Saturday, March 21, 2015

150-years-ago -- The Battle of Fort Stedman, Petersburg Campaign

Sgt. Joseph C. LeBleu of Lake Charles, La.
color-bearer for the 10th Louisiana Infantry
at the Battle of Malvern Hill. (Photo courtesy
of Dan Jones)
At some time after he was exchanged from captivity, 2nd Lieutenant Isaac Ryan rejoined the Confederate States Rangers, which made him the commanding officer of what little was left of Company K. He was one of four brothers who served in the Confederate Army, including his older brother Asa Ryan who  lost a leg at Sharpsburg, and a younger brother, Joseph Lawrence Ryan, who was wounded at Second Manassas, all of whom served in the 10th Louisiana. The fourth Ryan brother serving the Confederacy was George Ryan, the youngest of the four, who served in the 7th Louisiana Cavalry, which took part in  the Red River Campaign of 1864 in Louisiana. The Ryan brothers were also cousins to other members of Company K, including the the three Reeves brother, James, John and Isaac; Oliver Ryan Moss and Walter Florence Moss; Bennett Ellender and Jacob Ellender. Also related to the Ryans in the company was Isaac Williams, a brother-in-law. Private Patrick Coyne, a native Irishman, had been an employee of the Ryan family saw mill in Lake Charles. But as of March, 1865, the only two of this sub-group left in the ranks were Isaac Ryan and Jacob Ellender. Lieutenant Ryan was eligible for a furlough but he postponed it to lead his men in the attack on Fort Stedman. The soldiers of the 10th Louisiana would be among those at the tip of the spear in leading the attack for Evans’ division. Also during this period, Peck was promoted to brigadier general and transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department.  Colonel Waggaman was placed in command of  the Louisiana brigade.
           On orders from Lee, General Gordon spent a week looking for a vulnerable point in the Federal trench lines. He found it at Fort Stedman. Gordon found that the fort, along the part of the line called Colquitt’s Salient, was just two hundred yards from the Confederate line. Fort Stedman was located on Hare’s Hill, and Gordon felt it would provide the best opportunity for a pre-dawn surprise attack. He planned to send out an advance party in the dark who would  “silence” the enemy pickets. Then 50 men with axes would rush up to the front of the fortification and quickly hack a pathway through the abatis and chevaux de frise for the attackers. Abatis are tree branches with one end sharpened to a point and pointed outward to deter attackers. Chevaux de frise are wooden spikes fixed around pole in a circular pattern and designed as an obstacle to cavalry. At that time, 300 men with empty muskets, but with bayonets attached, would rush into the fort and subdue the bluecoats on duty. The rest of the divisions taking part would fan out to the left and right and secure all three forts on the Federal main line, turn the guns of the Yankees, sever their communications and supply lines  and open a pathway for part of the Confederate Army to breakout of the siege. and join Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
            Gordon presented his plan to General Lee, who approved it. The plan was desperate and daring, but the Confederates were in a hopeless situation with food and other supplies running out. His army had dwindled to 50,000 men and only 35,000 fit for duty. Grant had on hand 150,000 with more on the way from Sheridan’s and Major General William T. Sherman’s armies. Sherman was approaching Richmond from the south where he had been rampaging through Georgia and the Carolinas. Lee gave Gordon approval for the plan and gave him the men he could spare for the effort, about 11,500 – including Gordon’s Second Corps and Bushrod Johnson’s division – with another 8,200 in reserve from Wilcox and Pickett’s commands.
Fort Stedman
(Library of Congress)

