B&L: The Recapture of Fort Stedman by John F. Hartranft

   

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in Petersburg Campaign

THE RECAPTURE OF FORT STEDMAN1(1)

BY JOHN F. HARTRANFT, BREVET MAJOR-GENERAL, U. S. V.

Of the Union intrenchments in front of Petersburg, Fort Stedman, with Batteries X and IX on its right and Batteries XII and XI and Fort Haskell on its left, covered Meade’s Station on the United States Military Railroad, the supply route of the Army of the Potomac. [See map, p. 538.] Meade’s Station was the depot of the Ninth Army Corps. This part of the line—about a mile in length—was garrisoned principally by the Third Brigade of the First Division of the Ninth Corps, commanded by Colonel N. B. McLaughlen.

The First Division, commanded by General Willcox, was intrusted with the defense of the whole line from the Appomattox to somewhat beyond Fort Morton, and the Second Division (Potter’s) continued the defense of the line about to Fort Alexander Hays. The Third Division, under my command, was in reserve to these two divisions. The division covered four miles, with headquarters at the Avery House, in the center, the right resting at the Friend House, a mile in rear of the works, north-east of Fort Stedman, and the left behind Fort Prescott.

From the Avery House a ravine ran northerly about two-thirds of a mile in rear of the works, to the Friend House, approaching Fort Stedman to within less than one-third of a mile. From this ravine the ground rose gently to the works on the west, and more sharply to a ridge of irregular hills, on the east, behind which ran the army railroad. About one hundred yards behind Fort Stedman, between the fort and the ravine, there was a slight rise in the slope, upon which was encamped the 57th Massachusetts, and to the left of this, some old works which the enemy had abandoned as our forces pressed upon the city. Between this camp and these works ran an old country road, somewhat sunken, from the rear of Stedman to Meade’s Station. All the undergrowth and fences had long since disappeared, and the ground was generally open.

Before dawn on the morning of March 25th, 1865, Major-General Gordon, of the Confederate Army, with his corps and two brigades, numbering probably 10,000 or 12,000 effectives, by a sudden and impetuous attack carried the line from Battery IX on the right to Fort Haskell on the left. This space included Fort Stedman and Batteries X, XI, and XII, and the bomb-proofs and covered ways connecting these works. It was, to a certain extent, a surprise, and the enemy captured some hundreds of prisoners, including Colonel McLaughlen. But before they were driven out of the works or captured, the troops inflicted considerable injury upon the enemy, and the attack upon Fort Haskell, made at the same time, was repulsed with heavy loss. Fortunately, upon the line taken, the enemy could not easily deploy for their farther advance upon Meade’s Station and the railroad, the enfilad-

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(1) Condensed, with revisions by the author, from the “Philadelphia Press ” for March 17th, 1886.

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ing fires of Battery IX and Fort Haskell forcing their troops into the bomb-proofs of the captured lines to the right and left of Fort Stedman, which was thus the only opening for their columns to enter and deploy to the rear. Great credit is justly due to the garrisons of these two points for their steadiness in holding them in the confusion and nervousness of a night attack. If they had been lost the enemy would have had sufficient safe ground on which to recover and form their ranks, the reserves would have been overwhelmed and beaten in detail by a greatly superior force, and the destruction of the railroad and supplies of the army would have delayed its final movements for a long time. The tenacity with which these points were held, therefore, saved the Union army great loss of men, time, and materials.

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Major General John G. Parke. From a photograph.

The alarm of General Gordon’s attack reached the headquarters of the division at 4: 30 A. M., just before daybreak.

Upon receipt of this information, and of orders received from corps headquarters about 5 o’clock, the 208th Pennsylvania, the regiment nearest, was ordered to report to Colonel McLaughlen, and at the same time written orders were sent to Colonel J. A. Mathews, commanding the Second Brigade, to hold his brigade in readiness to move to the right, if needed.(1) On the way over to General Willcox’s headquarters, at the Friend House on the extreme right, I met the 209th Regiment moving from Meade’s Station toward that point, and the 200th, drawn out of camp with its right resting on the Dunn House battery. These movements were by order of General Willcox, these regiments having instructions to obey orders direct from him in case of attack, to avoid delay in communicating through my headquarters, which were two miles away, owing to the great length of the line covered by my command. This movement apparently uncovered the objective point of the enemy’s attack, viz., Meade’s Station, and, although the detour of the 209th finally brought it into effective position on the extreme light, the 200th was, for the moment, the only regiment left in any position to strike the enemy.

