EXCERPT: Planning the Battle of Fort Stedman, March 1865 (John B. Gordon’s Memoirs)

   

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SOPO Editor’s Note: Confederate second Corps Commander John Brown Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War is not exactly known for its strict adherence to the facts, but then, whose memoir is?  Gordon led the Confederate assault on Ft. Stedman on March 25, 1865, the last major planned offensive for the Army of Northern Virginia.  What follows is Gordon’s somewhat suspect narrative of how the plan for Fort Stedman came about.  I consider it suspect due to Gordon’s starring role, while Lee’s “Old War Horse” Longstreet not playing a part in the least.  Gordon explains this away by saying Longstreet and Ewell were twenty miles away north of the James River protecting the approached to Richmond.  In any case, because there are so few other Confederate sources, Gordon’s account has generally been heavily used by anyone wishing to write about the Battle of Fort Stedman.  Gordon is nothing if not a good teller of tales, so I thought it might be interesting to read, 150 years to the day later, Gordon’s account of how the plan to attack Fort Stedman came about, along with the details of the problem solving used prior to the attack.

John B. Gordon’s Account of Planning the Assault on Fort Stedman:

Mid-February to March 23, 18651

During the month of February, 1865 (I cannot now recall the exact date), General Lee sent a messenger, about two o’clock in the morning, to summon me to his headquarters. It was one of the bitterest nights of that trying winter, and it required a ride of several miles to reach the house on the outskirts of Petersburg where the commanding-general made his headquarters. As I entered, General Lee, who was entirely alone, was standing at the fireplace, his arm on the mantel and his head resting on his arm as he gazed into the coal fire burning in the grate. He had evidently been up all the previous part of the night. For the first time in all my intercourse with him, I saw a look of painful depression on his face. Of course he had experienced many hours of depression, but he had concealed from those around him all evidence of discouragement. He had carried the burden in his own soul—wrapping his doubts and apprehensions in an exterior of cheerfulness and apparent confidence. The hour had come, however, when he could no longer carry alone the burden, or entirely conceal his forebodings of impending disaster. General Longstreet and General Ewell were both twenty miles away on their lines in front of Richmond; A. P. Hill, who for weeks had been in delicate health, was absent on furlough; and I found myself alone with the evidently depressed commander. To me he had the appearance of one suffering from physical illness. In answer to my inquiry as to his health, he stated that he was well enough bodily, and had sent for me in order to counsel with me as to our prospects, etc. In his room was a long table covered with recent reports from every portion of his army. Some of these reports had just reached him. He motioned me to a chair on one side of the table, and seated himself opposite me. I had known before I came that our army was in desperate straits; but when I entered that room I realized at once, from the gravity of the commander’s bearing, that I was to learn of a situation worse than I had anticipated. The interview was a long one, intensely absorbing, and in many respects harrowing, and it produced in me a keen sense of responsibility. It led, eventually, as will be seen, to the last desperate assault upon Grant’s lines at Petersburg which was made by my troops.2

I shall not attempt to quote General Lee literally, except where his words were so engraved on my mind that I cannot forget them while I remember anything. He opened the conference by directing me to read the reports from the different commands as he should hand them to me, and to carefully note every important fact contained in them.

The revelation was startling. Each report was bad enough, and all the distressing facts combined were sufficient, it seemed to me, to destroy all cohesive power and lead to the inevitable disintegration of any other army that was ever marshalled. Of the great disparity of numbers between the two hostile forces I was already apprised. I had also learned much of the general suffering among the troops; but the condition of my own command, due to the special efforts of which I have spoken, was not a fair measure of the suffering in the army. I was not prepared for the picture presented by these reports of extreme destitution—of the lack of shoes, of hats, of overcoats, and of blankets, as well as of food. Some of the officers had gone outside the formal official statement as to numbers of the sick, to tell in plain, terse, and forceful words of depleted strength, emaciation, and decreased power of endurance among those who appeared on the rolls as fit for duty. Cases were given, and not a few, where good men, faithful, tried, and devoted, gave evidence of temporary insanity and indifference to orders or to the consequences of disobedience—the natural and inevitable effect of their mental and bodily sufferings. My recollection is that General Lee stated that, since the reports from A. P. Hill’s corps had been sent in, he had learned that those men had just been rationed on one sixth of a pound of beef, whereas the army ration was a pound of beef per man per day, with the addition of other supplies; that is to say, 600 of A. P. Hill’s men were compelled to subsist on less food than was issued to 100 men in General Grant’s army.

