150 Years Ago Today: Planning the Battle of Fort Stedman: Mid-February to March 23, 1865

   

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March 23, 1865: Gordon and Lee Plan a Last, Desperate Gamble

Lee Meets With Gordon on a Cold February Night

On March 23, 1865, 150 years ago today, the final Confederate plans were laid for what would become known to history as the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman.  We are fortunate and unfortunate as far as the information which is freely available.

We are fortunate in the sense that, since we are talking “1865 Confederates”, we have anything at all.  Most of the Confederate correspondence in the Official Records for this time period consist of Lee penning letters to the Confederate government, oftentimes not particular to the Siege of Petersburg, and Lee-Longstreet correspondence.  There is almost no surviving correspondence between Lee and his commanders defending Petersburg south of the Appomattox River.

JohnBGordon

John B. Gordon, commander of the ANV’s Second Corps, helped Robert E. Lee plan the Battle of Fort Stedman.

We are unfortunate in the sense that the one source we do have is the fairly self-serving memoirs of Confederate Second Corps commander John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War.  Keep in mind that the majority of what you are about to read comes from Gordon’s pen, and view the veracity of the information with the appropriate amount of skepticism.  🙂

This, then, is the story of how and why the attack at Fort Stedman came about.  At some point in February 1865, almost certainly after the February 5-7, 1865 Battle of Hatcher’s Run, Robert E. Lee started to think about the necessity of evacuating Petersburg and Richmond.  Ironically, though Grant confronted Lee with a powerful force on Richmond and Petersburg’s doorstep, he didn’t worry Lee at the moment nearly so much as William Tecumseh Sherman did.  Sherman was by mid-February 1865 moving inexorably through South Carolina, opposed by a fairly small force under Joseph Johnston, who had been newly reinstated by Lee for that specific purpose.

Johnston could not stop Sherman alone, and Lee knew it.  He also knew that Sherman would continue moving north until he reached Grant’s army.  Combined, this Union army group would surround and destroy his weakened army.  His thought process in mid-February 1865 on centered on how to remove a portion or all of his force defending Petersburg and Richmond, sending these men to Johnston to crush Sherman.  After this, per the hypothetical plan, the combined and victorious Confederates might then move on Grant and destroy him as well, turning a nearly impossible situation into victory.  Of course what is always left unsaid in the descriptions of these grand plans was the lack of decisive battlefield victories in the Civil War, the kind of decisive victory needed now by Lee not once but twice in a short span.

To be sure, the Confederates knew this plan was a long shot, but by February 1865 the war was going very badly.  They had to do something or simply lose where they lay.  That latter choice wasn’t an option.  Once Lee knew part or all of his army had to get away, his thoughts turned to planning a diversion to make that possible.  According to the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps commander John B. Gordon, Lee turned to him, rather than trusted subordinate James Longstreet, to help him decide what to do.  As for the verity of that statement, I’ll leave to readers to decide.  Gordon writes below about what he and Lee discussed at some point in the middle of that last February of the conflict1:

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… 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…

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… 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…

“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.”

As events unfolded that February and March, the Hampton Roads Peace Conference ended in failure almost as soon as it began, on February 3, 1865.  In addition, not long after, Generals Ord and Longstreet were discussing prisoner exchange along their lines north of the James River when Ord intimated that Grant and Lee might be able to speak on matters of peace.  Longstreet dutifully reported this to Lee, but Ord was badly mistaken.  Abraham Lincoln made clear to Ulysses S. Grant that the President alone reserved the right to make peace, and that Grant was to leave all such discussions to him.  Grant therefore wrote Lee and indicated a military convention on non-military matters wasn’t going to happen.  Scratch peace off of the list as a viable option.

As you’ve read earlier in this post, retreating from Richmond and Petersburg was a fact Lee regarded as inevitable by this point in time.  So choice number three, fighting, was to be used first as a way to cause confusion and make choice number two, retreat and a junction with Sherman, possible.  Gordon continues2:

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.

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… On his return from Richmond, he informed me of the result of his conferences with the civil authorities… 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.

“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.

RobertELee

Robert E. Lee’s options were limited as the Siege of Petersburg, and the Civil War, wound inexorably to a close.

As Gordon makes clear at the close, this meeting was the spark which eventually ignited the Battle of Fort Stedman.  Lee needed a diversion to cause Grant to temporarily pause.  Anything which delayed a pursuit by Grant was a good thing.  Much of Lee’s cavalry had gone south to help combat Sherman, and the cavalry he did have had weak horses due to the lack of forage in the area.  Grant, meanwhile, countered with four strong divisions of cavalry, well-fed, well-armed, led by the aggressive Phil Sheridan, and ready for battle.  Lee’s embattled and underfed army couldn’t hope to escape Grant’s clutches without a good head start.  Gordon worked to provide him with just that.  Let’s next take a look at how the planning for Fort Stedman evolved into late March 1865.

 

A Detailed Plan Takes Shape: March 22-23, 1865

Now that Robert E. Lee had decided on the what, he asked Gordon to pick the who, where and how3:

General Lee’s instructions to me were substantially as follows: “Move your troops into the works around the city as I withdraw one of the other commands from them. Make your headquarters in the city. Study General Grant’s works at all points, consider carefully all plans and possibilities, and then tell me what you can do, if anything, to help us in our dilemma.”

