By 1 p.m. on the 1st of April 1865, Sheridan had deployed Federal cavalry under Wesley Merritt in front of George Pickett’s Confederates, who were entrenched at Five Forks. Sheridan planned to pin down Pickett with the cavalry while Warren’s V Corps assaulted the Angle on the Confederate left. It was 4 p.m. before Warren came into action, and because of faulty deployment, V Corps nearly missed its objective. Despite the confusion and delay, Warren’s attack struck Pickett a decisive blow; by 7 p.m. the Confederate force had been virtually destroyed.
Actions at Petersburg before and during the Battle of Five Forks.
The war clerk, John Beauchamp Jones, felt better in the clear, pleasant weather of this Saturday. He walked to the War Department offices through Richmond crowds that were vaguely uneasy, speaking to acquaintances, and when he had reached his office made one of his meticulous diary entries:
Vague and incoherent accounts from excited couriers of fighting, without result, in Dinwiddie County.…
Jones peered curiously into the record books of the conscript office and was stunned by what he saw: more than 60,000 troops were absent without leave—deserters. All Virginians, he noted.
John M. Daniel, the fiery editor of the Richmond Examiner who had poured vituperative scorn on the heads of President Davis and General Lee and officers and politicians without number, was dead today. Jones noted no signs of mourning.
A rumor was adrift in the streets that the Confederacy had signed a treaty with the Mexican government of Maximilian.
Early in the morning Captain William H. Parker, of the Navy’s school ship, Patrick Henry, went up from the James to Secretary Mallory’s house, seeking news.
Parker was a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the Mexican War and an old U.S. Navy hand. When he came near Mallory’s home he gave no sign of surprise at the strange sight:
Stephen Mallory paced up and down on the peaceful walk with a big pistol in his hand. His manner was so calm that Parker assumed he had been out target shooting.
Mallory was a smiling, urbane man who had brought much to the Confederacy. The son of a New England engineer, born in Trinidad, he had grown up in Key West, fought the Seminoles, practiced law, been collector of customs and served in the U.S. Senate, where he had fought for naval reforms. He had literally given the Confederacy its little ironclad Navy. Parker admired him greatly.
“Any news from the army, sir?” Parker asked.
Mallory seemed distracted. “The word from General Lee is good. Affairs about Petersburg are promising, they say. Promising.”
“I’ll spend the night in the city,” Parker said, “if nothing is likely to happen that would call for me aboard ship.”
“No, no,” Mallory said. “I know of nothing to keep you there. Do as you wish. I’ll call if I need you.”
Parker went out with friends for the evening, but he noticed in the streets some of the home guard, marching out the Brook Turnpike. Bystanders spoke vaguely of a threatened raid on the city. The night passed in quiet.
The camp of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry was east of the city and north of the James, within sight of the enemy. Saturday morning was peaceful and almost soundless, but Edward M. Boykin, who was at headquarters when orders came, thought this must be the day they had long dreaded.
The orders were simple enough: Send the dismounted men of the regiment to Lieutenant Colonel Barham of the 24th Virginia Cavalry, for duty on the lines.
Cavalrymen to stand in the trenches. It gave him a feeling of what was to come, Boykin said, but he added, “It was difficult to say what was expected.”
A party of the regiment trailed off toward the bluecoat lines, leaving behind a row of bony horses.
Not far away from the South Carolinians, near Chaffin’s Bluff, was the remarkable force commanded by Custis Lee, a patched-up emergency brigade of 1300 local guards from Richmond, chiefly clerks and an artillery group of six battalions.
The artillerymen, except for a Georgia crew, had seen no field service; the others had been posted at guns in Richmond for months. And though enlistment cards read “heavy artillery,” many were light artillerymen, and one company was, in truth, of cavalry.
The gunners, however, had a talented leader, Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield, once chief gunner to Stonewall Jackson; he was only now recovering from a wound suffered almost two years ago, when Jackson had fallen.
The dress of the gunners set them apart from any other Confederate troops—scarlet caps and trim.
Custis Lee’s sector was near Fort Harrison, the scene of bitter fighting in the past few months, where the pickets were almost face to face. At one spot the hostile lines were divided by logs thrown across a path a few feet apart as the limits of sentry beats.
