Except for a few pages in Samuel Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, there is no published regimental history for these two units.’ As a follower of the Pennsylvania Reserves, I felt this omission in their continuing history should be corrected. Because of their origin, and since the two regiments fought side by side throughout their existence, I include both units in only one history. In fact, after the fighting at the Weldon Railroad in August 1864, the remaining members of the two regiments fought as one unit.
Using Bates’ short history as a guide, my unofficial history is simply a compilation of bits and pieces of information about the two units taken from other regimental histories, books written about the battles in which they were involved, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. Unfortunately, at times, I had to rely heavily on only one or two sources to describe an event.
Generals get all the fame and glory but its the privates carrying the rifle who do the work. I’ve included the names of the lower ranks and their circumstances as much as possible but this information also has to be termed unofficial as it was gathered from the same sources as the history information. I can only hope I have made no errors in either case.
The five days of March 28 thru April 1, 1865, are complex in the history of the 190th/191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Regiments due to controversies, confusion of orders and differences in descriptions of the troop positions, fighting, etc. The most significant controversy involved Major General Philip Sheridan, commander of Union operations on the left flank, and Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, Fifth Corps Commander, while the confusion in orders was between Generals Grant and Meade sent to General Warren for operations and for dispatching Fifth Corps troops to General Sheridan. Because of this confusion and controversy, Gen. Sheridan relieved Gen. Warren of command during the Battle of Five Forks. A court of inquiry was finally granted to Warren in 1879 by President Hayes which exonerated him of most of Sheridan’s charges. Unfortunately for Warren, the findings were not released until after his death which occurred on August 8, 1882.
Chapter 4: Lead-in to Five Forks – March 28 to April 1, 1865
March 28, 1865 – The opening day of Grant’s Ninth Offensive was spent preparing to leave their winter camp and move against the Confederate right flank. Gen. Sheridan received the following orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant: “Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in the rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy (north of Dinwiddie Court House in the area of Five Forks) as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his entrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way and with full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy as circumstances will dictate.”
If the enemy did not leave their trenches, Sheridan could strike northward against the Southside Railroad. If successful, he had the option to move further west against the Richmond and Danville Railroad, General Robert E. Lee’s last major supply line.
Gen. Warren received the following orders: “At 3 am of the 29th instant the Fifth Army Corps, Major General Warren commanding, will move to the crossing of Hatcher’s Run at W. Perkin’s house; thence west to the junction of the old stage road and the Vaughan Road, and from this point will open communications with the Second Corps on the Vaughan Road. This accomplished, the Fifth Corps will move to occupy a position in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Court House.”
The two corps of infantry (Warren and Humphreys) were to move between Sheridan’s cavalry and the Confederate right flank. They were to cover Sheridan and hopefully force Gen. Lee to extend his line, making it vulnerable elsewhere to attack by the remaining Union troops on the siege line.
March 29 (the Quaker Road) – About 4am, on this damp morning, the Fifth Corps moved out as quietly as possible. The musicians of the various units remained behind to sound reveille at the normal time, hoping to fool the Confederate troops on this Union movement.
Ayres’ Second Division led, followed by Griffin’s First Division and Crawford’s Third Division with artillery and other wagons spread throughout the column. For once, the “Combined Regiment” was not on the skirmish line; today the honor went to the 210th Pennsylvania.
Ayres reached Monk’s Neck Crossing of Rowanty Creek about 5:30am Using the remains of the bridge they had built during the operation in early February, his command continued their march westward along Stage Road and then southwestward on Vaughn Road. Meanwhile, engineers were building a replacement pontoon bridge for the artillery.
At about 8am, Warren’s column had halted at the intersection of Vaughn Road and Quaker Road as Humphreys was having trouble keeping his connection on his right with Ord’s Corps1 and extending to meet Warren along the Quaker Road. Ayres moved to the west of the intersection and formed a defensive position between the Quaker Road and the Boydton Plank Road.
