In a desperate attempt to break out of St Petersburg, Virginia, one hundred and forty-six years ago today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made Fort Stedman his last attack of the Civil War. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
Petersburg had been under siege by the Army of the Potomac and the overall Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant for nine months. The two great armies of the North and the South had fought a bloody campaign in the spring of 1864, and then settled into trenches that eventually stretched for fifty miles around Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Although Lee could not win this war of attrition, his men held out through the winter of 1864 to 1865. He realized the growing Yankee army could overwhelm his diminishing force when the spring brought better weather for an assault and he ordered General John B. Gordon to find a weak point in the Federal defenses and attack.
Gordon selected Fort Stedman, an earthen redoubt with a moat and nine-foot walls. Although imposing, Gordon believed it offered the greatest chance for success since it was located just 150 yards from the Confederate lines–the narrowest gap along the entire front.
At 4:00 a.m. on March 25, eleven thousand Confederate soldiers hurled themselves at the Union lines. They overwhelmed the surprised Yankees in Fort Stedman and captured one thousand yards of trenches. When dawn broke, the Confederate momentum faded and Gordon’s men took up defensive positions. Union reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and the Confederate soldiers were unable to hold the captured ground, the Gordon’s soldiers were driven back to their original position.
The Union lost one thousand men killed, wounded, and captured, while the Lee lost probably three times that number, including 1,500 captured during the retreat. Already outnumbered, these loses were more than Lee’s army could bear.
On March 29, General Grant began his offensive, and Petersburg fell on April 3. Two weeks after the Battle of Fort Stedman, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.