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.
Texas and Arkansas at Fort Harrison.1
BY A[LEXANDER]. C. JONES, THREE CREEKS, ARK.
In order to an intelligent understanding of the events which I shall endeavor to describe, I will first make a brief statement of the military status. Fort Harrison was situated at the extreme southern limit of the main line of fortifications around Richmond. It had a commanding position upon a broad plateau at an angle of the works where they turned squarely west to Chaffin’s Bluff, on the James River. From the fort the intrenchments ran north three-fourths of a mile, then turned west again for some distance ; at this angle was located another large redoubt, called Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer]. Besides this main line, there was another shallow, straggling ditch running due east from Fort Harrison two or three miles in length and intended only for temporary defense. The only troops upon these lines at the time of which I speak was a battalion occupying Fort Harrison, about four hundred Georgians, the remnant of Benning’s old brigade, scattered along between the forts, and about one mile east on the shallow trench alluded to was Hood’s old Texas Brigade, reduced to about five hundred men and then under the command of General [John] Gregg, of Texas, who was also in command of all the troops on the lines. This brigade was composed of the 1st [Texas], 4th [Texas], 5th Texas, and 3d Arkansas Regiments. Of the latter I, as senior captain, was in command.
General Grant’s entire army was on the south side of the James River investing Petersburg, his left wing, under Butler, resting on “Deep Bottom,” not more than three or four miles from Fort Harrison, with a dense forest intervening to mask any sudden movement.
We had occupied this position about two weeks and were growing somewhat wearied with the monotony of idleness, when one morning about daylight the pickets were driven in; and we had scarcely time to seize our arms and take position in the trenches when we were suddenly charged by a large body of negro troops led by white officers. These fellows seemed to follow their leaders blindly and rushed up to the very muzzles of our guns. The struggle, however, lasted only a few minutes, when, being apparently seized with a sudden panic, the negroes broke and scattered to the winds, leaving in our hands a few prisoners and a large number of dead and wounded on the ground, while we had not lost a man.2 Scarcely was this accomplished when a swift messenger informed us that Fort Harrison, one mile away, was in danger ; and we were hurried down the line in that direction, not knowing that it was already captured. As we approached the summit of the plateau we came suddenly upon a large force of the enemy coming down upon us in line of battle, marching at right angles to the works and reaching far out into the fields to our right, thus cutting us off from our destination. For a moment it seemed that we were completely entrapped and that escape was impossible. It would have been folly to attack so large a force, perhaps a whole division, and, besides, we were marching by the flank and considerably strung out.
But the Texans were not easily caught, and two circumstances were in our favor. Part of the enemy’s line was obscured by the brow of the hill, and it took some moments for them to get into position ; and to our right and rear was a dense thicket of old field pines, offering an admirable cover, and to this we went without considering the order of our going. Then at a dead run for over a mile we passed completely around the Federal left and rear and took position on the main line, which they had occupied a few minutes before. In looking back upon that occasion I have always thought this escape of the Texans from so critical a situation to be one of the neatest and most successful maneuvers witnessed during the war. Its result was certainly momentous, for when we reached our position in the works and were joined by the four hundred Georgians we were the only troops between the enemy and Richmond.
On their part, when they discovered that we had given them the slip, they reversed their march and charged across the open fields, but were easily repulsed. For four or five hours the enemy made repeated demonstrations ; but General Gregg handled his little force with great skill and effect, and they were repelled at every point.
But our troubles were not over. About two o’clock in the afternoon it was ascertained that the enemy had made a flank movement on our left and, concealing their march by the broken nature of the ground, had approached near to and were about to attack Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer], half a mile to our left. General Gregg, acting as his own courier, came down the line at full speed and, striking the 3d Arkansas, first ordered us to double-quick. Now, we had supposed that our powers of physical endurance had already reached their limit, yet I venture to say that we made that half mile in about as short time as men ever passed over the same distance. Panting for breath, we took position in the intrenchments on the left of the fort, which was occupied by about fifty Georgians. We were just in time. As we came up the enemy made his appearance over the brow of a hill two hundred yards distant. There must have been a full brigade, probably fifteen hundred or two thousand men. In two lines they came, sweeping down upon us. I am a poor hand to describe a battle and shall say nothing about the “clash of arms,” the “rattle of musketry,” or the “roar of artillery,” for we had none of the latter; but that those Arkansas men did good shooting you may well believe, and with every shot there went up a Confederate yell to emphasize their aim. No doubt those Yankees thought as they came down the slope that they were facing thousands instead of about one hundred Arkansas ragamuffins. Our fire was deadly, and many of them fell; but on they came. At about twenty-five paces I emptied a navy revolver from my left hand, my right arm being disabled by a wound. At about ten paces two of their color bearers went down, and then the line broke and dissolved; and for a while the field seemed full of the bluecoats running for life, followed by the parting shots and exultant shouts of our men. General Gregg, who had witnessed it all, called out, “Well done for Arkansas,” and added: “Now, boys, you may rest, for General Law is coming.” Across the field in the rear we could see clouds of dust and the head of General Law’s column moving at a double-quick, and we could just hear the faint sounds of their encouraging yells as they hurried to our aid, the first installment of reinforcements, which made all things safe.
I must not forget to state that while we were fighting whites on the left of the fort it was charged in front by a heavy force of negroes.3 They filled the large ditch which surrounded the earthworks and made desperate efforts to climb the embankment, but the Georgians were equal to the emergency and beat them back at every point. There happened “to be a pile of large shells lying near a dismounted siege gun, and fire was set to a fuse and one of them thrown over into the ditch, exploding with terrific effect. This settled it; the poor negroes begged for mercy, and we took out of that ditch nearly two hundred of them, many of them wounded.
And so the day was ended, and we had held the lines — one thousand men against an entire corps of the enemy, not less than twenty thousand strong. And Richmond was saved, for there is not a doubt of the fact that if we had been overcome and the lines broken the Federals would have had an unobstructed march to Richmond, and that city would have fallen more than a year before that event actually occurred.
Before closing this very imperfect sketch, I wish to add a word about the Texas soldiers. Our association with them in brigade was in the highest degree harmonious and agreeable. Personally, I found many pleasant acquaintances, in some cases approaching near to warm friendship. They were a noble body of men. I suppose that not many of them are left. Colonel Work has long since passed away, and so has Colonel Winkler, one of the truest gentlemen and bravest men I ever know; but his noble wife, beloved and honored as the historian of the brigade, survives, as does also Major Polley, the author of those inimitable papers published in the Veteran some years ago. And Captain Branard, as I remember him, one of the finest specimens of physical manhood I have ever seen and every inch of him as true as steel.
Soldiers and comrades of the old Texas Brigade. I dedicate this little sketch to you, and I greet you, one and all.
- Jones, A. C. “Texas and Arkansas at Fort Harrison.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 25, Number 1, pp. 24-25 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Jones is referring to the Battle of New Market Heights, fought on the morning of September 29, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was probably the charge of the 5thUSCT, but might be referring to a later charge by William Birney’s Colored Brigade. ↩