My Great-Grandfathers Unit in The Appomattox Campaign, Part 2
The Appomattox Campaign had begun slowly, with both Union and Confederate forces moving west and getting into position for a fight. Then, on March 31, 1865, the two forces met along two main roads for two bloody fights. The Confederates attacked first at White Oak Road, under the direction of General Robert E. Lee. However, a Union counterattack by V Corps and a division from II Corps pushed the Rebels back. V Corps also took one section of the road, which divided the Rebel forces and disrupted their communication and supply line.
Further to the west, however, the Rebels pushed the Union’s Cavalry Corps down Dinwiddie Road to the Dinwiddie Courthouse. If there had been another hour of daylight, the Rebels thought they could have taken the courthouse. Because of this setback, General Ulysses S. Grant contemplated pulling the Union cavalry back to Vaughan Road, where they had begun their march westward on March 29, 1865. Instead, Grant pulled General Gouvernor K Warren’s V Corps off of the spot they had captured on White Oak Road and moved them west to fight alongside General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry.
April 1, 1865 - The Battle of Five Forks
As dawn broke on April Fool’s Day, the fear among Union commanders was that the Rebels would attack and continue to push the Union cavalry down Dinwiddie Road. This would threaten the Union’s rear command and supply bases. But rather than making an attack at dawn, the Rebels’ infantry and cavalry divisions withdrew during the night of the 31st. The rebels retreated to White Oak Road and formed up on two sides of the Five Forks intersection. After the pull back, General Lee telegraphed the Confederate General George Pickett at 4 a.m. to “hold Five Forks at any cost.”
Around 5 a.m., General Griffin’s 1st Division had pulled back from their position on White Oak Road near the Claiborne intersection and marched to Sheridan’s headquarters near Dinwiddie Courthouse Road. General Crawford’s 3rd Division followed them, stopping midway for breakfast. They finally arrived about 11 a.m. with V Corps’ commander, General Warren. General Ayers’ 2nd Division was the more rested unit in the Corps, having marched throughout the night and arrived before dawn.
By this time, much of General Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps was already lined along the front of White Oak Road opposite the confederate troops. They had dismounted and moved through the woods in approaching the Rebels’ lines. After a brief rest, at 2 p.m. the V Corps were ordered to assemble just south of White Oak Road and a mile east of the Five Forks intersection.
General Ayers’ men formed up in the woods to the right of the cavalry, preparing to attack the flank of the Confederate lines. General Crawford’s 3rd Division (including its 94th NY Infantry Regiment), formed up to the right of Ayers, intending to find the edge of the Rebel line and going around it. General Griffin’s 1st Division was held back in reserve. To the right of V Corps was another cavalry division, led by General Mackenzie, but it was not seen until the battle was nearly finished.
As the afternoon had passed without a Union attack, the Confederate generals George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) evidently felt relaxed enough to go to a Shad bake (fish fry) nearly a mile behind the Rebels’ lines. When the Union troops attacked at 4 p.m. the lack of a high command presence delayed the initial Rebel response. But the front line Confederate troops defended the frontal assaults well initially, particularly along the front, holding back the Union’s dismounted cavalry.
2nd Division’s General Ayers found strong resistance on his left and he shifted his troops left to meet the resistance. Meanwhile, General Crawford’s 3rd Division moved north through the swampy woodlands with opposition from sentries here and there. The division then cut west behind the enemy lines. Seeing an opening on the left, Crawford ordered General Coulter’s 3rd Brigade to move up and fill the gap on the left. This exposed the 3rd Brigade and the 94th NY Infantry to the side facing the most Rebels.
Ayers’ division would eventually breach the Rebels’ line and go over it. General Sheridan would then pause Ayers’ division as they took prisoners. General Griffin’s troops moved into the opening that developed on Ayers’ right.
Crawford’s 3rd Division continued to move through the thick woods until they came out on Ford’s Road, a half mile beyond the Five Forks intersection. General Coulter’s 3rd Brigade was ordered to the front as they moved down Ford’s Road. General Warren, V Corps Commander, narrated the action to the New York Times:
“Crawford’s division moved on westward, till it gained the road leading north from the centre of the enemy’s position, when it was wheeled to the south and attacked the troops that were endeavoring to hold this road as an outlet for escape.
