B&G Article on Fort Stedman: Who Probed Fort Friend?

by Fred Ray on September 2, 2008 · 1 comment

In my last post I looked the attacks on the attacks on Battery IX and Fort McGilvery in the northern sector, where I concluded that Gen. Walker got three brigades into action (Lewis, Kasey and Ransom) but failed to make a coordinated attack on Battery IX and any ground attack at all on Fort McGilvery. Within a short time of learning of the Confederate attack Col. Ralph Ely, whose Michigan brigade defended the northern sector, threw up a defensive line behind the grade of the Southside railroad that stopped any further Southern advances.

At some point while these attacks were in progress, someone “probed” Fort Friend, which lay roughly a mile due east of Fort Stedman. It was a small enclosed work without an infantry garrison, holding only the 3-inch rifles of Lieutenant Edward Jones’ Eleventh Massachusetts Battery. Both I and B&G article author William Wyrick credit Jones with six guns, but this may not be correct. Brig. Gen. Tidball, the sector artillery commander, does say that Jones has six guns in his report, but OTOH his recapitulation of his artillery made on May 28 states that Jones had four guns (so did the two gun sections at nearby Meade’s Station). Major Jacob Roemer, who was at Fort McGilvery, says “this command had relieved Captain Jones’ four pieces of 3-inch rifle ordnance guns with four pieces of the same kind at 8 p.m. on the 24th of March.” This makes me think that Jones had four and not six 3” rifles.

If Walker’s men were fully occupied with trying to take Battery IX and Fort McGilvery, then who probed Fort Friend? The B&G article (and this apparently is the view of the Petersburg park staff as well) credits the 6th and 57th NC regiments with approaching the fort until driven back by Jones’ guns. Wyrick cites the capsule history of the 57th NC in Clark (1901) written by its former commander, Col. Hamilton Jones, and an article in Confederate Veteran by J. D. Barrier in support. Since Jones was in command of the 57th NC at Stedman his account carries considerable weight. He says that the 6th and 57th led Walker’s attacking column, and that Lewis’ brigade attacked “an earthwork diagonally to the left” and was thrown back with loss.

Barrier’s account, however, is a bit more problematic. He wrote it (the original typescript copy is in the NCDAH) in 1923 and it was published in Confederate Veteran in 1925, nearly sixty years after the event. If Barrier was twenty in 1865 then he would have been 78 when he set his memories down, so his account should be used with caution. Barrier was the color corporal of the 57th and has a fairly detailed description of the attack. He says that three regiments of Lewis’ brigade, the 25th, 6th and 57th, went “over the top” into Fort Stedman, but then immediately switches to describing two regiments, presumably the 6th and 57th. He 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…” This is taken, apparently, to mean that the 6th and 57th were the units approaching Fort Friend.

I’m not so sure. It would mean that two of the five regiments of Lewis’ brigade detached themselves and headed due east almost a mile away. This is, to say the least, an unusual tactical arrangement and would have left Lewis with only three regiments to deal with Battery IX and Fort McGilvery. The only real support for this is Barrier’s statement that the regiment(s) were “well away” from the “other troops.” This statement is so general as to be impossible to decipher. How far is “well away?” Who are the “other troops?” Lewis’ brigade or the rest of Walker’s division?

Overall, I think both Col. Jones and Cpl. Barrier’s accounts can be reconciled with a coherent tactical picture. Union eyewitness accounts have the left Confederate column (i.e. Walker’s division) crossing the lines and then turning north. In my reconstruction the head of the column, led by the sharpshooters, bumps into the 2nd Michigan and is repulsed. The column recoils. Lewis’ brigade, in the lead, shifts east in an attempt to outflank Battery IX. This is the column that Major Roemer sees from Fort McGilvery. Kasey’s Virginia brigade, next in line, deploys and attacks the 2nd Michigan, driving it back to Battery IX. Lewis is now ordered to attack Battery IX, “diagonally to the left” but fails. This shift would also account for Barrier’s description of being “well away” from the other troops—the rest of the division. He also mentions attacking a battery “in front, located on Hare’s Hill.” If taken literally, this would have put the battery on top of Fort Stedman. Walker’s column passed to the left of Fort Stedman and turned north, which would not have put Fort Friend “in front,” altho it would fit for Battery IX. Similarly, If the 57th was advancing east toward Fort Friend, then Col. Jones’ description of an attack “diagonally to the left” is meaningless since the fort would be to his front. Jones also never says anything about the brigade being split up, and Barrier’s account can be read that way as well. Overall, I think this is much more likely than having two of Lewis’ regiments off a quarter of a mile away.

