March 24, 1865 (Friday)
Since the early days of March, General Lee had become certain that he could not hold Petersburg come spring. He would have, claimed Jefferson Davis after the war, simply abandoned the city at once had not his horses been too weak to pull their burdens through the quagmire that passed for roads in and around the Confederate capital. As weeks drew on, Lee turned to corps commander John Gordon, whose troops – those of Richard Ewell’s Corps – held the right of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Gordon had gained favor with the commanding general, rising in rank as those before him fell ill or were ushered off to other parts of the war. To Lee, at least according to Gordon, he gave three suggestions about the near future of the army. First, he suggested that they could meet with Grant and hope for the best terms he would give. Second, if they would not surrender, they must abandon the defenses of Petersburg and Richmond, march to North Carolina to defeat Sherman. Lastly, he proposed a strike at Grant.
Together, the two generals mulled over the decision to be made. Each option was carefully weighed, and by the end of the night, according to Gordon, Lee seemed more inclined to the first – asking for terms. While Lee was given that clout by Davis, he understood that Grant was not unleashed by Lincoln in a similar way. With President Davis more than reluctant to abandon the Confederacy’s capital until the very moment of sheer necessity, it left Lee only one option: he must attack Grant.
This was a seeming impossibility. There was, of course, no hope at all of a general victory. Such a strike needed to be surgical and decisive. To Gordon fell the task of examining the Union lines to find the weakest section, and for a week, he committed himself to such reconnaissance. There was much to consider. Where, thought Gordon, might his own troops launch such a sortie? And further, which embattlement of the enemy could be deemed weak enough to force a desired break?
“All these points considered,” wrote Gordon after the war, “I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting point for attack.” Gordon now had to consider just how he would craft his assault. Across several days, Gordon devised the attack, and finally met with Lee to discuss his machinations.
Gordon insisted that he could take Fort Stedman by a night assault, “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.”
As for the fort itself, General Gordon explained what his men would be thrown up against: “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 breast-high, 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.”
By Gordon’s description, it seemed as if there was no question at all. But Gordon (again, according to Gordon), had the solution. “The is but one thing to do,” he claimed to have said to Lee. “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.”
This was, of course, a most ridiculous plan, and Lee wasn’t about to approve it on the spot. This was too important for such haste. Fort Stedman was of little importance to Lee, but all that lied south of it. If he could drive an immovable force into Grant’s lines at Fort Stedman, it would cut off the entire Federal left, causing the ground they now held to be, at least for a time, perilous. Grant would have to retract much of the Army of the Potomac from the roads south of Petersburg. This would leave the way open for Lee to fall south to Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
Lee and Gordon met again on the night of the 23rd to discuss their final concerns. Several scouts had been rounded up who knew well the land, having houses across the ground prior to the war. He was also willing to commit nearly half his entire army to the strike, pulling troops from the corps of James Longstreet and A.P. Hill. Finally, Lee gave his blessing, and Gordon’s plan was adopted. All through that night and this day, the Southern troops concentrated on the portion of their line opposite Fort Steadman, known as Cloquitt’s Salient. The next morning, the 25th, could come the assault.
In the meanwhile, across the escarpments and abatis, General Grant had decided to bring on the end: “The day that Gordon was making dispositions for this attack (24th of March) I issued my orders for the movement to commence on the 29th. Ord, with three divisions of infantry and Mackenzie’s cavalry, was to move in advance on the night of the 27th, from the north side of the James River and take his place on our extreme left, thirty miles away.”
There was much more to Grant’s plan. Nearly his entire line was set to utterly crush Lee’s defenses. To General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, General Ord, heading the Army of the James, and to Sheridan, who was now moving his force of cavalry to the Union right, Grant sent the details of the attack.
And then, shortly after the setting of the sun, a vessel arrived near Grant’s headquarters to deliver President and Mrs. Lincoln, as well as their son, Tad. They were greeted by General Grant and his own wife. For the night, Lincoln would stay aboard the ship, but the next morning, it was planned for him to come ashore and review the troops.
Lincoln’s journey from Washington to Petersburg was not without controversy. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as well as others, believed Lincoln’s life to be in danger. With the Rebels so desperate, they believed that, perhaps, an abduction plot or even assassination was not out of their moral reach. Stanton did all he could to keep Lincoln in Washington, and even tried to stop the President’s ship from leaving the harbor, but to no end. Lincoln wished to see the ending of this war, and what better place could be had apart from Grant?1
- Sources: Official RecordsSeries 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p50-53; Rise and Fall Vol. 2, by Jefferson Davis; Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Brown Gordon; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]