ECW welcomes guest author Tim Talbott
Today, Petersburg National Battlefield’s Fort Stedman is the epitome of peacefulness. But on the early morning of March 25, 1865, it was anything but pacific. It was the roiling scene of two desperate armies; one determined to maintain its strategy of eliminating the transportation lines flowing through the Cockade City, the other hoping to find a way to break the stranglehold.
That spring morning, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon led his corps of Army of Northern Virginia soldiers on a pre-dawn assault at a point where the Union and Confederate picket lines were within mere yards of each other. The goal of the attack was to rupture the Union IX Corps line and threaten the U.S. Military Railroad line about a mile behind it. The Confederates hoped doing so would cause Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to contract his ever leftward-expanding line in order to protect the vital Union supply base at City Point.
Initially, all went well for the Southerners. Gordon’s men were able to fool the Union pickets by claiming they were deserters keen on turning in themselves and their muskets. The Federal sentries were largely fooled and thus not able to give a warning shot to their comrades back along the main line. Led by accompanying pioneers, who cut through the abatis in “no man’s land,” the Confederate tidal wave crashed into and over Fort Stedman, and the supporting adjacent earthen emplacements.
Pvt. Gordon Bradwell of the 31st Georgia Infantry was not obligated to participate in the massive charge that March 25 morning. He had just spent time on picket duty. Bradwell initially watched and cheered from the Confederate earthworks. However, when a bullet knocked his hat off, and as he felt, “my right ear with it,” he decided he would join in, as he would rather die among his comrades than behind the fighting.
At about the time Bradwell made it to the Union pickets’ rifle pits, he encountered Gen. Gordon speaking with a Union officer. As he attempted to continue on, Gordon stopped Bradwell and introduced Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlin, who commanded a brigade in the IX Corps. Captured early in the fight by Bradwell’s comrade, Lt. William Gwyn of the 31st Georgia, McLaughlin was shuttled toward the rear. Gordon instructed Bradwell to guard McLaughlin and take the officer to Petersburg until the battle was over, as Gordon wished to speak to McLaughlin further. Gordon told Bradwell to treat the captured general with respect.
On the way to the rear McLaughlin asked to stop and watch the battle in progress from what he felt was a safe position. Bradwell thought he could be killed if they stayed there, but relented and both men watched as the belligerents contended for the prized position. McLaughin told Bradwell that he was sure that it was only a matter of time before the Union defenders succeeded in reclaiming their lost ground.
Finally making it into Petersburg, the unlikely pair of guard and captive encountered one of McLaughlin’s staff members who was also a prisoner. McLaughlin shared his capture story with the junior officer while Bradwell listened. Bradwell retold McLaughlin’s thrilling account in his memoirs as follows: “As our boys mounted those formidable works, which were made almost impregnable, and jumped down into the fort among the bayonets, in the darkness and confusion of the fighting the general met Lieutenant Gwyn, of our sharpshooters, who ordered him to surrender. This the general at first refused to do and asked him if he was an officer. To this Gwyn replied, ‘It does not matter, sir, whether I am or not, surrender or I will blow out your brains.’ And surrender he did.” That is where Bradwell left the story, before picking up with his account of evacuating Petersburg a week later on April 2.
Interestingly, Gen. McLaughlin left an account that corroborates Bradwell’s telling, albeit with less narrative than Bradwell provided. It is located in the Official Records and written from the parole camp at Annapolis, Maryland, two days after the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond.
After awakening to the first sounds of the battle, McLaughlin rushed with his staff to the scene of the action. Passing along the line, McLaughlin checked on his units. Learning that the mortar battery at Battery 11 was now in enemy hands, McLaughlin sent orders for the 59th Massachusetts, then in reserve, to hit the works with fixed bayonets. Those efforts proved successful with the recapture of that part of the line.
McLaughlin moved on to Fort Stedman to see how he could help. He related his experience as follows: “I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving direction with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him asking him his regiment.” This must have been Lt. Gwyn of the 31st Georgia. McLaughin continued that, “This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by rebels, whom I supposed to be my men, and was sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him [via Bradwell] to Petersburg.”
McLaughlin also included that while he was conversing with Gordon in no-man’s-land, four Confederate brigades continued the charge, with each commander reporting to Gordon. In addition, two federal staff officers, one of whom (Lt. Sturgis) was from McLaughlin’s staff, passed as prisoners going to the Confederate rear.
Like so many other prisoners during the Petersburg Campaign, McLaughin made his way to Richmond by rail. He soon arrived at Libby prison where he remained until April 2. Apparently, with all the confusion during the evacuation, McLaughin and the other Union officers held at Libby received paroles and came to Annapolis by way of Fort Monroe.
In his report, McLaughlin provided a tally for his brigade’s Fort Stedman prisoners. “There were 16 officers of my brigade captured besides myself, and about 480 enlisted men, all of whom were paroled.” The general did not blame his command for their misfortune. “Rather all were vigilant and on the alert, officers and men, and all was done that lay within the bounds of possibility,” McLaughin reported. He believed it was the Confederates’ ability to silently capture the Union pickets under the ruse of being deserters that led to their initial success, and his and his men’s capture. The additional fact that two Confederate divisions (with a third in reserve) made the attack and overwhelmed his brigade also contributed.
Fortunately for McLaughlin and his men, their parole ensured a relatively easy prison experience. That, combined with their capture very late in the campaign, meant that they would not endure a lengthy stay at a hell hole like Andersonville, Salisbury, Florence, Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, or Elmira, as so many soldiers did earlier in the campaign for Petersburg.
Tim Talbott is Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections, at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia. He is the founding member and President of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association. Talbott earned bachelor’s degrees from Milligan College (Communications) and East Tennessee State University (History) and a master’s of arts in Public History from Appalachian State University. Tim maintains the Random Thoughts on History blog and has published articles in both book and scholarly journal formats. His is current project is researching soldiers captured during the Petersburg Campaign.
Under the Southern Cross: Soldier Life with Gordon Bradwell and the Army of Northern Virginia, edited by Pharris Deloach Johnson, Mercer University Press, 1999.
O.R., Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, pgs. 331-332.