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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
p22
Chapter III

Five Forks: A Study in Attenuation

(MARCH 29-APRIL 1, 1865)

The week beginning March 27, 1865, was one on which the survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia were loath to dwell, because it was to them, in memory, the first stage of a gruesome nightmare; but to the student of war it is a most instructive period. It illustrated both the possibilities and the limitations of the employment of infantry to support cavalry in dealing with a turning movement. Further, it will long remain a classic example of the manner in which even the highest skill in reconcentration may not avail in holding a long line against a very powerful adversary. The events of the week, indeed, might well serve as the basis of a study in attenuation.

All Lee's intelligence reports on the 27th indicated that the anticipated Federal movement was about to start and that it was directed against the upper stretches of Hatcher's Run. This meandering stream covered Lee's right flank. Rising some fifteen miles west and southwest of Petersburg, it was not on the watershed of the Appomattox, but ran roughly parallel to that stream for about seven miles from west to east, and then turned to the southeast to become one of the affluents of the Nottoway. Between Hatcher's Run and the Appomattox ran the Southside Railroad, one of Lee's two essential lines of communication, via Burkeville, with the fragment of the Confederacy not yet occupied by the Federals.

The railroad, of course, was the prime objective of any attempt Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant might make on his left to drive Lee from Petersburg without a direct frontal assault. To reach the railroad, Grant's easiest course was to cross Hatcher's Run at a distance from Lee's lines, to march westward until he had reached a point beyond Lee's right flank, and then to strike northward. As the roads lay, p23 this would carry Grant into a wooded country, cut by numerous small but troublesome watercourses, most of which were running high between muddy banks. The main features of the terrain as they affected Lee's military problem were as follows:


[image ALT: zzz]

Terrain southwest of Petersburg to illustrate Grant's flanking operation against the Southside Railroad,
March 27 ff., 1865.

Grant's easiest crossing was at Monk's Neck Bridge. Thence the way to the Southside Railroad led by Dinwiddie Courthouse and by Five Forks, where Lee already expected Grant's troops to appear. This route was only fifteen miles — say a march of a day and a half as the roads then were. To attempt to meet this advance by merely lengthening his front, Lee would be compelled to extend himself from the point marked with the encircled X to the p24 the encircled Y beyond Five Forks. This would be a prolongation of four miles, a distance Lee could not hope to cover adequately. Already he stretched this thin line almost as far as it would hold. On the twenty-seven and a half miles occupied by infantry, he could count an average of only 1140 men per mile. North of James River he had as defenders of his left flank Fitz Lee's division of cavalry. This numbered about 1800 mounted men1 and was distant two days' march from the endangered right. Next the cavalry were Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Field's division of some 4600 men2 and Kershaw's of 1800.3 Their lines, which were fairly strong, extended slightly to the southwest of Fort Gilmer, two and a half miles from James River. It would take a minimum of twelve hours to get the leading brigade of either of these divisions to Petersburg. The only other forces north of the James were those around Chaffin's Bluff, namely a few field batteries, the heavy artillery units, which had very little transportation, the Virginia reserves, and the local defense troops. The artillerists were about 750 in number and the total of reserves and local defense troops was 3300, of whom about 1100 were then on the lines.4 Altogether at this time Lee thus could muster above the James a total of approximately 9700 infantry, 1800 cavalry and 750 heavy artillery. Even to do this he had to call out all the reserves and local defense units. Without utilizing the local defense troops he could dispose about 7500 infantry. Exclusive of the infantry, only Field or Kershaw could possibly be used to reinforce the right.

Between the James and the Appomattox, on and adjacent to the Howlett Line, were some heavy artillerists, a small detachment of naval gunners, and Mahone's division of infantry, about 3700 muskets. This infantry held nearly five miles of line and manifestly could not be reduced, for if the Federals broke through there they would cut the army in half and destroy communications between Richmond and Petersburg.

Gordon's corps, with artillery support, occupied a sector from p25 the Appomattox River just east of Petersburg to the point where Lieutenant's Run passed through the lines, directly south of Petersburg and about one mile east of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. This was a front of slightly more than four miles, on which Gordon, after the losses in the affair at Fort Stedman, had only 5500 infantry,5 a force that would have been hopelessly inadequate if the works had not been strong and all the ranges established. Beyond Gordon, in order from left to right, were Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox's and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth's divisions of A. P. Hill's corps, extending from Lieutenant's Run to the works covering the Boydton plank road at Burgess Mill, on Hatcher's Run. This was a distance of more than eight miles, as the lines ran, and it was held by approximately 9200 officers and men.6 To the right of Heth's division, protecting the White Oak and Claiborne roads in a bend of Hatcher's Run, lay Anderson's corps, which consisted of little more than B. R. Johnson's division of about 4800 infantry.7 There was no cavalry on this flank. W. H. F. Lee's division, as already explained, was at Stony Creek, forty miles away by road. Its strength was approximately 2400. It was joined on the 28th by what was left of Rosser's division, some 1200 sabres, brought down from the Valley of Virginia.8

