Editor’s Note: The first article in this series was first published at Mississippians in the Confederate Army by “championhilz”. The author, Private Frank H. Foote of the 48th Mississippi, was a prolific author of reminiscences of his time in Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in the postwar years. After a quick inquiry, it turns out “championhilz” is Jeff Giambrone, he works at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and he was more than happy to help me gain access to not only the original version of the first article, but the entire set. I thank him greatly for his kind assistance. I’m happy to present this history of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in its entirety here at The Siege of Petersburg Online.
FOR THE CLARION:
The Death Grapple at Petersburg!
Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: Frank Foote left off the last article describing the April 2, 1865 assault on Fort Gregg during the Third Battle of Petersburg. He continues his description here from the point the Confederate garrison of Fort Gregg surrendered. His regiment, the 48th Mississippi, was defending Fort Whitworth, to the north of Fort Gregg. Foote moves on below to describe the attack on this second fort. Harris’ Mississippi Brigade defended both forts in a last ditch stand meant to buy time for Robert E. Lee to evacuate Petersburg that night.]
In Whitworth we still kept up a heavy fire, and prepared for the assault on us, and it came in heavy columns. The flag of the Forty-eighth [Mississippi] floated defiantly over our heads, and was twice shot from the staff; the third time it was attached to a rifle, and flaunted in their faces. Nearer and nearer came the Federals and the quicker did our rifles crack, that counted at every instant. In reckless abandon, [brigade commander] Gen. [Nathaniel H.] Harris sprang upon the low parapet, and with our flag in his hands yelled out to us “give ‘em hell.” For a moment the enemy slacked their steady tramp; then seeing no chance for us to repulse them, Gen. Harris gave the word, “every man for himself”; and then, just as the Federals were within a few yards of us, to right, left and centre, we sprang out the works and hastily sought the rear. It was indeed every man for himself, and the race was to the swift. Col. [Joseph Mc.]Jayne [of the 48th Mississippi] was struck in the leg and was captured. A bullet cut a limb off close to Col. [Richard W.] Phipps [of the 19th Mississippi], and to the repeated cries of “surrender!’ he gave no heed and plunged ahead. Just then a half-spent ball struck him between the shoulders, thereby accellerating [sic] his speed as to soon place him far ahead of all others. I never saw a man jump so high in my life, and as the boys say we had “lots of fun” out of him about it. Gen. Harris was large and fleshy. The run completely exhausted him, and he stopped to catch breath exclaiming, “I’ll be d—d if I run any more.” Just then his brother and aid-de-camp, Capt. Wm. Harris, turned to recover his hat he had dropped, and spied the “Yanks” at close range, and firing very accurately. Pointing these out to his brother, the General again struck out regardless of his vow, that he would’nt [sic] run any more, and soon gained the van. A little creek lay in our way, into it, over it, and up the ridge beyond, and literally into the last ditch of Petersburg with our flank in the suburbs of the place, we rested and formed line, and turned at bay. The Federals did not push their advantage, and we rested quietly behind some light trenches. A North Carolina colonel came into the lines, and asked to fight with us. A Federal gun dosed us occasionally with shell, one of which exploding, wounded the colonel, whom we sent to the city.
There we stood, a mere handful of troops, exhausted, and fatigued by the long march of the night before; tired and depressed by the result of the affair at Gregg. We were not a match for the foe if they had chosen to attack us. Benning’s brigade of Longstreet’s corps arrived and formed on our right. They numbered only one hundred and fifty strong. It was in this struggle that Lieut. Gen. A. P. Hill was killed. We did not hear of it until the next day, and then we sincerely mourned the death of so good a man and soldier as A. P. Hill.
That night, April 2[n]d, without noise or disturbance of any kind, we filed out the lines, passed through Peterburg amid the wails of sorrow and lamentations of its people. The distress of the females was heart-rending, as they besought us not to give them up to the enemy. The city was filled with the news of the doings of Harris’ brigade, and the cries of distress from these frightened people, when the Mississippians passed through was fraught with despair as they regarded the whole defense of Petersburg rested with them. Other commands were utterly lost in oblivion. Harris’ brigade was all. We crossed the Appomattox and headed toward Richmond, whither after that, none knew or dreamed of. Rumors prevailed that the abandonment of Petersburg was a ruse to draw the Federal army from its strong position, and fight a pitched battle away from his base. None were disheartened, and Gen. Lee still shared the highest confidence of the men. They never doubted him one moment. A bright glare in the direction of Richmond, told of the threat being put into execution, that Richmond would be laid in ashes before the surrender. Loud explosions interrupted the march, and we wondered for some time as to the cause. Wearily we trudged, and near Chesterfield station we rejoined our division, from whom we received marked regard. Even with the dire disaster of the loss of the Capital and Petersburg, the heroic defense of Fort Gregg was known and appreciated.
