The Virginia in the Civil War Message Board

Spencer and Henry RIfle Create Carnage

The Henry rifle on March 31, 1865,

part one

I want to say a word about the Henry rifle and about some troopers who used that weapon on March 31, 1865.

A few hours ago I posted a source (The source was Thomas Munford) that told the story of that battle from a confederate perspective.

Now I will tell the story of a small part of that battle from a God’s eye view that every historian is allowed to assume.

Let us start with a bit of history: he First Washington DC Cavalry was attached to the cavalry division of the army of the James in Virginia. The troopers were armed with the Henry rifle, which fired 14 shots.

Oddly enough, a number of the companies came from the state of Maine. So in late 1864 the Maine companies were transferred from the first DC cavalry to the First Maine Cavalry, thus making that latter regiment extremely large.

The First Maine cavalry was part of the army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps, and belonged to the Third brigade of the Second Division. Its original members were armed with Spencer seven shot carbines. The transfer of the companies from the first DC cavalry with their Henry Rifles gave the First Maine Cavalry an immense boost in fire power.

On March 31, 1865, the third brigade was defending Fitzgerald’s Ford on Chamberlain’s bed, a creek which ran a short distance west of the village of Dinwiddie court House, Virginia. A cavalry force of 9000 Sabres had assembled near the village under Philip Sheridan. Their orders were to ride northward through the hamlet of Five Forks to the South Side Railroad. They were to occupy the railroad and tear up the tracks, thereby cutting the supply line to the Army of Northern Virginia, which was besieged in the towns of Richmond and Petersburg.
CSA General Robert E. Lee assembled a command of infantry and cavalry under George Pickett. His job was to destroy Sheridan’s strike force.

On the morning of March 31st Sheridan’s troopers were arranged in a defensive line that resembled an upside down L. The First Division under Thomas Devin defended the short part of that upside down L. This was an east west line that faced north in the direction of five Forks. The Second Division under George Crook defended the Long part of the upside down, L, a defensive line that ran south to north along the west bank a creek called Chamberlain’s Bed. George Custer’s Third Dvision was in the rear chopping down trees to create a wooden road that would on top of muddy dirt road. Custers job was to move the Cavalry Corps wagon train towards Dinwiddie Court House).

Smith’s Third Brigade of Crook’s Second division defended the southern end of the defense line that was located west of chamberlain’s bed. As mentioned above, they were defending Fitzgerald’s Ford.

Pickett’s original plan was to fight his way across Fitzgerald’s Ford at Chamberlain’s Bed from its west bank to its east bank.. This would place him at Dinwiddie Court House in Sheridan’s rear. Pickett had left behind at Five Forks a division of cavalry under Thomas Munford. Munford’s orders were to attack southward when he heard Pickett’s guns. Once Pickett occupied Dinwiddie courthouse, Sheridan would be trapped between Pickett to his south and Munford to his north. The Union cavalry would have been badly damaged if not destroyed.

When Pickett saw that the recent rains had transformed Chamberlain˜s bed into a swift torrent of water instead of a placid creek, Pickett made the fatal mistake of deciding not to cross Chamberlain’s bed at Fitzgerald’s Ford. Mistakenly believing that there was an intact bridge further up the creek at Danse’s Ford, Pickett retraced his steps northward, bringing with him the three brigades of his own infantry division and the two brigades of Thomas Rosser’s cavalry division. He left behind at Fitzgerald’s Ford two brigades of cavalry under Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, and plus two brigades of infantry under Robert ransom. Their job was to defeat the Federals defending the ford and cross it and occupy Dinwiddie Court House.

Fitzhugh Lee seems to have been in command of the attack at Fitzgerald’s Ford. For some reason he determined to attack across the creek with Rooney Lee˜s cavalry instead of Ransoms infantry. After vainly protesting the orders, at about noon, Rooney Lee made his attack. His plan was to occupy the attention of Smith’s brigade by sending three dismounted regiments from Rufus Barringer’s North Carolina brigade into the creek. While the Federals concentrated their gunfire on the North Carolinians, he would send the three regiments of Beale’s Virginia cavalry brigade across the creek in a mounted charge. He anticipated that the mounted charge would disperse the Union defenders.

End of part one