The only force that could be accounted a reserve was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's division, which had been transferred to the north side of the James on March 14 to meet an anticipated attack by Sheridan.9 The division, it will be recalled, had been ordered back to support the assault on Fort Stedman. One brigade, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Steuart's, had reached Petersburg, but it was not needed in the operation and was held temporarily near the city. Two other brigades of the division were halted on Swift Creek, north of Petersburg. The remaining brigade, Hunton's, was still to the north of the James. The total strength of this scattered command was approximately 5000. It had suffered very heavily from desertion. The density of the p26 infantry and the character of the various zones, as of March 27, were approximately as follows:

ZONE AND COMMAND
INFANTRY PER MILE
[PER KILOMETER]
OF DEFENDED LINE
North of the James —
   
Cavalry on the left flank, 1800
   
Longstreet, with Field's and Kershaw's divisionsº (chiefly in field works), 5 miles
1360 [850] 10
   
Ewell, with Virginia reservists and siege artillery (in heavy earthworks), 2½ miles
740 [460] 11
Howlett Line —
   
Mahone's division (heavy works with naval and siege artillery support), nearly 5 miles
740 [460]
From the Appomattox to Lieutenant's Run —
   
Gordon, with Walker's, Evans's, and Grimes's divisions (heavy works, enemy very close), 4 miles
1350 [840]
From Lieutenant's Run to Burgess's Mill —
   
Wilcox's division of Hill's corps (some heavy works, chiefly field works), about 4½ miles
1100 [680]
   
Heth's division of Hill's corps (works of the same type as Wilcox's, though hardly as strong, except at Burgess's Mill), 3½ miles
1200 [750] 12
   
Average density of this zone
1150 [710]
Beyond Burgess's Mill —
   
Anderson, with Johnson's division (light field works on extreme right), 3 miles
1600 [990]
   
Average density (31,400 men on 27½ miles of line defended by infantry)
1140 [710]
   
Pickett's division, a quasi-reserve
5000
   
Cavalry at Stony Creek
2400
   
Ordered to Stony Creek, Rosser's division
1200

A pitiful situation, surely, for the only army of any consequence left to the Confederacy east of the Mississippi! What could Lee do with this scant force to meet the operation against his right? His first and obvious move, made on the 27th, was to transfer to that flank all the cavalry on the north side of the James, except Gary's brigade, which was left with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet.13 From Stony p27 Creek, of course, he could call up the rest of the cavalry, when needed, and thus could concentrate all his mounted troops on his extreme right. These three small divisions, however, could not possibly suffice to stop the movement, for on March 28 the report was that Federal infantry and artillery were continuing the march in great strength toward their left.14 Lee must have suspected that these troops were from the north side of the James for he telegraphed for information from Longstreet,15 whom he had cautioned five days before16 to be on the alert and to be prepared to release all the troops he could possibly spare. As a second step in his effort to protect his right, Lee executed the plan he had adopted at Longstreet's suggestion17 — to support his cavalry attack with an advanced and quasi-independent force of infantry. He knew he might have to increase this force, but he hoped if the enemy attacked he could do this without being compelled to draw troops from the line in such numbers as to make a break inevitable. The plan of operations was, in short, a compromise between a major detachment of force and a long extension of front. Pickett's division was selected for this service with the cavalry, and arrangements were made to shift other troops down the line to the right as operations required. Curiously enough, there is no record of any preliminary discussion as to who should command the force intended for the defense of the right.

It was on the 28th that Lee began to prepare for the movement of Pickett's division to the right.18 He delayed dispatching the troops only in order to assure himself that Pickett could be moved there without too great risks to the north side.19 He still had faith in his army and he told the administration that he believed it would have ten or twelve days in which to evacuate Richmond.20 During the forenoon of the 29th Lee received word that hostile cavalry and infantry — there was no mention of artillery — had started a march southwestward from the Federal lines at Monk's p28 Neck Bridge and had crossed Hatcher's Run.21 From the early reports Lee was not certain of the immediate Federal objective.22 He made his dispositions at once, however: Taking McGowan's brigade of Wilcox's division from its position on the line east of Hatcher's Run, he spread the other brigades over the ground McGowan had covered and moved him westward beyond Burgess's Mill. This arranged, Lee directed Pickett to move with the two brigades he had on Swift Creek, to pick up his third brigade in Petersburg and with these to go by train to Sutherland's station on the Southside Railroad, ten miles west of the city.23 Rooney Lee's and Rosser's divisions of cavalry were ordered to join Fitz Lee's command on the extreme right.24 A glance at the map will show that a cavalry raid on the Richmond and Danville Railroad around Burkeville was almost as easy as a quick attack on the Southside Railroad east of that point. Consequently, Lee directed Pickett's other brigade, Hunton's, which was still on the north side of the James, to cross to Manchester, away from the congestion of the Richmond yards and the allurements of Richmond streets, and to be ready to follow the rest of the division, or, if need be, to go directly on the Richmond and Danville Railroad to protect the Burkeville district.25

While these orders were being issued, Fitz Lee rode into Petersburg and reported the arrival of his division, which had been started the previous day from the extreme left. The commanding general told his nephew that Sheridan was in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Courthouse, was preparing to concentrate around Five Forks, and, in his opinion, intended to break up the Southside Railroad, which it was important to hold. Fitz Lee was to go there, where he would be joined by W. H. F. Lee and Rosser and by supporting infantry. He was to attack Sheridan — the one best way to break up the raid.26 To insure co-ordination among the cavalry divisions, which had not been under unified command since Hampton had left Virginia,27 Lee announced to his trooper-kinsman p29 that the latter was to take charge of the cavalry corps. No written orders were given Fitz Lee. He construed his verbal orders most strictly, as will presently appear, and he held General Lee's view of the situation long after the whole complexion of affairs had changed.

