Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte. The author, Cecil Clay, received the Medal of Honor in 1892 for his role in the assault on Fort Harrison, which the author mentions briefly near the end of this article. HMDB.com has a nice page on a marker commemorating Clay’s actions.
CAPTURE OF FORT HARRISON
How The Rebels Failed To Take It
By Brevet Brigadier-General Cecil Clay in Philadelphia Times
Some time ago there was published in The Weekly Times an account of the attempt which General Lee made at the suggestion of General Gordon, who was entrusted with its execution, to break through the lines of our army before Petersburg at a point not far from Appomattox river, so as to effect a lodgment between the bulk of General Grant’s forces and City Point, and roll the army up from its right flank. As a tactical movement this was not a bad one, bat at the time General Gordon attempted to put it in execution it was too late for any permanent result to come from it. Fort Steadman was taken by a night attack and held for a few hours, but the enemy were soon driven from it and our lines re-established as before.
The idea of this movement, however, was not a new one. It had suggested itself to some one as early as June, 1864, and came within an ace of being put to severe practical test. On the 24th day of that month the right of General Grant’s lines before Petersburg resting on the Appomattox river, was held by the First division of the Eighteenth Corps. This division contained three brigades, each of which in turn occupied the front line of works for twenty-four hours at a time. On the day mentioned the front line was held by the Third brigade, composed of the Fortieth Massachusetts, Twenty-first Connecticut, Ninety-second New York, One Hundred and Eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, and Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania. I was serving in the latter regiment as a captain; the division was commanded by General George J. Stannard, of Vermont, and the brigade by Brevet Brigadier-General Guy V. Henry, an officer of the Regulars, who was Colonel of the Fortieth Massachusetts. There was no lack of “fight” about either of these commanders. This front line of work consisted of a strong rifle-pit, made by digging a deep and moderately wide ditch, the earth from which was thrown out upon the side next the enemy and made into a parapet. Inside the ditch on the same side was a wide banquette of proper height for the men to stand upon and dire over the parapet; while in the rear face were dug at intervals recesses in which the officers accommodated themselves, spreading over the top shelter tents to keep off the sun or rain. A short distance in front of this line was a string of skirmish pits or French pits, that is to say, a lot of small detached pits; a few yards apart, dug for the accommodation of the skirmish line and made so as to be commanded by the fire of the works in the rear. They were dug about ten feet square by running an inclined plane from the surface of the ground at the rear to the depth of some three feet in front, and throwing up the earth as a breastwork. In each of these pits were three or four men. The enemy’s front line was in fair rifle range, and the intervening space was covered with a growing crop of oats, high enough to afford considerable cover.
The night of the 23rd passed in quietness, but on the morning of the 24th, just as we we beginning to think about breakfast, we were suddenly roused from our meditations by a great roar of artillery and the horrid shrieking and whistling of missiles of all sorts, which flew just over our heads, plunged into the bank behind us, smashed the top of our parapet, knocked down our shelter tents and scattered dirt and dust by the tubfull all over us, but, very fortunately, little death and not much destruction. When we recovered from our momentary astonishment we found the enemy had concentrated the fire of forty guns upon the small front held by our brigade. Any one who has “been there” knows what that means. Forty guns concentrated on the front of one brigade! Why the air was perfectly blue. There was a continuous roar, shriek, and whiz; fragments of shell flew in every direction. Crash, bang! and a big feller knocks down as much earth as an Irishman would throw out of a cellar in a day. The second and third lines of works were on higher ground than the front line, but behind them the ground sloped off again to a ravine, running down toward the river, and in this ravine were collected the cooks of the various regiments and all the cooking of the division was done there. Just as the firing began it happened that two Connecticut men were marching along toward brigade headquarters, carrying between them a large market basket containing the breakfast for General Henry and his staff mess. A shell hit the basket and away went beefsteak, bread and bacon in every direction. There was no breakfast at brigade headquarters that morning. All the shots that went over the rise of the ground behind us pitched into the cooks’ ravine, and there was soon a frantic exodus of detailed men and darkies looking out for a safe place. Anticipating a heavy assault as the sequence to this artillery fire the teams were loaded and dispatched to the rear, so that there was no chance to get any fresh rations, and General Henry had to wait until dinner-time for his breakfast. I fared better than most of them. After the affair was all over I saw my faithful African, old “Prince,” coming along the pit from the covered way, covered with dust and dirt, but bearing in triumph a well-filled basket and an odorous coffee-pot.
“Why, Prince,” I exclaimed, “why in the world didn’t you bring my breakfast up here? What have you been doing all this while? Breakfast should have been ready an hour ago.”
