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

 In GDI, Land, Defense, Sea

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.

Source: National Interest

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