Later in the evening of the 29th, as a heavy rain began to fall,28 word came from Anderson that the advancing Federals had extended their left to Dinwiddie Courthouse, which was six miles from their starting point. Anderson had sent out two brigades to meet the cavalry, who proved to be Gregg's, but have had been unable to drive them back29 and had withdrawn to his works.30

This extension of the Federal left to Dinwiddie Courthouse, with no determined push northward toward the railroad, forced Lee to consider the possibility that instead of starting a raid, Grant was lengthening his line toward the southwest. The natural counter-move, of course, would be a corresponding extension of the Confederate front; but was that possible? Hunton could be and was called to Petersburg,31 but beyond that, what could be done other than to bring over a part of Longstreet's corps? "Old Pete" was notified of the state of affairs and was told that he might be required to come to the southside with Field's division. Meantime, could Longstreet ascertain what troops were still in his front?32 Longstreet's answer was that, as far as he could learn, the force on the northside was as usual, and that if Field were moved, the V. M. I. cadets and all the local defense troops should be called out to man the works.33

Soon the outposts reported that Federal artillery had also gone with the infantry and cavalry. Thereupon Lee took the further precaution of ordering to the extreme right the fine artillery battalion of Pegram with twenty guns.34 Darkness fell in a continued downpour, with no further indication of what was ahead, p30 except that on a large part of the Petersburg front heavy Federal demonstrations were begun. These were continued all night, as if Grant was feeling out the line in an effort to prevent the movement of troops to the right.35

The transfer that Lee had ordered during the day left the situation on the evening of the 29th as follows:

ZONE AND COMMAND
INFANTRY PER MILE
[PER KILOMETER]
OF DEFENDED LINE
North of the James —
   
Cavalry on the left flank, approximately 50036
   
Longstreet, with Field's and Kershaw's divisions (no change)
1360 [850]
   
Ewell, with Virginia reservists and siege artillery (no change)
740 [460]
Howlett Line —
   
Mahone's division (no change)
740 [460]
From the Appomattox to Lieutenant's Run —
   
Gordon, with Walker's, Evans's, and Grimes's divisionsº (no change)
1350 [840]
From Lieutenant's Run to Burgess's Mill —
   
Wilcox's division of Hill's corps, diminished by McGowan's brigade, density reduced from 1100 per mile [680 per kilometer] to
888 [552]
   
Heth's division, strengthened by McGowan's brigade from Wilcox, density increased from 1200 [750] to
1550 [963]
Beyond Burgess's Mill —
   
Anderson, with Johnson's division (no change)
1600 [990]
Moving —
   
Pickett with 5000 infantry to join Anderson.37
   
Cavalry, 4200, to right flank.38

Although no alarming news greeted Lee on the rainy morning of March 30, he became convinced that he would have to strengthen his extreme right still more if he was to take the offensive against Sheridan. Any withdrawal from the line was, of course, exceedingly dangerous, but unless Lee was willing to have his right turned, what alternative was there? Grimly he ordered Gordon to take over two miles of trenches beyond the point where the flank of his troops rested;39 and then, having discharged the gloomy business of the army at headquarters, he rode out to the p31 vicinity of Sutherland's. He found that Rooney Lee and Rosser had not arrived, but that Fitz Lee was advancing on Five Forks. Pickett had reached Anderson's headquarters and had reported to him on the night of the 29th. Lee promptly detached Pickett from Anderson and placed at Pickett's disposal Matt Ransom's and Wallace's brigades of Johnson's division, Anderson's corps, in addition to the three of Pickett's own division. Pickett was thereupon directed to march on Five Forks, to seize the initiative, and, with the cavalry, to march in the direction of Dinwiddie Courthouse for an attack on the flanking column of the enemy. Six of Pegram's twenty guns were to go within Pickett. The others were to remain at Burgess's Mill.40 By these orders Lee definitely set up the mobile force to protect the right flank, roughly 6400 infantry and 4200 cavalry. Having done this — all that he could do — Lee rode back to Petersburg. "Don't think he was in good humor," an observant young officer wrote in his diary.41

Advancing to Five Forks, Fitz Lee saw nothing of the enemy. He then moved down the road toward Dinwiddie Courthouse, quickly established contact with the Federal infantry and horse, and after beating off two attacks, drove them back on their reserves.42 This done, he returned to Five Forks, where he met Pickett. That officer had started from White Oak road for Five Forks, in accordance with General Lee's orders, but as his line of advance was closer to the Federals than that of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Fitzhugh Lee, he was exposed to attack, in front and on the flank. The enemy made a rush on his wagon train, but was repulsed. Almost all the way to Five Forks he had to drive the enemy from his front. When at length he arrived it was nearly sundown.43

