At the beginning of 1865, nine months into Grant and Lincoln’s master plan for an all out assault on the Confederacy, news of the advance of the Union armies seemed to leave little doubt about the final outcome of the bloody four-year struggle. Federal troops were campaigning all across the South and Confederate forces in almost every instance were on the retreat. The war was on the downward slope and it seemed the Union would end up on top.
General William Tecumseh Sherman had recently marched an army of 60,000 Union troops across Georgia wreaking havoc throughout the state. Mostly unopposed by the Confederates, the March to the Sea was a complete success – but capturing the City of Savannah was only half of Sherman’s plan. The Union commanders’ aim in the new year would be to begin a march through the Carolinas designed to bring more devastation and ruin to the last vestiges of the Confederacy.
There was one exception to the Union advances occurring throughout the South. In January of 1865 Union and Confederate troops in Virginia were still entrenched and facing each other in the now eight month Siege of Petersburg. But even here things were beginning to stir…
“Due east of Petersburg on January 29th, near the frost-rimed scar of the Crater, a white flag appeared on the rebel parapet and a messenger came over with a letter addressed to Lieutenant General U. S. Grant. Word spread up and down the opposing lines that something important was up; from the look of things…something that maybe had to do with peace.”
The flag of truce at Petersburg signaled the arrival of the Confederate Peace Commissioners. Traveling across no-mans-land to Grant’s HQ at City Point three high-ranking Confederates were to eventually meet with President Lincoln in an attempt to negotiate an end to the war.
“…and when the carriage turned and began to jolt eastward over the shell-pocked ground between the trenches, a roar of approval went up from opposite sides of the line of battle. “Our men cheered loudly,” Meade would write his wife that night, “and the soldiers on both sides cried out lustily, ‘Peace! Peace!’ ” **
Its clear from Lincoln’s correspondences with Grant that the appearance of the peace commissioners by no means meant that hostilities along the front should cease.
“Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder, or delay your military movements or plans,” Lincoln told him, and Grant replied: “There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr Stephens and others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it.” **
And so it was in Virginia where Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac were still entrenched, in a deadly embrace, with the Confederates outside the City of Petersburg. Back in June of 1864 Grant stole a march on the Rebels and rushed troops to Petersburg in an attempt to capture the City but was ultimately unsuccessful. Confederate Gen. P.T. Beauregard’s meagre garrison in a last-minute defense managed to hold back the Union advance in time for General Robert E. Lee’s reinforcements to arrive.
By January of 1865 in eight months of siege warfare the Union Army had gained little at Petersburg except for additions to the casualty list. Undaunted the Union commander continued his strategy of extending the siege lines around the City. Numerous battles were fought in late 1864 to gain control of the supply routes running into Petersburg. Grant knew if he could sever these supply lines, the Confederates would have to abandon the City. The Union commander also knew that if he continued to extend his lines, Lee would have to follow suit ultimately thinning his force to the point where the Union Army could score a breakthrough.
“At the end of February, some 68,000 Confederate soldiers answered the roll behind the line of works, barely 56,000 of whom would have been ready to go into a fight. At that same moment, the two Union armies under Grant reported 118,000 present for duty. At the end of March, Grant would gain another 5,700 cavalry when Phil Sheridan came to him from the Shenandoah Valley” ***
“Lieutenant General U.S. Grant’s goal for this, his seventh offensive, was to force the Confederates out of their lines to defeat them in the open, and sever the South Side Railroad, one of the last two major logistical lifeline feeding Richmond and Petersburg. He planned a huge wheeling movement to outflank and turn the Confederate right flank to accomplish it.” *
In the spring Grant would have the man power to launch an offensive formulated to end the stalemate and ultimately, he hoped, the war.
The Confederate Army in 1865 on the other hand was in dire straights. Dwindling supplies and a continued spate of desertions were reducing the Rebel forces around Petersburg. General Lee informed the authorities in Richmond of the situation and plainly stated that if Grant continued to extend his lines the Confederates would eventually run out of men to defend the trenches.
