While Merritt was engaged in this service the Baltimore and Ohio railroad once more received the attention of the enemy; Rosser, with two brigades of cavalry, crossing the Great North Mountain, capturing the post of New Creek, with about five hundred prisoners and seven guns, destroying all the supplies of the garrison, and breaking up the railroad track. This slight success of the Confederates in West Virginia, and the intelligence that they were contemplating further raids in that section, led me to send, Crook there with one division, his other troops going to City Point; and, I hoped that all the threatened places would thus be sufficiently protected, but negligence at Beverly resulted in the capture of that station by Rosser on the 11th of January.
In the meanwhile, Early established himself with Wharton's division at Staunton in winter quarters, posting his cavalry in that neighborhood also, except a detachment at New Market, and another small one at the signal-station on Three Top Mountain. The winter was a most severe one, snow falling frequently to the depth of several inches, and the mercury often sinking below zero. The rigor of the season was very much against the success of any mounted operations, but General Grant being very desirous to have the railroads broken up about Gordonsville and Charlottesville, on the 19th of December I started the cavalry out for that purpose, Torbert, with Merritt and Powell, marching through Chester Gap, while Custer moved toward Staunton to make a demonstration in Torbert's favor, hoping to hold the enemy's troops in the valley. Unfortunately, Custer did not accomplish all that was expected of him, and being surprised by Rosser and Payne near Lacy's Springs before reveille, had to abandon his bivouac and retreat down the valley, with the loss of a number of prisoners, a few horses, and a good many horse equipments, for, because of the suddenness of Rosser's attack, many of the men had no time to saddle up. As soon as Custer's retreat was assured, Wharton's division of infantry was sent to Charlottesville to check Torbert, but this had already been done by Lomax, with the assistance of infantry sent up from Richmond. Indeed, from the very beginning of the movement the Confederates had been closely observing the columns of Torbert and Custer, and in consequence of the knowledge thus derived, Early had marched Lomax to Gordonsville in anticipation of an attack there, at the same time sending Rosser down the valley to meet Custer. Torbert in the performance of his task captured two pieces of artillery from Johnson's and McCausland's brigades, at Liberty Mills on the Rapidan River, but in the main the purpose of the raid utterly failed, so by the 27th of December he returned, many, of his men badly frost-bitten from the extreme cold which had prevailed.
This expedition practically closed all operations for the season, and the cavalry was put into winter cantonment near Winchester. The distribution of my infantry to Petersburg and West Virginia left with me in the beginning of the new year, as already stated, but the one small division of the Nineteenth Corps. On account of this diminution of force, it became necessary for me to keep thoroughly posted in regard to the enemy, and I now realized more than I had done hitherto how efficient my scouts had become since under the control of Colonel Young; for not only did they bring me almost every day intelligence from within Early's lines, but they also operated efficiently against the guerrillas infesting West Virginia.
Harry Gilmore, of Maryland, was the most noted of these since the death of McNeil, and as the scouts had reported him in Harrisonburg the latter part of January, I directed two of the most trustworthy to be sent to watch his movements and ascertain his purposes. In a few days these spies returned with the intelligence that Gilmore was on his way to Moorefield, the centre of a very disloyal section in West Virginia, about ninety miles southwest of Winchester, where, under the guise of a camp-meeting, a gathering was to take place, at which he expected to enlist a number of men, be joined by a party of about twenty recruits coming from Maryland, and then begin depredations along the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. Believing that Gilmore might be captured, I directed Young to undertake the task, and as a preliminary step he sent to Moorefield two of his men who early in the war had "refugeed" from that section and enlisted in one of the Union regiments from West Virginia. In about a week these men came back and reported that Gilmore was living at a house between three and four miles from Moorefield, and gave full particulars as to his coming and going, the number of men he had about there and where they rendezvoused.
With this knowledge at hand I directed Young to take twenty of his best men and leave that night for Moorefield, dressed in Confederate uniforms, telling him that I would have about three hundred cavalry follow in his wake when he had got about fifteen miles start, and instructing him to pass his party off as a body of recruits for Gilmore coming from Maryland and pursued by the Yankee cavalry. I knew this would allay suspicion and provide him help on the road; and, indeed, as Colonel Whittaker, who alone knew the secret, followed after the fleeing "Marylanders," he found that their advent had caused so little remark that the trail would have been lost had he not already known their destination. Young met with a hearty, welcome wherever he halted on the way, and as he passed through the town of Moorefield learned with satisfaction that Gilmore still made his headquarters at the house where the report of the two scouts had located him a few days before. Reaching the designated place about 12 o'clock on the night of the 5th of February, Young, under the representation that he had come directly from Maryland and was being pursued by the Union cavalry, gained immediate access to Gilmore's room. He found the bold guerrilla snugly tucked in bed, with two pistols lying on a chair near by. He was sleeping so soundly that to arouse him Young had to give him a violent shake. As he awoke and asked who was disturbing his slumbers, Young, pointing at him a cocked six-shooter, ordered him to dress without delay, and in answer to his inquiry, informed him that he was a prisoner to one of Sheridan's staff. Meanwhile Gilmore's men had learned of his trouble, but the early appearance of Colonel Whittaker caused them to disperse; thus the last link between Maryland and the Confederacy was carried a prisoner to Winchester, whence he was sent to Fort Warren.
The capture of Gilmore caused the disbandment of the party he had organized at the "camp-meeting," most of the men he had recruited returning to their homes discouraged, though some few joined the bands of Woodson and young Jesse McNeil, which, led by the latter, dashed into Cumberland, Maryland, at 3 O'clock on the morning of the 21st of February and made a reprisal by carrying off General Crook and General Kelly, and doing their work so silently and quickly that they escaped without being noticed, and were some distance on their way before the colored watchman at the hotel where Crook was quartered could compose himself enough to give the alarm. A troop of cavalry gave hot chase from Cumberland, striving to intercept the party at Moorefield and other points, but all efforts were fruitless, the prisoners soon being beyond reach.
Although I had adopted the general rule of employing only soldiers as scouts, there was an occasional exception to it. I cannot say that these exceptions proved wholly that an ironclad observance of the rule would have been best, but I am sure of it in one instance. A man named Lomas, who claimed to be a Marylander, offered me his services as a spy, and coming highly recommended from Mr. Stanton, who had made use of him in that capacity, I employed him. He made many pretensions, often appearing over anxious to impart information seemingly intended to impress me with his importance, and yet was more than ordinarily intelligent, but in spite of that my confidence in him was by no means unlimited. I often found what he reported to me as taking place within the Confederate lines corroborated by Young's men, but generally there were discrepancies in his tales, which led me to suspect that he was employed by the enemy as well as by me. I felt, however, that with good watching he could do me little harm, and if my suspicions were incorrect he might be very useful, so I held on to him.
Early in February Lomas was very solicitous for me to employ a man who, he said, had been with Mosby, but on account of some quarrel in the irregular camp had abandoned that leader. Thinking that with two of them I might destroy the railroad bridges east of Lynchburg, I concluded, after the Mosby man had been brought to my headquarters by Lomas about 12 o'clock one night, to give him employment, at the same time informing Colonel Young that I suspected their fidelity, however, and that he must test it by shadowing their every movement. When Lomas's companion entered my room he was completely disguised, but on discarding the various contrivances by which his identity was concealed he proved to be a rather slender, dark-complexioned, handsome young man, of easy address and captivating manners. He gave his name as Renfrew, answered all my questions satisfactorily, and went into details about Mosby and his men which showed an intimacy with them at some time. I explained to the two men the work I had laid out for them, and stated the sum of money I would give to have it done, but stipulated that in case of failure there would be no compensation whatever beyond the few dollars necessary for their expenses. They readily assented, and it was arranged that they should start the following night. Meanwhile Young had selected his men to shadow them, and in two days reported my spies as being concealed at Strasburg, where they remained, without making the slightest effort to continue on their mission, and were busy, no doubt, communicating with the enemy, though I was not able to fasten this on them. On the 16th of February they returned to Winchester, and reported their failure, telling so many lies about their hazardous adventure as to remove all remaining doubt as to their double-dealing. Unquestionably they were spies from the enemy, and hence liable to the usual penalties of such service; but it struck me that through them, I might deceive Early as to the time of opening the spring campaign, I having already received from General Grant an intimation of what was expected of me. I therefore retained the men without even a suggestion of my knowledge of their true character, Young meanwhile keeping close watch over all their doings.
