April 1, 1865: “This has been the most momentous day of the war so far”: Five Forks, Sheridan, Warren, and what Wainwright saw

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright was right place to witness many things on April 1, 1865.  And he minced no words as to his emotions that Saturday on which a campaign turned:

White Oak Road, April 1, 1865, Saturday: This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory. But to begin at the beginning and tell what I saw myself. During the night, that is, soon after five o’clock and before daylight, I was awakened, and on joining [Major-General Gouverneur] Warren, he informed me that he was going to move to [Major-General Phil] Sheridan’s support with all his infantry; that [Major-General Romeyn] Ayres’s division had already gone down the plank, and he was just starting across country with the other two to try for the flank of the force opposed to Sheridan….

Thus Wainwright, and the Federal Fifth Corps, moved towards Five Forks on the morning of April 1, 1865.  Around 1 p.m. that afternoon, Warren called on Wainwright to support the flanking attack with two batteries.  The infantry was not, at that moment, joined with the Confederate line, but closing upon it.  Wainwright moved with two of his New York batteries.

When I got up to Warren the whole of the Fifth Corps was just about to attack at this angle, and along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot of the White Oak road, Ayres’s division held the left, [Brigadier-General Frederick] Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally.  [Major-General Samuel] Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and [Major-General Charles] Griffin in rear of Crawford. Much of this I have, of course, learned since, mostly from Ayres, who gave me a clear account of the dispositions.

When I reached Warren, he was in conversation with General Sheridan, close behind Ayres’s second line. Our skirmishers were just engaging, the men beginning to advance, and rebel bullets coming over our way somewhat thick.  I waited several minutes for Sheridan to get through what he was saying before I spoke to Warren.  As there was nothing for me to do, I rode back out of the way of stray bullets, to an open ridge south of the road and not far from a small church, called Gravel Run Church, where our hospital was being established.

As our men passed through a narrow belt of woods, I could not see the actual charge on the works, only the smoke of the battle. The cheers of our men, however, told me that all was going well, and long files of prisoners coming in soon shewed that the works were carried….

Wainwright estimated, from the time he left Warren until the first prisoners came down the road, only twenty minutes had elapsed.  As for those prisoners:

These men all moved along cheerfully, without one particle of sullenness which formerly characterized them under similar circumstances. They joked with our men along the line and I repeatedly head them say, “We are coming back into the Union, boys, we are coming back into the Union.” It was a joyful and an exciting sight, seeming to say that the war was about over, the great rebellion nearly quelled.

Wainwright proceeded to Five Forks itself where an administrative duty became his task of the day.

At the Forks, I found two guns, three-inch, just in their works, and [Colonel Alexander] Pennington sitting on one of them.  I stopped here and had a talk with him and several other cavalry officers, formerly light battery commanders.  They told me that they had charged the works at this point and carried them with any number of prisoners. While there Crawford came down the Ford road, from the north, looking for Warren, and told me that there were more guns up the road which his men had taken.

Wainwright went up the road to find three more 3-inch rifles. Always concerned about propriety and not wishing to slight anyone’s honor, Wainwright didn’t want to take possession of any guns until everyone got their due credit.

I turned back and pushed along the White Oak road to find Warren. I must have gone at least two miles, and about one mile west of the end of the rebel works before I found him.  It was growing dark, the sun having already set; the bugles were sounding the recall; the pursuit was over, and the divisions getting together for the night. I told the General about the guns, and asked if I was to look after their removal.  For this he referred me to Sheridan, as he said there might be some jealousy on the part of the cavalry.

We rode back together looking for Sheridan, and found him with his staff about a fire near the west end of the rebel works. Here I waited while General Warren had a short conversation with Sheridan. Then I dismounted, reported to Sheridan the number of guns I had found, and asked if he wished me to remove them; at the same time stating that Pennington claimed to have captured at least two of them.  Sheridan was very pleasant, said that there was glory enough for all, and wished me to look after the guns.

With that, Wainwright rode off to tend to those trophies.  And note that Wainwright places Warren and Sheridan at the the latter’s headquarters apparently having a even tempered conversation.  Leaving Sheridan, Wainwright proceeded to catch up with Warren:

… Warren had ridden on with Bankhead. When I overtook them, they were both dismounted, and Warren talking earnestly. I also got off my horse, told Warren what directions Sheridan had given me, and inquired where the corps headquarters would be for the night. Warren replied that General Sheridan had just informed him that he had relieved him from the command of the corps, and turned it over to Griffin; that he had given no reason for doing, but referred him to General Grant, to whom he was to report for orders.

Wainwright was puzzled by the turn of events.  But his reaction goes to demonstrate some of the personality of Warren:

I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was. The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to. But in that case he would have been relieved at once instead of it being put off until the fight was all over.  Besides which I had left them just at the commencement of the battle in apparently amicable talk.

Not until the next day did Wainwright learn the justification for Warren’s removal.  Crawford’s division had ventured too far to the right.  After sending staff officers to reign in Crawford, Warren went to the flank himself.  While tending to that task personally, Warren was conspicuously absent from the corps headquarters when Sheridan inquired “Where is Warren?”  Wainwright repeated the opinion of Brigadier-General Joseph Bartlett in that Crawford was to blame for the mix-up.  “[Bartlett] referred to Spotsylvania and one or two other cases where, by his bungling or what not, Crawford had brought him great trouble.”

But what was done was done.  Wainwright expressed his opinion of the new corps commander:

I do not exactly like the idea of serving under Griffin; we have never got along well together, and I do not like him.  It was one o’clock when I got to bed; up at that time and later there was a steady and very heavy cannonade kept up from dark along the old lines in front of Petersburg. We can see the shells burst at times and watch the flight of some of the big bombs.  We start again at daylight.

And they did start again that next day.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 510-5.)

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