America’s Civil War: Pre-Dawn Assault on Fort Stedman
Near Petersburg, Virginia, in the frosty pre-dawn hours of March 25, 1865, a Union sentry in front of Fort Stedman could hear the faint rustle of dry cornstalks quite clearly. ‘I say, Johnny,’ he shouted as he brought his weapon to full cock, ‘what are you doing in that corn?’ Sharpshooters might rule the daylight hours, but at night the opposing pickets, separated by less than 500 feet, often became quite chummy.
‘All right, Yank, I am just gathering me a little corn to parch,’ came the answer.
‘All right Johnny, I won’t shoot.’
A bit later the Federal asked, ‘I say, Johnny, isn’t it almost daylight? I think it is time they were relieving us.’
‘Keep cool, Yank; you’ll be relieved in a few minutes.’
The relief the Confederate had in mind, however, was not the kind the Union private would find to his liking, for all that rustling in the corn had been caused by Rebel pioneers dragging aside sections of chevaux-de-frise — spiked wooden barriers chained end to end — to create an opening through which their infantry could attack the Federal lines.
Major General John Gordon and Brig. Gen. James Walker listened anxiously to the colloquy and then relaxed a bit. Gordon had hatched a plan for his commander, General Robert E. Lee, to strike the Union logistical base at City Point, only 10 miles northeast of Petersburg. Gordon hoped the attack would give the Army of Northern Virginia enough breathing space to disengage and join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
Behind them, only a few hundred yards away, the three divisions of Gordon’s 7,500-man Second Corps formed into columns. Backed by Brig. Gen. Robert Ransom’s North Carolina brigade and Brig. Gen. William Wallace’s South Carolina brigade, Gordon had just over 10,000 men in his assaulting force, with about half that many in reserve. He had also telegraphed for Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s Division, but it was an open question whether it would arrive in time.
Sharpshooters, men who made up a picked corps of light infantry, would form the spearhead of the assaulting columns. ‘General Gordon got us to close up around him that night,’ recalled Oscar Whitaker, a sharpshooter from the 12th Alabama, ‘while he stood on a stump and told us how Lee was situated, what a long line we were having to keep up….In front of us he said was Fort Stedman; he told us if we would take it he would have our names in every paper in the South; of course we, being old soldiers, told him we would do it; he told us for not a man to load his gun, and at a signal from him to rush over to the fort — knock down and drag out, and he would have 50,000 troops in behind us.’
The general also passed out white strips of cloth that his own wife had prepared, to be worn ‘drawn over the right shoulder to the left side, passed around the body and tied’ so that the men could recognize each other in the darkness.
‘It was a stirring and impressive speech,’ said Captain Joseph Carson, who commanded the sharpshooters of Brig. Gen. Philip Cook’s Brigade, ‘standing there in the night with the awful task and eternity staring us in the face.’
The sharpshooters moved as close to the Union picket line as they dared and lay down. It was around 4 a.m., and early morning fog was just starting to gather in the hollows. The pioneers completed their work, and a group of Walker’s sharpshooters moved toward the Federal pickets as if to desert. It was not unusual to see armed Confederate deserters at a picket line, and to complete the illusion, their commander, a Tar Heel lieutenant named Jim Edmonson, jumped up and shouted, ‘Oh, boys, come back! Don’t go!’
The Southerners quickly overpowered a sentinel, who still managed to bayonet one of them before being knocked senseless, and captured most of his compatriots. One man escaped, however, firing off his rifle and yelling: ‘The Rebels are coming! The Rebels are coming!’ The sharpshooters followed the fleeing picket, who unwittingly led them back through his own obstacle field. Gordon drew his revolver and fired three quick shots — the signal for the attack.
Captain Joe Anderson, the commander of Walker’s sharpshooters, ordered: ‘Forward! Double-quick!’ The men rose and moved swiftly through the pre-dawn darkness at trail arms. Colonel Hamilton Brown and Maj. Gen. Bryan Grimes’ divisional sharpshooters took the center route directly toward Fort Stedman, while Walker’s men moved left toward Battery X, and Brig. Gen. Clement Evans’ sharpshooters angled south toward Batteries XI and XII.