Meeting no enemy opposition to their advance this morning caused some of the men to become optimistic. Maybe this was the time they turned Lee’s right flank, but others didn’t share their enthusiasm. How many times in the past eleven months have they tried this maneuver and every time, Gen. Lee’s men were ahead of the Union troops, waiting in entrenched positions. Today probably wouldn’t be any different.
At about 10:20am, Warren received a change in orders, now directing him to proceed northward on the Quaker Road to establish contact with Humphreys’ left flank. Griffin now led as he was in position to do so when the orders were changed, followed by Crawford and then Ayres who had to regroup.
The lack of Confederate opposition ended about mid-afternoon when Griffin ran into stiff resistance at the crossing of Gravelly Run. The Confederates had destroyed the bridge so Griffin’s troops had to wade the stream under fire.
Crawford’s Third Division followed Griffin across the stream, moving in on Griffin’s left flank. Ayres’ Second Division then followed, moving into position to their rear in support.
When the forced crossing was accomplished, the fighting became continuous back and forth, sometimes hand-to-hand fighting. Eventually, Griffin slowly pushed the Confederates northward along the Quaker Road, past the Lewis Farm to the intersection with the Boydton Plank Road where darkness ended the fighting. The Confederates had returned to their entrenched position being built along White Oak Road.
In the late hours of this day at army headquarters near Dabney’s Mill, Generals Grant and Sheridan were having a meeting in which Sheridan was protesting Grant’s change in Sheridan’s original orders. Instead of being the independent attacking force on the Confederate supply lines protected by the Second and Fifth Corps infantry, Sheridan was now to protect the flank of the infantry by attacking Five Forks on White Oak Road to the west of the two infantry corps. “I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s (rail) roads at present. In the morning push around the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action.”
Later, when this change in orders became known to the other units, Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain (Griffin’s Division) remarked, “We could not help feeling that he (Sheridan) should have taken possession of this before. For all the afternoon and night of the 29th , there was nothing to oppose him there but the right wing of Roberts’ slender brigade, picketing the White Oak Road.”‘
March 30 – “Major General Warren will advance his line at 6 a.m. tomorrow, letting his right rest over and across the Quaker Road, and his left extending as far as consistent with a due covering and guarding of his flank.”
After Gen. Warren received his orders, beginning around midnight, the rain began and continued throughout the day, heavy at times, and into the morning of the 31st , turning everything into a very muddy, swampy landscape. It became very difficult to move anything, wagon, horse, mule or man, without sinking into the mire.
Although he was ready to move at the ordered time, Warren had to delay until Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles (Second Corps) could get his command through a heavily wooded and swampy section of ground to join Griffin’s right flank. Warren was also unsure of Sheridan’s position or planned movement.
About 8:30am Warren received another communication from Meade’s headquarters: “He (Meade) desires to have you make use of both Crawford and Ayres to develop to the left. He cannot give you any more definite information of General Sheridan’s movements than to state he is ordered to attack or turn the enemy’s right. You must act independently of Sheridan, and, protecting your flanks, extend to your left as far as possible.”
Warren was concerned, he could get no information from Meade as to how far he should extend or for the exact purpose of this extension. If he spread his line too thin to comply with Meade’s orders, how would he meet any advance from the enemy if they left their trench line. His left flank (Ayres) was probably “in the air” as he learned Sheridan was still at Dinwiddie Court House.
About 10am, starting at Mrs. Butler’s house on the Boydton Plank Road, Ayres’ Second Division made a reconnaissance in force to the northwest with Colonel Joseph B. Pattee’s command on the skirmish line. Ayres was to determine if any enemy was outside his entrenchments and how strong were the entrenchments.
Meanwhile, Crawford’s Third Division moved to Mrs. Butler’s location and began building entrenchments along Boydton Plank Road. Griffin’s First Division adjusted their lines to the right of Crawford while keeping in contact with the Second Corps who also made some minor adjustments in its line.
Due to the muddy ground, by 4pm, Ayres’ command had slowly progressed just past S. Dabney’s home (passing the house on the east side, the house located midway between the Boydton Plank Road and White Oak Road) approaching the Wm. Dabney residence on White Oak Road just east of the intersection with Crump Road.
Meeting no strong opposition in these two miles, the division established its night position east of W. Dabney’s house, facing westward on the south side of White Oak Road. The 190th Regiment was placed on the right of the line as skirmishers, about 500 yards in front of the brigade facing White Oak Road. As Ayres’ purpose was to make a reconnaissance of the enemy’s position along White Oak Road, an early evening probe by some Confederates (Wilcox) was to check the Union lines, mostly in the area of Griffin’s First Division to the right of the 190th/191st. A part of the enemy probe was against the 190th Regiment’s skirmish line but was easily repelled by their Spencer rifles.
Meanwhile, Sheridan had only sent Merritt’s cavalry division towards Five Forks. Sheridan himself, Custer’s and Crook’s divisions remained in the Dinwiddie Court House area. Merritt covered about half the distance between Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks when he met Confederate cavalry near the J. Boisseau house. His patrols determined the enemy controlled the roads to and around Five Forks. No engagement was reported.
At about 7pm – Sheridan notified Grant that Pickett’s confederate division was on the White Oak Road in and around Five Forks. Also, that Merritt was camped at J. Boisseau’s house with his picket line near White Oak Road.
Initially, it appears that Grant is under the mistaken idea that Merritt is at Five Forks on the White Oak Road. Grant sends Sheridan four communications during the evening of March 30 (no times are noted). In the order of listing in the Official Reports, #1 “Your positions on the White Oak Road are so important that they should be held…” He then adds,
“Can you not push up toward Burgess’ Mill (east of Five Forks) on the White Oak Road?” #2 “The heavy rain of today will make it impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little or we get roads around our rear repaired. You may therefore leave what cavalry you deem necessary to protect the left and hold such positions as you deem necessary for that purpose..” #3 “From the information I have previously sent you of Warren’s position you will see that he is in danger of being attacked on his left flank in the morning. If such occurs, be prepared to push up with all your force to his assistance.” #4 “If your situation in the morning is such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy’s right with the assistance of a corps of infantry, entirely dispatched from the balance of the army, I will so dispatch the Fifth Corps and place the whole under your command for the operation.”
These messages seem to suggest that Grant believed Sheridan and his other two divisions were with Merritt near the Boisseau house.
March 31 (White Oak Road) – During the late night and early morning hours, Warren received instructions from Meade’s headquarters that “General Ayres should be put on his guard, and that he should be re-enforced without delay, as the enemy may attack him at daylight.” In the next message, “You will hold your corps ready to attack and await further orders.”
Because it was night, the road that Ayres had used and Crawford would need to use to support Ayres was almost impassible, the terrain either side of the road was heavily wooded with a swamp like consistency due to the rains, his men were tired and without rations, Warren decided to wait until dawn to move his command. Fortunately, the enemy did not attack and he received no orders to attack.
Most of Warren’s recent instructions have been to extend to his left to develop the enemy’s line. Humphreys (Second Corps commander) had instructions to probe his front for the same purpose. Miles (Second Corps) and Griffin were already within sight of the enemy picket lines and some of the entrenchments. They could not advance without bringing on a general engagement. Gen. Ayres had already examined some of the area from the picket line, saw a heavy force of the enemy in front of him and “was satisfied that the reconnaissance would result in fighting.”
However, Ayres obeyed his orders and prepared to advance on White Oak Road, his division creating a wedge formation; the First Brigade (Winthrop) led, protected on the right flank by the Third Brigade (Gwyn) and on the left flank by the Second Brigade (Denison). A brigade from Crawford’s division followed in support.
Gen. Lee was also aware of the importance of his line along White Oak Road. While Ayres was preparing for his reconnaissance, the Confederates also prepared. Screened by the rain, fog and thick brush they moved a strong force of about 5,000 from the commands of McGowan, Gracie and Hunton into position.