Toward the last of February General Early had at Staunton two brigades of infantry under Wharton. All the rest of the infantry except Echol's brigade, which was in southwestern Virginia, had been sent to Petersburg during the winter, and Fitz. Lee's two brigades of cavalry also. Rosser's men were mostly at their homes, where, on account of a lack of subsistence and forage in the valley, they had been permitted to go, subject to call. Lomax's cavalry was at Millboro, west of Staunton, where supplies were obtainable. It was my aim to get well on the road before Early could collect these scattered forces, and as many of the officers had been in the habit of amusing themselves fox-hunting during the latter part of the winter, I decided to use the hunt as an expedient for stealing a march on the enemy, and had it given out officially that a grand fox-chase would take place on the 29th of February. Knowing that Lomas, and Renfrew would spread the announcement South, they were permitted to see several red foxes that had been secured, as well as a large pack of hounds which Colonel Young had collected for the sport, and were then started on a second expedition to burn the bridges. Of course, they were shadowed as usual, and two days later, after they had communicated with friends from their hiding-place, in Newtown, they were arrested. On the way north to Fort Warren they escaped from their guards when passing through Baltimore, and I never heard of them again, though I learned that, after the assassination of, Mr. Lincoln, Secretary Stanton strongly suspected his friend Lomas of being associated with the conspirators, and it then occurred to me that the good-looking Renfrew may have been Wilkes Booth, for he certainly bore a strong resemblance to Booth's pictures.
On the 27th of February my cavalry entered upon the campaign which cleared the Shenandoah Valley of every remnant of organized Confederates. General Torbert being absent on leave at this time, I did not recall him, but appointed General Merritt Chief of Cavalry. for Torbert had disappointed me on two important occasions—in the Luray Valley during the battle of Fisher's Hill, and on the recent Gordonsville expedition—and I mistrusted his ability to conduct any operations requiring much self-reliance. The column was composed of Custer's and Devin's divisions of cavalry, and two sections of artillery, comprising in all about 10,000 officers and men. On wheels we had, to accompany this column, eight ambulances, sixteen ammunition wagons, a pontoon train for eight canvas boats, and a small supply-train, with fifteen days' rations of coffee, sugar, and salt, it being intended to depend on the country for the meat and bread ration, the men carrying in their haversacks nearly enough to subsist them till out of the exhausted valley.
Grant's orders were for me to destroy the Virginia Central railroad and the James River canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, and then join General Sherman in North Carolina wherever he might be found, or return to Winchester, but as to joining Sherman I was to be governed by the state of affairs after the projected capture of Lynchburg. The weather was cold, the valley and surrounding mountains being still covered with snow; but this was fast disappearing, however, under the heavy rain that was coming down as the column moved along up the Valley pike at a steady gait that took us to Woodstock the first day. The second day we crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah on our pontoon-bridge, and by night-fall reached Lacy's Springs, having seen nothing of the enemy as yet but a few partisans who hung on our flanks in the afternoon.
March 1 we encountered General Rosser at Mt. Crawford, he having been able to call together only some five or six hundred of his troops, our unsuspected march becoming known to Early only the day before. Rosser attempted to delay us here, trying to burn the bridges over the Middle Fork of the Shenandoah, but two regiments from Colonel Capehart's brigade swam the stream and drove Rosser to Kline's Mills, taking thirty prisoners and twenty ambulances and wagons.
Meanwhile General Early was busy at Staunton, but not knowing my objective point, he had ordered the return of Echol's brigade from southwestern Virginia for the protection of Lynchburg, directed Lomax's cavalry to concentrate at Pond Gap for the purpose of harassing me if I moved toward Lynchburg, and at the same time marched Wharton's two brigades of infantry, Nelson's artillery, and Rosser's cavalry to Waynesboro', whither he went also to remain till the object of my movement was ascertained.
I entered Staunton the morning of March 2, and finding that Early had gone to Waynesboro' with his infantry and Rosser, the question at once arose whether I should continue my march to Lynchburg direct, leaving my adversary in my rear, or turn east and open the way through Rockfish Gap to the Virginia Central railroad and James River canal. I felt confident of the success of the latter plan, for I knew that Early numbered there not more than two thousand men; so, influenced by this, and somewhat also by the fact that Early had left word in Staunton that he would fight at Waynesboro', I directed Merritt to move toward that place with Custer, to be closely followed by Devin, who was to detach one brigade to destroy supplies at Swoope's depot. The by-roads were miry beyond description, rain having fallen almost incessantly since we left Winchester, but notwithstanding the down-pour the column pushed on, men and horses growing almost unrecognizable from the mud covering them from head to foot.
General Early was true to the promise made his friends in Staunton, for when Custer neared Waynesboro' he found, occupying a line of breastworks on a ridge west of the town, two brigades of infantry, with eleven pieces of artillery and Rosser's cavalry. Custer, when developing the position of the Confederates, discovered that their left was somewhat exposed instead of resting on South River; he therefore made his dispositions for attack, sending around that flank the dismounted regiments from Pennington's brigade, while he himself, with two brigades, partly mounted and partly dismounted, assaulted along the whole line of breastworks. Pennington's flanking movement stampeded the enemy in short order, thus enabling Custer to carry the front with little resistance, and as he did so the Eighth New York and First Connecticut, in a charge in column, broke through the opening made by Custer, and continued on through the town of Waynesboro', never stopping till they crossed South River. There, finding themselves immediately in the enemy's rear, they promptly formed as foragers and held the east bank of the stream till all the Confederates surrendered except Rosser, who succeeded in making his way back to the valley, and Generals Early, Wharton, Long, and Lilley, who, with fifteen or twenty men, escaped across the Blue Ridge. I followed up the victory immediately by despatching Capehart through Rock-fish Gap, with orders to encamp on the east side of the Blue Ridge. By reason of this move all the enemy's stores and transportation fell into our hands, while we captured on the field seventeen battle flags, sixteen hundred officers and men, and eleven pieces of artillery. This decisive victory closed hostilities in the Shenandoah Valley. The prisoners and artillery were sent back to Winchester next morning, under a guard of 1,500 men, commanded by Colonel J. H. Thompson, of the First New Hampshire.
The night of March 2 Custer camped at Brookfield, Devin remaining at Waynesboro'. The former started for Charlottesville the next morning early, followed by Devin with but two brigades, Gibbs having been left behind to blow up the iron railroad bridge across South River. Because of the incessant rains and spring thaws the roads were very soft, and the columns cut them up terribly, the mud being thrown by the sets of fours across the road in ridges as much as two feet high, making it most difficult to get our wagons along, and distressingly wearing on the animals toward the middle and rear of the columns. Consequently I concluded to rest at Charlottesville for a couple of days and recuperate a little, intending at the same time to destroy, with small parties, the railroad from that point toward Lynchburg. Custer reached Charlottesville the 3d, in the afternoon, and was met at the outskirts by a deputation of its citizens, headed by the mayor, who surrendered the town with medieval ceremony, formally handing over the keys of the public buildings and of the University of Virginia. But this little scene did not delay Custer long enough to prevent his capturing, just beyond the village, a small body of cavalry and three pieces of artillery. Gibbs's brigade, which was bringing up my mud-impeded train, did not arrive until the 5th of March. In the mean time Young's scouts had brought word that the garrison of Lynchburg was being increased and the fortifications strengthened, so that its capture would be improbable. I decided, however, to move toward the place as far as Amherst Court House, which is sixteen miles short of the town, so Devin, under Merritt's supervision, marched along the James River, destroying the canal, while Custer pushed ahead on the railroad and broke it up. The two columns were to join at New Market, whence I intended to cross the James River at some point east of Lynchburg, if practicable, so as to make my way to Appomattox Court House, and destroy the Southside railroad as far east as Farmville. Owing to its swollen condition the river was unfordable but knowing that there was a covered bridge at Duguidsville, I hoped to secure it by a dash, and cross there, but the enemy, anticipating this, had filled the bridge with inflammable material, and just as our troops got within striking distance it burst into flames. The bridge at Hardwicksville also having been burned by the enemy, there was now no means of crossing except by pontoons. But, unfortunately, I had only eight of these, and they could not be made to span the swollen river.
Being thus unable to cross until the river should fall, and knowing that it was impracticable to join General Sherman, and useless to adhere to my alternative instructions to return to Winchester, I now decided to destroy still more thoroughly the James River canal and the Virginia Central railroad and then join General Grant in front of Petersburg. I was master of the whole country north of the James as far down as Goochland; hence the destruction of these arteries of supply could be easily compassed, and feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.
