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 account of the Battle of Fort Stedman 150 years to the day after the fight, from the Confederate perspective, valuable in the absence of hardly any official Confederate correspondence on the battle.
John B. Gordon’s Account of the Battle of Fort Stedman:
March 25, 18651
CAPTURE OF FORT STEDMAN
In the trenches at Petersburg—General Lee’s instructions—A daring plan formed—Preparations for a night assault—An ingenious war ruse—The fort captured with small loss—Failure of reinforcements to arrive—Loss of guides—Necessary withdrawal from the fort—The last effort to break Grant’s hold
LIKE fires that consume the dross and make pure the metal, Confederate distress and extremity seemed to strengthen and ennoble rather than weaken Confederate manhood. My hungry and debilitated men welcomed with a readiness intensely pathetic the order to break camp and move into the trenches at Petersburg. Their buoyancy of spirit was in no degree due to a lack of appreciation of the meaning of that night march. They were not mere machine soldiers, moved by a superior intelligence to which they blindly yielded obedience. They were thoughtful men, with naturally keen perceptions sharpened by long experience in actual war. They well knew that the order meant more suffering, more fighting, more slaughter; yet, if their conduct and assurances are trustworthy witnesses, these men were prepared for any additional sacrifices. There was no shouting or yelling; but silently, quickly, and cheerfully they folded their little sheet tents, packed their frying-pans and tin cups, and were promptly in line, with their knapsacks on their backs, their lean and empty haversacks on one side and
full cartridge-boxes on the other, ready for the rapid night march to Petersburg, where every bloody ditch and frowning fort was to them a herald of another deadly conflict.
As I now look back to that scene of busy preparation by the dim light of the camp-fires, and recall the fact that not only the officers but the intelligent privates in the ranks knew that this hasty preparation was the prelude to perhaps the last desperate effort of Lee’s little army to break Grant’s grip on the Confederate capital, the question presses itself upon me: How can we account for such self-command and steadfast fidelity in the presence of apparently inevitable and overwhelming disaster? An English nobleman, while placing his head upon the block, is said to have indulged in jest at the executioner’s axe; but there was no such vainglory in the wonderful serenity of these thoughtful men. To one who has experienced it, there is no difficulty in understanding what the Romans called the glory of battle; but that stimulant was entirely wanting in this case. It is easy enough to explain the mental intoxication of the young Earl of Essex, who, as he sailed in to a naval fight, threw his hat into the sea in a transport of martial ecstasy. This boundless joy of Essex was the presentiment of a coming triumph, and is no more mysterious than the instinct of the eagle bending to catch the roar of the rising tempest, conscious that its wildest blasts will bear him to higher and prouder flights. It is easy enough to comprehend the enthusiasm of these same Confederates during the long period when recurring battles meant recurring victories. Now, however, in the last days of the Confederacy, and especially during the dreary winter of 1864-65, these conditions were all changed. Practically every available man in the South was already at the front, and the inability to secure an exchange of prisoners made it impossible to fill the thinning ranks of our armies. The supplies were exhausted, and it was impracticable to give the men sufficient food. Everything was exhausted except devotion and valor. The very air we breathed was changed. There was no longer in it the exhilaration of victory with which it had been so constantly surcharged in past years. Yet in the light of their camp-fires I could see in the faces of these men an expression of manly resolve almost equal to that which they had worn in the days of their brightest hopes. It is impossible to explain this unswerving purpose to fight to the last, except upon this one hypothesis. They felt that their struggle was a defence of State, of home, and of liberty; and for these they were ready to die. The world’s most consecrated martyrs can lay no higher claim to immortality.
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.”
The very narrow space between Lee’s and Grant’s lines, the vigilance of the pickets who stood within speaking range of each other, and the heavily loaded guns which commanded every foot of intrenchments, made the removal of one body of troops and the installing of another impracticable by daylight and quite hazardous even at night. We moved, however, cautiously through the city to the breastworks, and, as the other corps was secretly withdrawn, my command glided into the vacated trenches as softly and noiselessly as the smooth flow of a river.
More than a month prior to this change, General Lee wrote to the authorities at Richmond, after these men had stood in line for three days and nights in extremely cold weather: “Some of the men have been without meat for three days, and all of them are suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing while exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet.” He also stated that the chief commissary reported that he had not a pound of meat at his disposal. General Lee added: “The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment.” These were the men with whom I was soon to make a most daring assault, and these the conditions under which it must be made.
