Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
SOPO Editor’s Note: Fort Stedman is spelled Fort Steadman throughout this entire article. Rather than attempt to place (sic) throughout the entire article, I chose to simply make the observation at the beginning and leave the name unchanged in the article.
A DEADLY ASSAULT.
The Attack Upon Fort Steadman on Friday, March 25, 1865.
DESCRIBED BY AN EYE-WITNESS.
A Bloody Episode During the Closing Scenes of the Siege of Petersburg—Incidents of Great Dramatic Interest.
The following interesting letter has been handed to the Dispatch by the gentleman to whom it is addressed:
PETERSBURG, Va., May 7, 1894.
George S. Bernard, Esq., Petersburg, Va.:
Dear Sir,–Responding to your request to furnish you my recollections of the assault on Fort Steadman on the morning of Friday, March 25, 1865, I will state that, being at that time a British subject, resident in Petersburg, I was not required by the Confederate authorities to enroll myself among the soldiers of the South, and this gave me an opportunity as an on-looker to witness from a civilian’s point of view the varying fortunes of the war as they affected the people of Petersburg. But I feel a little reluctant to give you for publication this scribbling of a mere looker-on to take its place among the narratives of so many of the “dramatis personae” of the great war-drama, men who on many a field witnessed the falling of
“The red rain that makes the harvest grow”
It was still dark on the morning of the 25th of March, 1865, when the loud and continuous sound of battle from the lines on the east of Petersburg proclaimed to the inhabitants of the beleaguered city that some event of importance was happening. I was aroused from sleep by the clamor of battle, but waited until dawn before leaving my lodging-room, on Sycamore street opposite the West-Hill warehouse, near which in the mean time several stray shells from the Federal batteries had exploded.
Most of the citizens of Petersburg had left that part of the city where I resided as above described, and, on Sycamore street, its main thoroughfare, only a few scattered groups were visible. From these I learned that an attack upon General Grant’s works near Fort Steadman, under the immediate leadership of General Gordon, had been made early that morning; and I was further informed that the roads leading to the point of attack had been crowded with the soldiers of Pickett’s Division, ready to take advantage of any success that might be achieved by the assaulting columns. These citizens with whom I talked and from whom I gathered this information discussed it, it seemed to me, with strange indifference to the probable issue of the battle then in progress, and it was apparent that in the presence of “the ills they had” these people had come to regard with equanimity whatever fate had in store for them.
The sound of battle, instead of instead of diminishing, seemed to swell louder and louder, and excited in me a great desire to witness the fight, which I felt sure could be done from some point on the heights, which extended for some distance along the north bank of the river, and command a fine view of the city and surrounding territory. So I determined to gratify this desire. The purpose formed, I started to put it into execution. Quickly, however, as I walked along Sycamore street, near the corner of Tabb and Sycamore I encountered a horseman, galloping at full speed, “bloody with spurring, fiery-red with haste,” who, halting near me, demanded in tones harsh and imperious, directions for reaching Gordon’s headquarters. I surmised—and correctly, as it turned out—that my imperious friend was one of the General’s aides bearing to Mrs. Gordon tidings of the fight. It needed but a glance at the face of the messenger to guess their import.
“Yea, this man’s brow did, like a title-page,
Foretell the nature of a tragic volume.”
I gave the information desired, whereupon the rider put spurs to his horse and disappeared round the next street corner.
Having obtained from the provost marshal permission to cross the Appomattox, after a long walk I reached the desired point of observation on the north bank. The white walls of the old Roslin mansion gleamed through the trees to the West as I wended my way towards them. In more tranquil time, in my walks, I had often paused at this point to admire the quiet beauty of the hills and fields on the South side of the river. Now, over there in Prince George, a change had come, compared with which the most startling “transformation scene” ever devised by a pantomist “paled its ineffectual fires.” The green slopes, which I remembered so well were covered by a cloud of gray smoke, from out of which came an impressive roar—the sound of modern battle when many thousand muskets and scores of pieces of artillery are blending their reports. He shriek of the jagged iron from the exploding shells was the only sound that rose above the general uproar. Sometimes, as I looked across the scene of deadly conflict, the favoring wind would waft the smoke aside, and then I caught a view of the grim earthworks of besiegers and besieged stretching away from the river southward, in many a serpentine fold. Nearest to my point of observation (which I should have stated was about 150 yards to the southeast of the Roslin House) I could distinguish the bulk of the Union redoubt Fort McIlvery, looming up near the river with its “red artillery” flashing fast and furious from its embrasures. The hurley-burley was tremendous. “Villainous saltpeter” was holding high carnival.
ONY (sic) ONE MAN
But where was the food for all this powder? Within 2,500 yards of where I stood probably not less than from 40,000 to 50,000 men, from every “coign of vantage,” plied rifle, cannon, and mortar; and yet during the period of my watch—some 50 minutes in duration—I saw only one man, and to me he will always be a mystery. Through the smoke on the Federal breastworks near the river, appeared this single man, moving along the parapets. For forty or fifty yards, as well as I could judge, he thus made his way and then seemed to jump down behind the embankment out of my sight. Why he appeared where I saw him—why some Confederate rifle did not cut short his career of what seemed reckless daring—I have never understood.
At this stage of the fight the Confederates abandoned the offensive. They had taken Fort Steadman, but the guns of Fort Haskell—the nearest Union fort on the south—and of the fort above the City-Point road—the nearest Union fort on the north—were turned upon these assailants, and from the furious fire of these they were now seeking protection, and a little later were fleeing to their own breastworks, across the narrow ridge lying between these and Fort Steadman. Had I tarried longer at my place of observation I might have seen the late assailants now in retreat, torn by the grape and canister from the Union batteries, but being satisfied that there was a failure of the assault, and now knowing how this might effect the status of things in the city, I deemed it best to turn back and did so, to find, when I got to the office of the provost marshal, that the adverse result of the move was there known.
ALWAYS BE MEMORABLE.
Happening as did this assault upon Fort Steadman on that Friday morning, during the closing scenes of the siege of Petersburg, it has not attracted the attention it would have otherwise had, but this bloody episode of the civil war will always be memorable as the last offensive movement of the Army of Northern Virginia, and its details will ever attract the general reader, abounding as they do with incidents of great dramatic interest.
I will state that on the Sunday after the evacuation of the city I visited Fort Steadman, and went over the battle-field. One thing that particularly struck me was the number of grape-shot lying about on the ridge between the fort and the Confederate earthworks.
SCENE OF DEATH.
I was also struck with the number of skeletons of half-buried soldiers slain on the 18th of June, 1864, about this point. After leaving the scene of death with my companions I sauntered along the lines of the works as far as Fort Haskell, and was forcibly struck with the evidence furnished by the debris of the trenches and deserted bomb-proofs, that there was a vast difference in the way the Federals and their adversaries, the Confederates, fared in the way of provisions. Hundreds of empty tin cans whose contents had furnished good meals to the men in blue were to be seen in the outer ditch wherever the eye rested.
There was one sad sight I witnessed on my stroll on this Sabbath day which impressed me very much. On the old Hare race-track, about that part of the course nearest to Fort Steadman, I saw the remains of a poor Confederate, who, from his appearance, manifestly fell in the action of June 18, 1864, his forehead pierced by a bullet, his rifle at his side, his overcoat enveloping his form, his hat at his head, and everything unmistakably indicating that he had lain as he fell during all the long months of the siege, undisturbed by friend or foe.
Yours very respectfully,
J. CAMPBELL KEMP1
- “A Deadly Assault.” Richmond Dispatch. June 24, 1894, p. 1 col. 5-6 ↩