After moving into Petersburg and studying the situation closely, looking for a potential weak spot or area which was capable of concealing a rush on the Union lines, Gordon finally came up with his point of attack4:

It required a week of laborious examination and intense thought to enable me to reach any definite conclusion. Every rod of the Federal intrenchments, every fort and parapet on the opposing line of breastworks and on the commanding hills in rear of them, every sunken path of the pickets and every supporting division of infantry behind the works, had to be noted and carefully scrutinized. The character of the obstructions in front of each portion of the Union works had to be critically examined and an estimate made as to the time it would require to cut them away so that my men could mount the breastworks or rush into the fort selected for our attack. The distance between the opposing works and the number of seconds or minutes it would require for my troops to rush across were important factors in estimating the chances of success or failure, and required the closest calculation. The decision as to the most vulnerable point for attack involved two additional questions of vital importance. The first was: From what point on my own intrenchments could my assaulting column rush forth on its desperate night sally, with the least probability of arousing the sleeping foe? The second was: How many intervening ditches were there, and of what width and depth, over which my men were to leap or into which they might fall in the perilous passage? All these points considered, I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting point for attack and Colquitt’s Salient on Lee’s lines the proper place from which to sally.

PlannedAreaOfAttackGordonMarch231865

So Fort Stedman it was.  On March 23, 1865, 150 years ago today, Robert E. Lee summoned Gordon to his headquarters to see what he recommended.  If you read and believe Gordon’s version of events, though Lee questioned him every step of the way, Gordon had already thought of an answer to all of Lee’s probes5:

As soon as he was notified that I was ready to report, he summoned me to his quarters. After such a lapse of time I cannot give General Lee’s exact words in so prolonged a conference, but the following questions and answers faithfully represent the substance of the interview.

“What can you do?” he asked. “I can take Fort Stedman, sir.” “How, and from what point?”

“By a night assault from Colquitt’s Salient, 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.”

“But the chevaux-de-frise protecting your front is, I believe, fastened together at Colquitt’s Salient with chains and spikes. This obstruction will have to be removed before your column of attack can pass out of our works. Do you think you can remove these obstructions without attracting the attention of Union pickets which are only a few rods away? You are aware that they are especially vigilant at night, and that any unusual noise on your lines would cause them to give the alarm, arousing their men in the fort, who would quickly turn loose upon you their heavy guns loaded with grape and canister.”

“This is a serious difficulty; but I feel confident that it can be overcome. I propose to intrust the delicate task of getting our obstructions removed to a few select men, who will begin the work after dark, and, with the least possible noise, make a passageway for my troops by 4 A.m., at which hour the sally is to be made.”

“But suppose you succeed in removing the obstructions in front of your own lines without attracting the attention of General Grant’s pickets and get your column under full headway and succeed in capturing or killing the pickets before they can give the alarm; you will have a still more serious difficulty to overcome when you reach the strong and closely built obstructions in front of Fort Stedman and along the enemy’s works. Have you ascertained how these obstructions are made and thought of any way to get over them or through them! You know that a delay of even a few minutes would insure a consuming fire upon your men, who, while halting, would be immediately in front of the heavy guns in the fort.”

“I recognize fully, general, the force of all you say; but let me explain. 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. There is but one thing to do. They must be chopped to pieces by heavy, quick blows with sharp axes. I propose to select fifty brave and especially robust and active men, who will be armed only with axes. These axemen will rush across, closely followed by my troops, and will slash down a passage for my men almost at a single blow. This stalwart force will rush into the fort with the head of my column, and, if necessary, use their axes instead of bayonets in any hand-to-hand conflict inside the fort. I think I can promise you, general, that we will go into that fort; but what we are going to do when we get in is the most serious problem of all.”

Gordon’s ultimate goal, as he explained in his Reminiscences, was not simply to capture Fort Stedman and take prisoners, goals which by themselves were not worth the risk.  Instead, as alluded to earlier in this piece, the goal was “the disintegration of the whole left wing of the Federal army, or at least the dealing of such a staggering blow upon it as would disable it temporarily, enabling us to withdraw from Petersburg in safety and join Johnston in North Carolina.”

FortStedmanSidneyKing

Fort Stedman, shown here in a painting by Sidney King, would be the target of Gordon’s March 25, 1865 attack.

After this aside, Gordon returned to his question and answer session with Lee.  He discussed what he thought were three forts immediately in rear of Stedman.  Per Gordon, these forts needed to be captured quickly from the rear in the darkness to prevent their ability to fire on the Confederates in their front.  There was one problem here, as you’ll read about in just two days’ time.  The three forts Gordon was referencing simply did not exist, at least not where he thought they did.  The Federals DID have two redoubts on the old Confederate Dimmock line, somewhat east of Stedman, but they were too far away to even locate quickly in the darkness, much less surprise and carry.  This misunderstanding would have fatal consequences during the actual attack.  But let’s continue on for today with the plan rather than its execution.

