Five Forks was the final battle during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond (American Civil War). After a winter of constant low-level fighting, General Lee had come to the conclusion that he would have to pull out of the ever-expanding lines around the two cities before they became too long for his army to defend. Accordingly, on 25 March he had launched an attack on Fort Steadman, hoping to force Grant to shorten his lines. After some initial successes this attack had failed badly, costing Lee men he could not afford to loose and further weakening his lines.
Grant had already been planning to attack Lee’s vulnerable right flank. The end of Lee’s line was already well to the south west of Petersburg, defending the last railroad into Petersburg. If Grant could cut that railroad, then Lee’s chances of escaping south would be seriously reduced.
Command of the expedition was given to General Sheridan, who joined Grant from the Shenandoah Valley on 26 March. He was given the entire Cavalry Corps and one infantry corps (the Fifth, under General G. K. Warren). Only three days after returning to the army, Sheridan set off again.
Lee had to respond. He scraped together a force of 10,000 men, composed of his remaining cavalry reserves, commanded by Fitz-hugh Lee, and George Pickett’s Infantry Division. On 31 March they managed to delay Sheridan. The next morning they took up a strong position at Five Forks. This was a key position – if Sheridan could capture the crossroads at Five Forks he would threaten both the Southside railway and Lee’s right flank.
Five Forks was what Grant had been working towards since the previous year – a chance to attack Confederate infantry away from their prepared defensive lines. After a morning taken up by skirmishing between Sheridan’s cavalry and the Confederate infantry, Warren was ordered to attack the Confederate left flank. This would cut Pickett’s force off, and hopefully result in the capture of a large part of his division. Warren’s corps went in at about 4 p.m., and achieved most of what was expected of it.
Outnumbered and out of their fortifications the Confederates were unable to stand up to the Union attack. 5,000 were captured, and the rest fled in rout. Despite this, Sheridan had not been happy with Warren’s performance, and rather spoilt the aftermath of the battle by removing him from command of his corps. Fifteen years later a court of enquiry requested by Warren entirely cleared him on two questions and partially on another two.
The results of the battle were dramatic. If Lee was to escape from Richmond, he would have to start by heading west, not south, and with Sheridan’s men in position to block any move. He had lost a tenth of his army in one day. Added to the losses suffered at Fort Steadman, the result of this was that the Confederate army was now too weak to hold their lines. The next morning (2 April), Grant launched his final attack on Lee’s lines, and for the first time was able to break through those lines. By 10.00 a.m. on 2 April, Lee was forced to telegraph back to Richmond with the dire news that he could no longer hold the lines, and the city would have to be evacuated. The battle at Five Forks triggered the final collapse of the Confederate position in Virginia. It was exactly what Lee had feared – his lines had been extended so far that they had become too thin to hold, but it had happened in part because of his own efforts to prevent it.