Into the gathering darkness the head of the column plunged, on to their doom that brought glory instead of gloom. We had no rations when we started, and expected to draw that night, when the wagon train caught up. Capt. Stone, adjutant-general, and several others sought to steal a nap while the division was filing by. We did so and another just before day, and hastily set out to overtake them. We found them resting by the wayside not two hundred yards from the place of our stolen rest; consequently we were not missed and escaped censure.
On the morning of the [April] 4th  we reached Amelia court house and awaited rations that never came. Great banks of artillery, wagons and caissons had been collected here, and as we marched off on peremptory orders, other parties were busy in destroying them. The cause of our march was the irruption of Federal cavalry on the trains in our front. Harris’ Brigade being head of column that day, [division commander] Gen. [William] Mahone was accosted by a seeming Confederate cavalryman, who induced him to ride forward to “see if those troops over there are not Yankees.” Gen. Mahone rode cautiously, and almost rode into an ambuscade. He wheeled his horse and escaped both shot and pursuit. Hastily forming Harris’ brigade, he double-quicked it to the attack, and with one volley broke the cavalry with loss.
I succeeded in gaining a re-mount here, in place of mine killed under me at Fort Gregg. He was a genuine Pegasus steed, had seen but few years, but was old in tricks and meanness; later on, on the march one morning I attempted to mount him. I grasped his mane and with one foot in the stirrup, I lifted myself up and actually pulled the animal over on me, to my disgust and the merriment of others. That animal was soon gotten rid of, and the balance of my career as a soldier was played in the line.
We again moved forward, marching light—no baggage, no rations, no blankets, no nothing; but rifles loaded and clean as ever, and ever on the alert for an active enemy hovering in the distance on our front, flank and rear. A rattle of musketry ahead would tell of a sudden dash on the trains. A bugle call on the flanks pounding a charge gave ample warning, and facing by-roads or hastily moving up to the trains, we would manage to get in a distant volley or two, and that generally ended the charge. A fight was in progress, just ahead of us, and we marched rapidly. It was over by the time we got there. A mere boy cavalryman of ours came into our ranks, and turned over to us at prisoner, Major Gen. Gregg of the Federal cavalry whom he had captured. The General was sullen and downcast. For some time he marched with us, and finally got in a good humor, and told how the boy “took him in.” In a charge, he surged ahead and becoming separated from his comrades, he spied a Confederate cavalryman close by, whom he ordered to surrender. Instead of obeying, the youngster forced him to surrender. He said the boy had the drop and gave him the alternative “give up or die.” He yielded, and was brought in as prisoner. The General either escaped or was re-captured the next day, we having turned him over to head quarters.
Slowly and sullenly we trudged along. We felt the need of rations; foot-sore and weary we plodded along, now and then breaking into a double quick to check a raid. Finally the Federal cavalry began to know where metal and grit was, and that the disciplined ranks of Mahone could not be broken. High Bridge across the Appomattox river was reached, and crossed after dark. The wagon train crossed below on the dirt road. On the hither side, inside some works erected for the defense of this bridge, we threw ourselves down to sleep. And soon in sound, sweet sleep we forgot our hunger and trials. Before day we were aroused, and a detail party soon fired High Bridge. A similar detail attempted to burn the wagon bridge; but a rain had so dampened it as to make it impossible to burn. While striving to destroy it Federal cavalry appeared, and with artillery soon drove off the detail. A second detail fared no better, and then the attempt was abandoned.
This failure on our part to destroy that wagon bridge was fraught with much evil to the struggling army. By its destruction the Federals who were hotly pursuing, would have been delayed many hours, as the river was not fordable here. By its destruction Lynchburg might have been reached, the mountains might have been defended, and the ultimate end more fruitful for the South in its provisions.
