Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26, 1865: The Diary of John B. Jones

On this day 150 years ago, Confederate war clerk John B. Jones wrote in his diary about Lee's failed assault on Fort Stedman and Major General George E. Pickett's movement through Richmond. Pickett was headed for the right end of Lee's lines at Petersburg, near a crossroads named Five Forks.
March 26th.—Frost last night. Cloudy, cold, and windy to-day.

Suffered much yesterday and last night with disordered bowels—from cold. This, however, may relieve me of the distressing cough I have had for months.

After all, I fear Lee’s attempt on the enemy’s lines yesterday was a failure. We were compelled to relinquish the fort or battery we had taken, with all the guns we had captured. Our men were exposed to an enfilading fire, not being supported by the divisions intended to co-operate in the movement. The 600 prisoners were completely surprised—their pickets supposing our troops to be merely deserters. This indicates an awful state of things, the enemy being convinced that we are beaten, demoralized, etc.

There was a communication for the Secretary this morning, from “headquarters;” but being marked “confidential,” I did not open it, but sent it to Gen. Breckinridge.

Pickett’s division has been marching for Petersburg all the morning.

March 26, 1865: Lee tells Davis "it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman"

On this day 150 years ago, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis to inform him that the attack on Fort Stedman had failed and the abandonment of the Confederate lines at Petersburg was now unavoidable. The implication would have been clear to Davis: once Petersburg fell, the fall of Richmond would be assured.

26th March 1865

His Excy Jefferson Davis

President C States


Mr President,

My dispatch of yesterday to the Secretary of War will have informed you of the attack made upon a portion of the enemy’s lines around Petersburg, and the result which attended it.1 I have been unwilling to hazard any portion of the troops in an assault upon fortified positions, preferring to reserve their strength for the struggle which must soon commence, but I was induced to assume the offensive from the belief that the point assailed could be carried without much loss, and the hope that by the seizure of the redoubts in the rear of the enemy’s main line, I could sweep along his entrenchments to the south, so that if I could not cause their abandonment, Genl Grant would at least be obliged so to curtail his lines, that upon the approach of Gen Sherman, I might be able to hold our position with a portion of the troops, and with a select body unite with Gen Johnston and give him battle. If successful, I would then be able to return to my position, and if unsuccessful I should be in no worse condition, as I should be compelled to withdraw from James River if I quietly awaited his approach. But although the assault upon the fortified works at Hair’s Hill was bravely accomplished, the redoubts commanding the line of entrenchments were found enclosed and strongly manned, so that an attempt to carry them must have been attended with great hazard, and even if accomplished, would have caused a great sacrifice of life in the presence of the large reserves which the enemy was hurrying into position I therefore determined to withdraw the troops, and it was in retiring that they suffered the greatest loss the extent of which has not yet been reported. I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near. Gen. Johnston reports that the returns of his force of the 24th inst; gave his effective infantry thirteen thousand five hundred. He must therefore have lost, after his concentration at Smithfield about eight thousand men. This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion. Should this prove to be the case, I can not reasonably expect him to bring across the Roanoke more than ten thousand infantry, a force that would add so little strength to this army as not to make it more than a match for Sherman, with whom to risk a battle in the presence of Grant’s army, would hardly seem justifiable. Gen Johnston estimates Gen Sherman’s army, since its union with Schofield and the troops that were previously in N Carolina, at sixty thousand. I have no correct data upon which to form an estimate of the strength of Gen Grant’s army. Taking their own account, it would exceed a hundred thousand, and I fear it is not under eighty thousand. Their two armies united would therefore exceed ours by nearly a hundred thousand. If Gen Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter after crossing the Roanoke has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies.

I have thought it proper to make the above statement to your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.

I am with great respect

Your obt servt

R E Lee

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 25, 1865: Jefferson Davis to William Smith

Even as Lee's assault on Fort Stedman was bogging down, Jefferson Davis was asking Virginia Governor William Smith to help raise an army of freed slaves to fight for the Confederacy. It was far too little, far too late.
RICHMOND, VA., March 25, 1865.

His Excellency WILLIAM SMITH,

Governor of Virginia:

GOVERNOR: Herewith I transmit the requisition made by General Lee in accordance with the suggestion I lately received from you. He informs me that it would have been made sooner if he had known that action on his part was waited for. He had previously written to you, but I infer, from the fact that you did not mention his letter, that it had failed to reach you. You have probably noticed that the order issued from the Adjutant-General's Office for the organization of colored troops looks only to the acceptance of volunteers, and, in a letter received this evening from General Lee he expresses the opinion that there should be compulsory enlistment in the first instance. My idea has been that we should draw into our military service that portion of the negroes which would be most apt to run away and join the army of the enemy, and that this would be best effected by seeking volunteers for our own army. If this plan should fail to obtain the requisite number there will still remain the process of compulsory enlistment.

