SHS Papers: Volume 9: Battery Gregg-Reply to General N. H. Harris

   

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Battery Gregg-Reply to General N. H. Harris.1

BY General C. M. WILCOX.

In a contribution to the Southern Historical Society, published in the last number of those papers, the writer, General N. H. Harris, regrets what he regards, seemingly, as a necessity, inspired by his love of truth and justice, to appear before the public as a party to the controversy touching the defence of Battery Gregg, April 2nd, 1865. With a natural dislike to controversy, there was, to use his own words, “an additional dislike when such controversy is with any of my former comrades in arms, *  *  *  and, only for the sake of truth and justice, am I willing to disturb the kindly relations that should exist between old comrades.”

Is it to be apprehended that friendly relations among former comrades in arms will be disturbed by what may be written about incidents of our late war, when it cannot be questioned that it was in-


spired alone by the love of truth and justice? When disputes arise as to the details of battles fought-and it appears to be inevitable that they should arise-it is to old comrades in arms, who were present and took part in those about which there are differences of opinion, that we must look for information; these are competent to settle satisfactorily all disputed points, and as they cannot come together for that purpose, they are forced to appear in print, to have recourse to the newspapers and periodicals.

I prepared and sent to the Southern Historical Society for publication, a brief outline of such military operations, as I had knowledge of, that occurred in the vicinity of Petersburg during several days preceding the evacuation of that town and Richmond. The defence of Battery Gregg was included in that brief narrative, inaccurate accounts of which I had read in history,(1) biography,(2) and newspapers.(3) And as I wrote to correct, in part, the misstatements of others, it was my purpose to be as accurate as the information I had, as to what I was relating, would permit. I had near me at the time my own report of the incidents referred to, and if I was mistaken in any details given, it would give me much pleasure to have them pointed out, to the end that they be corrected, for I would regret exceedingly to find in history, errors that could be justly charged to any delinquency on my part. I must reiterate all that contribution-found in the July (1877) number of these papers-contained, with reference to Battery Gregg. If, however, there be any mistake in what was then written, it may be as to the numbers of those that defended it. I have always believed there were about two hundred; it impossible I may have underestimated, though they were placed there by my order and in my presence. That number of men was, I thought at the time, as many as could conveniently fire over the crest of the work.

General Harris referred by name to those who had written of the attack and defence of Gregg, as well as to the time of, and periodicals in which publications were made, and adds, “I shall now state a few facts from memoranda made in writing in the latter part of the year 1865”; and then gives information as to where his brigade was the night of April 1st, and how and under what orders he reported to me the next morning near the Newman house, on the plank road. Then says, “As I approached I saw that the enemy had broken his (Wilcox) lines in heavy force, and was extending in line of battle across the open fields in direction of the Southside railroad.” This quotation

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(1) Swinton’s Army of the Potomac.

(2) Cooke’s Life of General Lee.

(3) Vicksburg Times.

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may make the impression, whether so designed or not, that the heavy body of the enemy seen by him on his arrival was the same that had broken our lines; if he so believed, he was mistaken.

The lines had been carried by another force about daylight, the Sixth corps, commanded by General Wright, the present Chief Engineer of the army, and near the point crossed by the heavy force seen by him. Our lines once crossed, the most of the hostile forces turned to their left, and swept up the lines to Hatcher’s Run, and along that to Burgess’ Mill; a less body wheeled to their right and cleared our lines to the vicinity of Battery Gregg. On reaching Gregg, about sun up of April 2nd, I found both it and Battery Whitworth occupied by portions of Lane’s and Thomas’s brigades and few artillerymen.

These fragments of brigades were reunited near Gregg, and ordered forward to recover our lost lines. They obeyed promptly, and with spirit, and the lines were regained to within the immediate vicinity of the Boisseau house, near which the force seen by General Harris, marching by flank, crossed them.

General Harris made an extract my contribution to the Southern Historical Society, and admits that it was substantially correct. It had, in his opinion, only two mistakes: (1.) I had over-estimated the strength of his brigade, taking it to be about five hundred, when in fact it had but four hundred, one hundred having been left behind on the skirmish line near Swift Run. (2.) And I had called a certain house “Barnes’s” house, when it should have been “Newman’s” house. The extract made by him contained no such name as ‘Barnes’s,” but “Banks’s” house was used, and correctly. It was four or five hundred yards beyond Battery Gregg, to the left of the plank road going from Petersburg. When Colonel Venable informed me that Harris’s brigade would soon report, I replied that I knew it well, that it numbered about five hundred men. The condition of my front was such when it arrived that it was immaterial whether it had that or more than that number. As the question at issue was as to the composition of the little garrison that held Gregg, it would have been well for General Harris to have quoted from my article on that point. I stated that it was composed of detachments from Thomas’s, Lane’s, and Harris’s brigades, and two pieces of artillery, and that there were fewer men from Thomas’s than from either of the other two brigades.

