SHS Papers: Volume 3: The Defence of Fort Gregg by Napier Bartlett

   

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in Petersburg Campaign

The Defence of Fort Gregg.1

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.

[From “A Soldier’s Story of the War.”]

A dramatic interest attached to the defence of the forts, aside from the fact that here was to be the last stand for Petersburg. This was because of the necessity of here detaining the enemy, who were advancing, wave after wave around the works, until Longstreet could get across the James; secondly, the attack on Gregg was followed by a lull along other portions of the line, and the men rested upon their weapons to witness, as at a spectacle of great national interest, the struggle of Secessia, and the last angry glare of her guns on a formal field of battle. The number of men on the two sides, 214 in Fort Gregg, about the same in Whitworth, and 5,000 advancing against them, illustrated the comparative s[t]rength of the combatants. Fort Gregg was the Confederate La Tourgue. When it falls, all of the old traditions and usages of the South fall with it; when the Federal standards wave over it, there is then to be centralization, negro government, and four times the ruin inflicted on the South as was put by Germany on France.

The two forts stand 250 yards in the rear of the captured line, and were built for precisely such an occasion as is suggested by the cheers of the advancing enemy namely, for use as an inner defence when disaster should overtake the Confederate line. Fronting Gregg is a little fort, the last built by Lee, and called by the men Fort Owen, after the Lieutenant-Colonel of that name from the Washington artillery, who was assigned to the command of Fort Gregg and the surrounding works. Lieutenant Battles, of

the Washington artillery, is in “Owen,” with two guns, and Lieutenant McElroy, of the same battalion, has charge of a company of sixty-two artillerymen who have been doing duty here most of the winter.

The night had been strangely quiet upon this portion of the lines, but towards daybreak the silence gave place to a little touch of skirmishing to the right of Gregg sufficient to cause the ordering of the infantry and artillerymen into Fort Owen, although it was then so dark that scarcely anything could be seen. Our infantry there could be barely detected moving in the trenches, towards what seemed to be the picket firing. As the men peered into the darkness in the direction of the flashes, solid shots commenced to plow up the earth the infantry began quitting the trenches and taking to the fields, leaving the cannoniers under the impression that the troops were chasing small game of some sort.

Lieutenant-Colonel Owen in his report says he gave orders to withdraw to Fort Gregg, and hurried off to rally fugitives—a no easy matter—who had already been dispersed by the Federal attack. McElroy reached the latter with his men, but Battles not receiving his horses in time, found himself suddenly surrounded, and his command captured by the enemy. McElroy immediately opened fire from Fort Gregg with his artillery-infantry, drove them away, and then turning his infantry once more back to artillery, ran down into Fort Owen and opened fire with the recaptured pieces on the enemy, two hundred yards to his right. Horses having been procured, the pieces by order were moved forward a mile, where the guns fired thirty-five rounds each, and were then retired to Fort Gregg. 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. Colonel Owen proceeds to say:

At the time McElroy was put in position in “Gregg” some guns were placed in Fort Whitworth, a detached work like “Gregg” and to its right and rear.

Major-General Wilcox, who was then in Gregg, seeing Harris’ brigade in what he thought a dangerous position in front, sent his Aide to the General to recall his men to the two forts, Harris himself going into Whitworth, and Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Duncan, of the Nineteenth Mississippi, into Gregg.

As the enemy advanced, McElroy was cautioned to have his ammunition as handy as possible upon the platform for quick

work. Under orders, Captain Walker hurriedly withdrew the guns from Fort Whitworth.

The enemy, a full corps of at least 5,000 men, advanced in three lines of battles. Three times the little garrison repulsed them. The fort seemed fringed with fire from the rifles of the Mississippians.

The cannoniers bravely and skil[l]fully used their guns. The enemy fell on the clear field around the fort by scores.

The capture of the work was but a question of time. The blue coats finally jumped into the ditch surrounding the fort, and presently climbed over each others backs to gain the summit of the parapets. There was a weak point on the side of Gregg, where the ditch was incomplete, and over this a body of the enemy rushed. Presently six regimental standards were distinctly seen waving on the parapet.

