Approaching ten months of siege along the Richmond to Petersburg front in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee continued to seek a way to break the Federal lines opposing his Army of Northern Virginia. As the final days of March loomed, he turned to Major General John B. Gordon, a native of Upson County, Georgia, to develop a plan of attack. Gordon, a veteran of the fighting in the eastern theater, spent several days reconnoitering the various segments of Lieutenant General U.S. Grant’s defenses. He decided upon an area east of Petersburg as the point closest to the Confederate trenches; one across from a Federal position, which did not have as many obstacles guarding the approach as elsewhere along the front.
Meeting with Lee, Gordon explained his plan for capturing Fort Stedman. Lee queried his subordinate on how he would first get through their own obstacles just outside the trenches, and then asked Gordon how he expected to gain entry into the fort. Gordon proceeded to detail his design for a small element of his force to cut through the Southern defense system, under cover of darkness. Once they gained an opening, a squad of 50 soldiers carrying axes instead of rifles, would rapidly advance on Fort Stedman, break the log barriers, and create a passageway for the soldiers charging behind them. Lee gave his approval, and Gordon readied his troops for the assault. During the early-morning hours of March 25, 1865, the initial stages of the attack unfolded like clockwork as the Confederates launched their advance from Colquitt’s Salient. Once clear of their own lines, Gordon could hear his butternut lumberjacks breaking the barriers at Fort Stedman. Soon, Gordon and his soldiers had possession of the fort and three adjoining batteries.
Brightening skies and a problem with guides who supposedly knew the area well, but did not, caused the next stage of Gordon’s plan to come unraveled. Officers leading three different units, each charged with capturing the same number of fortifications behind Stedman, encountered difficulty locating the positions. The delay afforded the Federals time to bring up reinforcements and open fire on the stationary Confederate troops. Lee, watching from a nearby observation point, ordered Gordon to withdraw from Fort Stedman.
Marking Lee’s final offensive action along the Richmond-Petersburg front, the failure to break through the Federal line at Fort Stedman, and then attack Grant’s forces from the rear, signaled, as Gordon remarked, “…the expiring struggle of the Confederate giant, whose strength was nearly exhausted and whose limbs were heavily shackled by the most onerous conditions.”
Returning to his native Georgia after the war, Gordon served two terms in the U.S. Senate, and as governor from 1886-1890. The veteran lived until the age of 72, passing on January 9, 1904 in Miami. Gordon rests in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.
 John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1981), 401–2.
 Ibid., 412.
 John H. Eicher and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001), 260.
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.