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.