In conference, Fitz Lee and Pickett decided that as the remainder of the cavalry had not joined them, and as the men were very tired, having marched with little rest for eighteen hours, they would delay until the next morning, the 31st, the combined offensive General Lee had ordered. Two brigades were thrown out about three-quarters of a mile south of Five Forks to cover the front. To do this, the troops had, ominously enough, to drive back p32 dismounted Federal cavalry who used repeating rifles and offered stiff resistance. Soon after this was accomplished, W. H. F. Lee and Rosser arrived at Five Forks with their cavalry.44 Lee did not get a full report of all this, but by the close of the day he knew the mobile force on the right was facing tremendous odds. His information was that the units west of Hatcher's Run consisted of Sheridan's and Gregg's cavalry and of the V and parts of the II and VI Federal Corps.45

What could 10,600 hungry Confederates do against this host? Cool military judgment gave only one answer to that question, but so long as there was the least chance of success, Lee omitted no precaution. The removal of Johnson's two brigades to strengthen Pickett had left the infantry ten paces apart on the works within the bend of Hatcher's Run and west of Burgess's Mill. This position was important in itself and constituted the sector from which troops could be drawn most quickly in case further reinforcements had to be sent Pickett. Lee accordingly proceeded to place more troops there. McRae's brigade of Heth's division was passed from the eastern to the western side of Hatcher's Run and was held near Burgess's Mill. His sharpshooters were left behind.46 Scales's brigade was moved from Wilcox's left to a position across the Boydton plank road, west of Hatcher's Run and just south of Burgess's Mill.47 Hunton, who had come down from Manchester, was put in near the junction of the Claiborne and White Oak roads, within the works at the bend of the run.48 The trenches abandoned by this shift to the right were taken over by Gordon in accordance with the orders Lee had given him that morning.49 These changes left the density of the line and the disposition of the troops at midnight March 30‑31 as follows:

ZONE AND COMMAND
INFANTRY PER MILE
[PER KILOMETER]
OF DEFENDED LINE
North of the James —
   
Cavalry on the left flank, approximately 500
   
Longstreet, with Field's and Kershaw's divisions (no change)
1360 [850] 50
   
Ewell (with all local defense troops in position)
1320 [820]
Howlett Line —
   
Mahone (no change)
740 [460]
From the Appomattox to Lieutenant's Run —
   
Gordon, with Walker's and Evans's division, but extension of lines two miles to the right, density reduced on fronts of 4 miles from 1350 [840] to
870 [540]
From Lieutenant's Run to Burgess's Mill —
   
Grimes's division of Gordon's corps, 2‑mile front
870 [540]
   
Wilcox's division, further diminished by Scales's brigade but with line shortened to about 2¼ miles
1100 [684]
   
Heth's division, strengthened by Scales's brigade from Wilcox, line approximately 3¾ miles in length
1785 [1110]
   
Average density of this zone
1370 [850]
Beyond Burgess's Mill —
   
Anderson, with Johnson's division, less Matt Ransom's and Wallace's brigades, but with Hunton's brigade of Pickett's division added, 3‑mile front
1200 [745]
   
Mobile force set up beyond right of fortified position, at Five Forks, 6400 infantry and 4200 cavalry, 10,600 men.

On the morning of the 31st, when Pickett and Fitz Lee were to advance against the enemy seeking to turn the Confederate right, General Lee rode down the line as far as the fortifications within the angle of Hatcher's Run. When he arrived he found Union infantry in front of these works with their left "in the air" at a point about opposite the end of his own line. To take advantage of this carelessness, and to preclude the possibility of the Federals breaking through between Pickett's advancing column and Anderson's fortified position, Lee determined to attack and roll up the Union flank, though he had available for the task only four brigades, and those four, as it happened, from three divisions. Major General B. R. Johnson had two of these brigades, Wise's and Moody's, formerly Gracie's. Johnson accordingly was p34 put in command, under the general supervision of Anderson, who seems to have had little or no part in the action. McGowan's brigade, which was still close to Burgess's Mill, was moved over until it became the extreme right brigade. Moody was on McGowan's left. Then came Hunton. Wise was on the ground but not in line. The two right brigades were placed under McGowan, who was selected to deliver an assault, to turn the Federal left flank, and to drive the enemy across the front of the other brigades.

