March 23, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee approved a desperate plan for his Army of Northern Virginia to break the Federal siege line east of Petersburg, thereby opening an escape route to the south.
Lee met with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond in early March to discuss the army’s dire situation. Lee conceded that it was only a matter of time before he would have to abandon Petersburg, which meant that Richmond would fall as well. However, Lee needed time for the muddy roads to dry and his starving horses to regain strength.
Lee suggested that the army withdraw along the railroad line to Danville, and the Confederate government should therefore gather food and supplies at the depots along the way to sustain the men and animals. From Danville, Lee hoped to turn south, join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina, quickly defeat the Federals under Major General William T. Sherman, and then turn back north to confront Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s armies at Richmond and Petersburg.
Lee argued that defeating Sherman would boost southern morale enough for more men to join the cause, and it could isolate Grant’s Federals in hostile Virginia. But such a plan could only succeed if Sherman was defeated before Grant could reinforce him. This required speed, but Lee could not withdraw according to his timetable because he was desperately short on supplies. While visiting his family on Franklin Street, Lee fumed to his son Custis about the problem:
“Well, Mr. Custis, I have been up to see the Congress and they don’t seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco while my army is starving. I told them the condition we were in, and that something must be done at once, but I can’t get them to do anything, or they are unable to do anything. Mr. Custis, when this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it; and now… And now they will repent.”
Lee returned to his Petersburg headquarters on the 5th, where he received word of the defeat at Waynesboro. This meant that Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals were free to leave the Shenandoah Valley and reinforce Grant on the Petersburg-Richmond line. Moreover, Lee learned that Johnston had made no progress in stopping Sherman’s advance through North Carolina.
Concluding that Johnston could hope for no “marked success” without help, Lee began developing a plan to attack Grant’s Federals east of Petersburg before Sheridan could arrive. This could force Grant to constrict his siege line and give Lee enough time and space to withdraw to the west. However, this desperate plan threatened to play right into Grant’s hands because he had been hoping for Lee to come out from behind his defenses and attack him ever since he launched his Virginia campaign last May.
Even so, Lee explained to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge that the condition of the Confederate armies “is full of peril and requires prompt action. Unless the men and animals can be subsisted, the army cannot be kept together, and our present lines must be abandoned.” But Lee assured Breckinridge that “I do not regard the abandonment of our present position as necessarily fatal to our success.” The success or failure of the cause would depend on the southern people.
On the 10th, Lee discussed the situation with one of his corps commanders, Major General John B. Gordon. Lee directed Gordon to move his troops from southwest of Petersburg to east of the city. Gordon spent the next two weeks reconnoitering the Federal fortifications and developing a plan of attack. In the meantime, Lee applied to the Confederate government for the maximum quota of black troops under the new law authorizing black military recruitment. Lee declared, “The services of these men are now necessary to enable us to oppose the enemy.”
Gordon presented his plan to Lee on the 23rd, later writing, “I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting point for attack.” Stedman was similar to the other forts on the Federal line, except that it was less than 200 yards from the Confederate trenches and there were no abaits in its rear. This made it especially vulnerable.
Gordon explained to Lee that the fort could be captured by a night attack, “and a sudden, quick rush across ditches, where the enemy’s pickets are on watch, running over the pickets and capturing them, or, if they resist, using the bayonet.” However, it would not be easy, as Gordon reported:
“Through prisoners and deserters I have learned during the past week all about the obstructions in front of General Grant’s lines. They are exceedingly formidable. They are made of rails, with the lower ends deeply buried in the ground. The upper ends are sharpened and rest upon poles, to which they are fastened by strong wires. These sharp points are about breast-high, and my men could not possibly get over them. They are about six or eight inches apart; and we could not get through them. They are so securely fastened together and to the horizontal poles by the telegraph wires that we could not possibly shove them apart so as to pass them.”
To solve this problem, Gordon proposed sending his best axe men forward to cut down the abatis and enable the infantry to push through. The Confederates had little chance to succeed, but if they did, they could hold Stedman and seize the Federals’ City Point Railroad, the world’s first railroad built exclusively to supply military forces in the field.
The idea of attacking Fort Stedman appealed to Lee because it could force the Federals to transfer troops from the left (southwest) 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 Johnston.
By this time, Lee had learned that Sherman had joined forces with Major General John Schofield in North Carolina, and he presumed that Sheridan had joined forces with Grant. If the Confederates were going to attack, they had to do so immediately. Lee committed the three divisions of Gordon’s Second Corps plus elements of First and Third corps to the attack. The force would total about 12,000 men, or nearly half the entire Army of Northern Virginia.
Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote in his diary: “The dread contingency of which some intimation has been given is at hand. No one can say what the next week may bring forth, although the calamity may be deferred a while longer. Now is the hour when we must show of what stuff we are made.” Lee told Gordon, “I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies.”
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