Battle of Five Forks

Battle of Five Forks

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The Battle of Five Forks was fought on April 1, 1865, southwest of Petersburg, Virginia
Petersburg, Virginia
Petersburg is an independent city in Virginia, United States located on the Appomattox River and south of the state capital city of Richmond. The city's population was 32,420 as of 2010, predominantly of African-American ethnicity...

, in Dinwiddie County, during the Appomattox Campaign
Appomattox Campaign
The Appomattox Campaign was a series of battles fought March 29 – April 9, 1865, in Virginia that culminated in the surrender of Confederate General Robert E...

 of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. The battle, sometimes referred to as the "Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands...

 of the Confederacy
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

," pitted Union
Union Army
The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

 Maj. Gen.
Major general (United States)
In the United States Army, United States Marine Corps, and United States Air Force, major general is a two-star general-officer rank, with the pay grade of O-8. Major general ranks above brigadier general and below lieutenant general...

 Philip H. Sheridan
Philip Sheridan
Philip Henry Sheridan was a career United States Army officer and a Union general in the American Civil War. His career was noted for his rapid rise to major general and his close association with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S...

 against Confederate
Confederate States Army
The Confederate States Army was the army of the Confederate States of America while the Confederacy existed during the American Civil War. On February 8, 1861, delegates from the seven Deep South states which had already declared their secession from the United States of America adopted the...

 Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett
George Pickett
George Edward Pickett was a career United States Army officer who became a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War...

 of Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert Edward Lee was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War....

's Army of Northern Virginia
Army of Northern Virginia
The Army of Northern Virginia was the primary military force of the Confederate States of America in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, as well as the primary command structure of the Department of Northern Virginia. It was most often arrayed against the Union Army of the Potomac...

. Pickett's loss at Five Forks triggered Lee's decision to abandon his entrenchments around Petersburg and begin the retreat that led to his surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9.


Following the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House
Battle of Dinwiddie Court House
The Battle of Dinwiddie Court House was a minor engagement in the Appomattox Campaign of the American Civil War that was the immediate prelude to the decisive Battle of Five Forks. On March 29, 1865, with the Cavalry Corps and the II and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan...

 on March 31, Pickett learned of reinforcements arriving from the Federal V Corps and wanted to pull back to a position behind Hatcher's Run. However, Lee ordered Pickett to stop short of Hatcher's Run and hold the crossroads of Five Forks with his infantry division and three cavalry divisions. "Five Forks" referred to the intersection of the White Oak Road, Scott's Road, Ford's (or Church) Road, and the Dinwiddie Court House Road. Lee's dispatch stated:
Pickett's troops built a log and dirt defensive line about 1.75 miles (2.8 km) long on the White Oak Road, guarding the two flanks with cavalry. Sheridan's plan of attack was to pressure the entire line lightly with his cavalry troopers, pinning it in position, while he massed all of the V Corps, under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren
Gouverneur K. Warren
Gouverneur Kemble Warren was a civil engineer and prominent general in the Union Army during the American Civil War...

, on the Confederate left flank. Faulty maps and intelligence led Sheridan to believe that the enemy's left flank was much farther east than it actually was.

Muddy roads and tangled underbrush slowed the Union approach, and Warren was not ready to attack until about 4 p.m. Sheridan blamed Warren's personal leadership for the delay. (Sheridan had a poor opinion of Warren from earlier in the campaign and had received confidential permission from Lt. Gen.
Lieutenant General (United States)
In the United States Army, the United States Air Force and the United States Marine Corps, lieutenant general is a three-star general officer rank, with the pay grade of O-9. Lieutenant general ranks above major general and below general...

 Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

 to relieve Warren if he saw fit.) But Sheridan's own cavalry had similar problems and ended up with little action in the battle.


Sheridan's attack planned for Warren to advance in a two-division front with the third division following in reserve. The right front division, under Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford
Samuel W. Crawford
Samuel Wylie Crawford was a United States Army surgeon and a Union general in the American Civil War.-Early life:...

, was to strike at an angle near the end of the enemy's works, and the left front, under Maj. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres
Romeyn B. Ayres
Romeyn Beck Ayres was a Union Army general in the American Civil War.-Early life:Ayres was born at East Creek, New York, along the Mohawk River in Montgomery County. He was the son of a small-town doctor who urged all of his sons into professional careers...

