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Chapter 28

  • The movement against five Forks
  • -- the battle of five Forks -- carrying the news of five Forks to Grant -- Grant Prepares to assault the Petersburg lines -- capturing the works at Petersburg -- Grant Writes despatches under fire -- capture of forts Gregg and Whitworth

Early the next morning (April 1) General Grant said to me: “I wish you would spend the day with Sheridan's command, and send me a bulletin every half-hour or so, advising me fully as to the progress made. You know my views, and I want you to give them to Sheridan fully. Tell him the contemplated movement is left entirely in his hands, and he must be responsible for its execution. I have every confidence in his judgment and ability. I hope that there may now be an opportunity of fighting the enemy's infantry outside of their fortifications.”

I set out with half a dozen mounted orderlies to act as couriers in transmitting field bulletins, and met Sheridan about 10 A. M. on the Five Forks road not far from J. Boisseau's house. Ayres had his division on this road, having arrived about daylight; and Griffin had reached J. Boisseau's between 7 and 8 A. M. I had a full conference with Sheridan, in which he told me that the force in front of him had fallen back early in the morning; that he had pursued with his cavalry, had had several [434] [435] brushes with the enemy, and was driving him steadily back; that he had had his patience sorely tried by the delays which had occurred in getting the infantry to him, but that he was going to make every effort to strike a heavy blow with all the infantry and cavalry as soon as he could get them into position, provided the enemy should make a stand behind his intrenchments at Five Forks, which seemed likely. While we were talking, General Warren, who had accompanied Crawford's division, rode up and reported in person to Sheridan. It was then eleven o'clock.

A few minutes before noon Colonel Babcock came over from headquarters, and said to Sheridan: “General Grant directs me to say to you that if, in your judgment, the Fifth Corps would do better under one of its division commanders, you are authorized to relieve General Warren and order him to report to him [General Grant] at headquarters.” General Sheridan replied in effect that he hoped such a step as that might not become necessary, and then went on to speak of his plan of battle. We all rode on farther to the front, and soon met General Devin of the cavalry, who was considerably elated by his successes of the morning, and loudly demanded to be permitted to make a general attack on the enemy. Sheridan told him he didn't believe he had ammunition enough. Said Devin: “I guess I've got enough to give 'em one surge more.” Colonel Babcock now left us to return to headquarters. About one o'clock it was reported by the cavalry that the enemy was retiring to his intrenched position at Five Forks, which was just north of the White Oak road and parallel to it, his earthworks running from a point about three quarters of a mile east of Five Forks to a point a mile west, with an angle or “crochet,” about one hundred yards long, thrown back at right angles to the left [436] of his line to protect that flank. Orders were at once given to Warren's corps to move up the Gravelly Run Church road to the open ground near the church, and form in order of battle, with Ayres on the left, Crawford on his right, and Griffin in rear as a reserve. The corps was to wheel to the left and make its attack upon the angle, and then, moving westward, sweep down in rear of the enemy's intrenched line. The cavalry, principally dismounted, was to deploy in front of the enemy's line and engage his attention, and as soon as it heard the firing of our infantry to make a vigorous assault upon his works.

The Fifth Corps had borne the brunt of the fighting ever since the army had moved out on March 29; and the gallant men who composed it, and who had performed a conspicuous part in nearly every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged, seemed eager once more to cross bayonets with their old antagonists. But the movement was slow, the required formation seemed to drag, and Sheridan, chafing with impatience and consumed with anxiety, became as restive as a racer struggling to make the start. He made every possible appeal for promptness, dismounted from his horse, paced up and down, struck the clenched fist of one hand against the palm of the other, and fretted like a caged tiger. He exclaimed at one time: “This battle must be fought and won before the sun goes down. All the conditions may be changed in the morning. We have but a few hours of daylight left us. My cavalry are rapidly exhausting their ammunition, and if the attack is delayed much longer they may have none left.” And then another batch of staff-officers was sent out to gallop through the mud and hurry up the columns.

