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NP: March 25, 1965 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 38: The Last Grand Offensive

The Last Grand Offensive

(Today is the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stedman, which has been called the last grand offensive of the Army of Northern Virginia. The following is the thirty-eighth in a series of articles published here in observance of the centennial of the campaign for Petersburg.)

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The attack on Fort Stedman was the Confederate answer to the hopeless situation which prevailed a hundred years ago and which was sketched here yesterday. With the wisdom of hindsight, it sometimes has been criticized as a mad undertaking which reflected glory upon neither Lee, who authorized it, nor upon General John B. Gordon, who planned it. It was as daring as anything which the former had done in better days, and if it had succeeded it would have been regarded as one of the great feats of military history.

Geographically the attack carried the story back to the beginning.  The general direction of the campaign for Petersburg, as determined by Grant’s extensions on the left, was southward and westward. Fort Stedman was one of the Union works constructed on the eastern battlefield, where Confederate forces had beaten back Grant’s attacks of June 15-18, 1864. Not far from it were the site of the Newmarket race course of happier years and the scene of the June 18, 1864 charge in which the First Maine Heavy Artillery had suffered what is believed to be the largest regimental loss in a single engagement in the Civil War.

A certain haziness has surrounded the purpose of the effort, and various explanations have been offered by confederate military leaders who could speak with some authority. Lee’s own explanation was that he hoped Grant would be compelled to shorten his own front at Petersburg so that he, Lee, would be able to hold Petersburg with fewer men; that he could detach a part of his army to fight Sherman; and that later they could return to fight Grant. Any larger results which could be obtained would be welcome, but it is doubtful that some of the hopes which have been mentioned—such as making a cavalry dash to City Point and bringing back Grant as a prisoner [—] were seriously entertained. Forcing Grant to concentrate his army and cutting his communications and his military railroad would be acceptable results.

The point chosen for the attack was Fort Stedman, which was “less than the range of a good rifle” east of Confederate Colquitt’s Salient. The fort was described by Union sources as a work which was not in very good repair, but proximity and the fact the goal could be approached over ground which was more solid than at some other points where the opposing lines were close were the probable reasons for the choice.

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The plan was nothing if not elaborate. During the previous night the Confederates were to remove obstacles from their front. That was a preparation which the Union forces had neglected in making the Crater attack. At the proper time, in the morning, Union pickets were to be overcome as quickly and as quietly as possible. Some 50 Confederate axmen would move in to destroy obstructions in front of Fort Stedman. Then three companies of a hundred men each would endeavor to break through the Union line, capture Fort Stedman, and move on to occupy three forts which General Gordon had seen in the rear. Due attention was given to finding qualified guides for the delicate and perilous business.

About half of the army available to Lee in Petersburg and vicinity would be ready to exploit the advantage. The infantry would enlarge the gap made in the Union line by the surprise attack. Cavalry would go through to cut the telegraph lines and destroy the pontoon bridges across the river.

Ladies had a hand in the preparations. Mrs. [John] B. Gordon and some friends obtained white cloth and made bands which the 350 picked men would wear across their breasts so that they could recognize each other as they went about their early morning assignment. Mrs. Gordon, like Mrs. A. P. Hill, had braved the dangers and privation of besieged Petersburg, in order to be near her husband.

The first phase of the attack, demanding as the plan was, left little to be desired.

As Lee watched from a hill behind Colquitt’s Salient, a soldier standing beside Gordon at 4 o’clock in the morning gave the signal by firing his rifle.

“What are you doing over there, Johnny? What’s the noise? Answer quick or I’ll shoot.” They were words of a Union picket who heard the noise of men moving in the dried vegetation.

“Never mind, Yank,” came the answer.  “lie  down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.”

“All right, Johnny, go ahead and get your corn. I’ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”

Even at this crucial hour the conscience of the Confederate was not quite equal to the deception: “Hello, Yank! Wake up. We are going to shell the woods. Look out; we are coming.”

Union pickets were silenced, and Union obstructions were removed. The assaulting party captured Battery Ten and soon was inside Fort Stedman itself. Gordon went over into the fort. According to a Union account, an all-night game of poker was in progress in a bombproof, and the participants were told they were wanted in Petersburg.

Once the advantage of surprise was lost, the story took a different turn. Union troops rallied quickly, and men in the nearby works resisted attempts to take them so that the gap in the line could be enlarged. Some Confederates got as far as Harrison’s Creek and reached points on the original defense line of Petersburg.

Then everything went from bad to worse. The forts which Gordon had seen proved to be abandoned Confederate works which were not suitable for use against the enemy. The guides were lost. Some of the Confederate ammunition proved to be defective.

Union artillerists had to wait for light to see their targets. When light came they fired promptly and effectively. The Confederates were forced back from their advanced position. About 7:45 in the morning Hartranft’s division of the IX Corps launched a massive attack. A few minutes later Lee ordered a withdrawal, but some chose to surrender rather than risk their lives crossing a field which was raked by fire.

The Confederate loss was about 4,000 against about 2,000 for the Union. In the afternoon a truce was declared for the burial of the dead.

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Trying to assess the reason for the failure, Confederates noted that reinforcements from Longstreet’s corps did not arrive promptly; that the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad could not or did not deliver troops in the allotted time; that some Confederates lost valuable time by stopping to eat food which they found. The underlying reason was that the Army of Northern Virginia was no longer strong enough to do what it was attempting to do. On the Union side there was satisfaction in the IX Corps over the role which it had played, especially in view of the contrast with its Crater performance.

There are accounts which say that President Lincoln witnessed the final phase of the battle, but they seem to be in error. The time and scale of a review which had been scheduled in his honor had to be changed. However, viewing the dead and talking to the wounded, Lincoln probably saw more of the naked faced of war before Petersburg than he saw on any other occasion.

Later in the day Union attacks were made against the Confederate right. Although they have been overshadowed by the drama of Fort Stedman, the rifle pits which were captured would be most useful a week later.

On March 25, 1865, the beginning of the end was clearly visible at Petersburg.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “The Last Grand Offensive.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  March 25, 1965, p. 4, col. 1-2
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  • John Horn May 21, 2016, 11:31 pm

    Fort Stedman was the Crater all over again. The attempt to broaden the width of the breakthrough failed in both cases. Grant learned from the Crater that fortifications practically held themselves; Lee failed to learn this. No blame should attach to Gordon, who had been fighting in the Shenandoah Valley when the Crater and the other trench battles of 1864 took place around Petersburg.

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