, thus opening the door for the Federals to capture their last remaining supply line. The battle of Five Forks was the beginning of the end for the Confederate forces. They defended their lines for the last time in an early morning battle the next day, when Grant ordered a coordinated assault on the Petersburg defenses, and then finally the last rail line was severed. His final goal was the destruction of Lee’s army. Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond that night and headed west in a campaign that ended a week later. With Lee’s surrender on April 9th at Appomattox Court House, the Confederacy collapsed.

Voices from …

“Our lines being very long, they are necessarily very weak at some points if we make them strong at others, & then Grant with his strong force can hunt our weak places & dash against them.”
- Georgia Soldier

By late March, thinning Confederate forces had reached their breaking point. With victory at his fingertips, Grant ordered a cavalry assault at Five Forks on April 1, 1865 with the objective of obtaining the South Side Railroad, the last rail line into Petersburg. This Union victory here was the breaking point for Lee's army and the siege finally ended.
Less than a week later, after some hard marching and bitter fighting, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
The Union army’s defeat of Confederate forces was met with a range of emotions on both sides. Weary from a nearly ten month long siege, soldiers’ attitudes of war had changed drastically from the hunger to fight during early war. Read their accounts of the battle, before and after to learn what soldiers on both sides felt of this final battle.

A Hopeless Cause?

Union Perspective:
A new year dawns, the third in the service of my country. Hope and fear mingle – hope the war will soon end; fear that however soon it ends, I might not live to see it. These fears are reduced to an absolute certainly as I consider the confounded Rebels are defiant as ever . . . though there is an undercurrent of “peace by negotiation” now manifest. We expect peace shortly after the opening of the spring campaign.
- John Haley, 17th Maine / January 1st, 1865

After dark a lot of deserters came in. They were especially down in the mouth and reported the rest of the Confederacy to be in the same condition. They expressed the opinion that the collapse of the Confederacy is near at hand, even at the doors.
- John Haley, 17th Maine, February 21st

Confederate Perspective:
No doubt the fighting here has blasted all hopes of peace for the present. . . None of our troops are in high spirits, & it is said that they do not fight with the same resolution as they did the first year of the war; having done so much of it that they now have a distaste to it. All are anxiously awaiting for Spring to come, hoping that something may occur to bring about peace.
- North Carolina Private

After four years of bloody war – of hardships and privations, the veteran soldiers of the invincible army of Northern Virginia, are speaking to the country.
- Capt. Charles Fenton James, 8th Virginia
In reference to a meeting held in Pickett’s winter camp

I believe the peace question is entirely dead and we have nothing before us but war, war, war, really a gloomy prospect before us, but I hope the Lord will deliver me out of it in some way.
- North Carolina Soldier / Mid February 1865

On the question of black troops:
We shall be compelled to have them [black troops] or be defeated – With them as volunteers fighting for their freedom we shall be successful. . . If authority were granted to raise 200,000 of them it would greatly encourage the men & do much to stop desertions.”
- John Gordon, Private Letter

What is to become of this army without rations – men cant fight on nothing to eat.
- Confederate soldier, Second Corps

We would not Complain of Rations or hardships if there was a brighter prospect ahead.
- Pvt. Alexander Fewell, 17th South Carolina to a friend, 1 January 1865

Prelude to Battle

Union Perspective:
“And still raining ... We come on to the enemy and fighting begins & great confusion to. The Recruits are wild with a few exceptions. Soon all are running & the reb is hurling in the lead & we retreat across the creek in great confusion, some going the way we came & others wading & swimming ...”
William Ray, 7th Wisconsin Volunteer / March 31st
- Fighting at White Oak Road

The Rebels attacked on our left incessantly and we expected to hear a triumphant yell and see their banners flaunting over our works at any moment, but we were spared ... At night we moved a few rods to the left so that our regiment rested on the Boydton Plank Road ... We laid down the rails to keep us out of the mud.
- John Haley, 17th Maine Volunteers / March 31st

I sent General Bartlett out on the road running from the White Oak Road left him there. He is nearly down to the crossing of Gravelly Run. This will prevent the enemy communicating by that road tonight ... It seems to me that the enemy cannot remain between me and Dinwiddie Court House, if Sheridan keeps fighting them, and I believe they will fall back to Five Forks.
- General Warren, March 31st at 8:20

The mail tonight was a failure. It brought no letter from you. We have been fighting again all day, and we have lost and gained a mile of ground, strewn with wrecks of battle. I have been writing orders and dispatches since dark, preparatory tomorrow. We shall undoubtedly fight again, on All Fool’s Day, and I hope the enemy will be the victim.
- Warren to his wife, March 31st, 11:59 P.M.

