previous next

Chapter 3: the White Oak Road.

With customary cognizance of our purposes and plans, Lee had on the 28th of March ordered General Fitzhugh Lee with his division of cavalry — about 1300 strong — from the extreme left of his lines near Hanover Court House, to the extreme right in the vicinity of Five Forks, this being four or five miles beyond Lee's entrenched right, at which point it was thought Sheridan would attempt to break up the Southside Railroad. Longstreet had admonished him that the next move would be on his communications, urging him to put a sufficient force in the field to meet this. “Our greater danger,” he said, “is from keeping too close within our trenches.” 1 Such despatch had Fitzhugh Lee made that on the evening of the twenty-ninth he had arrived at Sutherlands Station, within six miles of Five Forks, and about that distance from our fight that afternoon on the Quaker Road. On the morning of the 29th, Lee had also despatched General R. H. Anderson with Bushrod Johnson's Division- [61] Gracie's, Ransom's, Wise's, and Wallace's Brigades --to reinforce his main entrenchments along the White Oak Road. It was these troops which we had encountered on the Quaker Road. Pickett's Division, consisting of the brigades of Stuart, Hunton, Corse, and Terry, about five thousand strong, was sent to the entrenchments along the Claiborne Road, and Roberts's Brigade of North Carolina cavalry, to picket the White Oak Road from the Claiborne, the right of their entrenchments, to Five Forks.

On the thirtieth, the Fifth Corps, relieved by the Second, moved to the left along the Boydton Road, advancing its left towards the right of the enemy's entrenchments on the White Oak Road. Lee, also, apprehensive for his right, sent McGowan's South Carolina Brigade and McRae's North Carolina, of Hill's Corps, to strengthen Bushrod Johnson's Division in the entrenchments there; but took two of Johnson's brigades-Ransom's and Wallace's — with three brigades of Pickett's Division (leaving Hunton's in the entrenchments), to go with Pickett to reinforce Fitzhugh Lee at Five Forks. W. H. F. Lee's Division of cavalry, about one thousand five hundred men, and Rosser's, about one thousand, were also ordered to Five Forks. These reinforcements did not reach Five Forks until the evening of the thirtieth.

The precise details of these orders and movements were, of course, not known to General Grant nor to any of his subordinates. But enough had been developed on the Quaker Road to lead [62] Grant to change materially his original purpose of making the destruction of the railroads the principal objective of Sheridan's movements. At the close of our fight there, Grant had despatched Sheridan: “Our line is now unbroken from Appomattox to Dinwiddie. I now feel like ending the matter, if possible, before going back. I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy's roads at present. In the morning push around the enemy, if you can, and get on to his right rear. The movements of the enemy's cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act together as one army here, until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.” Grant also telegraphed President Lincoln: “General Griffin was attacked near where the Quaker Road intersects the Boydton, but repulsed it easily, capturing about 100 prisoners.” But on the morning of the 30th, he telegraphed the President again: “I understand the number of dead left by the enemy yesterday for us to bury was much greater than our own dead. Our captures also were larger than reported. This morning all our troops have been pushed forward.” For the morning of the 30th in spite of the sodden earth and miry roads, we managed to pull through to the Boydton Plank Road, which the Fifth Corps occupied as far as its crossing of Gravelly Run. Meantime, Humphreys with the Second Corps, advanced on the right of the road, and pressing the Confederate pickets behind their entrenchments, held his line close up to them. [63]

The effect of this message to Sheridan reached to something more than a measure of tactics. It brought him at once to Grant. It will be borne in mind that he was not under the orders of Meade, but an independent commander, subject to Grant alone. His original orders contemplated his handling his command as a flying column, independently of others-all the responsibility and all the glory being his own. The new instructions would bring him to act in conjunction with the Army of the Potomac, and render quite probable under army regulations and usages his coming under temporary command of General Meade, his senior in rank,a position we do not find him in during this campaign. The logic of the new situation involved some interesting corollaries beyond the direct issue of arms.

In that dismal night of March 29th on the Quaker Road Sheridan was holding long and close conference with Grant, having ridden up through the mud and rain immediately on receiving the message announcing the change of plan, to Grant's headquarters a little in rear of us on Gravelly Run. All that was known of this interview to those outside was that at the close of it, Sheridan was directed to gain possession of Five Forks early in the morning. We could not help feeling that he should have taken possession of this before. For all the afternoon and night of the 29th, there was nothing to oppose him there but the right wing of Roberts' slender brigade, picketing the White Oak Road. But when he received a positive order [64] to secure that point on the morning of the 30th, he seems to have moved so late and moderately that Fitzhugh Lee had time to march from Sutherland's Station to Five Forks, and thence half-way to Dinwiddle Court House to meet him; and even then, attacking with a single division, although this outnumbered the enemy by a thousand men,2 he permitted his demonstration on Five Forks to be turned into a reconnaissance half-way out, 3 his advance being checked at the forks of the Ford and Boisseau Road, where it remained all night and until itself attacked the next morning. 4 It is true that the roads and fields were heavy with rain; but this did not prevent our two infantry corps from moving forward and establishing themselves in front of the White Oak Road, in face of considerable opposition; nor hinder Lee from zealously strengthening the right of his lines and pressing forward his reinforcements of infantry and cavalry to Fitzhugh Lee at Five Forks, where they arrived about sunset. What we cannot understand is why previous to that time General Sheridan, with thirteen thousand cavalry, had not found it practicable to make an effective demonstration on Five Forks, covered all the morning only by what few men Roberts had there picketing the White Oak Road, and after that [65] time, all day, only by Fitzhugh Lee with eighteen hundred cavalry.

Early on the morning of the 31st the Fifth Corps had all advanced northerly beyond the Boydton Road towards the enemy at the junction of the White Oak and Claiborne Roads: Ayres, with the Second Division, in advance, about six hundred yards from this junction; Crawford, with the Third Division, on Ayres' right rear in echelon with him, about six hundred yards distant; and Griffin, with the First Division, in position about thirteen hundred yards in rear of a prolongation of Crawford's line to the left, entirely out of sight of both, owing to woods and broken ground, but within what was thought to be supporting distance. This position was along the southeast bank of a swampy branch of Gravelly Run, half a mile north of the Boydton Road, and a mile and a half south of the White Oak Road. Miles' Division of the Second Corps had extended to the left on the Boydton Road to connect with Griffin.

My command was the extreme left of our lines; my own brigade along the difficult branch of Gravelly Run, facing towards Ayres. Gregory, who had been directed by General Griffin to report to me for orders with his brigade for the rest of this campaign, was placed on the left, his line bent back at right angles along a country road leading from Boydton to the Claiborne Road. A portion of the artillery of the division was placed also in my lines to strengthen the defense of that flank, where we had reason to believe the enemy, [66] after their old fashion, were very likely to make a dash upon our left while we were manoeuvring to turn their right.

General Grant, understanding from General Sheridan that he was on the White Oak Road near Five Forks, on the afternoon of the 30th, had replied to him that his position on this road was of very great importance, and concluded this answer with these words: “Can you not push up towards Burgess' Mills on the White Oak Road?” 5

General Grant's wishes, as now understood, were that we should gain possession of the White Oak Road in our front. This was indicated in a despatch from him March 30th, to General Meade, the purport of which was known to us and had much to do with shaping our energies for action. The despatch was the following:

As Warren and Humphreys advance, thus shortening their line, I think the former had better move by the left flank as far as he can stretch out with safety, and cover the White Oak Road if he can. This will enable Sheridan to reach the Southside Road by Ford's Road, and, it may be, double the enemy up, so as to drive him out of his works south of Hatcher's Run.

In accordance with this understanding, Ayres had made a careful examination of the situation in his front, upon the results of which General [67] Warren had reported to Generals Meade and Grant that he believed he could, with his whole corps, gain possession of the White Oak Road. This proposition was made in face of the information of Grant's order of 7.40 this morning, that owing to the heavy rains the troops were to remain substantially as they were, but that three days more rations should be issued to the Fifth Corps; an intimation of a possible cutting loose from our base of supplies for a time.

