March 25, 1865: Lee’s Last Offensive
On March 25, 1865, 150 years ago today, John B. Gordon’s Confederate Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, launched a desperate pre-dawn assault against Fort Stedman, just east of Petersburg, Virginia.
They were opposed by Union soldiers of Wilcox’s, and later also Hartranft’s Ninth Corps divisions from the Army of the Potomac. It would be the last large scale offensive action for the famed Army of Northern in the entire Civil War.
The plan, as designed by John B. Gordon and Robert E. Lee in February-March 1865, called for a signal shot to be fired near 4 am. Fifty picked axe men would lead, chopping down the obstructions in front of the Federal works. Three columns would target Fort Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11, the supporting works to Stedman’s north and south, respectively. At the heads of each column were an officer and 100 men of the highly skilled sharpshooter battalions, picked men who excelled at the skirmish line war. These sharpshooters would move around the front line Federal forts and, led by picked guides who knew the area, aim for what Gordon thought were three secondary Northern works located just to the rear. The sharpshooters would enter the works from the rear before the Yankees knew what hit them. After taking all of these works prior to dawn, Gordon’s forces were to then move to open the breach further north and south. At that point, Confederate cavalry could ride through, cutting telegraph lines and pontoon bridges which connected this portion of the front to Grant’s headquarters and nerve center at City Point, Virginia. That was the plan, but things don’t usually go according to plan in a military action. The Battle of Fort Stedman was no exception.
Before we get to that, though, let’s move back a day, to March 24, 1865. General Lee had agreed to Gordon’s attack plan. Now it was time to get Gordon’s estimated half of the ANV he would need to make his plan reality. Gordon had available most of the three divisions of his Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, led by Grimes, Evans, and Walker. He would also be able to call on Ransom’s North Carolina Brigade and Wallace’s South Carolina Brigade from Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Fourth Corps, ANV. The force named so far amounted to some 11,500 men, but Gordon had even more forces at his disposal. Four brigades from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, ANV, (Lane, Thomas, McComb, and Cooke) would also provide support. But Gordon still wasn’t satisfied. Gordon sent a note to Robert E. Lee asking that he send Pickett’s Division, First Corps, ANV, south from the lines east of Richmond to join in the attack. Lee responded at 4:30 p.m.:
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.
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.
Lee did try, as promised. A flurry of telegraphic exchanges occurred that afternoon as Longstreet and Lee tried to coordinate Pickett’s move by rail from Richmond to Petersburg. Three of Pickett’s four brigades were en route, but arrived too late to take part in the assault.
Opposing the Confederates on this area of the lines were men of McLaughlen’s Brigade (3/1/IX/AotP). In fact, Willcox’s First Division was stationed from the Appomattox River to the north all the way to Fort Meikel to the southwest. Potter’s Second Division took up the defense of the fortifications at that latter point. They would not play a role in this fight. However, Hartranft’s Third Division, Ninth Corps, composed of six “high number regiments” hailing from Pennsylvania, were camped to the rear of Stedman. The Federals knew the fort’s close proximity to Confederate lines made it a likely target in the event of a Confederate assault, and they had prepared accordingly. These rookies were positioned in such a way to provide support in case Stedman fell. In addition to these large new regiments, the Federals had created two artillery positions on the old Confederate Dimmock line to the east. Portions of this line had been taken in the June 15-18, 1864 assaults at the Second Battle of Petersburg. By 1865, most of this line had been flattened, but these two redoubts provided additional coverage behind Stedman, just in case. And on March 25, 1865, theses “just in case” artillery positions proved useful.
Now that we’ve laid out the opposing forces, let’s get to the meat of this story. I’ll let Second Corps commander Gordon describe the scene in the pre-dawn darknesss of March 25, 1865:
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.”
Several other close calls also almost gave away the impatiently waiting Confederates, but soon it was time for the signal shot. Gordon, again:
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.
