GORDON’S ASSAULT ON FORT STEDMAN, March 25th, 1865 – A brilliant Achievement
By General JAMES A. WALKER.1
Fort Stedman was a Federal redoubt, and occupied a spot near what was once the residence of Mr. Otway P. Hare, a man widely known in Eastern Virginia in antebellum days. Its site was locally known as “Hare’s Hill.”
I was then in command of a division in the corps commanded by General John B. Gordon, of Georgia, and my division occupied that portion of the trenches around Petersburg from tee Appomattox river on the left, and extended, on the right, to a point beyond Hare’s Hill.
The enemy’s lines in our front extended to the Appomattox river, thence down the river on its south bank, crossing the stream several miles lower down, and stretching out to and across the James river; thus leaving the Richmond and Petersburg railroad in possession of the Confederates.
The hostile lines were very near each other at several points, but at no other place so close together as at Hare’s Hill or Fort Stedman, where they were only seventy-five yards apart.
The Confederate entrenchments on that part of the field consisted of a single line of breastworks.
Their location was not altogether the result of engineering skill, or of military choice, but was in part fixed by the accidental position of the Confederate troops, where the advance of the Federals was checked in the summer of 1864 at the time they came so near capturing Petersburg.
The position thus established, and the works destined to be held for more than six months against every odd, had their beginning in the slight and temporary obstructions thrown up by the Confederate soldiers in a night to enable a feeble force to resist the expected assault of a superior force the next morning.
These slight obstructions were strengthened from day to day and the advance on Petersburg degenerated into the slow and tedious process called the siege of Petersburg. The Federal works consisted of a front line of earth redoubts or forts at short intervals connected by a chin of earthen breastworks.
One of these forts was located on the right bank of the Appomattox river, and another between the river and the City Point railroad, called “Fort McGilvery,” one in the “New Market” racefield, just south of that railroad and of the Prince George Courthouse road, which runs for a few hundred yards alongside the railroad, called “Battery No. 9,” one at Hare’s Hill called “Fort Stedman,” one further south called “Fort Haskell,” and one opposite the Crater called “Fort Morton.” Further south was “Fort Meikel,” and next to Fort Meikel immediately upon the Jerusalem plank road was “Fort Sedgwick.” These forts, or redoubts, were much stronger and more formidable than the lines of breastworks which connected them, and were so constructed as to present a hostile front on all sides. At intervals along these breastworks were smaller (unenclosed) fortifications, lunettes. Three of these lunettes were very near Fort Stedman – Battery No. 10, immediately to the north, Batteries Nos 11 and 12 just south of it.
These forts were filled with artillery and infantry, and so arranged that the fire from the guns of one would sweep not only over the ground in its immediate front, but in front of the breastworks and the neighboring forts to the right and to the left; so that an attacking force would have to face not only a direct fire from the artillery of at least three forts. In the rear of this first line, on the hills beyond Harrison’s creek, the Federals had a second line, very much like the first, and so constructed that the forts in this line commanded the forts and breastworks composing the first line. This was the original line of the Confederates, east of Petersburg, that captured by the Eighteenth Corps under General W. F. Smith on the evening of June 15, 1864. Among the forts on this line was Battery 4, formerly Confederate
Battery 5, and Fort Friend, the latter about three-quarters of a mile northeast of Fort Stedman.
The second line was not occupied by infantry all the while, but the troops were encamped behind these lines, and near enough to be thrown into them in a very short time if occasion required.
The Federal troops in the front line were relieved by fresh troops every few days, so that they were not subjected to the wear and tear of constant harassing duty and danger all the time, both day and night, as were the Confederates, who had only enough men to thinly occupy their one line of works.
A very short distance in front of the first line of works, each side had placed a heavy line of chevaux de frise, with an occasional opening sufficient to allow a man to pass through.
This chevaux the frise, it may be well to explain to the unmilitary reader, consisted of square pieces of timber of convenient length, bored through at short intervals alternately from either side of the square, and wooden spikes eight or ten feet long, sharpened at both ends, and driven halfway through these holes, so that when placed in position the ends of two rows of spikes would rest on the ground while the ends of the other two presented their sharp points to the front and rear at the heighth of a man’s breast.
