After carefully reconnoitering the Federal lines, Gordon settled on
Fort Stedman as the best place to attack. An enclosed field redoubt
located on the crest of Hare Hill, near the site of the fatal June 18
charge by the First Maine Heavy Artillery, the fort held four guns and
was closely supported by batteries north and south of it. Taking it
seemed an impossible task. The ground in front of Stedman was
crisscrossed with picket trenches, and the Fort was further protected by
two distinct lines of entangling obstacles. The main picket line was
delineated by a thick row of abatissmall, felled trees that were
piled together and interlocked. Directly girding the fort itself was a
heavy seeding of breast-high fraisesangled rows of logs with their
ends sharpened to points. These stakes were planted about six inches
apart and strung together with telegraph wire.
ROBERT E. LEE PHOTOGRAPHED ON HIS HORSE TRAVELLER AT PETERSBURG.
(DEMENTI-FOSTER STUDIOS, RICHMOND, VA)|
Gordon's solution was worthy of its target. First, while it was
still dark, working parties would open avenues through the Confederate
defenses by quietly removing any obstructions. Then, using these
openings, squads of picked men would infiltrate forward, take out the
enemy's advanced pickets and listening posts, and open gaps in the
abatis. Through these holes would come fifty axmen whose task it was to
chop away sections of the fraise belt. Right on their heels were three
storming parties of a hundred men apiece who were to capture Fort Stedman and its
supporting batteries. Once the leading edge of the enemy's line had been
secured, a picked force would pass through to seize strongpoints in the
Union rear to prevent reinforcements from coming up. Only after the
last group had cleared the approach routes would the bulk of Gordon's
infantry cross the no-man's land to enlarge the initial penetration. As
an added incentive, a major Federal supply depot was located at Meade
Station, one mile behind Fort Stedman.
MAJOR GENERAL JOHN B. GORDON (NA)|
For this operation Lee had allotted Gordon almost his own entire
corps plus two brigades from another division, some 11,500 men in all,
with the promise of 8,200 more once the attack developed. Additionally, a full cavalry
division would be waiting for word to dash forward here to spread havoc
and terror throughout the rear echelon. As Gordon finished his briefing,
Lee asked a few operational questions that the young corps
commander answered. After pondering matters for another twenty-four
hours, Lee gave the plan his blessing. The object, according to Gordon,
was no less than "the disintegration of the whole left wing of the
Federal army, or at least the dealing of such a staggering blow upon it
as would disable it temporarily, enabling us to withdraw from Petersburg
in safety." The attack was set for March 25.
At 9:00 P.M., March 24, while Gordon's men were beginning to mass for
their assault, a boat carrying President Lincoln, his wife, and son,
arrived at City Point. Anxious to escape the intrigues of Washington,
and wanting to be near the front when the end came, Lincoln had
gratefully accepted an invitation from Grant to visit. His schedule was
a busy one, including a review of troops that would take place near
Globe Tavern on March 25.
The opening phases of Gordon's attack plain went off with few
hitches. The working parties cleared the Confederates' own obstructions
and the advance squads silently eliminated the enemy's forward
positions. Brigadier General James Walker, commanding one of Gordon's
divisions, remembered the moment that the storming parties went
forward. "The cool, frosty morning made every sound distinct and clear,
and the only sound heard was the tramp! tramp! of the men as they kept
step as regularly as if on drill."
The predawn gloom erupted in blinding tongues of flame as the parties
met defensive fire from Fort Stedman and its flanking batteries. The
initial Union response was ineffective, and well before 4:30 A.M.
Stedman and Batteries X and XI had been captured. Rebel soldiers also
overran two regimental encampments located nearby, and many of the
sleepy Federals were clubbed down as they staggered from their tents in
alarm and panic. John Gordon himself crossed the no-man's land with the
first main wave of infantry to assess how the assault was
CONFEDERATE COLQUITT'S SALIENT ACROSS FROM FT. STEDMAN. (LC)|
GRANT'S CABIN HEADQUARTERS (IN FOREGROUND) AT CITY POINT THE EPPES HOME,
"APPOMATTOX," IS TO THE RIGHT. (LC)|
Gordon found that his success up to this point had been deceptive.
