Blue & Gray: Attack on Fort Stedman

by Fred Ray on August 9, 2008 · 2 comments

Grabbed a copy of Blue & Gray magazine the other day for the article on the battle of Fort Stedman. For those unfamiliar with the action, it was the last assault of the Army of Northern Virginia on March 25, 1865. The article is by William Wyrick, a volunteer at Petersburg National Battlefield. Wyrick and I have exchanged a good deal of correspondence about the battle, which I devoted two chapters to in my sharpshooter book. Both Wyrick and Chris Calkins, Chief of Interpretation at Petersburg and an authority on nearly everything connected to it, have been very generous in sharing resources on the battle with me.

Nevertheless I do have some substantial disagreements with Wyrick’s article, which I’ll set out in some upcoming posts. I do this in the spirit of constructive criticism and invite him to respond.

The first issue is the order of battle, specifically the composition of Grimes’ (formerly Rodes’) division, the core of Gordon’s Confederate Second Corps. Composed of four brigades (Battle’s, Cook’s, Cox’s, and Grimes’) it was the main striking force in the attack. However, one of the brigades, that of Brigadier General William R. Cox, did not participate in the battle although it is listed as doing so in the article. The article OB notes only that one of the brigade’s regiments, the 4th NC, did not arrive because of a lost courier. This is indeed what the history of that regiment says, but it applies to the entire brigade. The source given is Walter Clark’s massive Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions in the Great War 1861-1865. However if one looks at Volume IV, which covers brigade rather than regimental histories, one finds a detailed account by the brigade commander, the same William Cox who, though wounded eleven times, survived the war and was one of the last surviving Confederate generals.

On leaving the Valley of Virginia, the greater part of Early’s command under Gordon proceeded at once to Petersburg and were placed behind the intrenchments erected for the protection of that town. Soon my brigade was detached from the division for important and special duty north of the Appomattox, with orders to “make all reports and forward all matter directly to General Lee’s headquarters”; a signal act of confidence, as only steady troops were trusted to guard the several miles of river front, on which we were stationed, from any advance of the enemy in this direction.

The corps of sharpshooters who were under the command of the brave and fearless Colonel H. A. Brown, of the Third North Carolina Regiment, did not accompany me, and it may be here stated that this body of sharpshooters were really about the size of an ordinary regiment, and in their assault upon Hare’s Hill 25 March, 1865, which soon after occurred, were first to penetrate the enemy’s lines and make important captures. When Lee decided to assault and break Grant’s lines in front of the Hill, he endeavored to concentrate all his available forces at this centre. A courier was sent to me with orders to move at once to the point of intended assault. This courier lost his way during the night, which loss of time, together with the concentration of my troops, delayed my movements until early dawn. Not apprised of the contemplated movement, my first intimation of the conflict was given by the booming of artillery and the sharp, quick reports of the small arms. Leaving my brigade moving with a quick step, I put spurs to my horse and sought General Lee. As I dashed across the Appomattox bridge into the town I was surprised to find so many Federal soldiers coming down the street and, for the moment, my impression was they had broken through our lines. But I quickly discovered they were disarmed and our prisoners. Keeping on, I found General Lee standing alone in old Blandford Cemetery, looking thoughtfully on at the battle, whose tide had begun to turn against us; for the Federals recovering from their surprise, with reserves already in the rear, soon concentrated, and with overwhelming numbers repulsed us. Inquiring what I was to do, the General, calm and seemingly unmoved, quietly directed me to hurry up the brigade, take it into the covered way leading up to our intrenchments, and cover the retreat. Hastening back to join the brigade, I moved it through the covered way, deployed my troops along the line, and protected the retreat of the army, which was rapidly falling back.

I would say this is pretty definitive and in my my mind settles the issue. There is also at least one other confirmation, that of Sergeant Julius Schaub of Co. B, 14th NC, who confirms that neither his regiment or brigade took part in the battle. Schaub’s revelations come from his unpublished history of the 14th NC in the Troup County, GA, archives.

Cox’s brigade was probably the largest in the division at the time, so it deprived Grimes of about a third of his strength. Otherwise in the article, Wyrick does an excellent job of showing how defective Confederate deployments deprived Gordon of much of his follow-on force.

UPDATE: One other missing unit was the 1st Battalion NC Sharpshooters, part of Johnston’s brigade. This is not so obvious but the premier authority on the unit, Lee Sherill, has shown me letters and a diary that confirm that it was en route at the time and did not take part in the battle. Unlike Cox’s brigade, the lack of this small battalion (at most a couple of hundred men) did not materially affect the outcome.

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