‘This Last Supreme Effort’ – Confederates Assault Fort Stedman

March 25, 1865 (Saturday)

Fort Stedman as seen near Confederate lines.
Fort Stedman as seen near Confederate lines.


Captain John F. Burch, 3rd Maryland Infantry:

“At 4am I visited the picket-line and saw that the men were up. On visiting the line I did not notice anything unusual on the enemy’s lines. After visiting the right of the picket-line I returned to the left of that portion of the line in front of Fort Stedman and Battery 11, where the captain of the picket makes his headquarters. I had not returned but a few minutes when the man on lookout gave notice that the enemy were approaching. At that moment the men on the post fired their pieces . At the same time I ran around to the bomb-proof, which concealed the right of the line from my view. I had no proceeded far when I noticed the enemy had crossed the picket line and making for Fort Stedman. They demanded me to surrender, and fired a few shots at me. I ran down tot he left of the line. On coming near the bomb-proof I found they were crossing over and making in the direction of Battery 11. I then made for camp through a covered way, which came out near right of the 29th Massachusetts. I passed down the left of the line of works in order to alarm the camps.”

Positions just before the attack.
Positions just before the attack.

Captain John M. Deane, 29th Massachusetts Infantry, Ninth Corps, in command of Fort Stedman:
“The alarm was first given by the trench guard, just as the enemy were entering Fort Stedman. Before our men had time to man the works the enemy entered our camp at the north front. They fired no shots, but used the butts of their muskets. The three companies on that front were captured, and the enemy then advanced to the west front, where they were met by Companies B,C, E, and H, and a desperate encounter ensued, in which most of our men were taken prisoners.”

Confederates with axes!
Confederates with axes!

Confederate General John Brown Gordon, commanding the attack:
Although it required but few minutes to reach the Union works, those minutes were to me like hours of suspense and breathless anxiety; but soon was heard the thud of the heavy axes as my brave fellows slashed down the Federal obstructions. The next moment the infantry sprang upon the Union breastworks and into the fort, overpowering the gunners before their destructive charges could be empties into the mass of Confederates. They turned this captured artillery upon the flanking lines on each side of the fort, clearing the Union breastworks of their defenders for some distance in both directions. Up to this point, the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”

Bomb proof at Fort Stedman.
Bomb proof at Fort Stedman.

General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding Third Brigade, Ninth Corps:
“On hearing the noise of the attack that morning, I awoke my staff and dispatched them to various part of the line to get the troops under arms, and proceeded myself to Fort Haskell, garrisoned by a battalion of the Fourteenth New York Heavy Artillery, whom I found on the alert and ready to resist an attack. I then turned down the line to the right, passing the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers, who were already in the works, and Battery 12, finding everything right, and reaching the mortar battery No. 11, in which were no guns, and which was occupied by the 29th Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers. Here I found Major Richardson, of that regiment, who told me that the battery was in the enemy’s hands, and that his command had just been driven from it. I at once sent orders to the 59th Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers, the only regiment of my brigade not in the line of works, to report to me at double-quick, and to Battery 12 to turn their mortars on Battery 11, which was done, three shots being fired.”

Major Ezra P. Gould, 59th Massachusetts Infantry:
“The regiment was, on its first arrival at the front, ordered to occupy and hold Battery 11, which it did until the lines on either side were deserted or occupied by the enemy, and the rebels’ line of battle, completely outflanking my position, was within a very short distance, when I gave the order, ‘by the right flank, over the works, to Fort Haskell,’ which most of the men complied with and arrived safely in the fort. This position, being the only tenable and defensible part of the brigade line, was occupied by nearly all the regimental commanders with their commands, and from there we opened fire on Fort Stedman with musketry and artillery, so heavy as to compel the enemy to leave the fort several times; but finding that it was not occupied again by our troops they returned each time….”

Immediately after the Confederate break through.
Immediately after the Confederate break through.

General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding Third Brigade, First Division, Ninth Corps:
“On the arrival of the 59th I put them into the work with fixed bayonets and recaptured it at once. Supposing that I had restored the only break in the line, I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving directions with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him, asking his regiment. This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by the rebels, whom I had supposed to be my men, and sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him to Petersburg.”

Interior of Fort Stedman.
Interior of Fort Stedman.

Confederate General John Brown Gordon, commanding the attack:
“We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlin, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. One of these fell upon the works, pierced through the body by a Federal bayonet, one of the few men thus killed in the four years of war. I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlin by assuming command of Fort Stedman.”

General John Hartranft, Third Division, Ninth Corps:
“It was now sufficiently light to see the enemy’s skirmishers advancing from the rear and our right of Fort Stedman toward the ravine and covering the main road leading from Stedman to the Ninth Corps hospitals. Seeing this movement of the enemy’s skirmishers, and finding a small party of men from the 57th Massachusetts in front of the 200th Pennsylvania, under command of a captain, engaging them, and from whom I ascertained that this detachment had been driven from its camp and that all that was left of the regiment had been rallied at that point, I ordered his detachment to move forward to its old camp, and I immediately advanced the 200th Pennsylvania to the camp of the 57th Massachusetts, in rear of Stedman, without sustaining any very serious damage. The enemy’s line of skirmishers was broke, but he was in force in the left end of the 57th Massachusetts camp, on the road running in rear of Stedman and in a line of works running about parallel with our line.

