Thomas Drummond: ‘Let it be Done’

Editor’s Note: Today is the fifth installment of a six-part series on Thomas Drummond, who led a short but fascinating life as a senator, newspaper editor and Civil War hero. He is buried in the Methodist Cemetery on Newell Avenue, St. Clairsville. The authors are Edmund A. Sargus, a federal judge, and his son, Edmund C. Sargus, a writer in Tampa, Fla. Both are from St. Clairsville and have co-authored a book on the life of Thomas Drummond.

As 1865 began, the Civil War entered into a fifth long year. Like so many others, Drummond’s life had been upended by what must have seemed an endless conflict. For most of their marriage, Thomas and Kate Drummond were hundreds of miles apart. Only during his time as a recruiter in 1864 were the two able to live together.

Kate raised Drummond’s daughter, Catherine, from his first marriage. After the death of their infant son, James Drummond, Jr., in 1860, Kate and Thomas had a son, Henry, born in 1862. In January of 1865, Kate was pregnant with a second son, whom they would name Thomas.

But the war again intervened. As spring approached, the Union Army, now pressing the Confederacy on numerous fronts, readied for a massive, and hopefully final, assault to end the long, bloody war. Once again, the 5th U. S. Cavalry would play a crucial role.

With Drummond on recruiting duty, in August of 1864, the 5th Cavalry joined General Phil Sheridan in driving a Confederate force under General Jubal Early from the Shenandoah Valley. Victory came at a high cost in casualties to the 5th. The regiment regrouped in winter camp, then rode to City Point, Virginia to participate in the siege of Richmond and Petersburg.

Drummond rejoined the 5th in late January, 1865. In a tribute to his service and abilities, he was placed in command of the entire regiment. As an indication of the 5th’s reputation, three of the ten companies in the regiment were assigned to General Grant’s staff, providing protection and armed messaging. Drummond commanded the remaining seven companies, numbering seven hundred cavalrymen, who were assigned the Union Cavalry Corps, under General Sheridan.

From late June of 1864 until March of 1865, the huge Army of the Potomac maintained the Union position on the eastern outskirts of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. Over 120,000 Union troops had forced their way south in the Overland Campaign that had begun in May of 1864. By late June of 1864, the two opposing armies faced off in a complex system of trenches and embankments.

After four hard years of war, given improvements in riflery and artillery, each side realized that a dug-in, defensive position could only be taken at an unacceptable cost in casualties.

Grant planned a spring offensive in 1865 that involved a sweep around Lee’s right wing, southwest of Petersburg. If moderately successful, the maneuver would cut off the Confederate Army from the South Side Railroad, the last railroad supplying Lee’s Army. If spectacularly successful, the Confederate Army would be “turned,” which at the time meant enveloped and surrounded.

In either event, Grant intended to draw a large Confederate force out of the trenches, where they would lose the benefit of the defense. Grant trusted Sheridan’s experienced and aggressive troops, which included a brigade led by General Custer as well as the 5th Cavalry, now under Drummond.

In a driving rain, on March 29, 1865, twelve thousand cavalry under Sheridan moved around the right side of the massive Confederate defenses. The mounted troops were to be followed by an additional twenty-eight thousand infantry. Their immediate goal was to overtake the South Side Railroad at Five Forks, Virginia.

On March 31, 1865, advance cavalry units arrived just south of Five Forks at a small town known as Dinwiddie Court House. The small force was met by a large contingency of Confederate cavalry commanded by General William H. F.Lee, the second son of Robert E. Lee. Soon, a second force of Confederate infantry arrived under the command of General George Pickett, the ill-fated commander at Gettysburg.

The Union force was driven back toward Dinwiddie Court House. As Union infantry approached, the Confederate forces withdrew at night to Five Forks.

The next day, troops on both sides understood that the integrity of the entire Confederate defensive perimeter was at stake.

On the morning of April 1, 1865, Sheridan intended to launch a coordinated cavalry and infantry assault on Five Forks. Temperamentally impatient, he fumed while the much slower infantry failed to arrive at the agreed time. By one o’clock, he deployed his cavalry in battle formation of twelve thousand cavalry, stretching across several miles, with Drummond commanding a half mile of mounted troops on the line’s far right.

Without infantry support, Sheridan ordered an attack in mid-afternoon. The first assault brought Union troops to the crest of hastily erected Confederate defenses.

Ultimately, the Confederates repulsed both the first and second assaults.

At approximately 4 p.m., a third assault overran the Confederate positions. As the Confederates retreated, they were driven into the just arriving Union infantry.

The Battle of Five Forks heralded the end of the horrible conflict. Over 9,200 Confederate troops were killed, captured or wounded. The South Side Railroad was now in Union hands. The Confederate defenses had been turned; their last rail supply line was now in Union hands. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began a full scale retreat.

But at Five Forks, as the final Union assault crushed the rebel lines and victory all but assured, a shot rang out and Drummond fell from his horse.

Let it be done.