Editor’s Note: Base transcription is from the CD-ROM version of The Confederate Veteran at Eastern Digital. Minor corrections were made by Brett Schulte.
Assault On Fort Gilmer.1
BY H. H. PERRY, ADJT. GEN. , SALUDA, N. C.
I’ve read the various accounts in the VETERAN of the fall of Fort Harrison and the assault on Fort Gilmer and the repulse of the Federals in their daring attempt. Fort Gilmer was on a different line of the defenses which enveloped the Confederate capital from that on which Fort Harrison was situated. As I now recollect, it was quite a formidable structure, with a large moat next the enemy, flanked by heavy earthworks, and perhaps three fourths of a mile nearer Richmond. Fort Harrison was on the outmost line, looking nearly, if not directly, south on a rise commanding a large area. It was an important defense in our system of defenses, but, as the sequel proved, was not fatal if lost. It lay southeast of the city on the east side of the James River, and I think was a kind of offset to Beast Butler Canal intended to cut off Drewry’s Bluff and the river obstructions.
There were many attacks on our line made by Grant’s enormous army, at which this writer, then the assistant adjutant general and inspector of Benning’s Brigade, was not present. However, it so happened that I know much about the capture of Fort Harrison and the fight and defense of Fort Gilmer. So intimately was I connected with these two events that each has left an indelible impression on my memory. They occurred on the same day.
Of the reports that the VETERAN gives, I am gratified to find that my own memory accords with that of Capt. Martin, of Company G, 17th Georgia Regiment, Benning’s Brigade. Though forty years intervene since last I inspected the incomparable old 17th Georgia (Benning’s regiment), he may remember the writer. What I record here is done in deference to the truths of Confederate history, which the VETERAN and all true soldiers of the Confederacy desire to establish before they forever pass away. Other comrades have written as they remember. So will I. If I differ at any point, it is an honest divergence of memory.
As Comrade Martin states the dates I agree with him. When we went to Chickamauga, he is correct. Our stay in East Tennessee is correct also, wintering as we did so fear fully at Morristown after Longstreet’s defeat at Knoxville. On the morning of the fall of Fort Harrison I was sent by our brigade commander down the breastworks toward that fort to ascertain where we were to be placed in the works. I got to the fort just about sunrise. I heard the firing behind me which was the attack on Gregg’s line that turned out to be a division, for the enemy had planned to take Fort Harrison by surprise. The strategem succeeded. If our brigade had not been hindered, it would have reached Fort Harrison in time to have met the enemy’s advance, which I will relate. When I reached Fort Henry, there were no soldiers there. The defense was eighteen raw young artillery men in charge of a sergeant. This officer told me that they had hardly drilled any at all and knew nothing of the fort. While I was dumfounded at this, imagine my consternation when one of them reported a column of the enemy advancing less than three hundred yards away. It was too true. Our brigade was out of sight, and not even a company of infantry at hand. I asked the sergeant, who seemed much confused, to load the guns and fire on them. After a little, one of the heavy guns was loaded. The enemy had gotten in two hundred yards. The sergeant aimed it himself at the center of the advancing line and pulled the lanyard. It raked it fear fully. The heavy grape tore through it, and it seemed to surprise and paralyse the enemy. All of them fell and lay flat on the ground. Our men left the fort in a hurry. I remounted my horse and also fled back to the brigade. Before we had gotten out of sight, the enemy had readied the fort and were sending bullets after us. I’ve never heard if the enemy lost any men from that one discharge of the siege gun, but none of us were hurt by bullets.
Fort Harrison having fallen, Benning’s Brigade was withdrawn from the outer line and put in the breastworks flanking Fort Gilmer along with the other troops also withdrawn. I remember how thin the lines were, but the men were veterans that could not well be demoralized. The change was rapidly made. It is my recollection that the 2d Georgia occupied the right flank on the works at the fort, two companies of the 17th [Georgia] on its right, and the 15th Georgia and 20th Georgia on the left breastworks. This brigade had been fearfully decimated. The fort faced to the east. Fort Harrison and its flanking works, as said, faced south. This second line of works, which we now occupied, ran toward Fort Harrison and bent westward within three or four hundred yards of Fort Harrison. I’ve never seen these works since, but time has hardly defaced them so much that even now their great scars on dear old Virginia’s soil might not be traced.
Fort Gilmer was about the center of our (Benning’s) Brigade. At least the brigade was disposed about it for its defense. Gregg’s men, I think, were nearer Fort Harrison. In front of Fort Gilmer there was a wide clearing containing some of the limbs and brush that had not been burned by the troops from time to time. But these were hardly an obstruction to advancing forces. About four hundred yards off was a woods in which the enemy formed directly facing Fort Gilmer. I have no memory of any cornfields mentioned by Capt. Martin, though there might have been one. If so, it was unimportant, as it did not at any time prevent a full view of the enemy after advancing from the woods to the attack. From the fort to the woods was almost a dead level. Being on the staff, I helped place the troops. Some of them were inside the fort. I was inside the fort until the enemy’s forces were driven back or captured. My remembrance is that only three pieces of artillery were on the works, ran up into the fort that morning, and manned by the men of the battery. I’ve forgotten what battery it was. They were splendid, brass Napoleons, and were superbly served. For short range, they were the best guns in our service. A charge of grape from one of these twelve pounders fired point blank at a range of two hundred and fifty yards would at times make a whole regiment quail. Three of them, worked as they were, had the enemy’s line in this attack utterly demoralized, notwithstanding the brute courage of drunkenness. It required a rear line of whites to force the negroes forward.