, was to strike the line head-on. But because of the faulty intelligence, the real flank was well to the west of where Sheridan thought, so Crawford's division missed the line completely as it moved forward, and Ayres's men were subjected to enfilade fire
Enfilade and defilade
Enfilade and defilade are concepts in military tactics used to describe a military formation's exposure to enemy fire. A formation or position is "in enfilade" if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis. A unit or position is "in defilade" if it uses natural or artificial obstacles to...

 from the left as they brushed past it.

The two Union divisions floundered in confusion as they frantically attempted to reorient themselves through the heavy thickets of underbrush. The reserve division, under Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin
Charles Griffin (general)
Charles Griffin was a career officer in the United States Army and a Union general in the American Civil War. He rose to command a corps in the Army of the Potomac and fought in many of the key campaigns in the Eastern Theater.After the war, he commanded the Department of Texas during Reconstruction...

, halted rather than add to the confusion. Warren, who chose to remain in a central location, sent all of his aides galloping off with messages to reorient the attack, but they were ineffective, so he rode out to take personal command. Meanwhile, Sheridan, riding with Ayres's vanguard, personally led the charge that breached the left flank of Pickett's line, an exploit that has been depicted heroically in paintings and lithographs of the era.

As the Confederates attempted to organize a new defensive line, Griffin's division moved in on Ayres's right and attacked. Then Warren ordered Crawford's division to join the fight from the north. Sheridan's cavalry swept around Pickett's right flank but was unable to prevent several Confederates from escaping. However, it was a decisive Union victory, in which nearly a third of Pickett's 9,200 men were casualties.


Pickett's unfortunate military career suffered another humiliation—he was two miles (3 km) away from his troops at the time of the attack, enjoying a shad
The shads or river herrings comprise the genus Alosa, fish related to herring in the family Clupeidae. They are distinct from others in that family by having a deeper body and spawning in rivers. The several species frequent different areas on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea....

 bake north of Hatcher's Run with Maj. Gens. Fitzhugh Lee
Fitzhugh Lee
Fitzhugh Lee , nephew of Robert E. Lee, was a Confederate cavalry general in the American Civil War, the 40th Governor of Virginia, diplomat, and United States Army general in the Spanish-American War.-Early life:...

 and Thomas L. Rosser
Thomas L. Rosser
Thomas Lafayette Rosser was a Confederate general during the American Civil War, and later an officer in the Spanish American War and railroad construction engineer. A favorite of J.E.B...

. He had neglected to inform his men of the generals' absence, leaving them leaderless. Atmospheric conditions muffled the sounds of battle sufficiently that Pickett was unaware of the fighting. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late.

The loss of Five Forks threatened Lee's best escape route, the South Side Railroad. The next morning, Lee informed Confederate President
President of the Confederate States of America
The President of the Confederate States of America was the Head of State and Head of Government of the Confederate States of America, which was formed from the states which declared their secession from the United States, thus precipitating the American Civil War. The only person to hold the...

 Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Finis Davis , also known as Jeff Davis, was an American statesman and leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, serving as President for its entire history. He was born in Kentucky to Samuel and Jane Davis...

 that Petersburg and Richmond
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

 must be evacuated, and Grant launched an all-out assault (the Third Battle of Petersburg
Battle of Petersburg III
The Third Battle of Petersburg, also known as the Breakthrough at Petersburg or the Fall of Petersburg, was a decisive Union assault on the Confederate trenches, ending the ten-month Siege of Petersburg and leading to the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.-Fort Mahone:The Union IX Corps...

) on the thinly manned Confederate entrenchments.

Union Brig. Gen. Frederick Winthrop was killed at Five Forks, and Col. Willie Pegram, a highly regarded Confederate artillery officer, was mortally wounded. Sheridan was dissatisfied with the performance of the V Corps in the approach to Five Forks, and he relieved Warren of his command.

The battlefield is preserved as a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg National Battlefield is a National Park Service unit preserving sites related to the American Civil War Siege of Petersburg. The Battlefield is centered around Petersburg, Virginia, and also includes outlying components in Hopewell, Prince George County, and Dinwiddie County...


External links