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.
By the night of the 24th, nearly half of Lee’s army was situated around Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, a perceived weak point in the Federal line east of Petersburg. The Confederates were commanded by Major General John B. Gordon. The Federals at Fort Stedman belonged to Brigadier General Orlando Willcox’s division of IX Corps.
Major General John G. Parke, commanding IX Corps, was in temporary command of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac while Meade was at City Point conferring with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant was devising an offensive of his own and did not expect the Confederates to attack.
The Confederates came out of their trenches at 3 a.m. on the 25th pretending to be deserters. They quickly silenced the Federal pickets as Confederate pioneers rushed up to destroy the abatis and other works guarding Fort Stedman. This enabled Confederate infantry to rush through and overrun the Federal defenders. Three groups of 100 Confederates charged and took the Federals by complete surprise. Gordon later wrote:
“Although it required but few minutes to reach the Union works, those minutes were to me like hours of suspense and breathless anxiety; but soon was heard the thud of the heavy axes as my brave fellows slashed down the Federal obstructions. The next moment the infantry sprang upon the Union breastworks and into the fort, overpowering the gunners before their destructive charges could be emptied into the mass of Confederates. They turned this captured artillery upon the flanking lines on each side of the fort, clearing the Union breastworks of their defenders for some distance in both directions. Up to this point, the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”
The rest of Gordon’s 12,000 men surged forward, quickly capturing Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 on either side of the fort. Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding a Federal brigade in the sector, directed troops to retake Battery 11, unaware that Stedman was also in Confederate hands. He rode into the fort and later reported:
“Supposing that I had restored the only break in the line, I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving directions with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him, asking his regiment. This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by the rebels, whom I had supposed to be my men, and sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him to Petersburg.”
The Confederates soon held a 1,000-yard section of the Federal line that included (from north to south) Battery 10, Fort Stedman, and Batteries 11 and 12. Gordon wrote:
“We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlen, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. One of these fell upon the works, pierced through the body by a Federal bayonet, one of the few men thus killed in the four years of war. I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlen by assuming command of Fort Stedman.”
Gordon’s men started enfilading the Federal lines to the north and south, but Battery 9 to the north and Fort Haskell to the south held firm. The three groups of 100 men assigned to seize the railroad in the Federal rear stopped to eat captured Federal rations. And logistical problems prevented many Confederates from reaching the field, thus diluting the assault. Meanwhile, Federal troops were starting to assemble for a counterattack.
Brigadier General John F. Hartranft brought up his division and worked with Willcox to stem the Confederate advance before it reached Meade Station on the City Point Railroad. Meanwhile, Federal gunners trained their fire on the Confederates in Stedman and the surrounding batteries. Gordon informed Lee that the Confederates could not break through as hoped.
As Hartranft prepared to counterattack, he received a message from Parke to delay the action until reinforcements from VI Corps arrived. Hartranft reported: “I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the line to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement.”
The Federals regained all lost ground by 7:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later Lee ordered the Confederates to disengage. Gordon wrote:
“It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw. This was not easily accomplished. Foiled by the failure of the guides, deprived of the great bodies of infantry which Lee ordered to my support, I had necessarily stretched out my corps to occupy the intrenchments which had been captured. The other troops were expected to arrive and join in the general advance. The breaking down of the trains and the non-arrival of these heavy supports left me to battle alone with Grant’s gathering and overwhelming forces, and at the same time to draw in my own lines toward Fort Stedman. A consuming fire on both flanks and front during this withdrawal caused a heavy loss to my command. I myself was wounded, but not seriously, in recrossing the space over which we had charged in the darkness.”
Many Confederates chose to surrender rather than risk death by retreating under heavy artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates suffered about 3,500 casualties, 1,900 of whom were captured. The Federals lost 1,044 men, about half of whom were captured. Despite being surprised, it took less than four hours for a single Federal corps to repulse the largest Confederate attack that Lee could hope to mount.
Grant and Meade concluded that Lee must have moved troops from his own right to launch such a massive attack on Fort Stedman. They therefore ordered an immediate assault on the undermanned Confederate defenders at Hatcher’s Run. This resulted in the capture of almost another 1,000 Confederate prisoners. By day’s end, the Confederates had suffered some 4,800 casualties while the Federals lost about 2,080.
The fighting on the 25th not only gained nothing for Lee, but it cost him vital portions of his outer defenses. This meant that Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Grant hurried to launch his own offensive before Lee escaped.
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