SHS Papers: Volume 9: The Defence of Battery Gregg-General Lane’s Reply to General Harris by James H. Lane

   

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in Petersburg Campaign

The Defence of Battery Gregg-General Lane’s Reply to General Harris.1

During the war I had no newspaper correspondent at my headquarters, nor did I write anything about my brigade for publication. Since I have “put aside the harness of war and become a quiet and plodding citizen” I have, by request and “for the sake of truth and justice,” written a few articles, in which I endeavored to give only such facts as came under my own observation. Now, unasked, I must again obtrude myself “most reluctantly upon the public,” as General Harris, in the last No., 1880, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, does my old brigade and myself great injustice.

General Harris charges me with having “remained utterly silent” for “fifteen years” before coming forward to claim “all the honors” of the defense of Fort Gregg for my brigade of North Carolinians, to the exclusion of his “Mississippians and the gallant Louisiana artillerists.” The fact are these: I, as early as the 10th day of April, 1865, at Appomattox Court-house, in my last official report, stated that a part of my command “retreated to Battery Gregg, which was subsequently


attacked by an immense force, and fell after the most gallant and desperate defence.” On the 20th May, 1867, I furnished information about my command to General Lee, at his request, through General Wilcox, and called attention to the fact that “Harris’s brigade had been given in print all the credit of that gallant affair, when the honor really belonged to my brigade, Chew’s battery, and Walker’s supernumerary artillerists, and not to Harris’s brigade”-not meaning, of course, that none of Harris’s brigade were in the fort, as a copy of Lieutenant Snow’s letter accompanied my statement. I afterwards wrote direct to General Lee, enclosed a copy of my last official report and copies of the letters of Lieutenants Snow, Craige, Howard and Rigler (in all of which it is admitted that some of Harris’s brigade took part in the defence), and called his attention to the injustice that had been done my command in the articles that had been published. General Lee acknowledged the receipt of my letter with enclosures, and thanked me specially for the copy of my report. Again, on the 19th September, 1867, in an article which appeared in the Richmond Dispatch and Petersburg Index in response to a piece claiming that “the infantry garrison of Fort Gregg was composed entirely of the Mississippi brigade of Harris, Mahone’s division,” I made the same statement that I did to Generals Lee and Wilcox. Lastly, in the January No., 1877, of the Southern Historical Society Papers I reiterate my statement, and give copies of the letters of Lieutenants Snow, Craige, Howard and Rigler-all gallant and meritorious young officers. From this it will be readily seen that I did not wait fifteen years in utter silence, and that I and my Lieutenants do not claim for our brigade “all the honors” of the defense of Fort Gregg. So far from it, we admit that Chew’s battery, Walker’s supernumerary artillerists, some of Harris’s brigade, of Mahone’s division, and some of Thomas’s brigade were in Fort Gregg, and cheerfully accord to all credit for having behaved most gallantly. We deny that ‘the infantry garrison of Fort Gregg was composed entirely of the Mississippi brigade of Mahone’s division.” We deny that the honors of that defence belong exclusively to that brigade of Mahone’s division. We claim that the largest part of the infantry which so heroically defended that fort was from our brigade of North Carolinians.

General Wilcox, to whom General Lee ordered General Harris to report on that occasion, says that the infantry force in Fort Gregg was “composed of detachments from Thomas’s, Lane’s and Harris’s brigades; the number from Thomas’s brigade, as now remembered, being


less than that from either of the other two. The most of Harris’s brigade was sent to Battery Whitworth.

I have recently seen General Thomas, who says that some of his men were in Fort Gregg, including his Adjutant-General, Captain Norwood, and he authorizes me to state that Harris’s brigade of Mahone’s division has no right to the exclusive or chief honors of the defense of that fort.

Were it necessary, I could furnish letters upon this subject from Captain E. J. Hale, Jr., and Lieutenant E. B. Meade of my staff, Major Thomas J. Wooten, of the Eighteenth North Carolina, Lieutenant Thomas M. Wiggins, of the Thirty-seventh, and others.

When I made my last official report at Appomattox Court-house, in obedience to General Lee’s order, I made no allusion whatever to any other command in Fort Gregg; but after stating that a part of my brigade retreated to that fort, I spoke of the gallant defence in general terms. I expected Generals Harris, Thomas and Walker to do the same, and that as we had all done our best for our lost but just cause, we, as old comrades in arms, would, in after years, brag together, as we had fought together, and not quarrel about relative numbers. Had it not been repeatedly stated that “the infantry garrison of Fort Gregg was composed entirely of the Mississippi brigade of Harris, Mahone’s division,” and had not “all the honors” of the defence of that fort been repeatedly claimed for that brigade of Mahone’s division, I would have remained silent, and would not claim now, as I justly do, that the largest part of that “infantry garrison” was composed of brave North Carolinians.

As my winter quarters were a short distance in front of Fort Gregg, and I rode by that fort almost daily, I think I have the right to claim some knowledge of the positions of the detached forts, the interior and exterior lines, the dams, ponds, winter quarters, &c., in that locality.