William A. Day, a Confederate soldier in the ranks of the 49th North Carolina, remembered the assault years later in the pages of Confederate Veteran:
We lay in the city [Petersburg] until the next morning, then followed Lieut. Thomas R. Roulhac, of the 49th [North Carolina], and Lieut. W[ood]. W. Fleming, of the 6th North Carolina Regiment, both eighteen-year-old boys, across the field, each at the head of one hundred men, half of Fleming’s men with axes, the others with guns, Roulhac’s all with unloaded guns. They moved in front, and we followed, the other troops along the line moving across their ground in the same manner. We caught the enemy asleep, captured Fort [Stedman] and the works for some distance on each side…
From the opposite side, Union Ninth Corps commander John Parke reported the disaster matter of factly:
The enemy attacked my front this morning at about 4.30, with three divisions, under command of General Gordon. By a sudden rush they seized the line held by the Third Brigade, First Division, at the foot of the hill to the right of Fort Stedman, wheeled, and overpowering the garrison, took possession of the fort. They established themselves on the hill, turning our guns upon us.
Gordon’s initial result was a resounding success. Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 were captured in the initial rush. Battery 12 to the south fell soon thereafter. But things also began to fall apart very quickly. Battery 9 made a determined stand, and Fort Haskell to the south proved unassailable. These locations would be the “shoulders” of Gordon’s breach, about 1,000 yards long at its widest that morning. In addition, Gordon’s plan had a serious flaw. There were no set of three forts immediately behind Stedman. The three hundred picked sharpshooters milled about in the darkness trying to find these nonexistent earthworks, wasting valuable time. Lastly, Gordon did not account for Hartranft’s Division,with over 4,000 men in the area, or the two forts on the old Confederate Dimmock Line.
Union Brigade commander McLaughlen, driven from Stedman in the pre-dawn darkness, organized an early small counterattack. Though he was captured, this fight temporarily discomfited the Rebel attackers and gave Hartranft and others time to organize larger assaults. Ninth Corps artillery from Fort Haskell, Battery 9, and other works pummeled the Confederates as the sun began to rise. It soon became clear to Lee and Gordon that the assault had failed, even before Hartranft’s massive counterattack.
By 7:45 am, as Hartranft’s rookies and rallying veterans from McLaughlen’s Brigade surrounded Stedman and stepped off for the assault, orders had already been given for the Confederates to evacuate. William A. Day of the 49th North Carolina remembered the carnage:
The guns from the forts plowed the ground, and the Federals charged in countless numbers in front. We held on until they were on the works, when they drove us out, killing and capturing the men by the hundreds. Lieutenant Colonel [James T.] Davis, of the 49th, was among the killed. At last the order came to fall back. The few of us that were left started back in that terrible retreat across the field under the fire of every gun that could be brought to bear on us. The few who reached the works fell over inside and lay there panting for breath… Our army in that battle had lost three thousand men who could never be replaced, and the lines were still just as they were that morning…We marched back through Petersburg for the last time the old regiment not much larger than a company. Our hearts were sad. We knew the end was near, the end of our hopes, perhaps our lives. We were at the last ditch.
Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade’s aide-de-camp Theodore Lyman was ecstatic at the result:
It has been a lucky day, for us; and the 9th Corps, after patient waiting for eight months, have played the game of the “Mine” against their antagonists. The official despatches will give you the main facts very well, but I can add some particulars. About daylight, the enemy having massed three divisions and a part of a fourth, made a sudden rush and carried Fort Stedman and about half a mile of line commanded by it. The garrisons of the forts on either side stood firm, however, and repelled a severe attack with much injury to the enemy. Meantime, General Parke had ordered that the works should be retaken, if it cost every man in the Corps; and all the scattered regiments immediately at hand were put in and checked a further advance, until General Hartranft (I’m not sure about the spelling of his name) brought up the 3d division, which had been camped in reserve. He personally led in one brigade of it, with conspicuous gallantry, retook the whole portion lost, and captured, at one swoop, 1800 Rebels. It was just the “Mine,” turned the other way: they got caught in there and could not get out. Their loss also in killed and wounded must have been severe, not only from musketry, but also from canister, which was thrown into a ravine by which they retreated. Upwards of a hundred Rebel dead lay in and round Fort Stedman alone. Our own losses in the 9th Corps will be somewhat over 800, half of whom may be reckoned prisoners, taken in the first surprise. I should guess the loss of their opponents as not less than 2600.