Between 10 and 11 P.M. of this night Captain McHenry Howard of Baltimore, of Custis Lee’s staff, was falling asleep in his tent when a red glare lighted it, and distant gunfire aroused him:
“The night was very dark and cloudy, the atmosphere damp and heavy.… Dressing ourselves and mounting the works, we watched and listened for half an hour, but the battle was across the James, and all remained quiet on our part of the lines; and the ‘Richmond defenses’ came to the conclusion that so far it was no affair of theirs, and like true soldiers went to sleep as fast as they could.”
Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, commander of the city’s defenses, had lost none of his vitality, for all that he had lost a leg and wore a gray fringe on his domed bald head. He was up through the night, driving his staff, tagged at every step by his Apache boy, “Friday,” a relic of his days on the plains.
Ewell piped in his thin voice and gave orders with the quaint gestures that had won him the sobriquet “The Woodcock.” In his convalescence two years before, Ewell had married his widowed cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, whom he still introduced to friends as “Mrs. Brown.” Ewell had done his best to organize the city’s defenses.
He had laid careful plans for this night; months ago he had given orders as to how tobacco warehouses should be burned, at the threat of enemy occupation.
Ewell had foreseen that the city might be looted by its own people: “I begged them to organize a volunteer guard force for an emergency, promising the necessary arms. I regret to say but one man volunteered.”
Not long after dark, Ewell had a sobering message from General Longstreet: Old Pete had been called south of the James with his divisions. He would leave General Kershaw on the Richmond front line. Ewell was to assemble all troops he could find, send them down the Darbytown Road and report to Longstreet’s headquarters.
Ewell sent his staff to collect convalescent soldiers and militia, and mounted for the ride. This was not a simple process, for he must be strapped into the saddle by his wooden leg while the patient old gray, “Rifle,” waited for the Indian boy to be done.
Longstreet ordered Ewell to relieve two brigades left on picket duty, using his home guard, and send the regulars to the relief of Petersburg.
After dark the rain had stopped, though it was little enough comfort to George Pickett’s troops, waiting in the pines. The roads were still liquid, and the men were cold and hungry.
General Pickett had reassured himself yesterday, pushing the enemy from Five Forks to within half a mile of Dinwiddie Court House, where he now camped.
At 9 P.M. cavalry scouts brought in two prisoners, and at sight of their corps insignia Pickett’s confidence began to seep away. The Federals were infantrymen. Not only had Sheridan 12,000 troopers in his path, but a big force of Grant’s real power was at hand, perhaps more than one corps.
Pickett hesitated until well after midnight, and then got off a dispatch to Robert Lee: The day had brought victory to the isolated right wing, but now he was seriously outnumbered. He would fall back nearer the comforting flank of the entrenched Confederate line.
In short, Pickett would give up the ground won the previous day, and await the enemy attack nearer Lee’s entrenched line. His courier left with the message at 2 A.M.
Lee did not conceal his surprise at this dispatch. He replied immediately with a warning that Five Forks must be held at all costs, as the shield to the Southside Railroad and key to the entire position. He gave reluctant blessing to Pickett’s retreat.
It was not quite two years since Gettysburg, when Pickett had led a fateful charge of which Lee had written him:
You and your men have covered yourselves with glory.
Pickett’s name had been heard less often in the days since, and the commander had at least once chided him for bickering and controversy with other officers. It was months ago that the ordnance chief, General Josiah Gorgas, entering in his diary a rumor that Pickett had been relieved of his command, wrote: “Pickett is very dissipated, it is said.”
Pickett could not be criticized for lack of promptness tonight, at any rate. His men were moving back toward Five Forks at the moment the dispatch went out to General Lee. It was slow work, for the route was as nearly a stream as a roadway, and pine torches gave scant light to the troops. They came, exhausted, to Five Forks at dawn. There was no sign of Federal pursuit.
