Who Defended Fort Gregg?: A Confederate Controversy, Part 1

   

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Introduction to Fort Gregg: A Last Ditch Stand

 

The Battle of Fort Gregg Petersburg National Battlefield, Virginia "Shoot and Be Damned"

The Battle of Fort Gregg: "Shoot and Be Damned!"

The Battle of Fort Gregg, in terms of the controversy it caused on both sides, was one of the most important battles of the Civil War.  What’s that, you say?  You’ve never heard of it?  You’re not alone.  The Battle of Fort Gregg, a “Confederate Alamo“, occurred on April 2, 1865, a last ditch stand by an ad hoc Confederate force against thousands of Yankee soldiers in the Twenty-Fourth Corps of the Army of the James during the Third (and final) Battle of Petersburg.  After the Union breakthrough early on the morning of April 2, this force was ordered to hold at all costs in Fort Gregg (and sister Fort Whitworth) on the western outskirts of Petersburg.  Failure to do so meant a large portion of the Army of Northern Virginia would be trapped in Petersburg and the war in Virginia would likely be over immediately.  Although the several hundred defenders ultimately surrendered after several Union assaults, they had bought enough time for the rest of the Confederate army to retreat across the Appomattox River and head west on their way to a little place called Appomattox Court House.  Glory and honor aplenty awaited for the defenders of Fort Gregg.  But just who DID defend the fort in this last ditch stand?

General James H. Lane’s Official Report: A Controversy Begins

James Henry Lane, Confederate General

James H. Lane

The January 1877 issue of the Southern Historical Society Papers contained General James H. Lane’s official report of the Battle of Fort Gregg1.  There was nothing unusual about this since former Confederate leaders routinely used the pages of the Papers to highlight official documents for posterity.  Interestingly, and perhaps sensing possible competing claims, Lane appended multiple letters confirming his account to his report, including a letter from himself to his superior Cadmus Wilcox.  Lane’s Brigade was a part of Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia and was in line southwest of Petersburg from Hatcher’s Run to Fort Gregg.  Lane clearly states in his letter to Wilcox that “my brigade, Chew’s battery and Walker’s supernumerary artillerists” defended Fort Gregg while “Harris’ brigade…abandoned Fort Anderson (BTC Ed: Lane meant Fort Whitworth) and retired to the old or inner line of works before Fort Gregg was attacked in force.”  Not content to merely claim the honor of defending Fort Gregg, Lane also impugned the honor of Harris’ brigade with the follow-up comment “Unsupported, I saw our noble fellows repulse three ass[a]ults in force in front and one from the rear…”  The letters to Lane which followed naturally enough all backed his claims as to the true defenders of Gregg considering Lane sent them into the Southern Historical Society with his report.2  In addition to Harris’ brigade, a portion of the Washington (LA) Artillery also claimed to have defended Fort Gregg.  Instead, Lane mentions Chew’s Maryland red legs as the only artillery in the fort at the time of its defense.  One of the appended letters written by F.B. Cratge which appeared below Lane’s does mention a few men of the Washington Artillery under a Lt. “Mackelroy” (sic), but in Lane’s letter Chew’s battery is given the majority of the glory.  Another follow-up letter by D.M. Rigler allows Harris had 25 men in the fort while stating there were “about seventy-five or eighty men of [Lane’s] brigade, and five officers”3.  Again, however, Lane’s initial comments were more incendiary.  To make matters worse, Captain McCabe, former adjutant of Pegram’s Artillery Battalion, had an address on the Siege of Petersburg published in the Decmber 1876 issue of the Papers which also omitted any mention of the Washington Artillery at Fort Gregg4Surely these slaps in the face to Harris’ Mississippians and the famous Washington (LA) artillery wouldn’t go unchallenged, would they?

The Washington Artillery and Harris’ Mississippians Reply: Napier Bartlett’s Account and Harris’ Letter

Battle Maps of Forts Whitworth and Gregg

Battle Maps of Forts Whitworth and Gregg (Photo taken by Bill Coughlin in April 2007 for HMDB.com. Some rights reserved.)

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No they wouldn’t. After reading McCabe’s address and Lane’s account, an incensed former member of the Washington Artillery wrote in to the editor complaining of the lack of respect. As a result and at the suggestion of the anonymous officer, the February 1877 issue of the SHSP featured an excerpt from Napier Bartlett’s A Soldier’s Story of the War, a book which sketched the experiences of the Washington Artillery throughout the Civil War.

I’ll allow the editor of the SHSP to weigh in here:

Since publishing in our last number General Lane’s account of the defence of Fort Gregg, we have received a letter from an officer of the Washington artillery, complaining that injustice was done that gallant command in Captain McCabe’s note (page 301, December Number), by omitting all mention of the part borne by them. In General Lane’s account the name of Lieutenant McElroy of the Washington artillery is mentioned. But in order that we may give all a fair hearing, we take pleasure in republishing, as requested, the following account from “A Soldier’s Story of the Late War, by Napier Bartlett.” We may add the remark that in the peculiar circumstances which surrounded the heroic band from different commands who collected in Fort Gregg, it is perfectly natural that there should be honest differences of opinion as to the numbers, &c., of the several commands. But they were all Confederate soldiers, and they bore themselves worthily in the hour of trial.

The italics are in the original.  Clearly the editor used tact in declining to take sides in what was to become a heated argument!