Confederate Perspective:
“Our rations have been better, the soldiers are in better spirits, and what is better than all, we are now enjoying a refreshing shower of grace from the presence of the Lord.”
- Chaplain, 44th North Carolina / Late March

The enemy are exultant & numbers 5 or 6 to our one. An army against an unarmed, unorganized mob. The sea before us, the mountains on each side, behind us a mighty and desperate enemy. Where can we look for help but upwards[?]
- 48th North Carolina

“... It seems that the soldiers have become so tired of fighting that they are almost willing to give up on most any terms. I am almost attempted sometimes to take a French furlough when I think of being cut off from you and home, but still have hopes of peace soon when I can meet with you and never part again.”
- Pvt. Abel Crawford, 61st Alabama in a letter to his wife, March 1865

I don’t think this Southern Confederacy can stand much longer. I don’t think there is any chance for us in the world.
- William Horace Phillips

There are a good many soldier deserting to the enemy, but I am in hopes we will have enough left to keep the Yankees in check on this line.
- North Carolina Private

Battle of Five Forks

Union Perspective:
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. The enemy are on his immediate front ... I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s. If this is so, you are in the rear of the enemy’s line and I will hold on here ... .Attack at daylight ... and I will make an effort to get to the road this side ... and if I do, you can capture the whole of them.
- Sheridan

"As we neared the Forks our forces also became hotly engaged, and the enemy, made desperate efforts to keep possession of this key of his position. But his gallantry and desperation were soon seen to be futile, and not long after we opened fire on his flank, the brave cavalrymen in his front were swarming over the earthworks in the teeth of his guns, some on horseback, and some on foot."
- S.L. Gracey, Sixth Pennslyvania Cavalry

Confederate Perspective:
The contagion spread as this made its way up the line. The cowardly ran, the timid were dumbfounded, the brave, alone, could not withstand the vastly superior force of the enemy.
- North Carolina Captain

You need not send my clothes, nor flour, nor anything else to me, my dearest, we will either be killed or captured or the road will be destroyed before this letter reaches you ... Be prepared for bad news from Lee’s army. There is no reasonable prospect for good news.
Col. Samuel Hoey Walkup / 48th NC
- Letter to his wife started on March 30th and finished on April 1st

Aftermath

Union Perspective:
When we did move forward, we expected a desperate resistance and great loss. It couldn’t be much longer delayed. Orders were received to advance up the road and carry the works . . . a sudden change came over us, for as we gazed at the point we were to attack, a sight met our eyes that nearly unmanned us. Where two minutes before the Stars and Bars had flown, now floated the glorious old Stars and Stripes. Never before have we thought it so beautiful, and a cheer went up that could have been heard in Petersburg.
- John Haley, 17th Maine, April 2nd

The night I wrote you last was March 31 – changes of dispatches kept me up all that night, and at daybreak the Corps was moving. General Sheridan had been driven back several miles the day before, and I went to relieve him. The enemy fell back to the Five Corners, and there, in the afternoon, we nearly surrounded and captured nearly all.

Greatly to my astonishment, just at dark, after the fighting was all over, General Sheridan ordered me to report to General Grant. This I did at once . . . He then told me he had designed to relieve me from the command of the 5th Corps and assign me to other duty.
- Warren in a letter to his wife, April 2nd

Confederate Perspective:
“On the night of April 1st, when it began to be whispered among the tents that orders had been issued for the evacuation of Richmond, many an old veteran heard the tale with a jeer and greeted it with a grinning, ‘Aw, git out. April Fool!’ But a little later, when the terrible truth became known for what it was, [they] went about soberly.”
- Thomas T. Munford

O, how sad I felt to think so noble a little city should soon be in Yankee hands! I shall ever remember this 10 months siege.
- Virginia artilleryman

I have never been in a real retreat before, but this looks like a disorderly one to me.
- Virginia Soldier

If we, the Army of Northern Virginia, are defeated, all is lost. We must bow in submission. I hope I have a chance to fight – I don’t think I will surrender.
- Sgt. James E. Whitehorne, 12th Virginia

