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 Assault Upon Fort Gilmer.1
BY JUDGE [JOHN H.] MARTIN, HAWKINSVILLE, GA., CAPTAIN COMPANY C2, 17TH GEORGIA INFANTRY.
I noticed the article of Gen. Reese’s, of Pensacola, Fla., in the VETERAN of June, 1904, in reference to the fight at Fort Gilmer, and awaited with interest some reply thereto. In the VETERAN of December, 1904, Dr. T. J. May, of Ennis, Tex., writes of the same fight. . . . I feel called upon, for the accuracy of historical events, to correct the errors of my esteemed comrades, and I do so with the kindliest of feelings, realizing that after the lapse of so many years we all make mistakes in our recollections.
On the morning that Fort Harrison was attacked the troops on the north side of the James River consisted of the following commands, beginning on our left: A body of cavalry, which, I think, was commanded by Gen. [Martin W.] Gary, of South Carolina, then that grand old “Texas Brigade,” composed of the 1st [Texas], 4th [Texas], and 5th Texas and the 3d Arkansas Regiments , next came Benning’s Georgia Brigade, consisting of the 2d [Georgia], 15th [Georgia], 17th [Georgia], and 20th Georgia Regiments, then a battalion known as the City Battalion from Richmond, Va., composed of old men and boys3, and in Fort Harrison there was a fragmentary detachment of either Tennesseeans or Kentuckians, but I think they were Kentuckians4, and a few artillerymen in charge of the stationary batteries.
There was a line of breastworks running from New Market to the James River. On the day before the attack our forces were engaged in throwing up breastworks some distance in front of this line, which we were then occupying. That evening there was sent down from Richmond a boat load of men to assist in our work, and seven companies of the 17th Georgia were sent down to the river in the rear of Fort Harrison to meet the boat and take charge of these men. The other three companies of the 17th Georgia were out working on the breastworks. I was with these three companies, and instead of rejoining my regiment that night I permitted my men to remain in a thick piece of woods to the right of what was known as the Phillips House. The next morning just before day picket firing began in front, and soon after light the battle lines of the enemy were in sight, advancing upon us. Arousing my men, we double quicked along the line of breastworks toward Fort Harrison and the James River until we reached the headquarters of Gen. [John] Gregg, I think it was, which was a short distance in the rear of the point where the breastworks turned toward Fort Harrison.
Just as we reached this point a courier dashed up and said that the enemy were attacking the Texas Brigade, and I was ordered to go back and assist them. We returned as rapidly as possible, and when we got opposite the Phillips House, just in front of our breastworks, we saw that the Texans had repulsed the attack and killed “niggers” galore, and the fight at that point was over. Just as this attack had been repulsed a courier came down the line and ordered us to reenforce Fort Harrison. We then hurried as rapidly as possible along the line of breastworks, and when we came in sight of Fort Harrison, it seemed that the whole world in front was full of bluecoats.
Realizing that it would be impossible for us to reach the fort, as the enemy were so close upon it, I suggested to my commanding officer that we attack the right flank of one column of the enemy which had swung around so as to somewhat expose it. I was told in words more emphatic than elegant that when he wanted my advice in such matters he would ask for it. When we reached the point in our line of breastworks where they turned at a right angle to Fort Harrison, four Federal flags had gone up on the fort and on the breastworks surrounding it, and the few men that we had there were falling back behind some winter quarters and under a hill in the rear of the fort. We were then ordered to the right, in the rear of the winter quarters and under the hill, and I was instructed to go down the line of breastworks to the left and have the City Battalion [sic, probably the 2nd Battalion Virginia Reserves] from Richmond and other troops moved to the right. On my return, Just as I got to the angle, a friend in the 15th Georgia Regiment, who had jumped upon the breastworks and fired, was himself shot in the breast, and called me to aid him in getting away. I went to his assistance, but before I could get him off we were both captured. I asked permission to take him in the rear to a tree standing out in the field, which was granted. Finding a favorable opportunity, and giving him all the aid in my power, we made a break, and succeeded in rejoining our forces. Then our litter corps took charge of him.
After the capture of Fort Harrison, our men fell back into the second line of our breastworks, on which were situated Forts Gilmer and Gregg.
In making my escape I was compelled to make a detour to the right, facing toward Richmond. My own command had gone to the left, thus placing the enemy between us. I struck the second line of our breastworks near, but on the right of Fort Gilmer, and did so ahead of any of the Federal troops. During the day our forces were rushed from one point to another, as emergency demanded, to meet the assaults made upon our lines. I, however, was in close proximity to Fort Gilmer during the day.
The first assault made by the enemy after we had fallen back into this line of works was upon Fort Gregg, which was situated between Fort Gilmer and Fort Harrison. The 2d Georgia, part of our brigade, participated in the fight, and the enemy were repulsed. At the time that Fort Gilmer was assaulted by the negroes and they got into the ditch around the fort my impression was that a portion of the 15th Georgia were in the fort, and commanded by Capt. Marcus, of that regiment.
