Prelude to the Battle of White Oak Road
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 Confederate 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 Confederates 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, Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps defeated 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 road and forced the Confederates to retreat to their entrenchments along White Oak Road.
Lee Redeploys Troops
Heavy rains on March 30 prevented Warren from pursuing the Confederates. While Warren waited for the rains to subside, Lee shifted reinforcements to protect his right flank, moving Major General W. H. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions to Five Forks and transferring Major General George Pickett’s division to the extreme right of the Confederate lines. Reconnaissance patrols kept Warren apprised of the Confederate troop movements.
March 31, 1865 — Clash at White Oak Road
Lee Surprises Warren
On March 31, the rains subsided, and Warren resumed his advance against the Confederate entrenchments along White Oak Road, hoping to drive a wedge in the Confederate lines and to isolate Pickett. As Warren’s division, marching in column, approached White Oak Road at approximately 10:30 a.m., Lee, who was on the scene, ordered an assault by a force of four Confederate brigades that he had hastily assembled. Taken by surprise, Warren’s division collapsed and fled to the rear in disarray.
Confederates Entrench and Warren Counterattacks
Without enough troops to pursue the retreating Federals, Lee called a halt to the Confederate advance and ordered his troops to entrench. As the Confederates hastily created new entrenchments, Warren restored order to his division. At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, he mounted a counterattack.
The outnumbered Confederates could not halt the Union onslaught, and they retreated to their original lines along White Oak Road. One federal division, commanded by Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, breached the Confederate line at approximately 4:30 p.m., achieving Warren’s primary goal of isolating Pickett’s division from Lee’s main force.
Significance of the Battle of White Oak Road
By the end of the day, Lee’s gamble at the Battle of White Oak Road ended with a federal victory. The Union suffered more casualties (approximately 1,800 killed, wounded, and captured/missing) than the Confederacy (approximately 1,100), but the attack failed to stop Warren’s advance. It also isolated Pickett’s division, setting the stage for a costly Confederate defeat at the Battle of Five Forks the next day.