After carefully reconnoitering the Federal lines, Gordon settled on Fort Stedman as the best place to attack. An enclosed field redoubt located on the crest of Hare Hill, near the site of the fatal June 18 charge by the First Maine Heavy Artillery, the fort held four guns and was closely supported by batteries north and south of it. Taking it seemed an impossible task. The ground in front of Stedman was crisscrossed with picket trenches, and the Fort was further protected by two distinct lines of entangling obstacles. The main picket line was delineated by a thick row of abatis---small, felled trees that were piled together and interlocked. Directly girding the fort itself was a heavy seeding of breast high fraises--angled rows of logs with their ends sharpened to points. These stakes were planted about six inches apart and strung together with telegraph wire.
Gordon's solution was worthy of its target. First, while it was still dark, working parties would open avenues through the Confederate defenses by quietly removing any obstructions. Then, using these openings, squads of picked men would infiltrate forward, take out the enemy's advanced pickets and listening posts, and open gaps in the abatis. Through these holes would come fifty axe men whose tasks it was to chop away sections of the fraise belt. Right on there heels were three storming parties of a hundred men apiece who were to capture Fort Stedman and its supporting batteries.
Once the leading edge of the enemy's had been secured, a picked force would pass through to seize strongpoints in the Union rear to prevent reinforcements from coming up. Only after the last group had cleared the approach routes would the bulk of Gordon's infantry cross the no-man's land to enlarge the initial penetration. As an added incentive, a major Federal supply depot was located at Meade Station, one mile behind Fort Stedman.
For this operation Lee had allotted Gordon almost his entire corps plus two brigades from another division, some 11,500 men in all, with the promise of 8,200 more once the attack developed. Additionally, a full cavalry division would be waiting for word to dash forward here to spread havoc and terror throughout the rear echelon. As Gordon finished his briefing, Lee asked a few operational questions that the young corps commander answered. After pondering matters for another twenty-four hours, Lee gave the plan his blessing.
The object, according to Gordon, was no less than "the disintegration of the whole left wing of the Federal army, or at least the dealing of such a staggering blow upon it as would disable it temporarily, enabling us to withdraw from Petersburg in safety." The attack was set for March 25.
At 9:00 p.m., March 24, while Gordon's men were beginning to mass for their assault, a boat carrying President Lincoln, his wife, and son, arrived at City Point. Anxious to escape the intrigues of Washington, and wanting to be near the front when the end came, Lincoln had gratefully accepted an invitation from Grant to visit. His schedule was a busy one, including a review of troops that would take place near Globe Tavern on March 25.
The opening phases of Gordon's attack plan went off with few hitches. The working parties cleared the Confederates own obstruction's and the advance squads silently eliminated the enemy's forward positions. Brigadier General James Walker, commanding one of Gordon's divisions, remembered the moment that the storming parties went forward. "The cool, frosty morning made every sound distinct and clear, and the only sound heard was the tramp! tramp! tramp! of the men as they kept step as regularly as if on drill."
The predawn gloom erupted in blinding tongues of flame as the parties met defensive fire from Fort Stedman and its flanking batteries. The initial Union response was ineffective, and well before 4:30 a.m. Stedman and Batteries X and XI had been captured. Rebel soldiers also overran two regimental encampments located nearby, and many of the sleepy Federals were clubbed down as they staggered from their tents in alarm and panic. John Gordon himself crossed the no-mans land with the first wave of infantry to assess how the assault was progressing.
Gordon found that his success up to this point had been deceptive. Despite taking all the initial objectives, the follow-up attacks had failed to widen the breach. South of the breakthrough, Fort Haskell remained in Union hands, while north of it Federal Battery IX barred his way. And then Gordon learned that the deep penetration effort of the picked force had also failed when the guides had lost their way in the darkness. Dawn was close at hand, and each passing minute made it that much easier for the Yankee artillerymen holding an enfilading position on both Gordon's flanks to target his troops.
Gordon informed Lee that the gamble had failed, and he received permission to withdraw his men.