Dr. George Washington Richards wrote this letter to the Richmond Times Dispatch, and it was later picked up by the Southern Historical Society Papers and published in Volume 31 from pages 370-372. The text of Dr. Richards’ letter about the Battle of Fort Gregg, a last ditch effort to prevent the Union army from reaching Petersburg which allowed Lee’s army to escape that night, is presented here in full.
A Surgeon’s Defense of the Garrison.1
[From the Times-Dispatch]
From the description of the battle at Fort Gregg, April 2, 1865, by Captain A. K. Jones, of Mississippi, it would appear that the battle was fought exclusively by Mississippians (see Ante, p. 60.) I was surgeon at Fort Gregg all the preceding winter and early spring. I was with my command in Fort Gregg from start to finish, and know by whom it was defended. Captain Chew, of Maryland, with about twenty artillerymen, with two guns, was part of the force. Chew’s other two guns had been taken out of the fort to check the advance of the enemy in our front, but to no purpose; the lean horses could not pull the pieces through the numerous pine stumps in our immediate front, and had to be abandoned.
All this took place before we were reinforced by the men from Hatcher’s Run, on the right. Besides Chew’s men, there were something less than one hundred supernumerary artillerymen from all the Southern States. They were armed with rifles for the time being, with the understanding that they would resume their respective commands when the campaign opened in the spring. Thus we had one hundred and twenty men, and they were the men that Captain Jones found on his arrival at Fort Gregg. They had been placed there by General Lee. They had never made their escape from any place. Jones’ statement is that they had escaped from the right and begged to go to the rear, and after hesitating to comply with their request he at last concluded to let them go, provided they would leave their guns with him; and to that they readily consented.
Surely Captain Chew and others who, I hope, are living, will sustain me in saying that no man left Fort Gregg out of Chew’s command that day. We were reinforced by men who had been defeated on our right. There were no organized regiments or companies entering Fort Gregg. They came in singly or in squads, every man to his liking. Much of Captain Jones’ report is correct in part, and I regret that he has the actual facts mixed in regard to the men garrisoned in Fort Gregg by order of General Lee months before the battle on the 2d of April, 1865.
After being recruited by about one hundred and fifty men, who came from the lines on the right of Fort Gregg, the defenders numbered two hundred and fifty men. With that small number we were opposed by the Twenty-fourth Army-Corps of nine thousand strong. What other forces assailed us that day, if any, I don’t know.
As Captain Jones says, we repulsed several determined charges with great slaughter to the enemy. The New York Herald acknowledged a loss of two thousand and four hundred killed and crippled.
When the Federals were forming for their final charge, I suggested to Captain Chew, of Maryland, to surrender, as there was no chance of ultimate success by holding out any longer. My advice was not accepted, as the captain said he had been superseded by some infantry officers, who had come to his help. There were so many Federals coming over the parapet in the last charge we could not shoot them all; they swarmed in and showed us no quarter. It was not so much their officers who caused them to desist from shooting us.
General Lee was looking at us, and when he saw what was going on he dispatched his courier, William Callerton, to Colonel Poague’s artillery, ordering him to open fire on Fort Gregg with all his guns, which he at once did. The first shell fell close in front of me. Four or five Federals were killed. Then one shot after another in rapid succession drove all the enemy on the opposite side of the fort for shelter. Had it not been for Colonel Poague’s guns I believe they would have killed every one of us. Captain W. Gordon McCabe’s History of General Lee’s Campaigns, on page 500, reports thirty coming out of Fort Gregg alive. As for myself, I counted twenty-seven only, when giving their names to a Federal officer. I could say much more, but enough! What I have said is only in defense of the plucky men that garrisoned Fort Gregg.
GEORGE W. RICHARDS,
Surgeon A. P. Hill Corps, A. N. Va.
- Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 31, Pages 370-372 ↩