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Chapter 41: battle of five Forks.

  • Various affairs of the closing campaign
  • -- the massing of Grant's forces -- sortie against Fort Steadman -- captured but quickly retaken -- General Grant's move around the Confederate right -- General Lee anticipates with aggressive work -- Sheridan makes battle with his whole force at five Forks -- desperate situation of the Confederates -- Disparity of numbers -- splendid stand and battle of Generals Pickett and Ransom -- Colonel Pegram mortally wounded -- W. H. F. Lee, the “noble son of a noble sire” -- Corse's division -- Pickett's generalship -- casualties.

Meanwhile General Grant was drawing forces from the North and West to further strengthen his already overwhelming combinations against Richmond. General Schofield was called from Tennessee to North Carolina to guard and join on, if necessary, the flank of Sherman's column. The cavalry and infantry of the Valley of Virginia were brought down to the Union army about Richmond and Petersburg,--the latter by transports.

General Sheridan marched his cavalry, ten thousand strong, from the Valley to ride across James River, through Lynchburg, to join the northward march of Sherman's column. His divisions were under Generals Custer and Devens; General Wesley Merritt was his chief of cavalry. He was to destroy railroads, canals, bridges, and other works of value as he marched. At Staunton he decided to take in the balance of General Early's command near his route at Waynesboroa. He found that command posted behind field-works, but the line did not cover the left of the position near the river. After some preliminary dashes, General Custer found his way around General Early's left, and, with part of the cavalry dismounted, made a bold, simultaneous charge on the front and flank, breaking up the line and capturing most of the troops. [591]

Some of the Union commanders claimed that the Confederates cheered them as they surrendered. This, however, the Confederates deny. The affair is mentioned in the diary of Major J. Hoskiss, the engineer of the Confederate army of the Valley, in not more creditable terms than General Early gave of his battle of Cedar Run.

Pickett's division, Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, and other detachments were sent to Lynchburg to defend against Sheridan's ride; but the high waters of James River and other obstacles turned Sheridan from his southern course to a sweep down the north side.

Generals Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were recalled and ordered to the north side to join me at Richmond for a march to intercept Sheridan's forces. General Pickett reported on the 13th, and we marched for Hanover on the 14th. I made requisition for a pontoon bridge, and was delayed a day waiting for it and for the cavalry. The bridge was not sent. As we marched towards the Pamunkey River, General Sheridan heard of the move and crossed to the north bank with his main force, leaving a brigade to watch our march, but presently drew the brigade after him.

General Rosser reported to me with five hundred cavalry, one of the remnants of General Early's army not captured, and was ordered across the Pamunkey River to follow Sheridan's ride. Our artillery and infantry were delayed part of a day and night building a bridge from the timbers of an old barn that stood near the bank of the river, and part of the command crossed early in the morning to find a cold cavalry trail, growing colder. As the prospect of overhauling the march was not encouraging, we retraced our steps, returning to Richmond on the 18th, where Pickett's men rested until the 24th.

As Sherman's army drew towards Richmond, General Grant gave up the thought of taking the city by attack of his strong columns on the north side, lest he should [592] leave open the way of escape of the Confederate army, and give time for it to combine with Johnston's forces before he could overhaul it. He found, too, that the “attrition” policy could not be made effective, even with his superior numbers, unless he could so manoeuvre as to call his adversary from his fortified grounds to make the work of attrition mutual.

On the 14th of March he gave instructions of preparation for a general move by his left, and on the 24th gave definite orders for the move to be made on the 29th.

On the 24th, General Lee gave consent to the making of a sortie from his line at Hare's Hill, in front of Petersburg, against Fort Steadman of the enemy's works. The distance between the lines at that point was one hundred and fifty yards, the distance between the picket lines fifty yards. Union officers had given out that deserters from the Confederate army were permitted to march into the Union lines with their arms.

Under the circumstances it was conceived to be practicable to gain Fort Steadman by surprise, and the Confederate chief was led to believe that there were other forts to the rear of Steadman that could be carried and held until General Grant could be forced to make a longer line to reach our southern communications, and give us time to find dry roads for our march away, or for reinforcements to join us. It was a hazardous adventure at best, but his brave heart usually went with a proposition for a bold fight.

