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"So Ends The Great Rebel Army…”
To Union Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Lincoln was a weak President, Grant an uninspired commander, Lee a slippery foe. His outspoken diary, never published before, memorably describes the Civil War’s final year
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
But now comes the worst. The story spread almost instantly through the column, and the sight of the burning house seemed to raise the devil in the men at once. Scores of men left the ranks, and seizing brands from the burning house, fired every building in sight. None escaped, large and small, pigsties and privies, all were burnt, with barely time--allowed for the people themselves to get out, saving nothing. The negroes fared no better than the whites. Every soul was turned adrift to find shelter for the night as best they could. For this barbarism there was no real excuse, unless exasperation and the innate depravity of mankind is one. So pitiable a sight as the women and children turned adrift at nightfall, and a most severe winter night too, I never saw before and never want to see again. If this is a raid, deliver me from going on another.
Safe back again in our old quarters, without a fight, or any mishap, though we were absent the full six days for which we took supplies. The expedition has been a success, in that it accomplished all it was sent out for, and with small loss.
Fort Stedman and Five Forks
The deadlock at Petersburg continued until late in March, Lee’s army constantly growing weaker. On March 25, Lee made a desperate attempt to break Grant’s line, attacking a strong point called Fort Stedman. The attack failed, and a Jew days later Grant took the offensive. General Sheridan, with the cavalry and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, smashed Lee’s extreme right in the controversial battle of Five Forks, during which Sheridan (using authority Grant had given him) removed General Warren from command, turning the corps over to General Charles Griffin. Sheridan’s complaint that Warren was late in getting his men into action and that he handled them inefficiently once they did get in has not been generally accepted by military historians, and years later a Court of Inquiry exonerated the luckless Warren. In any case, the fall of Petersburg and the evacuation of Richmond came as a direct result of the victory at Five Forks, and Lee’s army began its tragic retreat to Appomattox .
Yesterday morning the long quiet of the winter was broken at the first streak of dawn by a very decided attack on our lines. It was a well conceived affair, a complete surprise, and successful in its first step. If the rebels had as much fight in them now as they had at Gettysburg, they might possibly have driven us out of this entirely, though I am by no means sure of it, for after their first dash all would have been open country.
I was first awakened by an order from General Hunt to turn out all my batteries, and to send word to General Parke that they were at his service. I was partially dressed in one minute and out of my tent: the sun was not yet up: the roar of artillery was constant and very loud: I believe it was not more than twenty minutes from the time of my getting Hunt’s first order until the time the two batteries started.
When, an hour or so later, the firing slacked off I went up to army headquarters to hear exactly what was the matter, as I knew nothing beyond the fact that the enemy had broken through our lines at Fort Stedman. I left everything in carnp ready for whatever might turn up.
Fort Stedman is, I believe, the farthest to the right of any of our enclosed works. The attack is said to have been made by two divisions, small ones I judge, and was under General Gordon. Lee’s intention doubtless was to seize the high ground, clean out our line to Appomattox and so cut off our communications with City Point. But his troops were evidently not willing, and the reports of deserters, that their men would not attack, proved to be essentially correct. The time lost by Gordon’s reserves not coming up enabled Parke to get a line formed on this ridge, and to garnish it with a number of guns from his left, so that the captured work became too hot for its holders; and when Hartranft’s division was thrown forward, they recaptured all our line with little trouble.
The whole army is feeling very jubilant today over the affair, and as General Mcade said to me this morning, “wish they would try it every day.” What will be the next move a very few days will now show. W HITE O AK R OAD , A PRIL 1, 1865, S ATURDAY This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory.
During the morning Sheridan advanced with his cavalry from Dinwiddie Court House, the enemy falling back skirmishing to the White Oak Road, where the Ford Road crosses it, at a place called the Five Forks. Here they had a line of low breastworks thrown up. Warren and the whole of the Fifth Corps [were] to attack along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot on the White Oak Road. Ayres’s division held the left, Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally. Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and Griffin in rear of Crawford.
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.