March 25, 1865
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee knew his army was trapped. His government’s insistence that the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA,. be protected had caused Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to spend the last nine months in trench warfare at Petersburg, confronting a Union army twice its size along a 37-mile front. Having very short supplies of food, clothes and shelter, Lee’s soldiers had suffered through a miserable winter. Lee needed to break the federal stranglehold, and typical of his fighting spirit, he decided to attack.
General Lee pulled 12,000 men from his already thinly stretched lines and massed them on the right of the Union lines. The opposing lines at this point were only 150 yards apart. The objectives of the attack was Fort Stedman, which contained four cannon. At 4:00 in the predawn of March 25, 1865, under the command of Gen. John B. Gordon, the first skirmishers went out and quickly overcam the unsuspecting Union pickets; 50 axmen forward, cutting down the obstruction in front of the fort. Fort Stedman was captured quickly in the first rush. Some of the Rebels turned the captured cannon and fired on the adjacent forts while others spread out into trenches and batteries.
Those suprised Union soldiers who were not captured retreated and regrouped well enough to confine the flood of gray troops to the area around Fort Stedman. While Union batteries in the surrounding forts delivered a heavy fire, federal infantry reinforcments arrived and added their fire power while massing for a counter attack. By 8:00 A.M., Lee, watching from confederate lines ordered Gordon to call off the attack. Hundreads of Rebels opted for surrender rather than face Union fire while racing the 150 yards back to the confederate side. The attack was a disaster for Lee; his army lost over4,000 men while Union forces only lost 1,500 casualties.
Fascinating Fact: The attack on Fort Stedman was a daring maneuver for the Confederates and represented their best effort. It caused little inconvenience for the Union forces, the major consequence being to delay a military review from morning to afternoon.