Pickett left the choice of a defensive battle line to no one else. He rode in the gray morning along the White Oak Road, at right angles to the Ford Road. The Southside Railroad was some two miles in his rear. Pickett had the men entrench, but took little time in selection of the ground, which was in places low and difficult to defend. Crews felled trees in front of the line until in some places the logs were piled chest-high, at the edge of a woodland. Men sensed no anxiety in the general; the worst to be expected was a sharp attack by Sheridan’s cavalry, which could surely be driven off. If blue infantry came in, they had only to call up help from the end of the entrenched line. No one on the isolated flank yet knew that the anchor regiments of Lee’s thin line had already attacked on their front and been so roughly handled that they now huddled in the trenches, ready for retreat.
By late morning Pickett was satisfied with his line at Five Forks. From left to right he had placed his infantry:
The brigades of Matt Ransom and William Wallace, acting as one command, since they were under 1000 strong; George Steuart’s brigade of about 1000; Corse’s, about 1100; and William Terry’s, no more than 800.
Beyond these there was only cavalry. To the left, hardly more than a picket line stretching toward the Petersburg trenches, was a regiment of T. T. Munford’s horsemen and the decimated brigade of twenty-four-year-old General William Roberts. To the right of the line was Robert Lee’s son Rooney, with some 2500 troopers.
Pickett sent his wagons back, to the north of Hatcher’s Run, with his meager reserve strength to guard them—two brigades of cavalry under Thomas Rosser.
Fitz Lee, the senior cavalry commander, came up after noon with about half his men, some 900 of them. Soldiers cooked their meals, but few of them had more than parched corn. The morning passed with nothing more serious than brief distant crackling of skirmishes with the enemy, which came on slowly.
Pickett had chosen the gun positions as well as the infantry line, though Colonel William Johnson Pegram, the twenty-two-year-old genius of artillery, was there. He had six guns, three of them in the center of the line, commanded by two of Pegram’s boy lieutenants. Farther to the right, where they swept an open field before a farmhouse, were the other guns, under a skilled veteran, Captain Thomas Ellett.
William Pegram was a handsome boy who had fought his guns since his enlistment as a private in 1861. Only his youth had cost him a general’s stars; he had been often praised by Lee, A. P. Hill and Stonewall Jackson, and, since the death of the legendary John Pelham, had been the army’s favorite gunner.
Today he was worn from two days of fighting, in the saddle night and day, wet to the skin most of those hours as he drove the guns through muddy roads to this front, fighting off cavalry patrols of the enemy. For breakfast this morning he had taken a handful of corn from his horse’s ration and parched it over a fire, sharing even that with an officer of his command.
Pegram did not protest Pickett’s gunsites, though they were far from ideal; the center position in particular seemed vulnerable. Pegram watched in the quiet until noon, and while axes still rang and the little line grew, he fell asleep on the wet ground near Ellett’s guns on the right. He had no blanket.
General Thomas Rosser had about him the aura of the cavalry’s great days—an immense young man, high-shouldered, black-eyed, quick-tempered, with a weakness for alcohol which he fought manfully. Drinking had not affected him as a field commander, and before Jeb Stuart’s death last spring, Rosser had been at the head of many reckless charges which had saved the army from disaster.
There was smoldering enmity between Rosser and Thomas Munford, for a recent quarrel had led to a court-martial. Munford had won acquittal and now had his own division of cavalry, but no one had forgotten.
Rosser was fresh from triumphs in the Shenandoah Valley, in a hard campaign which had left his horses jaded and sore-backed. But yesterday, as he crossed the Nottoway River riding down to this flank, Rosser had succumbed to his weakness for good food. He borrowed a seine and waded the cold water with a Negro servant and aides, and caught a number of big shad. He had carried the fish in a headquarters wagon through a sharp skirmish yesterday, when he got a painful flesh wound in an arm. Rosser was not ready for action this morning.
He explained to Pickett that he must rest the mounts of his command.
“I’ve got to go back and unsaddle and feed,” he said. “I won’t be able to fight from horseback much longer, if I don’t cure those saddlesores.”
Pickett agreed. Rosser turned for a last word:
“I want you to come back and have lunch with me. A shad bake, I might say. We’ve got some nice ones.”
Pickett accepted immediately. “Fine, fine. I’ll be with you in an hour.”
Rosser rode off, but paused on his way to invite Fitz Lee to the feast.
There was quiet on the line at Five Forks; from the distant left, toward the lines of the main army, there was a rattle of fighting, but it had a scattered sound and was not thought to be serious. Far in the rear, at Rosser’s camp, the tantalizing aromas of hickory smoke and broiling shad began to rise.
