NP: September 24, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 3

   

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Editor’s Note: The first article in this series was first published at Mississippians in the Confederate Army by “championhilz”.  The author, Private Frank H. Foote of the 48th Mississippi, was a prolific author of reminiscences of his time in Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in the postwar years.  After a quick inquiry, it turns out “championhilz” is Jeff Giambrone, he  works at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and he was more than happy to help me gain access to not only the original version of the first article, but the entire set.  I thank him greatly for his kind assistance.  I’m happy to present this history of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in its entirety here at The Siege of Petersburg Online.

FOR THE CLARION:

The Death Grapple at Petersburg!

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Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.

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In December [1864] we made a long march into Dinwiddie and Nottaway counties, close to the North Carolina line, to check a raid of the Federals on the bridge across Meherrin river.1 The trip was a long and arduous one, made in the midst of rain, sleet, snow and ice. We set out in the rain, and one or the other of the elements “took a whack at us.” The first night out, we bivouacked near Dinwiddie Court House. Fuel that was so scarce in camp was here for the taking, and in the warmth of huge camp fires, we felt all sorrow and depression leave us. A good fire and a hearty meal ought to make the world enjoyable, at least it was our idea of happiness; and in its enjoyment we indulged in reveries. Soldiers innured by active services, sharing ills and hardships incidental to such a life as we had to lead, soon “take in the situation,” and learn on the march, many bits of useful knowledge that afford comfort. Thus, when we built our fires in the woods we would spread our blankets on the side over which the smoke blew, thus gaining no slight protection from frost or dews and affording a good deal of warmth. An oil-cloth blanket spread on top kept the sparks from burning the bedding, and thus we slept the sweetest sleep, undisturbed ever by dreams of home. For three days, wearily we trudged along in snow and ice. Once started we kept on, for to stop would be fruitful of ills. A long season of want for the necessaries of life is apt to arouse the most dormant energies of man, when needing “something to eat.” Almost by intuition he discovers it, and smacks his lips, even in anticipated enjoyment. So it was, when a party of us spied in a farmer’s yard a boiling cauldron. We took a peep into it, and saw corn; turnips, both roots and tops and pieces of pumpkin just about done. We knew it was food for the hogs, but that made no difference to empty stomachs. We used spoons and cups and fished out soft corn and turnips, peeled the dirt off, and ate about a quart of the savory mess; we filled every available vessel and even our hats with the stuff, and carried it to our comrades in ranks. No questions were asked, but like good soldiers they swallowed it down and relished it too and then called it a “luscious slop.” The novelty of the food didn’t interfere with its filling an emaciated stomach, and it appeased appetite.

Jarretts [sic, Jarratt’s] Station was reached and a scene of destruction burst upon our view that called forth execrations loud and deep.2 The depot was burnt, the track torn up, and the rails twisted in many shapes; but what aroused the sluggard blood, and caused it to beat the quickest, was the wanton destruction of the Baptist church and parsonage. The aged pastor was there wringing his hands in distress. His all was there utterly ruined and wrecked, while a pouring rain was adding to the destruction, soaking provisions and bedding. Upon inquiring, we found that the church was burnt first and then the parsonage was gutted, and set fire by some of those vandals, who follow in the wake of all armies and wreak destruction, plunder and burn. He told of swift retribution, as the advancing column of Confederates had found some of them, in the stupor of drink, and upon identification, had without scruple, or qualm of conscience strung five of them to the nearest limb across the railway, and there we found them dead, swinging to and fro in the wintery blasts, A placard announced that “not as Yankees but as church burne[r]s.” It spoke a volume, and echoed the sentiment of all, that they deserved what they got. Further up the railroad lay several other bodies in blue; shot to death and labelled, “lost by the Texans.” Thus the mills of the Gods ground out a speady [sic] to them, and the army of the Potomac was better off by being rid of such beasts.

Our column marched fast, but the enemy could not be overtaken; nor did we fire a shot in the campaign. The main object was accomplished by saving the bridge [over the Meherrin River at Hicksford]. A “turnip patch” that was convenient, afforded a good supper to those who could eat them raw or roasted. We started for camp next morning, and had a rough time of it. Being homeward bound several of us concluded to take our chances and flank the command, which we did. That night we sought the hospitality of a farmer, who gave us a good supper and put us to bed on a feather bed. Neither of us could sleep a wink, so we talked and listened to the storm as it blew and whistled around us. We managed to secure on the route a peck of peas and some turnips. Camp was distant sixteen miles and what to do with the grub was the puzzle, but we fixed it, We took the turnips, one hundred and fourteen in all, and piled them in a long row three high, in a blanket; we then lapped the blanket, pegged it together and managed to give it a twist which made it secure. The ends were fastened and then strung over my gun, and between us we managed to “tote” it nearly to camp. Besides the turnips, we divided the peas, we had our rations and bedding, I had my gun and accoutrements; he had a messmate’s rations and an axe. A very good load to undertake to get to camp, distant as it was. That night we camped beyond Dinwiddie; and next morning my companion was put on extra duty for absence without leave. I had then to contrive how to get the turnips home, and did it by sheer pluck in sticking to them. My feet blistered, and I threw away my shoes. I took a chill, and lay down by the wayside to recover. When it passed off, I resumed my journey, still tugging with the turnips. About four miles from camp I got a lift in an ambulance and got back to my hovel with a half peck of peas, and about one hundred turnips. I cite this to show what an empty stomach will prompt a starving soldier to do. That sack of grub was worth about two hundred dollars ($200) in such money as we had.

