As March ends we call to mind the joys and laughter of the long winter season in the Great Lakes. We’ll miss the snow, the wind, the brutal cold, the ice, the back-breaking work, the short days…like we miss paper cuts.
As the long winter of 1864-65 ground to an end in Virginia, spring was in the air, and so was defeat–and victory, depending on which side you were on. The Southern Confederacy lost its last working port, Wilmington, North Carolina, to Union forces in January. The army group that was the Union’s Military Division of the South under William S. Sherman had defeated every Confederate army it had encountered since it started campaigning the year before, taken Atlanta and Savanna, and was marching north into the Carolinas to join the Union forces in Virginia.
The Union forces, overall commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, had held the Confederacy’s premier commander, Robert E. Lee, and its best-known army, the Army of Northern Virginia, in place around the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, for nearly a year. By March, after scores of battles over creeks, roads, redoubts and railroad lines, the Confederates were down to about 50,000 hungry and barefoot men to 125,000 men in George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Edward Ord’s Army of the James.
There was no way that the Confederate army and the citizens of Richmond could be fed, and it was trickling away every day and night by desertion and disease. On 6 March he asked John B. Gordon, a Georgia-born attorney and one of his most trusted commanders, what he should do. In his memoirs, Gordon wrote that he gave Lee three choices, in decreasing order of preference: make peace, escape and join Confederate forces in North Carolina, or attack the Federals around Petersburg immediately. Lee rejected the first out of hand, knew that the second would be difficult if not impossible, but balked at the third. In a subsequent meeting, Lee opted to attack. “To stand still is death,” Lee is said to have lamented.
While Lee’s assessment was correct, he still had faith in the power of the offensive. While a front-wide offensive was impossible, a pinpoint attack was feasible. The target chosen was a place in the Federal lines closest to the Confederate entrenchments (at Colquitt’s and Gracie’s Salients) just east of Petersburg called Fort Steadman, also attractive because just a mile east was a Federal supply depot . Gordon would command nearly half of Lee’s infantry in the attack. Any attack, it was felt, would disrupt Grant’s plans to assault Richmond.
Gordon planned to penetrate Federal lines, sweep north and south to open a hole and allow follow-on forces to take the Federal supplies. A plan as sound as any, but when outnumbered and hungry, overly ambitious. Defending the area was about 14,000 men from three Federal corps, overall commanded by John Parke, who was in charge while army commander Meade was absent. Gordon’s preparations went undetected, but it hardly mattered. On in the predawn hours of 25 March 1865, he attacked Fort Stedman with his corps and elements of two others, a total of about 10,000 men.
In less than three hours, the Federals had limited the Confederate advance and were counterattacking. As Federal artillery bombarded from a nearby ridge, John F. Hartranft led a charge that reversed the Confederate advance, driving them back into their own lines. The attack not only failed but failed catastrophically. Federal casualties were about a thousand; Confederate casualties over 4,000–40% of the attacking forces, worse than Pickett’s Charge (whose division, ironically, was in reserve). At least a quarter of the Confederate casualties were prisoners; just how many just gave up to get fed is unknowable, but there had to have been some since the desertion figures were so high by then.
The Southern Confederacy’s options by then were so thin that this small-scale attack with grand ambitions was hardly a pinprick to the Union juggernaut. Grant’s reduction of the Petersburg siege had been ordered for 27 March, and Gordon’s attack didn’t put a dent in that plan. Gordon’s second option–breaking out of Richmond–would within a week become Lee’s only option other than surrender.
Vietnam War Veteran’s Day
Friday, 29 March, is Vietnam War Veteran’s Day, so designated by the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 signed by Donald Trump. It recognizes Vietnam-era veterans but is somewhat ironically timed. Yes, on 29 March 1973 the ceasefire took effect, but also on that same day two years earlier, William Calley was convicted of 22 counts of murder during the Mi Lai massacre. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, later commuted to house arrest, then commuted by a federal judge in 1974. He has been free since.
Calley was the only one of many officers and men who were, arguably, culpable for Mi Lai and the aftermath. No one is denying that something awful happened there and in scores of other places that were not well covered by Life Magazine reporters. Unfortunately, many people in the US and abroad have painted the stain of that infamous event on all the millions of men and women who served in Southeast Asia. I served with many of them; I’ve known many more; I’ve eulogized far too many. Now those once-young people are in their sixties and seventies, and no longer deserve to be spat upon as many of us were then. If you are a veteran of that long-ago conflict, hoist one for the rest of us. If you know one, at least acknowledge their service, but for the love of whatever deity you recognize DO NOT THANK US FOR OUR SERVICE. We served because we felt an obligation to the republic, not to be painted a generation later with praise. Just recognize, don’t thank.