At four o'clock the formation was completed, the order [437] for the assault was given, and the struggle for Pickett's intrenched line began. The Confederate infantry brigades were posted from left to right as follows: Terry, Corse, Steuart, Ransom, and Wallace. General Fitzhugh Lee, commanding the cavalry, had placed W. H. F. Lee's two brigades on the right of the line, Munford's division on the left, and Rosser's in rear of Hatcher's Run, to guard the trains. I rode to the front, in company with Sheridan and Warren, with the head of Ayres's division, which was on the left. Ayres threw out a skirmish-line and advanced across an open field which sloped down gradually toward the dense woods just north of the White Oak road. He soon met with a fire from the edge of these woods, a number of men fell, and the skirmish-line halted and seemed to waver. Sheridan now began to exhibit those traits which always made him a tower of strength in the presence of an enemy. He put spurs to his horse, and dashed along in front of the line of battle from left to right, shouting words of encouragement, and having something cheery to say to every regiment. “Come on, men,” he cried; “go at 'em with a will! Move on at a clean jump, or you'll not catch one of 'em. They're all getting ready to run now, and if you don't get on to them in five minutes they'll every one get away from you! Now go for them!” Just then a man on the skirmish-line was struck in the neck; the blood spurted as if the jugular vein had been cut. “I'm killed!” he cried, and dropped to the ground. “You're not hurt a bit!” cried Sheridan. “Pick up your gun, man, and move right on to the front.” Such was the electric effect of his words that the poor fellow snatched up his musket, and rushed forward a dozen paces before he fell, never to rise again. The line of battle of weather-beaten veterans was now moving right along down the slope toward [438] the woods with a steady swing that boded no good for Pickett's command, earthworks or no earthworks. Sheridan was mounted on his favorite black horse, “Rienzi,” which had carried him from Winchester to Cedar Creek, and which Buchanan Read made famous for all time by his poem of “Sheridan's ride.” The roads were muddy, the fields swampy, the undergrowth dense, and “Rienzi,” as he plunged and curveted, kept dashing the foam from his mouth and the mud from his heels. Had the Winchester pike been in a similar condition, it is altogether likely that he would not have made his famous twenty miles without breaking his own neck as well as Sheridan's. This historic horse derived his name from the fact that he was presented to Sheridan by the Second Michigan Cavalry in the little town of Rienzi, Mississippi, in 1862. After the famous ride he was sometimes called “Winchester.” He was of “Blackhawk” blood. He bore Sheridan in nearly all his subsequent battles. When the animal died in 1878, in his twentieth year, his body was stuffed, and now stands in the museum on Governor's Island. The surviving veterans often decorate his body with flowers on Memorial Day.

Mackenzie had been ordered up the Crump road, with directions to turn east on the White Oak road, and whip everything he met on that route. He encountered a small cavalry command, and whipped it, according to orders, and then came galloping back to join in the general scrimmage.

Soon Ayres's men met with a heavy fire on their left flank, and had to change directions by facing more toward the west. As the troops entered the woods, and moved forward over the boggy ground, and struggled through the dense undergrowth, they were staggered by a heavy fire from the angle, and fell back in some confusion. [439] Sheridan now rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: “Where is my battle-flag?” As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson-and-white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were now humming like a swarm of bees about our heads, and shells were crashing through the ranks. A musket-ball pierced the battle-flag; another killed the sergeant who had carried it; another wounded an aide, Captain McGonnigle, in the side; others struck two or three of the staff-officers' horses. All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle. It would be a sorry soldier who could help following such a leader. Ayres and his officers were equally exposing themselves at all points in rallying the men; and soon the line was steadied, for such troops could suffer but a momentary check. Ayres, with drawn saber, rushed forward once more with his veterans, who now behaved as if they had fallen back only to get a “good ready,” and with fixed bayonets and a rousing cheer dashed over the earthworks, sweeping everything before them, and killing or capturing every man in their immediate front whose legs had not saved him.

Sheridan spurred “Rienzi” up to the angle, and with a bound the animal carried his rider over the earthworks, and landed among a line of prisoners who had thrown down their arms and were crouching close under the breastworks. Some of them called out: “Wha‘ do you want us all to go to” Then Sheridan's rage turned to humor, and he had a running talk with the “Johnnies” as they filed past. “Go right over there,” he said to [440] them, pointing to the rear. “Get right along, now. Oh, drop your guns; you'll never need them any more. You'll all be safe over there. Are there any more of you? We want every one of you fellows.” Nearly 1500 were captured at the angle.

