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.
Story of a Boy Captain.1
BY G[EORGE]. W[ILLIAM]. BRECKINRIDGE [2nd Battalion Virginia Reserves], FINCASTLE, VA.
Comrades Reese, of Florida, May, of Texas, and Martin, of Georgia, have given the readers of the VETERAN interesting accounts of the battle of Fort Gilmer. In most things they agree, on some material points they differ. It may be that a brief account of what I saw on that memorable twenty ninth day of September, 1864, will throw some light on the disputed questions, as I was close to the three writers most of the day and had my company in Fort Gilmer when it was assaulted by the enemy. I was captain of Company E, 2d Battalion Virginia Reserves (so called because they were always in front), the youngest of a company of boys between the ages of seventeen and eighteen, the battalion erroneously referred to by Comrade Martin as “The City Battalion.”
The morning of the above date found us stationed something less than a mile east of Fort Harrison and on the same line of fortifications. Like Comrade Martin, I had spent the night of the 27th on Signal Hill, a few miles in front of Fort Harrison, digging intrenchments, having a detail of ninety men from our battalion. Early on the morning of the 29th we heard fighting on our left, and just as we were ready to cook our mutton chops and waffles a courier came dashing down the line his horse kicking our fire in our faces and ordered us to double quick to Fort Harrison. Leaving breakfast and everything else we had, we seized our arms, “fell in,” and started down the line at a lively trot. For some reason, probably a better speedway, we took a road in front of our works. As we came in sight of Fort Harrison and filed right to reach the line of fortifications, I had to stop for a moment to gaze spellbound on the grandest spectacle I had ever imagined. The mile or more of open country in front of the fort was blue with Yankees advancing in column. The big guns of the fort were belching forth their fires of shot and shell. Puffs of white smoke from the muskets, the steady dress parade step of twenty thousand Yankees as they marched up “e’en in the cannon’s mouth” –my! what a sight it was!
We were halted a hundred yards or so short of the fort and went to work with our muskets. In a short while, though, the enemy had the fort and opened an enfilading fire down our line. Our men began breaking at the fort, the break continuing along the line till it reached us. I will never forget how old Capt. Winston, of our battalion, strove to hold his Goochland company to their work. When all on their right had stampeded, the Goochland men started at a run too. The gallant old Captain rushed to the front of them, crying at the top of his voice, “Rally around me, men, rally around me,” at the same time starting back toward the breastworks, but the tide of retreat had set in, and it bore the Captain and his company away with it. My company was next. All on my right had gone. I cast a hasty glance to our left. All gone. For at least a half minute gallant Company E held that line of works against Grant’s whole army. In another minute we would have all been killed or captured. Feeling that there was yet work for us to do for the Confederacy, we concluded to go, “and we stood not upon the order of our going, but went at once.” Having made about sixty or seventy five paces, I turned to take a last look at Fort Harrison. As I did so a Yankee sharpshooter jumped on the breastworks we had just left and looked at me as who should say: “Is I got you?” I never once thought of the big six shooter I had at my side, but with a look of defiance at the murderous Yankee I turned and started in rapid but dignified pursuit of my company. His bullet whizzed by my left ear and cut up the dust fifteen paces in front of me. After a jog of something like a mile, with flying colors, we entered Fort Gilmer amid such a screaming and bursting of shells as I have never heard. Just then Col. Guy, who commanded our battalion, turned to have a look at his men. “Well, Captain,” he said to me, looking rather sorrowfully at my little bunch of twelve or fifteen boys, “you seem to be about all I have left.” Capt. Winston’s company had borne him to some other part of the line, and so it was with the other four companies of the 2d Battalion. It was a complete rout.
The famous individuality of the Confederate soldier never showed up better. Without orders or organization, as far as I could see, this routed army fell back to another line of works and held it against odds of ten to one.
Company E took position in the extreme left wing of the fort, and went to loading and firing right away, for the Yankees were close behind us. We were so preoccupied with the several assaults made on our side by the white troops that I knew nothing about the negroes till I saw three of them jump from the moat and make a break for liberty. Two of them fell almost instantly, the third, a big copper colored nigger, with a thousand bullets— two from my own pistol—whizzing after him, made his escape. What a sprinter he was! How the cornstalks rattled as he sped through that field!
As soon as the smoke cleared away in our front I went around to see what Comrade May and his friends had been doing. I was just behind the big stationary gun when it was fired, I think, the last time that day. I don’t expect to live long enough to forget the jar it gave me. It may have been Comrade May with whom I got into conversation, for he told me about the fight with the negroes early in the morning on our right, where they had it hand to hand with them, sticking them with their bayonets, etc. He then gave me an account of the fight just ended, how the negroes had tried to push each other over the parapet, how the musket ball would meet each nappy head as it appeared over the wall, how when one of them fell with a little hole in his forehead they heard a shout of despair: “Dar God! done killed Corporal Dick, bess officer we had.”
About two hundred negroes were brought up from the moat. I went down at once to have a look at baldheaded Dick and the other forty odd dead lying in the trench, some torn to pieces by the hand grenades, but a number of them with the hole in the forehead. I was standing looking wistfully at a brass medallion attached to Corporal Dick’s cartridge box belt when an old soldier, reading my mind and sizing me up as a tenderfoot, said: “You want that thing?” I nodded, and he stooped down and jerked it off and handed it to me. I wouldn’t have touched the dead nigger for a gold medallion set with diamonds.
I have lately talked with some half dozen of the boys who were with me in Fort Gilmer. None of them can recall any other body of troops inside of the fort, nor can I remember more than the few men whom I met and talked with there at the big gun. But it is nearly forty one years ago, and, while my memory is clear as to the incidents I have related and many others in which I took part, I would not undertake to say positively that there were no other, troops in Fort Gilmer than my own company and the five men spoken of by Comrades Reese and May. My best impression, though, is that Comrade May will have to divide the honor of holding Fort Gilmer on the 29th of September, 1864, with bloody Company E alone, and Company E had no hand in repulsing the attack of the negro soldiers.
I remember distinctly that one of our gunners was killed by a sharpshooter after the fight was over—shot in the head too—and probably another was wounded before one of our men located the gentlemen behind a stump in the cornfield and gave him a dose of his own medicine. Does Comrade May remember this? Comrade Martin, from his account, must have been within a few paces of my company when we were receiving the assaults of the white troops. I came very near shooting at some of his men who made a dash across the fields before the retreating Yankees were out of sight. I thought they were deserting, but they were only going out to get a pair of shoes or trousers or something of that sort left on the field by the Yankees. How it shocked my youthful sensibilities to see a dead man’s wearing apparel jerked off of him before he was cold!
Though seldom and rather slightingly referred to by historians, as far as my knowledge goes, this was surely one of the most important of the many battles around Richmond, for had the white troops fought with the intrepidity of the negroes (had they been as well loaded with whisky and gun powder) Fort Gilmer would have fallen and Grant would have dined in Richmond that day.
- Breckenridge, G. W. “Story of a Boy Captain.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 9, pp. 415-416 ↩