We awaited the attack for some time, and were exposed to some remarkable shots from the Federal artillery. Gen. Mahone came back to see what the rapid firing meant, and being mounted on a fierce animal had considerable trouble in keeping his seat. A shell passed under his horses belly, causing it to rear and plunge most frantically. It took a half dozen of us to hold the animal down, while he dismounted. The General ordered the line of battle to form under cover of the railroad for those “d—d fellows shoot too close” said he. As the cavalry began the crossing we moved off, as by this time the division had marched several miles ahead, and we were liable to be cut off. We were rear-guard that day and faced about many times to check a too rapid pursuit. We cared nothing for the cavalry; but rumors gleaned from prisoners told of infantry near. After some vexatious delays that worried and fretted every one, we were marched briskly ahead, then halted faced to the right, skirmishers thrown out, we moved forward, halted and awaited orders. After a while we found out that Gen. Mahone had by this manoeuvre captured some three or four hundred prisoners. The Federals had formed an ambuscade for the purpose of capturing the wagon train or intercepting some straggling detachment. Gen. Mahone getting information of their doings had surrounded them, and captured the entire party, breaking their guns and sabres, we fell in with them ahead of us and marched on. It was thus all the whole route, and when the surrender came, Gen. Mahone’s division turned over more prisoners than he had men in rank and file.
Resuming our weary march, though somewhat elated at this little advantage, tottering feebly along, lighter equipped than ever, guns at a half-cock, ready to face front or rear, ran afoul of an old sow in the road way. Being decidedly vicious, it was deemed necessary for the safety of the rear guard that she should be shot, which was done in a twinkling. The shot disturbed both Gen. Harris and his horse “Yankee” from a fretful repose as they moved along. The horse reared, while the General cried out “fall in.” This order did not suit the ravenous cravings of those hungry depredators, so they hastily gathered the animal and fled into cover with it, where it was soon disembowelled [sic], the hair scorched off, and in ten minutes the odor of hog meat permeated the roadside, and astonished the rear guard as they filed wistfully by. A sack of cow peas, found by the wayside, afforded some respite for the cravings of nature half cooked without salt or meat to flavor, they were speedily devoured, and many paid a severe penalty with colic. I reserved a few for my commander to propitiate for my surreptitious leave of absence. I found him and staff feeding their horses at a fodder stack. Just as we reached them a sudden burst of cavalry came in sight, just missing us, and we only escaped by the head of our command coming in sight who soon dispersed the raiders.
That night we camped on a hill-top, and built large fires in anticipation of wagons reaching us with rations from Lynchburg. Vain hope, delusive dream, for they never came, and in a few hours we saw our train consumed by fire. We dropped off to sleep. Such sleep as it was—it afforded no rest nor brought strength, for the stomach was empty. After a few restless hours we were aroused by the call of our sergeants “fall in, men! be quick.” Was the dream of rations to be fulfilled? Alas! No, we hardly became aligned before we moved off rapidly, crossed the Simmons twistings of the Appamattox [sic] for the third time, and then on the far hither side we gazed upon the magnificent sight of our wagon trains of Ordnance Commisary and Qua[r]termaster stores in full flame. The Ordnance wagons would blow up with a crash sending thousands of sparks and jets of flame skyward, while ever and anon the shells would explode. We “gnashed our teeth in impotent rage,” for we were powerless to help the teamsters. Gen. Harris lamented the loss of a two thousand dollar uniform, while we poor privates mourned and grieved for the “grub,” so wantonly—to us—destroyed. Slowly we moved away, and tightened our belts one hole tighter, the third I noticed since the retreat began. The next day a little strip of fresh beef was given us, strongly flavored with that abominable pest of the meadows of Virginia, the wild onion. It was quickly spluttering over the fire, and enjoyed when rare done. This was the only ration issued issued to us since the night of the first of April, and this was on the 7th. The allowance, small as it was, caused us to move with willing spirits, but lagging feet. Our clothing was in a sad plight, foul with vermin and reeking with the filth of wear and the roadsides. My captain presented a sorry plight, while lying beside a fire, for the nights were cool, his hat brim burned off, and part of his uniform coat met the same fate, half hatless and coatless, he was laughable to look at. His hat had cost ninety dollars in Richmond, and he regretted its loss. Our company some twenty-eight strong had purchased a hat apiece, just after the battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, for this amount each. The hats were made of rabbit fur and were stiffened with some substance that yielded its virtues of stiffness to each passing shower. Consequently they flapped down over our eyes and took a passing fancy for every strange shape imaginable. They were indeed dry weather hats.
[TO BE CONTINUED.]1
Harris’ Mississippi Brigade Series from the 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS):
- NP: September 10, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 1
- NP: September 17, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 2
- NP: September 24, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 3
- NP: October 1, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 4
- NP: October 8, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Surrender-Homeward Bound!: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 5
- “The Death Grapple at Petersburg! Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.” The Clarion (Jackson, MS). October 1, 1884, p. 1 col. 4-5 ↩