The breastworks behind which stood the brave army in blue appeared to be as impenetrable by any force which Lee could send against them as is a modern ironclad to the missiles from an ordinary field battery: but if there was a weak point in those defences, I was expected to find it. If such a point could be found, I was expected to submit to General Lee some plan by which it would be feasible, or at least possible, for his depleted army to assail it successfully.
Giving but few hours in the twenty-four to rest and sleep, I labored day and night at this exceedingly grave and discouraging problem, on the proper solution of which depended the commander’s decision as to when and where he would deliver his last blow for the life of the Confederacy. My efficient staff — Majors Moore, Hunter, Dabney, and Pace, and Captains Markoe, Wilmer, and Jones—were constantly engaged gathering information from every possible source. The prisoners captured were closely questioned, and their answers noted and weighed. Deserters from the Federal army added valuable material to the information I was acquiring.
The fact that there were desertions from the Union to the Confederate army at this late period of the war is difficult to understand. Indeed, such desertions were among those mysterious occurrences which are inexplicable on any ordinary hypothesis. It was to be expected that some of the newly enlisted Confederates, some of those reluctant recruits who were induced to join our ranks under the persuasive influence of the Confederate Conscript Law, should abandon us in our extremity; but when all the conditions pointed to certain and speedy Union success, where can we find impelling motives strong enough to induce General Grant’s men to desert his overwhelming forces and seek shelter with the maimed and starving Confederate army? The bravest and most loyal sailors will abandon a sinking battle-ship and accept safety on the deck of the triumphant vessel of the enemy. In the case of General Grant’s men, however, this natural impulse seemed to be reversed. They were not leaving a disabled ship. They were deserting a mighty and increasing fleet for a place on the deck of an isolated and badly crippled man-of-war—one that was fighting grandly,it is true, but fighting single-handed, almost hopelessly, with its ammunition and supplies nearly exhausted, its engines disabled, and its hull heavily leaking.
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. This point in our lines took its name from my lifelong friend, General Alfred Holt Colquitt of Georgia, whose memory will live in Southern hearts, as fresh and green as the fadeless verdure of the pines which now grow upon the salient’s embankment, striking their roots deep into the earth which was reddened by the blood of his stalwart Georgians. These men stood and fought and suffered there, commanded by this superb officer, who won by his brilliant victory in Florida the proud title, “Hero of Olustee.” General Colquitt lived long after the war closed, giving conservative counsel to his people, recognized as the friend of both races, and serving with distinction as governor of his State and as United States senator. He died at his post of duty in Washington in 1893.
The plan of the attack on Fort Stedman was fully developed in my own mind; and whether it was good or bad, the responsibility for it was upon me, not because there was any indisposition on General Lee’s part to make a plan of his own and order its execution, but because he had called me from the extreme right to his centre at Petersburg for this purpose. With him was the final decision—approval or rejection.
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 T” 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 breasthigh, 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.”
At this point General Lee discussed and carefully considered every phase of the hazardous programme. He expressed neither approval nor disapproval ; but he directed me to explain fully the further details of the plan on the supposition that by possibility we could take Fort Stedman and the lines on each side of it.
The purpose of the movement was not simply the capture of Fort Stedman and the breastworks flanking it. The prisoners and guns we might thus capture would not justify the peril of the undertaking. The tremendous possibility 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. The capture of the fort was only the breasting of the first wave in the ocean of difficulties to be encountered. It was simply the opening of a road through the wilderness of hostile works nearest to us in order that my corps and the additional forces to be sent me could pass toward the rear of Grant’s lines and then turn upon his flanks.
General Lee resumed his questions, saying in substance:
“Well, suppose you capture the fort, what are you going to do with the strong line of infantry in the ravine behind the fort and the three other forts in the rear which command Fort Stedman T Do you think you can carry those three forts by assault after General Grant’s army has been aroused by your movement?”
“Those forts, general, cannot be taken by direct assault when fully manned, except at great sacrifice to our troops. In front of them is a network of abatis which makes a direct advance upon them extremely difficult. There is, however, an open space in the rear of them, and if I can reach that space in the darkness with a sufficient number of men to overpower the guards, I can take those three forts also, without heavy loss. I suggest that we attempt their capture by a legitimate stratagem; if that fails, then at dawn to rush with all the troops available toward Grant’s left, meeting emergencies as best we can. To accomplish much by such a movement, you would have to send me nearly or quite one half of your army. I greatly prefer to try the stratagem, the success of which depends on a number of contingencies.”
He 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.”
