By late March of 1865, the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia had reduced the Confederate defenders there nearly to desperation. Almost all supply lines had been cut and the Federals had more of everything–men, supplies, food, ammunition–in seemingly unlimited amounts, and the siege lines had lengthened to the point where the Confederates could hardly cover them. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or at least bold moves, and Major General John B. Gordon had a plan for just such a bold move.
Gordon’s plan was for a surprise pre dawn attack on Fort Stedman and its associated artillery batteries. Gordon’s analysis of the Federal defenses pointed to Fort Stedman, opposite the Confederate’s Colquitt’s Salient, as a location that might be taken by assault, and the subsequent break in the Union defenses could be exploited with a rapid movement of cavalry into the Union rear and its supply depots, destroying communications along the way. With the Federals in disarray, the Confederates could evacuate the lines around Petersburg and try to link up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Gordon’s plan was approved by General Robert E. Lee, who knew he was running out of options.
Gordon’s plan for the taking of Fort Stedman was a complex one, but well thought out. At about 3:30 a.m. in the pre dawn darkness of March 25th, Gordon attacked with a force of about 11,500 men. They silently advanced in the dark, surprising the Federals in Fort Stedman and nearby Batteries X and XI, and capturing the positions.
This area was part of a seven mile stretch of the siege line that was defended by the Union 9th Corps. Brigadier General John Hartranft, who commanded the 3rd Division of the 9th Corps, was notified of the attack at 4:30 a.m. and took immediate action. The 3rd Division, consisting of several Pennsylvania regiments, was the reserve for the 9th Corps sector, and Hartranft ordered the units into position. These regiments, along with others that had been driven out of the line by the Confederate attack, formed a defensive line that stopped the Rebel advance. Meanwhile, Union artillery shelled the Confederates, inflicting heavy casualties.
At 7:45 a.m., Hartranft ordered a counterattack. The Federal attack quickly recaptured Fort Stedman and the batteries, driving out the Confederates. By mid morning, Union troops had reoccupied the fort. Correctly assuming that Lee had weakened his lines to assemble troops for Gordon’s assault, the Union 2nd and 6th Corps attacked the Confederate picket lines in other parts of the siege line, and were able to capture some of that ground, adding to the Confederate woes.
Here is Hartranft’s after action report on the Battle of Fort Stedman:
HEADQUARTERS THIRD DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
April 14, 1865.
COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my command in the repulse of the enemy at Fort Stedman on the morning of the 25th of March ultimo:
Immediately upon hearing the alarm on the right of the line, which was about 4.30 a.m., Captain Dalien, of my staff, who was on duty as staff officer of the day, was sent from my headquarters, which were at the Avery house, to Colonel Harriman and Brigadier-General McLaughlen, commanding brigades in the First Division, and ascertain the cause of the alarm; at the same time orders were sent to my brigade commanders, and their commands were under arms ready for any emergency. The position of my division, which consists of two brigades, was as follows: One regiment, the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, near the Dunn House Battery; the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, at Meade’s Station; the Two hundred and eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, on the right of the Avery house; the Two hundred and fifth and Two hundred and seventh Regiments Pennsylvania Volunteers, on the army line railroad, near Fort Prescott, and the Two hundred and eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, near the railroad, about half-way between Forts Alex. Hays and Howard. At 5.10 a.m. Captain Dalien returned to headquarters with a dispatch from General McLaughlen’s headquarters, and of which the following is a copy:
HEADQUARTERS THIRD BRIGADE, FIRST DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
March 25, 1865.
GENERAL: The enemy have attacked our lines and carried a portion of its works (from Battery 11 and Stedman to the right). They are now moving towards the Appomattox. General on the lines.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
A few moments afterward I received dispatch from Major-General Parke, of which the following is a copy:
HEADQUARTERS NINTH ARMY CORPS,
March 25, 1865—5.15 a.m.
GENERAL: The general commanding directs that you move the brigade at Meade’s Station to re-enforce General Willcox, in order to recapture a battery reported to be taken by the enemy on his front and near Fort Stedman.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. L. VAN BUREN,
Brevet Colonel and Aide-de-Camp.
