April 1, 1865: Five Forks

On April 1, 1865, Union forces under Phil Sheridan crushed George Pickett’s Confederate defending the road junction known as Five Forks, striking the blow that would force Robert E. Lee to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg.

The battle is perhaps best known for the criticism leveled at various commanders in its aftermath. Supposedly Lee was furious with Pickett’s performance: when Pickett remained with the army on its retreat to Appomattox, reportedly Lee openly wondered why he was still around, although it does not appear that Pickett was relieved. Nevertheless, tales of Pickett’s shad bake with other generals (including Fitzhugh Lee) dogged his reputation. Whether Pickett could have actually done much better had he been present to manage his command under the circumstances is a good question.

Far more interesting is the debate over the relationship between Sheridan and V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren. Warren had enjoyed an uneven record as a corps commander and had poor relationships with Grant, George G. Meade, and Sheridan stemming from the first weeks of the Overland Campaign. These feeling resurfaced when Sheridan learned that he would have to settle for working with Warren rather than being given Horatio Wright’s VI Corps for his swing around the Confederate right, although Wright had fought ably under Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. One suspects that Grant took the unusual step of authorizing Sheridan to relieve Warren on the spot should Sheridan deem it necessary in part to calm Sheridan’s irritation about having Warren instead of Wright. In the battle that followed, Sheridan found fault with Warren’s performance, and relieved him of command. Believing that Sheridan’s action was unjust, Warren spent the remainder of his life seeking a court of inquiry, which was blocked by Grant as general and president and did not take place until after Grant returned to private life. Whether Sheridan was fair is one question, but he clearly had the right to exercise the discretion left him by Grant, and he preferred to have V Corps commanded by Charles Griffin. Given the lack of confidence several generals had in Warren, perhaps it would have been wiser to relieve him of field command during the previous winter.  To this day both Sheridan and Warren have their partisans.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day Robert E. Lee was in trouble, and both Grant and Lee knew it. Upon learning of Sheridan’s triumph, Grant ordered an assault all along the line against the Confederate line defending Petersburg. Realizing that time was running out for him, Lee prepared to evacuate and escape.

22 thoughts on “April 1, 1865: Five Forks

  1. M.D. Blough April 1, 2015 / 5:20 pm

    My feeling about Warren was that he was badly burned out and replacing him as commander of the Fifth Corps was in the best interests of the Fifth Corps and of the Army of the Potomac. However, he did not deserve to be removed from command and have his reputation damaged in the humiliating and public manner in which Sheridan relieved him and certainly not for anything he did at Five Forks. Warren deserved better. It could have been done and should have been done quietly, probably during winter camp, and with a new assignment that would allow Warren to contribute to the war effort but not hold a combat command. Lee was able to move Ewell from commanding the ANV’s 2nd Corps after Ewell disintegrated at Spotsylvania without having to attempt to destroy Ewell’s reputation in the process. I think Grant blocking Warren’s efforts to get a Court of Inquiry for so long supports an inference that the charges against Warren from Five Forks would not withstand outside scrutiny. As it was, Warren finally got his Court of Inquiry but he never knew that it ruled in his favor. He died three months before the decision was issued in November 1882.

    • James F. Epperson April 1, 2015 / 5:41 pm

      I generally agree with Margaret, with a couple of caveats:

      1. Grant did not “block” Warren’s request for a Court of Inquiry. He denied it, twice. There is a difference. The officer who granted Warren his CoI was Sherman. If Grant had wanted to deny Warren a Court, don’t you think he could have convinced “Cump” of this?

      2. The Court did not really rule “in Warren’s favor.” It ruled that three statements made after the fact were incorrect—and it was wrong on one of those.

      • M.D. Blough April 1, 2015 / 7:51 pm

        Jim: (1) Isn’t that a distinction without a difference? I’d think the result for Warren would be the same. I don’t know why Sherman granted it but, from what you said, Grant DID deny Warren his COI twice. (2) Is the text of the COI’s ruling available anywhere online? What were the statements that it ruled on (I’m not being argumentative; just curious).

        In any event, to me, the bottom line was that Sheridan and Grant both disliked Warren and even observers friendly to Warren describe a man who was deeply troubled at the time. It wasn’t like Warren’s problems were news to either Sheridan or Grant, yet they left him in command of the Fifth Corps going into what was clearly going to be the drive to defeat Lee’s army once and for all, but with a blade hanging by a thread over Warren’s head, unbeknownst to him and with Sheridan with absolute power over when it would drop. It didn’t have to be handled the way it was and there’s an undercurrent of spite that’s troubling. I just think Gouverneur Warren, with all of his flaws, had given great service to his country. I’m not troubled by the fact that he was replaced as commander of the Fifth Corps. I suspect that Griffin was far better suited to be in command by that point. I just believe Warren deserved better by the army and his country than he got.