To clear the obstacles protecting the Union positions, 50-man pioneer detachments led each attacking column. Hard on the heels of the pioneers came a storming party of 100 to 300 sharpshooters, and just behind them marched the infantry brigades. A company of artillerymen, led by Lt. Col. Robert Stribling, advanced with them, hoping to turn the Yankee guns on their owners. Once Stedman and its supporting forts and batteries had fallen, the Second Corps infantry would move forward and begin rolling up the Union line from north to south. To help the attack succeed, Gordon had men from the area serve as guides and saw to it that his commanders knew the names of Union officers so that in the semidarkness they might pass either as retreating Union infantry or Confederate deserters. A cavalry force stayed ready to gallop through the lines to City Point once the Federal works fell.
Walker’s men, joined by the sharpshooters from Ransom’s Brigade, reached their objective, Battery X, a supporting fort just north of Stedman. The pioneers began hacking their way through the defenses while an assault group under Lieutenant Thomas Roulhac moved up. In a few moments they were inside the works. Their cheers told General Walker that Battery X had fallen, and he started his infantry column forward.
Inside Fort Stedman, Major George Randall, the commander of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery serving as infantry, tried desperately to organize a defense. The fort’s gunners got off half a dozen rounds of canister, but without result, although Captain Anderson received a mortal wound in the scattered fighting taking place at the rear of the fort.
An all-night Yankee card game, liberally lubricated with spirits, was suddenly interrupted when a Rebel face appeared in the doorway. Private ‘Hence’ Proctor, a sharpshooter with the 59th North Carolina, poked his head into another bombproof. ‘Come out of there,’ he demanded. ‘I know you are in there.’ The Yankee officer inside, still in his nightclothes, grabbed Proctor’s long hair and proceeded to belabor the unfortunate sharpshooter about the head and shoulders with his sword until Rebel comrades rescued him.
Colonel Hamilton Brown and his sharpshooters, meanwhile, crept forward undetected nearly to Fort Stedman, but they lost their composure and rushed forward, yelling, said a witness, ‘like a bunch of Comanche Indians.’ Another column of Grimes’ sharpshooters under Captain Joseph Carson made its way forward after hearing Gordon’s signal. Carson was worried about his younger brother Bob. The high-spirited 18-year-old, who normally had a safer job as a courier, had insisted on joining the attack. Having lost two brothers already, Carson could not shake off the feeling that Bob was next. Nevertheless, he pressed forward at the head of his men through ‘three lines of obstructions as perfect as human ingenuity…could make them.’
They had not gone 25 yards when the fort’s cannons opened up. Running at top speed, they managed to get under the guns’ line of fire without anyone being hit. In a flash of cannon fire Carson saw his brother tearing away the telegraph wire strung across the abatis. As they pushed through the gap, cannon blasts blew the attackers’ hats off. They reached the spiked logs protecting the parapet, hacking at them and dragging them out of the way. Unable to climb the slippery parapet, and under fire from the infantrymen above, Carson ordered his men to load their rifles and ‘shoot every Yankee who showed himself.’ His men made it inside after finding a low spot in the parapet. Then they formed into line and began moving forward. Federals began to surrender, first individually and then in groups.
General Evans had selected Colonel Eugene Waggaman’s Brigade to lead the drive on Battery XI, and the 400-man brigade stumbled through the darkness, preceded by sharpshooters and an assault group from the 13th and 31st Georgia regiments under Colonel John Lowe. First over the parapet were two four-man sharpshooter sections led by Lieutenant Benjamin Smith of the 2nd Louisiana. Hard-pressed by the defenders, they held out until help arrived. When the rest of the Louisiana Tigers got there, they found the garrison alerted, and subdued them after hand-to-hand fighting.
In the fort, resistance swiftly collapsed. Colonel Stribling’s men were turning the Union guns on their former owners, and Major Randall was captured as he tried to escape with his regimental colors. Captain Carson quickly sent the prisoners, which he estimated at more than 500, hustling to the rear.
Incredibly, two supporting Federal infantry regiments remained unaware of the attack until sharpshooters scattered the drowsy Federals in wild confusion. ‘They fired no shots,’ wrote Captain John Deane, the commander of the 29th Massachusetts, ‘but used the butts of their muskets.’ Much of the regiment was captured, but Color Sergeant Conrad Homan managed to spirit its colors to safety. The 217-man 57th Massachusetts had just time enough to form up and rush to the parapets, only to find the Confederates behind them. Many were taken prisoner. It was still 45 minutes to daylight.