Looking Back

Union Perspective:
"All but the imperturbable general-in-chief were on their feet giving vent to wild demonstrations of joy. For some minutes there was a bewildering state of excitement, grasping of hands, tossing up of hats, and slapping of each other on the back....(The Battle of Five Forks) meant the beginning of the end- the reaching of the 'last ditch.' It pointed to peace and home. Dignity was thrown to the winds."
- A recollection by one of Grant's officer on the night of April 1-2, 1865

“The 1st day of April was a glorious day for the Union for in my opinion the gates to Richmond and Petersburg were opened.”
- From a letter by Mair Pointon, Co. A, 6th Wis. Inf. to his brother dated 4/24/65.

“The Prisoners we took … said they never saw Cavalry fight as we did. They were Picket’s Division that claimed they never were whiped. But they took a lesson on April 1st that took the conceit all out of them.”
- Capt. John Clark, 7th Mich Cav. in a letter to Wm. Whedon dated 4/16/65.

“Here Brother Thede, noble and brave boy, was struck through with a piece of shell. Helped him from the field. Suffered awfully. In answer to my questions he said: “Luman, I think my wound is mortal. I can not live. I have tried to do my duty today. Tell mother I only wish I had been a better boy. I hope that God will accept me and take me to Heaven.” I buried him in a rough box beneath a cedar tree in front of the house and across the road and cut the headboard with a knife. God sustain mother.”
- Diary entry from Major Luman Harris Tenney, 2nd Ohio cav. on 4/1/65.

It was with no small emotion that I neared the place I left nearly three years before. Here we are, some with whole skins, and Some not so whole. Others have been left behind. For myself, I can only wonder that there is a bone left In my carcass when I think of the wholesale carnage through which I have passed. My bruises are inward.

It is all over now, and I can only regard it as a hideous dream -- the smoking ruins, the sodden fields, the trailing banner, the slaughtered thousands and wailing families, the roar of the cannon, the Rebel Yell and Yankee Hurrah have all passed away, and we again return to peace.
- John Haley, 17th Maine Volunteer

Confederate Perspective:
“I do not mean to say that had it not been for Five Forks the South would have won the war. It came too late to stem inevitable tide of defeat for the Southern arms – but it did bring about the end when there was no need for it. It did put to naught the skill and genius of Lee, and what the final result might have been had we driven Sheridan back to Grant’s lines in defeat, can never be known.”
- Colonel Thomas T. Munford

“You cannot regret as much as I did that you were not with us at the final struggle. . .If you had been there with your cavalry the results at Five Forks would have been different. But how long the contest could have been prolonged it is difficult.”
- Robert E. Lee to Wade Hampton, 4 months post-battle

“… it is hardly exaggerating when you speak of that fatal lunch as the ruin of the Confederacy. It certainly did, at least, hasten the catastrophe.”
- Jefferson Davis to Thomas T. Munford / 1889

Profiles of Duty

Nine and half months of fighting in the trenches around Petersburg culminated in a two hour battle at a country crossroads in Dinwiddie County known as Five Forks. In this contest, Confederate Cavalry commanded by Pickett and Union Cavalry commanded by Sheridan would meet. In a siege characterized by months of fighting mainly on the part of infantry and artillery soldiers behind the protection of defenses, it is ironic that Union Cavalry charging across an open landscape would cause the collapse of the Confederate army.

Learn more about the role of Cavalry at the Battle of Five Forks. Explore the strategy of the armies in the final battles of the siege and learn how to equip a Cavalry soldier.

Strategy of Cavalry

Cavalry soldiers were by no means absent during the months of fighting around Petersburg. A raiding party of Union Cavalry, led by General James H. Wilson and General August V. Kautz quickly moved south to destroy the South Side Railroad following the initial assaults on Petersburg. For three days, they alternated between destroying Confederate tracks and depots, but were finally repulsed by Confederate forces. Three months later, a Confederate Cavalry raid under Wade Hampton caught Union security forces off guard, when they rounded up 2500 head of cattle behind Union lines and herded to Confederate lines. They successfully traveled about 100 miles and in total gathered 2 million pounds of beef.

While raiding and scouting for infantry soldiers on the move was certainly an important role of cavalry around Petersburg, at no time during the siege was their role as critical as at the Battle of Five Forks. With Union soldiers taking the offensive to finally break Confederate lines, and Confederate forces defending these lines and their last supply route into Petersburg, success was critical for both armies.