When I had finished the inspection of this array of serious facts, and contemplated the bewildering woe which they presented, General Lee began his own analysis of the situation. He first considered the relative strength of his army and that of General Grant. The exact number of his own men was given in the reports before him—about 50,000, or 35,000 fit for duty. Against them he estimated that General Grant had in front of Richmond and Petersburg, or within his reach, about 150,000. Coming up from Knoxville was Thomas with an estimated force of 30,000 superb troops, to whose progress General Lee said we could offer practically no resistance—only a very small force of poorly equipped cavalry and detached bodies of infantry being available for that purpose.

“From the [Shenandoah] Valley,” he said, “General Grant can and will bring upon us nearly 20,000, against whom I can oppose scarcely a vedette.” This made an army of 200,000 well-fed, well-equipped men which General Grant could soon concentrate upon our force of 50,000, whose efficiency was greatly impaired by suffering. Sherman was approaching from North Carolina, and his force, when united with Schofield’s, would reach 80,000. What force had we to confront that army? General Beauregard had telegraphed a few days before that, with the aid of Governor Vance’s Home Guards, he could muster probably 20,000 to 25,000. But General Joseph E. Johnston had just sent a despatch saying in substance that General Beauregard had overestimated his strength, and that it would be nearer the truth to place the available Confederate force at from 13,000 to 15,000. So that the final summing up gave Grant the available crushing power of 280,000 men, while to resist this overwhelming force Lee had in round numbers only 65,000.

This estimate ended, the commander rose, and with one hand resting upon the depressing reports, he stood contemplating them for a moment, and then gravely walked to and fro across the room, leaving me to my thoughts. My emotions were stirred to their depths; and as I now recall him standing at the table at four o’clock on that February morning, silently contemplating those reports,—the irrefutable demonstration of his inability to satisfy the longings of the Southern people for independence,—it seems to me that no commander could ever have felt a greater burden than did Robert E. Lee at that hour.

My sense of responsibility reached its climax when he again took his seat facing me at the table, and asked me to state frankly what I thought under those conditions it was best to do—or what duty to the army and our people required of us. Looking at me intently, he awaited my answer. I had opinions, and by this time they were fixed; but I hesitated to express them, not only because of the tremendous importance of the question he had propounded, but because I was uncertain of General Lee’s views, and it is never agreeable to a junior officer to maintain opinions in conflict with those of the commander-in-chief, especially a commander whom he regards, as I did Lee, as almost infallible in such a crisis. But I replied:

“General, it seems to me there are but three courses, and I name them in the order in which I think they should be tried:

“First, make terms with the enemy, the best we can get.

“Second, if that is not practicable, the best thing to do is to retreat—abandon Richmond and Petersburg, unite by rapid marches with General Johnston in North Carolina, and strike Sherman before Grant can join him; or,

“Lastly, we must fight, and without delay.”

Then again there was a period of silence, lasting, it is true, but a few moments; but they were moments of extreme anxiety to me. The question which he then asked only intensified my anxiety. “Is that your opinion?”

It may have been due to the tension of my nerves, but I thought there was a slight coloring of satire in his words and manner; and this wounded and nettled me. I mildly resented it by reminding him that I was there at his bidding, that I had answered his question thoughtfully and frankly, that no man was more concerned than I for the safety of the army and the welfare of our people, and that I felt, under the circumstances, that I also had the right to ask his opinion. I then discovered that General Lee’s manner was a method of testing the strength of my convictions; for he replied in the kindest and most reassuring manner:

“Certainly, general, you have the right to ask my opinion. I agree with you fully.”

I then asked him if he had made his views known to President Davis or to the Congress. He replied that he had not; that he scarcely felt authorized to suggest to the civil authorities the advisability of making terms with the Government of the United States.

There was always complete communication between General Lee and the Confederate Government in regard to military plans and movements; but it was evident that he hesitated to advise or make suggestions as to official action by the civil authorities. Such expression of his views was, however, urgently requested, as will be seen by the following extract from a letter to him from the Secretary of War, dated March 8th:

My reflections on our recent conversations induce me to request that you will give me fully your Views on the military situation. … It is my purpose to submit your views … to the President to be communicated by him to the Congress, if he shall think such a course proper. … I am sure your statements and opinions will be received with the respect due to your exalted character and great services.