Very respectfully, yours, &c.,


March 25, 1865: "there was a little rumpus up the line this morning . . ."

On this day 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln sent a brief telegram to check in with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, noting as he wrote that there had been fighting that morning.
CITY POINT, VIRGINIA, March 25, 1865. 8.30 A.M.

HON. SECRETARY OF WAR, Washington, D. C.:

Arrived here all safe about 9 P.M. yesterday. No war news. General Grant does not seem to know very much about Yeatman, but thinks very well of him so far as he does know.
I like Mr. Whiting very much, and hence would wish him to remain or resign as best suits himself. Hearing this much from me, do as you think best in the matter. General Lee has sent the Russell letter back, concluding, as I understand from Grant, that their dignity does not admit of their receiving the document from us. Robert just now tells me there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began.

The "little rumpus" Lincoln referred to was the desperate Confederate attack on Fort Stedman.

March 25, 1865: The Battle of Fort Stedman

On this day 150 years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a desperate assault against Fort Stedman in the federal lines besieging Petersburg, Virginia. It's hard to say for certain what Lee hoped for from this assault. Perhaps if Confederate troops had broken through to City Point they could have disrupted Grant's supply base briefly. In the event, despite achieving tactical surprise, the Confederate attackers were contained and driven back at considerable loss.

From "Gordon's Attack at Fort Stedman" by George L. Kilmer, Company I, 14th New York Heavy Artillery:
About 3 o'clock on the morning of March 25th Lieutenants C. A. Lochbrunner and Frank M. Thomson, who were on night duty at Fort Stedman, informed Major Randall of an unusual commotion in front of the works. Lieutenant Thomson was directed to arouse the command at once and have the men moved to the works as quickly and as quietly as possible. The attack fell first upon Battery X and the breastworks on the right of it, and at that time the most of the officers and men of the garrison were in their places. Captain J. P. Cleary, Lieutenant Thomson, and Sergeant John Delack (who had been on guard duty during the night) had hauled a gun to the sally-port on the face of the fort toward Battery X, and it was opened upon the assailants. Many of the Confederates were captured and sent to the rear. The guns on this face were fired several times under command of the officers of the battery. The artillerymen in Battery X attempted to defend their guns, and Lieutenant E. B. Nye, commanding the section, was shot down beside his pieces.

A second attack was immediately made on the rear of Fort Stedman by an overwhelming force that entered the breach at Battery X. 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. After daylight some of the officers and men of the 14th made their way along the moat of the trenches to Fort Haskell, and others fell back in line down the road toward Meade's Station, and formed on the slope within rifle range of their old works.

Major Randall was captured just outside of Fort Stedman, but managed to get away from his captors and reach Fort Haskell. The Confederates had silenced the pickets in front of Fort Stedman by taking advantage of General Grant's order of amnesty to desertey. This order encouraged these deserters to bring in their arms, by offering payment for them. On this occasion Confederates claiming to be deserters came in in large numbers, and very soon overpowered the pickets and passed on to the first line of works.

It was the intention of the Confederates to surprise Fort Haskell also. This work was guarded by two rows of abatis, and at the gap where the pickets filed out and in a sentinel was on duty all night. The man who served the last watch that morning on this outer post was Sylvester E. Hough, Company M, 14th Regiment, and soon after he went on post (at 3 o'clock) he saw blue-lights flash up along the picket-pits. He also heard the sound of chopping at the abatis on the lines between Stedman and the Confederate works on its front. He hallooed to the second sentinel at Haskell, whose post was at the bridge across the moat, and an alarm was called out in the fort. Hough then advanced down the picket trail toward the outposts, and as he did so the first cannon was fired from Stedman, and the muffled sounds of the fighting there were heard.

There was a long slope between Fort Haskell and the picket-pits, and on this slope Hough met a column of men moving stealthily up toward our western front. The enemy were in two ranks, and had filed into our lines through the gap in front of Stedman, and were moving upon us unopposed, for they were between us and our pickets. If some traitor had divulged their secret movement hours in advance the men of this column could not have been at greater disadvantage than they now were by the chances of war. Hough, unseen by the enemy, ran back to the fort to advise the gunners.

