The winter at Petersburg had been one of tedium and hardship. Constant sniping and small unit actions were the norm. By March 1865, General Lee had realized that he would have to abandon Richmond and join General Johnston’s army in the Carolinas. Before leaving Virginia, however, he decided to strike one last blow against the Yankees. The plan, hatched by General John B. Gordon, now commander of the Second Corps, envisioned a daring thrust toward the main Union supply depot at City Point, only ten miles northeast of Petersburg. If the Confederates could capture or severely damage the Yankee’s primary logistics centre, they might cause enough confusion to allow the Army of Northern Virginia to disengage and withdraw unmolested. Gordon’s offensive would be led by the Sharpshooters of Second Corps and would be focused on Fort Steadman. It would be a covert attack before dawn.
At about 1:00 A.M. on March 25, 1865, the Brigade Sharpshooters were ordered out along with the rest of the Alabama Brigade. They were not allowed to take anything except their weapon and one blanket. They moved about one mile to the left, taking up a position about a mile south of the Appomattox River, where the Union defences were somewhat weaker, and the lines only 150 yards apart. Fort Steadman stood across the open ground before them, on a low rise known as Hare’s Hill. It had an earthen rampart with four 12-pounder cannon, an infantry parapet, a ditch, abates, and fraises for protection. To add to the attackers’ difficulties, the Federals had wrapped telegraph wire across the stakes, making it virtually impossible to climb over them unaided. Protected by similar obstacles, Batteries X and XI, flanked the fort on either side. To clear the obstacles, General Gordon had assigned each attacking column a fifty-man detachment of pioneers armed with axes.
Hard on the heels of the pioneers came a storming party of sharpshooters, about a hundred strong, and just behind them would march the infantry brigades. Grimes’ Division, of which the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment was a part of, was assigned the task of taking Fort Steadman. At about 3:00 A.M., General Gordon gathered the Sharpshooters of Grimes’ Division for final instruction. He stood atop a stump and told the men that the lines around Petersburg were long and the Yankees might break through at any time. In front of them was Fort Steadman and went on to say that if they took the fort, their names would appear in every newspaper in the South. He told them that no man was to load their gun but rather when the signal is given, they were to rush over to the fort and knock down and drag out every Yankee there. They would have 50,000 infantry troops behind them. The General also passed out white strips of cloth that his own wife had prepared; worn “drawn over the right shoulder to the left side, passed around the body and tied” so that the men could recognize each other in the darkness.
Within an hour the sharpshooters moved up as close to the picket line as they dared and lay down. The pioneer detachments began to pull aside the triple line of Chevaux-de-frise protecting the Confederate lines. General Gordon drew his revolver and fired three shots – the signal for the attack to begin. The Sharpshooter Battalion moved forward quickly overpowering the Union pickets and stealthily approached Fort Steadman’s front by a drainage ditch. The men crept forward undetected nearly to the fort, but when waved up to take out a sentinel they lost their composure, “yelled like a bunch of Comanche Indians,” and rushed the parapet. Penetrating to the gun emplacements, they swiftly captured or drove off the Yankee defenders. The Union commander in this sector of the line counterattacked with the 29th and 59th Massachusetts Regiments. They were sent in with fixed bayonets and surprised the Sharpshooters holding Fort Steadman. Colonel Hamilton Brown, leading the sharpshooters of Grimes’ Division which included men from the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment, and a number of his men were captured. However, the Confederate infantry columns were now arriving and poured into the fort, lending their weight to the attack. They overwhelmed the Federals, freeing their captured comrades, and making prisoners of about six hundred Federals including the sector commander, General Napoleon McLaughlin.
The Sharpshooters of Grimes’ Division continued eastward and by about 5:30 A.M., approached the high ground on which Fort Friend lay. Some of the men crossed Harrison Creek and made their way up the hill by way of a ravine. The Federals unleashed charges of canister on the men forcing them to fall back. The 200th Pennsylvania, the 17th Michigan and remnants of the 57th Massachusetts, formed and moved forward, pushing the Sharpshooters all the way back to the Federal camps in the rear of Fort Steadman. With the light of the morning, things started to unravel for the Confederates. Federal Artillery put a concentrated fire on Fort Steadman which ultimately forced the Confederates to withdraw. They scrambled back across no-man’s land to their trenches through a hail of shells that “screeched and screamed like fiends, plowing up the ground on all sides, exploding with the sound of thunder claps, sending their fragments on errands of death and destruction in every direction.” After holding the fort for several hours, the Confederates were forced to withdraw. In the end, the assault on Fort Steadman failed due to lack of support, logistical problems, and the tenacious fighting of the Union soldiers.