Appomattox Road: “We will fight our way back to the regiment!” — Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Five Forks

 

Five Forks was an obscure crossroad in Virginia's Dinwiddie County (above) until March 29, 1865, when Union troops set out to capture Five Forks and move north from there to cut the Southside Railroad supplying the Confederate defenders of Petersburg. Still a relatively "unknown" battlefield, Five Forks (below) is now a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield.  (Brian Swartz Photos)

Five Forks was an obscure crossroad in Virginia’s Dinwiddie County (above) until March 29, 1865, when Union troops set out to capture Five Forks and move north from there to cut the Southside Railroad supplying the Confederate defenders of Petersburg. Still a relatively “unknown” battlefield, Five Forks (below) is now a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield. (Brian Swartz Photos)

Five Forks displays and cannonWithdrawn from its White Oak Road earthworks after dark on Friday, March 31, 1865, the weary soldiers of the 5th Corps “about-faced” and went after Five Forks on April Fool’s Day …

… and, in a master stroke attributable to sloppy reconnaissance, emerged onto the road leading to Appomattox Court House.

Saturday’s clear, cold, and frosty dawn “found the men of the Fifth Corps strangely glad they were alive,” recalled Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division (Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin), 5th Corps (Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren), Army of the Potomac. Involved in bloody fighting on March 29 and 31, his brigade comprised the 185th New York Infantry and the 198th Pennsylvania Infantry regiments.

On Friday, the 5th Corps had captured a long stretch of White Oak Road, which ran some 4½ miles from the Five Forks crossroad east to the westernmost Confederate earthworks at Petersburg. Poised to turn the Army of Northern Virginia‘s right flank and flush their enemies into the open, Union boys dug in and awaited orders.

Meanwhile, Gen. Phil Sheridan had seen his cavalry mauled at Dinwiddie Court House on Friday. Sent to capture Five Forks on March 29, the cavalry never got there. Instead, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett had arrived at Five Forks with his cavalry and infantry; the latter built imposing earthworks, and Ulysses Grant gave up White Oak Road and sent the 5th Corps to rescue Sheridan late on March 31.

Blaming everybody (particularly Warren) but himself for the Dinwiddie debacle, Sheridan decided to attack Pickett on Saturday, April 1. Union cavalry scouted the Confederate earthworks; receiving a hastily drawn map of Confederate defenses and a battle plan from Sheridan, Warren moved his three divisions north through the swamps and woods to a position near Gravelly Run Church.

Sheridan’s plan called for Warren’s infantry to assault Pickett’s left flank and for Union cavalry to hit the enemy’s center and right. Warren placed two divisions side by side (on the left, the 2nd Division under Maj. Gen. Romeyn Ayres and, on the right, the 3rd Division under Maj. Gen. Samuel Crawford) and Griffin’s 1st Division behind them.

The three divisions formed “in some open ground and thin woods near the Gravelly Run Church,” said Chamberlain, who noticed Sheridan looking “dark and tense” while “walking up and down the earth.” The 5th Corps had rendezvoused with some Union cavalry regiments, which should advance on the corps’s left flank and hit Pickett’s defenses.

Lingering close to the action on Saturday, April 1, 1865, combat artist Alfred Waud sketched elements of the 5th Corps charging at Five Forks. The 5th Corps stepped off at approximately 4 p.m. and rolled up the Confederate defenses at Five Forks by dark. (Library of Congress)

Lingering close to the action on Saturday, April 1, 1865, combat artist Alfred Waud sketched elements of the 5th Corps charging at Five Forks. The 5th Corps stepped off at approximately 4 p.m. and rolled up the Confederate defenses at Five Forks by dark. (Library of Congress)

Moving northwest, the three divisions stepped off at 4 p.m., according to Chamberlain. Based on the map given Warren, the troops should hit the enemy line south of the intersection of Gravelly Run and White Oak roads.

Due to a sharp curve in White Oak Road, the 3rd, 1st, and 2nd divisions reached and crossed the road in that order — and encountered no Confederate earthworks. The map was all wrong; Pickett’s earthworks ended “at least a gunshot” to the west, “a thousand yards away,” Chamberlain discovered later.