Three howitzers, double-shotted with grape, were trained upon the ground. The garrison had been called to arms, and the firing at Fort Stedman aroused the cry on all sides, "They have taken Fort Stedman." The story told by Hough confirmed our suspicions that we were to be attacked, also; we had not long to wait. When the assailants neared they heard their tread and their suppressed tones. "Wait," said Captain Houghton ; "wait till you see them, then fire." A breath seemed an age, for we knew nothing of the numbers before us. Finally, the Confederate leader called out, "Steady ! We'll have their works. Steady, my men!" Our nerves rebelled, and like a flash the thought passed along the parapet, "Now!" Not a word was spoken, but in perfect concert the cannon and muskets were discharged upon the hapless band. It must have been a surprise for the surprisers, though fortunately for them we had been too hasty, and, as they were moving by the flank along our front, only the head of their column received the fire. But this repulse did not end it; the survivors closed up and tried it again. Then they divided into squads and moved on the flanks, keeping up the by-play until there were none left. Daylight soon gave us perfect aim, and their game was useless.

This stunning blow to the assailants in front of Haskell occurred just as another column of Confederates, that had filed into the works at Stedman, started on a rapid conquest along the trenches toward Fort McGilvery. We could see from Haskell the flashing of rifles as these men moved on and on through the camps of the parapet guards. Another column started also from Stedman along the breastworks linking our two forts. This division aimed to take Haskell in the right rear. At the very outset, this last movement met with a momentary check, for it fell upon two concealed batteries, XI and XII, and the 59th and 29th Massachusetts regiments, stationed near and now under arms.

Meanwhile there was a lull around Haskell; but it was of short duration, for it was now so light that the enemy could observe from his main line every point on the scene of conflict. He opened on Haskell with Stedman's guns, and also with his own in front. Our little garrison divided, one half guarding the front parapet, the remainder rallying along the right wall to meet the attack threatened by the division coming against it from Stedman.

At this juncture, Captain Christian Woerner, of the 3d New Jersey Battery, who had been on duty at the headquarters of the Artillery brigade, in the rear, came into the fort and took charge of the artillery. He placed one piece in the right rear angle, where the embrasure admitted the working of it with an oblique as well as a direct range.

About the same time some officers and men of the 100th Pennsylvania and 3d Maryland regiments, who previous to the attack had occupied the breastworks adjoining, came in and were posted on the rear works by Captain George Brennan, of Company M who commanded in that quarter. The venturesome Confederate column had borne down all opposition, captured batteries XI and XII, and driven all the infantry from the trenches, and, with closed-up ranks, came bout at a point thirty rods from us the ground was cut by a ravine, and from there it rose in a gentle grade up to the fort. Woerner's one angle gun and about 50 muskets were all we could summon to repel this column, and there were probably an even 100 cannon and 1000 muskets at Stedman and on the main Confederate line concentrating their fire upon Haskell to cover this charge. The advancing troops reserved their fire. Our thin line mounted the banquettes the wounded and sick men loading the muskets, while those with sound hands ss and blazed away. The foremost assailants recoiled and scattered. 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. 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 mot 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. We held the battalion flag in the center of the right parapet, and a shell aimed there exploded on the mark. A sergeant of the color company was hoisted bodily into the air by the concussion. Strange to say, he was unharmed, but two of his fellow-soldiers, Sergeant Thomas Hunton and Corporal Stanford Bigelow, were killed, and the commandant, Houghton, who stood near the flag, was prostrated with a shattered thigh.

This was all the work of one shell. Before our comrnander could be removed, a second shell wounded him in the head and in the hand.

The charging column was now well up the slope, and Captain Woerner aided our muskets by some well-directed case-shot. Each check on this column by our effective firing was a spur to the Confederates at a distance to increase their fire upon us. They poured in solid and case shot, and had twelve Coehorn mortar-batteries sending up bombs, and of these Fort Haskell received its complement. Lieutenant Julius G. Tuerk, of Woerner's battery, had an arm torn off by a shell while he was sighting that angle gun. Captain Woerner relieved him, and mounted the gun-carriage, glass in hand, to fix a more destructive range.

He then left the piece with a corporal, the highest subordinate fit for duty, with instruction to continue working it on the elevation just set, while he himself went to prepare another gun for closer quarters leaped upon the gun-staging and was brained by a bullet before he could fire a shot. The Confederate column was preceded, as usual, by sharp-shooters, and these, using the block-houses of the cantonments along the trenches for shelter, succeeded in getting their bullets into the fort, and also in gaining command of our rear sally-port. All of our outside supports had been driven off, and we were virtually surrounded.

The flag-pole had been shot away, and the post colors were down. To make matters still worse, one of our own batteries, a long range siege-work away back on the bluff near the railroad, began to toss shell into the fort. We were isolated, as all could see ; our flag was from time to time depressed below the ramparts, or if floating was enveloped in smoke; we were reserving our little stock of ammunition for the last emergency, the hand-to-hand struggle that seemed inevitable. The rear batteries interpreted the situation with us as a sign that Haskell had yielded, or was about to yield.

