The opposing lines around Fort Stedman,
The distance to Fort Stedman from the Confederate lines, at the point known as Colquitt's Salient, was •150 yards, or probably less than at almost any other position on the whole of the defenses. Only 50 yards separated the pickets.2 The nearness of the fort, which made a surprise attack possible, was one of the reasons General Gordon selected Stedman as the object of his assault. Another reason was that as he studied the enemy's works from the Confederate front he saw what he took to be three Federal forts in the rear of Stedman. Behind these was an open space. He believed that he could reach this cleared ground, form there, and take the three works in reverse. If he could do this and could spread his troops to the right and to the left for a sufficient distance, he argued that he would have a position of such strength and depth that he would divide the enemy's troops and could force the Federals to abandon that part of their fortifications to the south and southwest. In this way General Lee's immediate purpose would be served. The Federals would have to shorten their p15 front, and the Army of Northern Virginia would have a lessened stretch of lines to defend. Troops could then be detached from Lee to help Johnston.
Gordon developed an elaborate stratagem. Some of the obstructions in front of the Confederate works at Colquitt's were to be secretly and noiselessly removed during the night preceding the attack, so as to afford sally ports. The Federal outposts were to be seized and silenced in the darkness before they could make outcry. Then fifty picked men were to chop down the abatis and chevaux-de‑frise protecting Stedman. They were to rush the fort before daylight and were to be followed by three companies of 100 men each, wearing strips of white across their breasts to distinguish them in the darkness.3 Having entered the work, these three companies were to pretend that they were Federals driven p16 from the front position and that they had been directed by the Federal commander to man the forts behind the lines. In this way Gordon hoped to reach and to occupy the Federal rear with little or no opposition. The main body of his infantry was then to move to the left and right, up and down the Federal line. This done, cavalry were to go through the fortified area and destroy Grant's communications.4
Lee left the tactical arrangements almost entirely to Gordon and apparently he did not question the existence of the forts that Gordon said were in the rear of Stedman. At Gordon's request, however, he personally had inquiry made to find three guides who could lead the advance columns over the terrain behind Stedman. Gordon stressed the necessity of finding individuals who could make their way over ground where shells and picks had destroyed the landmarks. General Lee procured three men and had them sent to Gordon. He did not know them personally, he explained, but they had been recommended to him.5
Grimes's, Walker's, and Evans's divisions, comprising Gordon's corps, were to be used in the assault. In addition, Ransom's and Wallace's of Johnson's division from Anderson's corps,6 two brigades under Lane from Wilcox's division, and two under Cooke from Heth's division, were ordered to report to Gordon.7 W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry was instructed to come up from Stony Creek. Four and a half divisions of infantry and a division of cavalry — nearly half the army — concentrated close to the centre, around Colquitt's salient. This stripped the rest of the front almost bare of men and was in itself an evidence of Lee's desperation, especially as there were some indications of an impending Federal attack on Longstreet's front.8
On the afternoon of March 24, Gordon requisitioned Pickett's division also, which was then north of the James. Lee doubted whether Pickett could arrive in time to support Gordon, but, he wrote, "Still we will try,"9 and he promptly transmitted the order.10 Other brigades could be brought up, he told Gordon, and disposed as needed. Showing none of the misgiving he must p17 have felt over the employment of more than 50 per cent of his available infantry on a single mile of his long, long front, he concluded his letter to Gordon with characteristic words: "I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies."11 He directed Longstreet to be prepared to attack on the north side of the James the next morning and to take advantage of every circumstance that would prevent the transfer of troops to the south side of the river.12
Before dawn on the morning of March 25, the day set for the assault, General Lee rode over from the Turnbull house to the hill in the rear of Colquitt's salient, where Gordon was standing ready to give the signal to the men who crowded the trenches beneath him. The chevaux-de‑frise had been quietly removed at the designated sally ports; the pickets had crept forward and were ready to fall on the Federal outposts before they could give the alarm; the 50 axemen were at hand; the selected 300 were all duly marshalled and distinguished by strips of white cloth. Almost on the second, at 4 o'clock, a single rifle, fired by a private at Gordon's word, sent the troops forward. Lee could only wait on the hill and listen and hope. Very soon a message came from Gordon, who himself had followed the charging troops: the men were in Fort Stedman and the 300 were on their way to the rear.13 The sound of the firing must soon have apprised Lee that the attacking columns had spread •400 or 500 yards on either side of the salient they had stormed.14
Part of the interior of Fort Stedman, temporarily captured by the command of General John B. Gordon, March 25, 1865
This work was typical of many fortifications on the Union lines around Petersburg. The gabions and fascines, topped with sandbags, were of the usual Federal construction. The chimney in the left centre is that of an officers' "bomb-proof," the nineteenth-century "dug-out." The pile of earth on the right is the cover of a powder-magazine.º
The next news was of another sort: The officers of one party, Gordon reported, could not find the rear forts, on the seizure of which the success of the whole enterprise depended. The guide had been lost. Another courier brought a similar report from the other advance parties. Then followed confused fighting, not much of which Lee could see. Soon it was apparent the Federals had rallied, were hurrying up reserves, and were pouring into Fort Stedman and the adjoining part of the line a fire that was holding up the advance. Lee saw that an attempt to storm the Federal redoubts would be risky and, even if not repulsed, would p18 cost him heavily,15 so, about 8 o'clock, he ordered Gordon to withdraw to his own lines. As the disappointed troops made their way back, they came under a cruel fire that dropped hundreds in their tracks.16