The Union sector commander, Brevet Brig. Gen. Napoleon McLaughlen, formed his reserve regiment, the 59th Massachusetts, and double-quicked it north. Ordering the mortars in Battery XII to open up on Fort Stedman, McLaughlen sent in the 59th Massachusetts and what he could find of the 57th and 29th to retake it with fixed bayonets. The Massachusetts men went in with a will, carrying Battery XI and part of Fort Stedman as well, where they captured many sharpshooters. By now, however, the Rebel infantry columns of Grimes, Evans and Walker were beginning to arrive, lending their weight to the attack. McLaughlen entered the fort and began directing operations, only to find that he was giving orders to the wrong army. Lieutenant Billy Gwyn, commanding the sharpshooters of the 31st Georgia, appeared out of the darkness and demanded his surrender.
Confederate General Gordon entered Fort Stedman, where he relieved General McLaughlen of his command as well as his sword. Gordon was pleased. ‘Up to this point,’ he said, ‘the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.’ He later claimed that his losses to that point had been only 11 men.
Gordon’s immediate task was to widen the breach by capturing Forts McGilvery and Haskell, which flanked Fort Stedman. Brigadier General William Terry’s Brigade crossed to support Waggaman, and the rest of Evans’ brigade followed in turn. With these fresh troops in play, the Confederates quickly overran Battery XII and began moving toward Fort Haskell.
On the Union side, the 100th Pennsylvania, western Pennsylvanians from the New Castle area, was next to feel the force of Waggaman’s Louisianans and Terry’s Virginians. ‘The first thing the boys knew,’ wrote one Keystoner, ‘they were firing down our line from the right to the left of the regiment. The boys were asleep in their bunks at the first volley, but grabbed guns and cartridge boxes, not even stopping to dress. Some were barefooted; some only with shirts and pants on….The regiment had been practically cut in two. The right took shelter in the rear in some old rifle pits, while Cos. B and G ran into Fort Haskell.’
Among those mortally wounded in the fray was the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Joseph H. Pentecost. The Confederates, meanwhile, continued to press their attack. Still, in spite of the shock and confusion of the assault, there was remarkably little panic in the Federal ranks — certainly not the disintegration Gordon had hoped for.
The garrison of Fort Haskell — four companies of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, a six-gun artillery battery and a mortar detachment — had been warned of the approach of Confederate infiltrators by an alert sentry. ‘The party was in two ranks,’ wrote one man, ‘and had filed into our lines through the gap in front of Stedman, and was moving upon us unopposed, for they were between us and our pickets. These Confederates supposed that they were approaching the rear of the little fort, and were moving very confidently, expecting an easy triumph.’
The fort’s gunners double-shotted three of their guns with canister, trained them where they expected the column to appear, and waited. Soon they heard the whispered voices of the approaching men. ‘Steady! We’ll have their works. Steady, my men!’ a voice urged. A moment later the command ‘Now!’ rang out, and the Federal guns’ deafening reports rent the air. The Confederates kept trying to advance on the fort, but Gordon had lost his best chance of taking Fort Haskell, a failure that would have dire consequences.
In the northern sector, Walker’s and Ransom’s troops pushed toward Battery IX using the same infiltration tactics that had proved successful elsewhere. ‘A crowd of men came running down the trench,’ said the commander of the 2nd Michigan, Captain John Boughton. ‘Supposing they were of one of our regiments, and running from the enemy, I stepped out and ordered them to halt, saying that it was useless to run away.’ One of the men put his hand on Boughton’s shoulder, saying, ‘Come with me.’
The Yankee captain, realizing he had just been captured, said, ‘In a minute,’ then stepped back and ordered his men to fire, ‘which they obeyed immediately with good effect.’ Fifteen of Boughton’s men were captured, but he and the rest escaped to Battery IX, where he sent out a company to block a Confederate force attempting to take the battery from the rear.
The Rebels, meanwhile, gave up any pretense of stealth and commenced shelling the Federal positions from Fort Stedman. Major Ed Buckbee of the 1st Minnesota Sharpshooters, who held the far right of the line, took two companies and moved them up to cover the rear of the Union forts. One of the companies consisted of Chippewa Indians.
