THIS MONTH IN CIVIL WAR HISTORY
Robert E. Lee has emphasized in plain terms to his subordinate, George E. Pickett (top, right), the significance of Five Forks as a position for maintaining the Confederate defense of Petersburg. “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad.” Lee knows that to lose this critical road juncture means compromising his grip on Richmond and almost certainly forcing an evacuation of the Confederate capital. But, understanding the directive and adhering to it will prove extraordinarily challenging in the face of a powerful, perhaps overpowering, Union command under generals Philip Sheridan (top, left, second from left, beside Wesley Merritt and opposite George Custer) and Gouverneur Warren. Pickett constructs a defensive line, laced with as much artillery as he can muster and defended on the flanks by cavalry. By late afternoon on April 1, the bluecoats are prepared for an assault along the entire length of this Southern line. These troops cannot resist the pressure long, as the Federals begin to overrun and roll up their enemy’s position, scooping up prisoners and scattering the remainder. General Pickett compounds the situation by being temporarily absent from the immediate vicinity, at what has been termed a “shad bake,” but his presence could not have prevented the disaster for Confederate arms on this day. Grant will receive word of the success and order the general advance that he has been waiting to consummate. The road to Appomattox is open, with the Confederate government and its principal army in Virginia, moving away from a Richmond that now experiences the full fury of flaming embers in the face of a victorious opponent.
March 18-19, 2016
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