Volume XXV Issue #1 • An Excerpt From:

Lee’s Last Offensive
The Attack on Fort Stedman
March 25, 1865

By William C. Wyrick

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.




The waterfront and terminus of the U. S. Military Railroad at City Point. Severing the link to this supply base was a goal of Lee’s assault.



According to Gordon, Lee shared reports indicating that in addition to being vastly outmanned, Lee’s troops were in a terrible state. Gordon wrote: “I was not prepared for the picture of extreme destitution—of the lack of shoes, of hats, and of blankets, as well as food.” The Southern commander said that the number of his starving horses had dwindled to half that needed to move his artillery and supply trains. Sheridan had plundered the Shenandoah Valley of food and fodder. At the same time, the Union Army of the Potomac was being supplied daily by the U. S. Military Railroad that provided a direct link between the bustling port at City Point and the Petersburg front.

Gordon said that Lee asked for his reading of the options left to them. Gordon outlined three courses of action in order of preference: (1) negotiate a peace with the Federals, (2) abandon Richmond and unite Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with Joe Johnston’s in North Carolina, or (3) attack the Federals “without delay.”

The Georgian related that when Lee seemed to challenge this assessment, he strongly reaffirmed his position and pressed the General-in-Chief for his own views. Lee relented, agreeing with Gordon “fully.” In the ensuing discussion Lee raised the difficulties posed by each course of action. Pursuing the favored alternative, Gordon urged Lee to convince Jefferson Davis to sue for peace on the best terms available. It was almost dawn before the “intensely absorbing, and in many respects harrowing” interview ended with Lee pledging to lay out the “tremendous issue” before President Davis. Lee took the train to Richmond that same morning.5

Days later, Lee summoned Gordon to hear of his meetings in Richmond. Lee stated that the “most pertinacious” President Davis had rejected the preferred course of negotiations, remaining adamant that there could be no peace without guarantees of Southern independence. Abraham Lincoln had rejected such assurances a month earlier at the Hampton Roads peace conference. Regarding the issue of evacuating Richmond and Petersburg, Lee recognized that the Confederate leadership seemed to be in a state of denial of the situation and was thus not prepared to relinquish the capital. Given the Richmond mindset, Lee concluded: “There was but one thing that we could do—fight. To stand still was death. . . .”6

In mid-March, Lee moved Gordon’s corps into the trenches extending southward from the Appomattox River. Gordon said that the General-in-Chief directed him to “study General Grant’s works at all points, consider carefully all plans and possibilities, and then tell me what you can do to help us in our dilemma.” Gordon began his analysis.7

The long blue line encircling Richmond and Petersburg on the east was actually divided by the landscape into three distinctly separate segments: Richmond, Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg. Toward the north end, the James River formed the boundary between the Richmond and Bermuda Hundred fronts. The Petersburg front lay to the south, below the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers (see Map, Pp. 12-13). It began at a point on the Appomattox River that was only two miles from the center of the city. From there it ran straight south from the river for three miles before extending south and west across the Jerusalem Plank Road for another eight miles. Near the Appomattox River the corridor separating the opposing forces was only a few hundred yards wide. To the west the two lines splayed out from one another as much as two miles as they meandered beyond the Weldon Railroad.

The armies on both sides were well entrenched, protected by layers of obstructions: tangled abatis—man-made thickets constructed of felled trees and brush; moveable cheveaux de frise—“horse rakes” made of sharpened rails bristling from central axles and chained together; and bristling fraise—barricades mounted with sharpened logs anchored in the ground and wired together so as to point outward at shoulder height.

Forts had been built along the entire siege line. Spaced at intervals of one-fourth to one-half mile, and with batteries interspersed between them, the forts were positioned so as to sweep the ground in front with artillery. Lines of skirmishers, or pickets, were posted in rifle pits well in front of the works to observe the enemy

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