At Yellow Tavern, on the Weldon Railroad, we once took in an Ohio boy, who was out riding; he had a load as big as a cart, of peas, cabbages, potatoes, chickens, guineas, etc. He had lost his reckoning and come into our post. For some time we felt under obligations to that soldier. Sorghum molasses retailed at five dollars per quart, and was sour at that, and worked a person like a flywheel. In our commisary’s (Major Hersay’s) tent was a keg that appeared full of something palatable. Several of the boys stole it one night, and carried it several miles before they tapped it. To their intense disgust it turned out to be train oil for the use of the wagons. That joke was too good to keep, so it leaked out and had a good run.

On February 7, 1865, was fought the battle of Hatcher’s Run, some three miles or more below Petersburg, which added another chapter to Mississippi honor and bravery. The Federal advance had entrenched very strongly along the Boydton road, and several Confederate attacks had failed to dislodge them. Two brigades of our division, and one from some other command were repulsed. [Foote’s brigade commander] Gen. [Nathaniel H.] Harris was ordered forward, and as usual his men only swept forward to success. Just at the edge of the woody opening, Gen. Harris halted the brigade and aligned them; then a forward movement in perfect alignment with a charge, Gen. Harris leading on his horse “Yankee,” and in spite of fierce fighting the point was won. Gen. J. B. Gordon, who witnessed the fight, galloped up, and on the field complimented the gallant boys of Mississippi in most glowing terms. Lieut. Col. Thomas R. Manlove, of the 48th [Mississippi], commanding the 12th Mississippi, was terribly wounded in this battle, was taken prisoner, and soon after “paroled to die in his own ranks,” they having the idea he would live but a few weeks. He finally recovered and died three years ago, but suffered to the last with this wound. It was a most brilliant victory for the Mississippians—they succeeding where three of as fine brigades as were in the army of Northern Virginia had been repulsed. Their loss was quite heavy.

About the last of February [1865] the brigade [Harris’ Mississippi Brigade] was sent up to a point on the James river, known as Howlett’s. It was opposite, and in sight of Butler’s Dutch Gap canal. They were indeed a scant band in numbers, as depleted by the tremendous struggles of the campaign of 1864, and in the various and eventful ones in front of and around Petersburg, they could scarcely command four hundred rifles. Originally, it was one of the strongest commands that formed part of the army of Northern Virginia, but now the bullet and disease had thinned them down to this handful. Though but a few, they were a host in themselves. An abiding consciousness that by valor and devotion they had won a name second to none, actuated at incited them to still sterner duties. Though tried on a half-hundred fields, and never found wanting, there was reserved for them the heroic and self-sacrificing duty that prevented the surrender of Richmond and Petersburg, at their respective localities, and delayed for one week “that event pregnant with events,” that culminated at Appomattox Court House.

There is, and always will be a glow of pride, that one formed a part and parcel of that grand body of infantry, the army of Northern Virginia. It has been compared, and justly so, as the “key-stone of the rebellion, which when displaced, caused the whole structure to fall with a resounding crash.” That crash brought on an “Iliad of woes” and collapsed, a government born in blood, baptized in blood, and her banners smeared with the life-blood of thousands. Mr. Swinton speaks of it as “an adversary which had ever been the head and front of the revolt, that upheld the structure of the Confederacy with its bayonets, and which upon being crushed caused the whole fabric to fall to pieces.” The fact is attested that the whole South gave up the cause as lost, when advised of their surrender. If that army was destroyed there was none to contend further, and they submitted to the event with as much good grace as possible. Of the incidents of the latter days of that army we now write. The duties; struggles; triumphs and defeats of one command reflects on all.