About 10:30am, the Union line began moving. From Gen. Ayres, “As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak Road, the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.”
Meanwhile, Pattee’s command (about 500 strong) was still on the skirmish line established the previous night. When relieved from this duty by the 16th Maine Regiment (Second Corps), they were moving to join their brigade as the Confederate attack commenced. Seeing the enemy attack and knowing what to do, Pattee deployed his men facing the advancing Confederates and the pits they had used on picket duty last night. Now advancing, the Pennsylvanians “seized the pits along part of the line, and from these they easily checked the advance of the enemy (Hunton), but on their left the pits at once became useless because of the advance of the enemy on the flank and rear (McGowan and Gracie).”
Unfortunately both flanks were in the air and soon turned by the advancing Confederates. “When we were compelled to fall back, in the forenoon, we did not retreat more than three or four hundred yards. The point at which we rallied must have been fully half a mile from the (Boydon) plank-road.” While in this position, Mink’s Battery moved into position on a ridge behind them and fired over their heads at the advancing enemy line.
McBride continued his description. “If the rest of the corps did not make a stand until they reached the plank-road, it is rather surprising that a rebel force was not thrown across the run on our left, by which we would have been flanked and driven away or captured. The run was a favorable position for defense, while the vicinity of the plank-road was not so good.
Veteran soldiers like those of the Fifth Corps would certainly rally at the former point. It is probable that some went further back, while enough stopped at the run to check the rebel advance. We must have fought nearly three-quarters of an hour before we were re-enforced.”
From Brigadier General James Gwyn, “Great credit is due to Brevet-Col. Joseph B. Pattee for the able manner in which he fought his command on the skirmish line, without any support or connection with the right or left. The designs of the enemy to turn our flanks and prevent us from reaching the Boydton Plank Road were effectively frustrated by the determined manner in which his men disputed their advance, thereby giving the command time to form…”
Meanwhile, Gen. Ayres and his brigade commanders tried to stop the retreat of the other Second Division troops who were being hit in front and on the left flank but to no avail.
In turn, Crawford’s men joined the mass retreat which pushed back through Griffin’s First Division. The sole purpose of these retreating troops was to find the line of entrenchments along Boydton Plank Road.
After a sharp volley from the First Division halted the Confederate charge, Gen. Warren told Gen. Griffin to prepare to attack. Griffin would be supported by the Second and Third Divisions as soon as they could be reorganized.
About 2pm, the Union counterattack took place. Through some courageous and determined fighting, the Confederates were pushed back and the Union troops possessed the White Oak Road. All the ground lost in the morning’s retreat was retaken as well as some of the Confederate’s line of entrenchments. Pattee’s command was on one of the flanks but saw little fighting.
As is the usual case, the coming of darkness ended the fighting. The men of the Fifth Corps prepared their night positions and were finally issued rations while a roar of battle was heard in the direction of Dinwiddie Court House and Sheridan’s assumed position, sounding as if he was under a strong attack.2
During the past several hours and for the next several hours, General Warren received conflicting and confusing orders from both Grant’s and Meade’s headquarters requesting that he send different divisions of his corps to Sheridan’s support.
Therefore, a brief description of Sheridan’s situation needs to be explained. Until about 2pm, Sheridan’s cavalry command (minus Custer’s division) was just south of Five Forks. About this time, Pickett’s combined force of cavalry and infantry began their attack.
“For more than three hours the enemy in overwhelming force had been driving his (Sheridan) dismounted men steadily, and were now within one and a half miles of Dinwiddie Court House…”
The writer continued, “For some time after his men began to fall back Sheridan felt no anxiety whatever, fully expecting the Fifth Corps, under Warren, to strike the enemy’s left flank.” And finally, “As the minutes passed after 3 p.m. he grew more and more anxious when no sound was heard of Warren, and when a while before 5 word came that Warren was miles away and could not possibly help him, Sheridan could scarcely contain himself.”3
Starting about 4:30pm, Warren received an order from Meade’s headquarters to send one brigade westward (parallel with White Oak Road but far enough south to stay clear of Confederate positions) to support Sheridan. Brigadier General Joseph J. Bartlett’s brigade from Griffin’s First Division was chosen and he moved westward along a farm path towards Crump Road. However, because of the sounds of the earlier fighting, Warren did not believe Sheridan was located in this direction as Meade still believed.