He directed me to proceed with the selection of my men for the different parts of the programme, but not to notify them until he had made search for the guides and had thought the whole plan over. Twenty-four hours later occurred the final conference before the attack. 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.
All night my troops were moving and concentrating behind Colquitt’s Salient. For hours Mrs. Gordon sat in her room in Petersburg, tearing strips of white cloth to tie across the breasts of the leading detachments, that they might recognize each other in the darkness and in the hand-to-hand battle expected at the Federal breastworks and inside the fort.
The fifty heavy keen-edged axes were placed in the hands of the fifty brave and stalwart fellows who were to lead the column and hew down Grant’s obstructions. The strips of white cloth were tied upon them, and they were ready for the desperate plunge.
The chosen 300, in three companies, under the three officers bearing names of Union officers, were also bedecked with the white cotton Confederate scarfs. To each of these companies was assigned one of the three selected guides. I explained to the 300 men the nature of their duties, and told them that, in addition to the joy it would give them to aid in giving victory to the army, I would see to it, if the three forts were captured, that each of them should have a thirty days’ furlough and a silver medal. Although the rear forts were not captured, the failure was not the fault of the 300; and even to this day, nearly forty years afterward, I occasionally receive applications for the medal, accompanied by the statement that I need not trouble myself to get the furlough, as they received that some days later at Appomattox.
The hour for the assault (4 A.m.) arrived. The column of attack was arranged in the following order: the 50 axemen in front, and immediately behind and close to them the selected 300. Next came the different commands of infantry who were to move in compact column close behind the 300, the cavalry being held in reserve until the way for them was cleared.
“While my preparations were progressing I received from General Lee the following note, which is here given because it was written with his own hand, and because it expresses the earnest prayer for our success which came from his burdened heart, and which he could not suppress even in this short semi-official communication:
4:30 P.M. Hd Qr (24) March ’65.
Genl: I have received yours of 2:30 P.M. and telegraphed for Pickett’s Division, but I do not think it will reach here in time. Still we will try. If you need more troops one or both of Heth’s brigades can be called to Colquitt’s Salient and Wilcox’s to the Baxter road. Dispose of the troops as needed. I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies.
R. E. Lee,
Genl. J. B. Gordon, etc.
P. S. The Cavalry is ordered to report to you at Halifax road and Norfolk R.R. Iron Bridge at 3 A.M. tomorrow. W. F. Lee to be in vicinity of Monk’s corner Road at 6 A.M.
All things ready, at 4 A.M. I stood on the top of the breastworks, with no one at my side except a single private soldier with rifle in hand, who was to fire the signal shot for the headlong rush. This night charge on the fort was to be across the intervening space covered with ditches, in one of which stood the watchful Federal pickets. There still remained near my works some of the debris of our obstructions, which had not been completely removed and which I feared might retard the rapid exit of my men; and I ordered it cleared away. The noise made by this removal, though slight, attracted the attention of a Union picket who stood on guard only a few rods from me, and he called out:
“What are you doing over there, Johnny? What is that noise? Answer quick or I’ll shoot.”
The pickets of the two armies were so close together at this point that there was an understanding between them, either expressed or implied, that they would not shoot each other down except when necessary. The call of this Union picket filled me with apprehension. I expected him to fire and start the entire picket-line to firing, thus giving the alarm to the fort, the capture of which depended largely upon the secrecy of my movement. The quick mother-wit of the private soldier at my side came to my relief. In an instant he replied:
“Never mind, Yank. Lie down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.”
There was a narrow strip of corn which the bullets had not shot away still standing between the lines. The Union picket promptly answered: “All right, Johnny; go ahead and get your corn. I ‘ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”
Such soldierly courtesy was constantly illustrated between these generous foes, who stood so close to one another in the hostile lines. The Rev. J. William Jones, D.D., now chaplain-general of the United Confederate Veterans, when standing near this same point had his hat carried away by a gust of wind, and it fell near the Union lines. The loss of a hat meant the loss to the chaplain of nearly a month’s pay. He turned away sorrowfully, not knowing how he could get another. A heroic young private, George Haner of Virginia, said to him: “Chaplain, I will get your hat.” Taking a pole in his hand, he crawled along the ditch which led to our picket-line, and began to drag the hat in with his pole. At this moment a Yankee bullet went through the sleeve of his jacket. He at once shouted to the Union picket: “Hello, Yank; quit your foolishness. I am doing no harm. I am just trying to get the chaplain’s hat.” Immediately the reply came: “All right, Johnny; I’ll not shoot at you any more. But you’d better hurry up and get it before the next relief comes.”