The Second Corps, under Major-General Gordon, was assigned for the sortie, to be reinforced by other troops to be called. Pickett's division of the First Corps, that had been resting on the north side since the 18th, was called to report to General Lee at Petersburg, without intimation of the service proposed, but all calls and orders of the times were looked upon as urgent. The quartermaster was despatched to Richmond to have the transportation at the station as soon as the troops could reach the [593] depot, and the division was ordered to march in anticipation of due preparation for their transit. But the quartermaster found that the railroad company could furnish transportation for three brigades only. General Lee was informed of the fact, and I suggested that his only way to be assured of the service of a division was to draw Mahone's from Bermuda Hundred and have Pickett's march to replace it. He preferred part of Pickett's division,finding it could not be used as a division, as Pickett, the ranking officer, would be called to command the work during the early morning, for which he had no opportunity to prepare.

General Lee collected about eighteen thousand men near the sallying field, ordered men selected to cut away the fraise and abatis for the storming column that should advance with empty guns (to avoid premature alarms), and ordered a squadron of cavalry ready to dash across the lines to cut the wires about General Grant's lines.

The Army of the Potomac, General Meade commanding, was posted,--the Ninth Corps on the right from James River to Fort Howard, including Fort Steadman, General Parke commanding; next, on Parke's left, was the Sixth Corps, under General Wright; then General Humphreys with the Second Corps, General Warren with the Fifth; General Sheridan's cavalry, armed with repeating rifles, on the extreme left; General Ord, commanding the Army of the James, on the north side, Generals Gibbon and Weitzel commanding corps,--all officers of the highest attainments and veterans in service. The armies of the Potomac and the Janes and Sheridan's cavalry, constituting General Grant's immediate command, numbered one hundred and eleven thousand soldiers.1 Colonel W. H. Taylor, chief of staff with General Lee, reports, “Lee had at that time only [594] thirty-nine thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven available muskets for the defence of Richmond and Petersburg.” 2 The stormers advanced before daylight, gained quiet possession of the enemy's picket line, carried his works between Batteries 9 and 10, moved to the right and left, captured Fort Steadman and its garrison, and turned the guns there and at Battery 10 against the enemy. But the alarm spread and the enemy was afield, feeling his way towards the assailants, for it was not yet light enough to see and direct his artillery fire over his own men. Batteries 11 and 12 were taken, and guides sent to conduct the Confederate columns to forts reported to be in rear of Steadman were in search, but there were no forts there. Redoubts constructed on the main line had commanding positions over Fort Steadman, and a sweeping fire along its lines, in anticipation of a surprise attack, but their fire was withheld for daylight to direct it.

Light broke and the fire opened. General Parke called his field artillery under Tidball into practice from high ground over the Confederates, put the divisions of Hartranft and Wilcox against the Confederate flanks, and held them back near the troops crowding in along the breach, and called for a division from the Second Corps.

The Confederate columns were strong enough to repel the attack of two divisions,--were put there for that purpose,--but so far from breaking up and pushing back the ninety thousand men in front of them, they were not so handled as to check two divisions long enough for the forces to get back to their lines.

The artillery fire not only tore the Confederate ranks, but crossed fire in their rear, cutting off reinforcements and retreat. Our side was without artillery, except captured guns, which were handled by infantry. As the [595] sortie was noised along the line, General Humphreys and General Wright advanced the Second and Sixth Corps against the Confederate lines along their fields to learn if troops had been drawn from their fronts to join the attack. Batteries 11 and 12 were recovered before eight o'clock, and General Parke ordered Hartranft's division to regain Fort Steadman and Battery 10, which was done with slight loss before nine o'clock.

Many Confederates got back to their lines in disordered flight, but 1949 prisoners and nine stands of colors were taken by the Ninth Corps.

The aggregate of Union losses was reported as 2107. Confederate losses are not reported in detail or in numbers. General Meade's estimate of our loss was 5000.

General Humphreys captured the intrenched picket line in front of him, but found the Confederate works in front well manned. General Wright got well in on the front of his line to favorable position, from which he assaulted and carried the Confederate works on the 2d of April.

Corse's and Terry's brigades of Pickett's division remained in wait under arms until a late hour of the 25th, but were not called to take part in the sortie.3 The result calls for little comment upon the adventure. For an army of forty thousand veterans, without field batteries, to dislodge from their well-chosen and strongly-fortified lines an army of ninety thousand well-armed and thoroughly-appointed veterans was impossible.

Pursuant to previous orders, General Grant started on his move around the Confederate right on the 27th. General Ord was called to the south side with fourteen thousand men of the Army of the James, leaving General Weitzel with twenty thousand on the north side.4 In front of that force we had ten thousand men of Field's [596] and Kershaw's divisions and G. W. C. Lee's division of local defence troops (not including Gary's cavalry, the sailors and marines) holding the forts at Drury's and Chapin's farms. General Grant's orders were that his troops at all points should be ready to receive orders for assault.

