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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Five Forks, and the Capture of Petersburg

By Horace Porter (1837–1921)

[Born in Huntingdon, Penn., 1837. Died in New York, N. Y., 1921. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. 1887–89.]

ABOUT 1 o’clock it was reported by the cavalry that the enemy was retiring to his intrenched position at Five Forks, which was just north of the White Oak road, and parallel to it, his earthworks running from a point about three-quarters of a mile east of Five Forks to a point a mile west, with an angle or crotchet about one hundred yards long thrown back at right angles to his left to protect that flank. Orders were at once given to the Fifth Corps to move up the Gravelly Run Church road to the open ground near the church, and form in order of battle, with Ayres on the left, Crawford on his right, and Griffin in rear as a reserve. The corps was to wheel to the left, and make its attack upon the “angle,” and then, moving westward, sweep down in rear of the enemy’s intrenched line. The cavalry, principally dismounted, was to deploy in front of the enemy’s line and engage his attention, and, as soon as it heard the firing of our infantry, to make a vigorous assault upon his works.

The Fifth Corps had borne the brunt of the fighting ever since the army had moved out on the 29th, and the gallant men who composed it, and had performed a conspicuous part in nearly every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged, seemed eager once more to cross bayonets with their old antagonists. But the movement was slow, the required formation seemed to drag, and Sheridan, chafing with impatience and consumed with anxiety, became as restive as a racer when he nears the score and is struggling to make the start. He made every possible appeal for promptness, he dismounted from his horse, paced up and down, struck the clinched fist of one hand into the palm of the other, and fretted like a caged tiger. He said at one time: “This battle must be fought and won before the sun goes down. All the conditions may be changed in the morning; we have but a few hours of daylight left us. My cavalry are rapidly exhausting their ammunition, and if the attack is delayed much longer they may have none left.” And then another batch of staff-officers were sent out to gallop through the mud and hurry up the columns.

At 4 o’clock the formation was completed, the order for the assault was given, and the struggle for Pickett’s intrenched line began. The Confederate infantry brigades were posted from right to left as follows: Terry, Corse, Steuart, Ransom, and Wallace. General Fitzhugh Lee, commanding the cavalry, had placed W. H. F. Lee’s two brigades on the right of the line, Munford’s division on the left, and Rosser’s in rear of Hatcher’s Run to guard the trains. I rode to the front in company with Sheridan and Warren, with the head of Ayres’s division, which was on the left. When this division became engaged, Warren took up a more central position with reference to his corps. Ayres threw out a skirmish-line and advanced across an open field, which sloped down gradually toward the dense woods, just north of the White Oak road. He soon met with a fire from the edge of this woods, a number of men fell, and the skirmish-line halted and seemed to waver. Sheridan now began to exhibit those traits that always made him such a tower of strength in the presence of an enemy. He put spurs to his horse and dashed along in front of the line of battle from left to right, shouting words of encouragement and having something cheery to say to every regiment. “Come on, men,” he cried. “Go at ’em with a will. Move on at a clean jump or you’ll not catch one of them. They’re all getting ready to run now, and if you don’t get on to them in five minutes, they’ll every one get away from you! Now go for them.” Just then a man on the skirmish-line was struck in the neck; the blood spurted as if the jugular vein had been cut. “I’m killed!” he cried, and dropped on the ground. “You’re not hurt a bit,” cried Sheridan; “pick up your gun, man, and move right on to the front.” Such was the electric effect of his words that the poor fellow snatched up his musket and rushed forward a dozen paces before he fell never to rise again. The line of battle of weather-beaten veterans was now moving right along down the slope toward the woods with a steady swing that boded no good for Pickett’s command, earthworks or no earthworks. Sheridan was mounted on his favorite black horse Rienzi, that had carried him from Winchester to Cedar Creek, and which Buchanan Read made famous for all time by his poem of “Sheridan’s Ride.” The roads were muddy, the fields swampy, the undergrowth dense, and Rienzi, as he plunged and curveted, dashed the foam from his mouth and the mud from his heels. Had the Winchester pike been in a similar condition, he would not have made his famous twenty miles without breaking his own neck and Sheridan’s too.

Mackenzie had been ordered up the Crump road with directions to turn east on the White Oak road and whip everything he met on that route. He met only a small cavalry command, and having whipped it according to orders, now came galloping back to join in the general scrimmage. He reported to Sheridan in person, and was ordered to strike out toward Hatcher’s Run, then move west and get possession of the Ford road in the enemy’s rear.