        • James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 5:49 am

          1. I think “blocked” implies a permanent denial, while simply rejecting two requests leaves open the possibility that later requests might be granted. I’ve long thought that Warren mis-handled the entire affair.

          2. The text of the Court proceedings and ruling can be found as PDF files on the Internet Archive. I have them at home, and would be happy to compress them and email them to you this evening.

          • James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 5:52 am

            FWIW, according to Grant, Grant liked Warren.

    • Ned April 2, 2015 / 7:23 pm

      M.D. wrote ” I think Grant blocking Warren’s efforts to get a Court of Inquiry for so long supports an inference that the charges against Warren from Five Forks would not withstand outside scrutiny. ”

      I think this is backwards. Denying the court supports an inference that there was no good purpose to having a court. What good was it to has out bygone events and make officers throw accusations at each other in court? In 1886 the Atlantic Monthly had a review of Grant’s memoirs. In discussing Grant’s decision not to have a court, it says “Had there been a Court of Inquiry, nothing would have been established except that Grant and Sheridan honestly believed that Warren was not the man for the place … Grant may have sincerely thought that to say this before a Court would really hurt Warren more than Sheridan”.

      Even though the Court found that some of what Sheridan had written about Warren was incorrect, the court did not dispute that Sheridan had the right or reason to do what he did. It is standard to read nowadays that Warren was exonerated by the court. But that was not always the way it has been presented. For example, the 1889 Encyclopedia Britannica says “a court of inquiry sustained Sheridan.”

  2. Joshism April 1, 2015 / 7:51 pm

    “which was blocked by Grant as general and president and did not take place until after Grant returned to private life”

    It seems to me that Grant’s efforts to block Warren from getting a court of inquiry may be one of the most dishonest things he ever did. Would you agree?

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 1, 2015 / 7:57 pm

      I’m not sure I would call it dishonest, but I don’t think it was right, and it clearly was a case of shielding Sheridan.

    • James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 5:45 am

      I believe it is the case that *President* Grant never denied Warren’s request for a Court, for the simple reason that he was never asked. Warren decided not to apply for a Court during the Grant Administration, which I have always thought was a mistake on his part.

      • M.D. Blough April 2, 2015 / 2:22 pm

        Jim-Given that it was Grant who originally gave Sheridan, a man with a notoriously short fuse who he knew greatly disliked Warren already and who had already denied Warren’s request for a COI TWICE, the absolutely authority to remove Warren from Corps command, what possible reason would Warren have to believe that any different result would obtain when Grant wasn’t just commander of all of the US armies but Commander-in-Chief? What purpose did Grant have in denying the COI in the first place? If the facts supported Sheridan, then those facts would have come out.

        I’m a great admirer of Grant and I recognize Sheridan’s fighting spirit (I don’t know if anyone else could have produced that dramatic turn around in the Valley against Early). However, Grant seemed to have a major blind spot about Sheridan’s treatment of those around him. Sheridan was grossly insubordinate to Gen. Meade and Grant supported Sheridan. Even if he believed that Sheridan was right on the facts, I would think that he should not have condoned Sheridan’s language and behavior to Meade and he should have made that clear to Sheridan.

        • James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 3:52 pm

          Warren asked Grant for a Court in a letter dated April 9, 1865 (!). Rawlins finally replied in May, that there was not time to gather the officers necessary for a Court. There was a confused effort to have a Senator approach Grant about a year (or two?) later, which also came to naught.

          I just think it is wrong to say that someone failed to do something they weren’t asked to do. Would President Grant have wanted to give Warren a Court? Probably not. But I do note that the General-in-Chief for Grant’s two terms was the same man who ordered the Court to be held in 1879: W.T. Sherman.

          (I’m also confused as to who should be asked for a Court. Warren asked Grant in the 1860s, which suggests you ask the Commanding General. Then why not ask Sherman when he becomes Commanding General? If Grant is going to intervene and stop Sherman from granting a Court, make him do it! That would be embarrassing to Grant, and that potential embarrassment might be enough to get the Court approved.)

        • Joshism April 2, 2015 / 4:30 pm

          “Grant seemed to have a major blind spot about Sheridan…”

          You could probably end that sentence right there.🙂

    • Ned April 2, 2015 / 7:00 pm

      No. I see no reason for your allegation. I find the amount of hand wringing over Warren to be astonishing.

  3. Rosemary April 1, 2015 / 8:54 pm

    Funny how all this time later Warren affects reputation of Grant and Sheridan.

    Truth will out in the end. But that is no consolation to Warren and no resolution to real-time botched human relations.