The 5th Corps kept marching until Ayres (a professional soldier from New York who had married into a Portland family in 1849) struck Pickett’s line in “a sudden burst of fire.” Halting his brigade, Chamberlain rode to where he could see and assess the situation, pulled two brigades from line, and went to assist Ayres.

Belatedly figuring out what was happening, other 5th Corps’s commanders angled their units to the south and west, and came down behind the desperate Confederates. They stood and fought, inflicting some 800 Union casualties before breaking beneath the onslaught.

Troops from the Army of the Potomac's 5th Corps charge toward the Confederates now trapped inside their earthworks at Five Forks. Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched this detailed drawing after the battle ended in early evening on Saturday, April 1, 1865. (Library of Congress)

Troops from the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps charge toward the Confederates now trapped inside their earthworks at Five Forks. Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched this detailed drawing after the battle ended in early evening on Saturday, April 1, 1865. (Library of Congress)

“We climbed a hill, looked down through the trees, and saw the breastworks but a short distance in our front,” said Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry. Commanded by Lt. Col. Walter Morrill, the regiment marched with the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division.

Union troops charged; Confederates “threw down their arms and surrendered,” Gerrish said. Seeing that the Confederates outnumbered their captors “ten more to our one,” a Southern soldier snatched up a loaded rifle and shot a Union captain.

Stabbing with bayonets, striking each other with clubbed muskets, and shooting at arm’s length, the intermingled Yanks and Rebs fought hand to hand. Before the fighting had resumed, Pvt. Edmund Morrison of Linneus spotted a Confederate battle flag “leaning against a tree” about 160 feet away, Gerrish said. Morrison summoned Co. H privates William Gilmore and James Hickey, plus a fourth private “younger in years, and more slender in form than his companions,” to go capture the flag.

Gerrish did not identify the fourth soldier.

The four soldiers passed among surrendered Confederates. Suddenly “the enemy rallied,” trapping the 20th Maine lads, according to Gerrish’s account.

“We will fight our way back to the regiment!” yelled Morrison, described by Gerrish as “a man of gigantic strength and remarkable bravery.” Seriously wounded in an earlier battle, he had been told to go home; instead, Morrison promised to see the war to its conclusion with his 20th Maine comrades.

Giving as good as they got, the four Yankees fought “bleeding, bruised, and stunned” through the surrounding Confederates, Gerrish said. Emerging into the open, the Maine lads received “a deadly volley” that killed Morrison and Gilmore, “reeled and staggered” Hickey, and left the fourth man with a bullet in his left arm.

Years after the Civil War, Kurz & Allison published this highly romanticized color print of Gen. Phil Sheridan (saber raised, center) and his Union cavalry riding over the Confederate defenders of Five Forks. (Library of Congress)

Years after the Civil War, Kurz & Allison published this highly romanticized color print of Gen. Phil Sheridan (saber raised, center) and his Union cavalry riding over the Confederate defenders of Five Forks. (Library of Congress)

 

Then Union cavalrymen charged the earthworks from the opposite side and rode over them. More 5th Corps infantrymen marched south on the Ford Road, and George Pickett, who was away at the shad bake that would cost him his divisional command, lost about one-third of his men (some 3,000) as dead or wounded or captured.

Forever associated with a failed Confederate charge at Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. George L. Pickett was enjoying a shad bake when Union troops overwhelmed his men at Five Forks. Pickett claimed not to hear the shooting; Robert E. Lee sacked him for not being present with his men. (Library of Congress)

Forever associated with a failed Confederate charge at Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. George L. Pickett was enjoying a shad bake when Union troops overwhelmed his men at Five Forks. Pickett claimed not to hear the shooting; Robert E. Lee sacked him for not being present with his men. (Library of Congress)

“Smash ’em! Smash ’em!” Sheridan yelled as he rode among his men. “We have a record to make before the sun goes down! We must have the Southside [Rail]road!”

And have that important-to-Robert E. Lee railroad, the Union troops did the next day. “The Southside railroad was in our hands and enormous quantities of property were destroyed,” Gerrish said.

On Saturday night, after the 20th Maine camped on the Five Forks battlefield, Gerrish “secured a short piece of candle and a small spade, and with a comrade to assist me, went in search of the bodies of Morrison and Gilmore.