The following passage from Bartlett’s book describes who was in Fort Gregg at the time of the attack: “Lieutenant McElroy says, in his report, there were two hundred men in the fort, who were, with the exception of his command, of Harris’ Mississippi brigade, and that his loss was six killed, two wounded and thirty-two prisoners.”6  Notice whose brigade is missing from this account entirely?  Lane’s Brigade is missing, of course, as well as any mention of Chew’s 4th Maryland Light Artillery.  Instead, portions of Harris’ Missisippi Brigade is credited with having been in the fort.

The second half of this article contains an account of Harris’ Brigade at Fort Gregg in the Vicksburg Times as well as “a letter designed to be an official report” from General Nathaniel H. Harris, the commander of that brigade.  Harris’ account coincides with that of the Washington Artillery.  No mention is made of Lane and Harris even states:

Many accounts have been published of the defence of Fort “Gregg,” but all that I have seen have been generally far from the truth. Pollard, who showed but little disposition to waste compliments on the troops from the Gulf States, says Captain Chew of the fourth Maryland battery of artillery was in command of the work, and his account is reiterated by many others. If he was, it is strange we did not know it. A battery of Marylanders had in reality been disbanded a short time before the fight, their time having expired, and they were awaiting their discharge papers to enable them to go to their homes. If Captain Chew was in the fort at all, he was simply there as a volunteer or a spectator.7

What emerges from these varying sources are two VERY different ideas of what happened at Fort Gregg, with Harris’ Mississippians and the Washington Artillery squared off against Lane and his men.  A surprising source then weighed in with a more nuanced view.

Lane’s Superior Cadmus M. Wilcox: A Voice of Reason

CadmusMWilcox

Cadmus Wilcox, Division commander in A.P. Hill's Third Corps, ANV

Cadmus M. Wilcox, who commanded a division in Hill’s Third Corps on that fateful April day in 1865, read the accounts of Fort Gregg in the Southern Historical Society Papers with interest.  He had been on the field of battle that day after all, in overall command of the remnant of the Confederate lines guarding the back door into Petersburg.  Wilcox had never filed an official report on the Battle of Fort Gregg, and in lieu of that nonexistent document he decided to weigh in on this controversy through the pages of the Papers8.  Here is his recollection of who defended Fort Gregg9:

It was now that a little detachment was ordered to occupy Battery Gregg. It was made up of two pieces of artillery,(1) and in all about 200 men, the infantry being composed of detachments from Thomas’, Lane’s and Harris’ brigades; the number from Thomas’ brigade, as now remembered, being less than that from either of the other two. The most of Harris’ brigade was ordered to Battery Whitworth. In this were three pieces of artillery. Gen. Harris was in command at Whitworth. At the time the detachments were placed in Gregg I did not know who was the ranking officer; did not regard it of much consequence, as I had determined to remain either in it or near it. I was in Gregg about 10 minutes.  Saw that it had as many men as could fire conveniently. Extra ammunition was supplied, and the little detachments ordered to hold these two batteries to the last.

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(1) Washington Artillery I believe; of what battery do not remember.

The Confederate Alamo: Bloodpath at Petersburg's Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865 by John J. Fox IIIWilcox gets much closer to the truth of the matter here than any of the partisan accounts which appeared to this point.  Remember too that this controversy had started earlier, in newspapers and other periodicals.  Participants in this controversy had had years to get their stories “straight”.  Wilcox admirably gave credit to some outside of his old division and tried to set the record straight. In some cases this would have been the end of a controversy. In his book on the Battle of Fort Gregg, historian John J. Fox III looks at this topic in detail and is a highly recommended source for further reading.  Fox also looks at the competing claims of Union veterans as to which regiments flag topped Fort Gregg’s walls first, and that war of words was equally acrimonious.

Controversy Ended?

In the confusion and chaos of that day men could have understandably missed some members of other unfamiliar commands they fought alongside in Fort Gregg.  Naturally the tendency of most veterans is to emphasize your own unit’s contributions while downplaying those of outsiders.  Fort Gregg, and the arguments it sparked in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers as well as Union veteran publication The National Tribune are nothing short of amazing to modern readers.  How can a battle almost no one has heard of in 2011 have been so important to so many men?  Most modern histories seem to glance over the Siege of Petersburg entirely with the brief exceptions of the Crater, Fort Stedman, and Five Forks.  Though Fort Gregg is rarely mentioned, it mattered to the men who were there on both sides and to the veterans who subscribed to the magazines and newspaper dedicated to their reading pleasure.  My goal is to take stories like this which have fallen into obscurity, peel back the layers, and bring them to light for modern day studrnts of the Civil War.

As you will see in future posts on this topic, the controversies on both sides surrounding who took and who defended Fort Gregg are numerous.  Nathaniel Harris, for one, wrote in again regarding this affair and sparked a back and forth in the pages of the Papers between General Lane and himself.  There will be more on that and the back and forth of Union veterans in the  National Tribune once I have managed to transcribe more of these fascinating articles from men who were there.

Notes:

  1. Lane, James H. “Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, pp. 19-28
  2. Lane, James H. “Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, pp. 22-23
  3. Lane, James H. “Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, p. 27
  4. “Defence of Petersburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 2, pp. 257-306
  5. Photo taken by Bill Coughlin in April 2007 for HMDB.com. Some rights reserved.
  6. Bartlett, Napier. “The Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, p. 83
  7. Bartlett, Napier. “The Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, p. 85
  8. Wilcox, C. M. “Defence of Batteries Gregg and Whitworth, and the Evacuation of Petersburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 4, pp. 18-33
  9. Wilcox, C. M. “Defence of Batteries Gregg and Whitworth, and the Evacuation of Petersburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 4, p. 28

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