On his way forward, Buckbee literally stumbled over one of Gordon’s special operations groups. ‘See! See!’ shouted one of the Confederates, ‘shoot that cuss on that horse — surrender, you damn Yank!’ Buckbee spurred his horse through ‘more bullets in a square yard than I had ever experienced before’ and escaped unscathed. The Chippewas let loose a war cry that put the Rebel yell to shame and ‘went straight at the Rebs on the run.’ The Michigan men claimed to have captured four officers and 50 enlisted men.
Between Gordon and City Point, the Federals had only the 200th and 209th Pennsylvania and the 100-man 17th Michigan. Union Maj. Gen. Orlando Willcox had ordered the Keystone regiments to march southward, opening the door to City Point. Colonel Brown’s Rebel sharpshooters moved out from Fort Stedman in open order, crossed Morrison’s Creek and pushed back the 17th Michigan and the remnants of the 57th Massachusetts.
As the morning sky lightened, Captain Edward Jones began throwing shells from his 3-inch rifled guns in nearby Fort Friend at the column moving on Fort Haskell. Soon, however, shadowy figures began approaching his position through a ravine. Jones had no infantry with him, but he gamely cranked his guns down and blasted the attackers with canister. Gordon, with his men at the gates of Fort Haskell, Battery IX and Fort Friend, was now within a hairsbreadth of victory.
But before Gordon could seize the opportunity, Brig. Gen. John Hartranft, the commander of the IX Corps’ Reserve Division of six brand-new Pennsylvania regiments, arrived on the scene. Hartranft’s battle philosophy was brutally simple: It was better to attack than be attacked. Thanks to Willcox’s ill-considered move, however, he had only one unit — the untried 200th Pennsylvania — to assist him. Undeterred, he sent the Pennsylvania farm boys, the 17th Michigan and the 57th Massachusetts’ remnants straight toward the Rebels. They swept back Brown’s sharpshooters and pushed all the way to the Federal camps at the rear of Fort Stedman, until Confederate fire stopped them. Seeing Confederate reinforcements pouring through the Union earthworks, Hartranft sent the 200th Pennsylvania, which had fallen back 40 yards or so, back in. After losing 100 men during the next 20 minutes — some of the heaviest fighting of the day — the 200th broke and headed rearward. Even so, the general and their officers managed to rally them near where they had started.
By now two more of Hartranft’s regiments were hustling to the fighting, firmly barring the Rebel way to City Point, and it was getting light enough for Union artillery in the surrounding forts to find the range. For Gordon, on the other hand, the news turned bad. None of his companies had succeeded in taking the Union flanking forts, leaving his plan only half-completed at first light.
Waggaman’s Louisiana Tigers were still driving toward Fort Haskell, however, with sharpshooters in the lead. The fort’s artillery commander, Captain Christian Woerner, manhandled a piece to bear on them. Woerner opened up with canister while the fort’s infantry blazed away with their rifles. One of Woerner’s gunners, Lieutenant Julius Tuerk, had an arm blown off while aiming his piece, but the captain, whose life seemed charmed that day, stepped up and finished adjusting the sights. He left a corporal in charge of the gun while he attended to another, whereupon a sharpshooter put a bullet through the corporal’s brain.
To add to the confusion, some of the other Union forts began to fire at Fort Haskell, thinking it had fallen. Major Randall, who had escaped from Fort Stedman and taken command, sent out a plucky detachment from the fort’s rear with orders to wave the colors ‘in the faces of the Confederates’ and show the other batteries they were still holding out.
‘The ranks of the enemy soon broke under the fire of our muskets and Woerner’s well-aimed guns,’ reported Union soldier George Kilmer, ‘but some of the boldest came within speaking distance and hailed us to surrender. The main body hung back beyond canister range near the ravine at the base of the slope, but within range of our bullets.’ To clinch the fight, the Confederates sent in the sharpshooters. ‘Suddenly a great number of little parties or squads, of three to six men each,’ Kilmer recalled, ‘rose with a yell from their hidings down along those connecting parapets, and dashed toward us. The parapets joined on to the fort, and upon these the Confederates leaped, intending thus to scale our walls.’
Captain Woerner fired off his three other guns, recalling, ‘Some of the [Rebel] squads were cut down, others ran off to cover, and not a few passed on beyond our right wall to the rear of the work and out of reach of the guns. With this the aggressive spirit of that famous movement melted away forever.’