Griffin's Division, being entrusted with a double duty — that of guarding the exposed left flank of the Fifth and Second Corps, and that of being in readiness to render prompt assistance in case of trouble arising from the demonstrations against the White Oak Road front-our adjustments had to be made for what in familiar speech is termed a “ticklish situation.” Vague rumors from the direction of Five Forks, added to what we knew of the general probabilities, justified us in considerable anxiety. There was a queer expression on Griffin's face when he showed me a copy of a message from Grant to Sheridan, late the evening before, which gave us the comical satisfaction of knowing that our inward fears had good outside support. This was what we thus enjoyed: “From the information I have sent you of Warren's position, you will see that he is in danger of being attacked in the morning. If such occurs, be prepared to push up with all your force to assist him.” The morning had now come. It is needless to remark that there was no lethargy in the minds of [68] any on that left flank of ours in a situation so critical, whether for attack or defense.

It may seem strange that in such a state of things Warren should have made the suggestion for a movement to his front. But he was anxious, as were all his subordinates, to strike a blow in the line of our main business, which was to turn Lee's right and break up his army. Wet and worn and famished as all were, we were alive to the thought that promptness and vigor of action would at all events determine the conditions and chances of the campaign. And if this movement did not involve the immediate turning of Lee's right in his entrenchments, it would secure the White Oak Road to the west of them, which Grant had assured Sheridan was of so much importance, and would enable us to hold Lee's right in check, so that Sheridan could either advance on the White Oak Road toward us and Burgess' Mills, as Grant had asked him to do, or make a dash on the Southside Railroad, and cut their communications and turn their right by a wider sweep, as Grant had also suggested to him to do.

Late in the forenoon Warren received through General Webb, chief of staff, the following order: “General Meade directs that should you determine by your reconnaissance that you can gain possession of, and hold, the White Oak Road, you are to do so, notwithstanding the order to suspend operations to-day.” This gave a sudden turn to dreams. In that humiliation, fasting, and prayer, visions arose like prophecy of old. We felt the [69] swing and sweep; we saw the enemy turned front and flank across the White Oak Road; Sheridan flashing on our wheeling flank, cutting communications, enfilading the Claiborne entrenchments; our Second Corps over the main works, followed up by our troops in the old lines seizing the supreme moment to smash in the Petersburg defenses, scatter and capture all that was left of Lee's army, and sweep away every menace to the old flag between us and the James River,--mirage and glamour of boyish fancy, measuring things by its heart; daydreams of men familiar with disaster, drenched and famished, but building, as ever, castles of their souls above the level river of death.

It was with mingled feelings of mortification, apprehension, and desperation that, in the very ecstasy of these visions, word came to us of Sheridan's latest despatch to Grant the evening before, that Pickett's Division of infantry was deployed along the White Oak Road, his right reaching to Five Forks, and the whole rebel cavalry was massing at that place, so that Sheridan would be held in check by them instead of dashing up, as was his wont, to give a cyclone edge to our wheeling flank. Grant's despatch to Meade, transmitting this, was a dire disenchantment. The knell rang thus: “From this despatch Warren will not have the cavalry support on his left flank that I expected. He must watch closely his left flank.”

Although Grant had given out word that there should be no movement of troops that day, Lee seems not so to have resolved. Driven to seize [70] every advantage or desperate expedient, he had ordered four brigades, those of Wise, Gracie, and Hunton, with McGowan's South Carolina Brigade, to move out from their entrenchments, get across the flank of the Fifth Corps and smash it in. We did not know this, but it was the very situation which Grant had made the occasion for attacking ourselves. It was a strange coincidence, and it was to both parties a surprise.

This was the condition of things and of minds when the advance ordered for the White Oak Road was put into execution. Ayres advanced soldierlike, as was his nature; resolute, firm-hearted, fearing nothing, in truth not fearing quite enough. Although he believed his advance would bring on a battle, he moved without skirmishers, but in a wedgelike formation guarding both flanks. His First Brigade, commanded by the gallant Winthrop, had the lead in line of battle, his right and rear supported by the Third Brigade, that of Gwyn, who was accounted a good fighter; and Denison's Maryland Brigade formed in column on Winthrop's left and rear, ready to face outward by the left flank in case of need; while a brigade of Crawford's was held in reserve in rear of the center. This would seem to be a prudent and strong formation of Ayres' command. The enemy's onset was swift and the encounter sudden. The blow fell without warning, enveloping Ayres' complete front. It appears that McGowan's Brigade struck squarely on Winthrop's left flank, with an oblique fire also on the Maryland Brigade, while the rest of the [71] attacking forces struck on his front and right. General Hunton 6 says they were not expecting to strike our troops so soon and that the attack was not made by usual order, but that on discovering our advance so close upon them a gallant lieutenant in his brigade sprang in front of his line, waving his sword, with the shout, “Follow me, boys!” whereupon all three brigades on their right dashed forward to the charge. Winthrop was overwhelmed and his supports demoralized. All he could hope for was to retire in good order. This he exerted himself to effect. But this is not an easy thing to do when once the retreat is started before a spirited foe superior in numbers, or in the flush of success. In vain the sturdy Denison strove to stem the torrent. A disabling wound struck down his brave example, and the effect of this shows how much the moral forces have to do in sustaining the physical. Brigade after brigade broke, that strange impulse termed a “panic” took effect, and the retreat became a rout.

Ayres, like a roaring lion, endeavors to check this disorder, and makes a stand on each favoring crest and wooded ravine. But in vain. His men stream past him. They come back on Crawford's veteran division and burst through it in spite of all the indignant Kellogg can do, involving this also in the demoralization; and the whole crowd comes back reckless of everything but to get behind the lines on the Boydton Road, plunging through the swampy run, breaking through Griffin's [72] right where he and Bartlett re-form them behind the Third Brigade. The pursuing enemy swarming down the opposite bank are checked there by the sharp musketry from our line. Not knowing but the enemy were in force sufficient to smash through us on the left, I prepared for action. Griffin authorized me to use a portion of the artillery, and I swung two pieces to the right front, while he himself with great exertion got a battery into position along Bartlett's front. The enemy were gathering force, although in much confusion.

I was apprehensive of an attempt to take us in flank on the left in Gregory's front, and was about giving my attention to this, when General Warren and General Griffin came down at full speed, both out of breath, with their efforts to rally the panic-stricken men whose honor was their own, and evidently under great stress of feeling. Griffin breaks forth first, after his high-proof fashion: “General Chamberlain, the Fifth Corps is eternally damned.” I essayed some pleasantry: “Not till you are in heaven.” Griffin does not smile nor hear, but keeps right on: “I tell Warren you will wipe out this disgrace, and that's what we're here for.” Then Warren breaks out, with stirring phrase, but uttered as if in a strangely compressed tone: “General Chamberlain, will you save the honor of the Fifth Corps? That's all there is about it.” That appeal demanded a chivalrous response. Honor is a mighty sentiment, and the Fifth Corps was dear to me. But my answer was not up to the keynote — I confess that. I was expecting [73] every moment an attack on my left flank now that the enemy had disclosed our situation. And my little brigade had taken the brunt of things thus far, but the day before the last, winning a hard-fought field from which they had come off grievously thinned and torn and worn, and whence I had but hardly brought myself away. I mentioned Bartlett, who had our largest and best brigade, which had been but little engaged. “We have come to you; you know what that means,” was the only answer. “I'll try it, General; only don't let anybody stop me except the enemy.” I had reason for that protest as things had been going. “I will have a bridge ready here in less than an hour. You can't get men through this swamp in any kind of order,” says Warren. “It may do to come back on, General; it will not do to stop for that now. My men will go straight through.” So at a word the First Battalion of the 198th Pennsylvania, Major Glenn commanding, plunges into the muddy branch, waist deep and more,7 with cartridge-boxes borne upon the bayonet sockets above the turbid waters; the Second Battalion commanded now by Captain Stanton, since Sickel and McEuen were gone, keeping the banks beyond clear of the enemy by their well-directed fire, until the First has formed in skirmishing order and pressed up the bank. I then pushed through to support Glenn and formed [74] my brigade in line of battle on the opposite bank, followed by Gregory's in column of regiments. The enemy fell back without much resistance until finding supports on broken strong ground they made stand after stand. Griffin followed with Bartlett's Brigade, in reserve. In due time Ayres' troops got across and followed up on our left rear, while Crawford was somewhere to our right and rear, but out of sight or reach after we had once cleared the bank of the stream. It seems that General Warren sent to General Meade the following despatch: “I am going to send forward a brigade from my left, supported by all I can get of Crawford and Ayres, and attack .... This will take place about 1.45, if the enemy does not attack sooner.” This was the only recognition or record we were to have in official reports; it was not all we were to achieve in unwritten history.