Ninth Corps commander Parke, though less enthusiastic in his official report, captured the result nicely:
Our troops on either flank stood firm. Soon after a determined attack was made on Fort Haskell, held by part of McLaughlen’s brigade, Willcox’s division, and was repulsed with great loss to the enemy. The First Brigade, of Hartranft’s division, held in reserve, was brought up, and a check given to any farther advance. One or two attempts to retake the hill were made, and were only temporarily successful until the arrival of the Second Brigade, when a charge was made by that brigade, aided by the troops of the First Division on either flank, and the enemy were driven out of the fort with the loss of a number of prisoners, estimated at about 1,600; 2 battle-flags have also been brought in. The enemy also lost heavily in killed outside of our lines. The whole line was immediately reoccupied, and the guns retaken uninjured.
By 9 am it was all over. Many Confederates, knowing the gauntlet they would have to run back across no man’s land, defiantly surrendered, left with little real choice in the matter. Others attempted but, but few made it unscathed. When the casualties were totaled, the Confederates had lost Confederates lost 2,681 irreplaceable men to only 1,044 Federals. A great illustration of the hopelessness of the Confederate cause at this point comes in the form of a telegram President Lincoln, visiting Grant at City Point, sent back to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton back in Washington, D. C. This note was sent at 8:30 am, before the Battle of Fort Stedman was even technically over (emphasis below mine):
Arrived here all safe about 9 p. m. yesterday. No war news. General Grant does not seem to know very much about Yeatman, but thinks very well of him so far as he does know. I like Mr. Whiting very much, and hence would wish him to remain or resign as best suits himself. Hearing this much from me, do as you think best in the matter. General Lee has sent the Russell letter back, concluding, as I understand from Grant, that their dignity does not admit of their receiving the document from us. Robert just now tells there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began.
Your telegram and Parke’s report of the “scrimmage” this morning arre received. The rebel rooster looks a little worse, as he could not hold the fence.
Thus ended a desperate gamble which was supposed to utilize half of the remaining infantry force of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mistakes were made on the Confederate side, mistakes they absolutely could not afford. First, if Pickett’s Division was going to be used, Gordon needed to wait a day until it could be gotten up to the jumping off point. Second, Gordon’s guides were all three lost in the early phases of the battle. Third, the three forts Gordon thought existed behind Fort Stedman were figments of his imagination, and precious time in the covering darkness was spent looking for them. All these mistakes aside, even if everything had gone according to plan, the existence of Hartranft’s new division and the artillery on the old Dimmock Line would have ensured the attack’s failure.
Though the Confederate casualties and failure at the Battle of Fort Stedman itself was bad, what happened next was arguably worse for the Confederate cause. Ulysses S. Grant, chafing at the bit and always ready to take advantage of an enemy’s weakness, correctly surmised that Lee’s lines around Petersburg had been stripped almost bare to provide manpower for the attack on Stedman. On the Federal Second Corps and Sixth Corps fronts, successful probes were made in all-day skirmishing on March 25. The reinforced Union skirmish lines were able to take many advantageous positions very close to the main Confederate line. The Confederates were unable to drive them out as the sun fell. Just over a week later, the Sixth Corps would use their positions gained on March 25 to successfully penetrate the Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg and end the nine plus month long siege on April 2, 1865. For the best description of this skirmish line firing, including the Action at the Watkins House and the Action at Fort Fisher, see the Blue and Gray Magazine issue on the subject. I would have liked to have covered this fighting as well, but simply ran out of time to do so in a quality way.
A day after the Battle of Fort Stedman and the Federal skirmish line victories, it was left to Robert E. Lee to give Confederate President Jefferson Davis the bad news. Richmond and Petersburg would have to be evacuated, and soon:
My dispatch of yesterday [March 25, 1865] to the Secretary of War will have informed you of the attack made upon a portion of the enemy’s lines around Petersburg, and the result which attended it. I have been unwilling to hazard any portion of the troops in an assault upon fortified positions, preferring to reserve their strength for the struggle which must soon commence, but I was induced to assume the offensive from the belief that the point assailed could be carried without much loss, and the hope that by the seizure of the redoubts in the rear of the enemy’s main line, I could sweep along his entrenchments to the south, so that if I could not cause their abandonment, Genl Grant would at least be obliged so to curtail his lines, that upon the approach of Gen Sherman, I might be able to hold our position with a portion of the troops, and with a select body unite with Gen Johnston and give him battle. If successful, I would then be able to return to my position, and if unsuccessful I should be in no worse condition, as I should be compelled to withdraw from James River if I quietly awaited his approach. But although the assault upon the fortified works at Hair’s Hill was bravely accomplished, the redoubts commanding the line of entrenchments were found enclosed and strongly manned, so that an attempt to carry them must have been attended with great hazard, and even if accomplished, would have caused a great sacrifice of life in the presence of the large reserves which the enemy was hurrying into position I therefore determined to withdraw the troops, and it was in retiring that they suffered the greatest loss the extent of which has not yet been reported. I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near…
If Gen Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter after crossing the Roanoke has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies.
