The Edwin C. Bearss/Chris Calkins book on the battle of Five Forks has required revision for some time. Michael J. McCarthy’s book Confederate Waterloo gives an updated and more accurate picture of the fight without going much beyond the overview provided by A. Wilson Greene in his Breaking the Back of the Rebellion. The reason is that McCarthy is more interested in exploring the subsequent struggle of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Kemble Warren to demonstrate the injustice of his relief at the hands of Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan immediately after Warren won the battle. The summary of the fighting is good, though I disagree with McCarthy’s figures on Confederate prisoners after having actually counted them—his figures are high, 4,500 as opposed to the 2,500 I counted in The Petersburg Campaign, assisted by the research of Bryce Suderow.
The main problem with the book is that McCarthy doesn’t know enough about the Siege of Petersburg to put Five Forks in perspective. He keeps insisting that Five Forks decided the Siege. It most certainly did not. The April 2 breakthrough by VI Corps ended the Siege, as A. Wilson Green has observed. As I’ve pointed out in every book I’ve written on the Siege, page 922 of The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee makes clear that Pickett’s failure on March 31, 1865 to evict Sheridan from Dinwiddie Court House would have been decisive except for the slow response of Lee’s civilian superiors (Secretary of War Breckenridge and President Davis) to Lee’s request to evacuate. Even on April 2, in the absence of approval from above to evacuate, Lee was marshaling forces to strike Sheridan similar to the way that Lee struck Hancock at Reams Station on August 25, 1864. Unfortunately for Lee, Grant was not sick again as he was on August 25, 1864, leaving Meade to defend with his extraordinary passivity. Grant defended by attacking, and ended the Siege.
Likewise, McCarthy doesn't understand the depth of bad blood between Warren and his superiors. Major General George Gordon Meade does not seem to have forgiven Warren for failing to attack at Mine Run in December 1863, even though Warren was justified in calling off the attack. Grant and Meade also held against Warren his failure to seize Petersburg in August 1864, even though he cut the Weldon Railroad.
Once we are finished with the actual fighting, McCarthy’s real story begins—how Warren obtained a court of inquiry and how that proceeded. This part of the book is riveting and it is hard to set down. Despite the protestations of Generals Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, as well as the Army’s chief lawyer, to the contrary, it appears that the unfortunate Warren established his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Grant carelessly set up Warren to disappoint Sheridan and then invited Sheridan if disappointed to relieve Warren, with predictable results.