The Siege of Petersburg, Virginia: June 1864 to March 1865
The Assault on Fort Stedman - March 25, 1864

Petersburg - Colquitt's Salient to Fort Stedman

As the winter of 1864 - 65 bowed to spring, Robert E. Lee's much vaunted Army of Northern Virginia found itself in the last desperate throws of its storied existence. Although certainly still full of fight, General Ulysses S. Grant's huge army vastly outnumbered Lee's tattered, meager forces. Terrible conditions especially throughout the last winter contributed to almost daily desertions, leaving behind only the hardiest most dedicated men. General John Brown Gordon, now one of General Lee's most trusted subordinates found himself charged with coordinating the last major Confederate assault of the famous Army of Northern Virginia.

General Gordon described his orders thus.

"General Lee's instructions to me were substantially as follows: "Move your troops into the works around the city as I withdraw one of the other commands from them. Make your headquarters in the city. Study General Grant's works at all points, consider carefully all plans and possibilities, and then tell me what you can do, if anything, to help us in our dilemma."

The very narrow space between Lee's and Grant's lines, the vigilance of the pickets who stood within speaking range of each other, and the heavily loaded guns which commanded every foot of intrenchments, made the removal of one body of troops and the installing of another impracticable by daylight and quite hazardous even at night. We moved, however, cautiously through the city to the breastworks, and, as the other corps was secretly withdrawn, my command glided into the vacated trenches as softly and noiselessly as the smooth flow of a river."

Confederate fortifications facing the Union lines 1865

While reconnoitering the Union lines, General Gordon mentioned obtaining information from a very unexpected source. "Deserters from the Federal army added valuable material to the information I was acquiring. The fact that there were desertions from the Union to the Confederate army at this late period of the war is difficult to understand. Indeed, such desertions were among those mysterious occurrences which are inexplicable on any ordinary hypothesis. It was to be expected that some of the newly enlisted Confederates, some of those reluctant recruits who were induced to join our ranks under the persuasive influence of the Confederate Conscript Law, should abandon us in our extremity; but when all the conditions pointed to certain and speedy Union success, where can we find impelling motives strong enough to induce General Grant's men to desert his overwhelming forces and seek shelter with the maimed and starving Confederate army?"

During discussions with General Lee, the intent of an attack on Fort Stedman was clear. "The purpose of the movement was not simply the capture of Fort Stedman and the breastworks flanking it. The prisoners and guns we might thus capture would not justify the peril of the undertaking. The tremendous possibility was the disintegration of the whole left wing of the Federal army, or at least the dealing of such a staggering blow upon it as would disable it temporarily, enabling us to withdraw from Petersburg in safety and join Johnston in North Carolina." [3]

Despite the careful preparation and the gravity of the Confederate situation, the assault was doomed to fail. In his own memoirs, Grant would mention the initial success of the charge followed by the Union repulse. "General Lee, in aid of his plan of escape, and to secure a wider opening to enable them to reach the Danville Road with greater security than he would have in the way the two armies were situated, determined upon an assault upon the right of our lines around Petersburg. The night of the 24th of March was fixed upon for this assault, and General Gordon was assigned to the execution of the plan. The point between Fort Stedman and Battery No. 10, where our lines were closest together, was selected as the point of his attack...Gordon assembled his troops under the cover of night, at the point at which they were to make their charge, and got possession of our picket-line, entirely without the knowledge of the troops inside of our main line of intrenchments; this reduced the distance he would have to charge over to not much more than fifty yards. For some time before the deserters had been coming in with great frequency, often bringing their arms with them, and this the Confederate general knew. Taking advantage of this knowledge he sent his pickets, with their arms, creeping through to ours as if to desert. When they got to our lines they at once took possession and sent our pickets to the rear as prisoners. In the main line our men were sleeping serenely, as if in great security. This plan was to have been executed and much damage done before daylight; but the troops that were to reinforce Gordon had to be brought from the north side of the James River and, by some accident on the railroad on their way over, they were detained for a considerable time; so that it got to be nearly daylight before they were ready to make the charge.

The charge, however, was successful and almost without loss, the enemy passing through our lines between Fort Stedman and Battery No. 10. Then turning to the right and left they captured the fort and the battery, with all the arms and troops in them. Continuing the charge, they also carried batteries Eleven and Twelve to our left, which they turned toward City Point.

...General Tidball gathered a large number of pieces of artillery and planted them in rear of the captured works so as to sweep the narrow space of ground between the lines very thoroughly. Hartranft was soon out with his division, as also was Willcox. Hartranft to the right of the breach headed the rebels off in that direction and rapidly drove them back into Fort Stedman. On the other side they were driven back into the intrenchments which they had captured, and batteries eleven and twelve were retaken by Willcox early in the morning.

Parke then threw a line around outside of the captured fort and batteries, and communication was once more established. The artillery fire was kept up so continuously that it was impossible for the Confederates to retreat, and equally impossible for reinforcements to join them. They all, therefore, fell captives into our hands. This effort of Lee's cost him about four thousand men, and resulted in their killing, wounding and capturing about two thousand of ours.

After the recapture of the batteries taken by the Confederates, our troops made a charge and carried the enemy's intrenched picket line, which they strengthened and held. This, in turn, gave us but a short distance to charge over when our attack came to be made a few days later." [46]

The end of four years of brutal fighting was now very close at hand.