The Battle of Fort Stedman

March 25, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a desperate attack to break out of the siege lines at Petersburg.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee had assigned Major General John B. Gordon to plan and lead the attack. It took Gordon three weeks to determine an attack could succeed at Fort Stedman on the right of the Federal siege line. If strong enough, the attack could cut off the Federal right from the rest of the besiegers and threaten the Federals’ City Point Railroad, the world’s first railroad built exclusively to supply military forces in the field.[1]

The idea of attacking Fort Stedman appealed to Lee because it could force the Federals to transfer troops from the left sector of their line to shore up their right, leaving an escape route in that sector for Lee to break out of Petersburg and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. Lee not only approved, he transferred more troops to Gordon’s command, so ultimately 12,000 Confederate infantrymen stood poised to attack on the evening of March 24. Lee told Gordon, “I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies.”[2]

The Confederates came out of their trenches at 3 a.m. on March 25 pretending to be deserters. This disarmed the Federals, and the initial attack pushed them back. Gordon’s men quickly captured Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 on Stedman’s right and left, taking many prisoners. However, Batteries 9 and 12 stood firm, and Federal artillery from nearby Fort Haskell halted the Confederate momentum almost as soon as it began.[3]

As Federal reinforcements from IX Corps began arriving, Gordon informed Lee that the Confederates could not break through as hoped. The Federals regained all lost ground by 7:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later Lee issued the order to withdraw. Many Confederates chose to surrender and not retreat under heavy artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates suffered about 3,500 casualties, with 1,900 of those captured. The Federals lost 1,044 men with half captured.[4]

Despite being surprised, a single Federal corps had easily repulsed the largest Confederate attack that Lee could have hoped to mount. President Abraham Lincoln, visiting General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, made arrangements to review the Fort Stedman battlefield after what he reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as “a little rumpus.”[5]

Concluding that Lee must have moved troops from his own right to launch such a massive attack on Fort Stedman, Grant ordered an immediate attack on the Confederate right. Federals surprised the undermanned defenders in that sector at Hatcher’s Run, resulting in the capture of nearly another 1,000 Confederate prisoners. Major General George G. Meade escorted President Lincoln to a hilltop to witness the fighting. Lincoln said, “This is better than a review,” then expressed hope to no longer see such horrors of war.[6]

By day’s end, the Confederates had suffered some 4,800 casualties while the Federals had lost about 2,080. The day’s fighting not only gained nothing for Lee, but it cost him vital portions of his outer defenses. Moreover, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been decisively defeated by just a small part of the Federal Army of the Potomac. This meant that Lee could not launch any further attacks without risking the destruction of his entire army.[7]

On March 26, Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis that “it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and (Major General William T.) Sherman (in North Carolina), nor do I deem it imprudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near.” This meant the imminent evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, as Lee hoped that linking with Johnston in open country could hold off a linkage between Grant and Sherman.[8]

—–

[1] Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-35; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-57

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 17601-17631; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 656-57

[3] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 17639-17674; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 33-36

[4] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 17639-17674; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 38-39; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 657

[5] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

[6] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 17657-17687; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 41

[7] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 17657-17695; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 78; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 658

[8] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 17685-17695; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 78; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 658

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One thought on “The Battle of Fort Stedman

  1. […] the same day the Federals stopped the Confederate breakout attempt at Fort Stedman, U.S. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant issued orders to his top commanders: “On the 29th instant […]

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