"Despite taking all the initial objectives, the follow-up attacks had
failed to widen the breach." South of the breakthrough, Fort Haskell
remained in Union hands, while north of it Federal Battery IX barred his
way. And then Gordon learned that the deep penetration effort of the
picked force had also failed when the guides had lost their way in the
darkness. Dawn was close at hand, and each passing minute made it that
much easier for the Yankee artillerymen holding an enfilading position
on both Gordon's flanks to target his troops. Gordon informed Lee that
the gamble had failed, and he received permission to withdraw his
Some of the troops managed to scramble back across the no-man's
land, which was raked by a murderous artillery and musketry cross fire.
Those who did not immediately escape were pinned against the captured
entrenchments by a massive Union counterattack that rolled forward at
7:45 A.M. "The whole field was blue with them," recalled one dazed
(click on image for a PDF version)
In a desperate gamble to force Grant to contract his lines long
enough to open an escape route from Petersburg, Lee commits nearly half
his available force to a surprise dawn attack on Union Fort Stedman.
Despite an initial success, the Confederate troops (under Maj. Gen. John
B. Gordon) cannot exploit their breakthrough. Union counterattacks
later that same morning (shown here) recapture all of the lost line and
many of Gordon's men. Follow-up Federal advances elsewhere capture key
portions of the Confederate picket line.
The Fort Stedman affair had been a costly failure. Lee had gained
nothing at a loss later estimated at about 2,700 men. Federal casualties
were perhaps 1,000 all told. What Gordon had termed the "tremendous
possibility" had proven no more than a fragile hope based on wishful
This entire operation, which had required almost half of all the men
available to Lee, merely delayed by a few hours the review Lincoln had
planned with his troops. When, at midday, the president and his
entourage rode on the Military Railroad to Patrick Station, he was shown
1,500 prisoners taken in the morning's fight. General Meade started to
read aloud a message from the officer commanding the Stedman front, but
Lincoln stopped him and, pointing to the POWs, said, "there is the
best dispatch you can show me."
Reasoning that Lee must have had to strip his lines to supply Gordon
with troops, the commanders of the Federal Second and Sixth Corps
pressed their fronts and successfully overran large sections of the
Confederate picket lines. According to General Humphreys of the Second
Corps, "Under cover of the artillery and musketry fire of their [main]
works the enemy moved out repeatedly with strong force at several points
to recapture their picket intrenchments, but were always driven back."
These operations cost Humphreys 690 men.
Along the lines in front of Union Forts Fisher and Welch, an officer
from the Sixth Corps watched as the Third Brigade of the Second Division
was given orders to advance and capture the Rebel picket line. "The
brigade gallantly executed the order, and, notwithstanding the rebels
brought nine pieces of artillery to bear upon it, and sent
reinforcements to the point, the ground was held." Losses to the Sixth
Corps this day were about 400. Confederate casualties in these actions
This was the true Union victory of March 25. The Federal army now
held advantageous positions that could be used to launch attacks on
Lee's lines with a greater chance of success than before. The
situation was summarized by a newspaper editor who wrote: "Thus, instead
of shaking himself from Grant's grip, Lee had only tightened it by this
bold stroke." In the words of a North Carolina soldier who had survived
the operation, the Confederate attack on Fort Stedman "was only the
meteor's flash that illumines for a moment and leaves the night darker
While Grant's pressure had kept Lee fully occupied at Petersburg,
military affairs elsewhere in the Confederacy had gone from bad to
worse. Following his capture of Atlanta, General William T. Sherman had
conceived and carried out his "march to the sea," which brought his
armies into Savannah, Georgia, on December 21. After a brief pause to
regroup, Sherman had marched north into the Carolinas, fought and won a
major battle at Bentonville, North Carolina, on March 19 and 20, and was
encamped around Goldsboro awaiting dry roads to continue toward
Richmond. Confronting him, but barely opposing him, was all that
remained of the once powerful Confederate western army, now led by
General Joseph E. Johnston.
THE MARCH 25 CONFEDERATE ATTACK ON FT. STEDMAN. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)|
CAPTURED CONFEDERATE BATTERY EIGHT USED TO FIRE ON GORDON'S TROOPS. (NA)|
In the Shenandoah, Sheridan had crushed the Rebel Army of the Valley
at Cedar Creek on October 19 and spent the next months consolidating
Union control of the region. Satisfied that there was no longer any threat there,
Sheridan brought his powerful cavalry force back to Petersburg and
rejoined Grant in late March.
