B&G Article on Fort Stedman: the Attacks on Battery IX

by Fred Ray on August 28, 2008 · 0 comments

After having looked at the initial assault, it’s time to take a look at the northern sector and attacks on Battery IX and Fort McGilvery.

Maj. Gen. Orlando Willcox, whose division was attacked, stated that there were three Confederate columns: “One column moved toward the right of Battery No. 10, a second column moved toward a point between Fort Stedman and Battery No. 11, a third column moved direct toward Stedman.” The first column mentioned would have been Walker’s division. “Their left column turned down the works to their left toward Battery No. 9, taking the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts in the trenches in flank and rear, capturing a part of them.” Right about then Ransom’s brigade advanced against the front of the 57th Mass. position. The column turned north toward Battery IX and Fort McGilvery, pushing back the 2nd Michigan into Battery IX. Then “the enemy’s force, which had moved down toward Battery 9 and halted, was re-enforced by Ransom’s brigade, and opened an attack upon that battery.”

In a letter from George M. Buck of the 20th Michigan included in George Kilmer’s article in B&L, Buck states: “On the morning of March 25th, before daybreak, the soldiers of the 2d and 20th Michigan learned that Fort Stedman was in the hands of the enemy, and the former retired within Battery IX, and with the 20th Michigan and the two guns of the battery repulsed no less than three vigorous and determined assaults of the enemy. In repelling these assaults Fort McGilvery rendered efficient assistance.”

Lieut. Valentine Stone, commanding the guns at Battery IX, says: “I could just see in the gray of dawn (it was then about 5.15 a.m.) a line of battle drawn up, moving toward me, their right being inside of our works; this line extended along the ravine between Battery No. 9 and Fort Stedman, their left resting near the rebel lines.”

Before this had happened, Confederate sharpshooters had attempted to infiltrate and capture the works held by the 2nd Michigan but had been repulsed. Another group of Confederates circled around behind Fort McGilvery, apparently with the same thing in mind.

Maj. Jacob Roemer, who was in Fort McGilvery, describes at least two attacks: “I thought after I had fired some 100 rounds that the enemy’s progress was stopped, as we saw them for a short time falling back, but it was not long before I could see them returning and attacking with double the strength in numbers, and had gained the road in rear of Fort Stedman and were trying to flank Battery No. 9, as this road affords an excellent shelter for that purpose.”

In his account of the battle published in 1903, General Walker states that it took about an hour to get his division across no man’s land and formed up for an attack, this being hampered by severe disaffection in the ranks, and that it was sunrise before they were ready to attack. I agree with author William Wyrick’s assessment in the B&G article that Lewis’s brigade, and specifically the 6th and 57th NC, probably led the column. Where I differ with him is where they went after that, but more about that later. IAC, Colonel Hamilton Jones of the 57th NC stated in the regimental history that “Lewis’ Brigade was ordered to assault an earthwork diagonally to the left, the name of which is unknown to the writer. It was heavily armed, however, and after a desperate struggle the regiment was forced back after suffering very heavy loss.”

Captain R. D. Funkhouser, with Kasey’s Virginia brigade, said that “it was with the greatest difficulty that the generals got the men in line to charge the second line of works.” In the first attempt Funkhouser got only three men to follow him, but on the second try “two thousand five hundred of us charged with the Rebel yell at double-quick. The enemy’s infantry held their fire until at short range, when they gave us a parting volley and left their works, of which we took possession.”

Color Corporal J. D. Barrier of the 57th NC, part of Lewis’ brigade, says:

The 57th was ordered to deploy and capture a battery in front, located on Hare’s Hill. After advancing well away from other troops then arriving, the voice of Colonel Jones rang out in the morning twilight: “Attention, 57th! Halt! I learn since my return that the regiment has been charged with not standing in battle. To-day we give that the lie. Forward!” The regiment was yet far from the goal when Colonel Jones was wounded…. It was found impossible to capture the fort and the regiment narrowly escaped capture.

My take on all this is that Walker’s division did launch two or three infantry attacks on Battery IX, but none on Fort McGilvery. The initial assaults were made by his sharpshooters and were intended to be much like those on Fort Stedman, but failed. Funkhouser’s description best fits the attack on the 2nd Michigan, which held a position forward of Battery IX. The Michigan men then withdrew into the battery. Barrier’s account seems to best fit Major Roemer’s description of a flanking column coming up a road behind Battery IX in an attempt to get behind it and Fort McGilvery.

Ransom’s brigade probably joined in at least one of the later attacks. George Buck (cited above) says he interviewed a prisoner who confirmed this, and General Willcox (who may have heard it from the same source) says the same thing.

Overall, Walker had five brigades available to him, but only three really got into the battle (Lewis, Kasey, and Ransom). The Confederate infantry assaults were disjointed and uncoordinated due to unfamiliar terrain, limited visibility, and generally poor morale in ranks plus the effects of the long siege. A good comparison would be the unsuccessful attacks on Getty’s division on Cemetery Hill at Cedar Creek. In the end casualties were heavy and the results scant.

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