It had been raining since about 3 A.M.,51 and was still raining when Lee made the arrangements for the attack. McGowan waited for the downfall to cease and then moved quietly out. He was getting himself into position, almost directly across the left flank of the infantry, under Lee's own eye, when firing broke out farther up the line. A lieutenant in Hunton's brigade, seeing the enemy, had sprung forward, had called on his men to follow him, and had opened the fight without waiting for orders. McGowan had perforce to launch his attack at once. The action had not progressed far when Lee saw that Hunton might lose contact with the troops on the line toward Petersburg, so he ordered Wise's brigade, which was available, to take position on Hunton's left. These tactics were successful. The troops on the Federal flank were quickly doubled up and thrown back across a branch of a nearby stream, Gravelly Run.52 There the advance had to stop, however, as the Boydton plank road and strong Federal supports lay just beyond. Lee went with McGowan to the bank of the little watercourse, and after examining the terrain he determined to hold it if he could. Dispatching orders to that effect to General Hunton, he tried to get up some artillery and, if possible, some cavalry. Just then, unfortunately, the left of the attacking forces began to waver in the face of a strong Federal counterattack. Lee had to consent to a withdrawal which, at the end of the day, brought the troops virtually back where they had been in the morning. On parts of the line to the left of the point from p35 which the advance had been made, brisk skirmishing occurred, but nothing more.53

Despite the outcome, this valiant fight under his very eyes had a stimulating effect on Lee. When General Hunton returned from the fray his scabbard had been bent almost double by a missile and he had three bullet holes through his clothes. Lee greeted him briskly: "I wish you would sew those places up," he said. "I don't like to see them."

"General Lee," said Hunton, "allow me to go back home and see my wife and I will have them sewed up."

The answer amused Lee. "The idea," he replied, "of talking about going to see wives; it is perfectly ridiculous, sir."54

Returning to the Turnbull house, Lee reported to the War Department the developments of the day. He had heard nothing from Pickett and Fitz Lee, and apparently he had caught no sound of their fire, but later in the evening he received news of what had befallen them while he had been directing the engagement in front of Anderson's corps. The troops around Five Forks had advanced southward toward Dinwiddie Courthouse, taking the initiative from the enemy. After a hard fight they had driven back the Federals, who were so numerous that Fitzhugh Lee was satisfied they constituted the whole of the cavalry corps. Pushing on, the Confederates had come within about half a mile of the courthouse. There darkness had halted them, and thence Pickett reported to Lee.55 The showing of the men had been admirable. There was nothing to suggest either exhaustion or any wavering whatsoever.

The good showing made by his gallant old infantry on March 31 did not deceive General Lee. He realized on the morning of April 1 that the situation was increasingly critical, even though his troops had, as yet, been defeated nowhere on the right. In one p36 of the last letters ever written in his autograph to the chief executive from the field, he explained the situation to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis. By the extension of the Federal lines to Dinwiddie Courthouse he was cut off from the depot at Stony Creek, where, he reminded the President, forage for the cavalry had been delivered. It was more difficult to withdraw, for Sheridan's advance had deprived Lee of the use of the White Oak road, which was one of the most important highways on his right. The enemy was on his flank and potentially in his rear and was in position, with superior cavalry, to cut both the Southside and the Richmond and Danville Railroads. "This," he said, "in my opinion obliged us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on the James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course." There was no longer any hope, he left Mr. Davis to infer, that time would remain for a slow removal of supplies from Richmond. He would like to have the President's views, he concluded, but felt that his presence at his headquarters was necessary. If the President or the Secretary of War could come over for conference, he would be glad.56

Probably it was soon after he dispatched this letter — it certainly was not before — that Lee received a report from Pickett to the effect that he was being forced to withdraw from the vicinity of Dinwiddie Courthouse. This was bad news. As the Federals were certain to follow Pickett's withdrawal, every step of their advance would bring them toward Five Forks and thence, by what was known as Ford's road, dangerously close to the Southside Railroad. The whole distance by highway from Dinwiddie Churches to the railway was only seven and one-half miles — less than a day's march, even through such mud as at that season the armies had to encounter. If the railroad was to be saved, Pickett could not afford to give much ground. Lee accordingly wrote Pickett: "Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford's Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad." He added an expression of his regret that Pickett had been compelled to withdraw and could not hold his advantage.57

p37 The one prospect of saving a desperate situation continued to be the possibility that Grant might in some way expose himself to attack.58 Lee proceeded to strengthen his position as far as practicable with artillery, on the sound principle that this was the first essential to a possible offensive in case Grant blundered. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton was ordered to bring down to Petersburg a part of the reserve artillery and to dispose it behind the works held by Gordon,59 whose troops were very close to exhaustion, inasmuch as more than one-half of them had to be continuously on duty.60 Beyond Gordon's flank, A. P. Hill, who returned that morning from uncompleted sick leave,61 resumed command of a corps that was little more than a shadow of itself. All Gordon's troops, plus that part of Hill's forces east of the north-and‑south stretch of Hatcher's Run, now numbered only about 11,000 men. They occupied — it could not be said they held — fully eleven miles of works, from the Appomattox River to Hatcher's Run.62

Lee knew that this attenuation of his line was a desperate gamble with ruin, especially at a time when Pickett was retreating; and when he received word, early in the day, that troops from the XXIV Corps had been captured, he was quick to act. This corps belonged to Ord's army from the north side of the James, and if the XXIV had been transferred and no other had taken its place, than Longstreet could attack the enemy and force Grant to send troops back to the northside, or else Longstreet could despatch part of his command to strengthen the Petersburg front. A telegram presenting these alternatives to Longstreet was forwarded immediately.63

This done and the routine of the morning completed, Lee rode out again to the headquarters of Anderson's corps to watch at first-hand the developments there. He found that the troops which had been in Anderson's front the day before had moved to the right,64 in the direction of General Pickett's front, but, so far p38 as the records show, he heard nothing more from Pickett himself.

