In March 1865, Gen. Lee (CSA) could only watch as Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and in the Carolinas. Added to this was President Jefferson Davis' (CSA) commitment to continued prosecution of the war and Gen. Grant's (USA) continued buildup of Union troops at Petersburg.
Lee had Gen. Gordon (CSA) formulate a plan that, at the very least, would enable the Army of Northern Virginia to pull out of Petersburg unmolested and perhaps give it a chance to link up with the Confederate army in North Carolina. The idea was a surprise attack that would force Grant to shorten his lines or even set his lines back, allowing for a clean pullout for Lee.
Gordon developed a pre-dawn surprise attack on a Union fort, Fort Stedman. It was one of the closest spots on the line, there were fewer wooden obstructions, and a supply depot on the U.S. Military Railroad was less than a mile behind it. Lee approved the plan.
March 25, 1865
On a signal, lead parties headed out to overwhelm Union pickets and to remove wooden defenses. This was the initial wave of a force that represented nearly half of Lee's army.
It was a complete surprise as they captured Fort Stedman and the batteries just to the north and south of it with little resistance. As the Confederates rounded up nearly a 1,000 prisoners, the lead attackers reached Harrison's Creek along the Prince George Court House Road.
6:00 am - 7:00 am
Due to the various whereabouts of the senior commanders, the Union response fell upon Gen. Hartranft (USA), a divisional commander in the IX Corps.
Between some confusion among the attacking Confederates, Union artillery support from up and down the line, and the response by Hartranft's infantry the attack is stopped.
Gordon, who was in Fort Stedman, realized the plan had failed when his lead men started returning unable to find the depot and reporting Union resistance. Lee soon gave permission to Gordon to pull his men back.
Did You Know?
The 4th Division of the Union 9th Corps lost 209 men killed and wounded at the Battle of the Crater. Poplar Grove National Cemetery is the resting spot for 331 United States Colored Troops. Most of these men are unidentified burials from the Crater battlefield. (Petersburg Nat'l Battlefield)