While I was talking with General Willcox I called his attention to the puffs of smoke issuing from the wood in the rear and to the right and left of Fort Stedman. It was not yet light enough to see the enemy, nor could any

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(1) General Hartranft’s division was composed of the 200th, 208th, and 209th Pennsylvania, forming the First Brigade, under Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. H. McCall, and the 205th, 207th, and 211th Pennsylvania, forming the Second Brigade, under Colonel Joseph A. Mathews.— EDITORS.

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INTERIOR OF FORT STEDMAN. FROM A PHOTOGRAPH. The fort was Darned after Colonel Griffin A. Stedman, Jr., of the 11th Connecticut, who was mortally wounded in front of Petersburg on August 5, 1864.

sound be heard, owing to the direction of the wind, hut the white puffs indicated musketry-firing, and, being in the rear of our lines, disclosed unmistakably an attack in force, and not a feint. It was a skirmish line followed by an assaulting column or a line of battle.(1) It was equally evident that time must be gained, at any cost, to bring up the extended division in reserve to meet it. Requesting General Willcox to designate one of his staff-officers to conduct the 209th into position on the right, I rode down to Colonel W. H. H. McCall, of the 200th, as the one immediately in hand. A small body of the 57th Massachusetts, which had been driven from its camp, had rallied just in front of the 200th and were feebly replying to the enemy. This detachment was ordered forward to its old camp, and the 200th pushed forward to that point also without serious loss. Intending to force the fighting, no time was lost in feeling the enemy or fighting his skirmishers, but the regiment advanced in line of battle. This movement broke the enemy’s line of skirmishers, and those directly in front were driven in; but in the old country road to Meade’s Station, running from the rear of Fort Stedman, by the left of the camp, and in some old rebel works beyond the road on our left, the line was strong and the enemy was in force, while the guns of Fort Stedman just captured, turned against us, were on our right. Sending Major George Shorkley, of my staff, to hurry up the 209th to form connection on the right of the 200th, the latter was immediately led to the attack. It advanced bravely; but the enemy was too strong to be pushed, and the fire from the supports and Fort Stedman was very severe. The momentum was lost a little beyond the camp, and after a momentary wavering the 200th was forced back through the camp and took shelter in an old

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(1) General Parke, in his report, calls these the enemy’s skirmishers; General A. A. Humphreys, in “The Virginia Campaign of 1864-65,” says: “Those whom General Parke calls skirmishers were probably the three detachments of Gordon’s troops sent to capture the rear forts.” General Gordon has since told me that he never heard from these detachments; not one of them returned to report. They must have been the ones who cut the telegraph lines to City Point, and I must have ridden on my way to General Willcox’s headquarters, between them and the enemy in the forts. What the 200th attacked was, in my judgment, a heavy line and groups of skirmishers.— J. F. H.

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line of works about forty yards in its rear and to the right. From horseback at this point the enemy’s officers could now plainly be seen urging their men through Fort Stedman, and endeavoring to deploy them in the rear. To prevent or delay this would justify another attack, although the position of the enemy on the left, whoso flag could be seen in the continuation of the old works on the other side of the road, not seventy yards away, and the supporting fire of the captured works on the front and right, plainly showed at what cost it must be made. It was better to attack than be attacked. The 200th was again led forward and responded gallantly. In the face of a galling fire in front and flanks it succeeded in reaching a fairly defensible position, and for a few moments the troops struggled tenaciously to hold it. Fighting under the eye of the general, every officer and man stood up nobly, and for twenty minutes struggled desperately to hold their own in the face of supporting batteries within a hundred yards and superior forces pressing on all sides.

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Brevet Major-General John F. Hartranft. From a photograph.