“Of course, sir,” poor Prince replied, with wide expanded eyes, “I knowed you would want your breakfast. You’se ‘bliged to have your breakfast, but you have no idea how dey was a chunkin down yonder. Everybody had done left and gone away ‘cept me and anoder man.”
After continuing half an hour or so the fire stopped as suddenly as it began. We were expecting a charge and the men at once sprang to their feet and began peering over the parapet, while all along the line was heard the click, click, click!–click!–click! of musket locks. The rebel skirmish line came tumbling out over their works and disappearing in the oats, advanced rapidly to our skirmish pits. The men who occupied these offered little resistance and allowed the enemy to enter them, but once in they turned on them and said: “Come in, Johnny!” The call was reiterated by the men on the works and in a few minutes we had disposed of the whole of the skirmish line, some four hundred or five hundred men of Hagood’s South Carolina brigade; we could count but thirty-six who got back over the enemy’s works. This was the end of that affair–no other troops followed the skirmishers and in a little while things had settled down to their normal condition.
It seems that General Lee imagined that, to aid General Grant in his reaching to our left, we must have weakened the right of our line and that he might possibly be able to break through next the river and double us up. He had all his available troops massed opposite us that morning. Hagood’s brigade was to advance as skirmishers and Hoke’s division was to follow. Hoke, however, made a mess of it in some way, did not start in time and the thing fell through. Hoke was an obstinate man. At any rate his division did not charge that day. We had developed too much force; we had three lines of works all well manned. I think Hoke’s division had not been remodeled within a month before, when it consisted of four brigades, containing, according to the names of their commanders, the following regiments respectively: Hagood’s, the Seventh, Eleventh, Twenty-first, Twenty-fifth, and Twenty-seventh South Carolina; Colquitt’s, the Sixth, Nineteenth, Twenty-third, Twenty-seventh, and Twenty-eighth Georgia; Clingman’s, the Eighth, Thirty-first, Fifty-first, and Sixty-first North Carolina, and Martin’s, the Seventeenth, Forty-second and Sixty-sixth North Carolina. What other troops were to aid Hoke I do not know, but for such a movement there should have been more, and as General Lee was there he probably had others, as many as he could spare from his right.
In December, 1863, the Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania regiment was in North Carolina. General Butler issued an order under the terms of which, should the regiment re-enlist three-fourths of its men by January 1, 1864, it should be granted a furlough of thirty days within thirty days from that date and go home as a veteran regiment. The men accordingly re-enlisted, but on one pretext and another had been refused their furlough; had been through the spring campaign from North Carolina to Bermuda Hundred; then through the Cold Harbor slaughter and from that to Petersburg, and now were beginning to feel dissatisfied. The chance of a whack at the enemy cheered them up on the morning of the 24th of June–it was seldom we got a fair chance at them, we standing on the defensive–and they were quite disappointed because Hoke did not come out. That day we received our six months overdue furlough and the disappointment was forgotten. Three months from that we did receive a visit from Hoke’s division and were able to give it a warm reception.
On the 29th of September, 1864, the First division, Eighteenth Corps, stormed Fort Harrison. I do not propose now to give an account of this affair, although I have never seen any account of it in print except a personal narrative published by me in the Germantown Telegraph in 1876. It is necessary to say something about it, however, so as to explain what follows. Fort Harrison was a strong earthwork with an eighteen feet parapet and deep ditch. Its shape was three sides of a square, the fourth side open so as to be commanded by the next line in rear. It mounted eleven guns en barbette. In the next line, and somewhat to the (our) right of Fort Harrison, was Fort Gilmer, a work equally strong. Both these forts were known to us as at Chapin’s Farm, a few miles below Richmond on the north side of the James. Among the papers published by the Southern Historical Society is an article upon the attack on Fort Gilmer, in which the writer says he believes there was an earthwork somewhat nearer the river called Battery Harrison, and thinks it mounted several guns. “Of this the Federals took possession;” and he then goes on to describe the attack on Fort Gilmer, because that failed, and so left him some cause for self gratulation. We crossed the James on the night of the 28th of September and attacked the enemy on the morning of the 29th. The First division, Eighteenth Corps, assailed Fort Harrison, while the attack on Fort Gilmer was entrusted to General Birney and was a failure. Our division marched three-quarters of a mile through open ground, straight up to Fort Harrison and into it. That the “taking possession” was not such a simple affair, may be understood when I say that in the Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania, which I commanded in the attack–the guiding regiment of the division–there was one hundred and ten men killed and wounded out of a total of two hundred and twenty-six present. The first three men on the parapet were Private Copeland, of Company F, who was shot through the head and killed; Lieutenant Johnson, who was shot through both arms, but was, nevertheless, the first man in and got another shot in the breast; and I, who carried in the first color on the work, the blue state flag of the One Hundred and Eighty-Eighth Pennsylvania, whose color-bearer had been killed and got three shots in me also. General Ord, who commanded the Corps, was wounded in the leg, and of our three brigade commanders one was killed, one wounded, and the third, Colonel S. H. Roberts, of the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth New York, commanding our brigade, compelled to return to the sick bed from which he had risen to take a gallant part in the fray. This sort of “taking possession” some time became annoying. However, there is no denying that we did take possession, and it was to dispossess us that Hoke’s division was sent to visit us.