On March 9 the main column started eastward down the James River, destroying locks, dams, and boats, having been preceded by Colonel Fitzhugh's brigade of Devin's division in a forced march to Goochland and Beaver Dam Creek, with orders to destroy everything below Columbia. I made Columbia on the 10th, and from there sent a communication to General Grant reporting what had occurred, informing him of my condition and intention, asking him to send forage and rations to meet me at the White House, and also a pontoon-bridge to carry me over the Pamunkey, for in view of the fact that hitherto it had been impracticable to hold Lee in the trenches around Petersburg, I regarded as too hazardous a march down the south bank of the Pamunkey, where the enemy, by sending troops out from Richmond, might fall upon my flank and rear. It was of the utmost importance that General Grant should receive these despatches without chance of failure, in order that I might, depend absolutely on securing supplies at the White House; therefore I sent the message in duplicate, one copy overland direct to City Point by two scouts, Campbell and Rowan, and the other by Fannin and Moore, who were to go down the James River in a small boat to Richmond, join the troops in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and, deserting to the Union lines, deliver their tidings into General Grant's hands. Each set of messengers got through, but the copy confided to Campbell and Rowan was first at Grant's headquarters.
I halted for one day at Columbia to let my trains catch up, for it was still raining and the mud greatly delayed the teams, fatiguing and wearying the mules so much that I believe we should have been forced to abandon most of the wagons except for the invaluable help given by some two thousand negroes who had attached themselves to the column: they literally lifted the wagons out of the mud. From Columbia Merritt, with Devin's division, marched to Louisa Court House and destroyed the Virginia Central to Frederick's Hall. Meanwhile Custer was performing similar work from Frederick's Hall to Beaver Dam Station, and also pursued for a time General Early, who, it was learned from despatches captured in the telegraph office at Frederick's Hall, was in the neighborhood with a couple of hundred men. Custer captured some of these men and two of Early's staff-officers, but the commander of the Valley District, accompanied by a single orderly, escaped across the South Anna and next day made his way to Richmond, the last man of the Confederate army that had so long contended with us in the Shenandoah Valley.
At Frederick's Hall, Young's scouts brought me word from Richmond that General Longstreet was assembling a force there to prevent my junction with Grant, and that Pickett's division, which had been sent toward Lynchburg to oppose my march, and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, were moving east on the Southside railroad, with the object of circumventing me. Reasoning that Longstreet could interpose effectually only by getting to the White House ahead of me, I pushed one column under Custer across the South Anna, by way of Ground Squirrel bridge, to Ashland, where it united with Merritt, who had meanwhile marched through Hanover Junction. Our appearance at Ashland drew the Confederates out in that direction, as was hoped, so, leaving Colonel Pennington's brigade there to amuse them, the united command retraced its route to Mount Carmel church to cross the North Anna. After dark Pennington came away, and all the troops reached the church by midnight of the 15th.
Resuming the march at an early hour next morning, we took the road by way of King William Court House to the White House, where, arriving on the 18th, we found, greatly to our relief, the supplies which I had requested to be sent there. In the meanwhile the enemy had marched to Hanover Court House, but being unable either to cross the Pamunkey there or forestall me at the White House on the south side of the river, he withdrew to Richmond without further effort to impede my column.
The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well-nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy's means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.
TRANSFERRED TO PETERSBURG—GENERAL RAWLINS CORDIAL WELCOME—GENERAL GRANT's ORDERS AND PLANS—A TRIP WITH MR. LINCOLN AND GENERAL GRANT —MEETING GENERAL SHERMAN—OPPOSED TO JOINING THE ARMY OF THE TENNESSEE —OPENING OF THE APPOMATTOX CAMPAIGN—GENERAL GRANT AND GENERAL RAWLINS.
The transfer of my command from the Shenandoah Valley to the field of operations in front of Petersburg was not anticipated by General Grant; indeed, the despatch brought from Columbia by my scouts, asking that supplies be sent me at the White House, was the first word that reached him concerning the move. In view of my message the general-in-chief decided to wait my arrival before beginning spring operations with the investing troops south of the James River, for he felt the importance of having my cavalry at hand in a campaign which he was convinced would wind up the war. We remained a few days at the White House resting and refitting the cavalry, a large amount of shoeing being necessary; but nothing like enough horses were at hand to replace those that had died or been disabled on the mud march from Staunton to the Pamunkey River, so a good many of the men were still without mounts, and all such were sent by boat to the dismounted camp near City Point. When all was ready the column set out for Hancock Station, a point on the military railroad in front of Petersburg, and arriving there on the 27th of March, was in orders reunited with its comrades of the Second Division, who had been serving with the Army of the Potomac since we parted from them the previous August. General Crook, who had been exchanged within a few days, was now in command of this Second Division. The reunited corps was to enter upon the campaign as a separate army, I reporting directly to General Grant; the intention being thus to reward me for foregoing, of my own choice, my position as a department commander by joining the armies at Petersburg.
Taking the road across the Peninsula, I started from the White House with Merritt's column on the 25th of March and encamped that night at Harrison's Landing. Very early next morning, in conformity with a request from General Grant, I left by boat for City Point, Merritt meanwhile conducting the column across the James River to the point of rendezvous, The trip to City Point did not take long, and on arrival at army headquarters the first person I met was General John A. Rawlins, General Grant's chief-of-staff. Rawlins was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and positive always both in speech and action, exhibiting marked feelings when greeting any one, and on this occasion met me with much warmth. His demonstrations of welcome over, we held a few minutes' conversation about the coming campaign, he taking strong ground against a part of the plan of operations adopted, namely, that which contemplated my joining General Sherman's army. His language was unequivocal and vehement, and when he was through talking, he conducted me to General Grant's quarters, but he himself did not enter.
General Grant was never impulsive, and always met his officers in an unceremonious way, with a quiet "How are you" soon putting one at his ease, since the pleasant tone in which he spoke gave assurance of welcome, although his manner was otherwise impassive. When the ordinary greeting was over, he usually waited for his visitor to open the conversation, so on this occasion I began by giving him the details of my march from Winchester, my reasons for not joining Sherman, as contemplated in my instructions, and the motives which had influenced me to march to the White House. The other provision of my orders on setting out from Winchester—the alternative return to that place—was not touched upon, for the wisdom of having ignored that was fully apparent. Commenting on this recital of my doings, the General referred only to the tortuous course of my march from Waynesboro' down, our sore trials, and the valuable services of the scouts who had brought him tidings of me, closing with the remark that it was, rare a department commander voluntarily deprived himself of independence, and added that I should not suffer for it. Then turning to the business for which he had called me to City Point, he outlined what he expected me to do; saying that I was to cut loose from the Army of the Potomac by passing its left flank to the southward along the line of the Danville railroad, and after crossing the Roanoke River, join General Sherman. While speaking, he handed me a copy of a general letter of instructions that had been drawn up for the army on the 24th. The letter contained these words concerning the movements of my command:
"The cavalry under General Sheridan, joined by the division now under General Davies, will move at the same time (29th inst.) by the Weldon road and the Jerusalem plank-road, turning west from the latter before crossing the Nottoway, and west with the whole column before reaching Stony Creek. General Sheridan will then move independently under other instructions which will be given him. All dismounted cavalry belonging to the Army of the Potomac, and the dismounted cavalry from the Middle Military Division not required for guarding property belonging to their arm of the service, will report to Brigadier-General Benham to be added to the defenses of City Point."
When I had gone over the entire letter I showed plainly that I was dissatisfied with it, for, coupled with what the General had outlined orally, which I supposed was the "other instructions," I believed it foreshadowed my junction with General Sherman. Rawlins thought so too, as his vigorous language had left no room to doubt, so I immediately began to offer my objections to the programme. These were, that it would be bad policy to send me down to the Carolinas with a part of the Army of the Potomac, to come back to crush Lee after the destruction of General Johnston's army; such a course would give rise to the charge that his own forces around Petersburg were not equal to the task, and would seriously affect public opinion in the North; that in fact my cavalry belonged to the Army of the Potomac, which army was able unaided to destroy Lee, and I could not but oppose any dispersion of its strength.
