Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
Although Grant’s focus during the summer and fall of 1864 was on cutting off supply routes into Petersburg, he also launched several assaults north of the James River against Richmond. Grant recognized that forcing Lee to defend two fronts would thin the Confederate defenses around Petersburg, enhancing Union expectations for success. Most of the action south of Petersburg centered on the Weldon Railroad and on the Boydton Plank Road.
After the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18–21, 1864) and the Second Battle of Ream’s Station (August 25, 1864), the Confederacy lost control of a stretch of the Weldon Railroad approximately ten miles south of Petersburg. The Rebels had to offload supplies traveling up the railroad from the Carolinas and other parts of the Confederacy at Stony Creek Station and then ship the goods northward in wagons along the Boydton Plank Road.
At the Battle of Peebles’ Farm (September 30–October 2, 1864), Grant tightened his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines south of the city and farther to the west, but he could not shut off supplies traveling up the Boydton Plank Road or on the South Side Railroad. On October 27 and 28, at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, Grant made another attempt to capture the two prizes but was again unsuccessful. The Confederate supply routes into Petersburg remained open as the two sides hunkered down in their entrenchments for the winter.
During the winter, desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies weakened the Army of Northern Virginia. The Federals, however, enjoyed abundant supplies stockpiled at Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. Union officials efficiently distributed the supplies to the soldiers on the front over a network of short-line railroads constructed behind Union lines. As spring approached, Grant’s forces around Petersburg outnumbered Lee’s men by nearly 125,000 soldiers to 50,000 men.
Lee Plans a Breakout
Desperate to find a way out of Petersburg before Grant cut off all supply routes and starved the Confederate army into submission, Lee met with Major General John B. Gordon in early March to consider his options. Lee and Gordon decided that their best course was to go on the offensive. Together, they planned a surprise attack on the Union lines east of Petersburg and on Grant’s headquarters and supply base at City Point, Virginia. If the assault succeeded, it would force Grant to weaken his lines south of Petersburg, enabling Lee’s army to break out and to join General Joseph E. Johnston and his army in North Carolina.
Clash at Fort Stedman
The focal point of the attack was Fort Stedman, an earthen fortification only 150 yards from the Confederate lines east of Petersburg–the narrowest divide separating the two armies. The Rebel assault force comprised three divisions from Gordon’s 2nd Corps, two brigades from Major General Bushrod R. Johnson’s 4th Corps, and two brigades from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s 3rd Corps in reserve. The combined total of these units represented nearly half of the Army of Northern Virginia’s infantry.
Soldiers of Major General John G. Parke’s Union 9th Corps occupied Fort Stedman. They also manned Batteries 9 and 10 north of the fort and Batteries 11 and 12 south of the fort. Parke’s 3rd Division was in reserve behind the main line.
Confederate Plan of Attack
The Confederate plan called for the Rebels to overwhelm Fort Stedman quickly and then move north and south to capture the adjacent Union batteries. The rest of the strike force would then exploit the gap in the federal lines and make a rapid assault against City Point, ten miles to the northeast.
Rebels Seize Fort Stedman
The operation began at 4:15 a.m. on March 25. Rebel sharpshooters masquerading as deserters approached the Union lines and surprised the unsuspecting federal pickets. Confederate engineers then removed defensive obstructions, making a path for the advancing infantry. All went according to plan and the Southerners quickly seized Fort Stedman, and Batteries 10, 11, and 12, creating an opening nearly 1,000 feet long in the Union line.
Once the Rebels created the gap, confusion soon followed. Hungry Confederate infantry troops stopped to forage captured Yankee rations. The Confederate soldiers also became disoriented as they searched for a second line of fortifications that did not exist. The delay provided time for the startled Union officers to mobilize their troops and to organize a counterattack.
Federal artillerists took up positions on a ridge east of Fort Stedman and began shelling the invaders. The Yankees launched a counterattack led by Major General Orlando B. Willcox’s 1st Division, reinforced by Major General John F. Hartranft’s 3rd Division. The combined Union force formed a semicircle around the bulging Confederate advance. The Federals caught the Rebels in a blistering federal. After Willcox’s soldiers stormed the Confederate trenches, nearly 2,000 Greycoats threw down their weapons and surrendered. By 7:30 a.m., the Rebel advance stalled.
When the Confederates streamed back to Fort Stedman, Gordon realized the game was up. With Lee’s approval, he ordered a withdrawal to the original Rebel lines. Still weathering the Union artillery shelling and crossfire, the Confederates suffered heavy casualties as they retreated.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Fort Stedman was a decisive Union victory. The Rebels suffered roughly 4,000 casualties (600 killed, 2,400 wounded, and 1,000 missing or captured), compared to just over 1,000 losses for the Union (seventy-two killed, 450 wounded, and 522 missing or captured). The assault had no effect on the Union lines east of Petersburg, and by redeploying troops from his entrenchments southwest of Petersburg, Lee opened the door for Grant to seize the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad—prizes that the Union general had coveted since the autumn of 1864. Losing these vital supply lines cinched the fall of Petersburg and Richmond.