I was not in the fort, and do not know the number of men that were in there, but Mr. Hendricks, an inmate of the Confederate Soldiers’ Home of Georgia, and who was a soldier in the 15th Georgia, told me that he was in the fort, and his recollection was that nearly all the regiment were in there. He furthermore told me that it was one of the stationary artillerymen who broke off a part of the fuse from a bomb shell obtained from the magazine in the fort and threw it over into the ditch where the negro troops were. His statements tally with my recollection of the occurrence, except as to the number of the 15th Georgia in Fort Gilmer. I was on the immediate left where the line of breastworks abutted the fort when the negroes charged across the field and got into the ditch around the fort. Immediately in front of the fort was a field with corn shocked up in it, and then a strip of woods. Just before the shells were thrown into the ditch among the negroes the enemy’s line in the edge of the woods beyond the field was getting ready to make another charge. When the shells were thrown in the ditch among the negro soldiers, the cry went up from them: “The d–n Rebels are throwin’ hand guns. Flung ’em out, and let’s go over and massacre them.” I think it was after the explosion of the second shell that a white handkerchief went up on a sword or gun, and they then begged for quarter, throwing their guns out of the ditch, and after surrendering came around to the right of the fort and on the inside of our breastworks through a culvert. It was not until late in the evening, and after we had repulsed every attack made upon our line on which were Forts Gilmer and Gregg, that reenforcements from Petersburg arrived and dashed into the breastworks with us.
Comrade Reese is correct in saying the negroes were drunk, for there was whisky in their canteens, and some of the canteens had a black sediment in them, said to be gunpowder. He is also correct in saying that those who attempted to scale the walls of Fort Gilmer in Zouave fashion were shot in the head, but there were many dead in the field in front of the fort who were killed before reaching the ditch around the fort. I think he underestimates the captured and killed, for I was with the burial detail, and my recollection is that they were piled up several deep in the ditch and were lying pretty thick in front. He is also mistaken in fixing the time before the explosion of the crater at Petersburg, which occurred July 30, 1864, at 4:30 A.M. The capture of Fort Harrison and the assault upon Fort Gilmer were made on the morning of the 29th of September, 1864.
Comrade May is mistaken when he says it was in the spring of 1864. Gen. Hood, our division commander, lost his leg at Chickamauga and Field succeeded him, and from September, 1863, to about the 1st of May, 1864, our command was in Georgia and Tennessee. I was not with it in Tennessee, having been slightly wounded in the foot and had my lower jaw shot through and broken on both sides at Chickamauga, and did not rejoin the command until it reached Charlottesville, Va. I do know, however, that on the 6th of May, 1864, when Hill’s men were being driven back at the Wilderness, the ever true and reliable old division of Hood, then commanded by Field, dashed down the plank road at a double quick and saved the day. I was shot down on the plank road just opposite the battery on the left of the road.
Our division was at Spottsylvania and the Texas Brigade was on the left of Benning’s. We were at Cold Harbor on June 3, and about the middle of June or a little later, I think it was, we were sent over to Petersburg to reenforce Beauregard. I do not remember the exact date that we left Petersburg, but I am positive that it was between the 20th and 30th of July when we were sent on the north side of the James River, for on July 15 J. M. Hukins, one of my men, was killed at Petersburg, and we left before the mine was exploded on the 30th. On August 16, 1864, we were at Deep Bottom, which was the first fight in which we fought negroes, so far as I can recollect. I was right behind Gen. Gerrardy [sic, Girardey] when he was killed in the charge which drove the negro troops out of our breastworks, which they had succeeded in occupying, and I was one of the volunteers who crossed our recaptured line of breastworks and drove the enemy from our immediate front.
On the next day, after the attack on Fort Gilmer, our reenforcements, which came from Petersburg, made an unsuccessful effort to recapture Fort Harrison.
I do not know “the strength of the enemy in their attack on Forts Harrison, Gilmer, and Gregg, and our lines of breastworks on September 29, but the pickets and scouts reported that they had been crossing the river all night, and the report at that time was that there were two full army corps confronting us, numbering twenty five to thirty thousand men. At no time have I ever heard the force estimated at less than twenty thousand.
In my humble opinion the brilliant achievements of this small Confederate force, holding at bay the hordes of the enemy from daylight until the reenforcements could arrive from Petersburg and fighting all day long against such tremendous odds, were unsurpassed during the war.
We killed, wounded, and captured more of the enemy than we had in our entire force engaged during the day, and completely foiled the adroit scheme of the Federals for the capture of Richmond.
I am unable to conceive what time during that day there was any attack upon Fort Gilmer when there were only five men to defend it. It certainly was not when the negroes charged and got into the ditch around the fort, and it certainly was not when the bombshell was thrown in their midst. As there are doubtless many of the old Texas and Benning’s Brigades who were present on that occasion, I should like to hear from them as to their recollections about what happened, for I am more concerned to secure accuracy in the facts than I am to sustain my recollection of them. Either Comrades Reese and May are mistaken or my recollection is most sadly at fault.
- Martin, Judge. “The Assault Upon Fort Gilmer.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 6, pp. 269-270 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: But see Winder, J. R. “Judge Martin’s Report Approved.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 9, p. 417, which states that Martin was part of Company D. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: But see Breckenridge, G. W. “Story of a Boy Captain.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 13, Number 9, pp. 415-416, where Breckenridge corrects Martin and states this unit was the 2nd Battalion Virginia Reserves. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: There were no Kentucky units in the entire Army of Northern Virginia. Martin is almost certainly referring to Johnson’s Tennessee Brigade from the Department of Richmond. ↩