Explore the opposing strategies of the Cavalry at the Battle of Five Forks.

End of March 1865

Union Perspective:
Under Grant’ orders General Philip Sheridan was to:
Break camp along the military railroad on the morning of the 29th.
Head for the Confederate rear and pass around the left flank of Warren’s corps
Make for Dinwiddie Court House
Attack the enemy in his entrenched position and force him out if possible.

If Sheridan could do this, he could push for the Danville [Rail]road, where the line crossed the South Side. Damaging both rail lines would prevent Lee from using the South Side to retreat as Grant expected Lee to do

Confederate Perspective:
“He [Lee] told me that General Sheridan’s cavalry were concentrating in the vicinity of Five Forks, bent upon a raid upon our communications, with the intention of breaking up the South Side Railroad, and that it was important for us to maintain that [rail line] intact.”
Fitz Lee

By the morning of the 28th, Lee received a report that Grant’s Army of the James had crossed the James and Appomattox Rivers, traveling towards Petersburg.

Lee gave the following orders to Pickett and Fitz Lee:

Pickett was dispatched to take his cavalry southwest of Petersburg
Fitz Lee was directed to lead Munford and Payne’s forces to Sutherland Station on the South Side railroad.

On the Move

Union Perspective:
“To make a detour 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.”
- Sheridan

Phil Sheridan led his newly supplied and recently remounted troops southwest along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Union cavalry had trouble on the plank roads, due to the rain and mud, and leaving the plank road did not help. He passed near Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, in hopes of crossing a creek to continue towards Five Forks. Unfortunately, he found that not only had the bridge been burned, but that Confederate forces fired at them from the west bank.

The cavalry dismounted, drove off the enemy with a heavy fire, and then began the task of building a makeshift bridge sturdy enough to support the weight of horses, cannons, and wagons. They finally crossed and continued on their journey.

Confederate Perspective:
George Pickett prepared his men for the march, crossed the Appomattox and then made his way for Petersburg Station on the South Side Railroad. Pickett ensured that all troops were loaded into boxcars and flatcars, before the train traveled west. At 9:00 that evening, the train completed its twenty-mile run to Sutherland where the troops unloaded. They were ordered to form ranks as the rain began to fall.

On his mare, Pickett led the troops through the mud and rain. With updated orders, he made his way to the trenches on the White Oak Road, east of Five Forks.

While Pickett led the infantry, the cavalrymen under Rooney Lee were breaking camp to also move to the Five Forks vicinity to link with Fitz Lee. The march west was hard on man and beast because of the foul weather and muddy roads.

Destination Reached

Union Perspective:
“[Sheridan] took a decidedly cheerful view of matters, and entered upon a very animated discussion of the coming movements. He said he could drive in the whole cavalry force for the enemy with ease, and if an infantry force were added to his command he would strike out for [Lee’s] right and either crush it or force him so to weaken his intrenched lines that the troops in front of them could break through and march into Petersburg.”
- Horace Porter

After crossing rough roads that wound through dense pine groves, Sheridan finally reached Dinwiddie Court House at about 5:00 pm, as daylight faded. Sheridan’s men rested in an area where they were able to watch both the Dinwiddie and Boydton Plank Road. Within minutes of their arrival, the skies opened. Thousands of men camped in the fields had no tents or protection from the wind and rain.

At this time, Sheridan received updated orders to abandon the raid on the railroads and instead cooperate with Union infantry to strike the Confederate right. At five pm on the 30th, every member of Sheridan’s force took up their posts when the enemy advanced on them. Despite being pushed back, Sheridan’s men eventually held their lines. Sheridan now fully intended to do what Grant expected him to do.

Confederate Perspective:
George Pickett’s force moved through muddy roads, wind and rain. By daybreak on March 30th, infantry soldiers filed into a section of trenches along the White Oak Road, temporarily. Again, with updated orders, Pickett directed the men out of the muddy trenches and towards Five Forks where they would meet up with Fitz Lee. As they made their way on foot, enemy cavalrymen charged out of the fog and mist, firing at the column of marching soldiers with carbines and pistols. Pickett finally made it to the Forks, where his army rested after almost twenty hours of continuous marching.