These pieces of scantling are fastened together at the ends with short iron chains a few inches long, so that a connected and continuous obstruction is presented along the whole line, which cannot be crossed, and can only be passed be clearing it away with axes.
The close proximity of the hostile lines made in almost certain death for a man to show his dead above the works on the front line, and indeed it was dangerous to expose one’s person to the view of the enemy for several hundred yards in the rear of the first line, since by doing so he would expose himself to the fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters, lying secure behind their breastworks. The only time when the works could be approached above ground from the rear was after dark.
There were a number of covered ways constructed by digging trenches running to the rear until out of musket range, and deep enough to conceal a man. In some instances these trenches were covered over with timber, overlaid with earth, so as to form a tunnel.
As has been before said the Confederate soldiers had to remain in the trenches all the time, without being relieved, because there were no reserves to relieve them with.
They hollowed out the ground just in rear of the trenches, and made cellars or caves under the earth in which they slept, ate and lived for five months.
One-third of the men were kept standing on guard along the breastworks day and night to give warning of an attack in time to enable their comrades to spring to their feet and seize their muskets. As the pickets could not look over the works without exposing themselves to certain destruction, small loopholes were provided at intervals of fifteen or twenty feet, large enough to admit the barrel of a musket and enable the owner of the weapon to see the enemy’s works over its sights. From these little openings on either side a desultory fire was kept up, each side firing at the only vulnerable spots, which were these loopholes. They were easily located by the smoke from the muskets, and their exact situation became known to all. So accurate was the marksmanship that the wood around the openings was worn away by the bullets, and in many places was replaced by iron rails from the railroad track. Once in a while a man would be killed by a musket ball coming through these openings.
To prevent surprise in the night-time, a number of pits large enough to allow a single soldier to hide in were sunk a few yards in front of the chevaux de frise, and after dark, pickets were sent out to occupy these pits, and keep watch for any suspicious movements.
To enable them to pass in and out a few gaps were left in the chevaux de frise. These pickets were relieved every four hours, and in front of Fort Stedman the hostile sentinels were not more than fifty yards apart, but they kept a sort of truce between themselves, never tried to harm one another, and beguiled the weary hours chaffing each other.
The Federal soldiers always accosted the Confederates as “Johnny,” and the Confederates the Federal as “Yank.” During the night the musketry firing ceased and quiet reigned, unless the mortar batteries took a notion to take a hand and treat us to displays of fireworks, such as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed them.
The mortars sent their shells up into the air, leaving a trail of light behind like a rocket, and the shell descended like the stick of a rocket.
The soldiers became accustomed to this display, and would watch the descending shells, and, when they saw they were likely to fall
dangerously near, would dodge into their caves and await the harmless explosion in safety.
One morning in March, 1865, General John B, Gordon, my corps commander, requested me to ride with him, and we crossed the Pocahontas bridge, and rode to a point on the hills on the left bank of the Appomattox river opposite the enemy’s second line of fortifications on the right bank of the river in front of Hare’s Hill or Fort Stedman. We spent an hour or more examining the enemy’s position through our field glasses, when General Gordon turned to me and very carelessly inquired what I thought of the position occupied by my division, and whether I thought I could hold it against an assault by the enemy in force.
I replied that I did not think I could hold my position against an assault because the enemy’s lines were so close they could dash over our works any night before we were aware of their coming, and I added: ” I can take their front line any morning before breakfast.”
General Gordon smiled and remarked: “Don’t you forget what you have said; I may call on you to make your words good.” He then told me that he had suggested to General Lee the idea of making an assault upon the enemy’s works in his front and would know in a few days whether it would be adopted. A few days later Gordon sent for his three division commanders and informed us that the attack would be made; and the time and manner of the assault were the determined on. My division was to attack Fort Stedman and the other two designated points on the right of the fort.
