Sent to capture an obscure Southside Virginia crossroads in late March 1865, Phil Sheridan botched the assignment — and the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment saved him from an embarrassing defeat.
Ulysses Simpson Grant sent Sheridan to make an end run around the left flank of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Sheridan set out on Wednesday, March 29 with the Cavalry Corps and two infantry corps (the 2nd and 5th).
Commanded by Lt. Col. Jonathan Prince Cilley of Thomaston, the 1st Maine Cavalry belonged to the 3rd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Charles H. Smith of Eastport), 2nd Division (Maj. Gen. George Crook), of the Cavalry Corps. Smith’s brigade included the 2d New York Mounted Rifles and the 6th and 13th Ohio cavalry regiments.
Traveling on rural roads transformed into gelatinous mud by the relentless Virginia rains, the 2nd Division troopers spearheaded Sheridan’s advance southwest to Dinwiddie Court House, a “sleepy old hamlet “ located 15 miles southwest of Petersburg, recalled Sgt. Jefferson L. Coburn of Lewiston and the 1st Maine’s Co. A.
After occupying Dinwiddie Court House late on Wednesday, Sheridan planned to march his cavalry north on the Adams Road (modern Route 627) and hence to Five Forks the next day. The crossroads lay west of Lee’s organized defenses.
But the weather conspired against Sheridan. “The chilling rain poured down, soaking the fields and roads and drenching the men stretched on the ground” during the “dark and dismal night” of March 29, said Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, then commanding a 5th Corps brigade marching behind the cavalry.
The 1st Maine Cavalry troopers endured similar weather near Dinwiddie Court House. All hope that Sheridan had of reaching Five Forks on March 30 — he should have done so anyways — washed away with the rain; “before morning the roads were impassable for wagons or artillery,” Chamberlain said.
So Sheridan kept the 2nd Division at Dinwiddie Court House until Friday, March 31 to guard his left flank.
Meanwhile, Lee swung troops west to meet the Union threat. Beneath a rare sun, 1st Maine troopers saddled their horses and packed their gear near Dinwiddie on Friday morning; by 9 a.m., Confederate troops were sweeping south along the Scott Road from Five Forks to attack the 2nd Division.
Maj. Gen. George Pickett marched his infantry toward Dinwiddie Court House. Riding ahead to find Sheridan’s cavalry were the Confederate troopers commanded by Maj. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, the second son of Robert E. Lee.
The Scott Road angled along the west bank of Chamberlain’s Run. Usually sluggish, the stream flowed high and fast with the recent rains. When the Scott Road ended at a T-shaped intersection, Rooney Lee’s cavalry pushed south through the fields and woods and, about a mile away, reached a rural road pointing east and crossing Chamberlain’s Run at Fitzgerald Ford.
Beyond the stream, the road ran through a mixture of fields and woods for about three-quarters of a mile before intersecting the Adams Road north of Dinwiddie Court House.
Union pickets apparently spotted Lee’s lead brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer and comprising four North Carolina cavalry regiments: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th. Standing by their horses near Dinwiddie Court House, 1st Maine troopers listened as “lively firing” broke out to the north, said Edward P. Tobie Jr., the regiment’s sergeant major.
The shooting took place where Charles Smith had deployed his New York and Ohio regiments to guard against encroaching Confederates.
Orders summoned the 1st Maine to join Smith; on their arrival, the cavalrymen “drew up in line in a large open field” near the road leading to Fitzgerald Ford, according to Tobie.
Cilley learned that the 2nd New York Mounted Rifles and 6th Ohio had moved north and west to Chamberlain’s Run, upstream from Fitzgerald Ford. Smith had placed the dismounted 13th Ohio on the right side of the road leading up from the ford.
Smith wanted to know if any enemy troops lurked beyond the stream. Within minutes, Cilley sent Capt. John Myrick and a few companies to cross the stream and “reconnoitre the woods and adjacent country.”
Approaching Fitzgerald Ford, “we heard several picket shots” and saw several enemy cavalrymen on the far bank, Myrick recalled.
To 1st Sgt. Charles A. Stevens (a young farmer from Littleton) went the unenviable task of taking Co. K across the stream with Myrick. Stevens pushed his horse into the water and, while maneuvering to avoid a ledge on the west bank, suddenly came under fire from more Confederate cavalrymen.