Fitz Lee reached Five Forks on the morning of the 30th and led two groups of Confederate cavalry towards Dinwiddie Court House, where scouts had told him that Sheridan’s men were located. When his group reached the area, they did not find any Union soldiers, so they went in search of them. This force of Confederate cavalry pushed the Union soldiers back from the White Oak Road. While they had been able to push the smaller cavalry force back and inflict some casualties in Sheridan’s command, but Pickett’s resources and options were now severely limited.

Prelude to the Battle

Union Perspective:
Sheridan’s plan was to attack Pickett with cavalry supported by infantry.
After battling on the 31st, Sheridan discovered that the Confederate forces were pulling out of their lines late that evening. His cavalry forces pursued the Confederates, expecting Warren’s Infantry to assist him, but they were delayed. It would take most of the next day for Sheridan to get all his forces together for the attack.

Confederate Perspective:
While Pickett had succeeded in pushing Sheridan back south towards Dinwiddie Court House on the 31st, he found himself forced to fall back to Five Forks to protect his left flank and the roads leading to the South Side Railroad. Despite ground gained, troops slowly made their way back to Five Forks, where the South Side Railroad lay only seven miles to the rear.

The Battle of Five Forks

Union Perspective:
As we neared the Forks our forces also became hotly engaged, and the enemy, made desperate efforts to keep possession of this key of his position. But his gallantry and desperation were soon seen to be futile, and not long after we opened fire on his flank, the brave cavalrymen in his front were swarming over the earthworks in the teeth of his guns, some on horseback, and some on foot."
- S.L. Gracey, Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry

At 4:00 PM on April 1, 1865, Sheridan signaled the attack to begin. All along the line, dismounted cavalrymen left their works and rushed the defenses at Five Forks firing their carbines. Pickett’s left flank crumbed under the charge by Warren’s infantry corps and a brief hand to hand combat.

An Ohio trooper described General Custer’s actions when his flag bearer fell and the flag hit the ground:

“Swinging down on the side of his horse, he caught up the flag, and waving it over his head, stuck spurs to his horse and went over the works, the men following.”

In two short hours, the length of Pickett’s works was captured by elated Union soldiers.

Confederate Perspective:
“We could see in the distance, McKenzie’s mounted men with their fluttering colors and their gleaming sabers, and as we looked upon the yellow facing and trimmings to their blue coats, the hues of which were brought out by the rays of the descending sun, they had the appearance of the “Avenging Cavalry,” but for us, they had been thrown out of the fight by their infantry.”
- Munford

Pickett’s entire force did arrive at Five Forks until after mid-morning on April 1st and he was reluctant to hold this crossroad with his average size force. Over the next three hours, his men added to the breastworks and defenses. With this work done, Pickett joined Rosser and Fitz Lee for dinner around 2:00 that afternoon, thinking that they had broken up the Union movement the day before, enough to delay an attack.

However, this was not the case, and Munford’s warning dispatches of the Union advance never reached Fitz Lee or Pickett. Union forces overwhelmed the Confederate left and the crossroads. In the last stages of the battle a cavalry engagement occurs as Gen. Fitz Lee's men repulsed several charges by Gen. Custer's force. This stand allowed what remained of Pickett's command to escape. The collapse of the Confederate army was imminent.

Equip a Cavalry Soldier

“My men are ragged. Many have neither overcoats nor blankets, and numbers are obliged to shiver on picket, clad in tattered remnants of Jacket and Pantalons.”
- Capt. Zimmerman Davis, 5th South Carolina Cavalry

Similar to the foot soldiers in the trenches of Petersburg, cavalry soldiers suffered from the elements as well during the nearly ten month siege. While Union soldiers enjoyed a greater supply of equipment and rations than their Confederate counterparts, both endured the heat of summer, the frost of winter, and the difficulty of traveling through the mud bogged roads of spring. Particularly, as the major cavalry engagement unfolded in the last days of the siege, proper equipment was critical to the mobility of cavalrymen to carry out their orders.

Imagine that you were a cavalry soldier who had received orders to march nearly twenty miles to meet the enemy at a critical crossroads. What equipment did you need to have to prepare for such a battle? Take a look and find out.

“The trooper has his carbine to care for and keep in order, which evens him up with the infantryman in care of arms and equipments, and in addition to this he has his revolver, sabre, and horse equipments to keep in order and his horse to water, feed and groom every day, and the soldier who enlists in the cavalry service...will soon learn, to his sorrow, that he has been laboring under a grievous mistake."
- 1st Ohio Cavalry

Carbine
Carbines were well-suited to cavalry operations. They were shorter and handier than rifles and weighed considerably less. Some models were breechloading repeaters which had a quick rate of fire and were fairly accurate.

