Virginia, Dinwiddie County,
April 1, 1865
By Christopher M. Calkins
Five Forks was the intersection of the White Oak Road, Scott’s Road, Ford’s—or Church—Road, and the Dinwiddie Court House Road. Located six miles northwest of the Dinwiddie county seat, Five Forks was crucial in protecting CS General Robert E. Lee’s last supply line into Petersburg, the South Side Railroad. Southeast of the junction stood a little white frame building called Gravelly Run Methodist Episcopal Church; nearby were the Barnes and Sydnor farmhouses. There were a few large plantations in the area, including those of the Gilliam and Boisseau families. Tangled thickets and pine woods were interspersed with swampy bogs, open spaces, and woods dotted with large outcroppings of granite.
While the battle of White Oak Road raged on March 31, CS Major General George E. Pickett’s cavalry and infantry left their position at Five Forks, forced a passage over the swampy bottomlands of Chamberlain’s Bed, a branch of Stony Creek, and pushed US Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s troopers back to Dinwiddie Court House. That night Sheridan’s forces entrenched a mile north of the village, with Pickett’s force interposed between them and Five Forks. US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant responded to Sheridan’s request for infantry to reinforce his 9,000 cavalrymen by ordering US Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres’s division of US Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps to move quickly on March 31–April l by night march along the Boydton Plank Road to Dinwiddie Court House. (Warren’s two other divisions took another route.) The soldiers’ arrival was delayed because they had to build a forty-foot bridge to get across Gravelly Run.
Earlier on March 31, after gaining a foothold on the White Oak Road, Warren had dispatched a brigade to a position behind Pickett’s left flank, facing Sheridan. Realizing that the Union army had him in check, the Confederate commander decided to withdraw his men to Five Forks. Soon the lead elements of Warren’s V Corps column began arriving on the Dinwiddie Court House Road following Sheridan’s troopers, who were pressing Pickett to the strategic crossroads.
When the Confederates arrived at Five Forks, Pickett set the men to strengthening their log and dirt fortifications. This line covered a one-and three- fourths-mile front, with a return on the left flank about 150 yards long. The cavalry guarded each flank, and artillery was placed at key points along the works. Pickett had received instructions from CS General Robert E. Lee: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forces’ withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.” While Sheridan impatiently awaited the arrival of the remainder of Warren’s forces, he received a dispatch: “General Grant directs me to say to you, that if in your judgment the Fifth Corps would do better under one of the division commanders, you are authorized to relieve General Warren, and order him to report to General Grant, at headquarters.” Warren’s fate as a corps commander was in Sheridan’s hands. Later that night, after the battle had ended, Sheridan replaced Warren with US Brigadier General Charles Griffin.
It was nearly 4:00 p.m. when Warren had his 12,000 men ready to attack. Because of faulty reconnaissance by Sheridan’s staff, the map they drew for Warren erroneously showed Pickett’s left flank as extending to the intersection of Gravelly Run Church Road and the White Oak Road. Warren formed his battle lines in a bottom near Gravelly Run Church and instructed his three division commanders to advance until they intersected with the White Oak Road. Sheridan’s dismounted troopers were to press the Confederate line all along its front. Ayres formed the left of Warren’s line, and US Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford the right, with Griffin in support. When Warren’s advancing columns reached that area and began to wheel, they found the Confederate flank was still three quarters of a mile to the west. Although the mapping and reconnaissance errors caused the three columns to diverge from the original intended alignment, they did overwhelm the Confederate angle and line. One of Warren’s divisions swung around to the north of Pickett’s position and attacked the Confederates in their rear at Five Forks. On the Confederate right flank US Brigadier General George A. Custer’s troops battled with cavalry led by CS Major General William H. Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee. CS Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin’s dismounted troopers pushed forward between Custer and Warren.
Groups of Pickett’s men formed pockets of resistance along the line but to no avail. Their commander did not arrive on the scene until the fighting was well under way, having spent most of the afternoon at a shad bake two miles in the rear with some of his officers. By the time he addressed the situation, it was too late. Those who were not taken prisoner scattered into the pine forests and escaped the best way they could. Darkness brought an end to the fighting, and Union campfires were lit around Five Forks, the key to the South Side Railroad.
Estimated Casualties: 830 US, 3,000 CS