The Last ANV Offensive: Gordon’s Assault on Fort Stedman

by Brett Schulte on January 6, 2014 · 0 comments

PetersburgCampaignVolume2Bearss2014 The Last ANV Offensive: Gordons Assault on Fort StedmanEditor’s Note: The Siege of Petersburg Volume 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865 by Ed Bearss and Bryce Suderow is scheduled to be released in early 2014, according to publisher Savas Beatie.  The publisher was kind enough to pass along this unedited, original version of a portion of the chapter on the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman, the last major offensive operation of the Army of Northern Virginia.  This chapter was written by Bill Wyrick, who filled in and covered one of the few portions of the Siege for which Ed Bearss did not write a monograph.  The excerpt covers the initial Confederate assault on Union held Fort Stedman by Gordon’s Second Corps, ANV.  The attempt was made in an effort to threaten the Union supply depot at City Point, perhaps causing Grant to withdraw from the stranglehold he then held on Petersburg and Richmond to protect his base and allow an escape by Lee’s men.

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cppbanner The Last ANV Offensive: Gordons Assault on Fort Stedman

Introduction

By March of 1865, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was outnumbered more than two to one outside Richmond and Petersburg, with his entire command tied to tens of miles of trenches and forts. Desertions were increasing, morale was falling, disease coursed through his troops, and supplies were dwindling. Union armies elsewhere were reducing what was left of the Confederacy, collapsing Southern-controlled terrain inexorably toward Virginia. With nothing of substance left to do in the Shenandoah Valley, it was likely Phil Sheridan’s 50,000 men would move east. The initiative remained firmly in the hands of Lee’s opponents. Once the rainy season passed, he knew Generals Grant and Meade would resume active operations. The odds of stopping them increased with each passing day.

On the night of March 4, 1865, Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s Rebel infantry division left its position on the far left of Lee’s line, which it had occupied since June of 1864, and replaced Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s Division on Bermuda Hundred. Pickett moved his men north and joined the rest of James Longstreet’s I Corps above the James River. After much discussion, Lee told informed Maj. Gen. John Gordon 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.” After more than two weeks of planning, Gordon suggested that Lee strike the Union right at Fort Stedman. The lines were close there, and important Union supply bases were behind Stedman, including City Point. A breakthrough might capture these areas. In addition to disrupting Union operations and logistics, a successful attack would help protect the Southside Railroad from further Union attacks by forcing Grant to weaken his own left to confront the victorious Confederates.

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Editor’s Note: The portions of the chapter describing the situation as it stood in late March 1865 and planning for the attack have been removed in the interests of space.

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PetersburgCampaignVol2BearssPage263FortStedmanMap The Last ANV Offensive: Gordons Assault on Fort Stedman Note: This map was used with the permission of Savas Beatie LLC and may not be reproduced without their express written consent. All rights reserved.

THE ATTACK BEGINS

General Gordon planned to strike the Federals at 4:00 a.m. so that his storming parties could take advantage of the darkness in moving on FortStedman and the second line of forts beyond. However, some witnesses recalled seeing the first light of dawn before they received the signal to advance. While his two regiments still lay poised for attack behind their axmen, Col. Hamilton Jones saw that, “Away in the east there was a band of white light in the sky which marked the approach of day.”[1]

In his reminiscences, Gordon tells the tale of how at 4:00 a.m. he mounted his breastworks with no one other than a private to signal the advance. However, he found that his men were still moving the three rows of cheveaux-de-frise in front of Colquitt’s Salient to create an opening for his columns. Gordon claimed a Federal picket called out through the darkness to the Confederate private, “What are you doing over there, Johnny? What is that noise? Answer quick or I’ll shoot.”