Duly informed of the enemy's movements, and understanding his purpose, General Lee marched to his right on the 29th. Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry was called in advance to march for Five Forks. General Lee marched with fifteen thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry (including Fitzhugh Lee's division), and a quota of artillery, along the White Oak road to his right.

The purpose of the enemy was to overreach the fortified grounds and call the Confederates to field work, and General Lee thought to anticipate him by aggressive work as soon as he was in the open field, and ordered battle for the 31st.

General Pickett, with three brigades of his division, two of B. R. Johnson's division (Ransom's and Wallace's), with the cavalry, was ordered to engage Sheridan's cavalry at Five Forks, while General Lee attacked, with McGowan's, Gracie's, Hunton's, and Wise's brigades, the Fifth Army Corps, that was between Pickett and our line of fortifications. The opening of this part of the battle was in favor of the Confederates. General Lee drove back the advance division of the Fifth Corps to the next, and pushed the two back to concentration upon the third, where that part of the battle rested.

General Pickett made his part of the battle by putting W. H. F. Lee's and Rosser's divisions of cavalry on his right, and following that leading by his infantry and artillery, leaving Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division, under General T. T. Mumford, along the right front of Sheridan's cavalry. He pressed his separate battle by his right advance until night, forcing Sheridan back to Dinwiddie [597] Court-House, where the latter reported to General Grant that the force in front of him was too strong, and asked for reinforcements. Pickett prepared to follow his success by early morning battle and rested for the night, but Miles's division of the Second Corps was put against the other end of the battle, and the Fifth Corps rallied and advanced against the brigades that were with General Lee. They were forced back to the White Oak road, then into their fortified lines, leaving an interval of five miles behind Pickett's left.

Responding to General Sheridan's call, General Grant ordered the Fifth Corps, under General Warren, fifteen thousand 5 strong, and Mackenzie's cavalry division (sixteen hundred). The design was that the Fifth Corps should come in on Pickett's left rear and cut off his retreat, but heavy rains of the 30th and morning of the 31st had so flooded the streams and roads that the night march was slow and fatiguing, and Pickett receiving notice during the night of the projected move against his rear, changed his orders for battle, and directed the troops withdrawn for Five Forks before daylight. His retrograde was made in time to escape the Fifth Corps, and was followed by Sheridan's cavalry, but no serious effort was made to delay his movements. He made his march of five miles to Five Forks, put his troops in order of battle by nine o'clock of the morning of the 1st of April, and ordered his well-chosen line examined and put under construction of field-works. Corse's, Terry's, and Steuart's brigades of Pickett's division, and Ransom's and Wallace's brigades of B. R. Johnson's division, were posted from right to left. Of Pegram's artillery, three guns were planted at the Forks, and three more near his right; W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry on his right; Fitzhugh Lee's division on his left,--General T. T. Mumford [598] commanding the latter; Rosser's division in rear guarding trains. General Fitzhugh Lee was chief of cavalry.

As soon as the infantry line was formed, the troops set to work intrenching the position. The line of battle was parallel to and lay along the White Oak road, the left broken smartly to the rear, the retired end in traverse and flanking defence. The extreme right of the infantry line was also refused, but not so much. Four miles east from Pickett's left was the right of the fortified lines of General Lee's army. On the right and outside of those lines was a detachment of cavalry under General Roberts. The division of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry was ordered to cover the ground between Roberts's cavalry and Pickett's left by a line of vedettes, and his division was posted on that part of the field.

W. H. F. Lee's cavalry held strong guard on the right, and had the benefit of some swamp lands. His lines formed and field-works under construction, General Pickett rode to the rear for his noon lunch, and was soon followed by the cavalry chief.

Sheridan's cavalry followed close on Pickett's march, but did not attempt to seriously delay it. He made a dash about ten o'clock to measure the strength of the works under construction, and found them too strong to warrant fierce adventure. Delayed by the heavy roads and flooding streams, the Fifth Corps was not in position until four o'clock in the afternoon.

General Sheridan planned for battle to have General Merritt display the cavalry divisions of Custer and Devens against the Confederate front and right, to convey the impression that that was the field from which his battle would be made, while he drew up and massed the Fifth Corps at the other end of the field for the real fight. The corps was arranged, Crawford's division in column on the right, Ayres's on Crawford's left, Griffin's division in support, Mackenzie's cavalry division on the right of the [599] column, at the White Oak road. The Fifth Corps was to wheel in close connection and assault against the face of the return of Confederate works, while the cavalry divisions in front were to assail on that line and the right of the works.

