In accordance with his nature, Robert E. Lee wanted to make one final assault in what everyone knew to be the last days of the Confederacy. All he hoped to do, he told Jeff Davis, was “delay the impending disaster.” He decided that an assault on Fort Stedman just outside Petersburg, VA might break the Union’s supply lines, and that it would at least cause Ulysses S. Grant some distress.
The plan was to take the fort and then move on to 3 smaller “backup” forts, gather up the guns there, and eventually make their way east to City Point where they would hopefully gather up high-level prisoners, including Grant himself.
The attack began in the dark at 4 am on March 25, 1865 with the Confederate forces wearing white strips of linen so that they could be identified by their fellow soldiers. The surprise attack worked, and they took the fort fairly easily before dawn. But as the morning light increased, they realized something. There were no other forts. Boxed in by heavy fire and forced to retreat and then surrender, the Confederate army suffered some of its highest casualties – an estimated 4,800, or one-sixth of Lee’s command.
There were a couple more battles before Lee’s surrender 2 weeks later at Appomattox, but the assault and then loss of Fort Stedman was more than just a symbolic defeat. It was a devastating last grasp at the close of a bloody, 4-year struggle.
Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Red River to Appomattox