Passing long nights in close proximity to one another, the rival pickets often shared their plight by conversing and trading. Gordon feared this Union soldier might sound the alarm, but the Confederate private tasked with firing the shot signaling the attack responded, “Never mind, Yank. Lie down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.” The Union picket relaxed. “All right, Johnny: go ahead and get your corn. I’ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”

When the last of the barricades was pulled aside, Gordon wrote that he ordered the private to fire the shot that would set the attacking force in motion. The soldier balked at crossing his fellow sentry in blue. Gordon said that when he repeated the order in a threatening manner, the private called out, “Hello, Yank! Wake up; we are going to shell the woods. Look out; we are coming.” Having repaid his enemy’s favor, the young man fired his gun, sounding the call to battle.[2]

General Walker, commanding Gordon’s former division toward the left of the Confederate attacking force, offered another version of the beginning of the assault. The suspense was mounting, he explained, when, “General Gordon came down the line to where the head of my column rested, and, finding my command ready to move, stepped to one side and fired three pistol shots in rapid succession.” Walker recalled that Capt. Joseph Anderson commanded the division sharpshooters to advance silently at the double-quick, trailing their unloaded muskets. Walker continued: “I have read many accounts, both in history and fiction, of such attacks, and my blood has been stirred in reading them; but I never read an account of one so dashing, so orderly, and so quiet as this. The cool, frosty morning made every sound distinct and clear, and the only sound heard was the Tramp! Tramp! of the men as they kept step as regularly as if on drill.”[3]

Near the Confederate center, Captain Joseph Perryman Carson, commanding the sharpshooters of Bryan Grimes’s Division, led a contingent drawn from the Doles-Cook Brigade. Carson recalled that Gen. Gordon appeared about 3:00 a.m. He supplied them with white strips of cloth to be drawn over the shoulder and wrapped about the waist so that friend could be distinguished from foe in the darkness. According to Carson, Gordon spoke to the waiting troops: “It was a stirring and impressive speech as we heard it, standing there in the night, with the awful task and eternity staring us in the face. The assault,” continued Carson, “was to be made at a given signal and at last it came. In an instant we were over our works and heading for the fort with all the speed we could command.”[4]

The first Confederate objective was to neutralize the Yankee pickets. Hamilton Jones’s storming party, chosen from William Lewis’s Brigade of Walker’s Division, was led by two youthful lieutenants—the infantry by Jim Edmondson of the 57th North Carolina, and the pioneers by W. W. Flemming of the 6th North Carolina. Edmondson’s squadron appeared to be just another party of deserters advancing through the darkness toward the Union lines as he called out, “Oh, boys, come back! Don’t go!” When the graycoats called out, “Don’t shoot Yank, we are coming in,” Federal sentinels were heard to reply, “It’s okay, Johnnie, come on in. We won’t shoot.” Most of the Federal pickets were thus subdued with bayonets or clubbed muskets before they could react to the ruse. Lieutenant Flemming’s pioneers sprang into action. According to one witness, “as soon as Lieutenant Edmondson’s success was apparent, a gallant corps of pioneers dashed upon the enemy’s obstructions and with their axes chopped and battered them down to make way for the two regiments to enter and take the enemy’s line of defense.”[5]

Union General Willcox, commanding the First Division of the IX Corps, reported that the Rebels struck in three columns: one swept across the low ground toward FortStedman and Battery No. 10 in its front, one moved directly on FortStedman, and the third advanced toward a point between FortStedman and Battery No. 11 to the south. Battery No. 10 was but a small enclosure that connected with the front of FortStedman, and the Southern storming party quickly swept over it. Because no alarm had been given, Lieutenant Ephraim B. Nye of the 14th Massachusetts Light Artillery was killed before his men could fire more than a single round from two three-inch rifles. Captain John M. Twiss of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, in charge of three coehorn and four eight-inch mortars, was wounded. Those few Federals who were not killed, wounded, or captured fled toward the Reserve Camp at Meade’s Station more than a mile to the rear.[6]