The march and wheel of the Fifth Corps were made in tactical order, and the lines advanced in courageous charge, but staggered and halted under the destructive infantry fire. The charge was repeated, but held in check until Crawford's division found a way under cover of a woodland beyond the Confederate works, and marched to that advantage.

Ransom drew his brigade from the intrenched line to meet that march, but it was one brigade against three--and those supported by part of Griffin's division.

Ransom's horse was killed, falling on him; his adjutant-general, Captain Gee, was killed, and the brigade was forced back.

This formidable move by open field to Pickett's rear made his position untenable. Feeling this, the veteran soldiers of the left brigades realized that their battle was irretrievable. Those who could find escape from that end of the works fell back in broken ranks, while many others, finding the enemy closing in on their rear, thought it more soldierly to surrender to Ayres's brave assaulting columns, and not a few were the captives of Crawford's division.

It was not until that period that General Pickett knew, by the noise of battle, that it was on. He rode through the fire to his command, but his cavalry chief, riding later, was cut off from the field and failed to take part in the action. When Pickett got to the Forks, Colonel Pegram, of the artillery, had been mortally wounded, the battery commander was killed, and many of the cannoneers killed or wounded. He found an artillery sergeant and enough men to man one gun, and used it with effect until the axle broke. [600]

The brigades of Steuart and Terry changed front and received the rolling battle. The cavalry assailants of the front and right had no decided success, but the infantry columns pressing their march, the Confederate brigades were pushed back to their extreme right, where in turn Corse's brigade changed front to receive the march, leaving W. H. F. Lee's cavalry to look to his right.

The Union cavalry essayed to charge the Confederate remnants to dismay, but the noble son of the noble sire seized opportunity to charge against the head of this threatening column before it could pass the swamp lands, drove back its head until Corse's brigade got back to cover of woodland, and night came to cover the disastrous field.6 The remnants of the command were collected as soon and as well as they could be in the dead of night and marched towards Exeter Mills, where Pickett proposed to cross the Appomattox and return to the army, but early movements of the next morning changed the face of the military zodiac.

The position was not of General Pickett's choosing, but of his orders, and from his orders he assumed that he would be reinforced. His execution was all that a skilful commander could apply. He reported as to his position and the movements of the enemy threatening to cut his command from the army, but no force came to guard his right. The reinforcements joined him after night, when his battle had been lost and his command disorganized. The cavalry of his left was in neglect in failing to report the advance of the enemy, but that was not for want of proper orders from his Headquarters. Though taken by surprise, there was no panic in any part of the command; [601] brigade after brigade changed front to the left and received the overwhelming battle as it rolled on, until crushed back to the next, before it could deploy out to aid the front,--or flank attack,--until the last right brigade of the brave Corse changed and stood alone on the left of W. H. F. Lee's cavalry, fronting at right angle against the enemy's cavalry columns.

It is not claiming too much for that grand division to say that, aided by the brigades of Ransom and Wallace, they could not have been dislodged from their intrenched position by parallel battle even by the great odds against them. As it was, Ayres's division staggered under the pelting blows that it met, and Crawford's drifted off from the blows against it, until it thus found the key of the battle away beyond the Confederate limits.

In generalship Pickett was not a bit below the “gay rider.” His defensive battle was better organized, and it is possible that he would have gained the day if his cavalry had been diligent in giving information of the movements of the enemy.7 [602] had nine thousand men of all arms. His adversary had twenty-six thousand.

Reinforcements of Hunton's brigade, and Lieutenant-General R. H. Anderson with the other brigades of B. R. Johnson, were sent him too late, and a telegram came for me at Richmond to march a division to Petersburg to report to General Lee. The hour at which the telegram was received was not noted. As the operations at Five Forks were not decisive until after five o'clock, the telegram may have been received about seven P. M. Field's division was ordered to the railway station, and the quartermaster was sent in advance to have the cars ready to move it.

To give the troops the benefit of our limited transportation I rode with the staff by the dirt road.

1 General Badeau's “Military history of U. S. Grant.”

2 Four Years with General Lee.

3 Diary of a member of Corse's brigade.

4 Estimated from returns.

5 Estimated from general return for March.

6 This account is gathered from the evidence of officers of both sides, given before the Warren Court of Inquiry, which vindicated Warren and Pickett, though the court was inclined to coquette with the lieutenant-general, who, at that late day, was in high authority.

7 He reported that he could have gained the day if the cavalry of his left had been as efficient as that of his right.

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