The attacks were to be made simultaneously by each division, the signal for the assault to be three muskets or pistol shots fired in quick succession.
Each division was to be preceded by a storming party consisting of fifty picked men carrying axes to clear away the chevaux de frise, and one hundred picked infantry men armed with muskets, commanded by a captain and one lieutenant, on whose courage and coolness we would confidently rely; each division to follow closely behind the storming party, marching by the right flank.
The preparations for the movement were simple, but required some little time. In the first place, rations for three days, had to be issued, cooked brought up, and distributed. The cartridge boxes had to be examined and filled up with cartridges; muskets had to be inspected; the sick and disabled sent to hospitals; the storming party selected; and instructed as to what was required of them.
After all these things were looked after, we had to wait for night to begin the movement. The entire corps, three divisions, had to be marched out of the trenches so as to give room to form their separate columns, and then to march back to the breastworks so as to bring the head of the columns to the spot where our works were to be crossed.
This was done quietly and with the least possible noise. No commands were given, but the words were passed in low tones from man to man. About an hour before daylight my storming party pressed cautiously and silently one by one over the breastworks, and crept up close to one of our solitary pickets in his pit and lay down on the ground.
The ground at this point was a cornfield, but the farmer who had planted it had not seen fit to gather his crop, and as the storming party moved out they made more noise among the cornstalks than the “Yank” on picket was accustomed to hear, and he sang out to our picket: “I say, Johnny, what are you doing in that corn?” To this Johnny very innocently replied. “All right, Yank, I am just gathering me a little corn to parch!” “Yank” answered: “All right Johnny, I won’t shoot!” After a short pause the “Yank” again addressed his neighbor, “I say, Johnny, isn’t it almost daylight? I think it is time they were relieving us.” Johnny sang out in a cheery voice: “Keep cool, Yank; you’ll be relieved in a few minutes.” It was a clear, crisp March morning, the stars were shining overhead, and save for the colloquy between the two pickets, all was as quiet as the grave.
There was no evidence that, within a few hundred yards of the spot where we stood, ten thousand armed men were crouching low, anxiously watching for the appointed signal which was to hurl them upon the enemy and sound the death knell of hundreds of brave men.
All our movements had been conducted so quietly that not a suspicion had been aroused, not even among the enemy’s pickets, some of whom were not over fifty yards distant from our men.
I had selected to lead the storming party, Captain Anderson, of the 49th Virginia, and Lieutenant Hugh P. Powell, of Company A, of the 13th Virginia, officers belonging to my old brigade, who were personally known to me to be the bravest of the brave, and in whom the men had confidence. The men under them were selected from a much larger number, who in response to a call for volunteers promptly offered their services.
When all was ready, we awaited the signal in breathless suspense, but the suspense was relieved when General Gordon came down the line to where the head of my column rested, and, finding my command ready to move, stepped to one side and fired three pistol shots in rapid succession. The last report was scarcely heard before the recumbent figures sprang to their feet and Captain Anderson commanded, “Forward! Doublequick!” and his men moved off at a trail arms, and not a word was spoken or a sound heard except the regular beat of their feet at they stepped out at a double quick.
I have read many accounts, both in history and fiction, of such attacks, and my blood has been stirred in reading them; but I never read an account of one so dashing, so orderly, and so quiet as this. The cool, frosty morning made every sound distinct and clear, and the only sound heard was the tramp! tramp! of the men as they kept step as regularly as if on drill, and the cries of the Federal picket as he ran with all speed into the fort, shouting: “The Rebels are coming! The Rebels are coming!” Our men were instructed not to try to capture or harm the “Yank,” but to follow the path he took, and it would carry us to the opening in the enemy’s chevaux de frise, and not to cheer until they were on the enemy’s breastworks; and then to cheer as loudly as possible as a signal for the division to follow, and to fire as rapidly as they could reload, in every direction, through the fort, to confuse the Federals and prevent them from rallying and forming before our main body should come up.
