“Daylight dawned, cold, wet, and cheerless” in the 20th Maine Infantry’s temporary camp west of Petersburg, Va. on Thursday, March 30, 1865, said Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H.
The previous day, elements of the 1st Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, had captured the Confederate earthworks stretching across the Quaker Road near its intersection with the Boydton Plank Road. Almost due north from the battlefield lay the westernmost Confederate entrenchments protecting the approaches to Petersburg.
If it could advance about 1½ miles north and capture the White Oak Road, the 5th Corps (led by Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren) would “turn” that enemy line and end up behind it.
Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain commanded the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps. His brigade encompassed the 185th New York Infantry and the 198th Pennsylvania Infantry. “In spite of the sodden earth and miry roads,” the 5th Corps shifted west to occupy the Boydton Plank Road “as far as its crossing of Gravelley Run” on March 30, Chamberlain said.
By now Gen. Phil Sheridan was supposed to be holding Five Forks with his cavalry divisions; his failure to capture that crossroad a day earlier had given time for Confederate troops — perhaps 20-25 percent of Lee’s army — to get there first.
Chamberlain considered Sheridan’s failure inexcusable.
The rain fell through most of March 30. Gerrish and his comrades “presented a singular appearance at that time,” he remembered. The Maine lads had lain “flat upon our faces in red colored mud” prior to attacking some nearby Confederate outerworks about 4 p.m.; the red mud “now covered our uniforms, our hands and faces being black with burning powder, and our clothes torn,” Gerrish said.
Meanwhile, George Pickett’s men had thrown up earthworks at the nearby crucial crossroad of Five Forks. They left about a 3-mile between their entrenchments and the main Confederate line at Claiborne Road to the east. Late on Thursday, the 5th Corps was poised about “a mile and a half south” of that gap, Chamberlain said.
The 20th Maine lads camped in the recently captured Confederate earthworks on “that cold, damp, frosty [Thursday] night,” Gerrish said. Spreading their wet blankets “upon the muddy ground,” the Maine soldiers fell into “a glorious, restful sleep.”
Friday dawned warm, with the sun filtering through broken clouds. The 20th Maine Infantry was in the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Bartlett; pulled out of line, the Maine boys started cooking their coffee and dinner.
Under orders to capture the White Plank Road, Warren ordered some 5th Corps elements to move north that morning. Chamberlain’s brigade was on “the extreme left of our lines,” positioned “along the difficult branch of Gravelly Run.” Chamberlain and his men wanted to fight; they wanted to end the war once and for all, and if they could break Lee’s line today, this Friday, maybe the war would be over tomorrow.
“Wet and worn and famished as all were, we were alive to the thought that promptness and vigor of action would at all events determine the conditions and chances of the campaign,” Chamberlain said.
Slated to support the attack by placing his cavalry on Warren’s left (western) flank, Sheridan had his hands full at Dinwiddie Court House, where enemy cavalry and infantry were pounding his men, including those of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment.
The 5th Corps stepped off; in an “onset [that] was swift and … sudden,” four Confederate infantry brigades plowed into the 2nd Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Romeyne Ayres. Union boys tried to hold, but “brigade after brigade broke, that strange impulse termed a ‘panic’ took effect, and the retreat became a rout,” Chamberlain said.
“There was a fearful roar on our front, less than a mile away, — cannons, musketry, and cheering, all mingling in one terrible roar,” Gerrish said. “To our dismay we found that the awful tide was rolling toward us … the rebels had charged upon our line, and were driving it back.”
The livid Ayres, “like a roaring lion,” tried to stem the retreat, but his men fled through the 3rd Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Samuel Crawford. That division, too, started to withdraw.
Warren summoned the 1st Division to stem the tide. Buglers blew, “Fall in! Fall in!” in the camps, and “the weary men sprang into line” upon their officers’ urgings, Gerrish said. Moving to the right, the 3rd Brigade “rushed toward the scene of conflict” and watched as enemy troops pursued “the broken fragments of the retreating division.”
The brigade reached some high ground above Gravelly Run, a stream that had briefly divided the Confederate and Union lines these past few days. “It was a good position,” noted the veteran Gerrish. The oncoming Confederates had to “descend a hill to our front,” cross the stream, “and then climb the hill” upon which Walter Morrill now formed the 20th Maine.
Riding up to the 1st Brigade, Warren found Chamberlain and asked, “General Chamberlain, will you save the honor of the 5th Corps? That’s all there is about it.”