I immediately started in person to the right, and at the same time ordered the Two hundred and eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers to report to General McLaughlen. I then went to communicate with Major-General Willcox, commanding First Division, whose headquarters were at the Friend house. I found the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers moving toward General Willcox’s headquarters, and the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers had already moved out of camp and had halted with the right resting near the Dunn House Battery. This was done by the order of Major-General Willcox, the regiment having had directions to obey the orders of General Willcox in case of an attack, to avoid delay, the distance to my headquarters being so great, owing to the length of the line covered by my command. I asked General Willcox to send one of his staff to direct the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and he designated Captain Brackett, aide-de-camp, to perform this duty, who led the regiment by the flank down the road to the left of the Friend house. It was now sufficiently light to see the enemy’s skirmishers advancing from the rear and our right of Fort Stedman toward the ravine and covering the main road leading from Stedman to the Ninth Corps hospitals. Seeing this movement of the enemy’s skirmishers, and finding a small party of men from the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts Volunteers in front of the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, under command of a captain, engaging them, and from whom I ascertained that this detachment had been driven from its camp and that all that was left of the regiment had been rallied at that point, I ordered his detachment to move forward to its old camp, and I immediately advanced the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers to the camp of the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts, in rear of Stedman, without sustaining any very serious damage. The enemy’s line of skirmishers was broken, but he was in force in the left end of the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts camp, on the road running in rear of Stedman and in a line of works running about parallel with our line. I sent Major Shorkley, of my staff, to bring up the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers to form a connection on the right of the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and I immediately attacked with the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, but finding the enemy too strong and my right suffering very much from a heavy fire from Stedman and the troops in the road, the regiment was forced to retire to an old line of works about forty yards in rear of and to the right of the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts camp. The enemy seeing this regiment retire, I feared that he would take advantage of it and attack me, and I therefore attacked a second time and gained quite a good position. I held this position for about twenty minutes, losing very heavily (the loss in this regiment being about 100 at this point), when the line wavered and fell back to and was rallied on the old line of works from which it had advanced the second time. Here the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers formed a connection on the right of the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and with the aid of the fire from Battery 9, which had opened, and the Twentieth Michigan, which garrisoned this battery, and the Second and Seventeenth Michigan, of the First Division, which covered the ground between the right of the Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers and Battery 9, I had a strong line, which I determined could be held and check any farther advance in this direction, and I therefore ordered the troops to act on the defensive.
I saw that I could accomplish nothing more with the force I had engaged, and having fully satisfied myself that this advance was not a feint on the part of the enemy, but a serious and determined attack, I dispatched an orderly to bring up my Second Brigade, and I went to confer with General Willcox in regard to the situation. On my way to General Willcox’s headquarters I saw Colonel Loring, of General Parke’s staff, through whom I received an order to place my Second Brigade in position on the hill in rear of Stedman, and covering Meade’s Station. I requested him to communicate with General Willcox, and I proceeded to join my Second Brigade. Two regiments of the Second Brigade, the Two hundred and fifth and Two hundred and seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, had already been moved to the right as far as the Avery house, on the double-quick, by Major Bertolette, assistant adjutant-general (who received the order to do so through Colonel Van Buren, aide-de-camp on General Parke’s staff), and were by him conducted through the ravine on the right of the Avery house to a point on the right of General McLaughlen’s headquarters and in the rear of Fort Stedman under cover. I then went to General McLaughlen’s headquarters and found the Two hundred and eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers in a good position on the right of his headquarters, left resting near Fort Haskell and facing northward. Several small detachments of the Third Brigade, First Division, mostly from the One hundredth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, numbering, perhaps, 200 men, were formed on the left of the Two hundred and eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers and between it and Fort Haskell. I also found that the reserves of the First Brigade, First Division, had formed a line on the right of and at right angles with the main line held by that brigade. The Two hundred and fifth and Two hundred and seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers were a short distance to the right of the Two hundred and eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and the distance from the left of the Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers to the right of the Second Brigade was probably about 300 yards, which distance was not covered by any troops
I saw that any farther advance on the part of the enemy was impossible under the concentrated infantry fire from the Two hundredth and Two hundred and ninth Regiments Pennsylvania Volunteers and Batteries 9 and McGilvery on the right, and the Two hundred and fifth, Two hundred and seventh, and Two hundred and eighth Regiments Pennsylvania Volunteers and Fort Haskell on the left, and from the field artillery in position on the hills in rear of Stedman, the fire of which was concentrated on the fort, and covering the open space in rear. This position being so favorable, I did not move the Two hundred and fifth and Two hundred and seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, of the Second Brigade, in position on the hills covering Meade’s Station, as ordered through Colonel Loring, but ordered the Two hundred and eleventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (which had not yet arrived on the ground on account of the great distance from its camp on the left to this point) to take this position. It was now about 7.30 a.m., when I received an order from General Parke, through one of his staff, to retake the line. My plan of attack was as follows: Orders were sent out that an assault would be made by my whole division in fifteen minutes, and that the signal for the assault would be the advance of the Two hundred and eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers from the hill in the rear toward Stedman. Captain Hodgkins was directed to advance with the Second Brigade under Colonel Mathews, Major Bertolette with the Two hundredth and Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers on the right, and as soon as the Two hundred and eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers could be put into position it was advanced toward Stedman, under the direction of Captain Watts, aide-de-camp, in full view of the enemy. This was done for the purpose of attracting the attention and fire of the enemy, and cover the movement of the balance of the division which was to carry the works. This ruse was a complete success. The enemy, seeing the advance of this regiment, numbering about 600 muskets, in such handsome manner, commenced to waver, when the balance of the division charged with a will, in the most gallant style, and in a moment Stedman, Batteries 11 and 12, and the entire line which had been lost, was recaptured with a large number of prisoners, battle-flags, and small-arms. After the troops had commenced moving to make this assault, I received orders not to make it until a division of the Sixth Army Corps, which was on its way to support me, had arrived, but I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the lines to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement.