cppbanner The Last ANV Offensive: Gordons Assault on Fort Stedman

“The capture of Battery No. 10 gave the enemy a wide opening on the right and rear, and great advantage over Stedman,” recalled Union Captain Hodgkins, “the ground just in rear being on a level with the parapet of the Fort, and they entered the sally-port almost undiscovered.” As Confederates poured into the fort, Captain Edwin W. Rogers of the 19th New York Light Battery rallied his cannoneers long enough to discharge a dozen rounds from his four 12-pounders. But the surprised Federals, some of whom were accused of engaging in a drunken card game, were overcome in hand-to-hand combat. Continued Hodgkins: “It was so dark that foe could not be distinguished from friend, and at one time the enemy were firing a part of the guns and our men the others. The firing revealed the position of our men, and the cannoneers were immediately seized and thrown over the works into the ditch.”[7]

The two trailing North Carolina regiments of Lewis’s Brigade advanced sluggishly at first, the young color-bearer of the 57th urging them into line:

His flag could not be seen the length of a company, however much he might wave it, so he kept his voice going loud enough to be heard all along the line of the regiment saying: Here’s your flag; come on men, keep in line. . . . The men could not be urged to a double-quick, and it seemed a long time getting across that open field. The enemy, however, had been struck with such consternation at the boldness of the well-nigh exhausted gray lines that they fled in dismay after a feeble effort at resistance and left the attacking force in complete possession of FortStedman. The two regiments entered the Federal line, and no enemy appeared near.[8]

During the night, Ransom’s Brigade, part of Bushrod Johnson’s Division, had moved back into the positions opposite Stedman its members had vacated only ten days previously. The Tar Heels formed opposite the fort and the unfinished works that stretched northward toward the Appomattox River. “The left of the Fifty-sixth, the regiment to-day again under Major [John] Graham,” recorded one member, “is near the City Point road, and to its right is the Forty-ninth and then the Twenty-fifth.” Lieutenant Thomas Roulhac of the 49th North Carolina took his sharpshooters out behind Flemming and Edmondson. Also in the forefront was Lieutenant Hawkins of the 25th, who was ordered “Not to attack FortStedman, but to take it.” Ransom’s line of battle followed “on their heels.”[9]

According to Captain Robert Graham of the 56th North Carolina, “Gordon’s people, who had replaced us here on the 15th instant, have just been moved up to the line and are to advance in line abreast with us.” Captain Joseph Anderson of the 49th Virginia and Lieutenant Hugh P. Powell of the 13th Virginia led the sharpshooters of John Pegram’s Brigade (now led by Lieutenant Colonel John G. Kasey) directly toward FortStedman. Before the pioneers could clear a path through the Federal fraise, Anderson and Powell were cut down by enemy fire, both mortally wounded. Captain Robert Daniel Funkhouser of the 49th Virginia recalled that he and his comrades “charged through the gap in two ranks with fixed bayonets, filed to the right, fronted into line of battle, and rushed into the fort without a moment’s hesitation.”[10]

The flash of cannon fire immediately illuminated Captain Joseph Carson’s sharpshooters when they emerged from their entrenchments. Carson said that when his men mounted the rise in front of FortStedman, “The wind from the cannon and the flying balls was so strong we could not keep our hats on, while the frightful roar of the guns drowned every other sound.” Carson recalled that after his men breached the perimeter of sharpened rails, they came upon the moat directly in front of the fort. He recalled the Union defenders firing straight down on them until the attackers found a low place to the right and scrambled to get inside the fort. “Forming my line we struck the enemy at right angles, and they in a few minutes surrendered,” he continued. “As soon as they laid down their arms I ordered them to form into line and double-quick to our works, which they did in a hurry.”[11]

Colonel Eugene Waggaman’s combined Louisiana brigade had slow going across the boggy ground south of FortStedman. Waggaman himself had to be “extricated from the mud of a ditch” before leading his men out of the darkness and into the fort through an embrasure. The scene within was bedlam as the several Confederate storming parties piled into the crowded enclosure, and “such was the excitement and desperate energy of the struggle, that the combatants fought as was afterwards said, ‘as if they had drank two quarts of brandy.’ The fort was finally carried, though it was rough and tumble fighting, the opposing soldiers being locked together like serpents.”[12]

