Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga to capture Atlanta, and Major General Franz Sigel would invade Western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Stalemate at Petersburg
The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee’s defenses to no avail. Despite being well-entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as their supplies dwindled.
Union prospects, on the other hand, improved over the winter. Major General Philip Sheridan completed his task of sweeping the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley, and his well-rested troops rejoined Grant in the spring. Determined to break the stalemate at Petersburg, Grant ordered Sheridan to turn Lee’s right flank with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps along with the 2nd and 5th Infantry Corps, and force Lee out of Petersburg.
Battle of Fort Stedman — Failed Rebel Breakout
On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon’s pre-dawn attack succeeded initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines, ending the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Grant’s spring offensive, the Appomattox Campaign, began in late March 1865 when Union troops commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan moved west with orders to threaten or capture Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which connected to Petersburg from the southwest. Grant intended to cut off supplies coming into Petersburg and to prevent Lee from using the two arteries as avenues of escape from Petersburg.
Battle of Lewis’s Farm
On March 29, the first battle of the offensive took place when Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps engaged several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. After a brief but sharp firefight, the Federals gained control of the Boydton Plank Road and forced the Rebels to retreat to their entrenchments along White Oak Road.
Lee Redeploys Troops
On March 29 and 30, heavy rains hampered Sheridan’s advance to Dinwiddie Court House. Lee used the reprieve to his advantage, shifting Major General W. H. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions and Major General George Pickett’s infantry division to the crossroads of Five Forks, a few miles north of Dinwiddie Court House.
On the morning of March 31, the rains stopped. Eager to halt Sheridan before he could concentrate his forces, Pickett attacked. Leaving a cavalry detachment to protect Five Forks, Pickett ordered Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to move south and hit Sheridan’s left flank. Pickett’s infantry followed closely behind to support the assault.
Rebels Split Sheridan’s Troops
Lee’s cavalry encountered advance units of Sheridan’s force at approximately 11 a.m. near rain-swollen Chamberlain Run. Heavy skirmishing took place until Pickett’s infantry arrived, and the Rebels forced their way across the creek around 2 p.m. The combined Confederate force then split the Federals, driving some to the east and others to the south.
Pickett Withdraws as Sheridan Reorganizes
Realizing that he was in a “critical situation,” Sheridan reorganized his soldiers just north of Dinwiddie Court House and stemmed the Rebel advance. When reinforcements began arriving, Pickett realized that he could not continue the assault, and he withdrew to Five Forks.
Lee considered Five Forks to be a strategically vital crossroads because it provided access to the Southside Railroad. Thus, he ordered Pickett to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad.” Lee’s order set the stage for the Battle of Five Forks the next day.
Aftermath of the Battle
Pickett’s battle plan at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House was sound. Although he suffered more casualties (about 760 killed, wounded, and captured/missing) than Sheridan (about 354 killed, wounded, and captured/missing), he halted the federal advance, albeit temporarily. As with so many other battles in the Civil War, the Yankees’ superior weaponry and manpower at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House undid the Confederates.