The apex of the Confederate attack, with Union forces gathering.
The apex of the Confederate attack, with Union forces gathering.

“I sent Major Shorkley, of my staff, to bring up the 209th Pennsylvania to form a connection on the right of the 200th Pennsylvania, and I immediately attacked with the 200th Pennsylvania, but finding the enemy too strong and my right suffering much from a heavy fire from Stedman and the troops in the road, the regiment was forced to retire to an old line of works about forty yards in rear of and to the right of the 57th Massachusetts camp.

“The enemy seeing this regiment retire, I feared that he would take advantage of it and attack me, and I therefore attacked a second time and gained quite a good position. I held this position for about twenty minutes, losing very heavily (the loss in this regiment being about 100 at this point), when the line wavered and fell back to and was rallied on the old line of works from which it had advanced the second time. […] I saw that I could accomplish nothing more with the force I had engaged, and having fully satisfied myself that this advance was not a feint on the part of the enemy, but a serious and determined attack, I dispatched an orderly to bring up my Second Brigade.”

Col. Joseph A. Mathews, commanding Second Brigade, Third Division, Ninth Corps:
“I was instructed by Lieutenant Webbert, of General Hartranft’s staff, that the general desired me to report, with my command, at division headquarters without a moment’s delay. I immediately dispatched a staff officer to bring down the 211th [Pennsylvania] (which is encamped some two miles from my headquarters),and with the remaining two regiments of my brigade reported promptly at the point mentioned. From thence I was conducted by yourself [Hartranft’s staff officer] to the ravine, situated about two-thirds of a mile in front of your headquarters. I there halted my command about one hour, awaiting orders.

Mortar at Fort Stedman.
Mortar at Fort Stedman.

“I was notified to prepared for a charge against Fort Stedman, and further notified that when the 211th Pennsylvania of my brigade, then under the general’s own supervision, made its appearance on the brow of the hill in my rear, I was to charge with the 205th and 207th against the fort. This was done. I ordered Colonel Cox, with his 207th regiment, to charge the west corner of the fort, at the same time charged the remaining two regiments (the 211th had by this time come up) directly against the rear of the fort.

“In this charge my men behaved most handsomely. The 207th Regiment (Colonel Cox) did their share of the work most effectually, completely cutting off the enemy’s line of retreat, while the 205th and 211th entered the fort and aided the 207th in capturing all the enemy who had remained inside.

Fort Stedman interior.
Fort Stedman interior.

Confederate General John Brown Gordon, commanding the attack:
“The full light of the morning revealed the gathering forces of Grant and the great preponderance of his numbers. It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw. This was not easily accomplished. Foiled by the failure of the guides, deprived of the great bodies of infantry which Lee ordered to my support, I had necessarily stretched out my corps to occupy the intrenchments which had been captured. The other troops were expected to arrive and join in the general advance. The breaking down of the trains and the non-arrival of these heavy supports left me to battle alone with Grant’s gathering and overwhelming forces, and at the same time to draw in my own lines toward Fort Stedman. A consuming fire on both flanks and front during this withdrawal caused a heavy loss to my command. I myself was wounded, but not seriously , in the recrossing the space over which we had charged in the darkness.

“This last supreme effort to break the hold of General Grant upon Petersburg and Richmond was the expiring struggle of the Confederate giant, whose strength was nearly exhausted and whose limbs were heavily shackled by the most onerous conditions. Lee knew, as we all did, that the chances against us were as a hundred is to one; but we remembered how George Washington, with his band of ragged rebels, had won American independence through trials and sufferings and difficulties, and although they were far less discouraging and insurmountable than those around us, they were nevertheless many and great. It seemed better, therefore, to take the one chance, though it might be one in a thousand, rather than to stand still while the little army was being depleted, its vitality lessening with each setting sun, and its life gradually ebbing, while the great army in its front was growing and strengthening day by day. To wait was certain destruction: it could not be worse if we tried and failed. The accidents and mishaps which checked the brilliant assault made by my brave men, and which rendered their further advance impossible, could not have been anticipated. But for those adverse happenings, it would seem that we might have won on that single chance.”1

Positions after the repulse of Gordon's men.
Positions after the repulse of Gordon’s men.

Nearly 15,000 Federal troops played some role in this battle. Of them, approximately 72 were killed, 450 were wounded, and 522 missing or captured. Gordon had been only able to summons 10,000 to the fort, losing around 40% in the fight. Approximately 600 were killed, 2,400 were wounded, and 1,000 were captured or missing.



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p331-332, 337, 338, 340-341, 345-347, 354; Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Brown Gordon. []

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One thought on “‘This Last Supreme Effort’ – Confederates Assault Fort Stedman

  1. You did a truly marvelous job of stitching together the timeline and participants in this battle. This piece is a clearer depiction of the battle than I’ve found in other accounts. Thank you.

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