   General Gordon, making assignments for the assault,  placed  Evans’ division on the Confederate right and directed them to take batteries XI and XII to the left and right of Fort Stedman. When Evans held a meeting of his brigade officers he turned to Colonel Waggaman and told him he wanted the Louisiana brigade to be the storming party for  the division, a singular but hazardous assignment. Evans said to Waggaman, “On account of the valor of your troops, you will be allowed the honor of leading off in the attack.” He then added, “This you will make with unloaded arms.” To the left of Evans’ division were the divisions of Grimes, Walker and Bushrod Johnson. Walker also picked officers that he knew to be the “bravest of the brave” to lead the attack for his division. Brigadier General Philip Cook’s brigade would lead off for Grimes’ division.
           At 3 o’clock in the morning of March 25, Waggaman roused the Louisiana brigade to get ready and fix bayonets but not to load their muskets. Then, at 4 o’clock the axmen and storming parties were sent silently forward. Each of the men in the storming parties had a strip of white cloth tied across his chest so he could be recognized in the darkness and hand-to-hand fighting in the fort. First, obstructions in front of the Confederate lines had to be moved. As they were advancing through the badly cut up ground in no-man’s land, Waggaman fell into a muddy ditch and had to be pulled out by a private. The advanced Federal pickets were swiftly and silently overcome, axmen ran forward and quickly hacked a path for the storming party, then the men, with just axes and bayonets, leaped over the breastworks and overcame the guards. The surprise was complete.
            Colonel Waggaman and his Louisianians had a rough time getting into the works at Fort Stedman. 1st Lieutenant Benjamin R. Smith of Company B, 2nd Louisiana and two, four-man sections of sharpshooters were the first in the trench. Federal Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlen was with the 29th  and 57th Massachusetts infantry regiments, ordered Battery XII to commence firing on Fort Stedman and then led a bayonet charge against it. The Louisianians held off the Massachusetts men in hand-to-hand fighting, the bluecoats who refused to surrender were bashed in the head with a rifle butt, or bayoneted. Evans’ division overcame the resistance and took       McLaughlen and his men captive. Gordon personally received McLaughlen’s surrender.
          Waggaman was reinforced by Terry’s Virginians and they then quickly took batteries XI and XII and headed south down the line toward Fort Haskell. Other Confederates headed north to Battery IX and to the Federal rear to take the next line of forts. Specially designated officers were to identify themselves as enemy officers to gain entry to these forts in the dark. Confederate artillerymen soon turned the guns in Fort Stedman on the Federal holdouts. “We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1000 prisoners, including General McLaughlin, with the loss of less than half a dozen men,” Gordon said. The Louisianians captured four of the guns and three of the mortars as well as nearly the whole garrison.
            But the assault plan was beginning to fall apart for the Confederates. Special units needing to take the forts in the rear were getting lost in the maze of trenches, Federal artillery was returning fire on the Confederates and reinforcements were being rushed up to contain the rebel breakthrough. Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements with Pickett were delayed by breakdowns on the decrepit Southern railroads. Federal Brigadier General John Hartranft, in command of the reserves, began dispatching nearby units to trouble spots. The 100th Pennsylvania was initially caught by surprise with some of the men captured, but others managed to get into Fort Haskell, and held out against Evans’ division. The 14th New York Heavy Artillery was manning the big guns in the fort. Also crowding into the fort were portions of the 29th and 59th Massachusetts, and the 208th Pennsylvania, coming up from the reserves. The Louisianians and Virginians were stopped cold by the stiff resistance there.
            The Confederates soon found themselves in a deadly trap with only two choices: run back to their own lines through a deadly hailstorm of lead; or surrender. Many tried both avenues but the heaviest Confederate casualties occurred at this point in the battle. Waggaman’s Louisianians were driven back into Fort Stedman where they continued battling savagely until they too were overwhelmed. All who could get away sprinted back to Confederate lines. Lee, watching the battle from a nearby hill, ordered a retreat at 7:30 o’clock that morning. It took until about 10 o’clock to completely disengage, and when Gordon gave the Louisianians the order to retire, or as the Louisiana French say, sauve qui peut (everyman for himself), they first spiked the captured guns.
           Confederate casualties have usually been overstated at over 4,000, but a close study of the Southern losses after the war by Frederick Phisterer found that the actual figure in all categories was 2,681. Federal casualties in all categories, both in the initial attack and the more lengthy counterattack, amounted to about 2,100. The Louisiana brigade, which had about 400 men
left at the time of the battle, lost over half that number, it is estimated.
          The 10th Louisiana lost, remarkably, only five men in the maelstrom of Fort Stedman, one killed, three wounded and one captured. The one man killed was 2nd Lieutenant Isaac Ryan, the last man killed in action of the Confederate States Rangers of the 10th Louisiana. Ironically, Ryan had been named for his uncle, Isaac Ryan, who was one of the martyrs of the Alamo massacre in 1836. The nephew had now become one of the martyrs of the “Lost Cause” of Southern Independence. Ryan, who died two days after the battle on March 27, was buried at the giant Blanford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia among  over 30,000 Confederate soldiers buried there.  His grave is located on Memorial Hill, number 279. There is memorial marker in his family plot in the Bilbo Cemetery in Lake Charles, Louisiana honoring him at the grave of his parents.
          After the survivors of the Louisiana brigade returned to the Confederate side after retreated from Fort Stedman, Colonel Waggaman asked General Evans if the Louisianians had done their duty? Evans replied simply, “They did.” The casualties of the 10th Louisiana, and all the Confederate troops, had gone above and beyond the call of duty.

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