While at the headquarters of Anderson's corps, Lee received from Longstreet a reply to his telegram concerning the withdrawal of troops from the north side of the James. Longstreet had no sure information, but he was inclined to think the Federals had diminished their force. As he apprehended the Federal gunboats could prevent any successful offensive on his part, he thought it better if any troops could be spared to reinforce the southside.65 Lee answered him with instructions to prepare for a troop movement to the Petersburg front if Longstreet found confirmation of the report that he faced reduced numbers.66 A little later in the day Lee learned that some of his men had captured Federal troopers the contents of whose saddle pockets indicated that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Kautz's cavalry was on the southside: would Longstreet ascertain what mounted units were on the northside?67 Longstreet sent Gary's cavalry to make sure.68 "Old Pete's" theory was that as Sheridan's cavalry was worn and Kautz's fresh, Sheridan probably had taken Kautz's and had left some of his tired troops in their place.69

At 4 o'clock that afternoon (April 1) heavy firing was heard from the right in the direction of Five Forks.70 Theoretically, a cavalry brigade was in liaison between the Confederate right and the mobile force under Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee; practically, the mobile force had been cut off from the Southern lines since it had begun operations. There was, consequently, no knowledge at Anderson's headquarters as to what the sounds of action really meant. It must have been 5 o'clock and after when a young cavalry captain brought Lee the first intimation of what had happened across the damp, bleak flats among the pines. He was followed by a messenger from Fitz Lee, who reported that the p39 troops had been attacked in great force and that he had lost contact with Pickett.71

Lee accepted the news as indicating a reverse,72 but he did not yet know that a dark and humiliating tragedy had been enacted around Five Forks in these grim stages: Pickett's withdrawal from in front of Dinwiddie Courthouse, ordered for 4 o'clock, had been begun at daybreak,73 and had been carried out in good order, though followed up very closely by the Federals. The column had been halted, and line of battle had been formed in the position at Five Forks from which the advance had begun. Fitz Lee said in his report that this was done "on account of the importance of the location as a point of observation to watch and develop movements then evidently in contemplation for an attack on our left flank or upon the line of railroad communication . . . ,"74 but the fact was that Fitz Lee thought the Confederate advance had broken up the Federal movement, at least temporarily. When he returned to Five Forks he was not looking for a Federal attack that afternoon.75 Pickett must have been of the same mind, for he went off with Fitz Lee, about the middle of the day, to enjoy a shad-bake provided by General Rosser.76 In their absence, shortly before 3 P.M., Federals were seen making their way toward the Confederate left. Soon they swept overwhelmingly down on the 6000 infantry,77 who were badly placed and had very little artillery. Quickly the Union troops turned the left flank of the Confederates and routed or captured a large p40 part of them in a coup de main. The survivors retreated as best they could in the darkness to the Southside Railroad. There they were rallied.

Thus, in two calamitous hours, the mobile force that Lee had established to protect his right flank was swept away and virtually ceased to be. The Federals reported the capture of 3244 men and four guns.78 The casualties were not large compared with those Lee had sustained in some of his great battles, but they were a very considerable fraction of his diminished army. His most strategic position had been lost. Fought in accordance with the plans made by two subordinates, and without Lee's participation or knowledge of what was happening, Five Forks was only one scene removed from the dread dénouement.79


The Author's Notes:

1 Fitz Lee, March 23 (Lee MSS — K), gave the number as 2600 and said it was increasing daily, but he evidently included part of Rosser's division of 1200, who joined him but were sent on March 26 to W. H. F. Lee at Stony Creek (F. M. Myers, p367).

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2 O. R., 46, part 1, p388, gave him 4799 present for duty as of March 1.

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3 According to O. R., 46, part 1, p388, he had 1922 as of March 1.

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4 O. R., 46, part 3, p1331; for organization of these commands see O. R., 46, part 1, pp112, 1275.

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5 Gordon's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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6 This allows 425 for desertions and casualties March 1‑26 as a deduction from the 9652 reported present for duty March 1 (O. R., 46, part 1, p389).

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7 Anderson said (Lee MSS — K) that he had about 6000 men when he was moved to the right, but that Wallace and Ransom's brigades lost about 1200 men while temporarily detached for the attack on Fort Stedman.

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8 F. M. Myers, p368. Myers gave the combined strength of the two divisions as 3000.

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9 O. R., 46, part 2, p1312.

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10 Even this coverage of the flank involved the virtual abandonment of two miles of the extreme left. If the extreme left were counted, Longstreet's density would have been only a little more than 900 per mile.

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11 This included the 750 heavy artillerists, who could be used as infantry.

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12 This assumption of 4½ miles for Wilcox and 3½ for Heth is believed to be correct, but it may have been that the density of the two divisions was about the same.

