For the next few weeks, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the sixth installment of the series.
March 25-28, 1865: Last Hurrah, Final Words
In the last days of March 1865 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee made one final, desperate attempt to break out of the Siege of Petersburg – and almost succeeded, with a daring nighttime attack briefly piercing the Union lines at the Battle of Fort Stedman on March 25. But the attack soon dissipated in confusion as the rebels were thwarted by unfamiliar surroundings, giving their foes time to bring up reinforcements and recover the lost ground. Two days later, Abraham Lincoln had his last face-to-face meeting with his top commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. His orders were clear: end the war as soon as possible.
Battle of Fort Stedman
As spring approached the Southern cause was all but lost. Following Lincoln’s repeated rejections of a negotiated peace and the defeat of Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South at the Battle of Bentonville, Lee recognized that the only chance of prolonging resistance lay in somehow breaking out of the Siege of Petersburg, where Grant’s Army of the Potomac held it in a tightening vise, and joining forces with Johnston’s army, now falling back towards Raleigh, NC. With luck their combined armies might be able to defeat Sherman before the latter was able to join forces with Grant. True, abandoning the defense of Petersburg would mean turning the Confederate capital at Richmond over to the Yankees – but if the two main Union armies linked up, it was all over anyway. Desperate measures were now appropriate.
The problem was how to extricate the Army of Northern Virginia from its defensive positions in front of Petersburg without being immediately attacked by the much larger Union Army of the Potomac. At this point Major General John B. Gordon suggested a bold plan: he would lead a force of around 10,000 veteran infantry in a surprise, early morning attack on a thinly-held point in the Union lines.
Gordon pointed out that the bulk of Grant’s Union troops were now stretched out in a long arc tracing the Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg, while to the east of the city Fort Stedman was held by a relatively weak skeleton force. A breakthrough here would allow the rebels to threaten the Union supply hub at City Point, which would in turn force Grant to shorten his lines southwest of the city to counter the Confederate offensive. This, hopefully accompanied by chaos behind the Union lines, would give the rest of the Confederate army a chance to slip away.
Lee agreed to Gordon’s proposal and the last rebel offensive of the war began at 4 am on the morning of March 25, 1865. After Confederate pioneer companies cleared defensive obstacles, an advance force of 300 elite troops stealthily approached the Union pickets (advance guard posts) and overwhelmed them without a shot fired; some may have tricked the guards by claiming to be deserters. Now with the way cleared the rest of the rebel infantry could attack in force, advancing in silence in order to maintain the element of surprise (below, the Union front lines near Fort Stedman).
With numbers on their side for once, the Confederates stormed a Union artillery battery and immediately attacked Fort Stedman from the rear. George Kilmer, a Union officer from New York, recalled what happened next: “The Confederates climbed over the parapets and in at the embrasures, and it was so dark that the garrison could not distinguish their own men from the enemy. Finding it impossible to hold the fort, the officers and men of the garrison who could get away took shelter on the outside of the parapets, and continued the fight with muskets.”
From Fort Stedman the rebels turned to each side and began “rolling up” the Union trenches with flank attacks; the main attack centered on nearby Fort Haskell, but by now the alarm was going up in the Union ranks. With their cover blown there was no point in staying quiet, so now the Confederate artillery opened up. Kilmer described the chaotic scene:
The Confederate forts opposite us gave a response more fierce than ever, and a body of sharp-shooters posted within easy range sent us showers of minies [Minié Balls, a type of rifle bullet]. The air was full of shells, and on glancing up one saw, as it were, a flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating about in a gale. At first the shells did not explode. Their fuses were too long, so they fell intact, and the fires went out. Sometimes they rolled about like foot-balls, or bounded along the parapet and landed in the watery ditch. But when at last the Confederate gunners got the range, their shots became murderous.
Another Union soldier, Richard Clow, painted a similar picture
It was a splendid thing. The roar of the cannon was very tarific [sic]; it was louder than any thunder storm… We could hear each charge they made. The rebs would run with a kind of yelp like so many hounds and our boys would rush on cheer and shout which could be heard for many miles around… The old veterans said they never heard or saw heavier cannonading or more shells in the air at a time.
However the rebel offensive was already running into some unexpected obstacles – or rather, their absence. Gordon had planned to press on to capture three more forts believed to be directly behind Fort Stedman, but the forts were nowhere to be seen; it turned out Confederates were mistaken about their location, reflecting the difficulties involved in battlefield reconnaissance at this time. Without their next objectives in sight, the Confederate assault began to lose momentum. Furthermore the defensive works the rebels did manage to capture proved to be a confusing warren of intersecting earthworks (below, a “bombproof” at Fort Stedman). John C. Tidball, an artillery officer in the Union Army, described the environment encountered by the Confederate attackers at Fort Stedman:
For tenth months it had been growing up under the close and searching fire of the enemy, and had become a labyrinth of bomb-proofs, traverses, gopher holes, huts, and all in every imaginable manner of irregularity. Even those who knew the place well could not find their way about in the dark. Getting over and into this labyrinth broke entirely the enemy’s formation, and before they could reform for a forward movement, such a pelting fire of artillery was brought to bear upon them as to cause them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs, behind traverses, or wherever else they could find cover.
