Battle of Five Forks. (Library of Congress)
In the spring of 1865, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had an opportunity to finally drive Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia out of its entrenchments at Petersburg by threatening its last supply line, the South Side Railroad. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan and his cavalry to advance on the railroad by way of an important road junction known as Five Forks. Lee countered this move by ordering Maj. Gen. George Pickett to hold the vital crossroads "at all hazards." After discovering the Confederate force, Sheridan secured infantry support from Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps. After briefly stalling the Union advance on March 31, Pickett withdrew his command to Five Forks and fortified his position. The next day, while Sheridan’s cavalry pinned the Confederates in position, the Fifth Corps assaulted the Confederate left flank and rear, turning their position and taking thousands as prisoners. Pickett, who was attending a shad bake when the fighting began, was unaware that a battle was underway until it was too late. Sheridan, meanwhile, personally directed the Union attack, often exposing himself to personal danger while leading the troops. The resounding Union triumph heralded the end of the stalemate outside Petersburg and set the stage for the breakthrough the next day.