All this was said in a somewhat emphatic manner, and when I had finished he quietly told me that the portion of my instructions from which I so strongly dissented was intended as a "blind" to cover any check the army in its general move, to the left might meet with, and prevent that element in the North which held that the war could be ended only through negotiation, from charging defeat. The fact that my cavalry was not to ultimately join Sherman was a great relief to me, and after expressing the utmost confidence in the plans unfolded for closing the war by directing every effort to the annihilation of Lee's army, I left him to go to General Ingalls's quarters. On the way I again met Rawlins, who, when I told him that General Grant had intimated his intention to modify the written plan of operations so far as regarded the cavalry, manifested the greatest satisfaction, and I judged from this that the new view of the matter had not previously been communicated to the chief-of-staff, though he must have been acquainted of course with the programme made out on the 24th of March.
Toward noon General Grant sent for me to accompany him up the river. When I joined the General he informed me that the President was on board the boat—the steamer Mary Martin. For some days Mr. Lincoln had been at City Point, established on the steamer River Queen, having come down from Washington to be nearer his generals, no doubt, and also to be conveniently situated for the reception of tidings from the front when operations began, for he could not endure the delays in getting news to Washington. This trip up the James had been projected by General Meade, but on account of demands at the front he could not go, so the President, General Grant, and I composed the party. We steamed up to where my cavalry was crossing on the pontoon-bridge below the mouth of the Dutch Gap canal, and for a little while watched the column as it was passing over the river, the bright sunshine presaging good weather, but only to delude, as was proved by the torrents of rain brought by the succeeding days of March. On the trip the President was not very cheerful. In fact, he was dejected, giving no indication of his usual means of diversion, by which (his quaint stories) I had often heard he could find relief from his cares. He spoke to me of the impending operations and asked many questions, laying stress upon the one, "What would be the result when the army moved out to the left, if the enemy should come down and capture City Point?" the question being prompted, doubtless, by the bold assault on our lines and capture of Fort Steadman two days before by General Gordon. I answered that I did not think it at all probable that General Lee would undertake such a desperate measure to relieve the strait he was in; that General Hartranft's successful check to Gordon had ended, I thought, attacks of such a character; and in any event General Grant would give Lee all he could attend to on the left. Mr. Lincoln said nothing about my proposed route of march, and I doubt if he knew of my instructions, or was in possession at most of more than a very general outline of the plan of campaign. It was late when the Mary Martin returned to City Point, and I spent the night there with General Ingalls.
The morning of the 27th I went out to Hancock Station to look after my troops and prepare for moving two days later. In the afternoon I received a telegram from General Grant, saying: "General Sherman will be here this evening to spend a few hours. I should like to have you come down." Sherman's coming was a surprise—at least to me it was —this despatch being my first intimation of his expected arrival. Well knowing the zeal and emphasis with which General Sherman would present his views, there again came into my mind many misgivings with reference to the movement of the cavalry, and I made haste to start for Grant's headquarters. I got off a little after 7 o'clock, taking the rickety military railroad, the rails of which were laid on the natural surface of the ground, with grading only here and there at points of absolute necessity, and had not gone far when the locomotive jumped the track. This delayed my arrival at City Point till near midnight, but on repairing to the little cabin that sheltered the general-in-chief, I found him and Sherman still up talking over the problem whose solution was near at hand. As already stated, thoughts as to the tenor of my instructions became uppermost the moment I received the telegram in the afternoon, and they continued to engross and disturb me all the way down the railroad, for I feared that the telegram foreshadowed, under the propositions Sherman would present, a more specific compliance with the written instructions than General Grant had orally assured me would be exacted.
My entrance into the shanty suspended the conversation for a moment only, and then General Sherman, without prelude, rehearsed his plans for moving his army, pointing out with every detail how he would come up through the Carolinas to join the troops besieging Petersburg and Richmond, and intimating that my cavalry, after striking the Southside and Danville railroads, could join him with ease. I made no comments on the projects for moving, his own troops, but as soon as opportunity offered, dissented emphatically from the proposition to have me join the Army of the Tennessee, repeating in substance what I had previously expressed to General Grant.
My uneasiness made me somewhat too earnest, I fear, but General Grant soon mollified me, and smoothed matters over by practically repeating what he had told me in regard to this point at the close of our interview the day before, so I pursued the subject no further. In a little while the conference ended, and I again sought lodging at the hospitable quarters of Ingalls.
Very early the next morning, while I was still in bed, General Sherman came to me and renewed the subject of my joining him, but when he saw that I was unalterably opposed to it the conversation turned into other channels, and after we had chatted awhile he withdrew, and later in the day went up the river with the President, General Grant, and Admiral Porter, I returning to my command at Hancock Station, where my presence was needed to put my troops in march next day.
During the entire winter General Grant's lines fronting Petersburg had extended south of the Appomattox River, practically from that stream around to where the Vaughn road crosses Hatcher's Run, and this was nearly the situation Wilien the cavalry concentrated at Hancock Station, General Weitzel holding the line north of the Appomattox, fronting Richmond and Bermuda Hundred.
The instructions of the 24th of March contemplated that the campaign should begin with the movement of Warren's corps (the Fifth) at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 29th, and Humphreys's (the Second) at 6; the rest of the infantry holding on in the trenches. The cavalry was to move in conjunction with Warren and Humphreys, and make its way out beyond our left as these corps opened the road.
The night of the 28th I received the following additional instructions, the general tenor of which again disturbed me, for although I had been assured that I was not to join General Sherman, it will be seen that the supplemental directions distinctly present that alternative, and I therefore feared that during the trip up the James River on the morning of the 28th General Grant had returned to his original views:
"HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES, "City Point, Va., March 28, 1865.
"MAJOR-GENERAL P. H. SHERIDAN:
"The Fifth Army Corps will move by the Vaughn road at 3 A.M. tomorrow morning. The Second moves at about 9 A.M., having but about three miles to march to reach the point designated for it to take on the right of the Fifth Corps, after the latter reaches Dinwiddie Court House.
"Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his intrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us, or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way, and with the full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy, as circumstances will dictate. I shall be on the field, and will probably be able to communicate with you; should I not do so, and you find that the enemy keeps within his main intrenched line, you may cut loose and push for the Danville road. If you find it practicable I would like you to cross the Southside road, between Petersburg and Burkeville, and destroy it to some extent. I would not advise much detention, however, until you reach the Danville road, which I would like you to strike as near to the Appomattox as possible; make your destruction of that road as complete as possible; you can then pass on to the Southside road, west of Burkeville, and destroy that in like manner.
"After having accomplished the destruction of the two railroads, which are now the only avenues of supply to Lee's army, you may return to this army, selecting your road farther south, or you may go on into North Carolina and join General Sherman. Should you select the latter course, get the information to me as early as possible, so that I may send orders to meet you at Goldsboro'.
"U. S. GRANT, Lieut.-General."
These instructions did not alter my line of march for the morrow, and I trusted matters would so come about as not to require compliance with those portions relative to the railroads and to joining Sherman; so early on the 29th I moved my cavalry out toward Ream's Station on the Weldon road, Devin commanding the First Division, with Colonels Gibbs, Stagg, and Fitzhugh in charge of the brigades; the Third Division under Custer, Colonels Wells, Capehart and Pennington being the brigade commanders. These two divisions united were commanded by Merritt, as they had been since leaving Winchester. Crook headed the Second Division, his brigades being under General Davies and Colonels John I. Gregg and Smith.
Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads, from the winter's frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a detour was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks. Crook and Devin reached the county-seat of Dinwiddie about 5 o'clock in the evening, having encountered only a small picket, that at once gave way to our advance. Merritt left Custer at Malon's crossing of Rowanty Creek to care for the trains containing our subsistence and the reserve ammunition, these being stuck in the mire at, intervals all the way back to the Jerusalem plank-road; and to make any headway at all with the trains, Custer's men often had to unload the wagons and lift them out of the boggy places.
Crook and Devin camped near Dinwiddie Court House in such manner as to cover the Vaughn, Flatfoot, Boydton, and Five Forks roads; for, as these all intersected at Dinwiddie, they offered a chance for the enemy's approach toward the rear of the Fifth Corps, as Warren extended to the left across the Boydton road. Any of these routes leading to the south or west might also be the one on which, in conformity with one part of my instructions, I was expected to get out toward the Danville and Southside railroads, and the Five Forks road would lead directly to General Lee's right flank, in case opportunity was found to comply with the other part. The place was, therefore, of great strategic value, and getting it without cost repaid us for floundering through the mud.
Dinwiddie Court House, though a most important point in the campaign, was far from attractive in feature, being made up of a half-dozen unsightly houses, a ramshackle tavern propped up on two sides with pine poles, and the weatherbeaten building that gave official name to the cross-roads. We had no tents—there were none in the command—so I took possession of the tavern for shelter for myself and staff, and just as we had finished looking over its primitive interior a rain storm set in.