On the north end of the line near Battery IX, the Confederates resorted to a conventional attack. At about 5:15 a.m., Ransom’s Brigade went forward into a hail of fire from the fully alerted Union artillery in Battery IX and Fort McGilvery. The Rebels broke and retreated under the storm of case shot, but soon tried again, reinforced by Brig. Gen. Gaston Lewis’ Brigade from Walker’s Division. A detachment attempted to take Fort McGilvery from the rear, but was cut off and captured. The troops of the 57th North Carolina, part of Lewis’ Brigade, hunkered down under the Union barrage, while on the line’s far left the men of the 56th North Carolina frantically dug holes with their bayonets to avoid the Union shellfire and the errant shots of their fellow Confederates.
As the sky lightened, Hartranft’s 2nd Brigade came puffing up, plugging the remaining gaps in his line. Full daylight revealed the desperation of the Confederate position. Fort Stedman lay at the apex of an arc, with Forts Haskell and McGilvery at the ends. Union artillery commanded the ground behind Fort Stedman, making any Southern withdrawal a risky business. From there and the high ground east of Fort Stedman, the gunners of the IX Corps sent a hurricane of shells toward the exposed Southerners, driving them to earth. Colonel Stribling and his men returned fire with the captured cannons, but they were running low on ammunition and subject to intense counterbattery fire. His plan in tatters, Gordon gave the order to retreat.
Seeing their opponents waver, the Union commanders attacked. ‘The whole field was blue with them,’ recalled Captain Carson. ‘I think the columns must have been twenty deep.’ Confederate resistance collapsed under the rain of shells and the concerted infantry assault. Private and general alike scrambled back across no man’s land through a shower of shells that Carson remembered 'screeched and screamed like fiends….'
Kilmer called it ‘a place of fearful slaughter. My mind sickens at the memory of it — a real tragedy in war — for the victims had ceased fighting, and were now struggling between imprisonment on the one hand, and death or home on the other.’
‘Some laid down and was taken prisoners,’ wrote a Tar Heel soldier, ‘but when I thought of Point Lookout you better know I come out.’
General Walker was one of the last Confederates to quit the fort, watching the ‘gallant fight’ of his sharpshooters as they tried to hold off the Federals long enough for the rest of the division to escape. ‘Suddenly I heard a shout,’ he said, ‘and looking in the direction of the sound, I saw a body of Federal infantry coming over the wall of the fort on the opposite side.’ It was the 100th Pennsylvania, which would always claim that its colors were first into the fort. Their arrival from the south meant that almost all the sharpshooters outside the fort were cut off. Exercising discretion, the general vaulted the parapet, but the rising sun had softened the frosty ground, and mud soon caked his thigh-high cavalry boots. ‘My speed slackened into a slow trot, then into a slow walk, and it seemed as if I were an hour making that seventy-five yards.’ Walker made it safely, but many of his men did not. Hartranft’s Pennsylvanians arrived in the fort minutes later.
Captain Carson was one of the Rebels to escape, but any relief he felt was tempered by personal tragedy — just as he had feared, a bullet had found his brother Bob. Carson commandeered a horse and brought back his brother’s body. ‘As I entered our lines again, from which we had gone so hopefully in the early morning,’ he wrote, ‘I looked back on Fort Stedman. There in the sunlight floated again the Stars and Stripes.’
When the smoke cleared, the Federals counted more than 1,000 Rebel captives, while admitting the loss of just under 1,100 of their own men, half of them prisoners taken in the initial rush. They also prided themselves, when all was over, in losing not a single gun or color. Overall Confederate casualties topped 2,600 men, among them Maj. Gen. John Gordon, lucky to have only a flesh wound, and Lieutenant Billy Gwyn, shot through both legs.
‘Nearly all my gallant skirmish line was captured,’ lamented General Walker. So, apparently was most of Grimes’ line as well. Colonel Brown and — to judge by the number of sharpshooters who later turned up at Point Lookout — most of his men went in the Federal bag. That was the most serious loss of the day for the Confederates, as those troops had represented a great many of Lee’s best remaining soldiers.
The victory at Fort Stedman raised the morale of the Federals and correspondingly depressed that of their opponents. It was the last offensive action of the Army of Northern Virginia, which laid down its arms forever two weeks later at Appomattox Court House.