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.
That Fort Gilmer Fight.1
I am surprised that so few important facts have been brought out concerning the fight at Fort Gilmer through the letters by Gen. Reese, of Florida, and Dr. May, of Texas, in their accounts of the battle as published in the VETERAN.
The battle was not fought early in the spring of 1864, for Field’s entire division had gone early in the spring of 1864 from East Tennessee to meet Grant’s army at the Wilderness, which battle was fought on May 5 and 6, 1864, and the division was in front of the Federal army closing in around Petersburg and Richmond. On the occasion referred to Gen. Field, with a small portion of his division— the Texas Brigade, Benning’s Brigade, and a small detachment of Virginia militia—held the outer line of our works, nine or ten miles from Richmond on the north side of James River. The other brigades of his division, Perry’s (formerly McLaw’s [sic, Law’s]), Bratton’s (formerly Jenkins’s), and Anderson’s, were south of the river near Petersburg.
On the night preceding the Fort Gilmer fight [September 28, 1864] we could distinctly hear the Federals crossing the James River to the north side, and we knew it meant warm work for Gen. Field’s small command the next day. At daylight [September 29, 1864], sure enough, we heard firing in front of the Texas Brigade on our left [at New Market Heights], we also heard it on our right and very much in our rear [at Fort Harrison]. We were hurried to the right to hold, if possible, Fort Harrison, but when we reached the fort, it was already in the possession of the Federals. The head of my regiment, the 20th Georgia, went square against the head of a Federal column, the earthworks hiding each other from view, until we found ourselves in a few steps of a large force of the enemy. Thirty seven of the regiment, constituting a large part of the front of it, surrendered. Most of it escaped by retreating the way they came. A few attempted to gain the next line of works, a few hundred yards to our rear, by retreating across the hill. Many of these were shot down, among the number James Huguley, orderly sergeant of Company B, a gallant soldier and a splendid man.
An attempt to recapture Fort Harrison was made a few days later [sic, one day later on September 30, 1864], Colquitt’s and Anderson’s Brigades, with some other troops, forming the attacking force. The attack failed. Gen. Lee viewed the assault with glasses in hand from Fort Gilmer. I was standing in a few feet of him as he witnessed the vain effort to retake the fort.
When our forces left the exterior line on which Fort Harrison was located, they fell back to the next line of works. The Federals, flushed with success, rushed on to a little fort on that line, which was afterwards called Fort Field, but they were repulsed, and probably a hundred surrendered to the force in the fort, which was composed of men from various regiments, as there had been no time for reorganization after their dispersion from the outer works. These events all occurred in the early part of the day. The Federals made no further effort to advance until the middle of the afternoon. Our men had all returned to their commands. The 20th Georgia was quietly occupying the line of works extending north from Fort Gilmer, its right wing reaching nearly to the fort. We were flanked on each side by other regiments of the brigade. It numbered at that time not more than six or seven hundred muskets.
All at once from the northeast came a brigade of the enemy. They paid no attention to us who opened fire upon their left flank, but rushed toward Fort Gilmer. Our fire was too hot for them. They broke ranks and scattered when in about one hundred and fifty yards of the fort. Another brigade look its place, came over the same ground, but got no nearer than seventy five yards of the fort, when it too was fired into from the front, and both flanks broke into a retreat.
We knew our force was small, consisting of only two small brigades, and had the command been assailed in almost any other way, our defeat would have been inevitable. At this juncture how great was our delight as we saw Law’s (now Perry’s) Brigade running to our relief! They filed into our works in and around the fort. Soon a third brigade of the enemy appeared in sight. It was composed of negroes officered by white men. Though for a hundred or more yards their flank was within a few steps of our line, and we poured volley after volley into their solid lines, many of them dashed on and disappeared in the moat, eight or ten feet deep, which was around the fort, leaving the ground behind them strewn with their dead and wounded. I do not think a gun was fired by the assaulting column. For a while there was no firing. Soon the men in the ditch began to lift one another up to the parapet of the fort, but those in the fort stood at a ready, and not a head appeared but that it was quickly perforated with one or more balls. Then the cannoneers in the fort began to throw shells with short fuses lighted into the solid ranks of the dusky warriors in the ditch. A few explosions were sufficient to draw forth a cry of surrender. Seventy five or a hundred marched out of the ditch unarmed into our lines. The coast being clear, many of our men rushed out in front, where the wounded and dead of the enemy lay thick. As is frequently the case, many lying on the ground were unhurt, and, seeing our men approaching, made a dash to escape, but of the many who attempted it we saw only two or three who succeeded.
Now the above is a description of the fight at Fort Gilmer as it was. I was sergeant major of the 20th Georgia Infantry and was there and saw what I have written. A day or two after the battle we received orders to leave, but before doing so to bury the dead, composed almost entirely of negroes. Before leaving Gen. Benning was asked if an old well near by could be used as a receptacle for the dead negroes. He replied that his orders were to have the dead buried, and he would leave the men detailed for that purpose to do as they pleased, thereupon thirty six negroes were thrown into the old well, and over them two or three feet of dirt was thrown, which filled the well up on a level with the surface.
The negroes we captured expressed surprise when they came into our lines that they were not in Richmond. They said their officers had told them that if they went over our lines they would be in the city. Doubtless visions of loot, rapine, and murder were as strongly impressed on their minds when they charged as it ever was in the minds of the mercenary hirelings that followed Sherman in his brutal march to the sea.
- Granberry, J. A. H. “That Fort Gilmer Fight.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 9, p. 413 ↩