The wagon containing my mess equipment was back somewhere on the road, hopelessly stuck in the mud, and hence we had nothing to eat except some coffee which two young women living at the tavern kindly made for us; a small quantity of the berry being furnished from the haversacks of my escort. By the time we got the coffee, rain was falling in sheets, and the evening bade fair to be a most dismal one; but songs and choruses set up by some of my staff—the two young women playing accompaniments on a battered piano—relieved the situation and enlivened us a little. However, the dreary night brought me one great comfort; for General Grant, who that day had moved out to Gravelly Run, sent me instructions to abandon all idea of the contemplated raid, and directed me to act in concert with the infantry under his immediate command, to turn, if possible, the right flank of Lee's army. The despatch made my mind easy with respect to the objectionable feature of my original instructions, and of course relieved me also from the anxiety growing out of the letter received at Hancock Station the night of the 28th; so, notwithstanding the suspicions excited by some of my staff concerning the Virginia feather-bed that had been assigned me, I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.
The night of the 29th the left of General Grant's infantry—Warren's corps—rested on the Boydton road, not far from its intersection with the Quaker road. Humphreys's corps was next to Warren; then came Ord, next Wright, and then Parke, with his right resting on the Appomattox. The moving of Warren and Humphreys to the left during the day was early discovered by General Lee. He met it by extending the right of his infantry on the White Oak road, while drawing in the cavalry of W. H. F. Lee and Rosser along the south bank of Stony Creek to cover a crossroads called Five Forks, to anticipate me there; for assuming that my command was moving in conjunction with the infantry, with the ultimate purpose of striking the Southside railroad, Lee made no effort to hold Dinwiddie, which he might have done with his cavalry, and in this he made a fatal mistake. The cavalry of Fitz. Lee was ordered at this same time from Sunderland depot to Five Forks, and its chief placed in command of all the mounted troops of General Lee's army.
At daylight on the 30th I proceeded to make dispositions under the new conditions imposed by my modified instructions, and directed Merritt to push Devin out as far as the White Oak road to make a reconnoissance to Five Forks, Crook being instructed to send Davies's brigade to support Devin. Crook was to hold, with Gregg's brigade, the Stony Creek crossing of the Boydton plank road, retaining Smith's near Dinwiddie, for use in any direction required. On the 29th W. H. F. Lee conformed the march of his cavalry with that of ours, but my holding Stony Creek in this way forced him to make a detour west of Chamberlin's Run, in order to get in communication with his friends at Five Forks.
The rain that had been falling all night gave no sign of stopping, but kept pouring down all day long, and the swamps and quicksands mired the horses, whether they marched in the roads or across the adjacent fields. Undismayed, nevertheless, each column set out for its appointed duty, but shortly after the troops began to move I received from General Grant this despatch, which put a new phase on matters:
"HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES, "GRAVELLY RUN, March 30, 1865.
"The heavy rain of to-day will make it impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired. You may, therefore, leave what cavalry you deem necessary to protect the left, and hold such positions as you deem necessary for that purpose, and send the remainder back to Humphrey's Station where they can get hay and grain. Fifty wagons loaded with forage will be sent to you in the morning. Send an officer back to direct the wagons back to where you want them. Report to me the cavalry you will leave back, and the position you will occupy. Could not your cavalry go back by the way of Stony Creek depot and destroy or capture the store of supplies there?
"U. S. GRANT, Lieut.-General."
When I had read and pondered this, I determined to ride over to General Grant's headquarters on Gravelly Run, and get a clear idea of what it was proposed to do, for it seemed to me that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake. Mounting a powerful gray pacing horse called Breckenridge (from its capture from one of Breckenridge's staff-officers at Missionary Ridge), and that I knew would carry me through the mud, I set out accompanied by my Assistant Adjutant-General, Colonel Frederick C. Newhall, and an escort of about ten or fifteen men. At first we rode north up the Boydton plank-road, and coming upon our infantry pickets from a direction where the enemy was expected to appear, they began to fire upon us, but seeing from our actions that we were friends, they ceased, and permitted us to pass the outposts. We then struggled on in a northeasterly direction across-country, till we struck the Vaughn road. This carried us to army headquarters, which were established south of Gravelly Run in an old cornfield. I rode to within a few yards of the front of General Grant's tent, my horse plunging at every step almost to his knees in the mud, and dismounted near a camp-fire, apparently a general one, for all the staff-officers were standing around it on boards and rails placed here and there to keep them from sinking into the mire.
Going directly to General Grant's tent, I found him and Rawlins talking over the question of suspending operations till the weather should improve. No orders about the matter had been issued yet, except the despatch to me, and Rawlins, being strongly opposed to the proposition, was frankly expostulating with General Grant, who, after greeting me, remarked, in his quiet way: "Well, Rawlins, I think you had better take command." Seeing that there was a difference up between Rawlins and his chief, I made the excuse of being wet and cold, and went outside to the fire. Here General Ingalls met me and took me to his tent, where I was much more comfortable than when standing outside, and where a few minutes later we were joined by General Grant. Ingalls then retired, and General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud, and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside's army was after the mud march of 1863. His better judgment was against suspending operations, but the proposition had been suggested by all sorts of complaints as to the impossibility of moving the trains and the like, so it needed little argument to convince him, and without further discussion he said, in that manner which with him meant a firmness of purpose that could not be changed by further complainings, "We will go on." I then told him that I believed I could break in the enemy's right if he would let me have the Sixth Corps; but saying that the condition of the roads would prevent the movement of infantry, he replied that I would have to seize Five Forks with the cavalry alone.
On my way back to Dinwiddie I stopped at the headquarters of General Warren, but the General being asleep, I went to the tent of one of his staff-officers. Colonel William T. Gentry, an old personal friend with whom I had served in Oregon. In a few minutes Warren came in and we had a short conversation, he speaking rather despondently of the outlook, being influenced no doubt by the depressing weather.
From Warren's headquarters I returned, by the Boydton road to Dinwiddie Court House, fording Gravelly Run with ease. When I got as far as the Dabney road I sent Colonel Newhall out on it toward Five Forks, with orders for Merritt to develop the enemy's position and strength, and then rode on to Dinwiddie to endeavor to get all my other troops up. Merritt was halted at the intersection of the Five Forks and Gravelly Church roads when Newhall delivered the orders, and in compliance moving out Gibbs's brigade promptly, sharp skirmishing was brought on, Gibbs driving the Confederates to Five Forks, where he found them behind a line of breastworks running along the White Oak road. The reconnoissance demonstrating the intention of the enemy to hold this point, Gibbs was withdrawn.
That evening, at 7 o'clock, I reported the position of the Confederate cavalry, and stated that it had been reinforced by Pickett's division of infantry. On receipt of this despatch, General Grant offered me the Fifth Corps, but I declined to take it, and again asked for the Sixth, saying that with it I believed I could turn the enemy (Pickett's) left, or break through his lines. The morning of the 31st General Grant replied the the Sixth Corps could not be taken from its position in the line, and offered me the Second; but in the mean time circumstances had changed, and no corps was ordered.
BATTLE OF DINWIDDIE COURT HOUSE—PICKETT REPULSED—REINFORCED BY THE FIFTH CORPS—BATTLE OF FIVE FORKS—TURNING THE CONFEDERATE LEFT—AN UNQUALIFIED SUCCESS—RELIEVING GENERAL WARREN—THE WARREN COURT OF INQUIRY—GENERAL SHERMAN'S OPINION.
The night of March 30 Merritt, with Devin's division and Davies's brigade, was camped on the Five Forks road about two miles in front of Dinwiddie, near J. Boisseau's. Crook, with Smith and Gregg's brigades, continued to cover Stony Creek, and Custer was still back at Rowanty Creek, trying to get the trains up. This force had been counted while crossing the creek on the 29th, the three divisions numbering 9,000 enlisted men, Crook having 3,300, and Custer and Devin 5,700.
During the 30th, the enemy had been concentrating his cavalry, and by evening General W. H. F. Lee and General Rosser had joined Fitzhugh Lee near Five Forks. To this force was added, about dark, five brigades of infantry—three from Pickett's division, and two from Johnson's—all under command of Pickett. The infantry came by the White Oak road from the right of General Lee's intrenchments, and their arrival became positively known to me about dark, the confirmatory intelligence being brought in then by some of Young's scouts who had been inside the Confederate lines.