I have thought it proper to make the above statement to your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.
The end was near, and Lee knew it. The plan for March 25 designed by Gordon had failed. In fact, it led to even bigger disasters on the skirmish line. Confederate hopes placed on this final assault were utterly dashed. Time was running out, and every Confederate knew it from Lee on down.
James Longstreet for one was not impressed with the plan or its results, and wrote with the benefit of decades of hindsight:
The result calls for little comment upon the adventure. For an army of forty thousand veterans, without field batteries, to dislodge from their well-chosen and strongly fortified lines an army of ninety thousand well-armed and thoroughly-appointed veterans was impossible.
Thus ended the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman, along with the Crater and Five Forks forming a trifecta of well-remembered battles from the massive Siege of Petersburg. A last ditch, desperate gamble failed, as it had always been likely to do. We are nearing the very end. Fort Stedman disrupted Union plans so little that Grant’s Ninth Offensive, scheduled for March 29, 1865, would go on as directed. A furious finish awaits, starting just four days from now. Stay tuned and keep reading…and if you’re enjoying this content, please Like and Share on Facebook and retweet on Twitter.
- The Battle of Fort Stedman (Petersburg, Virginia) March 25, 1865 by William H. Hodgkins
- Reminiscences of the Civil War by John B. Gordon, pages 385–413
- The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion by A. Wilson Greene, pages 106-115
- The Petersburg Campaign Volume II: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865 by Ed Bearss, edited by Bryce Suderow, pages 241-307 (guest chapter by William Wyrick)
- In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat by Earl J. Hess, pages 245-254
- The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau, pages 333-358
- The Petersburg Campaign June 1864-April 1865 by John Horn, pages 209-218
- 865ch: Union Forces Engagement at Fort Stedman 25 March 1865
- B&L: Gordon’s Attack at Fort Stedman by George L. Kilmer
- B&L: The Recapture of Fort Stedman by John F. Hartranft
- Battle of Fort Stedman: March 25, 1865 (Battle of Fort Stedman, Hodgkins, 1889)
- Book Excerpt: The Petersburg Campaign Volume 2: The Western Front Battles September 1864-April 1865
- Charge! Issue 24, Page 2: The Battle of Fort Stedman by Doug Rogers
- CV: V29N6: Life Among Bullets—In The Rifle Pits
- LT: March 28, 1865 Philip W. Pringle
- MHSM Papers V5: The Siege of Petersburg after the Capture of the Weldon Railroad by Brevet Brigadier-General Francis A. Walker
- MOLLUS ME: With the Seventh Maine Battery by Brevet Major William B. Lapham
- NP: Philadelphia Weekly Times: A Campaign With Sharpshooters by Captain John D. Young
- NP: April 15, 1865 Columbus Sun: In the Trenches Near Petersburg
- NP: January 22, 1913 Bluffton (IN) Chronicle: Skirmish at Fort Stedman
- NP: June 24, 1894 Richmond Dispatch: A Deadly Assault at Fort Stedman, March 25, 1865
- NP: March 5, 1912 Beaver (PA) Daily Times: Anniversary of the Battle at Old Fort Stedman
- NP: May 27, 1934 West Middleton (PA) Press: Death of Lt. Colonel Pentecost, 100th PA
- Review In Brief: Mother, May You Never See The Sights I Have Seen
- SHS Papers: Volume 31: GORDON’S ASSAULT ON FORT STEDMAN, March 25th, 1865 – A brilliant Achievement
- The Battle of Fort Stedman Doug Rogers Charge! Map, March 25, 1865
- The Battle of Fort Stedman NPS Map: Aftermath
- The Battle of Fort Stedman NPS Map: March 25, 1865 4 AM
- The Battle of Fort Stedman NPS Map: March 25, 1865 6 AM
- The Battle of Fort Stedman NPS Map: March 25, 1865 8 AM
- The Battle of Fort Stedman NPS Map: Prelude