Amid the confusion, the commanding officer of the Federal Third Brigade, General McLaughlen, appeared in Fort Stedman and began issuing orders to the men around him. Private I. G. Bradwell of the 31st Georgia related how McLaughlen “happened to face with Lieutenant Guinn, who was advancing, pistol in hand, with the foremost men. He asked: ‘Are you a Rebel?’ To this Guinn replied, ‘I am,’ and commanded him to surrender. When asked if he was an officer, Guinn replied that it did not matter and told the general to surrender immediately or he would blow his head off.” McLaughlen complied, but was allowed to keep his sword until General Gordon arrived to assume command of the fort for the Confederacy. Private Bradwell escorted McLaughlen to the rear for safekeeping, leaving him “mad enough to die for his bad luck.” Ironically, only the day before McLaughlen had explained to visitors his own proposal for a Union attack against Confederate lines from the left of FortStedman.[13]

Captain Carson recalled that another Union officer—evidence suggests it was Captain Henry Swords of Willcox’s staff, division officer of the day—rode into the line forming behind FortStedman. “He was magnificently mounted and reined up almost against me,” Carson recalled, “with the words, ‘Hello, boys, how are things going?’” Carson replied, “They are going pretty well,” before inviting him to dismount. When two of Carson’s men leveled their rifles at him, the Union officer dismounted and gave up his horse, “with the injunction to take good care of him.” After waiting “some little time” for the arrival of General Gordon, Carson deployed his sharpshooters as skirmishers behind FortStedman. The Doles-Cook Brigade would soon come up behind them as the sharpshooters moved toward the second line of forts farther to the east.[14]

Meanwhile, Colonel Stribling had led two detachments from the Fauquier Artillery and two men each from other batteries of his artillery battalion into FortStedman. Stribling’s detachment turned at least two of the captured cannon and began firing the guns into Federal troops manning the works up and down the line.[15]

The Confederates on the left—with Ransom’s and Lewis’s Carolinians in the lead—swung northward from the captured fort toward the Appomattox River. They swept the line of the 57th Massachusetts from the flank and the rear, forcing them to abandon their camp. Ransom’s Brigade moved swiftly toward Battery No. 9 to the north, the 56th North Carolina forming the extreme left of the Confederate forces. The regiments of Lewis’s Brigade, led by Hamilton Jones of the 57th North Carolina, pushed northeast toward FortFriend (formerly Confederate Battery 8) located 1,200 yards in the rear.[16]

Below FortStedman, Colonel Waggaman emerged on the right of the fort with only about half of his Louisiana Tigers contingent intact. They moved slowly to the south. They may have been among the troops plundering the baggage of the Federals who had abandoned Battery No. 11. For a time, the 100th Pennsylvania under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph H. Pentecost stoutly resisted Confederate skirmishers advancing on the works to the south and toward Meade’s Station in the rear. The 29th and 59th Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers rallied briefly to retake Battery No. 11.[17]

The Confederates kept coming. After their advance to the south was initially blunted by Federal defenders, the men in gray pushed south and east past Batteries No. 11 and 12. According to division commander Clement Evans, fighting on the right of the Confederate assaulting line, Brigadier General William Terry’s consolidated brigade of Virginians “formed and advanced along the breastworks on rear of [the Federals], driving the enemy for a space of about six or seven hundred yards. . . . Evans’ Brigade commanded by Col. [John H.] Baker [13th Georgia] cooperated with Brig. Gen. Terry as soon as the Brigade was crossed from our breastworks to those of the enemy.” Terry’s men pushed on toward FortHaskell. Evans claimed the capture of “the south half of FortStedman and about six or seven hundred yards of the breastworks in which were very many mortars and other pieces of artillery and at least four hundred of the prisoners captured.”[18]

Thus far the assault had unfolded better than anyone could have reasonably expected, and Gordon sent word of his initial success to General Lee, who was observing the attack from “a commanding position near the old BlandfordChurch.” Up to this point, recalled Gordon:

the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations. We had taken FortStedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlen, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. . . . I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlen by assuming command of FortStedman.