About two hours later, Warren received a follow-up order from headquarters to have Bartlett’s Brigade follow the Boydton Plank Road instead of proceeding westward along the White Oak Road. Warren decided not to waste the time needed for Bartlett to reverse his course so he sent General Pearson with several of Bartlett’s remaining regiments to support Sheridan.
About 8pm, Warren received another order not to let Pearson’s troops get too far down the Boydton Plank Road and thus expose the rear of the Fifth Corps to attack from the Confederates (Pickett) who had pushed Sheridan back during the day. Pearson could only go as far as Gravelly Run.
Warren replied to Meade that perhaps the whole Fifth Corps should about-face and hit
Pickett in the rear. His suggestion was ignored somewhere up the chain-of-command.
It was also about this time that General Grant sent an aide to Sheridan with the message that Grant was sending the Fifth Corps to support him and that Warren would link up with Sheridan about midnight.
Finally, around 10:50pm, General Warren received an order from General Meade (written about 9pm) instructing Warren to send Griffin’s First Division down the Boydton Plank Road to support Sheridan.
Unfortunately, Griffin’s division was on the right flank and the farthest troops of the Fifth Corps from Sheridan. Warren used his initiative and sent Ayres’ Second Division which was the closest to Sheridan. He also sent his engineer, Major W. H. H. Benyaurd, to inspect the bridge over Gravelly Run which would be needed by Ayres. Did Pearson report the condition of the bridge?
April 1 – Amid the confusion of darkness, mud, and fatigue, General Ayres’ regrouped his division.
“It was no easy task to move troops under the circumstances. Orders had to go from the corps commander down through the brigade, regimental, and company officers to the privates, who had to be aroused from sleep and got into ranks without noise.”
Meanwhile, Maj. Benyaurd found the bridge over Gravelly Run destroyed and the rains had made the stream too high for infantry to safely wade across it. He used available troops for labor and a house for material to reconstruct the 50 foot bridge.4
Ayres marched through the night down the Boydton Plank Road towards Dinwiddie Court House, a distance of about five miles.
Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, shortly after midnight, General Pickett decided to pull back. He had accomplished his mission; repulsing Sheridan and saving the Southside Railroad. His troops were also low on ammunition and several infantry prisoners captured near the Crump Road (probably from Bartlett’s command) suggested that Sheridan might be receiving infantry support. Pickett decided to move northward to Hatcher’s Run about one mile north of Five Forks. During the night, General Lee ordered him to hold the crossroads of Five Forks instead.
At approximately 4:50am, Warren received a dispatch from Sheridan written about two hours earlier) to hit Pickett in the rear which Warren had suggested earlier but was ignored.
Warren personally went to his commanders and ordered Griffin and Crawford to prepare to withdraw from the White Oak Road, move southward towards the Boydton Plank Road and then follow it towards Dinwiddie Court House. Besides the conditions which Ayres faced, the close proximity of the enemy was added to this phase of the operation for Griffin and Crawford.
General Ayres finally reported to the cavalry commander near the J. M. Brooks’ house (located at the intersection of Court House Road and Turkey Egg Road which is approximately 1½ miles west of Boydton Plank Road and 2¼ miles north of Dinwiddie Court House). His command had marched past Turkey Egg Road before they met Sheridan’s staff member who directed them to the meeting location. The staff member also commented that “General Sheridan had not expected Ayres so soon.”
While the 190th/191st established a skirmish line, Sheridan ranted about General Warren not leading his troops to this location. Several officers tried to explain the complexity of the withdrawal due to the enemy’s location but Sheridan would hear none of it.5
It was approximately 9am when Warren finally received the official orders placing his Fifth Corps under Sheridan’s command. Until this time Warren had been acting in good faith to help other commands in his area defeat the Confederates.
