Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fort Stedman Heroes - A Photo Tour

Fort Stedman at Petersburg National Battlefield.
One of the last major efforts by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to break the siege at Petersburg took
place in March of 1865.  After a terribly harsh winter of '64-'65, the Confederate forces strapped down around the 'Cockade City' were struggling to remain viable as a fighting force.  Quite simply, Grant's line was stretching the smaller Army of Northern Virginia perilously thin.  In desperation, Lee believed that the only possibility of success remained with breaking out of Petersburg and joining forces with General Joseph Johnston's army to the south.

Marker at Colquitt's Salient
The line around Fort Stedman was an area of promise to Robert E. Lee.  The two opposing lines there were extremely close (only 150 yards apart in places), making a possible attack more manageable.  Behind the Federal line at this point and also relatively close, ran the U.S. military railroad, a vital supply line that, with a successful attack, was within easy striking distance.  Lee set his sights on the area around Fort Stedman and tasked Major General John Brown Gordon with reconnoitering the Federal defenses along this part of the line.  Gordon wrote in his official report,"If there was a weak point in those defences, I was expected to find it.  If such a point could be found, I was expected to submit to General Lee some plan by which it would be feasible, or at least possible, for his depleted army to assail it successfully."

Gordon, after a week of searching for weakness in the line, reported back to General Lee that he had "learned the name of every officer of rank in my front."  Gordon proposed infiltrating the Federal lines with different hand-picked squads.  He would use the information obtained during his reconnoitering to cause panic in the Federal rear.  These advance parties were to be supported by large attacking columns that would overpower the forces in their front and shatter the Federal line.  On the night of March 24, the Confederate attacking force prepared for the assault under the cover of darkness.  The jump-off point for the attack was a point called Colquitt's Salient, only a couple hundred yards from Fort Stedman.

The view from Colquitt's Salient towards Fort Stedman, visible at the top of the hill.  It is from here that General Gordon's men launched their assault on the morning of March 25, 1865.
The next morning, before dawn on March 25, a "solitary signal shot rang out in the stillness..."  The attackers crept out across the no-mans land at about 4:30 AM and in a few short moments were on the breastworks of Fort Stedman.  The Federal defenders of the IX Corps hardly knew what hit them.  Within seconds Gordon claimed the Confederates captured "nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners...with the loss of less than half a dozen men."  A significant portion of works were captured on either side of the fort as well.

Fairly quickly, Federal commanders recognized the dire situation befalling them as the first rays of sunlight shown on the horizon.  General John Parke, commanding the IX Corps, quickly ordered the divisions of Orlando Willcox and John Hartranft towards the breach.  Hartranft's troops had the farthest to move, but they were very soon approaching Confederate skirmishers southeast of Fort Stedman.  At about this time, Confederates had also turned south towards Fort Haskell, but met with little success.  To the north of Fort Stedman, the Confederates drove hard through a number of veteran regiments that were far too weak to meet the initial weight of the attack.  A few of them rallied though.

Fort Stedman in May 1865 as photographed by Timothy
O'Sullivan.  Library of Congress.
Around 7:30 AM, General Hartranft received orders from General Parke to retake Stedman.  His Pennsylvanians were already sealing off the break, but within fifteen minutes of the reception of Parke's order, he had his entire division moving to retake the fort with support from the surrounding batteries.  Hartranft reported afterwards that, "This ruse was a complete success.  The enemy, seeing the advance of this regiment [211th Pennsylvania], 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."  As it turned out, Hartranft was not supposed to make this counterattack until a division of the VI Corps arrived, but he saw that success was sure and commenced regardless.

General John Gordon dejectedly wrote afterwards that "daylight was coming.  Through the failure of the three guides we had failed to occupy the three forts in the rear, and they were now filled with Federals.  Our wretched railroad trains had broken down, and the troops who were coming to my aid did not reach me.  The full light of the morning revealed the gathering forces of Grant and the great preponderance of his numbers.  It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw."  Not until the final week of the war would another last gasp effort be made to escape the stranglehold at Petersburg by the Army of Northern Virginia.  They had lost many more irreplaceable veteran troops to no avail.  For Grant and those Union troops involved in the repulse of the attack at Fort Stedman, it seemed as if maybe the last few cards were falling into place.  They had lost many more very good soldiers as well, but seemingly the reward was not far up the road.

Union artillery north of Fort Stedman towards the site of the Hare House

Monument at Fort Stedman to Hartranft's Division of the Ninth Corps, the men that turned back the breakthrough.

View north from inside Fort Stedman.
Federal guns inside Fort Stedman looking south towards Fort Haskell.
View towards Colquitt's Salient from inside Fort Stedman.  This shows the entire track of advance by Gordon's Confederates on the morning of March 25, 1865.

View inside Fort Stedman.

Looking north from Fort Haskell to Fort Stedman.  After initially capturing Fort Stedman, parts of the Confederate attacking force turned south towards this position through the ravine in the mid part of the photo and were stymied by Union defenders in and around Fort Haskell.  Also, Hartranft's Division came charging in from the right. 
Burial marker for unknown Confederate soldiers buried at Blandford Cemetery at Petersburg.

Fort Stedman plot for those Confederates that fell in the March 25 assault, buried at Blandford Cemetery at Petersburg.

Monument to Hartranft's Division near Fort Mahone at Petersburg... these are the men that shut down the Confederate assault at Fort Stedman.

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