About ten o’clock we saw the first evidence of an advance. A group of officers appeared on horse back just at the edge of the woods, but plainly to be seen. They seemed to be reconnoitering the ground. One of the gunners said he could scatter the bunch, and aimed a shrapnel at it. After aiming it, he stood directly behind the piece to watch the shot. For the first time in my life I learned that by standing behind the piece the shot could be seen in its flight. I was standing near, and he beckoned me to come and watch it. The ball rose high in the air, making the parabola, and then descended quickly over the group. It grew to a speck as it descended, and in about five seconds exploded over the mounted party. They scattered and disappeared in the woods. It was a very close shot. In a few minutes a regiment of soldiers came out of the woods in line of battle. At once our guns were loaded with shrapnel and sighted. While the enemy paused to reform and rectify the attacking column, our artillery opened. The very first shot struck the ground in front of the colors and exploded in a cloud of smoke and dust. The other shots followed, bursting just above the line, creating the greatest confusion.
It was some time before the line could be re-formed. The guns gave it no rest. Then supporting lines came forward, and the column started briskly for the fort. The enemy used no artillery, and the advancing infantry had no time to fire as they made straight for us in the face of the guns. There were three lines in column of regiments, as well as I remember, that made up the attacking force, a negro regiment in the lead. The shots from the artillery broke through the lines often, and so demoralized the front line that it was hard for the half drunken officers to force them forward. It became almost a panic when our guns substituted grape and canister for the shrapnel, and the infantry also in the breast works began a deadly rain of bullets. By dint of using bayonets of file closers the negroes were forced forward, but at almost every step the lines were thinned. What were left of the front line finally broke into a run for the fort, and some hundred or more got into the moat. None attempted to mount the wall of the fort that I saw. What became of the white regiments that started with the negroes, no one in the excitement of the fight saw. As the shot raked and tore through the whole attacking column, it is quite certain the rear regiments broke and fled, leaving the blacks finally to do the storming.
Those huddled up in the moat were ordered to surrender, but, not responding, some of the artillerymen cut the fuses short of a few shrapnel shells, lighted them, and tossed them into the big ditch. In a few seconds the explosions followed, and a fearful howl came up. These missiles killed or wounded a great many of the poor negroes How many were taken out, I do not remember. I don’t think any of the wounded were butchered or any of the negro prisoners were harmed after surrendering.
Among the prisoners brought into the fort was a Federal white lieutenant. He was an officer of the negro regiment and had a leg badly broken. He was stupidly drunk and cursed us roundly. No one got angry with him, but our Confederate soldiers guyed him into great fury. One of them took his canteen half full of rotgut whisky and poured it out. He seemed to regret the loss of the whisky more than his defeat.
This is what I remember of the attack on Fort Gilmer and the loss of Fort Harrison. I am as sure of my recollection of the attack made on the almost empty Fort Harrison as I am of my existence. I was sent forward by our brigade commander to be sure of the place we were to occupy, and ran almost into the lines of the enemy. I begged the artillery men to load and fire the cannon to give notice to our troops to hurry. I thought it would check the enemy, who seemed to have learned (from spies, perhaps) that no troops were in the fort. When I saw the first line approaching, it seemed to be about a full brigade marching in double ranks line of battle and about two hundred and seventy five yards from the fort. I shall never forget my consternation, for it rushed over me instantly that we had no troops between the advancing enemy and Richmond, and it would be taken. I rushed back to relate the fall of the fort and turn our troops across for the other line. A bold enemy would have pushed the advantage and rushed in behind Gilmer, cutting off our brigades east of Fort Harrison and severing Gen. Lee from Hood’s Division and other troops east of the river. As it happened, it proved an advantage, for it shortened our lines very much.
The next day after this attack on Fort Gilmer, late in the afternoon, an attempt was made to retake Fort Harrison, but it signally failed. The saying, “Dar, now, da’ done kill’d Corp’l Dick,” originated at Fort Gilmer after the explosion of the bombs thrown in the moat. He must have been an important person with the new negro recruits. I did not hear it, but the brigade was laughing over the expression next day, and it became a byword in the army. I guess Capt. Martin remembers this and that we met negroes here for the first time.
A few days after this memorable event rather events I was ordered by the War Department to report to Gen. G. M[oxley]. Sorrel, lately commissioned brigadier general and assigned to Wright’s Georgia Brigade to be its assistant adjutant general, stationed at Petersburg. There I remained until Appomattox, and saw our old brigade no more.
- Perry, H. H. “Assault On Fort Gilmer.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 9, pp. 413-415 ↩