National Geographic : 1965 Apr
With Richmond and Petersburg threatened, Lee conceived a desperate plan: To attack the right of the Union line before Petersburg, attempting a breakthrough to the south or southwest to join forces with Johnston. Per haps then he might attack Sherman, and, de feating him, turn north and try to whip Grant. Lee set this plan in motion at 4 a.m., March 25, storming Fort Stedman, the Federal work before Petersburg. The attack seemed to suc ceed at first; the assaulting troops entered Fort Stedman and spread to the right and left. But Union Maj. Gen. John G. Parke coun terattacked, and the Confederates fell back in confusion, losing 2,600 men. President Lincoln looked over 1,800 of them, prisoners of war, that afternoon at Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's head quarters. By interesting coincidence, on the previous day, even as the South prepared to attack the Union right at Petersburg, General Grant had ordered the movement of his forces around Lee's right flank to start on March 29. This would cut off Lee's supply lines, the Richmond & Danville and the South Side Railroad, and force him to abandon his 37 miles of defenses. Pickett Faces Sheridan Now, on March 29, began one of the greatest American campaigns of all time, directed by two masters of the military art (map, pages 452-3). Here one road of which led to the South Side Rail road, they found it occupied by Confederate cavalry and infantry under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. Like Grant, Lee had recognized the strategic importance of this five-road intersection (pages 446-7), and his orders to Pickett were blunt: "Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford's Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the South Side Railroad." Pickett prevailed-at the outset. He pushed Sheridan's cavalry back to Dinwiddie Court House on March 31. And the following after noon, apparently confident that his repulse had settled the matter, Pickett rode off to enjoy a shad bake! As he did so, Sheridan was preparing to renew the attack, augmented-belatedly-by troops of the V Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren. }ACIn'UsIM t vytKUt UALt U N.m. . Two lead slugs collided in mid-air at Five Forks. "Bul lets," said an eyewitness, "were Lee's ingenuity and resource- humming like.. fulness, and his retreating army's marching and fighting, excite admiration. But my grandfather was equally resourceful, and his soldiers were not handicapped by lack of food. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who distin guished himself greatly in the next few days, led the Union's push with his cavalry corps, followed by the Army of the Potomac's in fantry under General Meade. Heavy rain fell steadily on March 29 and 30, and the cavalry often bogged down, horses sinking up to their bellies in water and mud. Roads became sheets of slush, and soldiers called out to their officers, in the ageless irony of the fighting man: "When are the gunboats coming?" As Sheridan's men approached Five Forks, 444 "Go at 'Em With a Will" "This battle must be fought and won," declared Sheridan, "before the sun goes down. All the conditions maybe changed in the morning. We have but a few hours of daylight left us. My cavalry are rapidly exhausting their ammunition, and if the attack is delayed much longer, they may have none left!" Bugles blowing, the assault moved out about 4 p.m., April 1.When Northern skirmishers wavered, under fire issuing from a dense woods as they .bees." crossed an open field, Sheri dan rode among them with characteristic dash, shouting: "Come on, men, go at 'em with a will! Move on at a clean jump, or you'll not catch one of 'em. They're all getting ready to run now, and if you don't get on to them in five minutes, they'll every one get away from you. Now go for them!" Sheridan put his spurs to his horse and jumped the Confederate parapet, landing amid a number of surrendering Southerners. "Where do you want us to go?" they asked. "Go right over there," Sheridan ordered, pointing back. "Get right along now, drop your guns; you'll never need them any more. You'll be safe over there. Are there any more of you? We want every one of these fellows."