From the reports of my subordinate commanders as well as from my own observation, at least 1,500 of the prisoners, and all the battle-flags captured, were taken by and passed to the rear through the lines of my division, but were afterward collected by other troops, while but about 770 prisoners and one battle-flag were credited to my command. The officers and men were so eager to regain the lost ground, and regimental commanders so desirous to maintain their several organizations, which had been somewhat broken after charging through the bomb-proofs and old works around the forts, that little or no attention was paid to the trophies of this brilliant victory.
The officers and men of my division, composed entirely of new troops, deserve great credit for their promptness in moving forward to the point of attack, to which in a great measure is owing the success of the day, and for their gallant conduct throughout the action.
The Two hundredth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel McCall commanding, deserves particular mention. This regiment was put to the severest test, and behaved with the greatest firmness and steadiness. The regiment made two stubborn attacks on the enemy, and when compelled to retire it fell back in good order.
Among the many officers of this command who did their duty I cannot refrain from noticing especially the conduct of Col. J. A. Mathews, Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanding Second Brigade, for the promptness in which he moved his command to the scene of action, and for his gallantry in the final assault.
Col. C. W. Diven, Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanding First Brigade, who went early to General McLaughlen’s headquarters, for the disposition made by him of the Two hundred and eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, and other troops near Haskell, which checked the farther advance of the enemy toward the left.
Lieut. Col. W. H. H. McCall, commanding Two hundredth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, for his coolness and bravery, and for the skill displayed by him in handling his regiment.
Lieut. Col. George W. Frederick and Maj. John L. Richey, Two hundred and ninth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, who behaved with great gallantry in advancing their regiment and in the final assault.
Lieut. Col. M. T. Heintzelman and Capt. T. W. Hoffman, Two hundred and eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, for their promptness in moving their regiment forward, holding the positions they had gained, and for the efficiency of their regiment in the recapture of Batteries 11 and 12.
Col. R. C. Cox, commanding Two hundred and seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Maj. B. M. Morrow, commanding Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and Capt. W. A. Coulter, commanding Two hundredth and eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, for promptness and gallantry in the final assault.
Capt. F. A. Hoffman, Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers, for his gallantry in attempting to capture a rebel flag, in the act of which he was shot through the hand and knocked down with a musket by the enemy.
Among the enlisted men who distinguished themselves and deserve particular mention are: Private Levi A. Smith, Company E, Two hundredth Pennsylvania Volunteers; Private John J. Levi, Company H, Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers; Sergeants Elbridge Stiles and Edward J. Humphreys, Company C, color bearers, Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, and Private George Dull, Company F, Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The following-named enlisted men are reported as having captured colors: Private James Decker, Company D, Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers; Corpl. John Fulton, Company B, Two hundred and seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers; Private Charles H. Keinert, Company F, Two hundred and ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers. Recommendations will be made for medals for these men.
Brevet Brigadier-General Tidball, commanding Artillery Brigade, Ninth Army Corps, was on the ground directing the movements and fire of the artillery.
Col. Charles G. Loring. Bvt. Col. J. L. Van Buren, Captain Goddard, and Capt. John C. Youngman, of General Parke’s staff, and Capt. L. C. Brackett, aide-de-camp to Major-General Willcox, were with me on the field during the action and rendered me valuable services in carrying dispatches.
I cannot speak too highly of the members of my staff–Bvt. Maj. John D. Bertolette, assistant adjutant-general; Bvt. Maj. George Shorkley (captain Fifty-first Pennsylvania Volunteers), division inspector (who was wounded in the thigh); Capt. William H. Hodgkins, Thirty-sixth Massachusetts Volunteers, assistant commissary of musters; Capt. Richard A. Watts, Seventeenth Michigan Volunteers, aide-de-camp; Capt. Prosper Dalien, Two hundred and eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers (who was wounded in the breast); Lieut. Reuben R. Webbert, acting ordnance officer, and Capt. Martin G. Hale, provost-marshal–for the prompt, efficient, and most valuable services rendered during the action.
A tabular statement of casualties is hereto appended, together with copies of the reports of brigade commanders and regimental commanders of the First Brigade, to which attention is respectfully invited. A nominal list of casualties has already been furnished. All of which is respectfully submitted.
J. F. HARTRANFT,
Lieut. Col. P. M. LYDIG,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Ninth Army Corps.
The attack on Fort Stedman was the last offensive operation undertaken by the Army of Northern Virginia. Less than a week later, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began his final movements against the Confederate’s overextended right flank, capturing a vital crossroads in the Battle of Five Forks on April 1st. Grant attacked what remained of the Petersburg lines on April 2nd as the Confederates evacuated both Richmond and Petersburg and headed west, with the Federals in pursuit. Fighting several engagements along the way, Lee was finally surrounded by three infantry and one cavalry corps at Appomattox Court house. With no chance to escape and join Johnston in North Carolina, Lee surrendered on April 9th.
“Gordon’s Attack on Fort Stedman” by George L. Kilmer. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4.
The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia June 1864-April 1865
by Noah Andre Trudeau
Military History of the Third Division, Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac by Milton A. Embick
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 1.
The Recapture of Fort Stedman” by John F. Hartranft. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4.