All the divisions now closed in upon the enemy, capturing the artillery that was attempting to move north, and nearly all the infantry,... While these movements above described were going on, the cavalry engaged the enemy along his whole front, which was facing south. The enemy still maintained the right of his line (where the Union cavalry was attacking)…”
Some accounts of the battle have given Sheridan’s cavalry the lion’s share of the credit for the success at Five Forks, mainly because Sheridan was given overall command of the operation. But, in truth, it was the infantry of V Corps who had come to the Cavalry Corps rescue on March 31st and then delivered the decisive blow at Five Forks. But the cavalry and Sheridan were apparently more apt to proclaim their importance. Colonel Lyman, General Meade’s aide, noted this to his wife:
“(The cavalry) are arrant boasters, and, to hear Sheridan’s Staff talk, you would suppose his ten thousand mounted carbineers had crushed the entire Rebellion. Whereas they are immediately cleaned out, the moment they strike a good force of foot-men, and then they cry wolf merrily. The plain truth is, they are useful and energetic fellows, but commit the error of thinking they can do everything and that no one else does do anything.”
Many accounts have reported that General Crawford’s 3rd Division somehow got lost in the woods and made their turn towards the enemy late. However, testimony at a post-war inquiry on General Warren’s actions actually found that it was General Ayers’ division that moved left earlier than planned and opened a gap between these two divisions. (The opening was filled by Griffin’s 1st Division.) The reports of V Corps' Brigade commanders also showed the regiment was progressing through the woods alongside White Oak Road
Reports from Confederate officers also show the actions of Crawford’s 3rd Division as a major key to the Union’s victory at Five Forks. General James Longstreet, the commander of all Confederate defenses around Petersburg, credits Crawford (back-handedly) for taking Ford’s Road, the point where the Union turned the tide. Longstreet says of the Confederate defenses:
“It is not claiming too much for that grand (Confederate) division to say that…they could not have been dislodged from their entrenched position by parallel battle even by the great odds against them. As it was, Ayres’s division staggered under the pelting blows that it met, and Crawford’s drifted off from the blows against it, until it thus found the key of the battle away beyond the Confederate limits.”
So it was Crawford’s 3rd Division sweeping in behind the Confederate lines that proved to swing the battle in the Union’s favor. Looking at a map of the unit formations, it seems like a simple maneuver. But many historical accounts do not note the difficulty the soldiers on both sides faced while moving through the forest maze around Five Forks.
Confederate Colonel Thomas Munford, commander of a Rebel cavalry division that initially faced Ayers’ and Crawford’s divisions, described the difficult conditions that his unit faced while facing the advancing troops from 3rd Division:
“Crawford had extended his right and in consequence we were forced to extend our left to keep from being turned by him. It was a rough, broken country, cut up by creeks, covered with briars and brambles and in places exceedingly boggy. Only at certain places could the creeks be crossed and the mire was so deep that, at one of these, Sergeant-Major [John H.] Harrison of the 4th Virginia Cavalry went in above his knees. When he came out he was obliged to leave one of his boots; the mire wanted it more than he did.”
Thus my great-grandfather’s 94th NY Infantry Regiment (part of General Coulter’s 3rd Brigade in 3rd Division) also played a part in the success at Five Forks. As they approached Ford’s Road, Coulter’s brigade was facing those Rebel troops who turned to defend their rear as they prepared to retreat. The Confederate Colonel Munford even reported that General Pickett took fire from the 3rd Division as he returned from his Shad bake and then retreated with the other Rebels who escaped. Munford writes:
“When we reached the Ford Road, I came upon General Pickett. Although the battle was now practically over, we were still being vigorously pushed by Crawford’s men; and as Pickett came galloping toward me, he saw the Federals not a hundred yards away. He was coming down the road evidently on his return from the wagon train on the north side of Hatcher’s Run… After General Pickett had escaped and passed us to join his command,... We left Crawford in full possession of the crossing and the Ford Road to Five Forks, and also left a small rear guard from my command to watch him.”
After reaching Ford’s Road, the 3rd Brigade formed the front elements blocking the Rebel escape to the north. Coulter’s brigade then led the way as 3rd Division charged across the rear of the Confederate lines to the far western units, chasing Colonel Munford’s unit and others they encountered. When the 3rd Division reached the far side of the Rebel lines they met the dismounted Union cavalry who had made much slower progress in breaking through Rebel lines.
