Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Pennsylvanian’s View of Fort Stedman

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stedman, I’m posting a short letter written by a survivor of that engagement. It was written by Israel Lauffer, a twenty-one-year-old son of a Westmoreland County deacon. During the closing months of the war, Lauffer enlisted in Company K, 211th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, becoming a member of Brigadier General John F. Hartranft’s division, which included six Pennsylvania regiments. After Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Confederates seized the fort during the morning hours of March 25, it fell to Hartranft’s men to retake the position. Forming up in darkness, the Pennsylvanians made their way to the breach, formed into a massive line-of-battle. Surging forward in the open, they took Confederate fire, although they did not suffer heavily. They performed a valuable task, helping to end the last offensive ever undertaken by the Army of Northern Virginia.

Private Lauffer’s letter describes the battle quickly, but accurately. His estimation of the number of Confederate casualties is a pretty close guess—a surprise given that Lauffer was only an enlisted man. I find his description of the wounded men trapped inside Fort Stedman particularly interesting, as well as his propensity to plunder corn bread and buttons from the dead.

Camp of the 211th Reg’t., P. V.

Near Hancock Station, Va.

March the 26th, A. D. 1865.

Dear Parents:

Brothers and sisters, I[,] this Sabbath morning[,] once more take the pleasure of writing you a few lines to inform you that I am still spared and have good health. I will now inform you of a battle which was fought yesterday, from half past eight o’clock until half past ten o’clock, in the forenoon. The rebels came on our pickets early in the morning and told them that they were coming into our lines. They soon had the pickets taken without firing a shot. They rushed on two of our forts and took them and some prisoners. We left our camp at daylight and had about five miles to march. We run about one-half of the way, as the rebels were fast making their way for the railroad. Our regiment was drawn in line and the 205th on our left and the 207th on our right. This made our brigade. When we were ordered on we went about half way to the forts which had been taken and then fixed our bayonets, and all gave a yell, and the ‘Jonnies’ broke from the forts like sheep, and the stars and stripes were once more placed on the fort. The name of this fort is Fort Steadman. This is the fort that our regiment took. The name of the other I don’t know. These forts and the rebel fort are only about 200 yards apart. Our batteries poured the grape into the forts while the rebels were in them, which soon made them scatter. The shells were flying fast and the minnie balls whizzed past our heads, but the loss in our regiment was very small. I got through without a scratch, and Andrew Wineman and Josiah Maxwell the same. The rebel loss in killed, wounded and prisoners is about 3,000—most prisoners. As soon as we got to the fort about 1,000 prisoners came in with their flag. They told us to go on[,] that we were all right. They said they had been marched about 12 miles the night before. I got a piece of their corn bread. It is corn meal mixed with water and only dried. It was a hard sight to see when we got in the fort. Some had their legs torn off by shells, some shot in the breast, others through the head and almost every place a person can think of. I only saw 5 or 6 of our men inside the fort that were killed. They didn’t get any of our guns. We stayed in the fort until about half past four o’clock, when we went back to camp. This morning I feel all right except my legs are a little tired. I will close, hoping to hear from you soon. I will put a button in this letter, which I got off a dead rebel at the fort.

Israel Lauffer

After writing this letter, Lauffer did not have live long. On April 2, he participated in the 9th Corps attack against Fort Mahone. He was killed in action and buried on the field. Certainly, for the remainder of his short life, he must have remembered his division’s epic counterattack against Fort Stedman, a perfect demonstration of “two o’clock in the morning courage.”
Here is Israel Lauffer photographed prior to his enlistment.
This painting by Sidney King depicts the retaking of Fort Stedman. In this image, the viewer is looking west toward Petersburg. Hartranft's men are charging in the foreground.
This map depicts the mid-morning attack rendered by Hartranft's Division. The 211th Pennsylvania held the middle of the line.
This is Pvt. Israel Lauffer, photographed in uniform.


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