An orderly here came up to Sheridan, saluted, and said: “Colonel Forsyth of your staff is killed, sir.” “It's no such thing!” cried Sheridan. “I don't believe a word of it. You'll find Forsyth's all right.” Ten minutes later Forsyth rode up. He had been mistaken for the gallant General Winthrop, who had fallen in the assault. Sheridan did not even seem surprised when he saw Forsyth, and merely said: “There; I told you so.” This incident is mentioned as illustrative of a peculiar trait of Sheridan's character, which never allowed him to be disturbed by camp rumors, however disastrous.

The dismounted cavalry had assaulted as soon as they heard the infantry fire open. The natty cavalrymen, with their tight-fitting jackets, and short carbines, swarmed through the pine thickets and dense undergrowth, looking as if they had been especially equipped for crawling through knot-holes.

The cavalry commanded by the gallant Merritt made a final dash, went over the earthworks with a hurrah, captured a battery of artillery, and scattered everything in front of them. Here Custer, Devin, Fitzhugh, and the other cavalry leaders were in their element, and vied with each other in deeds of valor. Crawford's division had moved off in a northerly direction, marching away from Ayres, and leaving a gap between the two divisions. Sheridan became exceedingly annoyed at this circumstance, complained that Warren was not giving sufficient personal supervision to the infantry, and sent nearly all his staff-officers to the Fifth Corps to see that the [441] mistakes made were corrected. After the capture of the angle I started off toward the right to see how matters were going there. I went in the direction of Crawford's division, on our right. Warren, whose personal gallantry was always conspicuous, had had his horse shot while with these troops. I passed around the left of the enemy's works, then rode due west to a point beyond the Ford road. Here I rejoined Sheridan a little before dark. He was laboring with all the energy of his nature to complete the destruction of the enemy's forces, and to make preparations to protect his own detached command from a possible attack by Lee's army in the morning. He said to me that he had just relieved Warren, and placed Griffin in command of the Fifth Corps. I had been sending frequent bulletins to the general-in-chief during the day, and now despatched a courier announcing the change of corps commanders, and giving the general result of the round-up.

Sheridan had that day fought one of the most interesting tactical battles of the war, admirable in conception, brilliant in execution, strikingly dramatic in its incidents, and productive of immensely important results.

I said to him: “It seems to me that you have exposed yourself to-day in a manner hardly justifiable on the part of a commander of such an important movement.” His reply gave what seems to be the true key to his uniform success on the field: “I have never in my life taken a command into battle, and had the slightest desire to come out alive unless I won.”

About half-past 7 o'clock I started for general headquarters. The roads in many places were corduroyed with captured muskets; ammunition-trains and ambulances were still struggling forward; teamsters, [442] prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway; the “coffee-boilers” had kindled their fires in the woods; cheers were resounding on all sides, and everybody was riotous over the victory. A horseman had to pick his way through this jubilant condition of things as best he could, as he did not have a clear right of way by any means. As I galloped past a group of men on the Boydton plank-road, my orderly called out to them the news of the victory. The only response he got was from one of them, who raised his open hand to his face, put his thumb to his nose, and yelled: “No, you don't-april fool!” I then realized that it was the 1st of April. I had ridden so rapidly that I reached headquarters at Dabney's Mill before the arrival of the last courier I had despatched. General Grant was sitting, with most of the staff about him, before a blazing camp-fire. He wore his blue cavalry overcoat, and the ever-present cigar was in his mouth. I began shouting the good news as soon as I got in sight, and in a moment all but the imperturbable general-in-chief were on their feet giving vent to boisterous demonstrations of joy. For some minutes there was a bewildering state of excitement, and officers fell to grasping hands, shouting, and hugging each other like school-boys. The news meant the beginning of the end, the reaching of the “last ditch.” It pointed to peace and home. Dignity was thrown to the winds, and every man at that moment was in a fitting mood to dig his elbows into the ribs of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or to challenge the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to a game of leap-frog. The proprieties of army etiquette were so far forgotten in the enthusiasm of the occasion that as soon as I had thrown myself from my horse I found myself rushing up to the general-in-chief and clapping him on the back with my hand, to his no little astonishment, and to the [443] evident amusement of those about him.1 The general, as might have been expected; asked his usual question: “How many prisoners have been taken” I was happy to report that the prisoners this time were estimated at over five thousand, and this was the only part of my recital that seemed to call forth a responsive expression from his impassive features. After having listened attentively to the description of Sheridan's day's work, the general, with scarcely a word of comment, walked into his tent, and by the light of a flickering candle took up his “manifold writer,” and after finishing several despatches handed them to an orderly to be sent over the field wires, came out and joined our group at the camp-fire, and said as coolly as if remarking upon the state of the weather: “I have ordered a general assault along the lines.” This was about nine o'clock in the evening.