We also need to look at the descriptions of the attack itself. In his memoir Barrier describes what sounds like a conventional line of battle i.e. he is standing up with the colors under artillery fire. The Union accounts, however, all describe a skirmish line approaching Fort Friend, but a conventional line of battle attacking Battery IX and For McGilvery.

Maj. Gen. Orlando Willcox, who commanded the division under attack (and who was an eyewitness) says:

The enemy’s skirmishers now came down the hill directly to the rear of Stedman, and moved toward my headquarters at the Friend house, the Dunn House Battery, and in the direction of Meade’s Station….I ordered the Seventeenth Michigan to deploy as skirmishers on his right. This regiment, with only 100 men in its ranks, under command of Major Mathews, moved forward at the same time with General Hartranft’s line, capturing most of the enemy’s skirmishers in their front, about twenty-five in number, and inclining to the right, connected with the skirmishers of Ely’s brigade.

Captain Edward Jones, in command of Fort Friend, says:

at this hour it was not sufficiently light to distinguish friend from foe, but as the day broke the enemy were discovered moving from Fort Stedman toward Fort Haskell, and I immediately opened fire on them, and at the same moment they advanced their skirmish line rapidly toward the height upon which this work is situated, and as this line arrived on the ravine, about 500 yards in our front, we directed on them a quick fire of canister which at once checked the advance.

Significantly, both Jones and Willcox describe the enemy as coming from Fort Stedman, and not from north of it where Walker’s division would have been (the B&G map would have had them advancing from the direction of Battery IX) and that it was skirmish line, not a line of battle, that approached the fort.

Captain Samuel McClellan, commanding the reserve artillery brought up from Meade’s station, tells how his fire caused “their advance skirmishers, who were near the base of the hill [on which sat Fort Friend], to fall back in rear of our old line of rifle-pits, about 200 yards in rear of Fort Stedman.”

So it’s pretty clear to me that the only force that got anywhere near Fort Friend was a skirmish line. That late in the war, for the Confederates, this almost always meant their sharpshooters, since that was the task for which they were organized. True, there were times and places that the Confederates fought their line regiments in open order, but this was fairly rare. One of the major problems at Fort Stedman was, as Maj. Gen. Clement Evans noted in his post-battle report, that the line regiments were badly in need of drill and were difficult to maneuver. Then too, the sharpshooters, as an elite force, represented the ANVs best remaining soldiers. I think it unlikely, especially given the fact that they were seen advancing from Fort Stedman, that these were the 6th and 57th NC advancing in open order. If it were the skirmishers for these two regiments, then a line of battle should have been close behind.

Who, then were they? The middle column described in Federal sources was Grimes’ division, less Cox’s brigade. At this point in the war Grimes’ Division Sharpshooters, a demi-brigade composed of the sharpshooter battalions of his four brigades (Cox’s sharpshooters were present even though the brigade was not), were about 500 strong. These were the men who had taken Fort Stedman and who would have been the logical choice to continue advancing forward toward Fort Friend. Grimes’ Division Sharpshooters advanced east from Fort Stedman to the base of the hill on which Fort Friend sat, to within about 500 yards of it. Jones opened fire on them with his four (or six) 3” rifles, then they began to be pressured from the north by the 17th Michigan, and by the south by the remnants of the 57th Mass., both fighting in open order. Two full-strength Pennsylvania regiments and the Union reserve artillery soon appeared, forcing the sharpshooters back to a line of old trenches behind Fort Stedman.

This is certainly a better fit for both the tactical scenario and the available information. It is possible that the 6th and 57th NC led Walker’s column initially, passed through Battery X and kept going east toward Fort Friend while the rest turned north, but it seems unlikely since Walker’s job was to widen the breach and Grimes was in the center.

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