At about this time, Miles, of the Second Corps, had, after the fashion of that corps, gone in handsomely in his front, somewhat to the right of our division, and pressed so far out as to flank Wise's Brigade on the left of the troops that had attacked Ayres, and drove them back half-way to their starting-point. This had the effect to induce the enemy in my front to retire their line to a favorable position on the crest of a ravine where they made another determined stand. After sharp fighting here we drove them across an extensive field into some works they seemed to have already prepared, of the usual sort in field operations-logs and earth,--from which they delivered a severe fire which caused the [75] right of my line to waver. Taking advantage of the slight shelter of a crest in the open field I was preparing for a final charge, when I received an order purporting to be Warren's, to halt my command and hold my position until he could reconnoitre conditions in my front. I did not like this much. It was a hard place to stay in. The staff officer who brought me the order had his horse shot under him as he delivered it. I rode back to see what the order meant. I found General Griffin and General Warren in the edge of the woods overlooking the field, and reported my plans. We had already more than recovered the ground taken and lost by the Second and Third Divisions. The Fifth Corps had been rapidly and completely vindicated, and the question was now of taking the White Oak Road, which had been the object of so much wishing and worrying. It was evident that things could not remain as they were. The enemy would soon attack and drive me back. And it would cost many men even to try to withdraw from such a position. The enemy's main works were directly on my right flank, and how the intervening woods might be utilized to cover an assault on that flank none of us knew. I proposed to put Gregory's Brigade into those woods, by battalion in echelon by the left, by which formation he would take in flank and reverse in succession any attacks on my right. When Gregory should be well advanced I would charge the works across the field with my own brigade. My plan being approved, I instructed Gregory to keep in [76] the woods, moving forward with an inclination towards his left to keep him closed in toward me, and at the same time to open the intervals in his echelons so that he would be free to deliver a strong fire on his own front if necessary, and the moment he struck any opposition to open at once with full volleys and make all the demonstration he could, and I would seize that moment to make a dash at the works in my front. Had I known of the fact that General Lee himself was personally directing affairs in our front,8 I might not have been so rash, or thought myself so cool.

Riding forward I informed my officers of my purpose and had their warm support. Soon the roar of Gregory's guns rose in the woods like a whirlwind. We sounded bugles “Forward!” and that way we go; mounted officers leading their commands, pieces at the right shoulder until at close quarters. The action and color of the scene were supported by my horse Charlemagne, who, though battered and torn as I was, insisted on coming up. We belonged together; he knew that as well as I. He had been shot down in battle twice before; but his Morgan endurance was under him, and his Kentucky blood was up.

What we had to do could not be done by firing. This was foot-and-hand business. We went with a rush, not minding ranks nor alignments, but with open front to lessen loss from the long-range rifles. Within effective range, about three hundred [77] yards, the sharp, cutting fire made us reel and shiver. Now, quick or never! On and over! The impetuous 185th New York rolls over the enemy's right, and seems to swallow it up; the 198th Pennsylvania, with its fourteen companies, half veterans, half soldiers “born so,” swing in upon their left, striking Hunton's Brigade in front, and for a few minutes there is a seething wave of countercurrents, then rolling back, leaving a fringe of wrecks,--and all is over. We pour over the works, swing to the right and drive the enemy into their entrenchments along the Claiborne Road, and then establish ourselves across the White Oak Road facing northeast, and take breath.9

Major Woodward in his history of the 198th Pennsylvania, giving a graphic outline of the last dash, closes with an incident I had not recorded. “Only for a moment,” he says, “did the sudden and terrible blast of death cause the right of the line to waver. On they dashed, every color flying, officers leading, right in among the enemy, leaping the breastworks,--a confused struggle of firing, cutting, thrusting, a tremendous surge of force, both moral and physical, on the enemy's breaking lines,--and the works were carried. Private Augustus Ziever captured the flag of the 46th Virginia in mounting one of the parapets, and handed it to General Chamberlain in the midst of the m616e, who immediately gave it back to him, telling him [78] to keep it and take the credit that belonged to him. Almost that entire regiment was captured at the same time.” It scarcely need be added that the man who captured that battle flag was sent with it in person to General Warren, and that he received a medal of honor from the Government.

In due time Gregory came up out of the woods, his face beaming with satisfaction at the result, to which his solid work, so faithfully performed, had been essential. His brigade was placed in line along the White Oak Road on our right, and a picket thrown out close up to the enemy's works. This movement had taken three hours, and was almost a continuous fight, with several crescendo passages, and a final cadence of wild, chromatic sweeps settling into the steady keynote, thrilling with the chords of its unwritten overtones. It had cost us a hundred men, but this was all too great, of men like these,--and for oblivion. It was to cost us something more — a sense of fruitlessness and thanklessness.

It seems that in the black moment, when our two divisions were coming back in confusion, Meade had asked Grant to have Sheridan strike the attacking force on their right and rear, as he had been ordered to do in case Warren was attacked. For we have Grant's message to Meade, sent at 12.40, which is evidently a reply: “It will take so long to communicate with Sheridan that he cannot be brought to co-operation unless he comes up in obedience to orders sent him last night. I understood General Forsyth to say that as soon as [79] another division of cavalry got up, he would send it forward. It may be there now. I will send to him again, at once.”

So far, to all appearance, all was well. The Fifth Corps was across the White Oak Road. General Grant's wish that we should extend our left across this road as near to the enemy as possible, so that Sheridan could double up the enemy and drive him north of Hatcher's Run, had been literally fulfilled. It had cost us three days hard work and hard fighting, and more than two thousand men. It had disclosed vital points. General Grant's notice of all this, as given in his Memoirs (vol. II., p. 435), representing all these movements as subordinated to those of General Sheridan, is the following: “There was considerable fighting in taking up these new positions for the Second and Fifth Corps, in which the Army of the James had also to participate somewhat, and the losses were quite severe. This is what was known as the battle of the White Oak Road.” 10

The understanding of this affair has been confused by the impression that it was the Second [80] Corps troops which attacked and drove back the forces of the enemy that had driven in the Second and Third Divisions of the Fifth Corps. In the complicated rush and momentous consummation of the campaign, and particularly in the singular history of the Fifth Corps for those days, in which corps and division and brigade commanders were changed, there was no one specially charged with the care of seeing to it that the movements of this corps in relation to other corps were properly reported as to the important points of time as well as of place. General Miles, doubtless, supposed he was attacking the same troops that had repulsed part of the Fifth Corps. He moved promptly when Griffin, with infantry and artillery, was checking the onrushing enemy now close upon our front; and, attacking in his own front-that of the Second Corps,--fought his way valiantly close up to the enemy's works in that part of their line. Miles reported to Humphreys that he was “ahead of the Fifth Corps,” which subsequently bore off to the left of him and left a wide interval. This expression must not be understood as direction in a right line. It is used rather as related to the angular distance between the Boydton and the White Oak Roads, this being less where Miles was, on the right, and widening by a large angle towards the left, where the Fifth Corps was. It is as one line is ahead of another when advanced in echelon; or as a ship tacking to windward with another is said to be “ahead” of the latter when she is on the weather beam of it. Miles did not [81] come in contact with a single regiment that had attacked the Fifth Corps. He struck quite to the right of us all, attacking in his own front. But it got into the reports otherwise, and “went up.” Grant accepted it as given; and so it has got into history, and never can be gotten out. General Miles did not get ahead of the Fifth Corps that day, but he came up gallantly on its flank and rendered it great assistance by turning the flank of General Wise and keeping the enemy from massing on our front. He reports the capture of the flag of the 47th Alabama, a regiment of Law's old brigade of Longstreet's Corps, which was nowhere near the front of the Fifth Corps on this day.