The survivors had a grim and humiliating story to tell "Marse Robert." The men had reached and had entered Stedman precisely as Gordon had planned. The main column had fought its way along the trenches on either side, but the selected 300 had failed to find the three forts in the rear for the all-sufficient reason that these forts did not exist. What Gordon had taken to be supporting forts were, in reality, old Confederate works that had been occupied and lost during the fighting of the 15th‑17th of June, 1864. Futile search for these fortifications and the return to Fort Stedman had caused confusion and had given the Federals time to rally in their well-constructed works. Repeated attempts to storm Fort Haskell and Battery 9 had resulted in failure. From these works, from the reserve artillery on the hills in the rear, and from Batteries 4, 5, and 8, a smothering fire had been poured into those parts of the line that Gordon's men had occupied. Except at a very heavy loss of life it had not been possible to advance. To remain was useless in itself and involved continuing casualties, and extension of the line and ultimate capture. The officers of some commands found some men unwilling to cross the open ground between the lines and to return to their works. They preferred capture to running the gauntlet.17
p19 And the failure of the attack was not all that had to be told. Immediately following the repulse of Gordon's assaults, and almost before the Confederates had returned to their works, the Federals advanced along the whole right of Lee's position nearly to Hatcher's Run and took the entrenched picket lines. In this counterstroke, they captured about 800 prisoners and held their ground against all attempts to drive them back to their main lines. The enemy was thus placed where he could advantageously launch a direct attack to break the Confederate front whenever he chose to do so. The total haul of prisoners at the picket posts and at Fort Stedman was 2783. The Union estimate of gross Confederate casualties of 4800 to 5000 was not greatly exaggerated.18
Lee waited till the worst was known, waited till it was plain he could hope for no advantage, and then, wearily, he turned Traveller's head toward the Turnbull house. He had not gone far when he met two horsemen approaching him. He identified them quickly, and smiled at them. They were Rooney and Robert, who had ridden ahead of their division, which had been ordered to follow the hoped-for advance of the infantry. The General thanked Rooney for coming so promptly on orders — his trooper-son had ridden •nearly forty miles with half-starved men and bare-ribbed horses — and expressed his regret that the attack had not so developed that the cavalry could be used. "Since then," wrote Captain Robert Lee, nearly twoscore years afterwards, "I have often recalled the sadness of his face, its careworn expression."19 The General did not tell his sons what the failure at Fort Stedman implied. Sadly he telegraphed Longstreet that Pickett would not be needed and that those of his men who had started from the north side should go into camp around Chester;20 briefly he reported to the Secretary of War on the morning's events.21 He did not probe the reasons for failure or blame either p20 Gordon or his subordinates,22 but in the events of the day he saw his plan destroyed utterly. "I fear now," he wrote the President on the 26th, "it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near." Johnston, he went on, reported only some 13,500 infantry, a loss of 8000 men, largely by desertion. At that rate of attrition, Johnston would not cross the Roanoke with more than 10,000, "a force that would add so little strength to this army as not to make it more than a match for Sherman, with whom to risk a battle in the presence of Grant's army would hardly seem justifiable." Johnston estimated Sherman and Schofield at 60,000. Grant might have 100,000 and, Lee feared, did not have less than 80,000. "Their two armies united," he said, "would therefore exceed ours by nearly one hundred thousand." Besides, if Grant wished to bring Sherman's army to him without a battle, he could easily manoeuvre in such a way that if Lee marched out to meet Sherman the Confederates would have to fight both armies.23
Thus Lee was thrownº back on the plan of evacuating the Richmond line and of moving with his whole force to join the command in North Carolina. Even this plan was now modified by the fact that when junction was formed, there would be no prospect of attacking and defeating Sherman alone, for Sherman would join Grant. As Lee had said when Longstreet proposed that Johnston be brought to Richmond,24 concentration by the Confederates involved like concentration by the Federals. The plan of a march to unite with Johnston was now complicated, also, by the arrival of Sheridan's cavalry after it had refitted at White House on the conclusion of a long raid eastward from the Shenandoah p21 Valley.25 The approach of the premier Federal cavalry had been assumed on March 17.26 On the very day of the attack on Fort Stedman, Fitz Lee had notified Longstreet that Sheridan, in his opinion, would be on Grant's left flank on the 28th or 29th.27 There were many indications by the 27th that Sheridan was moving to the south side of the James.28
The retreat from Petersburg must therefore begin. The sooner it was undertaken, the greater the prospect of eluding Grant. But there were obstacles, old and new, to a speedy withdrawal. Gordon's men needed rest for the recovery of their morale. The administration was not ready to evacuate Richmond. The roads were still excessively bad. Although what Colonel Taylor had guardedly styled "the dread contingency" had now become a "foregone conclusion," even in his optimistic mind,29 Lee had to wait. He had sent pontoons forward,30 he had surveyed the ordnance stores31 and he had prepared maps for the retreat, but, for the moment, all he could do was to strengthen the right flank, against which, rather than against Richmond itself, he had long believed the final attack would be delivered.32 In spirit, he could only repeat what he had written Mrs. Lee before the outlook had become quite so dark: "I shall . . . endeavor to do my duty and fight to the last."33
1 O. R., Atlas, Plate LXVII and LXXVII-2; Parke's report, O. R., 46, part 1, p316; Abbott's, ibid., 173. Gordon in his Reminiscences, 401 ff., probably magnified, and the Federal commanders, loc. cit., perhaps minimized the strength of the position.