* * * * * *

The part taken in the defence of Gregg, by the Mississippians, is thus described in the Vicksburg Times:

“Fort Gregg was held by the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi regiments, Harris’ brigade, numbering about 150 muskets, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Duncan, of the Nineteenth Mississippi, who had been assigned by General Harris to the immediate command of that work. The artillery in the fort was a section of Third company Washington artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Frank McElroy. General Harris, with his two other regiments, Nineteenth and Forty-eighth Mississippi, occupied ‘ Fort Whitworth,’ distant about 100 yards, and between that work and the Southside railroad.”

General Harris, in a letter designed to be an official report, says, “General Wilcox ordered me to take position in front of the enemy, and detain them as long as possible. With this object in view I advanced about 400 yards, and formed ‘at right angles with the Boydton plank road. The ground being undulating, I threw both flanks behind the crest on which I formed, and exposed my centre, in order that I might induce the enemy to believe that there was a continuous line of battle behind the ridge. I then advanced a line of skirmishers well to the front. The enemy being misled by this device, made the most careful dispositions, two lines of battle, and advancing with the utmost caution, my position was held until the enemy was in close range, when a heavy fire was opened upon both sides.

“The enemy pressing me heavily and out-reaching me on my flanks, I fell back upon Fort Gregg and Whitworth, the Twelfth and Sixteenth under Colonel Duncan, being ordered to Fort Gregg, and to hold it at all hazards.

“The Nineteenth and Forty-eighth were placed in Whitworth. In Gregg there was a section of the Third company Washington artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Frank McElroy. Preparations were now made by the enemy for the assault, and this time Captain

Walker, Adjutant and Inspector-General of General Walker, Chief of Artillery, came with orders to withdraw the artillery, and against this I most earnestly protested.

“The four guns were withdrawn from Whitworth under protest; but the enemy were too close to permit the withdrawal of the guns from Gregg. Perceiving the guns of Whitworth leaving, the enemy moved forward to assault us in both works. He assaulted in columns of brigades, completely enveloping Gregg, and approaching Whitworth only in front. Gregg repulsed assault after assault; the two remnants of regiments, which had won glorious honor on so many fields, fighting this, their last battle, with most terrible enthusiasm, as if feeling this to be the last act in the drama for them; and the officers and men of the Washington artillery fighting their guns to the last, preserved untarnished the brilliancy of reputation acquired by their corps. Gregg raged like the crater of a volcano, emitting its flashes of deadly fires, enveloped in flame and cloud, wreathing our flag as well in honor as in the smoke of death. It was a glorious struggle. Louisiana represented by these noble artillerists, and Mississippi by her shattered bands, stood there side by side together, holding the last regularly fortified lines round Petersburg.”

While Gregg and Whitworth were holding out, Longstreet was hastening with Field’s division, from the north side of the James, to form an inner line for the purpose of covering General Lee’s withdrawal that night. As soon as Harris heard of the formation of that line, he withdrew with his little band, cutting his way through.

At 12 o’clock that night the last man and the last gun of the brave army that had defended the lines of Petersburg for one year, passed over the pontoon bridges, and the march commenced, that ended at Appomattox courthouse. I have been induced to write the foregoing, of which I was eye witness, in the hope of correcting history. 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.

We should give the honor to those who earned it in this fierce fight of three hours against such fearful odds. Swinton, in his “Army of the Potomac,” in his description of the breaking through the lines on this historic Sunday, says:

“On reaching the lines immediately around Petersburg, a part of Ord’s command under Gibbon began an assault directed against

Fort Gregg and Whitworth, two strong enclosed works, the most salient and commanding south of Petersburg. The former of these redoubts was manned by Harris’ Mississippi brigade, numbering two hundred and fifty men, and this handful of skilled marksmen conducted the defence with such intrepidity that Gibbons’ force, surging repeatedly against it, was each time thrown back; at length a renewed charge carried the work, but not till its two hundred and fifty offenders had been reduced to thirty. * * Gibbons’ loss was four hundred men.”

Swinton does not mention the Washington artillery in the fort: he also errs in putting the number of Mississippians at 250. General Harris says there were 150. These, with the 64 artillerists, make a total of 214 men, and these men put hors du combat 500 of the enemy, or an average of more than two men each.

Source:

  1. Bartlett, Napier. “The Defence of Fort Gregg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 3, pp. 82-86

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