Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Battle of Fort Stedman

With things deteriorating across the Confederacy, the situation was looking bleak for Robert E. Lee at Petersburg. He had only 50,000 men to hold the many miles of entrenchments defending Richmond, and he was facing Grant, who had 125,000. On March 6, he told John B. Gordon, one of his corps commanders, “there seemed to be but one thing that we could do—fight. To stand still was death. It could only be death if we fought and failed.” Gordon finalized plans on March 23 for a surprise attack against a portion of the Union line, specifically Fort Stedman. He hoped that even if the attack did not break the siege, it would at least foil whatever plans Grant might be making. With Lee's approval, the attack was scheduled for March 25.

Fort Stedman, at which the attack was directed, was chosen because it was one of the points where Union and Confederate lines were the closest. There were also less wooden obstacles in front of it, and there was a Federal supply depot one mile behind it. Gordon's plan was to capture Fort Stedman and then have troops move north and south to roll up the Union line, preparing the way for a heavy column to exploit the breach and head for Grant's main headquarters at City Point. Half of Lee's infantry were on hand to either make the attack or follow up on it. Although the men involved may not have known it at the time, this would be Lee's last great attack.

Fort Stedman today. Source
The Confederates advanced at 4:15 am on March 25th, 150 years ago today. The first troops charged with unloaded muskets. Their duty was to get into the fort as quickly as possible, without stopping to fire. Captain J. P. Carson led one of the forlorn hopes – the troops at the very front of the attack. After the war he wrote his account of the attack:
The command was to advance at the sound of the bugle. It came at last. In an instant we were over the works and heading for the fort with all the speed we could command. We had hoped to reach there undiscovered, but twenty-five yards had not been passed before the fort opened upon us. I do not even now understand it. We were not visible and made no noise, but they knew we were coming and our direction. By the flash of those guns two hundred yards ahead of us darkness disappeared. It was at quick succeeding intervals as light as day. We soon got beneath their line of fire at the foot of the hill. I don't think we had up to this time lost a man. We were still going on the run as hard as we could when we crossed the branch and started up the hill. How we got past the first line of obstructions I could never remember. I was very fleet of foot, but when I reached the line Bob was there ahead of me. I saw him for an instant in the flash of the cannon tearing down and dragging aside the wire and logs. He was very strong, and had broken the wire when I got up. We went through the gap together. How the others crossed I do not know. The next minute we struck the middle line of brush, climbing and rolling over it into the open ground beyond. There the wind from the cannon and flying shot was so strong that we could not keep our hats on, while the frightful roar of the guns drowned every other sound. We went the rest of the way with hats and guns in hand until we struck the last line of obstructions. The men seized the rails with the strength of desperation, dragging them out of the ground and rushing through the gap. The next instant we came into the fire of the smaller guns. Here we hurried forward at full speed. It was every man for himself. Not only were we exposed to the musketry fire, but we had risen to the line of fire from the artillery.
Fort Stedman during the war
I do not know exactly how we got through it all, but in a minute more we were in the moat and in two feet of water. The fort had been struck just about the middle. Immediately the infantry ran out upon the works and began to fire straight down upon us. Lieutenant [John T.] Gay, [Fourth Georgia] of La Grange, [GA] fell at this moment mortally wounded, and would have drowned had we not lifted him back upon the bank, where he died. We were in the dark, while the men above were faintly outlined against the gray sky. I called to the men to shoot every Yankee who showed himself. They began firing at once, and in an instant almost the works were cleared. It was but thirteen feet up, and my men were sharpshooters. When the enemy found that it was death to show themselves, they thrust their guns over and discharged them downward. It was a critical moment; we could neither advance nor retreat. I heard simultaneous inquiries from along the line as to what must be done and one or two more suggestions to fall back. Just at this moment with the utmost coolness word was quietly passed along from right to left that a low place had been found. I heard the intelligence coming before the man next to me repeated it. Returning the command, "By the right flank, march," we filed along until the place was reached and then scrambled into the fort. Forming my line, I struck the forces within at right angles, and in a minute more they surrendered. The fort was commanded by General McLaughlin, and over five hundred men surrendered with him.
The Confederates had achieved a near-complete surprise, and were able to quickly seize the fort. Three more batteries were seized, leaving 1,000 feet of the Union line in the hands of Gordon's men. However, the attack began to stall. The Federals put up a good defense on northern and southern flanks of the breakthrough, and the Confederates, confused by the web of trenches and under heavy Union artillery fire, could not make any further advances. The Federal generals quickly brought up troops to seal the gap in the line, and then systematically advanced to eliminate the pocket.