"In a close defensive fight, he found, no doubt, that carbines, well-handled, are a merciless foe to face, and so reflecting, he paused and ceased firing; and when we were satisfied that he declined the combat, we leaned on our arms and rested from the turmoil of this hard day."

Sabre
The cavalryman's sword, intended for mounted combat, was the saber. Sabers were issued to cavalrymen usually with blunt blades, though many ingenious soldiers quickly learned to sharpen them for greater advantage. This weapon, however, was not widely used since cavalrymen rarely found themselves fighting in such close contact with the enemy.

These cavalry fights are miserable affairs. Neither party has any idea of serious charging with the sabre. They approach one another with considerable boldness, until they get to within about forty yards, and then, at the very moment when a dash is necessary, and the sword alone should be used, they hesitate, halt, and commence a desultory fire with carbines and revolvers."

Uniform
The shell jacket and trousers of a cavalry soldier were similar to that of an infantry. They were made of wool, and both the jacket and pants were trimmed in yellow piping that identified that soldier as a cavalryman.

The sergeant charged the pants to my account and then handed me a jacket, a small one, evidently made for a humped-backed dwarf. The jacket was covered with yellow braid. O, so yellow that it made me sick. The jacket was charged to me also."
- Wisconsin Volunteer

Boots
Because a cavalryman’s duty was to travel on horseback, he was furnished with tall boots that reached just above the knee.

“A pair of good boots is something we can't get along without...Uncle Sam doesn't furnish us anything but shoes to wear in the winter. The shoes are very good ones to wear in the summer ..."
- William Margraff, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves

Revolver
The revolver was a popular weapon among cavalrymen in the Civil War. They fired paper wrapped cartridges, using copper percussion caps to ignite the charge. The revolver, though valued for a quick firing rate, was not always a dependable weapon. They were accurate only at very short range which meant they were useful only in close actions.

“The revolver was by far the more popular weapon among cavalrymen. Revolvers were accurate at very short range however, so they were only useful in close actions. Such close actions were not very common in mounted combat. As the war progressed, cavalrymen become more successful at cavalry raids and scouting exercises."
- S.L. Gracey, Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry

Saddle
The saddle was the most important piece of horse furniture. This type of saddle, the McLellan, was the regulation U.S. cavalry saddle throughout the Civil War. This saddle was issued with its seat open and covered solely with rawhide. A blanket was placed under the saddle for the comfort of the rider. The Confederate cavalry used a similar design.

The horses were assigned to the men by the company officers. Our saddles were being made in Monroeville, and very naturally the men were taking a lively interest in that part of the work and in watching its progress, and we began to realize something in regard to the immense amount of material required to fit out a cavalry regiment."
- Thomas Croft, Third Ohio Cavalry

Grant versus Lee

Through the fall and winter of 1864 and 65, Grant simultaneously engaged Lee’s army at the Confederate capital in Richmond twenty-five miles south in Petersburg. Grant knew that by deploying his larger army in different directions, he would eventually thin Lee’s ranks and weaken the Confederate lines defending these two cities. By late March 1864, Grant’s army was achieving this objective. The opportunity for the Union army to capture the last major supply route into Petersburg, the South Side Railroad would finally come on April 1, 1865. In a marked victory by Union forces under Sheridan, Confederate forces were caught completely off guard, and the Union army opened the way to the South Side Railroad. This marked the beginning of the end for the Confederate army.

Explore the military movements and decision-making skills of two great generals, as Grant’s army engaged Lee’s forces at a country crossroads in Dinwiddie County. Read their correspondence referencing this military action.