When my line was broken, on the morning of the 2nd April, I sent Lieutenant Snow, as my staff were absent on duty, to division headquarters, to let General Wilcox know of the disaster, and to inform him that I was gradually falling back. I was opposed to a forward movement, and wanted to abandon the detached forts and fall back at once to the interior lines, because I knew, from personal observation, that the works, where my line had been broken, were held by an overwhelming force. I so informed General Wilcox on his arrival at Fort Gregg. He, however, ordered Thomas and myself forward, with instructions to me to occupy Fort Gregg, when I was forced to retire. I


formed immediately in front of Fort Gregg, and Thomas formed on my left. We drove the enemy beyond the branch, near the house occupied by Mrs. Banks. Harris’s brigade came up afterwards on my right. When the enemy developed his two long, compact lines of battle, and a heavy line of skirmishers, and commenced advancing, I withdrew, and sent an officer at once to Fort Gregg with instructions to let a sufficient number of my men enter the fort to man it, and to order the others to the “Dam” between Fort Gregg and Battery 45.

General Thomas authorizes me to state that he advanced with me; that he was on my left next to the outer line of works; that he witnessed no such fighting by General R. Lindsay Walker and his artillerists as that mentioned in General Walker’s letter to General Harris, and that Harris’s brigade, of Mahone’s division, was subsequently on our right.

General Wilcox in his article says: “The enemy were seen along our captured lines and on the Plan road. Lane’s and Thomas’s men were reformed-in all about six hundred-moved forward in good spirits, and recaptured the lines to the vicinity of Boisseau’s house, together with the artillery in the different batteries along it. This was reported to General Lee.” He further states that Harris’s brigade, of Mahone’s division, was afterwards ‘ordered forward a little beyond the Bank’s house, with orders not to become engaged with the enemy’s line of battle.* * * * * The fragments of Thomas’s and Lane’s brigades were withdrawn. * * * * The lines of battle of the enemy, imposing from their number and strength, advanced. Slowly, but steadily, our artillery-that in rear of Harris’s brigade was withdrawn, and the brigade, after a slight skirmish, retired.'”

And yet General Harris insists that “there were no troops to his right or left.” And, what is still more remarkable, General R. Lindsay Walker in his letter to General Harris, after he had been to see General Mahone, and had read General Mahone’s letter, to General Harris, claims that he and his artillerists did all the fighting that was done by Thomas’s brigade and mine; and he “does not hesitate to say, that the only assistance he received from any source whatever, was from the gallant Mississippi brigade, under General N. H. Harris,” of Mahone’s division. I wonder if General Walker remembers the conversation which he and I had at Fort Gregg!

It will be seen from this that I withdrew and started for Fort Gregg, in obedience to positive orders, before Harris’s brigade, of Mahone’s division, had its “slight skirmish and retired,” and that I was nearer to Fort Gregg than either Harris or Thomas. Who then was most


likely to reach Fort Gregg first, the ground between my command and the fort being perfectly clear?

When General Wilcox came to Fort Gregg, after I had occupied it with my men, I told him what I had done, and he approved of it in the presence of my staff. I then had the fort supplied with cartridges in obedience to General Wilcox’s orders. Though the greater part of my brigade was at the “Dam” I did not feel that I had the right to join it without special permission, as I had been ordered to Fort Gregg against my wishes and judgment. After General Wilcox left I held a consultation with my Adjutant-General and Aid, and as we were unanimous in not wishing to remain in the fort I determined to ask permission to leave, and was about to send to General Wilcox when he visited the fort again, on foot, and for the last time. We were then lying against the end of the earth-work, Petersburg side, outside of the palisade. I assigned as my reasons for wanting to leave that I did not wish to be killed or captured in the fort, which would certainly be the case if I remained, and that I thought the proper place for me was at the “Dam” with the larger part of my brigade. Permission was granted, and General Wilcox left without going into the fort. I then sent Captain Hale into the fort to count the men of my command, but he soon returned and informed me that as the different commands were so mixed up he could not execute my order without calling my men from the banquette, which would endanger too many valuable lives. While inside of the palisade, and two of the gallant artillerists shot down in quick succession while attempting to fire one of the two pieces.

Before I left, I saw the artillery withdrawn from the fort in rear of and above Fort Gregg, called by some, Whitworth, and others, Anderson. It was this that caused me to state in my letter to General Wilcox, that Harris’s brigade abandoned that fort before Fort Gregg,was attacked in force.

After putting Lieutenant Snow in command of that part of my brigade which was in Fort Gregg, Captain Hale and Lieutenant Meade, of my staff, Lieutenant Thomas M. Wiggins, of the Thirty-seventh North Carolina, and, I started for the “Dam” at a dignified quick-step, but the enemy’s infantry fire soon made us double-quick, and then forced us to run. We reached the “Dam” in safety, but were driven to the interior line, as stated in my official report.

From the night of April 1st, to the evacuation of Petersburg, I was in a position to know something about the fighting on that part of the


line, and I am satisfied that had General Lee lived to complete his work, he would have done justice to every brigade in Mahone’s division, and would not have given to Harris’s brigade either the exclusive or chief honor in the defense of Fort Gregg.

My North Carolina brigade, of its own accord, petitioned that I, a Virginian, should be promoted and assigned as its brigade commander, and I would now be false to is heroic dead, as well as to the survivors, were I to withhold facts, when such attempts are made by other commands to appropriate the honors to which it is justly entitled.

JAMES H. LANE.

Source:

  1. Lane, J.H. “The Defence of Battery Gregg-General Lane’s Reply to General Harris.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 9, pp. 102-107

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