Battle of Fort Stedman
The Battle of Fort Stedman was fought on March 25, 1865, during the final days of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. The Union Army
Union Army
The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

 fortification in the siege lines around Petersburg, Virginia
Petersburg, Virginia
Petersburg is an independent city in Virginia, United States located on the Appomattox River and south of the state capital city of Richmond. The city's population was 32,420 as of 2010, predominantly of African-American ethnicity...

, was attacked in a pre-dawn Confederate
Confederate States Army
The Confederate States Army was the army of the Confederate States of America while the Confederacy existed during the American Civil War. On February 8, 1861, delegates from the seven Deep South states which had already declared their secession from the United States of America adopted the...

 assault by troops led by Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. The attack was the last serious attempt by Confederate troops to break the Siege of Petersburg
Siege of Petersburg
The Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia, fought from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War...

. After an initial success, Gordon's men were driven back by Union troops of the IX Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. John G. Parke.


In March 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert Edward Lee was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War....

 continued defending his positions around Petersburg, but his Army was weakened by desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies and he was outnumbered by his Union counterpart, Lt. Gen.
Lieutenant General (United States)
In the United States Army, the United States Air Force and the United States Marine Corps, lieutenant general is a three-star general officer rank, with the pay grade of O-9. Lieutenant general ranks above major general and below general...

 Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

, by about 125,000 to 50,000. After the defeat of his subordinate, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, at the Battle of Waynesboro
Battle of Waynesboro
The Battle of Waynesboro was fought on March 2, 1865, in Augusta County, Virginia, during the American Civil War. It was the final battle for Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, whose force was destroyed.-Background:...

 in the Shenandoah Valley
Valley Campaigns of 1864
The Valley Campaigns of 1864 were American Civil War operations and battles that took place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia from May to October 1864. Military historians divide this period into three separate campaigns, but it is useful to consider the three together and how they...

, Lee realized that an additional 50,000 men under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan would probably join Grant's army at Petersburg. Furthermore, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was marching north through the Carolinas
The Carolinas
The Carolinas is a term used in the United States to refer collectively to the states of North and South Carolina. Together, the two states + have a population of 13,942,126. "Carolina" would be the fifth most populous state behind California, Texas, New York, and Florida...

 to join Grant as well. Lee had to avoid being outnumbered almost 4 to 1 by these arriving forces and he asked Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon for advice. Gordon replied that he had three recommendations, in decreasing order of preference: first, offer peace terms to the enemy; second, retreat from Richmond and Petersburg, link up with the Confederate army in North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

 under General Joseph E. Johnston
Joseph E. Johnston
Joseph Eggleston Johnston was a career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War...

, jointly defeat Sherman, and then go after Grant; third, fight without delay. An argument ensued, with Lee rejecting the political implications of the first choice and indicating the difficulty of the second, but Gordon left the meeting with the impression that Lee was considering those options. On March 6, however, Gordon was summoned back to headquarters and Lee told him that "there seemed to be but one thing that we could do—fight. To stand still was death. It could only be death if we fought and failed."

Gordon later wrote in his memoirs that he "labored day and night at this exceedingly grave and discouraging problem, on the proper solution of which depended the commander's decision as to when and where he would deliver his last blow for the life of the Confederacy." He worked on his plans until March 23 and decided to recommend a surprise attack on the Union lines that would force Grant to contract his lines and disrupt his plans to assault the Confederate works (which, unbeknownst to Lee and Gordon, Grant had already ordered for March 29).
Gordon planned a pre-dawn assault from the Confederate stronghold known as Colquitt's Salient against Fort Stedman, one of the fortifications in Union lines that encircled Petersburg, named for Griffin A. Stedman, a Union colonel from Connecticut
Connecticut is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and the state of New York to the west and the south .Connecticut is named for the Connecticut River, the major U.S. river that approximately...

 who had been killed in the vicinity in August 1864. It was one of the closest spots to the Confederate works, there were fewer wooden chevaux de frise obstructions protecting it, and a supply depot on the U.S. Military Railroad was less than a mile behind the fort. Directly after capturing Fort Stedman and its artillery, Confederate soldiers would move north and south along the Union lines to clear the neighboring fortification
Fortifications are military constructions and buildings designed for defence in warfare and military bases. Humans have constructed defensive works for many thousands of years, in a variety of increasingly complex designs...

s and make way for the main attack, which would lead to the main Union supply base of City Point
City Point, Virginia
City Point was a town in Prince George County, Virginia that was annexed by the independent city of Hopewell in 1923. It served as headquarters of the Union Army during the Siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War.- History :...

