Editorial after Richmond Falls Questions Southern Spirit
On April 3, 1865, after a ten-month siege that caused tens of thousands of casualties, the Union army captured the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia. The stalemate had been long and costly, but Union General Ulysses S. Grant—leader of the massive Army of the Potomac—could afford his losses much more easily than Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose surrounded and haggard Army of Northern Virginia was decimated by disease, hunger, casualties, and desertion—and had no hopes of receiving reinforcements.
After such a difficult, prolonged struggle, the end came suddenly. On March 25, 1865, the Southern army made one last desperate attempt to break through the Union lines and lift the siege of Richmond and the nearby city of Petersburg. The Battle of Fort Stedman was initially a Confederate success as assault troops led by General John B. Gordon briefly took over the fort, but they were not adequately supported and the Union army regained its former position after losing around 1,000 casualties. By contrast, the defeated Confederates suffered far more: 4,000 casualties, with many of the dispirited men surrendering.
Next, the Union army won a major victory at the Battle of Five Forks southwest of Petersburg on April 1, forcing Lee to recognize his depleted force could no longer resist the Union juggernaut. The next day Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond; Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled that night as Richmond burned with fires set by the retreating Confederate troops. At 8:15 the morning of April 3, 1865, Union General Godfrey Weitzel accepted the formal surrender of Richmond. Lee surrendered his army six days later.
The day after Richmond was captured, a northern newspaper ran this editorial pointing to the Confederate loss at the Battle of Fort Stedman as a clear sign the Southern troops were wavering. This editorial was published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on April 4, 1865:
What Did It Mean?
There is one circumstance in connection with the recent fighting near Richmond, which remains to be explained. When Gen. Lee pushed a column into Fort Stedman, and occupied that work, he must have known that it was covered by the converging fire of a number of batteries. Its capture was desirable, therefore, only as a preliminary to an onset upon our lines, which were thinner and weaker at that point than any other. Had a massed corps been urged up and driven through the opening, tremendous damage might have resulted to Grant’s forces. The first step of the engagement was a Rebel success. But it was not followed. Gordon’s men, who took the fort, were not supported; nor were they withdrawn. Our line was rallied, retook the fort, and captured more than two regiments. What is the explanation of this strange fact? Was the assault merely a feint, to cover other movements? If so, the cost paid was disproportioned to any advantage likely to be gained. Or did Lee intend a grand attack, which, at the critical moment, his soldiers refused to make? This seems the most probable theory. If the Rebels were willing to be made prisoners, we can understand why so many were captured in Fort Stedman. Our officers uniformly agree that the enemy displayed none of their old-time enthusiasm in the charge. Gen. Gordon, who led it, is reported as exclaiming, with an oath: “I told you the men would not fight.” Lee did everything it was possible for a General in his position to accomplish. But by the indomitable persistence of his adversary, he was out-maneuvered, baffled and checkmated, until his soldiers, surrounded, half-starved, badly-clothed, unpaid and worn-out, had lost stomach for the fight, and were ready by regiments, to throw up their arms and march into our lines.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.