Few generals in American history have been as aggressive as Robert E. Lee. Faced with a hopeless military situation in March of 1865, he decided that he had no alternative but to launch an attack. His starving army was down to 50,000 men, and with the lines around Petersburg and Richmond so extensive, when Grant began to move with an army nearly three times the size of Lee’s it did not take a military genius to realize that he would break Lee’s lines. However, if Lee could break Grant’s lines first, it might buy Lee time. Grant would perhaps consolidate his lines around the breakthrough and delay his Spring offensive. That might give General Joseph E. Johnston sufficient time to march up ahead of Sherman from North Carolina and link up with Lee. At that time Lee could attempt to defeat Sherman and then Grant seriatim. The plan relied far too much on hopes and wishes, but other than surrender, it was the best of the bleak options facing Lee.
Lee ordered General John B. Gordon, commander of the II Corps, to examine the center of the Union lines and to determine if the lines could be breached by a sudden Confederate attack. Gordon determined that Fort Stedman on the Union lines could be taken, and he recalled in his 1903 memoirs how he came to his decision to attack Fort Stedman.
The decision as to the most vulnerable point for attack involved two additional questions of vital importance. The first was: From what point on my own intrenchments could my assault-
ing column rush forth on its desperate night sally, with the least probability of arousing the sleeping foe? The second was : How many intervening ditches were there, and of what width and depth, over which my men were to leap or into which they might fall in the perilous passage? All these points considered, I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting
point for attack and Colquitt’s Salient on Lee’s lines the proper place from which to sally. This point in our lines took its name from my lifelong friend, General Alfred Holt Colquitt of Georgia, whose memory will live in Southern hearts, as fresh and green as the fadeless verdure of the pines which now grow upon the salient’s embankment, striking their roots deep into the earth
which was reddened by the blood of his stalwart Georgians. These men stood and fought and suffered there, commanded by this superb officer, who won by his brilliant victory in Florida the proud title, ” Hero of Olustee.” General Colquitt lived long after the war closed, giving conservative counsel to his people, recognized as the friend of both races, and serving with distinction as governor of his State and as United States senator. He died at his post of duty in Washington in 1893.
The plan of the attack on Fort Stedman was fully developed in my own mind; and whether it was good or bad, the responsibility for it was upon me, not because there was any indisposition on General Lee’s part to make a plan of his own and order its execution, but because he had called me from the extreme right to his centre at Petersburg for this purpose. With him was
the final decision — approval or rejection.
A supply depot was supposedly located behind Fort Stedman, and if it could be taken havoc could be wreaked with Union logistics. Lee reluctantly gave his approval for the attack on the evening of March 23. The attack was scheduled to begin in the early morning hours of March 25.