March 24, 1865 – Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued preparing to mount his spring offensive, unaware that Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee was preparing to attack first.
Nearly half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia assembled near Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg, on the 24th. Lee hoped to break the Federal siege line and seize the railroad line supplying the Federals from City Point. Fort Stedman was manned by Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox’s division of IX Corps and was not expecting an attack.
Grant, commanding the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg, had long feared that once the muddy roads dried, Lee would escape to the west. He therefore planned a major offensive to destroy Lee’s army before it could get moving. On the same day that the Confederates were making final preparations to attack Fort Stedman, Grant issued orders to his top three commanders (Major Generals George G. Meade, Philip Sheridan, and E.O.C. Ord):
“On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved by our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville (rail)roads.”
Three divisions from Ord’s Army of the James would stay in the lines at Bermuda Hundred and east of Richmond, and IX Corps from Meade’s Army of the Potomac would stay in the lines east of Petersburg. All other Federals would turn Lee’s right flank southwest of Petersburg. Grant warned the commanders that their line could be spread dangerously thin due to the rough ground they needed to cover:
“The enemy, knowing this, may as an only chance strip their lines to the merest skeleton, in the hope of advantage not being taken of it, while they hurl everything against the moving column, and return. It cannot be impressed too strongly upon commanders of troops left in the trenches not to allow this to occur without taking advantage of it… the very fact of the enemy coming out to attack, if he does, might be regarded as almost conclusive proof of such a weakening of his lines.”
Grant was right: Lee’s lines were extremely weak. With only about 25,000 troops, Lee had to hold White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, southwest of Petersburg. This was a distance of about 35 miles, or less than 1,000 men per mile. And these men were poorly fed, clothed, and equipped. Conversely, Grant had over 100,000 troops in the Federal lines who were constantly supplied from the railroad running from their massive base at City Point on the James River.
Nevertheless, Lee hoped that capturing Fort Stedman would force Grant to contract his line to protect his supply base, thus leaving an opening to the southwest for Lee to escape. And if he escaped, he might be able to prolong the war long enough for the northern public to finally demand a ceasefire. The assault, set to begin before dawn on the 25th, was to be led by Major General John B. Gordon. The result could potentially decide the fate of the entire Confederate war effort.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 429, 432-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 550; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365