By the time the Confederate attack was completely repulsed, they had suffered about 4,000 casualties - 600 killed, 2,400 wounded and 1,000 captured. They had inflicted 1,044 casualties on the Federals - 72 killed 450 wounded and 522 captured. Although this was a great effort on the on the southerners' part, it was not an important event for the Federals. Lincoln was in town visiting the army, and a grand review had been scheduled. Although the review was delayed during the attack, it went off that afternoon, as if nothing had happened.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Battle of Bentonville – Union Victory

In heavy fighting at Bentonville on March 19th, Johnston's army had won good success, driving back several of Henry Slocum's divisions. But many Federals held firm, and ultimately the Confederates were unable to break the line. The next day was mostly a stalemate. Johnston would not attack again, and remained in a V-shaped line with both flanks anchored on a creek. He reported that he remained on the field so that he could remove his wounded, but he may have also hoped that the Federals would attack him, giving him a better chance for victory. Slocum was heavily reinforced by Sherman, but he too did not attack. There was little more than sporadic fighting throughout the day.

On the 21st Johnston still remained in position, but that day the Federals did attack. Joseph Mower received permission to take his division on a reconnaissance around the Confederate left flank. He took this as an authorization for an attack, and struck nearly in the Confederate rear. That area of the Confederate line was very lightly defended – only a few pickets stood between Mower's men and Johnston's only line of retreat. Confederate General Wade Hampton found one brigade, a battery and a handful of Texas cavalry, and threw them in front of the advancing Federals. They charged and were able to stop the Yankees a few hundred yards from the road. When Sherman heard of Mower's attack, he ordered him back to the main Union line. He later realized this was a mistake, and wrote in his memoirs:
I think I made a mistake there, and should rapidly have followed Mower's lead with the whole of the right wing, which would have brought on a general battle, and it could not have resulted otherwise than successfully to us, by reason of our vastly superior numbers; but at the moment ... I preferred to make junction with Generals Terry and Schofield, before engaging Johnston's army, the strength of which was utterly unknown.
Johnston, having narrowly escaped complete disaster, retreated from the field that night and burned the bridge behind him. He had lost about 2,600 men, 240 killed, 1700 wounded and 675 captured. The Federals lost 194 killed, 1,112 wounded and 221 captured for a total of 1,527. This was one of the last major battles of the Civil War, and the very last that could be claimed as a Confederate victory. Soon after Johnston wrote to Lee, "I can do no more than annoy [Sherman]. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman.” The end was near, and many of the Confederates saw it coming.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Battle of Bentonville – Confederate Attack

Map of the battle
As Joseph E. Johnston made plans to fight the Union army of William Techumseh Sherman advancing north through North Carolina, he decided to make a stand at Bentonville some 50 miles south of Raleigh. Johnston had less than 22,000 men to face Sherman's 60,000. Confederate maps showed that the two roads on which the Union wings were marching were twelve miles apart at that point, giving a good opportunity to defeat one without having to fight the other.

The battle began on March 19, 150 years ago today, when the Federal left wing under Henry Slocum encountered the rebels entrenched at Bentonville. At first, he believed he was facing only light resistance, as the Confederate position had a river at its back. But when one division failed to dislodge the Confederates, he deployed his men into a defensive position and prepared for a more serious fight. At 3 pm, with more Confederates having arrived on the field, Johnston attacked. The charge was a glorious sight. Colonel Charles Broadfoot of North Carolina wrote:
Several officers led the charge on horseback across an open field in full view, with colors flying and line of battle in ... perfect order ... and followed by a battery which dashed at full gallop, wheeled, unlimbered and opened fire. It looked like a picture and at our distance was truly beautiful. It was gallantly done, but it was a painful sight to see how close their battle flags were together, regiments being scarcely larger than companies and a division not much larger than a regiment should be.
Striking Slocum's left flank, the Confederates drove them back in confusion. More Confederates under D. H. Hill continued the attack, and began to roll up the Union line. However James Morgan's division, which comprised the Union right, held firm, and beat off repeated attacks. As night fell, the attacks continued, but were equally unsuccessful. Around midnight the Confederates fell back to their lines and began digging entrenchments. They had won a victory, but had failed to completely break Slocum's line.