In his conversation his sense of humor now began to assert itself. During the day I had sent him a bulletin saying: “I have noticed among the prisoners and dead many old men whose heads are quite bald.” This was mentioned as an evidence that the enemy in recruiting was “robbing the grave.” Ingalls was sitting with us. His hair had become so thin that he used to part it low behind and comb the stray locks forward, trying to make the rear-guard do picket duty at the front. The general delighted in teasing him on this subject, and looking toward him, he now said to me: “When I got [444] your message to-day about the bald-headed men, I showed it to Ingalls, and told him he had better take care and not fall into the hands of the enemy, for that is just the way they would be commenting on his head in their reports.”

Grant was anxious to have the different commands move against the enemy's lines at once to prevent Lee from withdrawing troops and sending them against Sheridan. Meade was all activity, and so alive to the situation, and so anxious to carry out the orders of the general-in-chief, that he sent word that he was going to have the troops make a dash at the works without waiting to form assaulting columns. Grant at 9:30 P. M. sent a message that he did not mean to have the corps attack without assaulting columns, but to let the batteries open at once, and to feel out with skirmishers, and if the enemy was found to be leaving to let the troops attack in their own way. The corps commanders reported that it would be impracticable to make a successful assault until morning, but sent back replies full of enthusiasm, and having in them a ring of the true soldierly metal. Ord said he would go into the enemy's works “as a hot knife goes into butter.” Wright sent word that when he started in he would “make the fur fly,” and said: “If the corps does half as well as I expect, we will have broken through the rebel lines in fifteen minutes from the word ‘go.’ ” Grant was highly pleased with the spirit evinced in these messages, and said: “I like the way Wright talks; it argues success. I heartily approve.”

The hour for the general assault was fixed at four o'clock the next morning. Miles was ordered to march with his division at midnight to reinforce Sheridan and enable him to make a stand against Lee in case he should move westward in the night. A little after midnight [445] the general tucked himself into his camp-bed, and was soon sleeping as peacefully as if the next day was to be devoted to a picnic instead of a decisive battle. Every one at headquarters had caught as many cat-naps as he could, so as to be able to keep both eyes open the next day, in the hope of getting a sight of Petersburg, and possibly Richmond. And now four o'clock came, but no assault. It was found that to remove abatis, climb over chevaux-de-frise, jump rifle-pits, and scale parapets, a little daylight would be of material assistance.

At 4:45 there was a streak of gray in the heavens, which soon revealed another streak of gray formed by Confederate uniforms in the works opposite, and the charge was ordered. The thunder of hundreds of guns shook the ground like an earthquake, and soon the troops were engaged all along the lines. The general awaited for a while the result of the assault at headquarters, where he could be easily communicated with, and from which he could give general directions.

At a quarter past five a message came from Wright that he had carried the enemy's line in his front and was pushing in. Next came news from Parke that he had captured the outer works, with 12 pieces of artillery and 800 prisoners. At 6:40 the general wrote a telegram with his own hand to Mr. Lincoln at City Point, as follows: “Both Wright and Parke got through the enemy's line. The battle now rages furiously. Sheridan, with his cavalry, the Fifth Corps, and Miles's division of the Second Corps, which was sent to him since one this morning, is now sweeping down from the west. All now looks highly favorable. Ord is engaged, but I have not yet heard the result in his front.” A cheering despatch was also sent to Sheridan, winding up with the words: “I think nothing is now wanting [446] but the approach of your force from the west to finish up the job on this side.”

Soon Ord was heard from as having broken through the intrenchments. Humphreys, too, had been doing gallant work. At half-past 7 the line in his front was captured, and half an hour later Hays's division of his corps had carried an important earthwork, with three guns and most of the garrison. At 8:30 A. M. a despatch was brought in from Ord saying that some of his troops had just captured the enemy's works south of Hatcher's Run.

The general and staff now rode out to the front, as it was necessary to give immediate direction to the actual movements of the troops, and prevent confusion from the overlapping and intermingling of the several corps as they pushed forward. He urged his horse over the works which Wright's corps had captured, and suddenly came upon a body of 3000 prisoners marching to our rear. His whole attention was for some time riveted upon them, and we knew that he was enjoying his usual satisfaction in seeing so large a capture. Some of the guards told the prisoners who the general was, and they manifested great curiosity to get a good look at him. Next he came up with a division of Wright's corps, flushed with success, and rushing forward with a dash that was inspiriting beyond description. When they caught sight of the leader whom they had patiently followed from the Rapidan to Petersburg, their cheers broke forth with a will, and their enthusiasm knew no limit. The general galloped along toward the right, and soon met Meade, with whom he had been in constant communication, and who had been urging on the Army of the Potomac with all vigor. Congratulations were rapidly exchanged, and both went to pushing forward the good work. Grant, after taking in the situation, directed both Meade and Ord to face their commands more [447] toward the east, and close up toward the inner-lines which covered Petersburg. Lee had been pushed so vigorously that he seemed for a time to be making but little effort to recover any of his lost ground; but now he made a determined fight against Parke's corps, which was threatening his inner line on his extreme left, and the bridge across the Appomattox. Repeated assaults were made, but Parke resisted them all successfully, and could not be stirred from his position. Lee had ordered Longstreet's command from the north side of the James, and with these troops reinforced his extreme right.

General Grant dismounted near a farm-house which stood on a knoll, from which he could get a good view of the field of operations. He seated himself on the ground at the foot of a tree, and was soon busy receiving despatches and writing orders to officers conducting the advance. The position was under fire, and as soon as the group of staff-officers was seen, the enemy's guns began paying their respects to the party. This lasted for about a quarter of an hour, and as the fire became hotter and hotter, several of the officers, apprehensive for the general's safety, urged him to move to some less conspicuous position; but he kept on writing and talking, without the least interruption from the shots falling around him, and apparently not noticing what a target the place was becoming, or paying any heed to the gentle reminders to “move on.” After he had finished his despatches he got up, took a view of the situation, and as he started toward the other side of the farm-house said with a quizzical look at the group around him: “Well, they do seem to have the range on us.” The staff was now sent to the various points of the advancing lines, and all was activity in pressing forward the good work.

By noon nearly all the outer line of works was in our possession, except two strong redoubts which occupied [448] a commanding position, named respectively Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth. The general decided that these should be stormed, and about one o'clock three of Ord's brigades swept down upon Fort Gregg. The garrison of 300 men, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel J. H. Duncan, with two rifled cannon, made a desperate defense, and a gallant contest took place. For half an hour after our men had gained the parapet a bloody hand-to-hand struggle continued, but nothing could stand against the onslaught of Ord's troops, flushed with their morning's victory. By half-past 2 57 of the brave garrison lay dead, and the rest had surrendered. Fort Whitworth was abandoned, but the guns of Fort Gregg were opened upon the garrison as they marched out, and the commander, Colonel Joseph M. Jayne, and 60 men surrendered.

About this time Miles struck a force of the enemy at Sutherland's Station, on Lee's extreme right, and captured two pieces of artillery and nearly 1000 prisoners. At 4: 40 the general, who had been keeping Mr. Lincoln fully advised of the history that was so rapidly being made that day, sent him a telegram inviting him to come out the next day and pay him a visit. A prompt reply was received from the President, saying: “Allow me to tender you, and all with you, the nation's grateful thanks for the additional and magnificent success. At your kind suggestion, I think I will meet you to-morrow.”

Prominent officers now urged the general to make an assault on the inner lines, and capture Petersburg that afternoon; but he was firm in his resolve not to sacrifice the lives necessary to accomplish such a result. He said the city would undoubtedly be evacuated during the night, and he would dispose the troops for a parallel march westward, and try to head off the escaping army. And thus ended this eventful Sunday.

1 Badeau, in his Military history of Ulysses S. Grant, says in referring to this scene: “The bearer of the good news was Colonel Horace Porter, one of the most abstemious men in the army; but he came up with so much enthusiasm, clapping the general-in-chief on the back, and otherwise demonstrating his joy, that the officer who shared his tent rebuked him at night for indulging too freely in drink at this critical juncture. But Porter had tasted neither wine nor spirits that day. He was only drunk with victory.” -Editor.

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