In the investigations before the Court of Inquiry, General Warren felt under the necessity of excusing himself from the responsibility of the disastrous results of Ayres' advance on the morning of the thirty-first. He is at pains to show that he did not intend an attack there, although he had suggested the probable success of such movement.11 What then was this advance? Surely not to create a diversion in favor of Sheridan before Dinwiddie. At all events, there was an endeavor to get possession of the White Oak Road. And that could not be done without bringing on a battle, as Ayres said he knew, beforehand, 12 and afterwards knew still better, and we also, unmistakably. Warren was evidently impressed with Grant's desire to gain the White Oak Road in order to strike the [82] enemy's right as soon as possible; and he was not aware of any change of intention.

But however this may have been, when Ayres' advance was repulsed, why was it felt necessary to recover that field and “the honor of the Fifth Corps” ? Unless it was the intention to take forcible possession of the White Oak Road, the recovery of that field was not a tactical necessity, but only — if I may so speak — a sentimental necessity. And there was no more dishonor in this reconnaissance — if it was only that-being driven back than in Sheridan's reconnaissance toward Five Forks being driven back upon Dinwiddie, for his conduct in which he received only praise. It is evident that General Grant thought an attack was somehow involved; for hearing of Ayres' repulse, he blames General Warren for not attacking with his whole corps, and asks General Meade, “What is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or retire in good order to his old entrenchments?” This is exactly what was done, before receiving this suggestion; but it did not elicit approval, or even notice, from Grant or Meade, or Warren. As things turned, Warren was put under a strong motive to ignore this episode; and as for Grant, he had other interests in mind.

In our innocence we thought we had gained a great advantage. We had the White Oak Road, and were across it, and as near to the enemy as possible, according to Grant's wish. Now we [83] were ready for the consummate stroke, the achievement of the object for which all this toil and trial had been undergone. It needed but little more. The splendid Second Corps was on our right, close up to the enemy's works. We were more than ready. If only Sheridan with but a single division of our cavalry could disengage himself from his occupation before Dinwiddie, so far away to our rear, and now so far off from any strategic point, where he had first been placed for the purpose of raiding upon the Danville and Southside Railroads,--which objective had been distinctly given up in orders by General Grant,--if with his audacity and insistance Sheridan could have placed himself in position to obey Grant's order, and come to Warren's assistance when he was attacked, by a dash up between us and Five Forks, we would have swiftly inaugurated the beginning of the end,--Grant's main wish and purpose latest expressed to Sheridan, of ending matters here before he went back. But another, and by far minor, objective interposed. Instead of the cavalry coming to help us complete our victories at the front, we were to go to the rescue of Sheridan at the rear.

Little did we dream that on the evening of the 30th, Grant had formed the intention of detaching the Fifth Corps to operate with Sheridan in turning the enemy's right. This was consistent, however, with the understanding in the midnight conference on the 29th. The proposition to Sheridan was this: “If your situation in the morning is [84] such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy's right with the assistance of a corps of infantry entirely detached from the balance of the army, I will so detach the Fifth Corps and place the whole under your command for the operation. Let me know early in the morning as you can your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. .. .” Precisely what Warren had proposed to do at that very time on Gravelly Run, only Sheridan would not have been in chief command. His assistance had, however, been promised to Warren in case he was attacked. Sheridan replies to this on the morning of the 31st. “. . .If the ground would permit, I believe I could, with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy's right, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” By “turning the enemy's right,” and “breaking through his lines,” he meant only the isolated position at Five Forks, where for two days past there was nothing to prevent his handling them alone, and easily cutting the Southside Railroad. Fortunately for our cause, Lee was so little like himself as to allow the detachment of a considerable portion of his infantry from the entrenchments on the evening of the 30th to reinforce this position, for the sake, probably, of covering the Southside Road, to which, however, this was not the only key.

Asking for the Sixth Corps shows a characteristic intensity of self-consciousness and disregard of the material elements of the situation wholly [85] unlike the habits of our commanders in the Army of the Potomac. The Sixth Corps was away on the right center of our lines, even beyond Ord with the Army of the James, and the roads were impracticable for a rapid movement like that demanded. Grant's predilection for his forceful and brilliant cavalry commander could not overcome the material difficulty of moving the Sixth Corps from its place in the main line before Petersburg: he could only offer him the Fifth. And Meade, with meekness quite suggestive of a newly regenerate nature, seems to have offered no objection to this distraction from the main objective, and this inauguration of proceedings which repeatedly broke his army into detachments serving under other commanders, and whereby, in the popular prestige and final honors of the campaign, the commander of the Army of the Potomac found himself subordinated to the militant cavalry commander of the newly made “Middle military Division.”

So while Warren was begging to be permitted to take his corps through fields sodden saddle-girth deep with rain and mire, and get across the right of Lee's entrenched position, the purpose had already been formed of sending him and his corps to try to force the enemy from the position where they were gathering for a stand after having forced Sheridan's cavalry back upon its base at the Boisseau Cross Road, and holding his main body inactive at Dinwiddie a whole day through. And after Warren had accomplished all that he had [86] undertaken in accordance with the expressed wishes of his superiors, this purpose was to be put into execution.

Minds accustomed to consider evidence could not resist the impression that at the midnight conference on the rainy night of March 2gth, when Grant had announced that they would act together as one army, one item of the arrangement was that nothing should be allowed to interfere with Sheridan's being the leading spirit, and so actual field-commander in this enterprise. I am not sure that we can blame Sheridan or Grant for this if it were so. But it was at least a good working hypothesis on which to explain facts.

I do not know that Warren was then aware of General Grant's loss of interest in this movement for the White Oak Road since the new plan for Sheridan and the Fifth Corps. Let us recall: at eight o'clock on the evening before, Meade had sent Grant a despatch from Warren, suggesting this movement. Meade forwarded it to Grant, with the remark: “I think his suggestion the best thing we can do under existing circumstances — that is, let Humphreys relieve Griffin, and let Warren move on to the White Oak Road, and endeavor to turn the enemy's right.” To this Grant replied at 8.35: “It will just suit what I intended to propose — to let Humphreys relieve Griffin's Division, and let that move further to the left. Warren should get himself strong tonight.” Orders being sent out accordingly, and reported by Meade, General Grant replies late [87] that evening: “Your orders to Warren are right. I do not expect him to advance in the morning. I supposed, however, that he was now up to the White Oak Road. If he is not, I do not want him to move up without further orders.” 13 Meade replies: “He will not be allowed to advance unless you so direct.” 14

It is impossible to think that Warren knew of this last word of Grant on the subject of the White Oak Road, but, as we read it now, it throws light on many things then “dark.” It was consistent with Grant's new purpose, but it must have perplexed Meade. And at the turn things took — and men also — during the next forenoon and midday, what must have been the vexation in Grant's imperturbable mind, and the ebullition of the few unsanctified remnants in Meade's strained and restrained spirit, those who knew them can freely imagine. And as for Warren, when all this light broke upon him, in the midst of his own hardly corrected reverses, into what sullen depths his spirit must have been cast, to find himself liable to a suit for breach of promise for going out to an open-handed meeting with Robert Lee of the White Oak Road when he was already clandestinely engaged to Philip Sheridan of Dinwiddie.

