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.
Many historians consider March 29, 1865, as the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign. On that date, Grant opened his spring offensive against Lee’s army by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry (freshly returned from the Shenandoah Valley) and Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps to attempted to turn Lee’s right flank at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. Two days later the action resumed at the Battle of White Oak Road and Battle of Dinwiddie Court House as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the federal Flanking maneuver. On April 1 Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks.
Clash at Five Forks
Sheridan’s growing command forced Pickett to withdraw north to the intersection of five roads, locally known as Five Forks. Lee considered Five Forks to be a strategically vital crossroads because it provided access to the Southside Railroad, a key supply line into Petersburg. 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.”
Pickett ordered his soldiers to entrench and to prepare for a Union assault. The Rebels did not have long to wait. On the morning of April 1, Union cavalry divisions commanded by Major General George A. Custer and Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin engaged Confederate skirmishers near Five Forks.
Muddy roads and faulty maps delayed the main attack by Warren’s infantry until after 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Inexplicably, considering Lee’s orders and the strategic importance of the location, Pickett and subordinate Confederate leaders Major General Thomas L. Rosser and Major General Fitzhugh Lee were several miles away from their commands attending a shad bake when the battle began.
By 4:30, Warren had his troops in line and smashed into the Confederate left. Although the attack did not go exactly as Sheridan had planned, the outnumbered and leaderless Rebels quickly crumbled under Warren’s onslaught. Sheridan, in the meantime, led a cavalry charge that breached the left flank of Pickett’s line. As the Rebels fell back, they tried to establish a new defensive line. When Fitzhugh Lee arrived on the scene, his cavalry held off the Union advance long enough to allow some Confederates to escape. Despite Lee’s efforts, when the action ended by nightfall, the Federals had won.
The Confederates suffered nearly 3,000 casualties at the Battle of Five Forks compared with just over 800 for the Federals. Sheridan’s forces captured over 2,400 Rebel soldiers. More importantly, the Union victory threatened Robert E. Lee’s supply lines into—and his best escape route out of—Petersburg. The next morning, following the Third Battle of Petersburg, Lee informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the Army of Northern Virginia would have to evacuate Petersburg. Sensing the urgency of Lee’s situation, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, which resulted in the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond.
A collateral casualty of the Battle of Five Forks was General Warren. Displeased with Warren’s performance before and during the engagement, Sheridan relieved Warren of his command of the 5th Corps, ruining Warren’s military career. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes convened a court of inquiry regarding Warren’s behavior at Five Forks. The court found that Sheridan’s action was unjustified, but unfortunately, the results of the inquiry were not published until after Warren’s death.