Grant

March 30, 1865
Maj. Gen. Meade

[Union forces] met the enemy’s Cavalry at J. Boisseaus and drove him on the right and left roads and pushed on himself, driving the enemy, and now occupies the White Oak road at Five Forks, and also where the righthand branch intersects it. [Union forces] lost 150 men wounded.
U.S. Grant

Lee
March 30, 1865
Sec. Of War

The enemy still maintains his position West of Hatcher’s Run, occupying Dinwiddie CH with Sheridan’s Cavalry. Skirmishing was frequent along the lines today, but not serious attack . . . Part of [Union force] . . . attacked Genl. Fitz Lee twice this morning at Five Forks, but was repulsed.
R.E. Lee

Grant

March 31, 1865
Lincoln at City Point

Our troops after being driven back on to the Boydton Plank Road turned & drove the Enemy in turn & took the White Oak Road which we now have. This gives us the ground occupied by the Enemy this morning. I will send you a rebel flag captured by Our troops in driving the Enemy back.
U.S. Grant

Lee
March 31, 1865
Secretary of War

Finding this morning that the enemy was extending his left to embrace the White Oak Road, [Confederate forces] placed three Brigades in position to repel him. . . the enemy advanced and was finally met by our troops and driven back with loss to his position near the Boydton Plank Road. Our troops were then withdrawn, and were followed by the enemy, who in turn drove us back to our lines.
R. E. Lee

Grant

April 1, 1865
Maj. Gen. Meade

[A Union force] is now on White Oak Road where the right branch from J. Boisseau’s intersects it. Sheridan with his Cavalry and the 5th Corps are about assaulting at the Five Forks and feel no doubt of succeeding in carrying it ...

Later that day:
Sheridan has captured every thing before him.

Still Later:
With [a Union] Division and what he already has I think Sheridan could hold all of Lee’s Army that could be got against him until we could get up.

Lee
April 1, 1865
Pres. Jeff Davis

The movement of Gen. Grant to Dinwiddie C.H. seriously threatens our position, and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg. In the first place, it cuts us off from our depot at Stony Creek. . . It also renders it more difficult to withdraw from our position, cuts us off from White Oak Road and gives the enemy an advantageous point on our right and rear. . . This in my opinion obliged us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on the James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.

Grant

April 1, 1865
Maj. Gn. Sheridan

An attack is ordered for 4 a.m. in the morning at three points on the Petersburg front, one by the 9th Corps between the Appomattox and Jerusalem P. road; one West of the Weldon road and the third between that and Hatcher’s run . . . from your isolated position I can give you no specific directions but leave you to act according to circumstances. I would like you however to get something down to the S.S. road even if they do not tear up a mile of it.
U.S. Grant

Lee
April 2, 1865
Sec. of War
I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here till night. I am not certain that I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw tonight north of the Appomattox, and if possible it will be better to withdraw the whole line tonight from James River. . . .Enemy have broken through our lines and intercepted between us and them, and there is no bridge over which they can cross the Appomattox this side. . . I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight. I will advise you later, according to circumstances.
R.E. Lee

Grant

April 2, 1865
Maj Gen. Meade
There is more necessity for care on the part of Parke than either of the others or our Corps Commanders. As I understand it he is attacking the main line of works around Petersburg whilst the others are only attacking an outer line which the enemy might give up without giving up Petersburg. Park should either advance rapidly or cover his men and hold all he gets.
U.S. Grant

Lee
April 2, 1865
Jefferson Davis
I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops, and the operation, though difficult, I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed [Union General] to your Excellency to explain the routes by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Court House, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.
R. E. Lee

April 2, 1865
Maj. Gen. Meade
I have just heard from Sheridan. Lee himself escaped up the river. Sheridan thinks that all of the rebel army that was outside the works immediately around the City are trying to make their escape out that way. He is making dispositions to cut them off if he can.
U.S. Grant

Lee's only hope of preventing the capture of Petersburg and the destruction of his army lay in holding a defensive line at two posts, Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth held by a few hundred men. On April 2nd, Union soldiers attacked Fort Gregg, and though the Confederate forces suffered tremendous losses, they were able to hold off the Union attack. Their actions provided Lee enough time to see that the Confederate army evacuated the city in an orderly fashion later that night. The nine-and-half month siege had finally come to an end.

Meade, Grant, and Lincoln all visited Petersburg on April 3. At midday Meade and Grant rode off to the west to organize the pursuit of Lee's retreating army. One week following the Union army's capture of Petersburg and Richmond, General Grant's army would finally meet Lee's army at Appomattox Court House. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Not long after this, America's Civil War would finally end.

Park Rangers

At the Battle of Five Forks, Union forces finally achieved their objective of cutting off Confederate supply routes and wearing down Lee’s army. Union forces finally broke through Confederate lines to access the last remaining supply route, the South Side Railroad. Confederate forces were forced to withdraw from their lines that stretched for miles around the city of Petersburg and through the Western Front. Today, park rangers protect this intersection of five country roads, telling visitors the importance of this site, not only to the siege of Petersburg, but to the reuniting of a nation. While it is rural in character, park rangers face many to maintain this site.