Fitz Lee was in the saddle at Five Forks, ready for the two-mile ride back to Rosser’s camp, when Tom Munford rode into sight. Munford was excited. He passed Lee a dispatch from one of his troopers on the left flank.
A tide of Federal cavalry had poured over White Oak Road, scattering the brigade of Bill Roberts. Pickett’s force appeared to be cut off from the main army.
Fitz read the message, too hurriedly, Munford thought, and gave no sign of concern.
“Well, Munford,” he said, “I wish you would go over in person at once and see what this means. If necessary, draw up your division and let me hear from you.”
The message did not go to Pickett, though it was about this time that Munford watched Fitz Lee and Pickett ride to the rear. The troops lying in line paid no attention to the departing generals, and big Rooney Lee, at the far right with his troopers, was not told of the shad bake, nor that his superiors had left the field, leaving him the senior officer.
The shad bake on the banks of Hatcher’s Run was a great success. Rosser’s headquarters cook served the big fish, brown and succulent from the glowing mounds of coals. It was a familiar rite to Tidewater Virginians, with the shad split and spread flat across green withes cut from the woods, a crude method of planking. The networks of spiny bones did not mar the contentment of the generals. None of those who watched the feast in the lee of Rosser’s wagon recorded that there were drinks, possibly because so familiar a custom was beneath special notice. In any event, the officers were around the fire for two or three hours.
Two couriers from the front rode up swiftly.
“The enemy’s coming in on White Oak Road, General,” one of the men said.
Rosser, Pickett and Fitz Lee listened, but heard no firing from the front. A dense pine forest lay between them and Five Forks, but it did not occur to the hungry officers that it could muffle the rolling of musketry. They lingered, and Rosser continued to listen. He recorded: “Some time was spent over the lunch, during which no firing was heard, and we concluded that the enemy was not in much of a hurry to find us at Five Forks.”
About 4 P.M. Pickett asked Rosser for a rider to carry a message to Five Forks, though he was not visibly alarmed. Rosser called up two men, and took his usual precaution of sending one a few hundred yards in front of the other, for the safety of the message. The two riders galloped off, but a moment later gunfire rolled through the woods.
The generals saw a line of bluecoats seize the leading courier. The other trooper galloped back to Rosser.
“Woods full of ’em, sir. They’ve got behind the men at Five Forks, too.”
Pickett rode quickly toward the front. Within a moment he was back, calling for the Dinwiddie Troop to guide him; he seemed to be cut off from the command.
During the hours of the shad bake, Tom Munford rode to the left to carry out Fitz Lee’s orders. He carried with him three or four couriers and a favorite staff officer, Fitz’s brother, Captain Henry Lee.
He reached the far end of the line and saw Federals on White Oak Road. An officer told Munford the enemy riders were MacKenzie’s cavalry. Munford soon saw more: In a field near White Oak Road, columns of blue infantry had formed; through his glasses he made out their insignia: 5th Corps. Munford sent a rider to Fitz Lee and Pickett with this information and ordered his division to him by way of a narrow woods road.
Munford was impatient and, as the Federals continued to gather in his front, sent Henry Lee to hurry the troops and then carry word to Fitz Lee and Pickett. “Tell them personally what you’ve seen,” Munford said.
For some time Munford had no reply, and sent more couriers after Henry Lee. He had little time for more; his division was under brisk attack and being forced back through the woods. Munford left the field to call for help.
He and a few men were pursued by Federal riders into the Ford Road, where he met Pickett.
Pickett’s dark curls were tousled around his flushed face. He shouted to Munford, pointing to the front.
“What troops are those?” he called, but did not pause for an answer. “I’ve got to get in to Five Forks. For God’s sake do something to hold them off while I get by.”
Captain James Breckinridge, commanding the sharpshooters of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, was beside Munford, and without waiting for a command, rode at the oncoming Federals with his handful of riders, firing rapidly. Breckinridge fell dead from his saddle, but Pickett, racing past in Indian fashion, his head low on the neck of his horse, escaped a volley from the bluecoats and was soon out of sight. Fitz Lee, who tried to follow, was driven rearward. Up ahead, furious firing shook the woodlands.
