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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Battle of Five Forks

Map of the campaign
In the spring of 1865, Phil Sheridan's army from the Shenandoah Valley rode to join Grant around Petersburg. With the addition of this cavalry, Grant had a large force available for maneuver. Sheridan attempted to flank Lee by moving with a force of infantry and cavalry around Lee's right, heading for the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by sending 12,000 men of George Pickett's division and cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee. On March 31st they met at Dinwiddie Court House. The Union advance was temporarily stopped, and Pickett and Lee fell back to Five Forks, an important intersection, which they were ordered to hold at all hazards.

Pickett
Sheridan planned to attack the next morning, but reinforcements were slow in coming, and his troops were prepared to advance until 4:00 pm on April 1st. This delay worked greatly to the advantage of the Union. Pickett and Fitz Lee, thinking that Sheridan would make no attack that day, left the front lines to go to a shad bake. When the Confederates were struck by three Yankee divisions, they were without a commanding officer. Even as the battle began to rage, it took the Confederate generals a long time to join the army. They received reports of the fighting, but an acoustic shadow silenced the roar of battle. Since they couldn't hear the fighting, they believed for a time that the reports they received were not urgent.



Nevertheless, Federal attack soon faltered. The plan had been to strike the rebel flank, but the Northerners had been incorrectly positioned and instead were taking fire in their own flank. The plan was turning out to be a failure. Seeing this, Sheridan rode to the front of his lines and shouted,
Where's my battle flag? Come on, men! 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.
His encouragement worked. The Federals resumed their advance, and with their general at their head charged, drove the Confederates back. The rebels formed a new line, and Pickett finally joined his army. However, the Union momentum continued, and they captured the Five Forks intersection, continuing to drive the southerners back. Sheridan scored a complete victory, capturing thousands of prisoners and several stands of colors.

Sheridan
More importantly, the Southside railroad was threatened. Lee knew he needed to retreat. Between Five Forks and Fort Stedman he had lost one quarter of his army. He planned to hold out for a few more days so as to give the authorities in Richmond time to move the capitol, but the situation was far worse than he realized.

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