Crossroads: Cultural Landscape

The landscape of Five Forks Battlefield looks quite different today than it did on April 1, 1865, when Union forces defeated Confederate forces at this country crossroads. A Union general named Warren was court-marshaled in 1866 for his actions at this battle and as a result, there is a record of very detailed drawings of the landscape. The Park Service can use these drawings to determine exactly what the landscape of this site looked like in 1865, including crops, forests, and open fields and how to manage this site.

Use the links below to explore how different divisions of the National Park Service protect and preserve the historic earthworks at Petersburg National Battlefield.

Maintenance Ranger

As a maintenance ranger at Five Forks Battlefield, I work daily to care for the cultural landscape of this site. I cut grass, trim hedges, and keep the grounds clean and well-maintained. I also perform daily maintenance of the buildings, keeping these areas clean and safe for visitors. I also do preventative maintenance by reporting to park management any major problems with both the grounds and the buildings. While many projects to maintain this landscape are done by my division, some may be contracted to specialists outside of the Park Service. Therefore, I also write the specifications that contractors must follow when they work on the grounds.

Interpreter

I am an interpretive ranger at Five Forks Battlefield. It is my job to help visitors understand and connect to the park’s resources. This site is located miles from other park sites; therefore there is not a heavy flow of visitors here. I provide tours of this site as visitors come to this site, walking the grounds and answering questions about the battle. I participate in management decisions for future projects for this site, by deciding what stories should be told and how to most effectively tell these stories using the grounds and buildings. These two factors are taken into account, when decisions are made about managing this cultural landscape.

Protection Ranger

I am a Protection Ranger at Five Forks Battlefield. My job is to patrol the park, including this site that is twenty-five miles from the park’s headquarters. I daily monitor this area to ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable visit while also taking proper care of the park’s resources. Routine patrols of this area ensure that the site is managed properly.

Resource Manager

I am a Resource Manager at Five Forks Battlefield. My main job is to assist with the planning and development of reports that direct how we should take care of the park’s landscape. With the assistance of the maintenance division, I monitor this site to see that buildings and grounds are in good condition. Because the park has such detailed records of the appearance of this site in 1865, I coordinate projects that will eventually return the landscape of this area to how it looked during the Civil War. These projects can include moving buildings off the battlefield, planting trees where they were once located or cutting down trees that stand in areas that were once open fields.

Visitor Center: Visitor Facilities

Maintenance Ranger

I am a maintenance ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. I take care of the Visitor Facilities at Five Forks Battlefield, which consists of a small visitor center area and staff office. Keeping this building in good condition for visitors requires such tasks as painting, cleaning, dusting, and vacuuming. While many projects on this structure are done by my division, some of these projects are contracted to specialists outside of the Park Service. Therefore, I also write the specifications that contractors must follow when they work on this building.

Interpreter

I am an interpretive ranger at Five Forks Battlefield. On a daily basis, I operate the visitor center and walk the grounds with visitors to answer any questions. I also assist in planning how this site can be better maintained for future visitor experiences. This site is relatively new, so I work with management, providing suggestions on what type of visitor facilities are needed here, including buildings, restrooms, and walking trails. Finally, I create brochures and educational materials that help people location learn more about this historic site.

Protection Ranger

I am a Protection Ranger Five Forks Battlefield. My job is to patrol this site to ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable visit while also taking proper care of the park’s resources. I work with contractors to maintain the alarm systems in park buildings, including the Visitor Center at Five Forks, therefore it is my duty to answer any alarm calls to ensure that the Visitor Facilities are protected from any possible damage.

Resource Manager

I am a Resource Manager at Five Forks Battlefield. My main job is to assist with the planning and development of reports that direct how we should take care of the park’s landscape, including the Visitor Facilities. With the assistance of the maintenance division, I monitor this site to see that buildings and grounds are in good condition. Using information such as past management decisions, current issues and problems at the site, and future public programs that the park wants to develop, I provide direction for offering better visitor facilities at Five Forks.

 

Links

Petersburg Index

Introduction

Grant's Headquarters at City Point

The Eastern Front

The Western Front

The Battle of Five Forks (current section)

Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Challenge Your Understanding

 

Open multimedia version of The Siege of Petersburg

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