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The Assault on Fort Stedman, VHS video, Media Magic Productions, Lansing, Mich., $25.

By March 1865, the Confederacy was drawing its last few labored breaths. Long months of trench warfare around Petersburg had reduced General Robert E. Lee’s fabled Army of Northern Virginia to a skeleton force of half-starved men, while General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac seemed to be growing more powerful by the day as the Federals sensed the impending end of the long, bloody war.

Lee wasn’t ready to give up the fight just yet, however. If he could somehow break out of the stalemate his army was bogged down in, Lee reasoned, he could make a desperate dash southward to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s little army in North Carolina and possibly give the South one last fighting chance to gain the independence so many had fought and died to gain.

Lee turned to one of the few bright young stars left alive in his army, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, to find a weakness in the 37 miles of trenches that would offer some hope of a successful breakout. Gordon chose a redoubt only 150 yards from the Confederate lines as the most likely spot. Named Fort Stedman by the Federals, the stronghold was well-protected, but Gordon devised an elaborate plan involving infantrymen and cavalrymen as well as pioneers with axes, and he convinced Lee that it was the best hope of success.

At 4 a.m. on March 25, 1865, Gordon’s men swept forward through the darkness toward the Union lines. Despite early success, by 9 a.m. the attack had been repulsed at a cost of some 4,000 Confederate casualties. Major General George Meade, with Grant watching every move, had finally broken the backbone of Lee’s army. For Lee, the spirit still lived but the body was badly crushed, and events raced toward their inevitable conclusion less than three weeks later at Appomattox Court House.

Media Magic has produced an excellent account of the last gasp of Lee’s army in the hour-long video The Assault on Fort Stedman. Following the same format successfully employed in Media Magic’s previous offerings, the video uses well-choreographed re-enactment footage, dramatic readings of accounts from some of the principal players involved in the battle, and the comments of historian David Finney to present the story of Fort Stedman in an exciting and enjoyable film. As in their other videos, the computer-generated maps give a good, concise picture of the events being played out in the re-enactment segments.

There is, however, one flaw with the film. In presenting the casualty numbers for the battle, the writers claim that the 4,000 Confederate casualties suffered at Fort Stedman nearly equaled those in the “more famous Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault at Gettysburg.” Dramatic license notwithstanding, comparing 4,000 to the more than 7,000 casualties the Confederates sustained during Pickett’s Charge is grossly misleading.

That one error aside, The Assault on Fort Stedman is another winner from Media Magic, which continues to build an impressive library of well-done video documentaries of some of the major battles of the Civil War.

B. Keith Toney