On the 31st, the rain having ceased, directions were given at an early hour to both Merritt and Crook to make reconnoissances preparatory to securing Five Forks, and about 9 o'clock Merritt started for the crossroads, Davies's brigade supporting him. His march was necessarily slow because of the mud, and the enemy's pickets resisted with obstinacy also, but the coveted crossroads fell to Merritt without much trouble, as the bulk of the enemy was just then bent on other things. At the same hour that Merritt started, Crook moved Smith's brigade out northwest from Dinwiddie to Fitzgerald's crossing of Chamberlain's Creek, to cover Merritt's left, supporting Smith by placing Gregg to his right and rear. The occupation of this ford was timely, for Pickett, now in command of both the cavalry and infantry, was already marching to get in Merritt's rear by crossing Chamberlain's Creek.
To hold on to Fitzgerald's ford Smith had to make a sharp fight, but Mumford's cavalry attacking Devin, the enemy's infantry succeeded in getting over Chamberlain's Creek at a point higher up than Fitzgerald's ford, and assailing Davies, forced him back in a northeasterly direction toward the Dinwiddie and Five Forks road in company with Devin. The retreat of Davies permitted Pickett to pass between Crook and Merritt, which he promptly did, effectually separating them and cutting off both Davies and Devin from the road to Dinwiddie, so that to get to that point they had to retreat across the country to B. Boisseau's and then down the Boydton road.
Gibbs's brigade had been in reserve near the intersection of the Five Forks and Dabney roads, and directing Merritt to hold on there, I ordered Gregg's brigade to be mounted and brought to Merritt's aid, for if Pickett continued in pursuit north of the Five Forks road he would expose his right and rear, and I determined to attack him, in such case, from Gibbs's position. Gregg arrived in good season, and as soon as his men were dismounted on Gibbs's left, Merritt assailed fiercely, compelling Pickett to halt and face a new foe, thus interrupting an advance that would finally have carried Pickett into the rear of Warren's corps.
It was now about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and we were in a critical situation, but having ordered Merritt to bring Devin and Davies to Dinwiddie by the Boydton road, staff-officers were sent to hurry Custer to the same point, for with its several diverging roads the Court House was of vital importance, and I determined to stay there at all hazards. At the same time orders were sent to Smith's brigade, which, by the advance of Pickett past its right flank and the pressure of W. H. F. Lee on its front, had been compelled to give up Fitzgerald's crossing, to fall back toward Dinwiddie but to contest every inch of ground so as to gain time.
When halted by the attack of Gregg and Gibbs, Pickett, desisting from his pursuit of Devin, as already stated, turned his undivided attention to this unexpected force, and with his preponderating infantry pressed it back on the Five Forks road toward Dinwiddle, though our men, fighting dismounted behind barricades at different points, displayed such obstinacy as to make Pickett's progress slow, and thus give me time to look out a line for defending the Court House. I selected a place about three-fourths of a mile northwest of the crossroads, and Custer coming up quickly with Capehart's brigade, took position on the left of the road to Five Forks in some open ground along the crest of a gentle ridge. Custer got Capehart into place just in time to lend a hand to Smith, who, severely pressed, came back on us here from his retreat along Chamberlain's "bed"—the vernacular for a woody swamp such as that through which Smith retired. A little later the brigades of Gregg and Gibbs, falling to the rear slowly and steadily, took up in the woods a line which covered the Boydton Road some distance to the right of Capehart, the intervening gap to be filled with Pennington's brigade. By this time our horse-artillery, which for two days had been stuck in the mud, was all up, and every gun was posted in this line.
It was now near sunset, and the enemy's cavalry thinking the day was theirs, made a dash at Smith, but just as the assailants appeared in the open fields, Capehart's men opened so suddenly on their left flank as to cause it to recoil in astonishment, which permitted Smith to connect his brigade with Custer unmolested. We were now in good shape behind the familiar barricades, and having a continuous line, excepting only the gap to be filled with Pennington, that covered Dinwiddie and the Boydton Road. My left rested in the woods about half a mile west of the Court House, and the barricades extended from this flank in a semicircle through the open fields in a northeasterly direction, to a piece-of thick timber on the right, near the Boydton Road.
A little before the sun went down the Confederate infantry was formed for the attack, and, fortunately for us, Pennington's brigade came up and filled the space to which it was assigned between Capehart and Gibbs, just as Pickett moved out across the cleared fields in front of Custer, in deep lines that plainly told how greatly we were outnumbered.
Accompanied by Generals Merritt and Custer and my staff, I now rode along the barricades to encourage the men. Our enthusiastic reception showed that they were determined to stay. The cavalcade drew the enemy's fire, which emptied several of the saddles—among others Mr. Theodore Wilson, correspondent of the New York Herald, being wounded. In reply our horse-artillery opened on the advancing Confederates, but the men behind the barricades lay still till Pickett's troops were within short range. Then they opened, Custer's repeating rifles pouring out such a shower of lead that nothing could stand up against it. The repulse was very quick, and as the gray lines retired to the woods from which but a few minutes before they had so confidently advanced, all danger of their taking Dinwiddie or marching to the left and rear of our infantry line was over, at least for the night. The enemy being thus checked, I sent a staff-officer—Captain Sheridan—to General Grant to report what had taken place during the afternoon, and to say that I proposed to stay at Dinwiddie, but if ultimately compelled to abandon the place, I would do so by retiring on the Vaughn road toward Hatcher's Run, for I then thought the attack might be renewed next morning. Devin and Davies joined me about dark, and my troops being now well in hand, I sent a second staff-officer—Colonel John Kellogg—to explain my situation more fully, and to assure General Grant that I would hold on at Dinwiddie till forced to let go.
By following me to Dinwiddie the enemy's infantry had completely isolated itself, and hence there was now offered the Union troops a rare opportunity. Lee was outside of his works, just as we desired, and the general-in-chief realized this the moment he received the first report of my situation; General Meade appreciated it too from the information he got from Captain Sheridan, en route to army headquarters with the first tidings, and sent this telegram to General Grant:
"HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, "March 31, 1865. 9:45 p.m.
"Would it not be well for Warren to go down with his whole corps and smash up the force in front of Sheridan? Humphreys can hold the line to the Boydton plank-road, and the refusal along with it. Bartlett's brigade is now on the road from G. Boisseau's, running north, where it crosses Gravelly Run, he having gone down the White Oak road. Warren could go at once that way, and take the force threatening Sheridan in rear at Dinwiddie, and move on the enemy's rear with the other two.
"G. G. MEADE, Major-General."
An hour later General Grant replied in these words:
"HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES, "DABNEY'S MILLS, March 311, 1865. 10:15 P. M.
"MAJOR-GENERAL MEADE, "Commanding Army of the Potomac.
Let Warren move in the way you propose, and urge him not to stop for anything. Let Griffin (Griffin had been ordered by Warren to the Boydton road to protect his rear) go on as he was first directed.
"U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General."
These two despatches were the initiatory steps in sending the Fifth Corps, under Major-General G. K. Warren, to report to me, and when I received word of its coming and also that Genera Mackenzie's cavalry from the Army of the James was likewise to be added to my command, and that discretionary authority was given me to use all my forces against Pickett, I resolved to destroy him, if it was within the bounds of possibility, before he could rejoin Lee.
In a despatch, dated 10:05 p.m., telling me of the coming of Warren and Mackenzie, General Grant also said that the Fifth Corps should reach me by 12 o'clock that night, but at that hour not only had none of the corps arrived, but no report from it, so believing that if it came all the way down to Dinwiddie the next morning, our opportunity would be gone, I concluded that it would be best to order Warren to move in on the enemy's rear while the cavalry attacked in front, and, therefore, at 3 o'clock in the morning of April 1 sent this despatch to General Warren:
"CAVALRY HEADQUARTERS, DINWIDDIE C. H., "April 1, 1865—3. A.M.
"MAJOR-GENERAL WARREN, "Commanding Fifth Army Corps.
"I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-quarters of a mile with General Custer's division. The enemy are in his immediate front, lying so as to cover the road just this side of A. Adams's house, which leads across Chamberlain's bed, or run. I understand you have a division at J.[G] Boisseau's; if so, you are in rear of the enemy's line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, attack instantly and in full force. Attack at daylight anyhow, and I will make an effort to get the road this side of Adams's house, and if I do, you can capture the whole of them. Any force moving down the road I am holding, or on the White Oak road, will be in the enemy's rear, and in all probability get any force that may escape you by a flank movement. Do not fear my leaving here. If the enemy remains, I shall fight at daylight.