With reference to the disposition of his brigade he says he “placed two regiments-the Twelfth and the Sixteenth-by my (Wilcox’s) orders in Battery Gregg.” He may be correct, but I am inclined to believe that it was a certain number of men I ordered to be detailed


from his brigade for that purpose; this would have been more definite as to numbers. He also says “I rode in front of Battery Gregg and instructed Colonel Duncan to have plenty of ammunition brought into that works;” he was but transmitting my orders, the ammunition had been ordered up before he reached the field; also, “I assumed immediate command of Whitworth, as the larger part of my command occupied it;” this would imply that it was an act of volition on his part, instead of an order from a military superior; he was ordered into Whitworth for the reason he gave, and there being also more artillery in it. Again, he states “he was ordered by General Lee a few minutes after the fall of Gregg to retire from Whitworth,” at least he so understood it. He retired from that work by my orders. General Lee would not have sent him such an order without its passing through me, as I was in charge of that part of the field. The order reached General Harris a few minutes after the fall of Gregg, but it was dispatched to him before it was taken, when it was apparent that it must be captured. Having evacuated Whitworth, he “retired to the inner lines running from battery Forty-five to the Appomattox.” Our lines did not extend to that river, there was an interval of near one mile between the right and the river; and it was this gap that the troops from the north side of the James river filled up when they arrived.

General Harris refers to what General Lane stated in his communication on the defence of Gregg, and if he quoted him correctly, he (Lane) was wrong, for General Harris did not retire from Whitworth before Gregg was attacked in force, and then by my orders, and after the fall of Gregg; and in battery Gregg was attacked in force, and then by my orders, and after the fall of Gregg; and in battery Gregg was a number of Harris’s brigade, that exceeded his (Lane’s), if I remember correctly.

Besides his own statement, General Harris gives one signed by a number of officers, noncommissioned officers, and privates of the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi, and by several others not of those regiments. All these say, “We assert that said defence was made by the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi regiments, Harris’s brigade and a section of Washington artillery. There may have been a few men of other commands, but they were without organization.” I do not question the honesty and good faith of this statement; they were simply mistaken. The men of the two brigades (Lane’s and Thomas’s) that were in Gregg by my orders, had been in service as long as those of Harris’s, and were not inferior to them in discipline. They had been engaged early in the morning, had lost heavily in killed, wounded and prisoners, but with ranks sadly thinned, they responded promptly to my orders, and recovered a portion of our lost lines, again to be given


up, and this time, by my orders, to retire to Gregg and vicinity. General Harris gives a letter from Captain A. K. Jones, who commanded the Twelfth Mississippi in Gregg; in this are several inaccuracies. The writer says: “General Wilcox is wrongfully informed when he says the enemy first got into the works from the rear,” &c., &c. I was not informed by others, but saw for myself, and wrote from my own personal observation. I was an eye-witness to the entire struggle, was standing about one hundred and twenty-five yards from Gregg, saw it heroic defense, sent encouraging messages into it three times-the last messenger never returned. The enemy reached the parapet in force at the right end of the palisading across the gorge; here began an unfinished trench, some thirty yards long. It was the purpose to have connected Gregg with Whitworth, but it was never done. On the embankment of this they mounted easily, and from this to the parapet of Gregg, and soon extended nearly around it in force, and poured down a fire upon what was left of the little force inside. It was when I saw this, and that the defence was virtually over, that I dispatched an order to evacuate Whitworth. It is not often we meet with one who can claim exemption from one of the three following fruitful sources of error, misunderstanding, misconception, and lapse of time weakening impressions made upon the memory. Again, this officer says: “The fort (meaning Battery Gregg) was carried about 1 P. M. We had ample time and opportunity to see the result of our defence, for when the guns in Whitworth were opened on Gregg, after it was captured,” &c., &c. No one can question the honesty of this statement, and yet it is known, and by no one better than by General Harris, that the guns in Whitworth had been withdrawn early in the action, and that Gregg had fallen before he withdrew from that battery. Gregg was captured before 11 A. M.

