On this day in 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes Fort Stedman his last attack of the war in a desperate attempt to break out of Petersburg, Virginia. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
For nine months, Petersburg was under siege by the Army of the Potomac and the overall Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant. The two great armies had fought a bloody campaign in the spring of 1864, and then settled into trenches that eventually stretched for50 miles around Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee could not win this war of attrition, but his men held out through the winter of 1864 to 1865. Now, Lee realized the growing Yankee army could overwhelm his diminishing force when the spring brought better weather for an assault. 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 9-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. Early in the morning ofMarch 25, some 11,000 Rebels hurled themselves at the Union lines. They overwhelmed the surprised Yankeesat Fort Stedman and captured 1,000 yards of trenches. After daylight, however, the Confederate momentum waned. Gordon’s men took up defensive positions, and Union reinforcements arrived to turn the tide. The Rebels were unable to hold the captured ground, andwere driven back to their original position.
The Union lost around 1,000 men killed, wounded, and captured, whileLee lost probably three times that number, including some 1,500 captured during the retreat. Already outnumbered, these loses were more than Lee’s army could bear. Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that it would be impossible to maintain the Petersburg line much longer. On March 29, 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,Virginia.