The Harper House, around which much of the fighting took place

Monday, March 16, 2015

Battle of Averasboro

After capturing Columbia on February 17, South Carolina, William Tecumseh Sherman continued his march into North Carolina, heading towards Richmond to join the army of Ulysses S. Grant. Two armies were also ordered to join Sherman at Goldsboro, NC, with John Schofield coming from Wilmington and Jacob Cox from New Berne. On February 23, Joseph E. Johnston was appointed to lead the Confederate resistance. He was able to create the Army of the South from remnants of the Army of Tennessee, along with reinforcements from neighboring states.

Sherman's army was moving north towards Goldsboro in two columns, the right under Oliver Otis Howard, the left under Henry Slocum. Johnston send his corps under William Hardee to delay Slocum, while the two Federal columns were separated, and hopefully unable to support one another. On the afternoon of March 15th the Federals found Hardee deployed near Averasborough. The next day they attacked, and drove back several Confederate lines, but were not able to gain a complete victory. That night Hardee fell back, having held up the Federal advance for two days. The Federals lost around 700 men, the Confederates about 850.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Battle of Wyse Fork

After the fall of Fort Fisher in January and Wilmington, North Carolina a few weeks later, the Federal troops there under Maj. Gen. John Schofield, were ordered to move inland to meet up with William Sherman's army on it's march north. Also ordered to join with Sherman was Maj. Gen. Jacob Cox's army in New Berne, north of Wilmington. The Confederates under Braxton Bragg and D. H. Hill, both natives of North Carolina, blocked Cox's path at Kinston.

When the Federals approached on March 7, Bragg went on the offensive. One brigade under Robert Hoke hit the Union left flank. D. H. Hill tried to lead the North Carolina Junior Reserves into the fight, but they were too panicked to attack, so he advanced with other veteran units. As the Union troops were being pushed back, Bragg called off the attack to deal with false reports of a threat to his line. In the mean time, but Federals sealed the gap in their line. Skirmishing continued over the next few days, to little result. The Confederates tried another flank attack on the 10th, but the Federals had strongly reinforced the position and were able to drive off the rebels. With more Union divisions arriving, Bragg decided to fall back, clearing the way for Cox's advance. The Federals had lost about 1,100 men, the Confederate, 1,500.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Battle of Natural Bridge

Monument on the battlefield
One southern state that saw very little fighting in the Civil War was Florida. Sparsely populated and mostly a peninsula, it contained few military targets or roads leading to targets. There were a few battles in the state, one of which, the Battle of Natural Bridge, took place 150 years ago today. This conflict took place because of an expedition by John Newton, the Union's Department commander. He landed near St. Marks on March 4th, and planned to destroy the Confederate force in the area and then march on Tallahassee, the state capitol.

The southern troops under William Miller were defending the crossings of the St. Marks River. They destroyed one bridge and held on Newport Bridge on March 5th, so Newton sent his men up stream to Natural Bridge, which was as yet undefended. The rebels realized what was happening, and a race was one. They arrived at the bridge first, and held it throughout the day on March 6th. Newton's troops tried to drive the Confederates away, but they held firm behind their breastworks and drove the Yankees back with heavy fire. In the evening the Federals retired. This was one of the last Confederate victories during the war, and it was key in making Tallahassee the only state capitol to remain in Confederate hands at the war's close.

Reenactment of the battle. Source.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Battle of Waynesboro

In February, 1865, Union Major General Philip Sheridan began moving up Shenadoah Valley towards Staunton, Virginia. Opposing him were the Confederate troops under Jubal Early, who had had badly defeated the year before at the Battle of Cedar Creek. 150 years ago today Sheridan's lead division of cavalry, 2,500 men under Brig. Gen. George Custer, approached Early just outside Waynesboro. The Confederates had a little more than 1,000 men behind earthworks which covered their entire front. Custer sent his first brigade around the Confederates left flank, while his second made a diversion in the front.

The Federals horse artillery came into action at around 3:30 pm, and several minutes later the rebels were shocked by the flank attack. They were thrown into a panic, and fled after a feeble resistance. Jedediah Hotchkiss, a Confederate staff officer, called it “one of the most terrible panics and stampedes I have ever seen. There was a perfect rout along the road up the mountain, and the enemy ... dashed rapidly forward into the swarm of flying men, wagons, &c....” Many Confederates were captured and the rest were widely scattered. The Army of the Valley no longer existed as an organized force, and Early himself escaped with only a handful of staff. He returned to Lee at Richmond having lost an entire corps of the army since he had left the year before. Although Lee valued Early's skills as a general, he had no choice but to remove him from command. It says much to the character of both men, that after the war Jubal Early was one of Lee's staunchest defenders, even though he had removed him from command.

Early later in life