The gallant little band came to a halt as they reached the obstructions, and a galling fire from muskets inside the fort met them at that point, and a number of them were killed and wounded during the pause. The halt was a short one, for sharp axes wielded by strong arms were at work, and the heavy blows rang out on the frosty air like the blows of giants, and in a few seconds more the “Rebel yell” made the welkin ring, announcing to our expectant ears that Fort Stedman was carried, and that our boys were inside the enemy’s works.
They proceeded at once to make it lively by firing promiscuously in every direction wherever they could see a blue coat to fire at.
The enemy were taken entirely by surprise and all were asleep except the thin line which guarded the side of the redoubt which faced our lines.
In the fort were a number of little huts, with comfortable bunks,
in which the officers slept, and several of them were surprised in their robes de nuit, and made prisoners. The officers and men in the fort acted gallantly and tried to form and make resistance, but to form men in the dark just out of sleep, cooped up in a small fort, with a hundred muskets in the hands of an organized body of trained and daring men, pouring forth their deadly contents on every side and making a mark of every head that showed itself, is next to an impossibility.
Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Powell both fell on the breastworks, the first mortally wounded, and the latter killed outright.
The storming party was thus left without a commissioned officer, but that circumstance made but little difference with those men, for every one of them was fit to be a captain, and most of them to wear the uniform of much higher officers.
But to return to the division. As soon as the wild cheering of our boys gave the signal, the head of the column was put in motion, and crossing our breastworks, moved rapidly across the intervening space and into the captured fort.
When the head of the column reached the enemy’s works, and the first files were on them, I found that the leading files were lying down behind the breastworks at the point where those before them had crossed. I inquired for the officer in command, but, getting no answer, ordered the men to move forward, which they did. We had just crossed over, when a soldier sprang, in front and said: “These are my men and they shall not go.” I demanded who he was, and he replied that he was captain of that company, and that his men should not be slaughtered. He was ordered to lead his men forward, but positively refused, and when he did so, I made a blow at his head with my sabre, which he dodged, and then rushed at me with the point of his infantry sword. I stepped aside, and drawing my pistol from my belt, with the muzzle almost touching his head, pulled the trigger. The cap did not explode, and then his men ran between us, as I was about to make a second attempt to shoot, saying: “Don’t shoot, General! He is our captain, and a brave man.” The captain then said he was ready to go forward, and tried to excuse his conduct by pretending that he did not know me by the starlight, and that, if he had recognized me, would have obeyed my orders; but I refused to accept his explanation, and told him that I would have him court-martialed and shot if we both came out of the battle alive. We double-quicked side by side to join the
companies of the division already in Fort Stedman, and the whole division followed rapidly.
As to the captain, I never saw him again, as he did not return to the Confederate lines. What his fate was I do not know. He may have been killed that morning, but it is most likely that he suffered himself to be captured rather than return and be shot by a sentence of court-martial.
I have always declined to give the name or regiment of this man. If he or his descendants are alive, I would not give them pain by publishing him. He had a good record as a soldier, and was unquestionably a brave man. Why he acted as he did on that occasion can be readily accounted for. He saw, as nearly all the men in the ranks saw, that the Confederate cause was hopeless, and that they were shedding their blood in vain, and that valor and patriotism must inevitably yield to the overwhelming numbers and resources.
It was rumored that in the winter of 1864-‘5 an organization had crept into some regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia, called “Red Strings” from its badge, which was a red string, displayed conspicuously on the person. The object of this order was to bring an end to the war by refusing to fight and by laying down their arms and surrendering to the enemy when brought face to face with the foe. I have always believed my captain was a member of this order. I am glad to say that the order had but few members in General Lee’s army, and its influence was never felt. The soldiers of that army fought to the last, and remained true to their chieftain until the white flag was run up at Appomattox. The remarkable part of this starlight encounter with the Captain is that his men did not take sides with him and shoot me down with their muskets or run me through with their bayonets. Had they done so, no one could have known the manner of my taking off, but it would have been credited to a Federal blow, and my epitaph would have been “Killed in battle.”