  4. James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 9:06 am

    “One suspects that Grant took the unusual step of authorizing Sheridan to relieve Warren on the spot should Sheridan deem it necessary in part to calm Sheridan’s irritation about Having [sic] Warren instead of Wright.” That’s not what happened. It’s a long story, so please bear with me.

    On the morning of April 1st (7-8 a.m.), Meade sent a staff officer, Lt. Warner, to consult with Wainwright about some artillery issues. (Wainwright’s guns did not go to Dinwiddie with the infantry.) Grant asked Warner to find out where Warren was, as he had not been heard from in a while; he was last known to be waiting for a bridge over Gravelly Run to be built.

    Warner went to Fifth Corps HQ, found Wainwright, then found Locke, Warren’s adjutant. Locke told Warner that Warren was at Gravelly Run. What Locke didn’t tell Warner was that this information was over FIVE hours old—Locke had just awakened from sleeping, something Warren had told him to go do. So Warner goes back to Grant, and reports that Warren is at Gravelly Run.

    Since this told Grant that Warren had made no progress in getting to Sheridan in the last 4-5 hours, he sent Babcock to Sheridan with the authorization to relieve Warren. At the time Babcock set off (~9 a.m.), Warren was in fact at Dinwiddie with his troops.

    Sears laid all this out in an article in North and South. It is based on Warner’s testimony to the Court of Inquiry, which I reviewed in the last few days.

    Tragically, it was all a staff screw-up. Now, did Grant ever realize that the authorization was sent in error? I don’t think we can know for certain, but I don’t think so. Would Grant have sent that authorization eventually anyway? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 2, 2015 / 9:36 am

      Your story does not contradict my speculation. Rather, Grant, understanding the friction between the two men and Sheridan’s unhappiness at having to work with Warren, may well have realized that news of Warren’s progress (or lack thereof) would have angered Sheridan still more, and so this was one way to say that Little Phil could do something if things were not working well. It made explicit the chain of command in the operation. That this may have been based upon a misreading of the situation by others does not negate the argument.

      The entire Sheridan-Warren debate seems to me to boil down to the fact that Warren’s defenders see Sheridan’s action as rash, unfair, and based on misinformation or misunderstanding, while Sheridan’s defenders say that since Sheridan was empowered to relieve Warren, he did it because he could, and that’s just fine. I’ll point out that Sheridan himself did not quite follow Grant’s orders concerning the Southside Railroad, something Sheridan’s defenders overlook. I believe that if the high command had so little confidence in Warren, Grant should have transferred him somewhere else long before this operation began. That Warren may have deserved removal for prior incidents does not justify what happened at Five Forks. Sheridan’s people in the end say that, whatever the merits of the situation, it was karma, and since Sheridan was acting under authority, it’s his call; Warren’s defenders note that just because you could remove Warren doesn’t mean you should remove Warren, and it wasn’t fair that he was removed.

      I think Grant was unfair to Warren.

      • M.D. Blough April 2, 2015 / 2:12 pm

        Brooks-I’m a little more towards the middle. I don’t have any issue with Warren being replaced. Whether it was fair or unfair that he’d lost Grant’s confidence, it seems pretty clear that he had. That’s something that can’t be forced. It may simply be a matter of personal incompatibility. However, just because someone has the authority to do something, that does not remove the issue of whether that individual used good or poor judgement in how that authority was exercised. There is such a thing as abuse of discretion. It could have been done in a way that did not give Warren any way of defending himself for decades.

        • Brooks D. Simpson April 2, 2015 / 2:15 pm

          I have to deal with certain Grant apologists all the time.🙂

  5. James F. Epperson April 2, 2015 / 10:26 am

    It is certainly possible that the (mis-)information that Warren was taking forever to cross a stream was seen by Grant as an opportunity to accommodate Sheridan and/or indulge his own desire to get rid of Warren. (If the latter, I agree it should have been done in the quiet season of the winter.) I just think other explanations are more likely.

  6. Rosemary April 2, 2015 / 11:46 am

    Sheridan and everybody else was in macho/kill-’em mode and Sheridan ran with his mojo and knocked out Warren. Grant was keyed up, to put it mildly and ladylike.
    Warren was collateral damage.He was relieved cause of other people’s passion not his own incompetence.

  7. Pat Smith April 3, 2015 / 5:44 pm

    Grant covered the subject well in his autobio as to why Warren wasn’t the man for this particular moment- the moment when winning could still be lost. He realized he should have removed Warren earlier and was sorry he hadn’t. Good man that he was, Warren was no quicky and speedy action was imperative at that moment. I think Chamberlain said it best in his book The Passing of the Armies, about Warren: “He was a good man but he thought of too many things.”

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