Soon Ayres’s men met with a heavy fire on their left flank and had to change direction by facing more toward the west. As the troops entered the woods and moved forward over the boggy ground and struggled through the dense undergrowth, they were staggered by a heavy fire from the angle and fell back in some confusion. Sheridan now rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: “Where is my battle-flag?” As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson and white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were humming like a swarm of bees. One pierced the battle-flag, another killed the sergeant who had carried it, another wounded Captain A. J. McGonnigle in the side, others struck two or three of the staff officers’ horses. All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, threatening, praying, swearing, the very incarnation of battle. It would be a sorry soldier who could help following such a leader. Ayres and his officers were equally exposing themselves at all points in rallying the men, and soon the line was steadied, for such material could suffer but a momentary check. Ayres, with drawn sabre, rushed forward once more with his veterans, who now behaved as if they had fallen back to get a “good-ready,” and with fixed bayonets and a rousing cheer dashed over the earthworks, sweeping everything before them, and killing or capturing every man in their immediate front whose legs had not saved him.

Sheridan spurred Rienzi up to the angle, and with a bound the horse carried his rider over the earthworks, and landed in the midst of a line of prisoners who had thrown down their arms and were crouching close under their breastworks. Some of them called out: “Whar do you want us-all to go to?” Then Sheridan’s rage turned to humor, and he had a running talk with the “Johnnies” as they filed past. “Go right over there,” he said to them, pointing to the rear. “Get right along, now. Drop your guns; you’ll never need them any more. You’ll all be safe over there. Are there any more of you? We want every one of you fellows.” Nearly fifteen hundred were captured at the angle.

An orderly here came up to Sheridan and said: “Colonel Forsyth of your staff is killed, sir.” “It’s no such thing,” cried Sheridan. “I don’t believe a word of it. You’ll find Forsyth’s all right.” Ten minutes after, Forsyth rode up. It was the gallant General Frederick Winthrop who had fallen in the assault and had been mistaken for him. Sheridan did not even seem surprised when he saw Forsyth, and only said: “There! I told you so.” I mention this as an instance of a peculiar trait of Sheridan’s character, which never allowed him to be discouraged by camp rumors, however disastrous.

The dismounted cavalry had assaulted as soon as they heard the infantry fire open. The natty cavalrymen, with tight-fitting uniforms, short jackets, and small carbines, swarmed through the pine thickets and dense undergrowth, looking as if they had been especially equipped for crawling through knot-holes. Those who had magazine guns created a racket in those pine woods that sounded as if a couple of army corps had opened fire.

The cavalry commanded by the gallant Merritt made a final dash, went over the earthworks with a hurrah, captured a battery of artillery, and scattered everything in front of them. Here Custer, Devin, Fitzhugh, and the other cavalry leaders were in their element, and vied with each other in deeds of valor. Crawford’s division had advanced in a northerly direction, marching away from Ayres and leaving a gap between the two divisions. General Sheridan sent nearly all of his staff officers to correct this movement, and to find General Warren, whom he was anxious to see.

After the capture of the angle I started off toward the right to see how matters were going there. I went in the direction of Crawford’s division, passed around the left of the enemy’s works, then rode due west to a point beyond the Ford road. Here I met Sheridan again, just a little before dark. He was laboring with all the energy of his nature to complete the destruction of the enemy’s forces, and to make preparation to protect his own detached command from an attack by Lee in the morning. He said he had relieved Warren, directed him to report in person to General Grant, and placed Griffin in command of the Fifth Corps. I had sent frequent bulletins during the day to the general-in-chief, and now despatched a courier announcing the change of corps commanders and giving the general result of the round-up.

Sheridan had that day fought one of the most interesting technical battles of the war, almost perfect in conception, brilliant in execution, strikingly dramatic in its incidents, and productive of immensely important results.

About half-past seven o’clock I started for general headquarters. The roads in places were corduroyed with captured muskets. Ammunition trains and ambulances were still struggling forward for miles; teamsters prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway. The coffee-boilers had kindled their fires. Cheers were resounding on all sides, and everybody was riotous over the victory. A horseman had to pick his way through this jubilant condition of things as best he could, as he did not have the right of way by any means. I travelled again by way of the Brooks road. As I galloped past a group of men on the Boydton plank, my orderly called out to them the news of the victory. The only response he got was from one of them who raised his open hand to his face, put his thumb to his nose, and yelled: “No, you don’t—April fool!” I then realized that it was the 1st of April. I had ridden so rapidly that I reached headquarters at Dabney’s Mill before the arrival of the last courier I had despatched. General Grant was sitting with most of the staff about him before a blazing camp-fire. He wore his blue cavalry overcoat, and the ever-present cigar was in his mouth. I began shouting the good news as soon as I got in sight, and in a moment all but the imperturbable general-in-chief were on their feet giving vent to wild demonstrations of joy. For some minutes there was a bewildering state of excitement, grasping of hands, tossing up of hats, and slapping of each other on the back. It meant the beginning of the end—the reaching of the “last ditch.” It pointed to peace and home. Dignity was thrown to the winds. The general, as was expected, asked his usual question: “How many prisoners have been taken?” This was always his first inquiry when an engagement was reported. No man ever had such a fondness for taking prisoners. I think the gratification arose from the kindness of his heart, a feeling that it was much better to win in this way than by the destruction of human life. I was happy to report that the prisoners this time were estimated at over five thousand, and this was the only part of my recital that seemed to call forth a responsive expression from his usually impassive features. After having listened to the description of Sheridan’s day’s work, the general, with scarcely a word, walked into his tent, and by the light of a flickering candle took up his “manifold writer,” a small book which retained a copy of the matter written, and after finishing several despatches handed them to an orderly to be sent over the field-wires, came out and joined our group at the camp-fire, and said as coolly as if remarking upon the state of the weather: “I have ordered an immediate assault along the lines.” This was about 9 o’clock.

