Blue & Gray article on Fort Stedman: Ransom’s brigade

by Fred Ray on August 24, 2008 · 0 comments

Before taking a look at Fort Friend, I first want to examine the actions of Ransom’s brigade (24th, 25th, 35th, 49th, and 56th NC regiments) at Fort Stedman. Students of the battle, including myself, have had it attacking Battery IX, but after taking another look I have come to the conclusion that Ransom’s and Wallace’s brigades pretty much sat out the initial attacks.

The short version is this: Ransom was up for the attack at 4am, but Wallace was not. Ransom’s sharpshooters and some selected volunteers joined Gordon’s sharpshooters in taking Battery X and the supporting works north of them. The brigade then advanced across no man’s land, scooping up pickets from the 57th Massachusetts (which was just then being attacked in the flank and rear) and moving into position just north of Fort Stedman. Then, inexplicably, they waited. When Wallace came up sometime about dawn he went into Fort Stedman, increasing the crowding and disorganization there. After daylight Ransom finally attempted to swing around behind Fort McGilvery, but by that time it was too late. Instead of attacking the brigade ended up fighting off increasingly fierce Union counterattacks by Ely’s Michigan brigade and Hartranft’s Pennsylvanians before finally withdrawing back to its original positions in tatters.

I came to this conclusion from re-reading the regimental histories in Clark. I haven’t seen much in the way of soldier accounts, which may shed more light on the subject. Here’s what they say (emphasis is mine):

Twenty-fourth NC:

Moving on in the darkness we soon came in contact with the enemy’s cheveaux de freise fastened together with wire. Through this we soon made an opening, and entered the works without firing a gun, the Yankees not expecting an assault. As we brought them out in their night clothes we would send them to the rear. A moment later firing commenced to our right, but the enemy was so completely taken by surprise that their effort was but a feeble one, and we had their line for a mile or more. For some unknown cause the advantage we had then gained was thrown away, and we were permitted to quietly remain where we were until Grant moved a portion of his army from Hatcher’s Run, some nine miles away.

The history of the Twenty-fifth NC says:

The Twenty-fifth was moved forward to the left of Fort Steadman and nearly in front of the position it had occupied in the ditches through the winter; drove in the enemy’s pickets, took their first works and held them. The fort of the enemy in the field on the left was not taken, and the enemy from that point poured a fearful enfilading fire into the regiment.

The account of the Thirty-fifth NC account is silent on the matter. That of the Forty-ninth NC claims that:

Ransom’s Brigade captured Fort Steadman, the Forty-ninth rushing over it without a halt, and all the works in our front; but those between us and the river were not taken, although we enfiladed that part of the line, and with our fire on their flank, it could have been easily done. Their fort near the river was thus enabled to annoy us greatly.

I think the claim of capturing Fort Stedman is dubious, and that the entire brigade passed north of it, which would have taken them thru the camp of the 57th Mass. (this explains capturing prisoners in their bed clothes). There is no mention of anyone actually attacking “the fort on the left.”

Captain B. F. Dixon of the 49th NC added some additional pithy observations:

Somebody blundered here. On the morning of the 25th a corps of engineers and sharp-shooters crossed over the space between the lines, and without the loss of a single man, captured the enemy’s works, including Fort Steadman, together with a large number of prisoners. The main body of our army followed and took possession of the works and then lay down and waited until the enemy could reinforce their lines, and still waited until they came upon us in front and by flank in numbers so great that they could not be counted …. I have always been able to find some sort of excuse for failures, but in this instance I stand to-day as I did on that day, and unhesitatingly say, “Somebody blundered.”

There is a longer account in the history of the Fifty-sixth NC. The writer places the 56th on the far left end of the line, with Fort Stedman to their right, but makes no mention of any attack. Instead:

The morning wore on, with the enemy paying us their respects both with infantry and distant artillery on our left, and shelling from a point to our right. The men who had charged through Plymouth before breakfast, were not to be idle spectators, for the rest of the day of the drama in which we had acted only the first scene. So Major Graham prepared to wheel to the left and charge in the rear the fort on the City Point road. It was supported by a Michigan Brigade, commanded by Colonel Ely…and they had shown no disposition to get out of our way, or let us alone. At the same time we are in the range of a fort on the south and another on the north bank of the Appomattox river to our left, who are displaying a spirit of rivalry in their attentions to us. Before our assault can be delivered against our nearest foe, a solid column of blue appears upon the rising ground to our front and right.

Seems pretty clear to me that Captain Dixon was right – somebody blundered. Two brigades that might have made the difference at either Fort McGilvery or Fort Friend sat idle until too late, then were decimated for no reason. Was this the fault of General Ransom, who commanded both brigades, or General Gordon, who was nearby at Fort Stedman?

I can see some revisions are in order in the next edition of my book, although I’d like to see some soldier accounts first.

The other question is the strength of Ransom’s brigade. The history of the 56th NC says “Nearly one-half of the Confederate loss to-day fell on Ransom’s Brigade, Colonel Rutledge reporting 1,364 lost out of his 2,300.” The Blue & Gray article uses this figure, which seems high to me. Few Confederate brigades this late in the war were this strong. The history of the 49th NC gives Ransom’s casualties as 700 men, which if losses were 50% would mean that the brigade was about 14-1500 men, which seems more realistic. The nearest contemporary report, that of General Richard Anderson, estimated losses as “above 1,200 in the two brigades” (i.e. Ransom and Wallace), which would imply a strength of 2500-3000 for both. An alternative attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory figures is that Rutledge’s report combined the two brigades, as Anderson did. Thus the combined strength of both Ransom and Wallace would be 2,300 and their combined casualties 1,364. Ransom’s losses would be 700 and Wallace’s 664.

By comparison, Grimes’ division lost 478 men and Evans’ 531. Walker’s were probably similar. Estimating 1500 casualties for Second Corps and 1364 for Ransom/Wallace totals 2864, which is almost exactly the 2681 estimated by Phisterer, and does show that Ransom suffered disproportionately and did account for almost half the Confederate casualties.

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