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13 F. Lee to Longstreet, March 27, 1865; Lee MSS. — J; F. Lee in Proceedings . . . of the Court of Inquiry . . . in the Case of Governeurº K. Warren (cited hereafter as Warren), (p27)467. This movement, ordered on the 27th, began on the 28th. Rosser could Stony Creek on the 28th.

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14 It is said that Lee owed his first information of this movement to a girl of eighteen, the daughter of poor parents living within the lines, who risked her life to communicate with his scouts (3 Confederate Veteran, 2‑3).

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15 Lee to Longstreet, March 28, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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16 Lee to Longstreet, March 28, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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17 O. R., 46, part 3, p1357.

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18 Lee MSS. — I.

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19 O. R., 46, part 3, p1360.

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20 O. R., 46, part 2, p1265.

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21 O. R., 46, part 1, p1263. The best map is O. R. Atlas, LXXVII. Several detailed maps also appear in the Atlas. A section of the field, with contours, will be found in Warren, Part III.

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22 Lee to Longstreet, March 29, 1865, received 3:30 P.M., Lee MSS. — U.

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23 Pickett's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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24 Rooney Lee's report, Lee MSS. — K; for Rosser, see Fitz Lee in Warren, 467.

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25 Lee to Longstreet, MS., March 29, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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26 F. Lee's testimony, Warren, 467.

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27 Ibid.

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28 O. R., 46, part 1, p53.

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29 O. R., 46, part 1, p1263; for the hour, ibid., 1287. This attack, which was opened at 3:20 P.M. by Wise's brigade of Johnson's division, was the real beginning of the Appomattox campaign.

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30 Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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31 O. R., 46, part 3, p1365.

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32 Lee to Longstreet, Lee MSS. — U.

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33 O. R., 46, part 3, p1363; O. R., 46, part 1, p1160. Longstreet did not know that Ord had crossed the James with three divisions of infantry and one of cavalry and was between the II and VI Corps on the south side of the river.

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34 McCabe in Warren, 511; Armistead C. Gordon: Memories and Memorials of W. Gordon McCabe (cited hereafter as Armistead Gordon), 1, 163.

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35 Gordon's and Anderson's reports, Lee MSS. — K.

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36 Reduced to this figure by the transfer of all of Fitz Lee's division to the right flank.

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37 Hunton's brigade was moving up in rear of the other brigades. Pickett had only 3700 with him.

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38 This assumes a loss of 200 in the three divisions, on account of feeble horses, in the movement to the right.

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39 Gordon's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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40 Pickett's report, Lee MSS. — K; McCabe in Warren, 511; Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K; Walter Harrison, 135; G. Wise, 219.

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41 1 Armistead Gordon, 163.

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42 Warren, 467; Lee's Dispatches, 352.

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43 Captain W. Gordon McCabe, with the artillery, thought Pickett was needlessly cautious and lost time (1 Armistead Gordon, 163).

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44 Pickett's report, loc. cit.

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45 Lee's Dispatches, 352. Lee's intelligence reports were in error. The II and the IV Corps were across Hatcher's Run, as reported, but the VI was still in the fortifications to the east of that stream. Lee had no notice, thus far, that one division of the XXIV also was across the run and that another division of the same corps and one of the XXV were directly east of the stream (Gibbon's report, O. R., 46, part 1, p1173). The computation of the Union forces is easy except for the cavalry. Warren on March 31 had 17,073, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Humphreys had 31,167, Turner's division of the XXIV was about 5500. If the cavalry, including MacKenzie, numbered 10,000, which there is every reason to believe it did, the total force beyond the run was 53,740. The odds were even greater than Lee assumed them to be.

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46 McRae's report, Lee MSS. — I.

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47 Wilcox's MS. report, 70.

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48 Hunton in Warren, 625.

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49 Gordon's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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50 See notes to table page 26, supra.

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51 1 Armistead Gordon, 164.

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52 It probably was after this action that Lee met a Federal officer, Major J. A. Watrous, among the prisoners. "In a gentle voice, full of sympathy," Watrous wrote after the war, "he looked at me and asked, 'Are you badly wounded, Major?' I replied that I was, and Lee said, 'I am sorry, I am sorry, Major. Take good care of him, gentlemen' " (18 Confederate Veteran, 106).

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53 O. R., 46, part 1, pp1287‑88; Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K; Hunton in Warren, 625; McGowan in ibid., 649.

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54 Autobiography of Eppa Hunton, 117. Another diverting incident occurred during this battle, when the gallant Walter Taylor stole off to indulge himself once more in the luxury of conflict. Riding out, he attempted to seize the flag of Orr's Rifles and to lead the charge, but Color-sergeant Dunlap flatly refused to give up the colors: if a fight was to be had, the sergeant did not propose to permit any one to deny him a part in its dangers (Norfolk Landmark, June 16, 1876, quoting The Abbeville [S. C.] Medium).

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55 O. R., 46, part 1, pp1263, 1299, Pickett's and W. H. F. Lee's reports, Lee MSS. — K.

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56 Lee's Dispatches, 359‑60.