To this General Lee made a characteristic reply, from which the following is an extract:

While the military situation is not favorable, it is not worse than the superior numbers and resources of the enemy justified us in expecting. Indeed, the legitimate military consequences of that superiority have been postponed longer than we had reason to anticipate. Everything, in my opinion, has depended and still depends upon the dispositions and feelings of the people. Their representatives can best decide how they will bear the difficulties and suffering of their condition, and how they will respond to the demands which the public safety requires.

After brief comment upon the first course that had been suggested, General Lee came to the second, namely, the retreat and the uniting of his forces with those of Johnston in North Carolina. He said that while he felt sure that this was the next best thing to do, it would be attended with the gravest difficulties; that, in the first place, he doubted whether the authorities in Richmond would consent to the movement, and, in the next place, it would probably be still more difficult to get General Grant’s consent; but that if both President Davis and General Grant should notify him that he could go, there would still be in his way the deplorable plight of his army. He dwelt at length upon it. Among other things, be mentioned the fact that, in addition to the starving condition of his men, his horses were dying from starvation, and that he could not move one half of his artillery and ammunition and supply trains. He added that the cavalry horses were in horrid condition, and that he could not supply their places, as the country was exhausted; that when a cavalry horse died or was shot, it was equivalent to the loss of both horse and rider, so far as that arm of the service was concerned; whereas General Grant could mount ten thousand additional horsemen in a few days if he wished to do so, and could retard our retreat, vex our flanks, and cut off our supplies.

General Lee, like his private soldiers, had a vein of humor in him which was rarely exhibited except when it served some good purpose. It often appeared when least expected, but was always most opportune. While speaking of the vast superiority of Grant’s numbers and resources and his own rapidly accumulating embarrassments, he relaxed the tension for a moment by saying:

“By the way, I received a verbal message from General Grant to-day.”

“What was it?” I asked.

He explained that General Grant had sent, under flag of truce, a request to cease firing long enough for him to bury his dead between the picket-lines. The officer who bore the flag of truce asked to be conducted to army headquarters, as he had a message to deliver to General Lee in person. Arriving at headquarters, he received General Lee’s courteous salutations, and, having explained the nature of his mission, said: “General, as I left General Grant’s tent this morning he gave me these instructions: 1 Give General Lee my personal compliments, and say to him that I keep in such close touch with him that I know what he eats for breakfast every morning.'” I asked General Lee what reply he made. He said: “I told the officer to tell General Grant that I thought there must be some mistake about the latter part of his message; for unless he [General Grant] had fallen from grace since I saw him last, he would not permit me to eat such breakfasts as mine without dividing his with me.” He then added: “I also requested the officer to present my compliments to General Grant, and say to him that I knew perhaps as much about his dinners as he knew about my breakfasts.”

This, of course, meant that each of the commanders, through scouts and spies, and through such statements as they could extract from prisoners or deserters, kept fairly well posted as to what was transpiring in the opponent’s camp.

This little diversion ended, the commander returned to the discussion of the three courses which the serious situation presented. Without an explicit expression to that effect, the entire trend of his words led me to the conclusion that he thought immediate steps should be taken to secure peace, and before the interview ended he expressed to me his determination to go to Richmond.

It was near sunrise when I left him and rode back to my quarters. On his return from Richmond, he informed me of the result of his conferences with the civil authorities. Of President Davis he spoke in terms of strong eulogy: of the strength of his convictions, of his devotedness, of his remarkable faith in the possibility of still winning our independence, and of his unconquerable will power; and he added: “You know that the President is very pertinacious in opinion and purpose.” President Davis did not believe we could secure such terms as we could afford to accept, and was indisposed to make further effort after the failure of the Hampton Roads conference. Neither were the authorities ready to evacuate the capital and abandon our lines of defence, although every railroad except the South Side was already broken.

Paganini, the unrivalled violinist of Genoa, in one of his great exhibitions is said to have had the strings of his violin break, one after another, until he had but one left. Undismayed by these serious mishaps, and pointing to his dismantled instrument, he proudly exclaimed to the audience that he still had left, “One string and Paganini!” Jefferson Davis, holding to the Confederate capital, notwithstanding every line of railroad except one had been broken by the enemy, was yet confident, and felt in his heart that he still had enough left in the “one string and Lee’s army.”

Having heard the commander’s report of his interviews in Richmond, I asked:

“What, then, is to be done, general?”

He replied that there seemed to be but one thing that we could do — fight. To stand still was death. It could only be death if we fought and failed.

This was the prelude to my assault upon Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865 — the last Confederate attack on Grant’s lines at Petersburg.

Source/Notes:

  1. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 385394
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: Gordon is here referring to the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman.

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