With Sheridan's arrival, Grant had the mobile striking force he
needed to end the siege. He worried that Lee would still find a way
to slip out of Petersburg and march south to unite with Johnston.
With Sheridan's arrival, Grant had the mobile striking force he
needed to end the siege. He worried that Lee would still find a way to
slip out of Petersburg and march south to unite with Johnston,
so he was anxious to cut off Lee's best route in that direction, the
South Side Railroad. To accomplish this, Sheridan was instructed to
advance west from the Union lines to Dinwiddie Court House on the
Boydton Plank Road. From there he would ride north eight miles to reach
the railroad tracks. While Sheridan was moving, Federal infantry would
also march to the west to secure the Boydton Plank Road below Burgess'
Mill and to challenge the enemy's entrenchments dug along the White Oak
The infantry, Warren's Fifth Corps, made contact first and engaged
Lee's men in some sharp fighting along the plank road on March 29. A
large-scale follow-up action on March 31 moved the Federal
infantry closer to Lee's White Oak Road line, but the position itself
remained in Confederate hands. This proved to be a touch-and-go affair,
with several of Warren's divisions routed by much smaller Rebel units
before reinforcements stabilized the situation,
Sheridan, on March 31, fought a day-long battle around Dinwiddie
Court House. His movement had been reported to Lee,
who dispatched a force of infantry under Major General George E.
Pickett and cavalry led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee. The two proved
too much for Sheridan's men, who, by nightfall, had been pressed back to
a tight perimeter around the village. Sheridan's call for help was
answered by Grant, who ordered the nearest infantry, Warren's, to come
to his aid.
Sheridan reported directly to Grant, while Warren took his orders
from Meade (who got them from Grant), so there was some delay and
miscommunication as Warren carried out his new instructions. His march
toward Sheridan was detected by Pickett, who, fearing the enemy would
get in his rear, pulled back. Pickett wanted to take position behind
Hatcher's Run, but Lee ordered him to halt short of that point to protect a key road
junction known as Five Forks.
PICTURED (LR) ARE WESLEY MERRITT, DAVID GREGG, PHILIP SHERIDAN,
HENRY E. DAVIS, JAMES H. WILSON, AND ALFRED TORBERT. (NA)|
Grant had placed Sheridan in overall command of the operation and,
worried about Warren's past lack of aggressiveness, had taken the
unprecedented step of providing Sheridan with advance approval to
relieve Warren of command should the cavalryman feel it was necessary to
do so. By midmorning Sheridan's men had located the entrenchments Pickett's
men had thrown up along the White Oak Road at Five Forks. In addition
to the cavalry and infantry that manned the mile-and-three quarters
line, the Confederates had also posted cannon at a few points with a
field of fire. Sheridan's men spread out to develop the extent of the
position, and their scouting reports erroneously placed the enemy's
left flank much farther east than it was.
THE HISTORY OF POPLAR GROVE NATIONAL CEMETERY
The Virginia dogwoods were in blossom in the
spring of 1865 when the Civil War, America's greatest tragedy,
finally came to an end. The four years of conflict on Virginia's bloody
battlefields would close with a gentleman's peace at Appomattox Court
House on April 9, but not without a great loss of human life. Over
618,000 Northern and Southern men would give their lives as a direct
result of this war, many actual battlefield casualties. In July of
1862, the United States Congress passed legislation giving President
Lincoln the authority to purchase cemetery grounds "for the soldiers
who shall die in the service of their country." Thus efforts began for
the establishment of national cemeteries for Northern soldiers killed
on Southern battlefields.
In Petersburg and surrounding areas, work
would not commence on this directive for about a year after the war
ended. During the nine-month campaign most Federal soldiers were buried
on the field where they fell. In 1865, the U.S.
Christian Commission located over ninety-five separate burial sites
for the approximately 5,000 Union soldiers killed in action during the
THE FUTURE SITE OF POPLAR GROVE NATIONAL CEMETERY DURING THE SIEGE.
(COURTESY OF VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)|
On April 17, 1866, Lt. Colonel James M. Moore began his survey of
the Petersburg area for a possible location to establish a permanent
national cemetery. Rev. Mr. Thomas B. Flower's farm on Vaughan Road,
about four miles south of the city, was chosen.
