Thus far my operations had been quite independent of those of General Sheridan.
About 5 p. m. March 31 I received, while on the White Oak road, the following from General Webb, chief of staff, written 4.30 p. m.:
Secure your position and protect as well as possible you left flank. Word has been sent to Sheridan, and it is believed that Sheridan is pushing up. General Humphreys will be ordered to push up and to connect with your right. You might, if you think it worth while, push a small force down the White Oak road and try to communicate with Sheridan, but they must take care and not fire into his advance.
The rattle of musketry could now be heard southwest from us, which seemed to us to be receding, and which led us to think the enemy was driving our cavalry. I then ordered General Griffin to send General Bartlett, with his brigade, directly across the country, so as to attack the enemy on the flank, and I sent Major Cope, of my staff, with him.
At 5.15 p. m., which directed what before had only been suggested:
The major-general commanding directs that you push a brigade down the White Oak road, to open it for General Sheridan, and support the same, if necessary. The firing is so near that the general presumes that the command will not have far to go. The distance you will push out must depend on the circumstances of the movement and the support you can give them.
Thus at the time that to General Meade it seemed "the firing is so near" it plainly sounded to us more and more distant, indicating that our cavalry was falling back, of which I soon had confirmation.
At 5.50 p. m. I sent the following to General Webb:
I have just seen an officer and a sergeant from General Sheridan's command who were cut off in an attack by the enemy and escaped. From what they say our cavalry was attacked about noon by cavalry and infantry and rapidly driven back, two divisions-Crook's and Devin's-being engaged. The firing seems to recede from me toward Dinwiddie Court-House. I have sent General Bartlett and my escort in that direction, but I think they cannot be in time. I hear cannonading that I think is from near Dinwiddie Court-House.
About 6.30 p. m. I received the following from General Webb:
A staff officer of General Merritt has made a report that the enemy had penetrated between Sheridan's main command and your position. This is a portion of Pickett's division. Let the force ordered to move out the White Oak road move down the Boydton plank road as promptly as possible.
The force I had sent under General Bartlett had now been gone an hour, and to recall it would have required two hours at least for it to reach the Boydton plank road, and make it too late for use before dark. My artillery had all been left on the Boydton plank road on account of the mud, which had compelled me to do so, and General Griffin had left Brevet-Brigadier-General Pearson there with three regiments of infantry of Brevet Major-General Bartlett's brigade to support it.
I therefore sent the following dispatch to General Webb at 6.30 p. m., which explains what I did:
I have ordered General Pearson, with three regiments that are now on the plank road, right down toward Dinwiddie Court-House. I will left Bartlett work and report result, as it is too late to stop him.
It was then nearly dark. Having reconnoitered the enemy's breast-works on the White Oak road, I added the following concerning them to my dispatch of 6.30 p. m.:
We can see the enemy's breast-work for two miles east along the White Oak road. If they are well manned they cannot be carried. I m within 200 yards of where they turn ff northward from the White Oak road.
52 R R-VOL XLVI, PT I