A new anxiety now arose. Just as we had got settled in our position on the White Oak Road, heavy firing was heard from the direction of Sheridan's [88] supposed position. This attracted eager attention on our part as, with that open flank, Sheridan's movements were all important to us. At my headquarters we had dismounted, but had not ventured yet to slacken girths. I was standing on a little eminence, wrapped in thoughts of the declining day and of these heavy waves of sound, which doubtless had some message for us, soon or sometime, when Warren came up with anxious earnestness of manner, and asked me what I thought of this firing,--whether it was nearing or receding. I believed it was receding towards Dinwiddie; that was what had deepened my thoughts. Testing the opinion by all tokens known to us, Warren came to the same conclusion. He then for a few minutes discussed the situation and the question of possible duty for us in the absence of orders. I expressed the opinion that Grant was looking out for Sheridan, and if help were needed, he would be more likely to send Miles than us, as he well knew we were at a critical point, and one important for his further plans as we understood them, especially as Lee was known to be personally directing affairs in our front. However, I thought it quite probable that we should be blamed for not going to the support of Sheridan even without orders, when we believed the enemy had got the advantage of him. “Well, will you go?” Warren asked. “Certainly, General, if you think it best; but surely you do not want to abandon this position.” At this point, General Griffin came up and Warren asked him to send [89] Bartlett's Brigade at once to threaten the rear of the enemy then pressing upon Sheridan. That took away our best brigade. Bartlett was an experienced and capable officer, and the hazardous and trying task he had in hand would be well done.

Just after sunset Warren came out again, and we crept on our hands and knees out to our extreme picket within two hundred yards of the enemy's works, near the angle of the Claiborne Road. There was some stir on our picket line, and the enemy opened with musketry and artillery, which gave us all the information we wanted. That salient was well fortified. The artillery was protected by embrasures and little lunettes, so that they could get a slant-and cross-fire on any movement we should make within their range.

I then began to put my troops into bivouac for the night, and extended my picket around my left and rear to the White Oak Road, where it joined the right of Ayres' picket line. It was an anxious night along that front. The darkness that deepened around and over us was not much heavier than that which shrouded our minds, and to some degree shadowed our spirits. We did not know what was to come, or go. We were alert-Gregory and I-on the picket line nearly all the night, and Griffin came up to us at frequent intervals, wideawake as we were.

In the meantime many things had been going on, and going back. It came to us now, in the middle of the night, that Sheridan had been attacked by Fitzhugh Lee and Pickett's infantry [90] and driven pell-mell into Dinwiddie. He could hardly hold himself there. The polarities of things were reversed. Instead of admitting the Fifth Corps to the contemplated honor of turning Lee's right, or breaking through his lines, between Dinwiddie and Five Forks, orders and entreaties came fast and thick, in every sense of these terms, for the Fifth Corps to leave the White Oak Road, Lee's company, and everything else, and rush back five miles to the rear, floundering through the mire and dark, to help Sheridan stay where Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee had put him. Indeed, the suggestive information had leaked out from Grant's headquarters that Sheridan might be expected to retreat by way of the Vaughan Road, quite to the rear of our entire left. This would leave all the forces that had routed Sheridan at perfect liberty to fall upon our exposed flank, and catch the Fifth Corps to be bandied to and fro between them and the enemy in their fortifications near at hand. By the time the Fifth Corps began to be picked to pieces by divisions and brigades, and finally made a shuttle-cock as an entire organization, the situation of things and of persons had very much changed.

At 6.30 P. M., General Warren received an order to send a brigade to Sheridan's relief by the shortest road threatening the rear of the enemy then in his front. Soon other orders followed,--the last of these being to send the brigade by the Boydton Road. This would have been quite a different matter. But Bartlett had already been [91] gone an hour when this order came, and to the Crump Road, reaching this by aid of a cart track through woods and mire. Of course, Warren could not recall Bartlett. But to comply as nearly as possible with the order, he at once directed General Pearson, who with three of Bartlett's regiments was guarding the trains on the Boydton Road, to move immediately down towards Dinwiddie. Pearson got to the crossing of the main stream of Gravelly Run, and finding that the bridge was gone, and the stream not fordable, halted for orders. But things were crowding thick and fast. Pearson's orders were countermanded, and orders came from army headquarters for Griffin's Division to go.

On the news of Sheridan's discomfiture, Grant seems first to have thought of Warren's predicament. In a despatch to Meade early in the evening he says: “I would much rather have Warren back on the Plank Road than to be attacked front and rear where he is. He should entrench, front and rear of his left, at least, and be ready to make a good fight of it if he is attacked in the morning. We will make no offensive movement ourselves to-morrow.”

That was on the evening before the battle of Five Forks.

This was a significant despatch; showing among other things Grant's intention of holding on, if possible, for the present at least, to the White Oak Road, at the Claiborne salient; for that was where our two advanced brigades of the Fifth [92] Corps were holding. This evidence has not been well appreciated by those who have formed their judgment, or written the history, of those three days battles. And Meade had been trying all day to get up entrenching tools and implements for making the roads passable for wheels. A thousand men had been working at this for the two days past.

At 8.30 came the notice,--communicated confidentially, I remember,--that the whole army was going to contract its lines. At nine o'clock came the order from Grant to Meade: “Let Warren draw back at once to his position on the Boydton Road, and send a division of infantry to Sheridan's relief. The troops to Sheridan should start at once, and go down the Boydton Road.” Meade promptly sent orders for the corps to retire, and for Griffin to go to Sheridan, and go at once.

Apparently nobody at general headquarters seems to have remembered two incidents concerning the selection of Griffin's Division for this movement: first, that Bartlett of this division was already by this time down upon the enemy's rear, by another more direct though more difficult road, and in a far more effective position for the main purpose than could be reached by the Boydton; and secondly, that the two remaining brigades of this division were with me on and across the White Oak Road,--the farthest off from the Boydton Road, and most impeded by difficult ground, of any troops remaining on our lines. Another circumstance, forgotten or ignored, was that the [93] bridge at the Plank Road crossing of Gravelly Run was gone,15 and that the stream was not fordable for infantry. Warren, in reporting his proceeding to comply with the order, reported also the destruction of the bridge and his intention to repair it; but this seems somehow, from first to last, to have added to the impatience felt toward him at those headquarters.

Grant had experienced a change of mind-a complete and decided one. His imperative order now received meant giving up entirely the position we had just been ordered to entrench, across the hard-won White Oak Road. Within ten minutes from the receipt of this order, Warren directed his division commanders to gather up their pickets and all outlying troops, and take position on the Boydton Road. Griffin was directed to recall Bartlett and then move down the Plank Road and report to Sheridan. But as it would take time for Griffin to get his scattered division together and draw back through the mud and darkness to the Boydton Road, ready to start for Sheridan, Warren, anxious to fulfill the spirit and object of the order, rather than render a mechanical obedience to the letter of it, sends his nearest division, under Ayres, the strong, stern old soldier of the Mexican War, to start at once for Sheridan. Meantime, the divisions of Griffin and Crawford were [94] taking steps to obey the order to mass on the Boydton Road. For my own part, I did not move a man, wishing to give my men all possible time to rest, until Bartlett should arrive, who must come past my rear.

