Petersburg: The Federal Offensive Begins

March 28, 1865 – Federal forces prepared to move west, around the Confederate right flank southwest of Petersburg, in what Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would be the final offensive of the war.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee conceded that his army’s defeat at Fort Stedman meant that Petersburg and Richmond had to be abandoned. The defeat also ended any hopes Lee might have had to keep Grant and Major General William T. Sherman from joining forces. Now Lee’s only chance was to lead his Army of Northern Virginia southwest to link with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. And even then victory would be nearly impossible; the best that Lee could hope for was to fend off the Federals long enough for northerners to lose patience with the war and demand its end.

The day after the battle, Lee explained to President Jefferson Davis why he authorized the assault on Fort Stedman and the subsequent withdrawal. He stated that as a result, “I fear now 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.”

Lee relayed a report stating that Johnston had just 13,500 effectives in his army, or about 8,000 less than previously reported. Lee wrote, “This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion.” In his own Army of Northern Virginia, Lee counted 1,061 desertions in just a nine-day span between March 9 and 18, not including cavalry or artillery. Lee wrote that “the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

Estimating enemy manpower, Lee guessed that Sherman had about 60,000 men and Grant had about 80,000. This was far greater than the combined total of 63,000 for Lee and Johnston. But reality was even worse: Sherman actually had about 100,000 men and Grant had nearly 131,000. Lee concluded:

“If General Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter, after crossing the Roanoke, has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former, moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies. I have thought it proper to make the above statement to Your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.”

Richmond officials began planning to leave town. President Davis would stay behind, but he arranged for his wife Varina and their children to leave. Davis told Varina, “My headquarters for the future may be in the field, and your presence would embarrass and grieve me instead of giving comfort.” When Mrs. Davis asked what she could do to help, Davis said, “You can do this in but one way: by going yourself and taking the children to a place of safety. If I live, you can come to me when the struggle is ended,” but he did not “expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.” Davis also asked her not to take any food because “the people need it.”

On the Federal side, Grant arranged for Rear Admiral David D. Porter to send gunboats up the Appomattox River to protect the supply base at City Point against a potential Confederate attack. Also, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry troopers returned to the Petersburg front after wiping Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Sheridan had spent the last four weeks laying waste to the Valley, which included destroying the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal. After determining that Lynchburg was too strong to attack, Sheridan headed back east. He had been ordered to cross the James and move southeast to join forces with Sherman. However, Confederates destroyed nearby bridges and rains swelled the river. Since Sheridan wanted to stay with Grant and help destroy Lee’s army anyway, he headed back to Petersburg rather than North Carolina. He later wrote, “Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.”

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Sheridan hurried back because he feared that Sherman might persuade Grant to give him Sheridan’s command. To Sheridan’s delight, Grant told him that prior messages suggesting that he link with Sherman were a ruse. Sheridan was instead assigned to an independent command of Federal cavalry that would lead the drive to finish off Lee’s army.

The marching orders that Grant had issued on the 24th went into effect as planned, as if the fight at Fort Stedman never even happened. Grant’s goal was to draw Lee out into an open fight. If he could not do that, he would cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last two supply lines. According to Grant’s plan:

  • Sheridan would lead three cavalry divisions south across the James River. They would turn west and move around Lee’s right flank, seizing Dinwiddie Court House.
  • Three divisions from Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James would move out of their trenches in front of Richmond and Bermuda Hundred, and follow Sheridan’s force. Ord’s remaining three divisions would hold the Richmond-Bermuda Hundred line.
  • Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac would come out of their trenches south and west of Petersburg to support Sheridan.
  • Ord’s moving divisions would take Humphreys’s and Warren’s place on the siege line.
  • VI and IX corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and John G. Parke would continue holding the eastern sector of the Petersburg line, looking for any exploitable weakness in the Confederate line.

Sheridan’s cavalry began crossing the James on the 28th. Grant instructed Sheridan:

“Move your cavalry at as early an hour as you can, and without being confined to any particular road or roads. You may go out by the nearest roads in rear of the Fifth Corps, pass by its left, and passing near to or through Dinwiddie, reach the right and rear of the enemy as soon as you can. It is not the intention to attack the enemy in his intrenched position, but to force him out if possible. Should he come out and attack us, or get himself where he can be attacked, move in with your entire force in your own way, and with the full reliance that the army will engage or follow the enemy, as circumstances will dictate.”

The cavalry troopers were followed by Ord’s infantry, which was embarking on a 36-mile march. Interestingly, Grant placed Ord in overall command of the infantry movement, ahead of Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade.

Meanwhile, Lee planned to withdraw his army along the South Side Railroad to its junction with the Richmond & Danville Railroad. From there the Confederates would follow the Danville line southwest into North Carolina. But the move had to be delayed because troops were still recovering from the Fort Stedman fight, the roads were still too muddy for wagons, and President Davis still hoped to hold Petersburg and Richmond. But whether they were ready or not, the spring campaign was about to begin.



Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 439;; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22413; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; 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 17687-97, 17885-95, 17983-18003; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 571; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8272, 8284-300; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-59; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 680

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