As the head of the column entered Fort Stedman the resistance wholly ceased, and in the dim light of the coming dawn the fleeing enemy could be seen on every side, hastening to the protection of the second line of forts.
Our being in possession of Fort Stedman made the enemy’s breastworks on either side and as far as the neighboring forts untenable and they were rapidly abandoned. A strong skirmish line of Confederates was at once thrown forward towards the second line of the enemy’s works, and got within
easy musket range, but though they were guarded by a small force it was too large to be dislodged by skirmishers.
It required more than an hour foe the entire division to come up and form into line; and it was sunrise before we were ready to advance.
The attacks by the other Confederate columns were either not made, or if made, were unsuccessful, and these troops came to my aid in the neighborhood of Fort Stedman. By the time the sun was above the horizon the enemy had poured fourth from their camps in rear, and filled the forts and breastworks of the second line with troops, both infantry and artillery. They sent out a heavy skirmish line which engaged ours and a brisk and angry skirmish fire was kept up until our troops were withdrawn.
Their artillery, too, came into play, and the guns of their forts in the second line and on our right and left concentrated their fire on Fort Stedman, and such a storm of shot and shell as fell into and around the old fort has seldom been seen. We had failed to carry the second line by surprise; it was manned by four times our numbers, and our task was hopeless. Nothing remained but to withdraw to our breastworks.
General Gordon seemed loth to give up his cherished plans, and waited to communicate with General Lee, and for an hour or two longer we held our captured fort and breastworks.
At last the command came to fall back to our lines, and the troops commenced the retrograde movement, which was a thousand times more hazardous than the advance because it was not in the full blaze of daylight, and the seventy-five yards that lay between Fort Stedman na our shelter was swept by the direct and cross fire of many pieces of artillery posted in both the first and second lines of the enemy’s works.
The enemy’s missles seemed to fall on every square yard of ground, and to sweep over the open space like the breath of the simoon.
They screeched and screamed like fiends, plowing up the ground on all sides, exploding with a sound like thunder claps, sending their fragments on errand of death and destruction in every direction.
When the order was given to withdraw, I sent one of my staff out to the skirmish line to tell the officer, in charge that we were retreating and to fall back slowly, skirmishing as he returned.
This order was obeyed too well, for he fell back slowly, fighting stubbornly all the way.
I remained in Fort Stedman after the main body of the division had left it; watching and admiring the gallant fight the skirmish line was making, and until there was no one in the fort except an occasional Confederate passing through.
Suddenly I heard a shout, a looking in the direction of the sound, I saw a body of Federal infantry coming over the wall of the fort on the opposite side. A few jumps on a doublequick put the wall of the fort between the enemy and myself, and then with a few other belated stragglers I found myself crossing the stormswept space between us and out works. At first I made progress at a tolerably lively gait, but I wore heavy cavalry boots, the ground was thawing under the warm rays of the sun, and great cakes of mud stuck to my boots; my speed slackened into a slow trot, then into a low walk, and it seemed as if I were an hour making that seventy-five yards.
Not only the artillery now, but the enemy’s infantry had remanned the front wall of Fort Stedman, and the deadly minie balls were whistling and hurling as thick as hail.
Every time I lifted my foot with its heavy weight of mud and boot, I thought my last step was taken. Out of the ten or a dozen men who started across that field with me, I saw at least half of them fall, and I do not believe more than one or two got over safely.
When I reached our works and clambered up to the top, I was so exhausted that I rolled down among the men, and one of them expressed surprise at seeing me by remarking: “Here is General Walker; I thought he was killed!”
In this affair the Confederates lost heavily in killed, wounded and prisoners. Nearly all my gallant skirmish line was captured, for when they fell back to Fort Stedman they found it occupied by the enemy, and there was no alternative left them but to surrender as prisoners of war.
There are many minor incidents and details of this bold attack, which I would like to weave into this narrative, but it has already grown too long.