There is a letter from Captain R. R. Applewhite also of the Twelfth Mississippi; both he and Captain Jones speak of other men besides those of their brigade being in the battery, but they both say they were without organization; the former says, to be exact, “There may have been good and true men from other commands who aided in the defence.” General Mahone was requested, though not present, to write of the defence of the battery. Not being there, he could only repeat what he had heard. Lieutenant-Colonel Owens, Washington artillery, “can’t see what General Lane had to do with Gregg,” as he had always understood that the fort was held by Mississippians. General Gibbon, of the Union army, was invited to express an opinion as to the composition of the command. He regretted he “could give no information


in regard to the garrison of the fort.” It will be seen that General Harris was industrious in beating up evidence-writing to those who were not present, as well as to those of the other side. He could not accept my statement of the case, though present and having control of the whole affair.

I have omitted, unintentionally, up to this point, reference to Brigadier-General R. L. Walker’s letter. He was Chief of Artillery of Hill’s corps. He writes: “On the morning of the 3d of April, 1865, I was at Rice’s salient until about sun up, when it was reported to me that the lines in front of Fort Gregg had been broken.” He was not at Rice’s salient on April 3d, 1865. He repaired at once to Battery Gregg, a distance, I should think, the way he would have to go, of at least three or four miles. The lines, he says, had been broken, and “directly in front of Gregg they had been held by Lane’s brigade.” This was not the case; they had been held at and near this battery by Thomas’s brigade. He manned the fort with a section of the Washington artillery and two companies organized from the supernumerary artillery-men. “I called on them to go with me to recover the line evacuated by our infantry, or at least so much thereof as had been occupied by two of my batteries, which had been left in the hands of the enemy.’ Evacuating lines, and leaving guns in the hands of the enemy, convey impressions not complimentary to the infantry that had held them, and these impressions are strengthened when we are informed that “they (supernumerary artillerymen) made a gallant charge, recapturing these batteries, left by the infantry, and bringing them out.” Having recovered his batteries left in the hands of the enemy, he then drove back the enemy’s skirmish line, &c., &c. “I then fell back to Fort Gregg, and just at this juncture the gallant Mississippians, under the intrepid Harris, came up to my relief.” And did General Harris, with his brigade, relieve him and his two companies of supernumerary artillerymen? Up to this time General Walker’s memory was clear and distinct, but then, for an instant, it seems to have been a little clouded. “As well as I can remember, a part of Harris’s brigade, with my men, then occupied Fort Gregg, while the main body of the brigade went to Fort Alexander,(1) a few hundred yards to the north and right of Fort Gregg.” And now his memory is again clear. “We held our respective positions until I was informed that General Longstreet had come to our relief on the right, when I dispatched my Inspector-General Captain Richard Walke to General Harris informing

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(1) Called by others, more generally, Battery Whitworth.

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him of the fact, and suggesting the propriety of falling back to the interior lines, as we had done all we could do. At the same time I sent another officer, whose name I will not mention, to Fort Gregg, with orders to evacuate it.” This letter is certainly the most remarkable of any that has appeared in print thus far, connected with battery Gregg, and none can appear in the future that will exceed it in the freedom of its assertions. I believe General Harris ranked General Walker. I know he (Walker) was junior to both Generals Lane and Thomas, to say nothing of myself, and we three were all the time present–myself after about sun up, and within less than one hundred and fifty yards of Gregg, until it fell. And yet this junior officer, according to his own account, exercised supreme command, disposing of the troops to meet the enemy’s advance, and ordering them to withdraw when he was informed that our right was reinforced. When I ordered the withdrawal of the troops, I had not been informed of the arrival of reinforcements to fill the gap on our right. I knew the resistance made by our small numbers had been intended to delay the advance of the enemy until they should arrive. I can’t say that General Walker was not present near battery Gregg the morning of April 2nd. I certainly have no recollection of seeing him, but I did hear subsequently that he had sent an order to battery Whitworth, which I will refer to before closing this too lengthy account of this small, though brilliant affair.