2 Parke, loc. cit.
3 Major E. M. Williamson stated in The Petersburg Progress-Index of June 22, 1932, that General Gordon sent into Petersburg and purchased cloth with which to prepare these markings.
4 Gordon, 401 ff.
5 Gordon, 405.
6 Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K.
7 Gordon's report, Lee MSS. — K.
9 Gordon, 407.
10 Lee MSS. — U.
11 Gordon, 407.
12 Lee to Longstreet, March 24, 1865, Lee MSS. — U.
13 Gordon, 410‑11.
14 The estimate of distance is that of Gordon in his report, Lee MSS. — K.
15 Lee's Dispatches, 344‑45.
16 Gordon, 411. Here Gordon spoke of the non-arrival of the supporting troops, presumably Pickett's, but he had been told in advance that it was doubtful whether Pickett could arrive in time. In this report, Lee MSS. — K, Gordon did not mention this, and, speaking of the two brigades from Heth and the two from Wilcox, merely said these "did not participate."
17 Reports in O. R., 46, part 1, pp155 ff., 172 ff., 316 ff., 355 ff.; 2 Davis, 650 ff.; Thomas, 38 ff. The Federal reports are authority for saying that some of the troops participating in the attack behaved badly and submitted to capture rather than return to their lines. Major Theodore Miller, a Union inspector of artillery, who was captured and held in a bomb-proof while the Confederates were in Fort Stedman, stated that "the number of stragglers and skulkers was astonishingly large." He saw "several instances where the authority of the officers who urged them on was set at defiance." After the order was given for Gordon's men to retire to their own lines, "officers ordered, threatened, and begged their men to fall back . . . in vain, for their only way lay across the field so effectually commanded by [the Federal] artillery." He claimed to have prevailed on his captors to remain and to help him escape, and he affirmed that he carried some 250 or 300 into the ranks of the advancing Federals (O. R., 46, part 1, p359). Confirmatory evidence was offered by a Confederate captain of Gordon's corps who stated that after the attack had been delivered, the men hugged the works and would not go forward. This was warning, he thought, that the day of offensive movement was gone (Captain (p19)J. C. G.: Lee's Last Campaign, 10). Gordon said nothing of this in his report, but stated, on the contrary, that "the troops behaved with commendable courage" (Gordon's report, Lee MSS. — K). General Lee telegraphed that "all the troops engaged . . . behaved most handsomely" (O. R., 46, part 1, pp382‑83), which can only mean that he, and Gordon as well, knew nothing of the failure that had been observed by some of those in closer touch with certain of the units.
19 R. E. Lee, Jr., 147.
20 Lee MSS. — U.
22 There was, indeed, no basis for blame, other than that Gordon mistook the abandoned Confederate works in rear of Fort Stedman for Union fortifications. And here the Georgian was not wholly culpable, for he had come from the Valley long after the line had been stabilized and naturally knew little of the old, outer line of Petersburg which had been evacuated by Beauregard during the fighting of June 15‑17. Lee was perhaps culpable for not having Gordon's findings checked by one of his own engineers, but he was not censurable for entrusting the operation to Gordon. It was to be undertaken on Gordon's front and, furthermore, there was no other corps commander to whom it could be assigned with better promise of victory. Longstreet was north of the James, it will be remembered, and Hill was sick. Anderson's handling of the assaults on fixed positions during the fighting around Fort Harrison had not been of a sort to indicate that he would make a success of the attack on Fort Stedman.
23 Lee's Dispatches, 345‑46.
27 Lee MSS. — U.
28 Lee MSS. — U.
29 Taylor's Four Years, 145.
30 32 S. H. S. P., 67.
31 38 S. H. S. P., 5. In 122 Harpers Magazine, 333, Major A. R. H. Ranson stated that he had been sent to Lynchburg in January, 1865, to provide a depot of ordnance stores, but that these had been returned to Richmond in February.
33 Feb. 22, 1865; R. E. Lee, Jr., 146.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 31 Mar 16