Submitted by C.J. Johnson
“Near Petersburg, Virginia, in the frosty pre-dawn hours of March 25, 1865, a Union sentry in front of Fort Stedman could hear the faint rustle of dry cornstalks quite clearly. ‘I say, Johnny,’ he shouted as he brought his weapon to full cock, ‘what are you doing in that corn?’ Sharpshooters might rule the daylight hours, but at night the opposing pickets, separated by less than 500 feet, often became quite chummy.
All right, Yank, I am just gathering me a little corn to parch,’ came the answer.
‘All right Johnny, I won’t shoot.’
A bit later the Federal asked, ‘I say, Johnny, isn’t it almost daylight? I think it is time they were relieving us.’
‘Keep cool, Yank; you’ll be relieved in a few minutes.’
The relief the Confederate had in mind, however, was not the kind the Union private would find to his liking, for all that rustling in the corn had been caused by Rebel pioneers dragging aside sections of chevaux-de-frise — spiked wooden barriers chained end to end — to create an opening through which their infantry could attack the Federal lines.
Major General John Gordon and Brig. Gen. James Walker listened anxiously to the colloquy and then relaxed a bit. Gordon had hatched a plan for his commander, General Robert E. Lee, to strike the Union logistical base at City Point, only 10 miles northeast of Petersburg. Gordon hoped the attack would give the Army of Northern Virginia enough breathing space to disengage and join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina,” according to CivilWar.org.
Following bloody fighting in the spring of 1864, Rebels and Yankees resorted to miles of trenches around Petersburg and Richmond in a standoff. Confederates held on throughout the winter of 1864-65.
Robert E. Lee was searching for a weakness in the Union defenses. General John B. Gordon found the weak point – Fort Stedman, an earthen redoubt that included 9-foot high walls and a moat.
About 4 a.m. on the 25th of March, a lead group of Rebels went forward to remove the wooden defensive lines and overwhelm the Yankee pickets. Union soldiers were surprised; Confederate troops captured the fort and about 1,000 prisoners.
After daylight, the Rebel effort waned and the Yanks turned them back, retaking the fort as the Confederates were driven back to their earlier positions. Ultimately, four hours of effort resulted in no progress for the Southern troops. It was a huge disappointment for General Lee.
Union casualties totaled about 1,000, while Confederate losses were likely triple that amount. Lee’s army was already outnumbered prior to the action. Now there were even fewer Rebel troops. Lee corresponded with President Jefferson Davis, stating that he would not be able to hold the line at Petersburg much longer.
The Union won this battle, which boosted their morale, while the lost deflated the Confederates. This was the final offensive action taken by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.