General Harris makes quotations from four letters written by officers of Lane’s brigade, and addressed to their former commander, two of these officers were of the Thirty-third and two of the Thirty-seventh North Carolina regiment. These officers were in Gregg during the fight. The General disposed of their statements very briefly, indulged freely in humor, wit and ridicule-a method practiced by himself, possibly, as a lawyer when seeking to weaken testimony, facts and logic being against him. One of the officers, Lieutenant Snow, Thirty-third North Carolina regiment, says, “After ammunition was exhausted they used rocks,” and “for over half an hour.” “This rock story shows what weight this testimony is entitled to, &c., &c.,” says the General; the italics are his. He may no be aware of the fact, but this was not the first or only time that rocks were used in battle during the war. If he will read the official report of the battle of Second Bull Run, he will see that General A. P. Hill mentions the fact that one of his brigades having exhausted ammunition, used rocks. If I remember correctly, there had been either huts or tents in Gregg, and they had chimneys made of brick or stone, or of both of these kinds of material. This officer may have overestimated the time rocks were used-not one


man in a thousand-no man can estimate time with exactness whilst under close musket fire. Lieutenant Craige, of same regiment, he seeks to discredit by using severer terms. “The immense and imposing numbers of the enemy had, by comparison with the small number of the garrison, so dwarfed his visual organs, &c., &c.” The style of criticism adopted by the General was a matter of taste to be determined alone by his own sense of propriety.

We learn from these letters, written by officers of the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi, and the Thirty-third and Thirty-seventh North Carolina, that there were both Mississippians and North Carolinians in battery Gregg, and from those of the latter that there were also some Georgians in it. These officers differ as to the numbers of their respective brigades. At the time it could never have occurred to them that the number of the other would ever be called in question, and they required to give it.

A few more quotations will be made, and from General Harris himself. Among those he cites as having expressed opinions about the Battery Gregg fight, was Captain W. Gordon McCabe, who, in an address delivered before the “Association of the Army of Northern Virginia,” and published in the December, 1876, number of the Southern Historical Society Papers, in a note, page 301, says, according to General Harris, “that the defense of Battery Gregg April 2d, 1865, had been wrongfully attributed to Harris’s Mississippi brigade, and that the defense was made by Lane’s brigade.” Upon an examination of the number of those papers referred to, I find the note at the bottom of the page does not contain such words, but the following: “The error of attributing this brilliant defense to Harris’s brigade alone, doubtless arose from Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan,of that brigade, being the ranking officer in the fort.” He did not say the defence was made by Lane’s brigade, or that it had been wrongfully attributed to Harris’s brigade alone, and all must see that it was a good one. Had the ranking officer of that small garrison been of Thomas’s brigade, it would have been very naturally believed that the men defending it were Georgians, and had an officer of Lane’s brigade ranked it would have been equally inferred that the little garrison was of that brigade.

General Harris, page 480, says: “It is somewhat remarkable that during the long period of fifteen years, when public prints, both foreign and American, as well as many eyewitnesses of the day, have accorded the defence of Battery Gregg to the Mississippians and the gallant Louisiana, artillerists, that others who at this late date now come forward and


claim all the honors of that occasion, should have remained utterly silent.” General Harris refers to General Lane’s official report, found in the January number, 1877, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, and on examining that I find it-the report-is dated April 10, 1865, eight days, and not fifteen years, after the battle. The same number has a letter addressed to myself by General Lane on this subject, dated May 20, 1867, a few days over two years subsequent, and the letters of the four officers of Lane’s brigade, before referred to, are dated in June, 1867.

And again, General Harris says, on same page: “Sufficient for me to say that what has appeared heretofore has not been printed by any one connected with the brigade, or at their instance; and singularly there has been a great unanimity on the part of foe, friend and stranger in giving the credit of that defence to Harris’s brigade.” If we examine the February number of the Southern Historical Society Papers, referred to by General Harris as containing “A Soldier’s Story of the War,” by Napier Bartlett, giving an account of the defence of Battery Gregg, we will find, pages 84-5, as follows: “The part taken in defence of Gregg by the Mississippians is thus described in the Vicksburg Times: “Fort Gregg was held by the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi regiment, Harris’s brigade, numbering about one hundred and fifty muskets, &c., &c,” no reference being made to any other infantry as forming a part of the garrison. Napier Bartlett, says 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,” and then goes into details such as have already been given; but with this very important addition, “preparations were now made by the enemy for the assault; at this time Captain Walke, Adjutant and Inspector General, of General Walker, chief of artillery, came with orders to withdraw the artillery, and against this I most earnestly protested.” It was not a time, nor was there any occasion for a protest; General Harris should have declined to receive orders of any kind or from any source, unless they came through me, or were given by the corps commander, or by General Lee in person. He had been ordered to report to me by the commanding General, and I had assigned him to the command of Whitworth, and in it were, besides his brigade, for pieces of artillery. His permitting the artillery to be withdrawn, lessened my ability to carry out the instructions of the commanding General, and his not reporting to me that it had been withdrawn was an aggravation of the offenseits withdrawal without authority. I learned how it had been taken off several days subsequently in conversation with General Harris. “The four guns were withdrawn from Whit-


worth under protest; but the enemy were too close to permit the withdrawal of the guns from Gregg.” It was owing to my proximity to that battery, no staff officer could have entered it without my seeing him. It seems not a little strange that General Harris could have supposed such orders could be properly given without my knowledge, and without passing through me. He further says, “it was a glorious struggle; Louisiana represented by the noble artillerists, and Mississippi by her shattered bands, stood side by side together, holding the last regularly fortified line around Petersburg.” No reference to any other command but his own brigade and the artillery, and “holding the last regularly fortified line around Petersburg.” The line he held was an unfinished line, and was not the last, for he fell back from it to the main Petersburg lines, near a mile in the rear. I have previously expressed an opinion of General Walker’s letter; it is certainly the most remarkable of any to be found in all the Battery Gregg literature. One more quotation will be made from it. “The message to General Harris was delivered and he accepted the suggestion.” This was for him to retire from Whitworth, but the order never reached Gregg, hence the sacrifice of its gallant defenders. General Walker certainly claims to have been in command. In his letter he does not refer to his most important order, the one to General Harris to withdraw the artillery.

General Walker was not at Battery Gregg about sun up, when I took personal control and direction of the movements of the troops engaged. As soon as the different bodies-very small-of troops could be brought together they were ordered forward, as has already been stated, to recover the lines, and about one mile was regained. I did not see General Walker in this advance. If he was as conspicuous as his letter would make us believe, in the recovery of the artillery, I ought to have seen him. I do not say that he was not present; he may have been; but I do say, what all soldiers know to be true, that I being on the field, he could not have given the orders he claims to have given-his memory, like that of many others, is defective. And his ordering the four guns to be withdrawn from Whitworth, without either my knowledge or consent, was not only an unofficer like, but an unauthorized and thoughtless act, that no one could have believed possible in an officer of intelligence, who had near four years of active field service, and had been present and a participant in many great battles, and who was at the time chief of artillery of a corps of the army of Northern Virginia.

When the guns were withdrawn from Whitworth the huge forces of


the enemy were in the immediate front of our weak lines and in the act of advancing. The guns in these two batteries had the widest possible field of fire, they being in barrette; the mutual support and protection designed by the engineers for these two works to give the one to the other was thwarted at the critical moment by this chief of artillery. It was a well conceived and timely act of General Harris, setting fire to the log-cabin winter quarters of a brigade that covered the front of Whitworth; he thus held the enemy at bay, and during that time the four guns-had they remained-could have delivered a rapid fire of shrapnel and grape upon the flank of the enemy, scarcely four hundred yards distant. It is probable, had this been done, the enemy would have been repulsed, and although Gregg would have been finally captured, yet during the time of preparation for a renewal of the assault the little garrison might have been withdrawn. I was not without hopes, before the engagement had been joined that such would be the result. Knowing General Harris well and esteeming him very highly, I can say he would make no statement he did not believe to be true, and of the errors cited by myself, the most of them are trivial in kind and unimportant, and that they have evidently resulted from writing in haste is shown by the fact that they have been proven to be errors by referring to the very authorities cited by himself. In conclusion, the infantry in Battery Gregg was made up of detachments from Harris’s Mississippi brigade, Lane’s North Carolina brigade and Thomas’s Georgia brigade. There were more men from Harris’s than from Lane’s, and less from Thomas’s than from Lane’s. There were in it two pieces of artillery; I never heard until long subsequently from what State they came, and it was my impression there were a few artillerymen armed as infantry. The entire force at the time was believed by me to be about two hundred; it is very probable they were underestimated. Statements made by those in the battery at the time induce me to believe there must have been more than I supposed. Of the little force that defended it so bravely sixty-seven were killed.

C. M. WILCOX.

Washington, February 23, 1881.

  1. Wilcox, C. M. “Battery Gregg-Reply to General N. H. Harris.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 9, pp. 168-178

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