Camp life at Bermuda Hundreds [sic, Hundred] was quiet enough for the few weeks we were quartered there. An occasional shell would be thrown at Federal working parties; or hurled in close proximity to those tall wooden look-outs erected along the enemy’s lines for espionage of Confederate movements. The balloon system seemed “played out,” as we did not see one during the siege of Petersburg. The tall shipping at City Point [, the main Union supply depot on the James River] was an object of interest though four miles of forest intervened between.

On the night of April 1, 1865, orders came from Gen. Mahone to Harris’ brigade to report to Gen. J. B. Gordon near Petersburg.3 We set off, grumbling “why in the h—l can’t Mahone get some other brigade to do some fighting,” in the direction of Petersburg, where we reported to Gen. Wilcox, as Gen. Gordon had no need of reinforcements. About sunrise we passed through the city, and arriving at Fort Gregg, took position near our winter quarters. With battery Gregg and its surroundings we were familiar; also with that of its neighbor, Whitworth, of this, more anon. When we took position in front of, and the right of Gregg, it was in a slight hollow. Everything was in confusion; our lines had been broken and turned the day before, and were now in possession of the Federals. As far as we could see long lines of infantry, artillery and cavalry in parallel columns, in all the “pomp and circumstance of war,” were crossing our broken works heading in the direction of Petersburg. It was Gibbons’ corps, and they presented a magnificent spectacle, formidable in numbers, and the sight was enough to quail the heart of the stoutest soldier there. We turned to each other, and wondered if only four hundred (400) of us had to stem that torrent. It was enough to dampen the ardor of the stoutest; but there was no cowering nor predictions of defeat. They knew their duty was to make what resistance they could, in fact to be sacrificed for delay. In vain they looked for help, there was none to be had, for all available troops were in use—as the lines had been broken in many places. The line was formed, and they laid down; skirmishers were thrown out, but were not aggressive.  Gibbons advanced and formed line of battle some six hundred yards or more, and advanced against us, the four hundred being overlapped considerably. Just then we received orders from [Third Corps division commander] Gen. [Cadmus] Wilcox to retire into Fort Gregg and protect the defense as long as possible. A few shots from their artillery, and the dropping ones from the skirmishers, were the precursors of what was in a few moments afterwards to become noted for one of the most desperate actions that we ever shared in. Acting courier for Gen. Harris that day, I had advantages of observing the fight and to pen what I saw; and will show how error has gone into history. Fort Gregg was one of a series of strong enclosed works, about thirty feet high, built inside the main lines, and was intended for just what happened. A deep moat or ditch surrounded the fort, but it contained very little, if any water at that time. The rear was protected by heavy palisades, loop-holed for musketry.  These piles were driven close together, and a passage-way of eight or ten feet admitted persons and artillery into it. This gorge was secured by placing the stockades in a series of turns or angles, so that it could afford shelter, and be easily defended by a few against many. Its location was a commanding one, in an open field, and its surroundings helped to protect the defense considerably. Whitworth or Alexander was patterned after Gregg, but was never completed. These two forts were intended to be connected, but other work requiring more attention it was abandoned. No moat surrounded Whitworth, and the winter rains had nearly washed the structure level. Our Brigade wintered there, the flank of the 12th [Mississippi] regiment resting against Whitworth. The scarcity of wood prompted the men to use the timber or poles about the works for fuel and this lessened its strength a good deal. A huge damn had been constructed across a little creek which flooded the front of Fort Gregg to its left for some distance. Unfortunately it broke just before the fight, doing much damage in its track, and losing an important advantage to the Fort; while it held it was of much advantage, as it lessened the arduous duties of the troops located there. Fort Gregg was intended for a small garrison only. A battery or a section of Washington artillery, had wintered there and took part in the defense, losing several guns in the capture. Gen. Harris placed the 12th Mississippi under Capt. A. K. Jones, and the 16th [Mississippi] regiment under Capt. J. H. Duncan, both under the immediate command of Lt. Col. James H. Duncan, of the 19th [Mississippi] regiment, in Fort Gregg. The 19th [Mississippi] and 48th [Mississippi] regiment were placed in Whitworth, and were under the personal command of Gen. Harris. Cols. R. H. Phipps and Joseph M. Jayne commanded the latter two regiments. These preparations were hardly made before our skirmishers, under Capt. Feltus, under orders from Gen. Harris had occupied the winter-quarters; and while a few held back the Federal skirmishers others burned the cabins, and fought each one to the last and then fell back towards Petersburg. After a light bombardment of the two forts, the Federals attacked Fort Gregg in heavy force; directing their energies to reduce that stronghold first; knowing well that if it fell the others would have to be abandoned. In Whitworth was a battery of four Parrot[t] guns sent in there just as the attack commenced. They might as well have been in Jericho for what good they ever did. Their firing was a “miserable farce,” and their shells would reach beyond and over the Federal masses without injury. Not a shell or shot struck fair; nor was the line of battle many ranks deep ever hit. The infantry were disgusted with the practice. I glanced along a piece, and saw the elevation was sufficient to throw the ball fairly a mile. The men loaded their guns on their knees and never sighted them. They were demoralized badly; and we were glad to hear orders arrive for them to retire. As they left the place so hasty was their exit, that they overturned one of the guns, and we had to right it up.

