By late March of 1865, Union lines around the besieged city of Petersburg, Virginia had been extended to the point where only one intact supply line was left to supply the Confederate forces within. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant decided to launch an operation to cut that remaining supply line, the South Side Railroad, and force the Confederates out of their entrenchments. On March 29th, the operation got underway with Major General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry moving along the Confederate right with the 5th Corps under Major General Gouverneur K. Warren on the march to support Sheridan.
On March 31st, the 5th Corps ran into resistance along the White Oak Road on the Confederate extreme right, while Sheridan’s cavalry fought Major General George E. Pickett’s Division near Dinwiddie Court House. These actions briefly slowed down the Federals, but the outnumbered Pickett withdrew to Five Forks, a vital road junction a few miles beyond the far right of the Confederate lines. Pickett’s infantry, along with much of Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Cavalry Corps, prepared a defense at Five Forks, the loss of which would expose the South Side Railroad to Union attack.
On April 1st, Sheridan’s cavalry attacked Pickett’s right, while the 5th Corps attacked the left and rear. The 5th Corps attack caved in the Confederate’s left flank and got behind their entrenchments, while the Federal cavalry, fighting dismounted, broke the Confederate line on the right. Confederate forces withdrew to the South Side Railroad, north of Five Forks.
The 3rd Division of the 5th Corps was under the command of Brigadier General Samuel Crawford. Crawford’s 1st Brigade of his division consisted of the 91st New York Infantry plus two regiments of Wisconsin infantry that had been part of the Iron Brigade–the 6th and 7th Wisconsin Infantry regiments. Colonel John A. Kellogg of the 6th Wisconsin commanded the brigade. Kellogg had been captured at the Battle of the Wilderness and sent to prison camps in Virginia, then to Georgia, and eventually to South Carolina. Kellogg escaped in South Carolina and eventually reached Union lines. Kellogg filed this report on his brigade’s action at the Battle of Five Forks:
HEADQUARTERS FIRST BRIGADE, THIRD DIVISION,
April 10, 1865.
CAPTAIN: In compliance with orders, I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of my command on the 1st instant.
On the evening of the 31st of March the command encamped near the battlefield of that day, about one mile and a half northwest from the Boydton plank road, in column of regiments, right in front, facing the north. About daylight in the morning of the 1st instant, in accordance with orders, I changed the front of the brigade, by change of direction by the right flank, facing the east, and moved in column, forced by the rear rank, in a westerly direction about three quarters of a mile, through an open field, my right connecting with the Second Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Baxter. At this point, by direction of the general commanding the division, the command was changed from the order in column and moved left in front, in a southwesterly direction, following the Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, to a position on Gravelly Run, near the Moody house and Gravelly Run Church, where, by order of the general commanding division, the brigade was formed in two lines of battle, the Sixth and Seventh Wisconsin Veteran Volunteers holding the front line. The right of my line connected with General Baxter’s command, the left with the Second Division, Fifth Army Corps. Receiving orders to that effect, I advanced my command to a road about half a mile in my immediate front, at which point it executed a left wheel. Here we became engaged with the enemy, the command moving forward and firing as it advanced, driving the enemy before us. In moving through a dense thicket and wood, the connection became broken between my left and the Second Division, causing a large interval, which was taken advantage of by the enemy, who threw a force on my left flank and opened fire, evidently with the desire of arresting the forward movement of the line of battle. I ordered my front line to continue the advance, and ordered one battalion of the Ninety-first New York Veteran Volunteers, forming a portion of my second line, under command of Colonel Tarbell, to deploy on the left flank of the brigade, covering that flank, with orders to move forward and engage the enemy at short range. This order was promptly executed, holding the enemy at bay, until the Third Brigade, commanded by General Coulter, came up and filled the interval. My brigade now occupied the center of the line, between the brigades of Generals Baxter and Coulter, and continued in that position until we found the enemy intrenched. We then drove them from their works across an open field, pursuing them closely about three-quarters of a mile, taking many prisoners and killing and wounding many of the enemy, when, in compliance with orders, the brigade was moved into camp for the night.
I cannot speak too highly of the officers and men of my command; all did their duty. I desire especially to mention Colonel Tarbell and Lieutenant-Colonel Denslow, Ninety-first
New York Veteran Volunteers; Acting Major Whaley; Second Lieut. William H. Church, acting adjutant; First Lieut. Thomas Kelly, commanding Company H, and Lieutenant Davis, commanding Company F, of the Sixth Wisconsin Veteran Volunteers–who were conspicuous for gallantry and daring on that day. Also the members of my staff, who were all that I could desire. Every order was correctly transmitted, and no one faltered in his duty. Lieutenant Sherley, Ninety-first New York Veteran Volunteers, temporarily serving on my staff, had his horse shot under him while gallantly discharging his duty.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. A. KELLOGG,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.
Capt. HARRISON LAMDIN,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Third Division.
The Union victory at the Battle of Five Forks marked the end of the Siege of Petersburg and the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign. With the Union Army threatening the South Side Railroad and swinging around almost in the rear of the Confederate lines, General Robert E. Lee decided the army could no longer defend Richmond and Petersburg and informed President Jefferson Davis that the army would have to evacuate. General Ulysses S. Grant also saw the opportunity to break the siege, and ordered a general assault along the entire front for April 2nd. Union troops occupied Richmond and Petersburg on April 3rd. Lee’s army headed west, pursued by the Federals. On April 9th, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
Five Forks and the Pursuit of Lee by Horace Porter. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
The Iron Brigade: A Military History
by Alan T. Nolan
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 1.
Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865
by Noah Andre Trudeau.