This was the heaviest fighting of the day, and under a tremendous fire of small-arms and artillery the loss in twenty minutes was over one hundred killed and wounded. The regiment finally staggered and receded. But when its desperate grasp on the position was broken it fell back without confusion and rallied and re-formed at the call of its officers and myself in the old works from which it had advanced.

While the enemy was shaking off these fierce assaults, the 209th had been able to push its way to a good position, its left resting on the old works to which the 200th had fallen back, with the right of which it now connected and its right toward Battery IX, with which it was connected by the 2d and 17th Michigan Volunteers, two small regiments of the First Division, which also had thus had time to come up and complete the line. This information was brought to me, while ordering the operations of the 200th, by Captain L. C. Brackett, the staff-officer designated by General Willcox, as requested, for that purpose—who also brought word of the wounding of Major Shorkley, of my staff, on the same errand. The 20th Michigan on the line to the right of Battery IX had also been crowded forward into the work, which was now fully manned, and had opened fire vigorously and effectively. A solid line was thus formed against the advance of the enemy in this direction. A ride around the fine to Colonel McLaughlen’s headquarters on the left showed that a corresponding line had been formed on the south. While the enemy was engaged with the 200th this had been done without interruption or difficulty. Captain Prosper Dalien had succeeded in placing the 208th, which had been ordered in the morning to report to Colonel Mc-

Laughlen, in a good position, its left connected with Fort Haskell(1) by about 200 men mostly from the 100th Pennsylvania, and some few from the 3d Maryland, who had been driven from Batteries XI and XII and were now formed on the left of the 208th. The 205th and 207th regiments, which had promptly reported at division headquarters, were conducted by Captain J. D. Bertolette, of my staff, by the right through the ravine toward the road leading to Meade’s Station. This he was doing in consequence of orders direct from corps headquarters to cover Meade’s Station with the Second Brigade. They were halted in continuation of the southern line, when the left of the 207th connected with the 208th. The 211th, encamped three miles from the field of action, had been notified and was rapidly approaching. The field-artillery, directed by Brevet Brigadier-General Tidball, commanding the artillery brigade of the corps, had taken position on the hills in the rear of Fort Stedman, and with Fort Haskell and Battery IX opened on the captured works and the space around, driving the enemy to the bomb-proofs and materially interfering with the deployment of a line of battle. There was still a distance of three hundred yards between the left of the 200th and the right of the 205th, through which ran the road to Meade’s Station, uncovered. A short time before, Colonel Loring, of General Parke’s staff, had delivered to me, on the way over from the right to the left, orders to put the Second Brigade in position on the hills directly covering Meade’s Station. But the positions of the 205th and 207th of this brigade were so favorable, and the spirit of the order had been so effectually carried out, that it was unnecessary to obey it literally, and only the 211th, now at hand after a three-miles march, was ordered to deflect to the right and take post on the hills covering the station and in support of the artillery.

The time and opportunity to make these dispositions were due entirely to the stubborn courage of the 200th Regiment.(2) Its courage and steadiness undoubtedly saved that part of the army severe punishment; and although we did not know it at the time, and were apparently awaiting the attack of a superior force, it had recaptured Fort Stedman in its twenty-minutes fight.

Riding along on the other flank, the whole scene of operations on the opposite slope was spread out before me. On a semicircle of a mile and a half, five regiments and detachments, nearly 4000 men, were ready to charge.

At 7:30 o’clock the long line of the 211th lifted itself with cadenced step over the brow of the hill and swept down in magnificent style toward Fort Stedman. The success of the manoeuvre was immediate and complete. The enemy, apparently taken by surprise and magnifying the mass pouring down the hill into the sweep of a whole brigade, began to waver, and the rest of the Third Division, responding to the signal, rose with loud cheers and sprang forward to the charge. So sudden and impetuous was the advance that many of the enemy’s skirmishers and infantry in front of the works, throwing down their arms and rushing in to get out of the fire between

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(1) But see p. 582.— EDITORS.

(2) Officers and men of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, who escaped from Fort Stedman, say that they formed a line at this point, fought, and captured prisoners. Major Mathews, commanding 17th Michigan, of the Second Brigade, makes a similar statement regarding his regiment.— EDITORS.