Meanwhile Union forces were already rallying to recapture Fort Stedman. Although there was later some dispute among Union officers about who should get the credit for turning the tide (the Confederate commander Gordon was also known for “exaggerating” some details in his later accounts of the battle), Union troops from a number of units charged bravely in the face of point blank cannon and rifle fire, some of it coming from their own captured artillery.
Elisha Rhodes, a Union Colonel from Rhode Island, portrayed the Union counterattack at Fort Stedman in glowing terms: “It was a superb sight: the long lines of infantry gradually closing in on the front, the clouds of smoke that marked the line, the grand rush and the cheers of victory as the troops passed the ditch, mounted the parapet and planted their colors.” But the truth, as always, was much more bloody, as described by Milton A. Embick, a soldier from Pennsylvania: “They started forward as though on dress parade, firing as they went, which I thought was murder… their men plunging forward, staggering backward, or sinking limp as they were shot…”
At the same time rebels were subjected to a withering crossfire from Fort Haskell and Union artillery batteries. Kilmer recalled the “fearful slaughter”:
My mind sickens at the memory of it – a real tragedy in war – for the victims had ceased fighting, and were now struggling between imprisonment on the one hand, and death or home on the other. Suddenly an officer on a white horse rode out… and attempted to rally the panic-stricken mass… But our muskets were well aimed, and the new ranks were thinned out with every volley. The party crossed the ravine, and there the leader fell, shot through the head.
With Union reserves rushing to the scene, it was clear the attack had failed in its main aim, and the rebels beat a hasty retreat – so hasty, in fact, that the Union commanders seized the opportunity to occupy their front-line pickets, denuded of men for the attack on Fort Stedman. The Union soldiers quickly dug into the captured positions, giving them an excellent jumping-off point for an attack on the rebel defenses. Gordon’s gamble had failed, and now the rebels would pay the price.
Lincoln’s Last War Council
Two days after the Confederacy’s last hurrah at Fort Stedman, Lincoln met Grant and Sherman for what would prove to be the last time on March 27-28, 1865. Before the meeting Lincoln rode to the Union positions outside Petersburg, where he witnessed part of the Battle of Fort Stedman and visited wounded Union soldiers. While he was doing this Sherman had to make a lengthy journey up from North Carolina aboard a captured Confederate blockade-runner.
The president then met his generals aboard River Queen (the steamship on which Lincoln had met the Confederate peace envoys just a few months before) anchored at City Point, Virginia (top, a copy of “The Peacemakers,” originally painted by George P.A. Healy in 1868). Alone together in the ship’s saloon, over meetings on two consecutive days Lincoln asked questions about their experiences and, in typical fashion, told a few amusing anecdotes of his own. But according to Admiral David Porter, who was also present on at least one of the two days, the meetings were dominated by how to approach the endgame of four years of unimaginable bloodshed, and what to do with the defeated Confederacy afterwards.
Lincoln was pleased with the North’s military progress, but also worried that Lee – ever the wily master of battlefield strategy – would still somehow manage to slip away and join up with Johnston in North Carolina, as he’d just tried to do. Grant and Sherman tried to set his mind at rest, promising that Lee wouldn’t escape.
Lincoln also took great pains to emphasize that the war would only end with Southern acceptance of the abolition of slavery as enacted by the Thirteenth Amendment. However, he also wanted to end the war as quickly as possible, and was willing to be relatively lenient towards the defeated rebels if they acceded to these main demands. He also hoped to avoid the necessity of “mopping up” pockets of rebel resistance at great length. According to Sherman’s later account, Lincoln seemed to favor easy terms for Reconstruction:
Mr. Lincoln was full and frank in his conversation, assuring me that in his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over; and he distinctly authorized me to assure Governor Vance and the people of North Carolina that, as soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country, and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto til Congress could provide others.
Lincoln himself was clearly exhausted but determined to see the war through to its end, Sherman recalled: “When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard, but the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship.”
Indeed, Lincoln was optimistic that the end of the war was near, saying there had been “enough bloodshed,” and hoped Grant and Sherman could bring their foes, Lee and Johnston, to terms at once. However, his generals respectfully demurred, venturing that there would be at least one more major battle before the enemy’s will was broken. In fact Grant’s plans were already in motion: the final, all-out assault on the rebel lines at Petersburg would begin on March 29.