General Grant was anxious to have the different commands move against the enemy’s lines at once, to prevent Lee from withdrawing troops and sending them against Sheridan. General Meade was all activity and so alive to the situation, and so anxious to carry out the orders of the general-in-chief, that he sent word that he was going to have the troops make a dash at the works without waiting to form assaulting columns. General Grant, at 9.30 P.M., sent a message saying he did not mean to have the corps attack without assaulting columns, but to let the batteries open at once and to feel out with skirmishers; and if the enemy was found to be leaving, to let the troops attack in their own way. The corps commanders reported that it would be impracticable to make a successful assault till morning, but sent back replies full of enthusiasm.

The hour for the general assault was now fixed at 4 the next morning. Miles was ordered to march with his division at midnight to reënforce Sheridan and enable him to make a stand against Lee, in case he should move westward in the night. The general had not been unmindful of Mr. Lincoln’s anxiety. Soon after my arrival he telegraphed him: “I have just heard from Sheridan. He has carried everything before him. He has captured three brigades of infantry and a train of wagons, and is now pushing up his success.” He had this news also communicated to the several corps commanders, in accordance with his invariable custom to let the different commands feel that they were being kept informed of the general movements, and to encourage them and excite their emulation by notifying them of the success of other commanders. A little after midnight the general tucked himself into his camp-bed, and was soon sleeping as peacefully as if the next day were to be devoted to a picnic instead of a decisive battle.

About 3 A.M. Colonel F. C. Newhall, of Sheridan’s staff, rode up bespattered with more than the usual amount of Virginia soil. He had the latest report from Sheridan, and as the general-in-chief would, no doubt, want to take this opportunity of sending further instructions as to the morning’s operations on the extreme left, he was wakened, and listened to the report from Newhall, who stood by the bedside to deliver it. The general told him of the preparations being made by the Army of the Potomac, and the necessity of Sheridan’s looking out for a push in his direction by Lee, and then began his sleep again where he had left off. Newhall then started to take another fifteen-mile ride back to Sheridan. Every one at headquarters had caught as many cat-naps as he could, so as to be able to keep both eyes open the next day, in the hope of getting a sight of Petersburg, and possibly of Richmond. And now 4 o’clock came, but no assault. It was found that to remove abatis, climb over chevaux-de-frise, jump rifle-pits, and scale parapets, a little daylight would be of material assistance. At 4.45 there was a streak of gray in the heavens which soon revealed another streak of gray formed by Confederate uniforms in the works opposite, and the charge was ordered. The thunder of hundreds of guns shook the ground like an earthquake, and soon the troops were engaged all along the lines. The general awaited the result of the assault at headquarters, where he could be easily communicated with, and from which he could give general directions.

At a quarter past five a message came from Wright that he had carried the enemy’s line and was pushing in. Next came news from Parke, that he had captured the outer works in his front, with twelve pieces of artillery and eight hundred prisoners. At 6.40 the general wrote a telegram with his own hand to Mr. Lincoln, as follows: “Both Wright and Parke got through the enemy’s line. The battle now rages furiously. Sheridan with his cavalry, the Fifth Corps, and Miles’s division of the Second Corps I sent to him since 1 this morning, is sweeping down from the west. All now looks highly favorable. Ord is engaged, but I have not yet heard the result on his part.” A cheering despatch was also sent to Sheridan, winding up with the words: “I think nothing is now wanting but the approach of your force from the west to finish up the job on this side.”

Soon Ord was heard from, having broken through the intrenchments. Humphreys, too, had been doing gallant work; at half-past seven the line in his front was captured, and half an hour later Hays’s division of his corps had carried an important earthwork, with three guns and most of the garrison. At 8.25 A.M. the general sat down to write another telegram to the President, summing up the progress made. Before he had finished it a despatch was brought in from Ord saying some of his troops had just captured the enemy’s works south of Hatcher’s Run, and this news was added to the tidings which the general was sending to Mr. Lincoln.

