Editor’s Note: This blog entry was originally published earlier today at Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online and has been crossposted at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.
I recently posted an American Civil War miniatures wargaming scenario on the Battle of Quaker Road from the Charge! wargaming newsletter as well as Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s account of the Battle of White Oak Road (with White Oak Road map). Both battles involved Chamberlain’s brigade as well as other elements of Gouverneur K. Warren’s veteran Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. These fights were a part of the final push southwest of Petersburg which culminated in the decisive victory at Five Forks on April 1 and the Union Sixth Corps “Breakthrough” the following day1, leading to the fall of not only Petersburg but also Richmond.
An interesting side note of these battles is the role they played in the eventual sacking of Warren at Five Forks by Union cavalry chief Philip H. Sheridan. In Sheridan’s mind, Warren dallied in coming to his aid and was not leading his troops on the march on in the Battle of Five Forks. The Sheridan-Warren affair and the many subsequent years of Warren trying to clear his name are relatively famous in the annals of Civil War history. The topic is covered in Eric Wittenberg’s Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and Jay Simson’s Crisis Of Command In The Army Of The Potomac: Sheridan’s Search for an Effective General. Most modern scholars seem to agree that Warren’s dismissal by Sheridan was patently unfair. Unfortunately for Warren, he died without ever having his name cleared, that decision coming soon thereafter. Fortunately for modern readers, at least volumes one and two of the three total volumes of the Warren Court of Inquiry are available in their entirety at Google Books.
Chamberlain’s actions at Quaker Road on March 29 allowed the Fifth Corps to advance nearly to White Oak Road, placing them in prime position to threaten that artery. Once Chamberlain and other Fifth Corps units were in that position, they expected to continue assaults in this area rather than suddenly being called upon to change direction in a number of confusing orders from various sources in order to help Sheridan. Chamberlain writes:
In our innocence we thought we had gained a great advantage. We had the White Oak Road, and were across it, and as near to the enemy as possible, according to Grant’s wish. Now we were ready for the consummate stroke, the achievement of the object for which all this toil and trial had been undergone. It needed but little more. The splendid Second Corps was on our right, close up to the enemy’s works. We were more than ready. If only Sheridan with but a single division of our cavalry could disengage himself from his occupation before Dinwiddie, so far away to our rear, and now so far off from any strategic point where he had first been placed for the purpose of raiding upon the Danville and Southside Railroads,—which objective had been distinctly given up in orders by General Grant,— if with his audacity and insistance Sheridan could have placed himself in position to obey Grant’s order, and come to Warren’s assistance when he was attacked, should dash up between us and Five Forks, we would have swiftly inaugurated the beginning of the end, — Grant’s main wish and purpose latest expressed to Sheridan, of ending matters here, before he went back. But another, and by far minor objective interposed. Instead of the cavalry coming to help us complete our victories at the front, we were to go to the rescue of Sheridan at the rear.2
Sheridan needed that help in the first place because he had been driven back at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House on March 31, the same day the Battle of White Oak Road was taking place. Chamberlain’s account is admittedly one sided in favor of his commanding general Warren, full of thinly veiled sarcasm directed at Sheridan and the favoritism shown him by General Grant. Knowing Chamberlain’s understandable bias, his personal experiences before, during and after the Battle of White Oak Road are still a fascinating look at some of the difficulties Warren and his Fifth Corps encountered while trying to shift from an expected campaign-winning thrust in one direction to what was essentially expected to be a rescue mission in an entirely opposite direction. These difficulties in moving from the battlefields on the Quaker and White Oak Roads slowed down the Fifth Corps and directly contributed to Warren’s famous dismissal by the diminutive cavalrymen.
Editor’s Note: For a look at what Chamberlain and his men faced at the Quaker Road on March 29, be sure to check out the Charge! miniatures wargaming scenario at Beyond the Crater’s new “Wargaming the Petersburg Campaign” Civil War miniatures page.
- Epperson, James. “The Five Forks Campaign March 29-April 1, 1865.” The Siege of Petersburg. Web. 19 May 2010. <http://www.petersburgsiege.org/five.htm>. ↩
- Chamberlain, Joshua L. “The Military Operations on the White Oak Road, Virginia, March 31, 1865.” In War Papers (MOLLUS, ME, Vol. 1). Portland, ME: Thurston, 1898. p. 229-230 ↩