Stevens urged his men into the enemy-held woods. Leaving their horses with the designated horse holders, three-quarters of Co. K formed a line, charged, and drove Confederate cavalrymen from the woods.
Confederate resistance suddenly stiffened; Myrick summoned Co. M as reinforcements. The 1st Maine Cavalry troopers pushed farther west; “we found ourselves, on nearing the brow of the hill, confronting” Pickett’s infantry and Rooney Lee’s cavalry, Myrick said. He “directed my men to fall back … and recross the river, which they did.”
Dismounted troopers from the 1st North Carolina Cavalry (under Col. William Cheek) and the 5th North Carolina Cavalry (led by Col. James McNeil) pursued. Reaching the creek, the companies K and M lads “threw themselves into the water among the horses” as enemy bullets zipped through the air, said Tobie.
The horses “protected” the men “somewhat from the rebel fire,” Myrick recalled. Reaching the east bank, the Union soldiers rallied to their respective companies and staged a fighting withdrawal.
Holding their firearms and cartridge boxes above their heads, the North Carolinians pushed across the fast-flowing Chamberlain’s Run. Cheek and his men waded ashore n the north side of the road, McNeill and his troopers on the south side.
Out of sight to the east, Cilley listened to the “rapidly increasing” shooting “in our front.” He had anticipated a fight; “each No. 4 man remained mounted, with his three led horses, while the rest were recounted by fours, and stood ready to move out,” Cilley said.
Suddenly Charles Smith summoned the regiment to a hill blocking views of Chamberlain’s Run to the west. Cilley ordered, “Fours, right!,” then led his men “up the sloping ascent” toward the summit, where the mounted Smith watched the approaching North Carolinians.
Assessing the unfolding disaster, Smith galloped directly to Cilley and said, “Put your men across the field, and charge the rebels who are massing in your front.”
Spurred by “the sharp, heavy volleys heard over the hill,” the 1st Maine troopers turned to the left (south), formed into a single line, “and went over the brow of the hill,” Cilley recalled. Deployed in a line twice the 1st Maine’s length, dismounted Confederate cavalrymen rushed across a field toward the Union troopers.
Barringer had also hurled his remaining regiments across Fitzgerald Ford; Cilley saw the “column of cavalry galloping forward” from Chamberlain’s Run.
“Charge!” Cilley yelled, then took his men “down into that field” in orderly fashion, the Maine boys delivering “a constant, unremitting fire” with their repeating rifles. Shouting orders, Cilley moved with his men “as they went steadily forward.” Men dropped “here and there,” yet the Union troopers closed the gaps.
Their bullets punished the North Carolinians; Cilley watched the dismounted cavalrymen waver, and “a heap of horses and men” piled up where the Maine troopers shredded the lead section of the mounted column. The Confederates “broke in confusion” and fled “for shelter to the heavy growth and under-brush” along the stream, Cilley noticed.
Pushed to the south, McNeil and his men fired on Cilley’s unsupported left flank. Taking Co. E with him, Capt. John Heald went after the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. McNeil died from a head shot; Maine troopers identified his body as they pushed Barringer’s brigade across the stream.
Both sides went to ground along their respective banks, men settled for sniping at almost unseen enemies on the opposite shores, and the afternoon developed an odd interlude. Taunts flew across Chamberlain’s Run; Tobie remembered the men exchanging “cheap talk” that involved “chaffing, sneering, joking, and even advising.”
“You’uns better keep your ammunition!” a Confederate trooper shouted at a Maine lad who fired and missed. “You’uns may want it before night!”
Charles Smith deployed the 1st Maine’s band “in the rear of the line,” recalled Tobie. Launching into “Yankee Doodle,” the musicians startled the Union troopers, who responded “with hearty cheers.”
Listening Confederates hooted and hollered.
A Confederate band responded with “Dixie,” and Cilley’s men shouted their comments. After the 1st Maine band delivered a rousing rendition of “Red, White, and Blue,” the Confederate musicians struck up “Bonnie Blue Flag.”
The bands traded music “till late in the afternoon,” said Tobie.
Unbeknownst to Cilley, the day was about to “go south” for the 1st Maine Cavalry.
Next week: Appomattox Road — trading their lives for time
Sources: “History of the First Maine Cavalry 1861-1865” by Edward Parsons Tobie; “A Visit to the Battle-Field of Dinwiddie Court House” by Lt. Jefferson L. Coburn, The Maine Bugle, January 1895, Campaign II
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.