The attack on Gregg had been raging for some time, and the battlements were wreathed in smoke.  Utterly regardless of the Federal sharpshooters the men in Whitworth opened fire on the deep masses, and we judged by the stream of the wounded, very effectively. Gibbon’s men had recoiled, they could not stand the stream of fire poured into them so closely. We sprang upon the parapets and “Yelled our Joy” at the defeat of the first attack. The smoke cleared away, and we could trace many black spots on the ground that counted for human beings. For four hundred yards back we could trace these blue dots, and showed how the deadly bullet had found a lodgment. A second and third attempt followed, both being repulsed with tremendous loss to the Federals. The fourth assault carried the place; we looked upon the scene in wonder. We saw the stubborn fight, and the men falling like leaves, as the rifles of the defenders cracked incessant volleys. For fire arms were plenty and many could load, while a few would do the shooting and it was unerring.

The men of the 19th [Mississippi] and 48th [Mississippi] regiment implored Gen. Harris to be led against the enemy to help their comrades but he wisely refused. The fourth assault that reduced the fort was planned in the ditch around the fort, for it was full of Federals. They were to push each other up the slope, and simultaneously up the unfinished rifle pits that were intended to connect Gregg and Whitworth, and with a rush from those not in the moat. The signal was a flag to be thrown on or in the fort, which was done, (I saw it in the air as it was pitched by the color bearer,) and the rush was successful. As the Federals gained the parapet they poured into the defenders a volley that did great execution, and the place surrendered before another fire could be put in. About seventy of the garrison were killed, the others were captured. Thus we lost two regiments from our brigade, and dwindled our strength down to less than two hundred. Old soldiers, who fought at Fredericksburg, Wilderness, and Spottsylvania, say they never saw such slaughter as was at Gregg. The Federal loss was upward of five hundred, (one Federal authority placed it at about one thousand), thus making an average of two Federal “hors du combat” for each defender at least. A friend of mine claims that he shot over twenty Federals that day, as he had a loop hole and all he had to do was to load and fire, and see them “kick.” It has passed into history that “Fort Gregg was defended by Harris’ Mississippians, that they numbered two hundred and fifty muskets and when the fort surrendered that they had been reduced to thirty.” This is a mistake, for their loss was as stated above, about seventy. A few other soldiers of detached parties from Lane’s and Thomas’ Brigades were in Gregg at the time, and helped the defense most gallantly. But the proper credit is due Harris’ Brigade for this most gallant defense, which saved for a day Petersburg and Richmond.4

[TO BE CONTINUED.]5

Article Images

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Harris’ Mississippi Brigade Series from the 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS):

Source:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Foote is referring to the raid by Gouverneur Warren’s Federal V Corps and accompanying cavalry to attempt to destroy the Weldon Railroad bridge over the Meherrin River at Hicksford, Virginia.  It is variously referred to by many names, including the Stony Creek Raid, the Hicksford Raid, and the Applejack Raid and occurred from December 7-12, 1864.  Although Warren’s men failed to destroy the bridge when Confederate cavalry and militia stood firm at the Meherrin River, they did do considerable damage to the Weldon Railroad from Stony Creek to Belfield, forcing the weary Confederates to haul supplies by wagon on winter roads for the extra distance.  Portions of A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, combined with Wade Hampton’s cavalry, attempted to cut Warren off from the Union main body, but were too slow to spring the trap.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: Jarratt’s Station was a station on the Weldon Railroad which fell squarely into the section of that supply line which was thoroughly wrecked by Warren’s men.  Some of these men got into local stores of “Applejack” brandy and engaged in wanton destruction.  Foote’s description below consists of what he found at Jarratt’s Station in the immediate aftermath of Warren’s retreat back to Union lines.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Harris’ Brigade would move to Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth, on the western outskirts of Petersburg.  There, as the Confederate lines to the southwest broke and Union soldiers poured through on the morning of April 2, 1865, they would fashion a last ditch stand in Gregg known as the “Confederate Alamo” during the Third Battle of Petersburg.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note:  Foote’s comments about the brigades of Lane and Thomas contributing a little at Fort Gregg was part of an ongoing controversy in the post-war years about just who defended the “Confederate Alamo.”
  5. “The Death Grapple at Petersburg! Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.” The Clarion (Jackson, MS). September 24, 1884, p. 1 col. 4-6

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