Warren wanted Chamberlain to attack with his “thinned and torn and worn” 1st Brigade, so about 1:45 p.m., the 198th Pennsylvania waded across the rain-swollen Gravelly Run and took the fight to the enemy. Over beyond Warren’s right flank, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles took his 2nd Corps’s division forward, and intense fighting swept the battlefield.
“It was an exciting moment,” Gerrish said while watching the Confederates advancing south on the opposite hill. Regimental bands played patriotic background music, and Union artillery pounded the approaching enemy.
Then “our muskets crashed with awful force; the hill itself shivered as if with fear,” Gerrish said. With Chamberlain’s 1st Brigade advancing on the 3rd Brigade’s right flank, the 20th Maine helped stop the Confederates at the water’s edge of Gravelly Run.
Suddenly the goal of capturing the White Oak Road was in sight.
North went the 5th Corps, Chamberlain riding on his horse, Charlemagne, “who, though battered and torn as I was, insisted on coming up.
“We belonged together; he knew that as well as I,” Chamberlain said. “He had been shot down in battle twice before; but his Morgan endurance was under him, and his Kentucky blood was up.”
The 1st Brigade charged; “within effective range, about three hundred yards [from Confederate troops], the sharp, cutting fire made us reel and shiver,” Chamberlain described what happened to his men.
“Now, quick or never! On and over! The impetuous 185th New York rolls over the enemy’s right [flank], and seems to swallow it up,” he watched. The Pennsylvanians came in on the left in “a seething wave of countercurrents, then rolling back, leaving a fringe of wrecks, — and all is over.
“We pour over the works, swing to the right and drive the enemy” into their Claiborne Road earthworks, “and then establish ourselves across the White Oak Road facing northeast, and take breath,” Chamberlain said.
At a cost of 1,870 men, the 5th Corps had broken Lee’s line and had emerged beyond its right flank! Now all that Sheridan need do was come up and push through to the Southside Railroad.
But Sheridan did not — could not — come up that Friday. His cavalrymen were fighting for their lives almost due south at Dinwiddie Court House.
At a cost of “three days’ hard work and hard fighting, and more than two thousand men,” the 5th Corps had accomplished what the Army of the Potomac had not in the last 10 months, according to Chamberlain. The 2nd Corps had played a key role on March 31, but the glory belonged to Warren and his divisions.
Digging in as best they could, Chamberlain’s men settled into camp in late afternoon. But “a new anxiety now arose,” he realized. “Heavy firing was heard from the direction of Sheridan’s supposed position.” At 1st Brigade headquarters, Chamberlain stood on a slight rise and listened; Warren rode up and asked “me what I thought of this firing.
“I believed it was receding towards Dinwiddie,” which meant a Sheridan retreat, Chamberlain said.
Warren sent Bartlett and his 3rd Brigade marching “to threaten the rear of the enemy” threatening Sheridan. The rest of the 1st Division settled in for the night.
“The narrow road along which we marched was lined on either hand with a dense growth of pine trees,” Gerrish said. “The sun was sinking from view, and the tall trees cast their lengthening shadows across our pathway.”
The 20th Maine boys marched into the night, until the darkness “became so intense that it was prudent to proceed further,” he recalled. Bartlett camped his brigade; pickets pushing out toward Dinwiddie Court House found themselves so near the Confederate lines surrounding Sheridan that they could hear enemy soldiers talking.
But Ulysses Simpson Grant decided that evening to save his protégé, Sheridan, from defeat at Dinwiddie. Jumbled orders sent the 5th Corps marching piecemeal toward Dinwiddie. At 8:30 p.m., Chamberlain learned about a Grant order requiring “the whole army was going to contract its lines.”
During the next few hours, increasingly muddled orders from Grant and George Gordon Meade (the purported commander of the Army of the Potomac) drove Warren nuts and sent his men going here and there “in the blackness of darkness across that country of swamps and sloughs and quicksands,” Chamberlain said.
The 5th Corps withdrew from its hard-won section of White Oak Road. Early on Saturday, April 1, Chamberlain encountered an angry Sheridan after marching toward Dinwiddie most of the night. Not a man to accept blame for his own mistakes, Sheridan vented his outrage about Warren not arriving sooner.
Sheridan had failed to support the attack on White Oak Road. Instead, almost 2,000 Union boys lay dead, dying, or wounded after a successful battle deemed by Grant less important than saving Sheridan’s butt.
Such are the vicissitudes of war.
But Sheridan’s failure set the stage for the Battle of Five Forks, which put Union troops directly on Appomattox Road.
Next week: Appomattox Road — striking thin air at Five Forks
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.