In regard to intercepting the enemy, the facts show it was impossible, under the circumstances. I learned from deserters that they had begun to move toward Five Forks as early as 10 p. m. the night before, believing their position would be untenable the next morning. They had consequently withdrawn in the night, carrying off their wounded and leaving only a cavalry picket in General Sheridan's front, which, as General Ayres says, "hastily decamped as he approached at daylight."
It will be seen by the following dispatch of General Meade to General Grant, dated 6 a. m. April 1, that General Sheridan himself must have been aware of this withdrawal of the enemy early in the night:
The officer send to Sheridan returned between 2 a. m. and 3 a. m. without any written communication, but giving General S [heridan], as opinion that the enemy were retiring from his front. The absence of firing this morning would seem to confirm this. I was asleep at the time this officer returned and did not get the information until just now. Should this prove true, Warren will be at or near Dinwiddie soon with his whole corps and will require further orders.
Now, the officer that brought General Meade this information from General Sheridan, "between 2 and 3 a. m.," could not have left General Sheridan less than two hours previous, the distance being about ten miles,. over the worst possible roads; so that General Sheridan thought the enemy was retiring as early, at least, as between 12 and 1, and the information could scarce have reached General Sheridan from his picket-line in less than one hour's time; so that the enemy's movements in retiring must have become apparent as early, at least, as between 11 and 12. This conclustion confirms the report that deserters gave me in the morning, and the completeness of the withdrawal further strains it.
While awaiting with General Griffin for instructions from General Sheridan, who had advanced with the cavalry toward Five Forks, I received, about 9.30 a. m., the following order, written by General Webb, at 6 a. m.:
General Meade directs that in the movements following your junction with General Sheridan you will be under his orders and will report to him. Please send in a report of progress.
At 9.30 a. m. I sent the following to General Webb, as directed:
I reached the crossing of Gravelly-Run early this morning and met General Sheridan there. We are massed at that point by his order. I did not meet General Sheridan personally; General Griffin, leading the column, saw him. If we remain in this vicinity we can get rations up by the Boydton plank road; we were unable, except in part, to replenish yesterday. The enemy did not follow with a single man when we left the White Oak road this morning.
It was a matter of wonder at the time, and has been ever since, how the enemy permitted our thus withdrawing without following us up to see the way we took, even if it had been with only a regiment. He would thus early have gained the knowledge that our infantry was moving toward his detached force, under General Pickett, which we beat so badly toward evening. General Lee could then have re-enforced his detached troops or timely warned them to withdraw. I kept my skirmish line halted a long while after my advance set out in the morning, so as to cover the movement as late as possible, and deployed my escort to fall back on the boydton plank road and delude any pursuing force, if possible, into the belief that we had all retired in that direction. It was a want of vigilance that was most rare on their part and betokened that apathy which results from a hopelessness as to the use of further resistance.