The Seventh Offensive
Grant’s plan for the spring offensive included bringing Gen. Phil Sheridan and his 5000 strong mounted force from their recent victories in the Shenandoah Valley to Petersburg to bolster the Union offensive. Grant, knowing the cavalry commanders aggressiveness, would put Sheridan in charge of the planned attacks designed to finally out-flank and rout the Confederates at Petersburg.
General Grant would also stealthily move troops from the eastern Petersburg battlefield to the western sector for the coming campaign. Crossing the James River at Deep Bottom these Union reinforcements would add weight to what Grant hoped would be the final push. In late March 1865 Grant’s plan was complete and his armies readied for the new campaign.
“The intelligence flowing into General Lee’s headquarters indicated that the Union was starting to stir restlessly. Lee felt that within a few days Grant would inaugurate an offensive designed to force the Confederates to abandon their Petersburg defenses. When the Federals moved out, Lee believed they would direct their movements toward the upper reaches of Hatcher’s Run.” *
“Between Hatcher’s Run and the Appomattox lay the tracks of the vital South Side Railroad, one of Lee’s two essential links with the fragment of the Cis-Mississippi Confederacy not yet occupied by the Yankees. General Lee realized that the South Side Railroad would undoubtedly be Grant’s prime objective, if the Federals planned to drive the Confederates from Petersburg without having to storm the powerful fortifications.” *
“Lee had already stretched his thin line almost to the breaking point. On the twenty-seven and one-half miles held by his infantry, Lee could count an average of only 1,140 men per mile.” *
The Confederate commander knew Grant’s strategy would eventually break the stalemate at Petersburg and so hastily planned an expedition himself to stymie the Union’s spring offensive. Lee would take a gamble and attack first with the ultimate goal of abandoning Petersburg, marching south and joining his forces with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s troops facing Sherman in the Carolinas.
Taking the initiative the Confederate commander hoped to keep the Federals off-balance long enough to extricate his army from the trenches around the beleaguered city. The planned attack and attempt to breakout of Petersburg would be the Army of Northern Virginia’s last offensive of the war.
The Battle of Fort Stedman
To precipitate the breakout on March 25th the Confederates launched an attack on the Federals at Fort Stedman. In the days leading up to the assault General Lee secretly moved a large portion of his army to the trenches opposite the Union fort.
John B. Gordon was chosen to lead the attack that General Lee hoped would give his army time to escape Petersburg.
Seen as a weak point in the Federal defenses Fort Stedman was already in close proximity to the Confederate trenches at Colquitt’s Salient. The battleground had been fought over before and was mostly devoid of trees. Lee’s attackers would have just a hundred yards or so to cross before coming to grips with the Federals inside the fort.
Gen. Gordon devised a complex battle plan for the attack. Fifty chosen men were given the task of removing the obstacles, chevaux-de-frise, in front of the Union lines. Armed with axes these soldiers would clear the way for Gordon’s troops to take the fort and move beyond the redoubt. Gordon also had some of his men impersonate Union officers to help sow confusion during the attack. Assault teams were to follow and get into the rear of the Union lines and attempt to split the Army of the Potomac in-two.
The pre-dawn attack went off as planned and was initially successful. Over 10,000 Confederates surged forward in the darkness and within minutes overwhelmed the fort’s garrison and turned the guns on the retreating Federals. Gordon’s troops managed to punch a hole in the Union line but without significant reinforcements to follow-up their successes the attack stalled. An overwhelming counterattack by the Federals finished the contest forcing General Gordon and his remaining troops to withdraw.
Thousands of soldiers were captured in the attempted assault striking a huge blow to the Confederates. General Lee lost 4,000 veteran troops in the Battle of Fort Stedman and an irreplaceable chance to escape from Petersburg. The Federal troops that rushed in and sealed the breech in the attack were unaware of what they had just achieved. The Union counterattack had just beaten back the last Confederate offensive of the Civil War.