The general and staff now rode out to the front, as it was necessary to give immediate direction to the actual movements of the troops, and prevent confusion from the overlapping and intermingling of the several corps as they pushed forward. He urged his horse over the works that Wright’s corps had captured, and suddenly came upon a body of three thousand prisoners marching to the rear. His whole attention was for some time riveted upon them, and we knew he was enjoying his usual satisfaction in seeing them. Some of the guards told the prisoners who the general was, and they became wild with curiosity to get a good look at him. Next he came up with a division of the Sixth Corps flushed with success, and rushing forward with a dash that was inspiriting beyond description. When they caught sight of the leader, whom they had patiently followed from the Rapidan to the Appomattox, their cheers broke forth with a will, and their enthusiasm knew no bounds. The general galloped along toward the right, and soon met Meade, with whom he had been in constant communication, and who had been pushing forward the Army of the Potomac with all vigor. Congratulations were quickly exchanged, and both went to pushing forward the work. General Grant, after taking in the situation, directed both Meade and Ord to face their commands toward the east, and close up toward the inner lines which covered Petersburg. Lee had been pushed so vigorously that he seemed for a time to be making but little effort to recover any of his lost ground, but now he made a determined fight against Parke’s corps, which was threatening his inner line on his extreme left and the bridge across the Appomattox. Repeated assaults were made, but Parke resisted them all successfully, and could not be moved from his position. Lee had ordered Longstreet from the north side of the James, and with these troops reënforced his extreme right. General Grant dismounted near a farm-house which stood on a knoll within a mile of the enemy’s extreme line, and from which he could get a good view of the field of operations. He seated himself at the foot of a tree, and was soon busy receiving despatches and writing orders to officers conducting the advance. The position was under fire, and as soon as the group of staff officers was seen the enemy’s guns began paying their respects. This lasted for nearly a quarter of an hour, and as the fire became hotter and hotter several of the officers, apprehensive of the general’s safety, urged him to move to some less conspicuous position, but he kept on writing and talking without the least interruption from the shots falling around him, and apparently not noticing what a target the place was becoming. After he had finished his despatches, he got up, took a view of the situation, and as he started toward the other side of the farm-house said, with a quizzical look at the group around him: “Well, they do seem to have the range on us.” The staff was now sent to various points of the advancing lines, and all was activity in pressing forward the good work. By noon, nearly all the outer line of works was in our possession, except two strong redoubts which occupied a commanding position, named respectively Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth. The general decided that these should be stormed, and about 1 o’clock three of Ord’s brigades swept down upon Fort Gregg. The garrison of three hundred (under Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Duncan) with two rifled cannon made a desperate defence, and a most gallant contest took place. For half an hour after our men had gained the parapet a bloody hand-to-hand struggle continued, but nothing could stand against the onslaught of Ord’s troops, flushed with their morning’s victory. By half-past two, fifty-seven of the brave garrison lay dead, and about two hundred and fifty had surrendered. Fort Whitworth was at once abandoned, but the guns of Fort Gregg were opened upon the garrison as they marched out, and the commander (Colonel Joseph M. Jayne) and sixty men were surrendered.

About this time Miles had struck a force of the enemy at Sutherland’s Station, on Lee’s extreme right, and had captured two pieces of artillery and nearly a thousand prisoners. At 4.40 the general, who had been keeping Mr. Lincoln fully advised of the history that was so rapidly being made that day, sent him a telegram inviting him to come out the next day and pay him a visit. A prompt reply came back from the President, saying: “Allow me to tender you and all with you the nation’s grateful thanks for the additional and magnificent success. At your kind suggestion, I think I will meet you to-morrow.”

Prominent officers now urged the general to make an assault on the inner lines and capture Petersburg that afternoon, but he was firm in his resolve not to sacrifice the lives necessary to accomplish such a result. He said the city would undoubtedly be evacuated during the night, and he would dispose the troops for a parallel march westward, and try to head off the escaping army. And thus ended the eventful Sunday.

The general was up at daylight the next morning, and the first report brought in was that Parke had gone through the lines at 4 A.M., capturing a few skirmishers, and that the city had surrendered at 4.28 to Colonel Ralph Ely. A second communication surrendering the place was sent in to Wright. The evacuation had begun about 10 the night before, and was completed before 3 on the morning of the 3d. Between 5 and 6 A.M. the general had a conference with Meade, and orders were given to push westward with all haste. About 9 A.M. the general rode into Petersburg. Many of the citizens, panic-stricken, had escaped with the army. Most of the whites who remained stayed indoors, a few groups of negroes gave cheers, but the scene generally was one of complete desertion. Grant rode along quietly with his staff until he came to a comfortable-looking brick house, with a yard in front, situated on one of the principal streets, and here he and the officers accompanying him dismounted and took seats on the piazza. A number of the citizens soon gathered on the sidewalk and gazed with eager curiosity upon the commander of the Yankee armies.