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the lines, looked in the distance like a counter-charge, and the rest were forced back into the works in such masses that the victors were scarcely able to deploy among the crowds of their prisoners. The 208th stormed Batteries XI and XII(1) and the lines to the fort; the 207th carried the west angle of Fort Stedman, the 205th and 211th the rear, the 200th the east angle, and the 209th Battery X and the remaining line to the right. These were taken almost simultaneously, and it is impossible to say which flag was first planted on the works. There was a momentary hand-to-hand struggle for the rebel flags in the batteries and fort. The substantial trophies of the victory were some 1600 prisoners and a large number of small-arms. The prisoners were mostly passed through the lines to the rear, to be picked up and claimed by other commands, and all but one of the captured flags were claimed and taken from the soldiers by unknown officers.

Just as the 211th moved I received orders to delay the assault until the arrival of a division of the Sixth Army Corps, on its way to support me. As the movement was begun, it was doubtful whether the countermand would reach the regiments on the extreme right and left in time. Besides, I had no doubt of the result, and therefore determined to take the responsibility.

The losses in the assault were unexpectedly light. Then was reaped the full advantage of the work of the gallant 200th. This regiment lost in killed and wounded — mostly in its fight in the morning — 122 out of a total loss for the division of 260.(2) The losses of the enemy must have been very heavy.(3)

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(1) Lieutenant Stevenson’s letter (see foot-note, page 581) contains the statement that Company K, of the 100th Pennsylvania, was in possession of Battery XII when General Hartranft’s men charged, having left Fort Haskell some time before. See also p. 583. — EDITORS.

(2) A writer in “The Century” magazine for September, 1887, claims for the troops in Fort Haskell, reenforced by the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, the merit of recapturing Fort Stedman, and that the Third Division of Pennsylvanians merely advanced at 8 o’clock and re-occupied the positions. Such a claim is extravagantly absurd, and disproved at once by a reference to the official table of losses. The Ninth Corps lost 507 in killed and wounded; of these 260 were in the Third Division, 73 in the 100th Pennsylvania, and 37 in the 57th Massachusetts, of the First Division, and 37 in the Artillery Brigade, — in all, 407, showing conclusively who did the bulk of the fighting. The losses of the 14th New York were comparatively light in killed and wounded, the greater part happening in Fort Stedman, where 201 of them were captured. [See note, p. 583.] The veteran steadiness and good fighting of the 100th Pennsylvania saved Fort Haskell, as the reports and returns clearly indicate. Since the publication of the article in “The Century” I have seen General Gordon and his adjutant-general, Colonel Hy. Kyd. Douglas, who assure me that for the moment, whatever desultory attacks may have been made on Fort Haskell, they were paying no attention to that work, but were endeavoring to deploy their troops in the rear of the captured line and hurry over supports. [But see p. 585.] They ascribe their failure to the delay of the latter to come up, to the promptness with which the Third Division was assembled, and to the sudden attack of the 200th Pennsylvania.

In making this criticism and correction I do not wish to be understood as detracting from the merits of the garrison at Fort Haskell, to whose nerve in holding on, uuder trying circumstances, I had done full justice in the above article long before September, 1887. — J. F. H.

 

It should be noted that the losses of the several Union organizations, cited by General Hartranft, include those sustained before the movement to re-occupy the lines began. — EDITORS.

(3) I transcribe the following receipt, found among the memoranda of the fight. It tells its own story:

“Received of Major Bertolette 120 dead and 15 wounded in the engagement of the 25th March, 1865.

“For Maj.-Gen. Gordon,

“Hy. Kyd Douglas, A. A. Gen.”

If the same proportion held between their dead and wounded as between ours, their total loss would have been a little over four thousand. The ratio in our case was, however, unusually high. The Confederate loss was probably over three thousand. Two thousand (1949) of these were prisoners, the rest killed and wounded. — J. F. H.

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Source:

  1. Hartranft, John F. “The Recapture of Fort Stedman.” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pp. 584-589

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