This was the situation when at half-past 10 in the evening came an order throwing everything into a complete muddle. It was from Meade to Warren: “Send Griffin promptly as ordered by the Boydton Plank Road, but move the balance of your command by the road Bartlett is on, and strike the enemy in rear, who is between him and Dinwiddie. Should the enemy turn on you, your line of retreat will be by J. M. Brooks' and R. Boisseau's on Boydton Road. You must be very prompt in this movement, and get the forks of the road at Brooks' so as to open to Boisseau's. Don't encumber yourself with anything that will impede your progress, or prevent your moving in any direction across the country.” The grim humor of the last suggestion was probably lost on Warren, in his present distraction. “Moving in any direction” in the blackness of darkness across that country of swamps and sloughs and quicksands, would be a comedy with the savage forces of nature and of man in pantomime, and a spectacle for the laughter of the gods. Nor was there much left to encumber ourselves with, more especially in the incident of food. Grant had been very anxious about rations for us ever since early morning, when he had said that although there were to be no movements that day, the Fifth Corps must be [95] supplied with three days rations more. But all the day nothing had been gotten up. Indeed, I do not know how they could have found us, or got to us if they had. Grant had repeated imperative orders to Meade to spare no exertions in getting rations forward to the Fifth Corps; whereupon Meade, who had himself eaten salt with this old Corps, gave orders to get supplies to us anyway — if not possible for trains, then by packmules. The fortunate and picturesque conjuncture was that some few rations were thus got up by the flexible and fitting donkey-train, while we were floundering and plunging from every direction for our rendezvous on the Boydton Road or elsewhere, just at that witching hour of the night when the flying cross-shuttle of oscillating military orders was weaving such a web of movements between the unsubstantial footing of earth and the more substantial blackness of the midnight sky, matched only by the benighted mind.

By this last order the Corps was to be turned end for end, and inside out. Poor Warren might be forgiven if at such an order his head swam and his wits collapsed. He responds thus, and has been much blamed for it by those under canvas, then and since: “I issued my orders on General Webb's first despatch to fall back; which made the divisions retire in the order of Ayres, Crawford, and Griffin, which was the order they could most rapidly move in. I cannot change them to-night without producing confusion that will render all my operations nugatory. I will now send General [96] Ayres to General Sheridan, and take General Griffin and General Crawford to move against the enemy, as this last despatch directs I should. I cannot accomplish the object of the orders I have received.” 16

But what inconceivable addition to the confusion came in the following despatch from General Meade to Warren at one o'clock at night: “Would not time be gained by sending troops by the Quaker Road? Sheridan cannot maintain himself at Dinwiddie without reinforcements, and yours are the only ones that can be sent. Use every exertion to get the troops to him as soon as possible. If necessary, send troops by both roads, and give up the rear attack.”

Rapidly changing plans and movements in effecting the single purpose for which battle is delivered are what a soldier must expect; and the ability to form them wisely and promptly illustrates and tests military capacity. But the conditions in this case rendered the execution of these peculiarly perplexing. Orders had to pass through many hands; and in the difficulties of delivery owing to distance and the nature of the ground, the situation which called for them had often entirely changed. Hence some discretion as to details in executing a definite purpose must be accorded to subordinate commanders. [97]

Look for a moment at a summary of the orders Warren received that evening, after we had reached the White Oak Road, affecting his command in detail:

1. To send a brigade to menace the enemy's rear before Sheridan.

But he had already of his own accord sent Bartlett's Brigade, of Griffin's Division, the nearest troops, by the nearest way.

2. To send this brigade by the Boydton Road instead of the Crump.

This was a very different direction, and of different tactical effect. It being impossible to recall Bartlett, Warren sent Pearson, already on the Boydton Road, with a detachment of Bartlett's Brigade.

3. To send Griffin's Division by the Boydton Road to Sheridan, and draw back the whole corps to that road.

Griffin's Division being widely and far scattered and impossible to be collected for hours, Warren sends Ayres' Division, nearest, and most disengaged.

4. To send Ayres and Crawford by the way Bartlett had gone, and insisting on Griffin's going by Boydton Road.

This would cause Ayres and Bartlett to exchange places-crossing each other in a long, difficult, and needless march.

5. Ayres having gone, according to Warren's orders, Griffin and Crawford to go by Bartlett's way.

But Griffin had sent for Bartlett to withdraw [98] from his position and join the division ready to mass on the Boydton Road.

It is difficult to keep a clear head in trying to see into this muddle now: we can imagine the state of Warren's mind. But this was not all. Within the space of two hours, Warren received orders involving important movements for his entire corps, in four different directions. These came in rapid succession, and in the following order:

1. To entrench where he was (on the White Oak Road), and be ready for a fight in the morning. This from Grant.

2. To fall back with the whole corps from the White Oak Road to the Boydton, and send a division by this road to relieve Sheridan. This from Grant.

3. Griffin to be pushed down the Boydton Road, but the rest of the corps-Ayres and Crawford — to go across the fields to the Crump Road, the way Bartlett had gone, and attack the enemy in rear who were opposing Sheridan. This from Meade.

This required a movement in precisely the opposite direction from that indicated in the preceding order,--which was now partly executed. Ayres had already started.

4. Meade's advice to send these troops by the Quaker Road (ten miles around), and give up the rear attack.

5. To these may be added the actual final movement, which was that Ayres went down the [99] Boydton Road, and Griffin and Crawford went by the “dirt” road across the country to the Crump Road as indicated in Meade's previous orders.

There is one thing more. General Grant thought it necessary, in order to make sure that Sheridan should have complete and absolute command of these troops, to send a special message asking Meade to make that distinct announcement to Sheridan. (Despatch of 10.34 P. M., March 31st.) To this Meade replies that he had ordered the Fifth Corps to Sheridan, and adds: “The messenger to Sheridan has gone now, so that I cannot add what you desire about his taking command, but I take it for granted he will do so, as he is senior. I will instruct Warren to report to him.”

So General Grant's solicitude lest Sheridan should forget to assume command, as the regulations clearly provided, was faithfully ministered to by that expert in nervous diseases,--Meade.

The orders which came to General Warren that night were to an amazing degree confused and conflicting. This is charging no blame on any particular person. We will call it, if you please, the fault of circumstances. But of course many evil effects of such conditions must naturally fall upon the officer receiving them. Although the responsibility according to military usage and ethics rests upon the officer originating the order, yet the practical effects are apt to fall upon the officer trying to execute it. And when he is not allowed to use his judgment as to the details of his own [100] command, it makes it very hard for him sometimes. Indeed it is not very pleasant to be a subordinate officer, especially if one is also at the same time a commanding officer.

But in this case I think the trouble was the result of other recognizable contributory circumstances,--if I might not say causes.

1. The awkwardness of having in the field so many superior, or rather co-ordinate, commanders: Grant, commanding the United States Armies, with his headquarters immediately with those of the commander of the Army of the Potomac; unintentionally but necessarily confusing authority and detracting from the dignity and independence of this subordinate; Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, only two corps of which were with him,--and one of these half the time under Sheridan,--the two others being on the extreme right of our entrenched lines, with Ord and the Army of the James between them; Sheridan, maintaining an independent cavalry command, but in such ticklish touch with the Fifth Corps that it hardly knew from moment to moment whether it was under Meade or Sheridan.

2. A double objective: one point being Sheridan's independent operations to cut the enemy's communications; the other, the turning of Lee's right and breaking up his army by our infantry. It is true this double objective was in terms given up when Sheridan was informed all were to “act together as one army” ; but the trouble is, this precept was never strictly carried into effect; inasmuch [101] as General Sheridan was not inclined to serve under any other commander but Grant, and it became difficult to humor him in this without embarrassing other operations. And, as a matter of fact, the communications were not cut, either on the Southside or the Danville Roads, until our infantry struck them,--Sheridan, however, contributing in his own way to this result.

3. These two supreme commanders being at such distance from the fields of operation on the 31st of March, that it was impossible to have a complete mutual understanding at the minute when orders were to be put into effect. Nor could they make themselves alike familiar with material conditions, such as grounds and bridges, or with the existing state of things at important junctures, owing to rapid, unforeseen changes.

4. Time lost, and sequence confused, by the difficulty of getting over the ground to carry orders or to obey them, owing to the condition of the roads, or lack of them, and the extreme darkness of the night.

We had very able officers of the general staff at each headquarters; otherwise things might have been worse. The responsibilities, labors, tests, and perils-physical and moral — that often fall upon staff officers in the field are great and trying. Upon their intelligence, alertness, accuracy of observation and report, their promptitude, energy, and endurance, the fate of a corps or a field may depend.