Gordon estimated that to accomplish his outlined task he would need roughly half of the remaining infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia.   In the account Gordon leaves us, Lee did not seem fazed by this request.  He did, however, ask Gordon how he planned to get into the three forts6:

[Lee] asked me to state fully each step in the programme, and I continued:

“During the week of investigation I have learned the name of every officer of rank in my front. I propose to select three officers from my corps, who are to command each a body of 100 men. These officers are to assume the names of three Union officers who are in and near Fort Stedman. When I have carried Fort Stedman, each of these selected officers is to rush in the darkness to the rear with his 100 men, shouting: ‘The Rebels have carried Fort Stedman and our front lines!’ They are to maintain no regular order, but each body of 100 is to keep close to its leader. As these three officers strike the line of infantry in rear of the fort and at different points, they will be halted; but each of them will at once represent himself as the Union officer whose name he bears, and is to repeat: ‘The Rebels have captured our works, and I am ordered by General McLaughlin to rush back to the fort in rear and hold it at all hazards.’

“Each body of 100 men will thus pass the supporting line of Union infantry and go to the rear of the fort to which I will direct the leader. They are to enter, overpower the Union guards, and take possession of the fort. Thus the three forts will be captured.”

General Lee asked if I thought my officers would each be able in the darkness to find the fort which he was seeking. I replied:

“That depends, general, upon my ability to get proper guides. The trees have been cut down, the houses have been burned, and the whole topography of that portion of the field so changed that it will require men who are thoroughly familiar with the locality to act as guides. I have no such men in my corps; and without proper guides my three detachments will be sacrificed after taking Fort Stedman and passing the rear line of infantry.”

Again there was a long discussion of the chances and the serious difficulties in this desperate adventure. These were fully recognized by General Lee, as they had been by myself when the successive steps in the undertaking were formulated in my own mind. He said in substance: “If you think, after careful consideration, that you can probably carry Fort Stedman, and then get your three companies of 100 through the line of supporting infantry, I will endeavor to find among the Virginia volunteers three men whose homes were on that part of the field where the rear forts stand, to act as guides to your three officers. I do not know of such men now, but will at once make search for them.”

So Gordon clearly believed the three guides would play a key role, with Lee willing to procure just the men he needed.  The Army of Northern Virginia’s commander asked Gordon not to tell anyone just yet while Lee thought over the plan and saw to finding the guides.  Colquitt’s Salient would be the jumping off point for the attack, and Fort Stedman the target.  If things went well, Fort Stedman and its supporting batteries would quickly fall.  Then the three forts Gordon thought existed as a second line would be targeted and in Confederate hands before dawn.  Confederate cavalry would be ready to dash through the breach and cut the telegraph lines back to Grant’s nerve center and City Point, further heightening Northern uncertainty and fear.   Grant would hopefully react by pulling in his left wing to attempt to seal the breach.  In this atmosphere, then, the Confederates could slip away and possibly gain the several days’ head start they would need to get away from Grant and join Joe Johnston in North Carolina.

After mulling over the plan for a period of time, Robert E. Lee decided Gordon’s plan was as good as he was likely to receive and gave the orders for an attack at dawn on March 25, 1865.  The Ninth Corps pickets in front of Fort Stedman had no way of knowing it yet, but the fort was squarely in Confederate cross-hairs7:

With the exception of the last council of war on the night before the surrender, I believe this conference on the night of March 23, 1865, was the most serious and impressive in my experience. General Lee had thought of all the chances: he had found three men, whom he did not know in person, but who were recommended for the three guides; he had selected different troops to send me from other corps, making, with mine, nearly one half of his army, and had decided that we should make one supreme effort to break the cordon tightening around us. These troops were to come from Longstreet’s and A. P. Hill’s corps. A body of cavalry was to be sent me, which, in case we succeeded in getting into the three rear forts, was to ride across the broken gap at Fort Stedman, and then gallop to the rear, destroy Grant’s railroad and telegraph lines, and cut away his pontoons across the river, while the infantry swept down the rear of the Union intrenchments.

With full recognition by both the commander and myself of the hopelessness of our cause if we waited longer on General Grant’s advance, and also of the great hazard in moving against him, the tremendous undertaking was ordered.

As the weather started improving that spring, Ulysses S. Grant feared a Confederate escape more than anything in the world.  He cautioned army commanders George G. Meade and Edward O. C. Ord to have their men constantly ready to move at a moments’ notice, not needing to waste a single extra second of time in getting ready.  Grant feared that if Lee was able to get successfully away, the war might be prolonged an entire year more.  This fear was not without some merit.  The plan Grant feared the most was exactly what the Confederates had in mind.  They really had no other choice, and Grant and his leading officers knew it.  Grant had ordered an advance for March 29, 1865 on March 24.  Lee’s attack at Stedman would throw a wrench in Grant’s plans, but would it upset the timetable?

Check back on March 25, 2015, just two days from now, to see how Gordon’s attack played out 150 years to the day after those events…

Further Reading:

Notes:

  1. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 385389
  2. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 391394
  3. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), p. 397
  4. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 399400
  5. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 401403
  6. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 404405
  7. Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 405406

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