The Beginning of the End

“Monday and Tuesday, March 27th and 28th, 1865, the Fourteenth rested in its comfortable camp for the last time as on the morning of the 29th they marched out through the picket line and moved up Hatcher’s Run, drove in the rebel picket and threw up two lines of breastworks.” (Sgt. Charles Blatchley, Company I, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry)

And thus the final campaign of the Civil war began for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Not very exciting stuff, but what they were doing was an important piece of the puzzle that was Gen. Grant’s grand plan for ending the war quickly and victoriously.

A war strategy conference had taken place aboard the steamboat River Queen at City Point on March 27th. Present were President Lincoln, Generals Grant and Sherman, and Admiral Porter. Sometime during the day Gen. Phil Sheridan also put in an appearance. He had just arrived with his cavalry corps after marching all the way from Winchester, VA. Grant gave Sheridan orders to march his command all the way to the southwest end of the Federal siege works around Petersburg. Sheridan’s cavalry and the Fifth Corps of infantry under Gen. G. K. Warren were to force the enemy to come out from behind their entrenchments and fight in the open. They were also to destroy the South Side Railroad, the only railroad link between Gen. Lee’s army and that of Gen. Joe Johnston in North Carolina. (Click to view a Wikipedia map of this part of the campaign.)

The role of Gen. Humphrey’s Second Corps was to move to the left (west) and keep pressure on the Confederates to their front, so that these troops couldn’t be sent to confront Sheridan and Warren. To the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, this duty wasn’t special in any way, thus the brevity of the description at the start of this post.

Heavy rains plagued the area until March 31st, but the strategic plan was implemented in spite of it. On March 29th, Gen. Warren’s troops fought and won a back-and-forth battle at Lewis’s Farm. On March 31st, several miles to the south, Gen. Sheridan wasn’t so fortunate when he tried to advance toward an important crossroads called Five Forks. A joint force of Confederate infantry and cavalry under Gen. George Pickett of Gettysburg fame, slowly drove Sheridan’s troopers east and south toward the Boydton Plank Road. Sheridan called up Gen. Custer’s Division and the Federal cavalry line held off assaults late in the day near Dinwiddie Courthouse. That night, Pickett withdrew his cavalry and infantry northwest to Five Forks.

The action around Dinwiddie Courthouse is considered a Confederate victory, even though they suffered over twice as many casualties, 760 to 350 for the Federals. It was also the final time Lee’s forces would fight offensively.

A WORD ABOUT COMMAND: If you’re interested in the command structure of the Union Army during the Appomattox Campaign, click here. It can be confusing, especially when we consider the Fourteenth Connecticut (Second (II) Corps, Second Division, Third Brigade). In February, Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth was in command of the division. Early in March, Brig. Gen. William Hays, who was captured at Chancellorsville, returned from serving provost duty and was assigned command of the division. Smyth returned to command of the Third Brigade. On April 6th, Hays was found sleeping on duty and dismissed. Smyth once again assumed temporary command of the Second Division, but his divisional command lasted less than one day, because Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow was assigned permanent command. On April 7th Smyth was once again in command of the Third Brigade when he was mortally wounded at Farmville. Smyth died on April 9th, the day on which Lee surrendered. Smyth was the last Union general officer and the last man of the Third Brigade to die during the war.

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