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Battle of White Oak Road

March 31, 1865

The Battle of White Oak Road took place in Dinwiddie County, Virginia on March 31, 1865, during 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 in late March 1865, when General Philip Sheridan's troops south of Petersburg moved west with orders to threaten or to capture Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which connected to Petersburg from the southwest. Grant intended to cut off supplies coming into Petersburg and to prevent Lee from using the two arteries as avenues of escape from the city. On March 29, Major General G.K. Warren's 5th Corps defeated several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis's Farm. After a brief but sharp firefight, the Federals gained control of the road and forced the Rebels to retreat to their entrenchments along White Oak Road.

Heavy rains on March 30 prevented Warren from pursuing the Rebels. While Warren waited for the rains to subside, Lee shifted reinforcements to protect his right flank, moving Major General W.H. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions to Five Forks and transferring Major General George Pickett’s division to the extreme right of the Rebel lines. Reconnaissance patrols kept Warren apprised of the Confederate troop movements. On March 31, the rains subsided, and Warren resumed his advance against the Confederate entrenchments along White Oak Road, hoping to drive a wedge in the Rebel lines and to isolate Pickett. As Warren's division, marching in column, approached White Oak Road at approximately 10:30 a.m., Lee, who was on the scene, ordered an assault by a force of four Confederate brigades that he had hastily assembled. Taken completely by surprise, Warren's division collapsed and fled to the rear in disarray. Without enough troops to pursue the retreating Federals, Lee called a halt to the Confederate advance and ordered his troops to entrench.

As the Rebels hastily created new entrenchments, Warren managed to restore order to his division. At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, he mounted a counterattack. Greatly outnumbered, the Rebels were unable to halt the Union onslaught and were forced to retreat to their original lines along White Oak Road. One Federal division, commanded by Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, managed to breach the Confederate line at approximately 4:30 p.m., thereby achieving Warren's primary goal of isolating Pickett's division from Lee's main force.

By the end of the day, Lee's gamble at the Battle of White Oak Road ended with a Federal victory. The Union suffered more casualties (approximately 1,800 killed, wounded, and captured/missing) than the Confederacy (approximately 1,100), but the attack failed to stop Warren's advance. It also isolated Pickett's division, setting the stage for a costly Confederate defeat at the Battle of Five Forks the next day.

Among the Ohio units that participated in the Battle of White Oak Road was:

Infantry units:

174th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

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