By Andy Mateja

At the end of March 1865, Lt Gen Ulysses S Grant wanted to start the final push to end the siege on Petersburg & Richmond and finally defeat Gen Robert E Lee once and for all. However staff officers were concerned about movement in the current heavy rains which caused Grant to postpone the movement. However fiery Maj Gen Phillip Sheridan convinced Grant to reverse his decision and move forward. This led to the Battle of Five Forks which was the last campaign in the East and a decisive victory for the Union forces.

Grant’s forces were to move around Lee’s right. The II & V Union corps and Sheridan’s cavalry were chosen to make the move. Sheridan was to cut Lee’s last supply line, afterwards he had the option to either move south to join Gen William T. Sherman’s army, just in case he could not effectively cut the supply line, or remain with Grant’s forces.
Lee saw what was coming and immediately moved most of his available forces including all of his cavalry to the right. Maj Gen George Pickett was to command five brigades and hold Five Forks with three divisions of Confederate cavalry under Lee’s nephew, Maj Gen Fitzhugh Lee to support Pickett.

Lee believed holding the junction at Five Forks was the key to holding Petersburg. Grant also came to this realization as well and changed Sheridan’s orders to instead seize Five Forks and use whatever Union infantry he needed as well. Sheridan’s forces arrived at Dinwiddie Court House, five miles south of Five Forks and planned to attack on March 30th, but the rains and muddy roads post phoned his decision. His attach began on March 31st with just a small part of his cavalry which later escalated later in the afternoon with the Union cavalry falling back and drawing Pickett’s infantry after them and away from their safe positions.

Now it was Pickett’s turn to attack. Sheridan’s cavalry, armed with muli-shot carbines which effectively halted Pickett’s attack. Elsewhere on the battlefield, Confederate cavalry tried to prevent the joining if the Union infantry corps with Sheridan’s cavalry and only succeeded in slowing them down. Pickett forces were now surrounded by Union cavalry in their front and enemy infantry in their rear. Pickett was now effectively cut off from the rest of Lee’s army.

The V Corps was to join with Sheridan at midnight and be in position to attack Pickett at 5:00AM. However two days of marching on muddy roads exhausted the Union infantry and they were slow in getting into position. Pickett smelled the trap and ordered a retreat before the V Corps got into position. However Lee, angered by Pickett’s retreat order, countermanded it and ordered Pickett to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards”.

Pickett obeyed and dug his forces in to await the attack. He assumed Lee would be sending him reinforcements as well. He was mistaken.

Sheridan expected that the V Corp would be in position at daybreak and was disappointed to find our they were not. They were more than 3 hours late, thereby losing a great opportunity of destroying Pickett’s forces at daybreak. Sheridan was fuming at the lost opportunity. Grant even gave Sheridan the authority to relieve the V Corp commander, Maj Gen G.V. Warren, from command if he felt it necessary.

Sheridan’s plan of attack was to have his cavalry threaten a flank attack on Pickett’s right while Warren’s infantry hit hard on the Confederate left. Additional Union cavalry would block Pickett’s line of retreat back to Lee’s army at Petersburg.

Things started to go wrong right from the start. Inaccurate map information had Warren’s infantry moving farther east than planned ….moving lethargically. Sheridan was becoming angry with the delay of Warren’s attack and felt his victory was slipping away. Little did he know that Pickett wrongfully assumed Sheridan would not attack until later in the day, left his command to join two of his cavalry commanders for a “shad bake” lunch? Pickett was also confident that his commander Robt E Lee would be sending reinforcements shortly.

While they were enjoying a tasty lunch, complete with libations, word came to Pickett that Union cavalry had broken his link with Lee’s army. Then Warren’s V Corp finally arrived and began their attack. But that went awry too as, due to faulty area maps, most of Warrens troops were marching AWAY from the area to attack. Confederate infantry, seeing the confusion, seized the initiative and started to disrupt the Union line.

Now it was time for Sheridan to shine once again. Not being able to locate Warren, Sheridan personally rallied the Union infantry, waiving his red & white battle flag, as he did less than six months earlier at Cedar Creek. The Union forces renewed their attack which now overwhelmed the Confederate infantry, with 1500 surrendering on the spot.
Pickett finally arrived on the field but his efforts to rally his men failed. Combined Union infantry and cavalry were mowing them down like ten pins. On the right, the Confederate cavalry was having better luck in blunting the Union cavalry repeated attacks. But it was only delaying the inevitable victory that Sheridan was about to win.

The Battle of Five Forks was a spectacular victory for Phil Sheridan and a fatal blow for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Over 5000 Confederates surrendered with 2000 more as casualties, compared to 125 killed and 700 wounded Union combatants.

The next day Richmond and Petersburg fell and a week after that, Robert E Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S Grant. Sheridan’s unrelenting focus on ultimate victory at Five Forks made all that possible………..

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