"P. H. SHERIDAN, Major-General."
With daylight came a slight fog, but it lifted almost immediately, and Merritt moved Custer and Devin forward. As these divisions advanced the enemy's infantry fell back on the Five Forks road, Devin pressing him along the road, while Custer extended on the left over toward Chamberlain's Run, Crook being held in watch along Stony Creek, meanwhile, to be utilized as circumstances might require when Warren attacked.
The order of General Meade to Warren the night of March 31—a copy being sent me also—was positive in its directions, but as midnight came without a sign of or word from the Fifth Corps, notwithstanding that was the hour fixed for its arrival, I nevertheless assumed that there were good reasons for its non-appearance, but never once doubted that measures would be taken to comply with my despatch Of 3 A. M. and therefore hoped that, as Pickett was falling back slowly toward Five Forks, Griffin's and Crawford's divisions would come in on the Confederate left and rear by the Crump road near J.[G] Boisseau's house.
But they did not reach there till after the enemy had got by. As a matter of fact, when Pickett was passing the all-important point Warren's men were just breaking from the bivouac in which their chief had placed them the night before, and the head of Griffin's division did not get to Boisseau's till after my cavalry, which meanwhile had been joined by Ayres's division of the Fifth Corps by way of the Boydton and Dabney roads. By reason of the delay in moving Griffin and Crawford, the enemy having escaped, I massed the Fifth Corps at J.[G] Boisseau's so that the men could be rested, and directed it to remain there; General Warren himself had not then come up. General Mackenzie, who had reported just after daybreak, was ordered at first to stay at Dinwiddie Court House, but later was brought along the Five Forks road to Dr. Smith's, and Crook's division was directed to continue watching the crossings of Stony Creek and Chamberlain's Run.
That we had accomplished nothing but to oblige our foe to retreat was to me bitterly disappointing, but still feeling sure that he would not give up the Five Forks crossroads without a fight, I pressed him back there with Merritt's cavalry, Custer advancing on the Scott road, while Devin drove the rearguard along that leading from J.[G] Boisseau's to Five Forks.
By 2 o'clock in the afternoon Merritt had forced the enemy inside his intrenchments, which began with a short return about three-quarters of a mile east of the Forks and ran along the south side of the White Oak road to a point about a mile west of the Forks. From the left of the return over toward Hatcher's Run was posted Mumford's cavalry, dismounted. In the return itself was Wallace's brigade, and next on its right came Ransom's, then Stewart's, then Terry's, then Corse's. On the right of Corse was W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry. Ten pieces of artillery also were in this line, three on the right of the works, three near the centre at the crossroads, and four on the left, in the return. Rosser's cavalry was guarding the Confederate trains north of Hatcher's Run beyond the crossing of the Ford road.
I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks—he had to—so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan of battle. This was to attack his whole front with Merritt's two cavalry divisions, make a feint of turning his right flank, and with the Fifth Corps assail his left. As the Fifth Corps moved into action, its right flank was to be covered by Mackenzie's cavalry, thus entirely cutting off Pickett's troops from communication with Lee's right flank, which rested near the Butler house at the junction of the Claiborne and White Oaks roads. In execution of this plan, Merritt worked his men close in toward the intrenchments, and while he was thus engaged, I ordered Warren to bring up the Fifth Corps, sending the order by my engineer officer, Captain Gillespie, who had reconnoitred the ground in the neighborhood of Gravelly Run Church, where the infantry was to form for attack.
Gillespie delivered the order about 1 o'clock, and when the corps was put in motion, General Warren joined me at the front. Before he came, I had received, through Colonel Babcock, authority from General Grant to relieve him, but I did not wish to do it, particularly on the eve of battle; so, saying nothing at all about the message brought me, I entered at once on the plan for defeating Pickett, telling Warren how the enemy was posted, explaining with considerable detail, and concluding by stating that I wished his troops to be formed on the Gravelly Church road, near its junction with the White Oak road, with two divisions to the front, aligned obliquely to the White Oak road, and one in reserve, opposite the centre of these two.
General Warren seemed to understand me clearly, and then left to join his command, while I turned my attention to the cavalry, instructing Merritt to begin by making demonstrations as though to turn the enemy's right, and to assault the front of the works with his dismounted cavalry as soon as Warren became engaged. Afterward I rode around to Gravelly Run Church, and found the head of Warren's column just appearing, while he was sitting under a tree making a rough sketch of the ground. I was disappointed that more of the corps was not already up, and as the precious minutes went by without any apparent effort to hurry the troops on to the field, this disappointment grew into disgust. At last I expressed to Warren my fears that the cavalry might expend all their ammunition before the attack could be made, that the sun would go down before the battle could be begun, or that troops from Lee's right, which, be it remembered, was less than three miles away from my right, might, by striking my rear, or even by threatening it, prevent the attack on Pickett.
Warren did not seem to me to be at all solicitous; his manner exhibited decided apathy, and he remarked with indifference that "Bobby Lee was always getting people into trouble." With unconcern such as this, it is no wonder that fully three hours' time was consumed in marching his corps from J.[G] Boisseau's to Gravelly Run Church, though the distance was but two miles. However, when my patience was almost worn out, Warren reported his troops ready, Ayres's division being formed on the west side of the Gravelly Church road, Crawford's on the east side, and Griffin in reserve behind the right of Crawford, a little different from my instructions. The corps had no artillery present, its batteries, on account of the mud, being still north of Gravelly Run. Meanwhile Merritt had been busy working his men close up to the intrenchments from the angle of the return west, along the White Oak road.
About 4 o'clock Warren began the attack. He was to assault the left flank of the Confederate infantry at a point where I knew Pickett's intrenchments were refused, almost at right angles with the White Oak road. I did not know exactly how far toward Hatcher's Run this part of the works extended, for here the videttes of Mumford's cavalry were covering, but I did know where the refusal began. This return, then, was the point I wished to assail, believing that if the assault was made with spirit, the line could be turned. I therefore intended that Ayres and Crawford should attack the refused trenches squarely, and when these two divisions and Merritt's cavalry became hotly engaged, Griffin's division was to pass around the left of the Confederate line; and I personally instructed Griffin how I wished him to go in, telling him also that as he advanced, his right flank would be taken care of by Mackenzie, who was to be pushed over toward the Ford road and Hatcher's Run.
The front of the corps was oblique to the White Oak road; and on getting there, it was to swing round to the left till perpendicular to the road, keeping closed to the left. Ayres did his part well, and to the letter, bringing his division square up to the front of the return near the angle; but Crawford did not wheel to the left, as was intended. On the contrary, on receiving fire from Mumford's cavalry, Crawford swerved to the right and moved north from the return, thus isolating his division from Ayres; and Griffin, uncertain of the enemy's position, naturally followed Crawford.
The deflection of this division on a line of march which finally brought it out on the Ford road near C. Young's house, frustrated the purpose I had in mind when ordering the attack, and caused a gap between Ayres and Crawford, of which the enemy quickly took advantage, and succeeded in throwing a part of Ayres's division into confusion. At this juncture I sent word to General Warren to have Crawford recalled; for the direction he was following was not only a mistaken one, but, in case the assault at the return failed, he ran great risk of capture. Warren could not be found, so I then sent for Griffin—first by Colonel Newhall, and then by Colonel Sherman—to come to the aid of Ayres, who was now contending alone with that part of the enemy's infantry at the return. By this time Griffin had observed and appreciated Crawford's mistake, however, and when the staff-officers reached him, was already faced to the left; so, marching across Crawford's rear, he quickly joined Ayres, who meanwhile had rallied his troops and carried the return.
When Ayres's division went over the flank of the enemy's works, Devin's division of cavalry, which had been assaulting the front, went over in company with it; and hardly halting to reform, the intermingling infantry and dismounted cavalry swept down inside the intrenchments, pushing to and beyond Five Forks, capturing thousands of prisoners. The only stand the enemy tried to make was when he attempted to form near the Ford road. Griffin pressed him so hard there, however, that he had to give way in short order, and many of his men, with three pieces of artillery, fell into the hands of Crawford while on his circuitous march.
