Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fight at Dinwiddie Courthouse - March 31, 1865

Civil War battlefields and places of engagement abound in my new neck of the woods. The almost ten-month long Petersburg Campaign in 1864-65 brought thousands of soldiers and millions of tons of supplies to formerly undisturbed Dinwiddie County. As the contending armies jockeyed for strategic and tactical positions they obviously clashed many times at various locations.    

One engagement occurred just about nine miles down the road from where I live. Dinwiddie Courthouse was a sleepy little town in the spring of 1865, when Union cavalry thundered into town. Actually, Dinwiddie Courthouse became more important during the previous summer. When the Union army cut the Petersburg Railroad, which ran south to North Carolina, at the Battle of Globe Tavern, that move necessitated that supplied sent north on the railroad be offloaded at Stony Creek Station, put on wagons, travel cross country to Dinwiddie Courthouse, and then northeast on the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg's Confederate defenses. 

The Dinwiddie Courthouse (pictured above) that was used during the Civil War and occupied by General Philip Sheridan as his headquarters, was built in 1851. Sheridan apparently was not impressed with the little town and described it in a derogatory manner. 

The battle near Dinwiddie County had its roots in a movement two days before, on March 29. On that day, Sheridan, in command of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry along with overseeing the II and V Corps attempted a flank movement on Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia's positions southwest of Petersburg.
Meeting terrible weather conditions, which has turned the county's dirt roads into holes of mud and quicksand, the movement slowed to a snail's pace. 

Confederate cavalry  under Lee's nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, and a division of infantry under Gen. George Pickett attacked the Union cavalry just north of Dinwiddie Courthouse on March 31. The Confederates drove back Sheridan's men almost back to Dinwiddie Courthouse but quickly arriving Union reinforcements stopped the rebel advance. Repeated Confederate attacks were made without benefit.

Later that day, Pickett, unable to make headway due to the additional Union arrivals, chose to withdraw to the important county road intersection of Five Forks and dug in. Lee informed Pickett that he must hold Five Forks due to its close proximity to the Southside Railroad, which was Lee's last remaining supply line into Petersburg now that the Boydton Plank Road had been secured at Dinwiddie Courthouse and with additional fighting to the north at White Oak Road the same day. Fighting would break out at Five Forks on April 1. After initial success the defeat there would and help spell doom to Lee's  Army of Northern Virginia.

Almost half of  Dinwiddie County's population were enslaved. Many took the opportunity to make their way to the nearby Union forces where they were employed as laborers, and some as soldiers. Others provided vital information about Confederate forces, distances and best routes of travel, and terrain features. The image above shows Sheridan and his staff speaking with an African American man and boy with Dinwiddie Courthouse in the background. 

Sheridan's cavalry force included many talented officers. Included in this image from the left is Gen. Wesley Merritt, Sheridan, Gen. George Crook, Gen. James William Forsyth, and Gen. George Armstrong Custer. These men would do much to harass and finally successfully cut off the Confederate retreat at Appomattox, just one week and two day after their fight at Dinwiddie Courthouse.

Sheridan staff image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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