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.
The Fight at Fort Gilmer.1
BY DR. T. J. MAY, ENNIS, TEX.
In the June VETERAN, page 286, Gen George Reese, of Pensacola, Fla., gives an account of what he saw five Confederate soldiers do at Fort Gilmer, in front of Richmond, not Petersburg, as the heading of the article indicates. I was one of the five men he refers to and remember the circumstance Gen. Reese describes just as distinctly as if it had happened last week. This bloody little fight sounds so unreasonable that I would never have written an account of it had it not been first mentioned by one who witnessed the results and did not himself participate in it, but at the same time expressing a desire to know if any of the five men who defended Fort Gilmer were yet living. I do not remember the exact date, but it was in the spring of 18642. Hood’s Texas Brigade was stationed to the right of New Market Heights. The First Texas was on the left, in a creek bottom heavily timbered, the Fourth [Texas] next to the First, the Fifth [Texas] next, and the Third Arkansas on the right. The negroes charged our line before it was light enough for us to see them two hundred yards away. Just before daylight our pickets in front began to fire, and instantly our men were up and formed before the bugle could sound the assembly. Shortly our pickets bounded over the breastworks, shouting out: “Niggers, boys, niggers.” By the time the last ones got inside we could dimly see the first line approaching, through an old apple orchard in our front. “Make every shot count, boys,” was the order, and we did. The negroes made a dash for the timber in front of the First Texas. They were four lines deep when they made a rush for our works, and some of them got over. Word quickly passed up the line that the First Texas and the negroes were fighting it out in the ditch together. Without waiting for orders the Fourth dashed for that part of the line, and killed all the Negroes inside, except a few that were taken prisoners.
Just after sunrise a courier galloped up and informed Gen. Field that the Yankees had captured Fort Harrison, about three miles to our right and on the same line with us. This necessitated our withdrawal to an inner line, a half mile in our rear, and nearer Richmond. In falling back I became separated from my command, and reached the line near a little fort, unoccupied at the time, in which were two cannon. A comrade named Stewart was with me, and in a few minutes three other soldiers came in. If I remember correctly, two were North Carolinians and the other from Georgia. The negroes had followed us closely, and in a few minutes we saw their lines coming. I remarked that if we had any one who knew how to handle the cannon I thought we could stand them off for a time at least, whereupon the two “Tar Heels” said they knew how to serve the guns. There was plenty of ammunition, and at it we went, giving them first shell, and, as they came nearer, grapeshot and canister. They tried to break ranks several times and fall back, but their white officers behind them, slashing right and left with their swords, drove them on, until they got to our works and in the moat that surrounded the little fort.
We had abandoned the cannon and gone to our muskets just before they reached the ditch, and as soon as one would show his head above the works we would shoot him. They would lift each other up on their shoulders, but it was certain death when they showed their heads. After we had killed a number of them they appeared to get tired of that kind of exercise and gave us a breathing spell, when one of our artillery fellows found time to cut and light the fuse to a shell, which he threw over amongst them, it exploded, evidently doing much damage, for, after tossing over the second one, they yelled out that they would surrender. My recollection is that something like four hundred surrendered, but I do know that there were between forty and fifty killed in the moat, some by the shells, but most of them were shot in the bead. I desire to say to Comrade Reese that I am the one, of the five in the fort, who carried him up on the parapet and showed him the dead negroes in the moat beneath us. I remember the incident distinctly.3
- May, T. J. “The Fight at Fort Gilmer.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 12, Number 12, pp. 587-588 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: May is mistaken. The Battle of New Market Heights to which he is referring was fought on the morning of September 29, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I’m not entirely sure if May is describing the Battle of New Market Heights early in this article and then the fight for Fort Gilmer later. United States Colored Troops fought at both places. They carried the lines at New Market Heights, but failed to take Fort Gilmer. May seems to be mixing the two fights together in his mind many years later. ↩