The frictions, mischances, and misunderstandings [102] of all these circumstances falling across Warren's path, might well have bewildered the brightest mind, and rendered nugatory the most faithful intentions.

Meantime, it may well be conceived we who held that extreme front line had an anxious night. Griffin was with me most of the time, and in investigating the state of things in front of our picket lines some time after midnight, we discovered that the enemy were carefully putting out their fires all along their own visible front. Griffin regards this as evidence of a contemplated movement on us, and he sends this information and suggestion to headquarters, and thus adds a new element to the already well-shaken mixture of uncertainty and seeming cross-purposes. But with us, the chief result was an anxiety that forbade a moment's relaxation from intense vigilance.

Meantime Ayres had kept on, according to Warren's first orders to him, getting a small installment of rations on the way, and arriving at Warren's “Bridge of Sighs” on the Gravelly Run just as it was ready, at about two o'clock in the morning, whence he pushed down the Plank Road and reported to Sheridan before Dinwiddie at the dawning of day. Whereupon he was informed that he had advanced two miles farther than General Sheridan desired, and he had to face about his exhausted men and go back to a cross-road which he had passed for the very sufficient reason that Sheridan had no staff-officer there to guide him where he was wanted. [103]

At three o'clock I had got in my pickets, which were replaced by Crawford's, and let my men rest as quietly as possible, knowing there would be heavy burdens laid on them in the morning. For, while dividing the sporadic mule-rations, word came to us that the Fifth Corps, as an organization, was to report to Sheridan at once and be placed under his orders. We kept our heads and hearts as well as we could; for we thought both would be needed. It was near daylight when my command --all there was of Griffin's Division then left on the front-drew out from the White Oak Road; Crawford's Division replacing us, to be brought off carefully under Warren's eye. We shortly picked up Bartlett's returning brigade, halted, way-worn and jaded with marching and countermarching, and struck off in the direction of the Boisseau houses and the Crump Road, following their heavy tracks in the mud and mire marking a way where before there was none; one of those recommended “directions across the country,” which this veteran brigade found itself thus compelled to travel for the third time in lieu of rest or rations, churning the sloughs and quicksands with emotions and expressions that could be conjectured only by a veteran of the Old Testament dispensation.

I moved with much caution in approaching doubtful vicinities, throwing forward an advance guard which, as we expected to encounter the enemy in force, I held immediately in my own hand. Griffin followed at the head of my leading brigade, ready for whatever should happen. Arrived at [104] the banks of the south branch of Gravelly Run, where Bartlett had made his dispositions the night before, from a mile in our front the glitter of advancing cavalry caught my eye, saber-scabbards and belt-brasses flashing back the level rays of the rising sun. Believing this to be nothing else than the rebel cavalry we expected to find somewhere before us, we made dispositions for instant attack. But the steady on-coming soon revealed the blue of our own cavalry, with Sheridan's weird battleflag in the van. I reduce my front, get into the road again, and hardly less anxious than before move forward to meet Sheridan.

We come face to face. The sunlight helps out the expression of each a little. I salute: “I report to you, General, with the head of Griffin's Division.” The courteous recognition is given. Then the stern word, more charge than question: “Why did you not come before? Where is Warren?” --“He is at the rear of the column, sir.” --“That is where I expected to find him. What is he doing there?” --“General, we are withdrawing from the White Oak Road, where we fought all day. General Warren is bringing off his last division, expecting an attack.” Griffin comes up. My responsibility is at an end. I feel better. I am directed to mass my troops by the roadside. We are not sorry for that. Ayres soon comes up on the Brooks Road. Crawford arrives at length, and masses his troops also, near the J. Boisseau house, at the junction of the Five Forks Road. We were on the ground the enemy had occupied the evening [105] before. It was Bartlett's outstretched line in their rear, magnified by the magic lens of night into the semblance of the whole Fifth Corps right upon them, which induced them to withdraw from Sheridan's front and fall back upon Five Forks.17 So after all Bartlett had as good as fought a successful battle, by a movement which might have been praised as Napoleonic had other fortunes favored.

General Warren has been blamed, and perhaps justly, for attacking with a single division on the White Oak Road. As he denies that he intended this for an attack, we will put it that he is blamed for not sufficiently supporting a reconnaissance; so that the repulse of it involved the disorderly retreat of two divisions of his corps. It is to be said to this that he very shortly more than recovered this ground, driving the enemy with serious loss into his works. But at the worst, was that a fault hitherto unknown among corps or army commanders? Sheridan attacked with a single division when he was ordered to take Five Forks on the day before, and was driven back by a force very inferior to that he had in hand. He was not blamed, although the result of this failure was the next day's dire misfortunes. And on this very day, driven back discomfited into Dinwiddie, he was not blamed; he was praised,--and in this high fashion. General Grant in his official report and subsequent histories, speaking of this repulse, says: “Here General Sheridan displayed great generalship. [106] Instead of retreating with his whole command on the main army, to tell the story of superior forces encountered, he deployed his cavalry on foot, leaving only mounted men enough to take charge of the horses. This compelled the enemy to deploy over a vast extent of wooded and broken country and made his progress slow.”

This definition of great generalship was intended, no doubt, to reassure Sheridan; but it was encouraging all around. It would let quite a number of modest colonels, of both sides, into the temple of fame.

Warren was deposed from his command the next day, mainly, I have no doubt, under the irritation at his being slow in getting up to Sheridan the night before from the White Oak Road. But he was working and fighting all day to hold the advanced left flank of Grant's chosen position, and harassed all night with conflicting and stultifying orders, while held between two threatening forces: his left, with nothing to prevent Lee's choice troops disengaged from Sheridan from striking it a crushing blow; and on the other hand, Lee himself in person, evidently regarding this the vital point, with all the troops he could gather there, ready to deliver on that little front a mortal stroke. For it is not true, as has been stated by high authority, that any troops that had fought us on the White Oak Road had gone to Pickett's support at Five Forks that day. And when in the gray of the morning he moved out to receive Sheridan's not overgracious welcome to the Fifth Corps, [107] Warren withdrew under the very eyes of Lee, his rear division faced by the rear rank, ready for the not-improbable attack, himself the last to leave the field that might have been so glorious, now fated to be forgotten.

I enliven this somber story by a brief personal reference. Somehow — I never quite understood it-General Griffin, in the confusion of that dashing and leaping about, lost his sword-scabbard and all. Seeing him ride up to me in that way, I instantly unhooked my belt and sheathing my sword handed it to the General with the assurance that I should be proud if he would accept it, as a token of what I could not then fully set forth in words. He did accept it and outdid me in the expression of sentiments. One of the noble captains (Rehfuss) of the g98th Pennsylvania instantly handed me one that lay on the line we had carried, --I should say, perhaps, he had carried,--and which was a fine sword with a “Palmetto” engraved scabbard. I took it until our muster out, when I returned it to Captain Rehfuss, with words of remembrance which he seemed to appreciate.

This sword of mine has a peculiar history since that time. General Griffin at the close of the war was ordered to a command in Texas, and took this sword with him. Here the yellow fever breaking out he was advised by the War Department to take a leave of absence and return to his home for a season. He declined; saying that his duty was where his command was, and that he would stay by his men. He took the fever and died before [108] friends could reach him. Sometime afterwards I received through the War Department a box containing this sword and General Griffin's cap worn by him in the Civil War, and familiar to all his soldiers, together with the last division battleflag we carried in the field, and the division bugle, which had sounded all the calls during the last two years of the war. I could not express the regard in which these relics are held.

It may be presumption to offer opinions on the operations of that day under such commanders. But having ventured some statements of fact that seem like criticism, it may be required of me to suggest what better could have been done, or to show reason why that which was done was not the best. I submit therefore, the following remarks:

1. Five Forks should have been occupied on the thirtieth as Grant had ordered, and when there was nothing formidable to oppose. The cavalry could then easily strike the Southside Railroad, and the Fifth and Second Corps be extended to envelop the entire right of the enemy's position, and at the opportune moment the general assault could be successfully made, as Grant had contemplated when he formed his purpose of acting as one army with all his forces in the field.