The reader may ask what was the object of this rash sally, this seemingly hopeless attack on overwhelming numbers, strongly entrenched and supplied with every appliance known to modern warfare? I can answer the question. The situation of the Confederate Army around Richmond and Petersburg was fast becoming desperate, and unless something could be done, and done quickly, the fall
of Richmond was inevitable; and desperate diseases require desperate remedies. General Gordon conceived the bold and hazardous plan of surprising the enemy, piercing their lines in front of Hare’s Hill, cutting off the troops between Fort Stedman and the Appomattox river, and by thus getting in their rear, to compel them to cross over to the left bank of that river or be captured. Thus having opened the way to City Point, the Confederate cavalry, which had been brought up and held in readiness to act, was to dash upon City Point, capture General Grant, destroy the immense supplies stored there for the use of the army, and make a raid around the rear of the Federal army. If the way was opened for the cavalry, the enemy in their line between Fort Stedman and the extreme left was to be assailed at various points by the Confederate troops in front of them. General Gordon was to attack them on the exposed right, flank and rear, with the hope of compelling them to abandon the siege of Petersburg and withdraw to the north side of James river.
The conception was worthy of Stonewall Jackson and reflects the highest credit on General Gordon, and if his force had been sufficient to carry the enemy’s second line, would have proved a grand success.
This was the last charge made by Confederate soldiers on an entrenched position of the enemy, and while the results expected were not realized, it showed that the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia still had plenty of fight in them and could be relied on to do all that mortal men could do.
After the failure of Gordon’s movement we all felt that our cause was hopeless, and within ten days thereafter we marched out of the earthworks we had held so long against such overwhelming odds, and a few days after laid down our arms at Appomattox.
The storming of Fort Stedman was mere episode in the siege of Petersburg and is scarcely mentioned in history, or only spoken of in official reports as an “unsuccessful attempt to carry the Federal lines near Fort Stedman, which was repulsed with great loss.” It was, in fact, one of the boldest movements made during the war; and for coolness and gallantry on the part of the soldiers engaged in it was not surpassed by any affair of the war between the States.
Very truly yours,
JAMES A. WALKER.
On the 25th day of March, 1865, from the Appomattox around to Fort Howard, which was on the Federal lines at a point about due south from the Customhouse in Petersburg, these lines were occupied by the troops of the 9th Corps, then commanded by General John G. Parke. In his report of the operations of his command on that day, he says:
“The line held by this corps extended from the Appomattox on the right, with pickets stretching some three miles down the river, to Fort Howard on the left, a distance of about seven miles. The line was occupied by the First Division, Brevet Major-General O. B. Wilcox, commanding, extending from the Appomattox to Fort Meikel, and the Second Division, Brevet Major-General R. B. Potter, commanding, extending from Fort Meikel to Fort Howard. The Third Division, Brigadier-General J. F. Hartranft, commanding, was held in reserve, its right regiment being posted near the Dunn House Battery, and its left regiment between Forts Hays and Howard. The entrenchment held by Wilcox’s Division and the First Brigade of Potter’s, were very nearly placed when the positions were originally gained by our troops, under fire, and in so close proximity to the enemy that the work was necessarily very effective. This was especially the case with Fort Stedman, where our line crossed the Prince George Courthouse road. This is a small work without bastions, with Battery No. 10 immediately adjoining, the battery open in the rear, and the ground in the rear of the fort nearly as high as its parapet. The opposing lines are here about 150 yards apart. the picket lines about fifty yards. This portion of the line was held by the Third Brigade. First Division, Brevet Brigadier-General M. B. McLaughlen, commanding.
G. S. B.
Editor’s Note: I do not have a hard copy or a PDF of the actual pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers. As a result, I cannot tell whether the information presented is entirely accurate. I have proofread this article, but some misspellings may be present in the original while others may be the result of incorrect transcription from the source I am using. I have mostly left the misspellings in for the moment. If you know where I can get PDFs of the Southern Historical Society Papers which are basically “images” of the original pages, please use the Contact form and let us know. Likewise, if you have access to hard copies of the Papers and would like to proofread for Beyond the Crater, Contact us.
- Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 31, Pages 19-31 ↩