The Five Forks Campaign
Five days later and further to the west Grant’s spring offensive began with a Union attack and victory at the Battle of Lewis Farm. In an attempt to halt the movement, the Confederates responded by assaulting the Federals on March 30th and 31st in what became known as the Battles of Dinwiddie Court House and White Oak Road.
The initial success of the Confederate attacks were eventually blunted with the arrival of more of Grant’s troops. The Union reinforcements forced the Confederates to abandon their gains and retreat to the vital cross roads at Five Forks.
The retrograde movement by the Confederates to their entrenchments around Five Forks would set the stage for the final battles around Petersburg. Grant had been receiving reports from other sectors of the battlefield that Lee was stripping the inactive sectors of his line to counter this threat to his right flank. If Grant kept up the pressure, something would have to give…
Lee wrote to Gen. George Pickett in-command of the Confederates at Five Forks,
“Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the South Side Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.”
“This message was, in a sense, justification for the course Pickett pursued: Lee recognized that the withdrawal had been forced. At the same time, the telegram from GHQ forbade a farther retreat, for compelling reasons. If Five Forks were abandoned and the Federals able to reach the South Side Railroad and cut the wagon roads leading to the west along the south bank of the Appomattox, all would be lost.” *
“Along with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, they cherished the general belief— a belief which helped to create a special esprit de corps— that Lee somehow could contrive to achieve the “impossible,” even though, in this case, the line was stretched to the breaking point.” *
On April 1st, 1865 the Battle of Five Forks began with Union assaults on the entrenched Confederates around the vital crossroads. Out numbered two to one the Confederates had one advantage, they were fighting a defensive battle behind strong entrenchments. The Union attackers would regretfully have to assault these nearly impregnable positions to finally dislodge the Confederates. The Union troops, usually wary of attacking an entrenched enemy, were bolstered by the feeling that with these attacks, the siege was finally coming to an end.
The Confederates fought desperately but were ultimately overrun by the Union onslaught. The following day Grant launches an all out attack on the Petersburg lines. In the predawn hours of April 2nd 1865 the entire Union Army of the Potomac is sent forward – thirty-five miles of trenches are stormed – and the Siege of Petersburg is finally broken. Lee informs the authorities in Richmond about the breakthrough and recommends abandoning the Confederate capital.
Confederate troops begin to leave the field seeking to escape the Federal cordon. Elements of the broken Rebel force engage in desperate rear guard actions to keep the Federals at bay while Lee worked to move his army out of the Petersburg defenses. The fighting around Fort Gregg, the last Confederate strong hold at Petersburg, was a forlorn hope but gave General Lee time to move his remaining troops across the Appomattox River and out of the City.
In the following days Lee hastily moves his shattered forces west in search of supplies and begins a desperate race against time.
The Confederate commander would need procure rations for his starving troops before turning south for an escape into North Carolina. With Union forces in rapid pursuit the Army of Northern Virginia were marching in their last campaign of the Civil War…
As the Army of the Potomac were sweeping across the battlements at Petersburg William Tecumseh Sherman was busy burning a path through the Carolinas. Sherman’s troops were bringing ruin to the states seen as the great instigators of the war. In late March of 1865 the Confederate armies of the West under Gen. Joseph Johnston were in retreat and would make their final stand outside the small town of Bentonville, North Carolina.
* “The Five Forks Campaign and the Fall of Petersburg” – Edwin Bearss and Bryce Suderow
** “The Civil War a Narrative: Vol 3” – Shelby Foote
*** “The Appomattox Campaign” – J.D. Mitchell
“Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”
“Reminiscences of the Civil War “– John B. Gordon
“Petersburg 1864-1865” – Ron Field
“Never Call Retreat” – Bruce Catton