My troops stood in close column, ready for the hazardous rush upon Fort Stedman. While the fraternal dialogue in reference to drawing rations from the cornfield was progressing between the Union picket and the resourceful private at my side, the last of the obstructions in my front were removed, and I ordered the private to fire the signal for the assault. He pointed his rifle upward, with his finger on the trigger, but hesitated. His conscience seemed to get hold of him. He was going into the fearful charge, and he evidently did not feel disposed to go into eternity with the lie on his lips, although it might be a permissible war lie, by which he had thrown the Union picket off his guard. He evidently felt that it was hardly fair to take advantage of the generosity and soldierly sympathy of his foe, who had so magnanimously assured him that he would not be shot while drawing his rations from the little field of corn. His hesitation surprised me, and I again ordered: “Fire your gun, sir.” He at once called to his kindhearted foe and said: “Hello, Yank! Wake up; we are going to shell the woods. Look out; we are coming.” And with this effort to satisfy his conscience and even up accounts with the Yankee picket, he fired the shot and rushed forward in the darkness.
As the solitary signal shot rang out in the stillness, my alert pickets, who had crept close to the Union sentinels, sprang like sinewy Ajaxes upon them and prevented the discharge of a single alarm shot. Had these faithful Union sentinels been permitted to fire alarm guns, my dense columns, while rushing upon the fort, would have been torn into fragments by the heavy guns. Simultaneously with the seizing and silencing of the Federal sentinels, my stalwart axemen leaped over our breastworks, closely followed by the selected 300 and the packed column of infantry. Although it required but a 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. We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. “We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1000 prisoners, including General McLaughlin, 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 McLaughlin by assuming command of Fort Stedman.
From the fort I sent word to General Lee, who was on a hill in the rear, that we were in the works and that the 300 were on their way to the lines in the rear. Soon I received a message from one of these three officers, I believe General Lewis of North Carolina, that he had passed the line of Federal infantry without trouble by representing himself as Colonel ——– of the Hundredth Pennsylvania, but that he could not find his fort, as the guide had been lost in the rush upon Stedman. I soon received a similar message from the other two, and so notified General Lee.
Daylight was coming. Through the failure of the three guides, we had failed to occupy the three forts in the rear, and they were now filled with Federals. Our wretched railroad trains had broken down, and the troops who were coming to my aid did not reach me. The full light of the morning revealed the gathering forces of Grant and the great preponderance of his numbers. 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 we had 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. Among the disabled was the gallant Brigadier-General Philip Cook of Georgia, who after the war represented his people in the United States Congress.
When the retreat to our own works had ended, a report reached me that an entire Confederate regiment had not received the order to withdraw, and was still standing in the Union breastworks, bravely fighting. It was necessary to send them orders or leave them to their fate. I called my staff around me, and explained the situation and the extreme danger the officer would encounter in carrying that order. I stated to them that the pain I experienced in sending one of them on so perilous a mission was greater than I could express. Every one of them quickly volunteered to go; but Thomas G. Jones of Alabama insisted that as he was the youngest and had no special responsibilities, it should fall to his lot to incur the danger. I bade him good-by with earnest prayers that God would protect him, and without an apparent tremor he rode away. A portion of the trip was through a literal furnace of fire, but he passed through it, both going and returning, without a scratch.
This last supreme effort to break the hold of General Grant upon Petersburg and Richmond was the expiring struggle of the Confederate giant, whose strength was nearly exhausted and whose limbs were heavily shackled by the most onerous conditions. Lee knew, as we all did, that the chances against us were as a hundred is to one; but we remembered how George Washington, with his band of ragged rebels, had won American independence through trials and sufferings and difficulties, and although they were far less discouraging and insurmountable than those around us, they were nevertheless many and great. It seemed better, therefore, to take the one chance, though it might be one in a thousand, rather than to stand still while the little army was being depleted, its vitality lessening with each setting sun, and its life gradually ebbing, while the great army in its front was growing and strengthening day by day. To wait was certain destruction: it could not be worse if we tried and failed. The accidents and mishaps which checked the brilliant assault made by my brave men, and which rendered their further advance impossible, could not have been anticipated. But for those adverse happenings, it would seem that we might have won on that single chance.
This spasm of Confederate aggressive vigor inaugurated the period of more than two weeks of almost incessant battle, beginning on the morning of March 25th with the charge of my troops at Petersburg, and ending with the last charge of Lee’s army, made by these same men on the morning of April 9th at Appomattox.
- Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904), pp. 395–413 ↩