 (also Grant's headquarters), ten miles (16 km) northeast on the Appomattox River
Appomattox River
The Appomattox River is a tributary of the James River, approximately long, in central and eastern Virginia in the United States, named for the Appomattocs Indian tribe who lived along its lower banks in the 17th century...


The assault force was three divisions of Gordon's Second Corps
Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
The Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was a military organization within the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during much of the American Civil War. It was officially created and named following the Battle of Sharpsburg in 1862, but comprised units in a corps organization for quite...

 (under Brig. Gen. Clement A. Evans
Clement A. Evans
Clement Anselm Evans was a Confederate infantry general in the American Civil War. He was also a noted politician, preacher, historian and prolific author....

, Maj. Gen. Bryan Grimes
Bryan Grimes
Bryan Grimes was a North Carolina plantation owner and a general officer in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He fought in nearly all of the major battles of the Eastern Theater of that war....

, and Brig. Gen. James A. Walker
James A. Walker
James Alexander Walker was a Virginia lawyer, politician, and Confederate general during the American Civil War, later serving as a United States Congressman for two terms...

), two brigades from the Fourth Corps
Fourth Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
The Fourth Corps was a military unit formed in October 1864 within the Army of Northern Virginia of the Confederate Army. It fought for the Confederate States of America during the late stages of the American Civil War. The corps was commanded by Richard H...

 division of Maj. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson (under Brig. Gens. Matt W. Ransom and William H. Wallace) in close support, and two brigades from Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox
Cadmus M. Wilcox
Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox was a career United States Army officer who served in the Mexican–American War and also was a Confederate general during the American Civil War.-Early life and career:...

's Third Corps
Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
The Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was a military organization within the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during much of the American Civil War. The corps was formed in mid-1863 and served until Lee's surrender April 9, 1865, near the end of the war.-Formation:After the death of...

 division in reserve. Lee had also ordered the division of Maj. Gen. George Pickett
George Pickett
George Edward Pickett was a career United States Army officer who became a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War...

 of the First Corps
First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
The First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia was a military unit fighting for the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War. It was formed in early 1861 and served until the spring of 1865, mostly in the Eastern Theater. The corps was commanded by James Longstreet for much of its...

 to move from its position north of the James River in time to join the action. This represented almost half of Lee's infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia
Army of Northern Virginia
The Army of Northern Virginia was the primary military force of the Confederate States of America in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, as well as the primary command structure of the Department of Northern Virginia. It was most often arrayed against the Union Army of the Potomac...

: 11,500 men from Gordon's corps and Bushrod Johnson's division, 1,700 of Wilcox's men nearby, and 6,500 from Pickett moving up. Maj. Gen. W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee , known as Rooney Lee or W.H.F. Lee, was the second son of Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis. He was a planter, a Confederate cavalry General in the American Civil War, and later a member of the U.S. Congress.-Early life:Lee was born at Arlington House in...

's cavalry division was designated to exploit the expected infantry breakthrough. Opposing them were the Union IX Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, defending the first 7 miles (11.3 km) south from the Appomattox River, and manning in Gordon's front (from north to south) artillery Batteries IX and X, Fort Stedman, and Batteries XI and XII. Parke's 3rd Division, under Brig. Gen. John F. Hartranft
John F. Hartranft
John Frederick Hartranft was the 17th Governor of Pennsylvania from 1873 to 1879 and a Union Major General who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the American Civil War.-Early life and career:...