Tom Munford noted that the shadows were already growing long.
The first volley of musketry brought Willie Pegram to his feet among Ellett’s guns, and he was soon galloping on his white horse toward the vulnerable center. A witness, W. Gordon McCabe, recalled the spot at this moment: “The little salient was literally ringed with flame. The guns were using double canister at short range and their cannoneers were serving their pieces with a coolness and rapidity beyond all praise. Within thirty yards or less of the guns the dense columns of the enemy were staggering under a rapid fire.”
Pegram rode to this battery shouting encouragement to his men. McCabe saw “a sweet serenity” on his face as the boy colonel studied the effects of his gunfire.
“Fire your canister low, men!” Pegram shouted. It was his last order. He tumbled from his saddle and into McCabe’s arms. “Oh, Gordon,” Pegram said, “I’m mortally wounded. Take me off.”
The gun’s lieutenant fell across the barrel a moment later, shot through the head. The battery continued to fight, ripping the blue lines until it was overrun. Federals came from both flanks. A gunner felled the first man with a sponge staff, but the graycoats were borne under and the guns fell quiet. Thousands of men overran the position and swept into the woods behind.
On the left of the line Matt Ransom’s men were hurled back by the attack. The outside regiment was the 24th North Carolina, rolled in on its neighbors in a melee of flight and carrying the adjoining four regiments from the line. Ransom lost his hat, and one of his soldiers, W. N. Rose, Jr., saw him floundering in the thick pines on horseback, rallying his men. Rose wrote of the swift Yankee victory: “They were a sublime sight in their long lines of blue. We prepared to receive them as they came, but soon yelling commenced on the right of Ransom’s brigade, and they came in both front and rear and poured into us a heavy enfilading fire.… We were now powerless to help ourselves, as the Yankees were closing in upon us from every quarter, and the order was given to fall back by companies, beginning on the left of the regiment; but before the right companies received the order the enemy had cut off all chances of retreat.”
The 24th North Carolina was gone, except for a handful who escaped the woods. Even then, Major Thaddeus Love did not surrender. He twisted the U.S. flag from the hands of a color-bearer who charged by him, and went down, flailing about him with the staff.
General Ransom made a last effort to hold the flank after one mount had been killed under him. He led a thin line of survivors from the woods, but went down with his horse in a volley. Rumors went through both armies that Ransom was dead, but two captains ran to him, found him pinioned under his thrashing horse, and freed the general; he escaped on foot.
Tom Munford pointed out to Ransom a good gun position, but the infantryman refused to send artillerymen there. Munford himself had no orders.
When Pickett reached the men of his front line, he found they had been pushed back half a mile or more from the original position. He flung himself into the work of rallying the men as if he would atone for his absence.
Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harrison, his adjutant general, was near the lank-haired commander:
Pickett got a sergeant and men enough to put one piece in position on the left and fired eight rounds into the head of the enemy column, when the axle broke and the piece was disabled.… He had also pulled out Terry’s brigade from their position and threw them on the left flank, charging over Wallace’s men and forcing them back to their position.
Even then, with all the odds against us, we might have held until night, which was fast approaching, but the ammunition was fast giving out. Colonel Flowers’ regiment fought hand to hand after the cartridges were gone, but to no avail, though the enemy lay in heaps. The left was completely turned.
The staff tried to stem the ensuing panic, but it was too late.
Corse’s brigade was standing firm, and some men from broken regiments rallied on it; it was a momentary pause.
Pickett was still with the broken battery when he was startled by a bluecoat trooper jumping the breastwork on a mule, crying to him to surrender.
“Damn you,” Pickett shouted, and galloped from the enemy ring just before it closed. He fled with his men toward White Oak Road, but was forced to turn; the blue regiments of Crawford and MacKenzie were sweeping up survivors there. Elsewhere, the men of Custer and Devin were scattering the last organized Confederate troops through the woodland.
At last only Rooney Lee’s troopers withdrew in good order, having beaten off savage attacks. Even they paid dearly. Walter Harrison thought their clash with the enemy on the cleared field near the Gilliam farmhouse “one of the most brilliant cavalry engagements of the war,” a series of charges and head-on collisions with ringing sabers and banging pistols.
