Volume XXVIII Issue #5 • An Excerpt From:

Action at Petersburg
March 25, 1865

by William C. Wyrick

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Union Fort Fisher on the Western Front. Lee’s attack at Fort Stedman, March 25, 1865,
led to Union advances on this part of the line.

As Union forces descended toward the gates of Richmond in 1864, the venerable Robert E. Lee warned that he could not afford to allow his Union adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, to remain on the offensive in his drive toward the Confederate capital:

. . . The time has arrived, in my opinion, when something more is necessary than adhering to lines and defensive positions.

We shall be obliged to go out and prevent the enemy from selecting such positions as he chooses. If he is allowed to continue that course, we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand a siege, which would be but a work of time. . . .

With the coming of Spring, 1865, Lee’s worst fears had been realized. The Confederacy was collapsing on the Southern capital of Richmond and the nearby transportation hub of Petersburg. His Army of Northern Virginia had been forced into the trenches before the sister cities by Grant’s bold thrust across the James River in June 1864. Now “Marse Robert” faced Federals on a front that extended 37 miles from White Oak Swamp above Richmond to Hatcher’s Run southwest of Petersburg. Only the Boydton Plank Road, the South Side Railroad, and the Richmond & Danville Railroad remained open to bring in supplies from the shrinking heartland of the Confederacy.

Grant’s legions at Petersburg—the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James—already numbered 122,000 troops. Soon the Union forces available to the General-in-Chief there would more than double in size. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan was completing his rampage southward through the Shenandoah Valley and he would bring his veteran cavalrymen to Petersburg by the end of March. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was pushing relentlessly northward from Savannah. At Goldsboro, North Carolina, Sherman would be joined by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, coming up with his divisions from Wilmington. They would be ready to resume their drive northward in mid-April.

While Grant’s forces were growing in size and strength, General Lee’s army had eroded while held under “close siege.” Over the past nine months Grant had conducted a series of offensives designed to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia by stretching Lee’s line to the breaking point and/or turning his flank. The protracted conflict devastated the Southern ranks. Supplies of food and equipment dwindled to bare subsistence levels. The misery of the troops was intensified by the cruel winter of 1864-65. Confederate diarist T. H. Tolson of the 2nd Maryland Battalion compared their existence to being “worse than Valley Forge.” The toxic effects of the siege on Lee’s army were evidenced in the “alarming frequency of desertions,” a problem that President Jefferson Davis admitted was “becoming too notorious for concealment . . . a fruitful cause of disaster.”

Early in March 1865, General Lee and President Davis held a “long free conference” to discuss their plight. Davis stated that Lee had been forced by circumstances “to the conclusion that the evacuation of Petersburg was but a question of time.” When Davis asked whether the army should withdraw at once, Lee replied that his “artillery and draught horses were too weak for the roads in their then condition, and that he would have to wait until they became firmer.”

But where could they go? Lee concluded that his army should seek shelter in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, his last major source of supply and home to many of his troops. Once there the forces of Lee and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (retreating northward across the Carolinas) could unite to defeat Sherman. According to Davis: “Then the more southern States, freed from pressure and encouraged by success, it was expected, would send large re-enforcements to the army, and Grant, drawn far from his base of supplies into the midst of a hostile population, it was hoped, might yet be defeated, and Virginia be delivered from the intruder.” The plan was unduly optimistic, but President Davis had rejected all other options.

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