The right of Custer's division gained a foothold on the enemy's works simultaneously with Devin's, but on the extreme left Custer had a very severe combat with W. H. F. Lee's cavalry, as well as with Corse's and Terry's infantry. Attacking Terry and Corse with Pennington's brigade dismounted, he assailed Lee's cavalry with his other two brigades mounted, but Lee held on so obstinately that Custer gained but little ground till our troops, advancing behind the works, drove Corse and Terry out. Then Lee made no further stand except at the west side of the Gillian field, where, assisted by Corse's brigade, he endeavored to cover the retreat, but just before dark Custer, in concert with some Fifth Corps regiments under Colonel Richardson, drove ihe last of the enemy westward on the White Oak road.
Our success was unqualified; we had overthrown Pickett, taken six guns, thirteen battle-flags, and nearly six thousand prisoners. When the battle was practically over, I turned to consider my position with reference to the main Confederate army. My troops, though victorious, were isolated from the Army of the Potomac, for on the 31st of March the extreme left of that army had been thrown back nearly to the Boydton plank-road, and hence there was nothing to prevent the enemy's issuing from his trenches at the intersection of the White Oak and Claiborne roads and marching directly on my rear. I surmised that he might do this that night or early next morning. It was therefore necessary to protect myself in this critical situation, and General Warren having sorely disappointed me, both in the moving of his corps and in its management during the battle, I felt that he was not the man to rely upon under such circumstances, and deeming that it was to the best interest of the service as well as but just to myself, I relieved him, ordering him to report to General Grant.
I then put Griffin in command of the Fifth Corps, and directed him to withdraw from the pursuit as quickly as he could after following the enemy a short distance, and form in line of battle near Gravelly Run Church, at right angles with the White Oak road, with Ayres and Crawford facing toward the enemy at the junction of the White Oak and Claiborne roads, leaving Bartlett, now commanding Griffin's division, near the Ford road. Mackenzie also was left on the Ford road at the crossing of Hatcher's Run, Merritt going into camp on the Widow Gillian's plantation. As I had been obliged to keep Crook's division along Stony Creek throughout the day, it had taken no active part in the battle.
Years after the war, in 1879, a Court of Inquiry was given General Warren in relation to his conduct on the day of the battle. He assumed that the delay in not granting his request for an inquiry, which was first made at the close of the war, was due to opposition on my part. In this he was in error; I never opposed the ordering of the Court, but when it was finally decided to convene it I naturally asked to be represented by counsel, for the authorization of the Inquiry was so peculiarly phrased that it made me practically a respondent.
"NEW YORK CITY, May 3, 1880
"MAJOR-GENERAL W. S. HANCOCK, U. S. A. "President Court of Inquiry, Governor's Island.
"Sir: Since my arrival in this city, under a subpoena to appear and testify before the Court of which you are president, I have been indirectly and unofficially informed that the Court some time ago forwarded an invitation to me (which has not been received) to appear personally or by counsel, in order to aid it in obtaining a knowledge as to the facts concerning the movements terminating in the battle of 'Five Forks,' with reference to the direct subjects of its inquiry. Any invitation of this character I should always and do consider it incumbent on me to accede to, and do everything in my power in furtherance of the specific purposes for which courts of inquiry are by law instituted.
"The order convening the Court (a copy of which was not received by me at my division headquarters until two days after the time appointed for the Court to assemble) contemplates an inquiry based on the application of Lieutenant Colonel G. K. Warren, Corps of Engineers, as to his conduct while major-general commanding the Fifth Army Corps, under my command, in reference to accusations or imputations assumed in the order to have been made against him, and I understand through the daily press that my official report of the battle of Five Forks has been submitted by him as a basis of inquiry.
"If it is proposed to inquire, either directly or indirectly, as to any action of mine so far as the commanding general Fifth Army Corps was concerned, or my motives for such action, I desire to be specifically informed wherein such action or transaction is alleged to contain an accusation or imputation to become a subject of inquiry, so that, knowing what issues are raised, I may intelligently aid the Court in arriving at the facts.
"It is a long time since the battle of Five Forks was fought, and during the time that has elapsed the official reports of that battle have been received and acknowledged by the Government; but now, when the memory of events has in many instances grown dim, and three of the principal actors on that field are dead—Generals Griffin, Custer, and Devin, whose testimony would have been valuable—an investigation is ordered which might perhaps do injustice unless the facts pertinent to the issues are fully developed.
"My duties are such that it will not be convenient for me to be present continuously during the sessions of the Court. In order, however, that everything may be laid before it in my power pertinent to such specific issues as are legally raised, I beg leave to introduce Major Asa Bird Gardner as my counsel.
"P. H. SHERIDAN, Lieut.-General."
Briefly stated, in my report of the battle of Five Forks there were four imputations concerning General Warren. The first implied that Warren failed to reach me on the 1st of April, when I had reason to expect him; the second, that the tactical handling of his corps was unskillful; the third, that he did not exert himself to get his corps up to Gravelly Run Church; and the fourth, that when portions of his line gave way he did not exert himself to restore confidence to his troops. The Court found against him on the first and second counts, and for him on the third and fourth. This finding was unsatisfactory to General Warren, for he hoped to obtain such an unequivocal recognition of his services as to cast discredit on my motives for relieving him. These were prompted by the conditions alone—by the conduct of General Warren as described, and my consequent lack of confidence in him.
It will be remembered that in my conversation with General Grant on the 30th, relative to the suspension of operations because of the mud, I asked him to let me have the Sixth Corps to help me in breaking in on the enemy's right, but that it could not be sent me; it will be recalled also that the Fifth Corps was afterward tendered and declined. From these facts it has been alleged that I was prejudiced against General Warren, but this is not true. As we had never been thrown much together I knew but little of him. I had no personal objection to him, and certainly could have none to his corps. I was expected to do an extremely dangerous piece of work, and knowing the Sixth Corps well—my cavalry having campaigned with it so successfully in the Shenandoah Valley, I naturally preferred it, and declined the Fifth for no other reason. But the Sixth could not be given, and the turn of events finally brought me the Fifth after my cavalry, under the most trying difficulties, had drawn the enemy from his works, and into such a position as to permit the realization of General Grant's hope to break up with my force Lee's right flank. Pickett's isolation offered an opportunity which we could not afford to neglect, and the destruction of his command would fill the measure of General Grant's expectations as well as meet my own desires. The occasion was not an ordinary one, and as I thought that Warren had not risen to its demand in the battle, I deemed it injudicious and unsafe under the critical conditions existing to retain him longer. That I was justified in this is plain to all who are disposed to be fair-minded, so with the following extract from General Sherman's review of the proceedings of the Warren Court, and with which I am convinced the judgment of history will accord, I leave the subject:
"....It would be an unsafe and dangerous rule to hold the commander of an army in battle to a technical adherence to any rule of conduct for managing his command. He is responsible for results, and holds the lives and reputations of every officer and soldier under his orders as subordinate to the great end—victory. The most important events are usually compressed into an hour, a minute, and he cannot stop to analyze his reasons. He must act on the impulse, the conviction, of the instant, and should be sustained in his conclusions, if not manifestly unjust. The power to command men, and give vehement impulse to their joint action, is something which cannot be defined by words, but it is plain and manifest in battles, and whoever commands an army in chief must choose his subordinates by reason of qualities which can alone be tested in actual conflict.
"No one has questioned the patriotism, integrity, and great intelligence of General Warren. These are attested by a long record of most excellent service, but in the clash of arms at and near Five Forks, March 31 and April 1, 1865, his personal activity fell short of the standard fixed by General Sheridan, on whom alone rested the great responsibility for that and succeeding days.
"My conclusion is that General Sheridan was perfectly justified in his action in this case, and he must be fully and entirely sustained if the United States expects great victories by her arms in the future."
RESULT OF THE BATTLE OF FIVE FORKS—RETREAT OF LEE—AN INTERCEPTED DESPATCH—AT AMELIA COURT HOUSE—BATTLE OF SAILOR'S CREEK—THE CONFEDERATES' STUBBORN RESISTANCE—A COMPLETE VICTORY—IMPORTANCE OF THE BATTLE.
When the news of the battle at Five Forks reached General Grant, he realized that the decisive character of our victory would necessitate the immediate abandonment of Richmond and Petersburg by the enemy; and fearing that Lee would escape without further injury, he issued orders, the propriety of which must be settled by history, to assault next morning the whole intrenched line. But Lee could not retreat at once. He had not anticipated dissster at Five Forks, and hence was unprepared to withdraw on the moment; and the necessity of getting off his trains and munitions of war, as well as being obliged to cover the flight of the Confederate Government, compelled him to hold on to Richmond and Petersburg till the afternoon of the 2d, though before that Parke, Ord, and Wright had carried his outer intrenchments at several points, thus materially shortening the line of investment.