Volume XXV Issue #1 • An Excerpt From:

Lee’s Last Offensive
The Attack on Fort Stedman
March 25, 1865

By William C. Wyrick

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Sidney King’s painting of Union troops rushing to confront Robert E. Lee’s assault at Fort Stedman.

In early March 1865, the besieged Robert E. Lee, entrenched about Petersburg, Virginia, sought the counsel of someone who could engage in creative thinking. Ambrose Powell Hill was chronically ill, and he was now absent on sick leave. P. G. T. Beauregard, who had prevented the capture of Petersburg nine months before, was also in failing health and relinquishing his command in the Carolinas to Joe Johnston. Lee bypassed his senior leadership to seek the counsel of 33-year-old Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia.1

Even though he was the youngest of Lee’s corps commanders, Gordon had already established a reputation for being “crammed with courage and brimming with enterprise.” He had sustained five wounds while leading his brigade at Antietam. Within the past year, while serving under Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley, he had conducted daring attacks on Union Generals Lew Wallace at the Monocacy River and Horatio Wright at Cedar Creek.2

Gordon wrote that he was called out into a miserable night at 2:00 a.m. Upon arriving at Lee’s headquarters on the outskirts of Petersburg, Gordon wrote that he was greeted by a chief whose face reflected “painful depression.”3 The overwrought Lee launched into a discussion of field reports indicating the dire nature of their predicament. On paper Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia numbered only 57,000, and the effective count was much less. The addition of Joe Johnston’s army in the Carolinas, disintegrating before William T. Sherman’s relentless advance from Savannah, would raise the total available to Lee to no more than 80,000. In contrast, Lee’s estimate of the strength of Ulysses S. Grant’s forces already fronting Petersburg—the Armies of the Potomac and the James—was well above 100,000 troops. Lee feared that with the arrival of Phil Sheridan’s divisions from the Shenandoah Valley and the legions of Generals Sherman and John M. Schofield from North Carolina, the number of troops available to Grant would grow to 280,000.4

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