, was in reserve behind the lines. While Maj. Gen. George G. Meade was away at City Point with Grant, Parke was the acting commander of the Army of the Potomac
Army of the Potomac
The Army of the Potomac was the major Union Army in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.-History:The Army of the Potomac was created in 1861, but was then only the size of a corps . Its nucleus was called the Army of Northeastern Virginia, under Brig. Gen...

, although he would not realize that until after Gordon's attack started.

Confederate attack

Gordon's attack started at 4:15 a.m. Lead parties of sharpshooters and engineers masquerading as deserting soldiers headed out to overwhelm Union pickets and to remove obstructions that would delay the infantry advance. They were followed by three groups of 100 men assigned to storm the Union works and stream back into the Union rear area. These men relied on surprise and speed—they carried unloaded muskets so that no one could accidentally fire and alert the enemy. The main thrust was between Batteries XI and X, with one group moving north for Battery XI and the other two for X and Stedman. The movement achieved complete surprise.
Brevet (military)
In many of the world's military establishments, brevet referred to a warrant authorizing a commissioned officer to hold a higher rank temporarily, but usually without receiving the pay of that higher rank except when actually serving in that role. An officer so promoted may be referred to as being...

 Brig. Gen. Napoleon B. McLaughlen, the officer responsible for the Fort Stedman sector, heard the sounds of the attack, dressed quickly in the predawn darkness, and rode to Fort Haskell, just to the south of Battery XII, which he found to be ready to defend itself. As he moved north, McLaughlen ordered Battery XII to open fire on Battery XI and ordered a reserve infantry regiment, the 59th Massachusetts, to counterattack, which they did with fixed bayonets, briefly re-capturing Battery XI. Assuming that he had sealed the only breach in the line, McLaughlen rode into Fort Stedman. He recalled, "I crossed the parapet 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." He suddenly realized that the men he was ordering were Confederates and they realized he was a Union general, capturing him. He was taken back across no man's land
No man's land
No man's land is a term for land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties that leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms...

 and surrendered his sword personally to Gordon.

Gordon soon arrived at Fort Stedman and found his attack had so far exceeded his "most sanguine expectations." Within minutes, Batteries X, XI, and XII and Fort Stedman had been seized, opening a gap nearly 1000 feet (304.8 m) long in the Union line. Confederate artillerists under Lt. Col. Robert M. Stribling used the captured guns in Stedman and Battery X to open up enfilading
Enfilade and defilade
Enfilade and defilade are concepts in military tactics used to describe a military formation's exposure to enemy fire. A formation or position is "in enfilade" if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis. A unit or position is "in defilade" if it uses natural or artificial obstacles to...

 fire on the entrenchments to the north and south. The attack began having difficulty at Battery IX to the north, where the Union troops formed a battle line and the Confederates were too confused by the maze of trenches to attack it effectively. Gordon turned his attention to the southern flank of his attack and Fort Haskell, against which he launched his division under Clement Evans. The defenders successfully employed canister rounds from three cannons, halting the assault. The Confederate artillery from Colquitt's Salient began bombarding Fort Haskell and the Federal field artillery returned fire, along with the massive siege guns in the rear. When the Union flag was knocked down, the Union gunners assumed that it had fallen to the Confederates and opened fire on their own men. Volunteers were found to raise the flag again and four of them were killed before the Federal artillery ceased fire.

Gordon sent a message back to Lee that the attack was going well, but he was unaware of the trouble developing. His three 100-man detachments were wandering around the rear area in confusion and many had stopped to satisfy their hunger with captured Federal rations. The cavalry had not found an avenue through which to advance into the rear. Pickett's Division had such difficulty with rail transportation that only three of its four brigades departed on schedule, and they did not arrive until midday, too late to take part in the battle. And the main Union defense force was beginning to mobilize. Parke acted decisively, ordering Hartranft's reserve division to close the gap while his reserve artillery under Col. John C. Tidball took up positions on a ridge east of Fort Stedman and began shelling the Confederates.