Lieutenant Woodward, from the 198th Pennsylvania Infantry (part of the 1st Division in V Corps), provides more details:
“Crawford…gained the Fords road, running northward from their center, down which he turned southward, taking the enemy in their rear, capturing 1,000 prisoners and four guns…
(By then) our prisoners reached nearly 6,000. (The Rebels) killed and wounded amounted to about 1,000, and ours little exceeded this number…We captured thousands of small arms and numerous flags, and the right wing of Lee’s army was substantially smashed up.”
In her book, Pickett and his Men, General Pickett’s wife credits the V Corps sweep around the Confederate left side for the Union success (today this action is called “Crawford’s Sweep” at the National Park’s Five Forks Battleground site). LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett writes:
“The apprehension of Pickett’s troops that the left wing had been turned and doubled back and that they would be taken in reverse proved unhappily true. Warren’s corps had swept around to the left flank, while Sheridan’s cavalry, mounted and dismounted, was engaging the front and right. Warren forced Ransom and Wallace back and doubled them on Stuart’s brigade of Pickett’s division.”
With the battle won and the Rebels fleeing north and northwest through the forest, the Union soldiers turned their attention to their prisoners and took care of the dead and wounded. The V Corps hospital and supply wagons had been separated from the divisions fighting in the front for many days. Thus, it was largely the soldiers who were left to tend to their fallen comrades, and help carry them back to their camp south of White Oak Road.
Casualties Among the 94th New York Infantry at Five Forks and White Oak Road
During the two days of battle at White Oak Road and Five Forks, eight men from the 94th NY Infantry were captured (mostly during the March 31st Battle at White Oak Ridge). This shows the 94th was in very close combat with the Rebels. There were also 24 who deserted, walking away during or after those battles (including 3 from my great-grandfather Nelson’s Company B).
At least 3 from Nelson’s Company B were killed on at Five Forks: Private George Coburn, 20, (who joined on January 20, 1865, 5 days before Nelson); Private James Pilcher, 24, who had joined in 1864; and Private John McDonald, 20, who was injured at Five Forks and died 3 weeks later.
Also killed at Five Forks was the commander of the 94th NY Infantry, Major Henry H. Fish, 22, who mustered into the 94th in Buffalo as first lieutenant of Company A at age 19. He rose to Major in 1864 and took over as commander of the 94th sometime during the summer of 1964 (at the age of 21 or 22). Regimental Chaplain, Philos G. Cook, wrote about the deaths of Major Fish and former regimental commander, Captain George French, to Fish’s hometown newspaper.
“I am here on my way from “the front” to Rochester and Buffalo, having in charge the lifeless bodies of Major Henry H. Fish and Capt. George French, the former residing in Buffalo, and the latter in Rochester. Both of these brave young officers fell in the battle on Saturday, the 1st (April 1865)...
Major Fish was in command of the 94th, and gallantly leading them to the charge of the enemy’s works—being with the colors, considerably in advance of the men — when he was instantly killed by a ball striking him in the head. He was quite severely wounded in the head on the day previous, and advised by his friends not to go into the battle of Saturday. But his young heart was too ardently burning with the desire to serve his country by leading the 94th into action, to listen to the advice and entreaties of his friends, to remain in the rear while his command advanced upon the enemy. He must not only go with, but before his regiment—leading rather than driving them upon the formidable works of the enemy.
Capt. French was equally brave, and met with the same fate as his gallant commander.”
In all, my great-grandfather's unit, the 94th New York Infantry Regiment, lost 17 men who were killed in action or died later from their wounds. They also suffered 44 wounded. Combined with the desertions, the regiment’s total strength of 230 men was reduced by more than one-third in 2 days of battle. Six of their 9 officers were among those killed and wounded. Overall, the Union side suffered an estimated 830 casualties, while the Rebels lost 2,950. V Corps itself suffered 634 casualties, with 300 coming from Crawford’s division. Thus, the 61 dead and wounded from the 94th NY Infantry made up nearly 10% of V Corps total casualties and 20% of those from 3rd Division.
Some have called the Battle of Five Forks, the Waterloo (or end) of the Confederate’s violent war for succession. But there were still a few more weeks of fighting to come. And thousands more would die before it was truly over.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.