“It was a lonely search in that hour of midnight, dark and damp,” he admitted. “The silence was only broken by the groans of the wounded and the low conversation of the soldiers who were caring for them.”

Finding Morrison and Gilmore, “we dug two shallow graves under the shadow of a great oak tree, and buried them side by side,” Gerrish said. “We placed boards at their heads, telling their names, company and regiment.”

Union guards stand with their backs turned toward a long line of Confederate prisoners captured during the Battle of Five Forks. Two such guards are visible at right. (Library of Congress)

Union guards stand with their backs turned toward a long line of Confederate prisoners captured during the Battle of Five Forks. Two such guards are visible at center, right and far right. (Library of Congress)

Very early on Sunday, April 2, the Union 6th Corps flooded across the main Confederate line at the site of modern Pamplin Historical Park southwest of Petersburg. The 9th Corps broke through farther east at forts Gregg and Whitworth; Lee evacuated Petersburg that night; Union troops marched into the city the next day.

On Sunday morning, as President Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, a messenger brought to him a warning that Petersburg was lost. Davis ordered his government to evacuate its capital. Lee and his hungry veterans tramped west to reach promised food and supplies and, wherever and whenever they could, turn south toward North Carolina and the Southern army commanded by Joe Johnston.

Union soldiers pursued. “The boys were in high spirits” as the 20th Maine headed out at 2 p.m., Sunday, Gerrish said. The soldiers moved fast “to keep up with the cavalry” unleashed to find and harass Lee’s retreating men.

Skeptical Union veterans disbelieved rumors that Petersburg and Richmond had been evacuated. Then Walter Morrill “rode back along our line, and told us the news was true,” Gerrish said.

“In a moment we were wild with excitement. Our caps went up in the air, we shook each other’s hands, and cheered until we were hoarse,” he recalled. “And all the time our line was sweeping on in swift pursuit of the flying foe.”

Earlier in the day, John Haley and his 17th Maine comrades expected “a bloody encounter” when ordered to attack the enemy’s main line. “But a sudden change came over us, for as we gazed at the point we were to attack, a sight met our eyes that nearly unmanned us,” he said.

Other Union troops had gotten to the target ahead of the Maine boys. “Where two minutes before the Stars and Bars had flown, now floated the glorious old Stars and Stripes,” Haley scarce dared believe his eyes. “Cheer after cheer filled the air as we saw its graceful folds waving in the morning breeze over the works so lately held by the enemy …”

The 17th Maine boys moved into Petersburg on Monday, saw Ulysses Grant conferring with another officer, and realized that “great things were done this day,” Haley said.

The regiment headed west later Monday on the road to Appomattox.

Harper's Weekly printed this detailed image of a long column of Union troops marching into Petersburg in early April 1865. The Union victory at Five Forks forced Robert E. Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. (Library of Congress)

Harper’s Weekly printed this detailed image of a long column of Union troops marching into Petersburg on April 3, 1865. The Union victory at Five Forks forced Robert E. Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. (Library of Congress)

His knee paining “me badly” on April 3, Daniel Sawtelle limped along after the 8th Maine Infantry while “following a turnpike the best I had seen yet in Virginia.” He and his comrades headed west to meet Lee at a distant place called Appomattox Court House. Sawtelle would not stop marching west except to participate in a short and nasty fight at Rice Station.

There, in his memoirs, he came the closest to admitting that he had shot an enemy soldier.

Not involved in the Battle of Five Forks, the 1st Maine Cavalry troopers served as rear guard for the brigade’s wagon train on Sunday night. At 1:30 a.m., Monday, the regiment camped near the Southside Railroad.

Later that morning a Union infantry column came up from the east. “What’s the news?” Maine lads asked.

The infantrymen confirmed the fall of Petersburg. “Well, I don’t know anything about its being captured,” one wag joked, “but we came through that city this morning.”

“Bully!” exclaimed a Maine trooper.

“Hearty cheers went up,” recalled Sgt. Maj. Edward Tobie, “and from many a heart there ascended, almost unconsciously, silent prayers of thankfulness to God, who giveth the victory.”

Eschewing food and sleep, Maine lads marched day and night along Appomattox Road. They had an enemy to catch and a war to end.

Next week: Appomattox Road — pursuit

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.