Our leader at Haskell, Captain Houghton, was permanently disabled, but Major Randall had come into the fort soon after Houghton fell. With the men of the Stedman battalion who had reached us, he now joined in the defense. When the fire from our rear batteries became serious, Major Randall called for a volunteer guard to sally with the colors, in rear of the fort, to show the troops behind us that Haskell was still holding on. Our color bearer, Robert Kiley, and eight men responded.

Randall led the way along the narrow bridge stringers over the moat (the planks having been removed to prevent a sudden rush of the enemy) and the flag was waved several times in the faces of the Confederates, who hung about the rear of the fort, and who opened fire upon the colors. Four of the guard were hit, one being mortally wounded, but the fire from our rear batteries ceased.

The ranks of the enemy soon broke under the fire of our muskets and Woerner's well-aimed guns, but some of the boldest came within s and hailed us to surrender. The main body hung back beyond canister range near the ravine at the base of the slope, but within range of our bullets. Captain Woerner at last held his fire, having three pieces on the north front loaded with grape. Suddenly a great number of little parties or squads, of three to six men each, rose with a yell from their hidings down along those connecting parapets, and dashed toward us. The parapets joined on to the fort, and upon these the Confederates leaped, intending thus to scale our walls. But Woerner had anticipated this; the rear angle embrasure had been contrived for the emergency, and he let go his grape. Some of the squads were cut down, others ran off to cover, and not a few passed on beyond our right wall to the rear of the work and out of reach of the guns. With this the aggressive spirit of that famous movement melted away forever.

To Gordon, the dashing leader of the sortie, it is as now no longer a question of forging ahead, but of getting back out of the net into which he had plunged in the darkness. The way of retreat was back over the ridge in front of Stedman. This was swept by two withering fires, for Fort Haskell comrnanded the southern slope of the ridge, and Battery IX and Fort McGilvery the northern. With either slope uncovered the retreat would be comparatively easy and safe for Gordon, and the Haskell battery was the one at once able to effect the severest injury to his retreating ranks, and apparently the easiest to silence. The rifle and mortar batteries and sharp-shooters in our front took for a target the right forward angle of Haskell, the only point from which Woerner's guns could reach that coveted slope. A heavy fire was poured into this angle, while the Confederates in Stedman began to scramble back to their own lines.

Woerner removed his ammunition to the magazine, out of reach of the bombs that were dropping all about the gun. His men cut fuses below and brought up the shell as needed. The brave soldier mounted the breastworks with his field-glass and signaled to the gunner for every discharge, and he made the slope between Stedman and the Confederate salient (Colquitt's) a place of 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 under the range of Woerner's gun and attempted to rally the panic-stricken mass. He soon wheeled about, followed by some three hundred men whom he drew back out of range, halted, and formed for a charge to silence the gun. The movement was distinctly observed by us in Haskell, and Wond away at the slope, while the infantry once more formed on the parapets. The storming-party moved direct on our center, as if determined now to avoid contact with the guns of either angle. 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. Many of his men fell near him, and the last spasm of the assault was ended. Gradually the fire on both sides slackened, and many of the Confederates that were still within our lines laid down their arms.

Major Randall now resolved to recapture Fort Stedman, and taking a number of the men of the 14th Regiment, belonging to the Stedman battalion, formed on the parade in rear of Haskell. He was soon joined by detachments of officers and men from the 3d Maryland, 100th Pennsylvania, and 29th Massachusetts regiments, and the column charged down the breastworks to Fort Stedman, the 3d Maryland men, led by Captain Joseph F. Carter, being the first to enter the work and demand its surrender. At the same time Major N. J. Maxwell, of the 100th Pennsylvania, and a number of his men, mounted the parapet and planted their colors there. This column re-occupied Fort Stedman and Battery X and the breastworks, and the prisoners and rifles captured were awarded to the officers of McLaughlen's brigade, who led the counter-charge from Fort Haskell. Randall and his men took possession of the recaptured works and continued to garrison them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March 24, 1865: Robert E. Lee to Jefferson F. Davis

On this day 150 years ago, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Jefferson F. Davis with an amazing request.
March 24, 1865.

President of the Confederate States, Richmond:

Mr. PRESIDENT: I have the honor to ask that you will call upon the governor of the State of Virginia for the whole number of negroes, slave and free, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, for services as soldiers authorized by the joint resolution adopted by the Senate and House of Delegates of the State [of Virginia] on the 4th of March. The services of these men are now necessary to enable us to oppose the enemy.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE,