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Chapter 4: Five Forks.

After such a day and night as that of the 31st of March, 1865, the morning of April 1st found the men of the Fifth Corps strangely glad they were alive. They had experienced a kaleidoscopic regeneration. They were ready for the next new turn-whether of Fortunatus or Torquemada. The tests of ordinary probation had been passed. All the effects of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” believed to sink the body and exalt the spirit, had been fully wrought in them. At the weird midnight trumpet-call they rose from their sepulchral fields as those over whom death no longer has any power. Their pulling out for the march in the ghostly mists of dawn looked like a passage in the transmigration of souls — not sent back to work out the remnant of their sins as animals, but lifted to the “third plane” by those three days of the underworld,--eliminating sense, incorporating soul.

The vicissitudes of that day, and the grave and whimsical experiences out of which we emerged into it, exhibited the play of that curious law of [114] the universe seen in tides, reactions, or reversals of polarities at certain points of tension or extremes of pressure, and which appears also in the mixed relations of men and things. There are pressure-points of experience at which the insupportably disagreeable becomes “a jolly good time.” When you cannot move in the line of least resistance, you take a very peculiar pleasure in crowding the point of greatest resistance. No doubt there is in the ultimate reasons of human probation special place for that quality of manhood called perseverance, patience, pluck, push, persistence, pertinacity, or whatever name beginning with this “explosive mute,” the excess of which, exhibited by persons or things, is somewhat profanely referred to as “pure cussedness.”

The pleasantries associated with April 1st were not much put in play: none of those men were going to be “fooled” that day.

When we joined the cavalry, some of us were aware of a little shadow cast between the two chief luminaries,--him of the cavalry and him of the infantry; but that by no means darkened our disks. If not hale fellows, we were well met. The two arms of the service embraced each other heartily, glad to share fortunes. Particularly we; for the cavalry had the habit of being a little ahead, and so, as the Germans said, “got all the pullets.” And we thought the cavalry, though a little piqued at our not going down and picking up what they had left at Dinwiddie the night before, were quite willing we should share whatever they should get [115] to-day. Sheridan had also come to the opinion that infantry was “a good thing to have around,” --however by some queer break in the hierarchy of honor subordinated to the chevaliers, the biped to the quadruped, and by some freak of etymology named “infantry” --the speechless-whether because they had nothing to answer for, or knew too much and mustn't tell. We were glad to be united to Sheridan, too, after the broken engagements of the day before, perhaps renewed reluctantly by him; glad to fight under him, instead of away from him, hoping that when he really struck, the enemy would hurt more than friends.

We cannot wonder that Sheridan might not be in the best of humor that morning. It is not pleasant for a temperament like his to experience the contradiction of having the ardent expectations of himself and his superior turned into disaster and retreat. It was but natural that he should be incensed against Warren. For not deeply impressed with the recollection that he had found himself unable to go to the assistance of Warren as he had been ordered to do, his mind retained the irritation of vainly expecting assistance from Warren the moment he desired it, without considering what Warren might have on hand at the same time. Nor could Warren be expected to be in a very exuberant mood after such a day and night. Hence the auguries for the cup of loving-kindness on this crowning day of Five Forks were not favorable. Each of them was under the shadow of yesterday: one, of a mortifying repulse; the [116] other, of thankless success. Were Warren a mind-reader he would have known it was a time to put on a warmer manner towards Sheridan,--for a voice of doom was in the air.

That morning, two hours after the head of the Fifth Corps column had reported to General Sheridan, an officer of the artillery staff had occasion to find where the Fifth Corps was, evidently not knowing that under orders from superiors it had been like “all Gaul,” divided into three parts,and went for that purpose to the point where Warren had had his headquarters the night before. Warren, in leaving at daybreak, had not removed his headquarters' material; but in consideration for his staff, who had been on severe duty all night, told Colonel Locke, Captain Melcher, and a few others to stay and take a little rest before resuming the tasking duties of the coming day. It was about nine o'clock in the morning when the artillery officer reached Warren's old headquarters, and suddenly rousing Colonel Locke asked where the Fifth Corps was. Locke, so abruptly wakened, his sound sleep bridging the break of his last night's consciousness, rubbed his eyes, and with dazed simplicity answered that when he went to sleep the Fifth Corps was halted to build a bridge at Gravelly Run on the Plank Road. No time was lost in reporting this at headquarters, without making further inquiries as to the whereabouts of the Fifth Corps, now for three hours with Sheridan on the Five Forks Road. Thereupon General Grant forthwith sends General Babcock to tell [117] General Sheridan that “if he had any reason to be dissatisfied with General Warren,” or as it has since been put, “if in his opinion the interests of the service gave occasion for it,” he might relieve him from command of his corps.1

So do we walk amidst the precipices of our fate.

Griffin's and Crawford's Divisions were massed near the house of J. Boisseau, on the road leading from Dinwiddie Court House to Five Forks. Ayres was halted a mile back at the junction of the Brooks Road, which he had reached by his roundabout, forced march during the night. We were waiting for Sheridan, at last. And he was waiting until the cavalry should complete one more “reconnoissance,” to determine the enemy's position and disposition at Five Forks, three miles northward.

Although the trains which had got up were chiefly ammunition wagons, a considerable halt was indicated and the men seized the occasion to eat, to rest, to sleep,--exercises they had not much indulged in for the last three days,--and to make [118] their toilets, which means to wring out their few articles of clothing, seriatim, and let the sun shine into the bottom of their shoes; and also-those who could — to make up their vital equation of three days rations-hard-tack, pork, coffee, and sugar-by stuffing their haversacks with twenty rounds extra ammunition.

Meantime those of us who were likely to have some special responsibilities during the approaching battle, had anxious thoughts. We had drawn away from the doubly confused conflict of yesterday; we were now fairly with Sheridan, cut off from reach of other wills, absolved from the task of obeying commands that made our action seem like truants driving hoops,--resulting mostly in tripping up dignitaries, and having a pretty hard time ourselves, without paternal consolations when we got home. We expected something out of the common order now. General Griffin came and sat by me on the bank-side and talked quite freely. He said Sheridan was much disturbed at the operations of the day before, as Grant's language to him about this had been unwontedly severe, and that all of us would have to help make up for that day's damage.2 [119]

He told me also that Grant had given Sheridan authority to remove Warren from command of the corps, when he found occasion, and that we should see lively times before the day was over. We remarked how these things must affect Sheridan: Grant's censure of his failures the day before; the obligation to win a decisive battle to-day; and the power put in his hands to remove Warren. We could not but sympathize with Sheridan in his present perplexities, and, anxious for Warren, were resolved to do our part to make things go right.3 [120]

The troops had enjoyed about four hours of this unwonted rest when, the cavalry having completed its reconnoissance, we were ordered forward. We turned off on a narrow road said to lead pretty nearly to the left of the enemy's defenses at Five Forks on the White Oak Road. Crawford led, followed by Griffin and Ayres,--the natural order for prompt and free movement. The road had been much cut up by repeated scurries of both the contending parties, and was even yet obstructed by cavalry led horses, and other obstacles, which it would seem strange had not been got off the track during all this halt. We who were trying to follow closely were brought to frequent standstill. This was vexatious,--our men being hurried to their feet in heavy marching order, carrying on their backs perhaps three days life for themselves and a pretty heavy installment of death for their antagonists, and now compelled every few minutes to come to a huddled halt in the muddy road, “marking time” and marking place also with deep discontent. In about two hours we get up where Sheridan wants us, in some open ground and thin woods near the Gravelly Run Church, and form as we arrive, by brigades in column of regiments. The men's good nature seems a little ruffled on account of their manner of marching or being marched. They have their own way of expressing their wonder why we could not have taken a shorter [121] road to this cavalry rendezvous, rather than to be dragged around the two long sides of an acute-angled triangle to get to it,--why the two-legged animals might not have taken the short route and the four-legged ones the long one,--in short, what magic relics there were about “J. Boisseau's,” that we should be obliged to make a painful pilgrimage there before we were purified enough to die at Five Forks.

It is now about four o'clock. Near the church is a group of restless forms and grim visages, expressing their different tempers and temperaments in full tone. First of all the chiefs: Sheridan, dark and tense, walking up and down the earth, seeking-well, we will say — some adequate vehicle or projectile of expression at the prospect of the sun's going down on nothing but his wrath; evidently having availed himself of some incidental instrumentalities to this end, more or less explicit or expletive.

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