2. This plan failing, there were two openings promising good results: one, to let the cavalry linger about Dinwiddie and threaten Lee's communications, so as to draw out a large body of his troops from the entrenchments into the open where they could be attacked on equal ground, [109] and his army be at least materially crippled; the other, to direct the assault immediately on the right of Lee's entrenched lines on the Fifth Corps front,--the cavalry, of course, sweeping around their flank so as to take them in reverse, while the infantry concentrated on their weakest point.

A third thing was to do a little of both; and this is what we seem to have adopted, playing from one to the other, fitfully and indecisively, more than one day and night.

Beyond doubt it was Grant's plan when he formed his new purpose on the night of the twenty-ninth, to turn the enemy on their Claiborne flank, and follow this up sharply by vigorous assault on the weakest point of their main line in front of Petersburg. The positions taken up by the Fifth and Second Corps are explained by such a purpose, and the trying tasks and hard fighting required of them for the first three days are therein justified. The evidence of this purpose is ample.

Everything was made ready, but the attack was suspended. I am not upon the inquiry whether this was postponed until Sheridan should have done something; my point is that if, or when, this purpose was abandoned for another line of action, other dispositions should have been promptly made, and information given to officers charged with responsibilities, and environed with difficulties as Warren was, so that they could catch the change of key. Grant had set the machinery in motion for the White Oak Road, and it was hard and slow work to reverse it when he suddenly [110] changed his tactics, and resolved to concentrate on Sheridan. Why was the Fifth Corps advanced after Ayres' repulse? The “reconnaissance” had been made; the enemy's position and strength ascertained, and our party had returned to the main line. There was no justification in pressing so hard on that point of the White Oak Road, at such costs, unless we meant to follow up this attack to distinct and final results. This may possibly be laid to Warren's charge in his anxiety and agony to “save the honor of the Fifth Corps.” But this was not essential to the grander tactics of the field. I sometimes blame myself,--if I may presume to exalt myself into such high company,for going beyond the actual recovery of Ayres' lost field, and pressing on for the White Oak Road, when it was not readily permitted me to do so. It may be that my too youthful impetuosity about the White Oak Road got Warren into this false position across this road, where all night, possessed with seven devils, we tried to get down to Sheridan and Five Forks. But I verily believed that what we wanted was the enemy's right, on the White Oak Road. How could we then know Grant's change of purpose? However, it was all a mistake if we were going to abandon everything before morning. We should have been withdrawn at once, and put in position for the new demonstration. That order to mass on the Boydton Road, received at about ten o'clock at night, should have been given much earlier, as soon as we could safely move away from the presence of the enemy, [111] if we were to reinforce Sheridan on his own lines.

3. But better than this, as things were, it would have been to leave a small force on the White Oak Road to occupy the enemy's attention, and move the whole Fifth Corps to attack the rear of the enemy then confronting Sheridan, as Meade suggested to Grant at ten o'clock at night. It would have been as easy for us all to go, as for Bartlett. With such force we would not have stopped on Gravelly Run, but would have struck Pickett's and Fitzhugh Lee's rear, and compelled them to make a bivouac under our supervision on that ground where they had “deployed.” They would not have been able to retire in the morning, as they were constrained to do by Bartlett's demonstration.

4. No doubt it was right to save the honor of the cavalry before Dinwiddie, as of the Fifth Corps before the White Oak Road; and Sheridan's withdrawal to that place having lured out so large a force-six thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry — from a good military position to the exposed one at Five Forks, it was good tactics to fall upon them and smash them up. Lee, strangely enough, did not think we would do this; so he held himself at the right of his main line on the White Oak Road, as the point requiring his presence; and sent reinforcements from there for his imperiled detachment only so late that they did not report until after the struggle at Five Forks was all over. [112]

But we owe much to fortune. Had the enemy on the afternoon of the 31st let Fitzhugh Lee with his cavalry reinforcements occupy Sheridan, and rushed Pickett's Division with the two brigades of Johnson's down the White Oak Road upon the flank of the momentarily demoralized Fifth Corps, while Hunton and Gracie and Wallace and Wise were on its front, we should have had trouble. Or had they, after repulsing Sheridan towards evening, left the cavalry deployed across his front to baffle his observation, while Pickett should anticipate and forestall the movement of Bartlett's Brigade, and come across conversely from that Crump Road to fall upon our untenable flank position, it would have opened all eyes to the weakness and error of our whole situation. What would have become of us, only some higher power than any there could say.

So we part, after this strangely broken acquaintance,--Sheridan, the Fifth Corps, and White Oak Road. Whether the interventions that brought intended purposes and effects to nought were through the agency of supernal or infernal spirits, we must believe that it was by one of those mysterious overrulings of Providence, or what some might call poetic justice, and some the irony of history, that it befell Sheridan to have with him at Five Forks and at Appomattox Court House — not slow nor inconspicuous — the deprecated, but inexpugnable, old Fifth Corps.

1 Manassas to Appomattox, p. 588.

2 General Devin's Division numbered, according to returns of March 30, 169 officers and 2830 men, present for duty.

3 General Merritt's despatch of March 30th. Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 326.

4 General Fitzhugh Lee's testimony. Warren Court Records, vol. i., p. 469.

5 Sheridan's despatch to Grant, March 30th, 2.45 P. M., and Grant's reply thereto; Records, Warren Court of Inquiry, vol. II., p. 1309. It afterwards transpired that Sheridan's cavalry did not long hold this position. Grant's despatch to Meade, March 31st, Rebellion Records, Serial 97, p. 339.

6 Records, Warren Court, p. 623.

7 General Warren states in his testimony before the Court of Inquiry that this stream was sixty feet wide and four or five feet deep. Records, p. 717.

8 Testimony of General Hunton and General McGowan, Warren Court Records, vol. i., pp. 625 and 648.

9 General Hunton, since Senator from Virginia, said in his testimony before the Warren Court, speaking of this charge, “I thought it was one of the most gallant things I had ever seen.” --Records, Part I, p. 625.

10 Contrasts are sometimes illumining. When our assault on the enemy's right, March 31st, was followed by General Miles' attack on the Claiborne entrenchments on the second of April, after the exigency at Five Forks had called away most of its defenders,--Generals Anderson and Johnson, with Hunton, Wise, Gracie, and Fulton's Brigades being of the number,--and the whole rebel army was demoralized, General Grant, now free to appreciate such action, despatches General Meade at once: “Miles has made a big thing of it, and deserves the highest praise for the pertinacity with which he stuck to the enemy until he wrung from him victory.” Verily, something besides circumstances can “alter cases.”

11 Records, Warren Court, Part II., p. 1525.

12 Testimony, Warren Court Records, Part i., p. 247.

13 Records, Warren Court, vol. II., p. 1242.

14 This is to be compared with Meade's order of 10.30 A. M., March 31st through General Webb: see ante.

15 Colonel Theodore Lyman, aid-de-camp on the staff of General Meade, wrote in his diary on the night of March 30th: “Roads reduced to a hopeless pudding, Gravelly Run swollen to treble its usual size, and Hatcher's Run swept away its bridges and required pontoons.” --Records, Warren Court of Inquiry, vol. i., p. 519.

16 See this despatch of 10.55 P. M., March 31st. War Records, Serial 97, p. 367. General Warren, in his testimony before the Court of Inquiry, claimed that the word “Otherwise” should be prefixed to the last sentence of this order, as it was dictated.-Records, p. 730, note.

17 Testimony of General Fitzhugh Lee, Warren Court, vol. i., pp. 475 and 481.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
March 31st (6)
30th (5)
March 30th (4)
29th (4)
March 30th, 169 AD (1)
1300 AD (1)
April 2nd (1)
March 29th (1)
March 28th (1)
March (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: