Ohio Civil War » Objects » Entries » Battle of Five Forks

Battle of Five Forks

April 1, 1865

The Battle of Five Forks took place in Dinwiddie County, Virginia on April 1, 1865, during the Appomattox Campaign.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert to strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee's army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade's flank.

The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee's defenses but to no avail. Despite being well entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as supplies dwindled. By the spring of 1865, Lee knew that, when the weather allowed, his army must escape the Union stranglehold or be starved into submission.

On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon's pre-dawn attack was successful initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines.

Grant's spring offensive, the Appomattox Campaign, began on March 29, 1865, when Major General G.K. Warren's 5th Corps inflicted a minor defeat on Confederates commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis's Farm. Two days later, Confederate Major General George Pickett temporarily stalled Union General Philip Sheridan's advance at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House. Nevertheless, when Sheridan brought up reinforcements, Pickett was forced to withdraw north to the intersection of five roads, locally known as Five Forks. Lee considered Five Forks to be a strategically vital crossroads because it provided access to the Southside Railroad, a key supply line into Petersburg. Thus, he ordered Pickett to "Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford's Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad."

Pickett ordered his soldiers to entrench and to prepare for a Union assault. The Rebels did not have long to wait. On the morning of April 1, Union cavalry divisions commanded by Major General George A. Custer and Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin engaged Confederate skirmishers near Five Forks. Muddy roads and faulty maps delayed the main attack by Warren's infantry until after 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Inexplicably, in light of Lee's orders and the strategic importance of the location, Pickett and subordinate Confederate leaders Major General Thomas L. Rosser and Major General Fitzhugh Lee were several miles away from their commands attending a shad bake when the battle began.

By 4:30, Warren had his troops in line and smashed into the Confederate left. Although the attack did not go exactly as Sheridan had planned, the outnumbered and leaderless Rebels quickly crumbled under Warren's onslaught. Sheridan, in the meantime, personally led a cavalry charge that breached the left flank of Pickett's line. As the Rebels fell back, they tried to establish a new defensive line. When Fitzhugh Lee arrived on the scene, his cavalry was able to hold off the Union advance long enough to allow some Confederates to escape. Nonetheless, when the action ended by nightfall, the Federals had achieved a stunning victory.

The Confederates suffered nearly 3,000 casualties at the Battle of Five Forks compared with just over 800 for the Federals. Sheridan's forces captured over 2,400 Rebel soldiers. More importantly, the Union victory threatened Robert E. Lee's supply lines into and his best escape route out of Petersburg. The next morning, Lee informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the Army of Northern Virginia would have to evacuate Petersburg. Sensing the urgency of Lee's situation, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, which resulted in the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond.

A collateral casualty of the Battle of Five Forks was General Warren. Displeased with Warren's performance before and during the engagement, Sheridan relieved Warren of his command of the 5th Corps, effectively ruining Warren's military career. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes convened a court of inquiry regarding Warren's behavior at Five Forks. The court found that Sheridan's action was unjustified, but unfortunately, the results of the inquiry were not published until after Warren's death.

Among the Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Five Forks were:

Infantry units:

174th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cavalry units:

2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

Harlan's Light Cavalry of the 11th Regiment Pennsylvania Cavalry

Related Entries