Gordon had indeed breached the Federals’ front line. Now he awaited word from the three detachments advancing on the second line of Federal forts.[19]

The Philadelphia Inquirer later reported that all the forces on the field now came into play: “At five o’clock the rebels opened from their works—Spring Hill Battery, opposite Steadman, the 8-inch mortar on its right, the Gooseneck, Clifton and Chesterfield on the north side of the river. . . . Our artillerists still supposing it nothing more than a challenge to one of the old duels so common between them, sprang to their guns. . . . ‘The rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air,’ were literal facts, and no mere phantasies of a poetic frenzy.”[20]

Notes:

[1] Jones, “Fifty-Seventh Regiment,” 422-423.

[2] Gordon, Reminiscences, 408-409.

[3] Walker, “Gordon’s Assault on FortStedman,” 25.

[4] According to Captain Joseph P. Carson, this “graphic account . . . was given by him to a reporter of the press several years after the close of the war,” quoted in Henry W. Thomas, History of Doles Cooke Brigade: Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865 (Atlanta, 1903), 35.

[5] J. D. Barrier, “Breaking Grant’s Line,” in Confederate Veteran, 43 vols. (Wilmington, 1986-1988), vol. 33, 417; Richmond Times Dispatch, March 28, 1865, 1.

[6] OR 46, pt. 1, 322-325.

[7] Hodgkins, Battle of FortStedman, 24; OR 46, pt. 1, 341; George L. Kilmer, “Assault and Repulse at FortStedman,” Century Magazine (September, 1987), vol. 34, No. 5, 783-791. A virtually identical version of Kilmer’s account is found in Johnson and Buell, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 4, 579. Colonel Thomas W. Clarke, adjutant-general of the Third Brigade, vehemently denied the accusation that the men in FortStedman had been drinking or gambling. Clarke also stated that, “Standing orders required the troops to be under arms half an hour before daybreak.” Anderson, The Fifty-Seventh Regiment, 268; Hodgkins, Battle of FortStedman, 24.

[8] Barrier, “Breaking Grant’s Line,” 417.

[9] Thomas R. Roulhac, “Forty-Ninth Regiment,” in Clark, North Carolina Regiments,vol. 3, 144, and Robert D. Graham, “Fifty-Sixth Regiment,” 390.

[10] Laura Virginia Hale and Stanley S. Phillips, History of the Forty-Ninth Virginia Regiment: “Extra Billy Smith’s Boys” (Lanham, 1981), 203.

[11] Thomas, Doles-Cook Brigade, 40.

[12]Bartlett, Military Record of Louisiana, 40.

[13] I. G. Bradwell, “Holding the Line at Petersburg,” Confederate Veteran, vol. 28, 457.

[14] Thomas, Doles-Cook Brigade, 41.

[15] Michael J. Andrus, The Brooke, Fauquier, Loudoun, and Alexandria Artillery (Lynchburg, 1990), 85.

[16] Jones, “Fifty-Seventh Regiment,” 424.

[17]Bartlett, Military Record of Louisiana Troops, 40; OR 46, pt. 1, 331.

[18] Robert Grier Stephens, ed., Intrepid Warrior, Clement Anselm Evans: Confederate General from Georgia; Life, Letters, and Diaries of the War Years (Dayton, 1992), 535.

[19] Gordon, Reminiscences, 411. H. A. London, ed., “Battle of Fort Stedman,” The Chatham Record,March 27, 1912 (page not indicated).

[20] “Mr. Edward Crapsey’s Letter,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1865, 1.


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