April 1, 1865
Amidst these woods, Maj. General Samuel Wylie Crawford’s division of the Fifth Corps lost its way while moving to attack the Confederate left.
In March 1865, General Robert E. Lee's 60,000 remaining troops were stretched to the breaking point along a 37-mile line of entrenchments, defending Petersburg and Richmond from Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant's 100,000-man Army of the Potomac. After nine months of siege warfare, Grant saw an opportunity to draw Lee's Army of Northern Virginia out into the open by threatening its last remaining supply line, the South Side Railroad.
Grant sent Maj. General Philip Sheridan's cavalry to advance on the railway by way of an important road junction known as Five Forks, hoping to lure the Confederates from their trenches. Responding as Grant hoped, Lee ordered Maj. General George Pickett to take his infantry division to Five Forks, and to hold the vital crossroads 'at all hazards!’ Upon discovering Pickett's fortified line of soldiers, Sheridan secured infantry support from Maj. General Gouverneur Kemble Warren's Fifth Corps.
On April 1, while cavalry held the Confederates in position, the Fifth Corps assaulted the Confederate left flank and rear. Sheridan directed the Union attack from the front lines, rallying his 22,000 men as they broke through 10,000 Confederates, opening access to the tracks beyond. Pickett was attending a shad bake when the fighting began and was not aware that a battle was underway until it was nearly over. The Federals overwhelmed his confused division, taking a third of the men prisoner.
At the end of the fight, Maj. General Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry repulsed several charges by Maj. General George Armstrong Custer's mounted soldiers, allowing what remained of Pickett's command to escape. Within hours of the defeat, General Lee sent word to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that both Petersburg and Richmond would have to be abandoned that night.
The following day, Grant ordered an all-out assault and Lee's right flank crumbled, the last convulsions of the Siege of Petersburg. Lee's quickly moved his remaining men to the west, beginning a chase that would end in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9th.