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American Civil War: Battle of Five Forks

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American Civil War: Battle of Five Forks

Major General Philip H. Sheridan, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Five Forks - Conflict:

The Battle of Five Forks occurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Battle of Five Forks - Dates:

Sheridan routed Pickett's men on April 1, 1865.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederates

Battle of Five Forks - Background:

In late March 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Philip H. Sheridan to push south and west of Petersburg with the goal of turning Confederate General Robert E. Lee's right flank and forcing him from the city. Advancing with the Army of the Potomac's Cavalry Corps and Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps, Sheridan sought to capture the vital crossroads of Five Forks which would allow him to threaten the Southside Railroad. A key supply line into Petersburg, Lee moved swiftly to defend the railroad.

Dispatching Major General George E. Pickett to the area with a division of infantry and Major Gen. W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's cavalry, he issued orders for them to block the Union advance. On March 31, Pickett succeeded in stalling Sheridan's cavalry at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House. With Union reinforcements en route, Pickett was forced to fall back to Five Forks before dawn on April 1. Arriving, he received a note from Lee stating "Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford's Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad."

Battle of Five Forks - Sheridan Advances:

Entrenching, Pickett's forces awaited the anticipated Union assault. Eager to move quickly with the goal of cutting off and destroying Pickett's force, Sheridan advanced intending to hold Pickett in place with his cavalry while V Corps struck the Confederate left. Moving slowly due to muddy roads and faulty maps, Warren's men were not in position to attack until 4:00 PM. Though the delay angered Sheridan, it benefited the Union in that the lull led to Pickett and Rooney Lee leaving the field to attend a shad bake near Hatcher's Run. Neither informed their subordinates that they were leaving the area.

As the Union attack moved forward, it quickly became clear that V Corps had deployed too far to the east. Advancing through the underbrush on a two division front, the left division, under Major General Romeyn Ayres, came under enfilading fire from the Confederates while the Major General Samuel Crawford's division on the right missed the enemy entirely. Halting the attack, Warren desperately worked to realign his men to attack west. As he did so, an irate Sheridan arrived and joined with Ayres' men. Charging forward, they smashed into the Confederate left, breaking the line.

Battle of Five Forks - Confederates Enveloped:

As the Confederates fell back in an attempt to form a new defensive line, Warren's reserve division, led by Major General Charles Griffin, came into line next to Ayres' men. To the north, Crawford, at Warren's direction, wheeled his division into line, enveloping the Confederate position. As V Corps drove the leaderless Confederates before them, Sheridan's cavalry swept around Pickett's right flank. With Union troops pinching in from both sides, the Confederate resistance broke and those able to escape fled north. Due to atmospheric conditions, Pickett was unaware of the battle until it was too late.

Battle of Five Forks - Aftermath:

The victory at Five Forks cost Sheridan 803 killed and wounded, while Pickett's command incurred 604 killed and wounded, as well as 2,400 captured. Immediately following the battle, Sheridan relieved Warren of command and placed Griffin in charge of V Corps. Angered by Warren's slow movements, Sheridan ordered him to report to Grant. Sheridan's actions effectively wrecked Warren's career, though he was exonerated by a board of inquiry in 1879. The Union victory at Five Forks and their presence near the Southside Railroad forced Lee to consider abandoning Petersburg and Richmond.

Seeking to take advantage of Sheridan's triumph, Grant ordered a massive assault against Petersburg the next day. With his lines broken, Lee began retreating west towards his eventual surrender at Appomattox on April 9. For its role in keying the final movements of the war in the East, Five Forks is often referred to as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy."

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