The tired infantry got about four hours of rest while the cavalry scouted the area. Having had no problems from Sheridan’s cavalry, the last of Pickett’s troops returned to his Five Forks position and continued to build their fortifications.
About 1pm, the rest was over and the FifthCorps marched northward towards Gravelly Run Church which is three miles west of the scene of yesterday’s fighting along White Oak Road and the former position of the Fifth Corps. To get to the church’s location, the infantry had marched about eight miles, Ayres’ Division a few miles more.
Returning northward, Crawford led, followed by Griffin and Ayres. It took about two hours of stop and go marching to cover the 2¾ miles to the church. “I well remember that the road leading to the church was so deep with mud and so obstructed with cavalry horses that our column had to leave it and march through the woods, skirting the road. So that very rapid marching was impractical under the circumstances and yet the troops moved under the difficulties without halting a moment at any point until the ground was reached.”
Meanwhile, waiting to have a commander’s briefing, Sheridan became irritated with the sluggishness of the infantry’s marching. As a result, approximately ten couriers were sent during this time to the infantry with orders to expedite. One aide commented, “They marched like tired troops-leisurely.”6
Upon arrival at Gravelly Run Church, the infantry formed their line of battle to the south of it with the Third Division on the east side of the church road, the First Division behind the Third Division, the Second Division on the west side of the road.
“Ayres comes up a little ahead of his troops, bluff and gruff at questions about the lateness of his column; twitching his moustache in lieu of words, the sniff of his nostrils smelling the battle not very much afar; sound of heart, solid of force, all the manly and military qualities ready in reserve; – the typical old soldier.” His Second Division formed with Bowerman’s Second Brigade on the left, Gywn’s Third Brigade on the right and Wynthrop’s First Brigade behind in support.
Gwyn’s brigade formed in the following manner:
Front line: 4th Del. – 3rd Del. – 8th Del. – 191st Pa. & 157 Pa. (combined)
Second line: 210th Pa.
Skirmish line – 190th Pa., under Capt. Richard M. Birkman, (11th Pa Res., Co. C/190th Pa., Co. A) about 100 yards in front of Gwyn’s brigade in a wooded area south of the Bass farm.
The battle was finally about to begin, the Union infantry was in position at the church and Sheridan’s cavalry was in front of the Confederate trench line The Confederate line stretched east and west from Five Forks along the White Oak Road for about 1¾ miles.
Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.
- Ord’s Twenty-Fifth Corps was in the Army of the James which moved to the south side of the Petersburg line about March 28, 1865 to fill in for the shifting of the Second and Fifth Corps to support Sheridan.
- Warren was criticized by Grant for only using one division to scout the White Oak Road which added to Grant’s displeasure with Warren. Yet, the day before, Grant ordered Sheridan to attack and capture Five Forks. Sheridan only used one of his three divisions, suffered a defeat by the Confederate force and received nothing but praise from Grant for his brilliant retreat.
- Grant would not learn of Sheridan’s defeat until approximately 8.40pm.
- This bridge also added fuel to the controversy. Warren had advised Meade about the condition of the bridge and the estimated time for repairs which did not make Meade happy. In reality, the bridge was finished about 2am, before Ayres approached as he testified the bridge did not slow his march.
- This was more fuel for Sheridan who was already upset that the Fifth Corps did not join him at midnight as Grant had promised. It was also about this time that one of Grant’s aides returned to headquarters and erroneously informed General Grant that Warren’s lead troops were still at Gravelly Run Bridge. Grant’s aide had only talked to a few of Warren’s staff who were in the area of the bridge but Warren and the Fifth Corps were already with Sheridan.
Grant was furious, ranted about Warren for a few minutes and then sent Lieutenant Colonel
- In defense of the infantry, it is easier to ride a horse when you are tired and hungry than it is to march when you are tired and hungry.