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57 Text in Mrs. La Salle Corbell Pickett: Pickett and His Men, 386. This dispatch has not been found elsewhere.

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58 Lee to Davis, April 2, 1865, Lee MSS. — I.

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59 O. R., 46, part 1, p1280.

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60 Gordon's rapid, Lee MSS. — K.

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61 Heth's report, Lee MSS. — K. The late Mrs. Lucy Magill, daughter of General Hill, was authority for the statement that he had not completed his leave.

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62 They faced the VI and IX Corps, not counting any of the units still east of the run but intended for operations beyond it.

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63 Lee to Longstreet, April 1, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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64 Lee to Breckinridge, O. R., 46, part 3, p1371.

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65 O. R., 46, part 3, p1372.

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66 Lee to Longstreet, April 1, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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67 Lee to Longstreet, April 1, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.

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68 O. R., 46, part 3, p1377.

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69 O. R., 46, part 3, p1372. As a matter of fact, Lee was right and Longstreet was wrong. Kautz's division, commanded since March 20 by Brigadier General R. S. Mackenzie (O. R., 46, part 1, pp147‑48), had arrived on Lee's right that very morning and had been in its first action there when the tell-tale saddle pockets had been taken. The division had been on the southside, in Grant's rear, since March 29 (O. R., 46, part 1, p1244).

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70 O. R., 46, part 3, p1288.

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71 The substance of Fitz Lee's report can be reconstructed easily from Lee to Breckinridge, April 1, 1865, O. R., 46, part 1, pp1263‑64.

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72 Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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73 Fitz Lee in Warren, 479.

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74 O. R., 46, part 1, p1300. Pickett wrote, after the surrender, that he would have preferred the position behind Hatcher's Run, where he had parked his wagons, and that he would have taken that position had not he received orders from General Lee to hold the road to Ford's. Pickett wrote, further, that he assumed Lee intended to send him reinforcements. He had reported early in the day, he said, that the enemy was trying to get in between him and the army. He stated that he asked in this telegram for a diversion, as otherwise he would be isolated (Pickett's report, Lee MSS. — K). No reference to the receipt of any such telegram is made by General Lee in his own dispatches that day, nor did he make any such dispositions prior to the news of the battle, as he would certainly have undertaken had he received such a warning of this character. Fitz Lee did not mention a dispatch of this sort, nor did he describe a condition that would have justified its transmission. The Federals did not record the capture of a dispatch of this purport.

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75 Warren, 481.

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76 Irvine Walker, pp225 ff.

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77 Assuming 400 casualties and stragglers in the operation against Dinwiddie Courthouse.

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78 The loss in the V Federal Corps was 634 (O. R., 46, part 1, p836). The casualties in Sheridan's cavalry were not separately reported but probably did not carry the total above 1000.

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79 Few battles in the Virginia campaigns provoked as much recrimination among the generals who participated. Pickett's report, which was not written until May, 1865, blamed General Lee for the position he (Pickett) selected and charged Fitz Lee with failure to use his cavalry in preventing the turning of the left flank (Pickett and His Men, p395). This report contained details of events that Captain W. Gordon McCabe, a historical critic who participated in the battle, insisted did not occur. Fitz Lee's report (O. R., 46, part 1, p1298) did not blame Pickett but assailed Anderson for choosing the wrong line of advance — a charge that does not take into account the fact that as the position both of Pickett and of the Federals was unknown to Anderson, he could not have been expected to march in Warren's rear. What Fitz Lee claimed Anderson should have done is the counsel of perfection — after the event. Still later, in his life of General Lee, the cavalry commander modified his former view to the extent of saying that Pickett's "isolated position was unfortunately selected" (p376). Neither Fitz Lee nor Pickett ever made reference in print to their absence at the shad-bake, but Rosser, the host, admitted the facts, which General T. T. Munford repeatedly set forth in public and in private. They are reviewed fully in Irvine Walker, 226 ff. The fundamental cause of the defeat was, of course, the overwhelming strength of the attacking force, but if the ground had not been unfavorable the defeat would not have been a rout. The position would never have been taken up if there had been close liaison with Anderson, or if care had been taken in observing the advance of the enemy. As indicated, Fitz Lee gave the real secret of the fullness of the disaster when he said, in 1881, at the Warren Inquiry (loc. cit.): "When we moved towards Five Forks, hearing nothing more of the infantry's move which we had heard of the night before, I thought that the movements just there, for the time being, were suspended, and we were not expecting any attack that afternoon, so far as I know. Our throwing up works and taking position were simply general matters of military precaution." McCabe (loc. cit., 603) stated that General Lee witnessed the rout at Five Forks, and in great indignation, affirmed that "when the troops were taken into action again, he would place himself at the head of them." McCabe also quoted an incident about Lee's orders for the arrest of the stragglers. This incident evidently refers to events after Sayler's Creek, not to Five Forks. And as General Lee did not see the rout, his reference to it, as given by McCabe, may be equally mistaken. The soldiers' viewpoint of the battle is given in Walter Harrison, 138‑39, and in J. H. Hudson: Sketches and Reminiscences, 64 ff.


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