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.
Conflict at Lewis’s Farm
Sheridan moved the bulk of his army toward Dinwiddie Court House and ordered the 5th Corps of Major General G. K. Warren to capture Boydton Plank Road. On March 29, lead elements of Warren’s force, commanded by Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, engaged several Confederate brigades, commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson, at Lewis’s Farm. After a brief, but sharp firefight, the Federals gained control of the road and forced the Rebels to retreat to their entrenchments along White Oak Road.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union suffered slightly higher losses at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm than the Confederates. Union casualties totaled 380 (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), compared to 370 Confederate casualties. Still, the battle was a Union victory because the Federals closed an important supply route to Lee’s beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg.