Ironically the final collapse of the Confederate position around Richmond and Petersburg was triggered by a Confederate attack (American Civil War). After a winter besieged around the Confederate capitol, Lee had come to the conclusion that his only chance of achieving victory was to hit Grant’s line hard, forcing him to pull back slightly. This would allow Lee’s men to escape further into the south, where they could join up with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Once combined the Confederate armies would defeat General Sherman’s army in the Carolinas, before turning back north to deal with Grant.
For this plan to have any chance of success, Lee had to find some way of preventing Grant from following immediately behind him. His biggest problem in this respect was that Grant had spent the winter extending his lines a round Petersburg to the south and west. Lee’s solution to this problem was to take the offensive. He hoped to launch a sharp blow against Grant’s lines east of Petersburg. If he could threaten to cut those lines in two, then Grant might be forced to shorten his lines to deal with the crisis, allowing Lee to despatch some or all of his troops to the south.
The Confederate target was Fort Stedman. Lee was able to find 11,500 men to carry out this attack, most from General John B. Gordon’s Second Corps. Gordon was selected to command the attack. His plan was for the main attack to capture Fort Stedman. Three smaller forces would continue behind the Federal lines, to capture three forts believed to be just behind the line. From those forts, the Federal’s guns would be turned on their own troops.
The first part of the attack went well. The Union army had been on the offensive for so long that the Confederate attack came as a complete surprise. Fort Stedman was captured, and a gap nearly a mile wide created in the Union lines. However, there was no sign of the forts behind the lines. Worse, Lee had underestimated the strength of the Union army. A counterattack by the division that had been pushed out of the fort recaptured it later that day. Lee lost close to 5,000 men, twice Grant’s losses.
The attack on Fort Stedman cost Lee men he could not afford to lose. In an attempt to shorten his lines, he had instead simply weakened them. At the same time, Grant was reinforced. On 26 March General Sheridan returned back from the Shenandoah Valley, bringing with him two divisions of cavalry and also the level of aggression that Grant wanted in his commanders. On 29 March Sheridan was dispatched to the south west of Petersburg, with orders to turn the rebel right and cut the railroads. At Five Forks he was to achieve much more than that.