A staff officer who had seen every battle, from the first of Jeb Stuart’s clashes, said he never saw such desperate fighting as the last charge provided, when nine colonels went down within his view. Mrs. Gilliam later reported that her lawn and garden, a space of not more than a dozen acres, was so littered with the bodies of horses that it took many days to drag them away and end the overpowering stench of the field.
When the troopers made camp that night they lacked even the spirit to sing the grim song which had become the favorite in the shrinking ranks of late:
Stand to your glasses steady,
’Tis all we’ve left to prize;
Here’s to the dead already,
Hurrah for the next man who dies!
After dark, when the field had cleared, Gordon McCabe had Willie Pegram’s stretcher loaded into an ambulance and rode with him through the confusion of Pickett’s retreat. The jolting wagon, driven rapidly toward Ford’s Station on the Southside Railroad, wrung groans of agony from the colonel.
McCabe held Pegram in his arms, and now and then prayed aloud for him. He kissed the white face several times. Pegram stirred.
“If it is God’s will to take me, I’m perfectly resigned. I only want to live for the sake of my mother and sisters.”
A few minutes later Pegram muttered, “Take my love to Mother and the girls, and tell them I thought of them at the last.”
McCabe groaned. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
“Don’t say that, Gordon,” Pegram said. “It isn’t right.”
McCabe kissed Pegram once more. “I never knew how much I loved you until now, Willie.” It was the first time he had called the colonel by that name.
Pegram squeezed McCabe’s hand. “But I did,” he said.
The ambulance rocked on in the darkness, with the sound of McCabe’s prayers so loud that the driver heard it over the creaking of the wagon and the hoofs of the mules.
It was after 10 P.M. when they halted at Ford’s Station. McCabe found a bed for Pegram there, gave him morphine until his pain was eased, and sat beside his cot for hours, despite a midnight alarm that the enemy was coming. McCabe sent off an orderly with their horses, pistols, sabers, and spurs, expecting to be captured, but they were not disturbed. McCabe wrote:
“I shall never forget that night of waiting. I could only pray. He breathed heavily through the night, and passed into a stupor. I bound his wounds as well as I knew how and moistened his lips with water. Sunday morning he died as gently as possible.”
McCabe had Pegram wrapped in a blanket, saw him buried in a trench which he helped to dig, and read the Episcopal funeral service over him.
The day passed slowly at Lee’s headquarters in the Turnbull house. There were discouraging reports from Anderson’s fight at the end of the trenches, but for hours there was nothing from Pickett. Rumors flew.
In the afternoon there was a long message from President Davis in Richmond, a rather querulous dispatch about assigning officers to raise Negro troops. The President complained:
I called for the recommendations made by you, and so few names were presented that I infer you do not find it desirable to rely on officers sent to recruit for their own commands.
I have asked often but without satisfactory reply how many of the exchanged prisoners have joined the army. Your force should have been increased from that source 8,000 or 10,000 men.
Last night we had rumors of a general engagement on your right. Your silence in regard to it leads to the conclusion that it was unwarranted.…
Near the end the President came dangerously close to revelation of his secret desperation:
The question is often asked of me, “Will we hold Richmond?” To which my only answer is, “If we can, it is purely a question of military power.” The distrust is increasing, and embarrasses in many ways.
Long before he heard from Pickett, Lee telegraphed Davis of his concern. He left little to the imagination:
The movement of General Grant to Dinwiddie C. H. seriously threatens our position, and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg.… It also renders it more difficult to withdraw from our position … and gives the enemy an advantageous position in our rear.… I fear he can readily cut both the Southside and the Danville Railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry.
This in my opinion obliged us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course. I should like very much to have the views of your Excellency upon this matter as well as counsel, and would repair to Richmond for the purpose, did I not feel that my presence here is necessary. Should I find it practicable I will do so, but should it be convenient for your Excellency or the Secretary of War to visit headquarters, I should be glad to see you.…
When Lee at last heard of the disaster to Pickett, he took emergency measures left to him. He called Longstreet down from the north side of the James, removing most of Richmond’s protection in an effort to bolster for a few hours the doomed lower reaches of his line.