Union counterattack

Hartranft, in the words of historian Noah Andre Trudeau, "was a man possessed. From the instant he received word that Fort Stedman had fallen, Hartranft worked furiously to limit the Confederate penetration and, once that objective has been achieved, to eliminate the pocket." Finding that Maj. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox
Orlando B. Willcox
Orlando Bolivar Willcox was an American soldier who served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.-Early life:...

, Parke's 1st Division commander and a more senior officer, was preparing his headquarters to withdraw, Hartranft was able to convince Willcox to yield tactical command and he organized defensive forces that completely ringed the Confederate penetration by 7:30 a.m., stopping it just short of the military railroad depot, Meade Station. The Union artillery, aware that Confederates occupied the batteries and Fort Stedman, launched punishing fire against them.

Gordon, who was in Fort Stedman, realized his plan had failed when his lead men started returning and reported remarkable Union resistance. With permission from Lee, who had arrived to watch the battle, Gordon scrambled to get his forces back to safety. By 7:45 a.m., 4,000 Union troops under Hartranft were positioned in a semicircle of a mile and a half, ready to counterattack. A messenger arrived with word from Parke to delay the attack while reinforcements came up from the VI Corps, but Hartranft ordered his line to charge, writing afterward that "I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the line to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement." The retreating Confederates came under Union crossfire, suffering heavy casualties. Their attack had failed. Fort Stedman was recaptured by a squad from the 208th Pennsylvania.


A distinguished visitor came close to witnessing the action on March 25. President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 was conferring with General Grant and a division-size review parade was scheduled nearby for that morning. Because of the Confederate attack, the review was postponed until that afternoon. A Confederate prisoner was amazed to see the general and president so soon after what he considered a massive attack, riding "by us seemingly not the least concerned and as if nothing had happened." He and his fellow prisoners took note of this self-confidence and "with one accord agreed that our cause was lost." Lincoln had telegraphed to Secretary of War
United States Secretary of War
The Secretary of War was a member of the United States President's Cabinet, beginning with George Washington's administration. A similar position, called either "Secretary at War" or "Secretary of War," was appointed to serve the Congress of the Confederation under the Articles of Confederation...

 Edwin M. Stanton
Edwin M. Stanton
Edwin McMasters Stanton was an American lawyer and politician who served as Secretary of War under the Lincoln Administration during the American Civil War from 1862–1865...

 that morning, "Arrived here all safe about 9 P.M. yesterday. No war news ... Robert [Lincoln's son, serving as an aide to Grant] just now tells me there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began."

The attack on Fort Stedman turned out to be a four-hour action with no impact on the Union lines. The Confederate Army was forced to set back its own lines, as the Union attacked further down the front line. To give Gordon's attack enough strength to be successful, Lee had weakened his own right flank. The II Corps and VI Corps seized much of the entrenched Confederate picket line southwest of Petersburg, but found the main line still well manned. This Union advance prepared the ground for Grant's breakthrough attack in the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.

Union casualties in the Battle of Fort Stedman were 1,044 (72 killed, 450 wounded, 522 missing or captured), Confederate casualties a considerably heavier 4,000 (600 killed, 2,400 wounded, 1,000 missing or captured). But more seriously, the Confederate positions were weakened. After the battle, Lee's defeat was only a matter of time. His final opportunity to break the Union lines and regain the momentum was gone. The Battle of Fort Stedman was the final episode of the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign. Immediately following was the Appomattox Campaign
Appomattox Campaign
The Appomattox Campaign was a series of battles fought March 29 – April 9, 1865, in Virginia that culminated in the surrender of Confederate General Robert E...

, including the Battle of Five Forks
Battle of Five Forks
The Battle of Five Forks was fought on April 1, 1865, southwest of Petersburg, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, during the Appomattox Campaign of the American Civil War. The battle, sometimes referred to as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," pitted Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan against...

, the fall of Richmond and Petersburg, and the final surrender of Lee's army on April 9, 1865.

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