Could General Robert E. Lee's Last-Ditch Gambit Have Saved the Confederacy?

 In the trenches before Petersburg, Va., 1865. Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, (Record Group 111). U.S. National Archives.
February 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: American Civil WarRobert E. LeePetersburgConfederacyUnion

Could General Robert E. Lee's Last-Ditch Gambit Have Saved the Confederacy?

It was a bold one.

By the early spring of 1865, the Southern Confederacy was on the cusp of extinction. In every theater of the four-year-old Civil War, the gray-clad Rebels were getting the worst of things. In the West, the hard-fighting but poorly led Army of Tennessee had been literally eviscerated by General John Bell Hood’s useless taking of life at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the loss of its namesake state, Hood’s army had virtually ceased to exist as a functional military unit.

In the deep South, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union army had cut a relentless swath of destruction 60 miles wide through Georgia, and was now wreaking even more havoc as it marched northward through the Carolinas to unite with General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac somewhere in Virginia. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, commanding the forces opposed to Sherman, admitted in a letter to General Robert E. Lee that he could do no more than “annoy” Sherman’s progress.

In the East, conditions were deteriorating just as rapidly for the Confederates. In January 1865, Fort Fisher, guardian of the port of Wilmington, N.C., fell to a combined Union naval-land assault, effectively closing off the South’s last access to the outside world.

Meanwhile, in the squalid trenches around Petersburg, Va., a key railroad center 20 miles due south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Grant’s Army of the Potomac continued the embrace of death they had started the previous summer at the Battle of the Wilderness. Grimly and gamely the Confederates clung to their defenses, but hunger, disease, and desertion were taking an ever-increasing toll on the army’s strength, if not its continued willingness to fight. Grant’s Army of the Potomac, better fed and equipped, and increasingly confident of victory, tightened its death grip around the enemy. Each passing day brought renewed pressure as the Federals continued to extend their lines west of Petersburg in an effort to cut off the railroads supplying Lee’s nearly destitute Confederates.

The Confederacy Faces Harsh Realities

The South’s growing desperation and need for manpower led the Confederate Congress in mid-March 1865 to pass a bill that allowed the arming of slaves to fight for the Confederacy. The move, surprisingly, had the grudging support of many Southern officers. One senior officer in Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s II Corps wrote, “I have the honor to report that the officers and men of this corps are decidedly in favor of the voluntary enlistment of the negroes as soldiers.” The measure, however, was much too little and far too late to appreciably improve the Confederacy’s chances for survival.

For Robert E. Lee, the time had come to make a painful decision. While Lee and the men who remained with him were still full of fight, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was equally anxious to continue the struggle, military realities told both men that the end could not be far off unless something drastic was done, and quickly. What course of action offered the most promise of success? For a brief period there was hope that peace with the North might still be negotiated. Francis P. Blair, Sr., a prominent Maryland politician with connections to the Lincoln administration, visited Richmond in January 1865 on his own authority to see if some sort of accommodation could be found that would satisfy both sides. From these discussions evolved an initiative by which a delegation of three Confederate representatives met personally with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward at Hampton Roads, Va., in February. The Southern delegates, however, were unwilling to accede to Lincoln’s terms for peace—complete military surrender and formal recognition of emancipation for all slaves—and in the end nothing came of the eleventh-hour discussions.

The collapse of the peace talks left Lee with a hellish, unresolved dilemma. What was his duty to the army that was literally falling apart in front of him? In an attempt to resolve this question, Lee turned to his youngest corps commander, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. With Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lee’s ever-dependable “Old War Horse,” off covering Richmond’s defenses north of the James River, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, Lee’s other senior commander, increasingly indisposed due to illness, there was nowhere else for Lee to turn. Knowing Gordon to be a superior combat commander, Lee also considered him tough-minded as well as courageous. Leading the defense of the Bloody Lane at Antietam, Gordon had been wounded five times, the final wound a bullet to the face. Only the fact that his cap had a bullet hole in it kept him from drowning in his own blood. Gordon had returned from the Shenandoah Valley in December 1864, and Lee’s confidence in the young general grew even stronger as he came to personally know the 32-year-old Georgian.

“To Stand Still was Death”

On a bone-chilling morning in early March, Lee summoned Gordon to his quarters at the Turnbull House in Petersburg to discuss the deteriorating military situation. Before Gordon arrived, Lee had spread across a table all the various reports he had received from the front. These reports accurately described the parlous condition of the Confederate troops and the overwhelming enemy force arrayed against them. Lee asked Gordon to review all the documents and offer an opinion.

After reading the dispiriting documents, Gordon advised Lee that he saw only three options, which he proceeded to list in the order he felt they should be considered: make the best terms with the enemy that could honorably be obtained; abandon Richmond and Petersburg and, by rapid marches, unite with Johnston’s forces in North Carolina and strike Sherman before he and Grant could combine; or strike Grant immediately at Petersburg.

Lee concurred fully with Gordon’s assessments. Since a negotiated peace was no longer possible and the authorities in Richmond were still reluctant to abandon the capital, the only remaining option was to strike at Grant. “To stand still was death,” Lee reasoned. He directed Gordon to devise a plan by which such a blow could be struck.

A Plan of Fantasy?

Gordon and his staff spent the next several days studying the Union entrenchments around Petersburg, seeking a weak spot in the Union line. After surveying the enemy works, Gordon decided that the most promising point for a Southern attack was at Fort Stedman (named after Union Colonel Griffin A. Stedman, who had died of wounds received at the Battle of the Crater in July, 1864). It was about 100 yards from the forward Confederate position known as Colquitt’s Salient, and the picket lines were even closer, a mere 50 yards apart. Gordon was bolstered in his opinion that this was the best place for his attack when, during his survey of the Union trenches, he asked one of his subordinate officers if his forces could hold their position against a Union attack. The officer replied that he didn’t think he could hold off such an attack because of the closeness of the lines. Nevertheless, he added, “I can take their front line any morning before breakfast.”

Gordon’s plan of operation, as he proposed it to Lee, was to conduct an attack in the early-morning darkness, with a quick rush across no-man’s-land between the lines. The Union pickets would be quickly and silently overwhelmed, and 50 handpicked men with keen-edged axes would proceed to cut paths through the chevaux-de-frise, wooden obstructions with sharpened stakes laid out by Union engineers. These 50 men would be followed by three companies of 100 men each who would bypass Fort Stedman, leaving it for other supporting troops to capture, and hurry on to the second line of Union trenches. Each man in these companies would wear a white strip of cloth across his breast to identify him as friendly fire in the darkness.

When the select companies made it into the second line, they would identify themselves as Union troops fleeing a Rebel attack, using the name of a Union officer known to be serving in that sector. They would then overpower the Federals and capture three redoubts believed to be located within the works. This would serve to widen the breach in the Union lines and cause consternation among the Union troops. At this point, if all was successful, Confederate cavalry, waiting in reserve, would charge through the gap thus created and make for the Union supply and railroad lines, destroying as many men and supplies as possible.

The chief benefit of attacking in darkness, a tactic not often used during the war, would be the utter surprise of the enemy. In addition to sowing panic in the Union lines, the predawn attack would leave the Yankees confused as to exactly where and how many Confederate troops were actually involved in the assault. It would also prevent Union artillery from firing on the Confederates for fear of killing their own men.

It was hoped that the seizure of Fort Stedman and the works in its rear would convince Grant that his army was in imminent danger of being cut in half and would accordingly force him to constrict his lines. This, in turn, would allow Lee to shorten his own lines and release some of his troops to join Johnston’s army in North Carolina.