During the war the area had been used as the campground of the 50th
New York Engineers, who had constructed a gothic-style pine log edifice
named Poplar Grove Church. Left by the army, it was used by local
residents to replace the nearby Poplar Springs Meeting House, destroyed
during the fighting.
With their base now established, a "burial corps" was assembled to
recover the scattered graves. About one hundred men were equipped with
twelve saddle horses, forty mules, and ten army wagons. Using this
equipment, the actual search and recovery began.
An observer described the operation:
Some had been buried in trenches, some singly, some laid side by
side and covered with a little earth, leaving feet and skull exposed;
and many had not been buried at all. Throughout the woods were scattered
these lonely graves. The method of finding them was simple.
A hundred men were deployed in a line a yard apart, each examining
half a yard of ground on both sides as they proceeded. Thus was swept a
space five hundred yards in breadth. Trees were blazed or stakes
set along the edge of this space to guide the company on its return. In
this manner the entire battlefield had been or was to be searched.
When a grave was found, the entire line was halted until the teams
came up and the body was removed. Many graves were marked with stakes,
but some were to be discovered only by the disturbed appearance of the
ground. Those bodies which had been buried in trenches were but little
decomposed, while those buried singly in boxes, not much was left but
bones and dust.
To confirm the latter, "On the 30th of July, 1866, 300 bodies
were taken out of the crater and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as
the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before. They were
fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating
still perfect clothing."
Remains were disinterred, then placed in plain wooden coffins.
When identifying headboards survived, they were nailed to the coffins.
Wagons transported remains to the cemetery.
A local resident who lived near Petersburg, Jennie Friend,
remembered these men: "The summer of 1866 was a time of searching through the country for
the Union dead, to place in the cemetery. Five dollars was given for
every collection of bones with a skull. So called spies, deserters, and
anything resembling the form of a man was money." All were taken up and
sold, and are now enshrined as heros in their well kept cemeteries . . .
the many dead lying about, with partially covered bodies, and worse yet
the un-earthing of these bodies, made the whole country sickly. In
August a terrible form of dysentery swept the community. In every
family sickness, and often death added to the distress that already
The search for burials not only included the battlefields around
Petersburg but extended into the Virginia counties of Amelia,
Appomattox, Campbell, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Nottoway, Prince Edward,
Prince George, and Sussex. Many of these were locations traversed by the
armies during the final campaign to Appomattox. Bodies were recovered as
far west as Lynchburg. From July 1866 to June 30, 1869, disinterring
continued until the remains of 6,178 men were placed in Poplar Grove
Cemetery. Sadly, only 2,139 of these were positively identified.
Upon completing their assignments, the burial corps returned to
their work at the grounds chosen for reinternment around the New York
engineer's log church. An early visitor to the site remarked: "The
gem of the place was the church. Its walls, pillars, pointed arches,
and spire, one hundred feet high, were composed entirely of pines
selected and arranged with surprising taste and skill." The pulpit was
in keeping with the rest. Above it was the following inscription:
Presented to the members of the Poplar Spring Church, by the 50th
N.Y.V. Engineers. Capt. M.H. McGrath, architect. Another recalled:
We rode out to the Federal Soldiers Cemetery at Poplar Grove, and
tying our horses in the pine wood outside went in to wander for a while
among the graves. The place is laid out in sections, each section with
its melancholy forest of white head-boards on which are painted the
names and regiments of the dead men below. . . . I wondered who
the man was who lay beneath where his home was whether his mother was
still alive, away, perhaps,
in some far-off part of the world, wondering what had become of her
boy, that she had not heard from him for so long, but still hoping that
one day he would return to gladden her heart in her declining years.
Here he lay, alas! sleeping his long sleep among the unknown dead.
DEAD CONFEDERATE SOLDIER IN TRENCH OF FT. MAHONE, APRIL 3, 1865. (LC)|
The church survived until April 1868, when, because of its
deteriorated condition, the structure was torn down. The area where it
stood was then used for burial purposes.
The War Department administered the cemetery until August 10, 1933,
at which time the responsibilities were turned over to the National Park
Service. The only major change since that period of time was in 1934,
when the upright headstones were cut off and placed flush with the
ground to facilitate mowing. Only fifty non-Civil War internments
have been added to Poplar Grove since its inception, the last being in
1975. Today the cemetery is closed to burials. Some of the last Civil
War soldiers to be buried there were twenty-nine recovered on the
Crater Battlefield in 1931. They were buried with full military