There was a good deal of excitement in Richmond the day we took Fort Harrison. Grant was hammering away mercilessly on the extreme left beyond Petersburg, and Lee had all or more than he could do to resist him, and had left the lines north of the James not very strongly defended as to numbers. When, therefore, it was known that we had crossed the river and had already captured Fort Harrison, there was great consternation in the capital. No one knew how soon we might make our appearance at the gates of the city. Home guards and all others who by courtesy could be called soldiers were ordered out and sent forth to the lines, and word was sent to General Lee of the gravity of the situation. There was, in truth, cause for alarm. Had Birney massed a division and [?] it at Fort Gilmer, that, too, would have [fallen into?] our hands, and then any sort of co[?] between his forces and ours would have [?] variegated troops back upon the [?]. Birney had his own ideas on the subject. [?] by sending one colored regiment to attack Gilmer. When that was an[?] he sent two, and then a white regiment [?] of course, remained with the [?] there was no going ahead on that part of the line. Our division, after taking Fort Harrison, moved toward the river and captured several other minor works, but the command had lost heavily; General Ord was wounded, all our brigade commanders were hors du combat, and the command of the division devolved upon [?] colonel of a New York regiment of whom nothing was to be expected in [?]. We advanced no further, therefore, but [?] look to establish ourselves in the captured [earthworks?] so as to be able to hold them.
General Ord having been wounded General Weitzel took command of the Eighteenth Corps. General Weitzel had been away [?]. Arriving at Fortress Monroe while fighting was in progress, he was ordered by General Butler to take the fastest boat he could and to go at once to the front. This he did and reached Chapin’s Farm after the fighting [?] was over, but in time to prepare for [?] the next day. The capture of Fort Harrison and lodgment of such a large body of troops so near to Richmond was felt by the enemy to be a severe blow. Lee determined to attempt to the recapture of the fort by assault. On the morning of the 30th of September Hoke’s division was brought over from Petersburg and Lee himself directed the attack. Meantime our men had not been idle. During the night succeeding the fight everybody worked with such tools or apologies for tools as could be had and a sort of rifle-pit was was [?] across the rear or open face of Fort Harrison. In this the men lay three or four deep [?] ridges were scattered along the rear of the [?] so that there should be no lack of [?]. The enemy advanced in column and had to charge over a slightly descending ground to reach the fort. The division came on in fine order, officers with their swords drawn, arms glittering and battle-flags flying. As soon as it came within range our men began firing and , p[?] as they were in the pits, with the men in the rear loading the pieces and handing them to the fellows in front, kept up a tremendous fire [against?] which nothing could stand, let alone advance. When the fire opened the men were all shooting low, “an amiable weakness,” and a long line of puffs of dust plainly to be seen, thrown up some distance on the hither side of the advancing column marked the impact of the balls. [?] the head of the oncoming mass reached [?] of fire and then–! It seems [?] [?]ing of it in cold blood, that men would have exulted in the slaughter of their fellows, but the necessities of the war as carried [?] war on our part, had almost invariably made us the attacking party; now we were on the defensive and had a chance to retaliate and we did it effectually. Away went organization [?] went men, officers, and battle-flags [?] could stand that withering fire. Officers stuck to the front, flags waved and the crowd, for such it soon became, struggled to get up to our works, but there was no standing the [?], and the whole mass fell back in confusion. A second charge met the same fate, but animated by the presence of General Lee, the division made still another attempt, but only to break to the rear again, thoroughly used up. Several hundred prisoners were taken and a number of battle-flags, while the ground was covered with the killed and wounded. We had made a great slaughter, and Fort Harrison was still ours, not to be again endangered. The loss on our side was small and mainly attributable to the fire of the Confederate gunboats in the river. General Stannard, our division commander, lost an arm, and there were perhaps, a hundred other casualties. The Confederate loss was probably ten times that.
While a wagon filled with cartridges was being unloaded just in the rear of our men the six mules attached to it were all killed or wounded and one man lost his leg. The [?] of the wounded mules were horrible. During the last charge there was one poor confederate wounded in the leg, who used his musket as a crutch and with its aid went limping to the rear. Hundreds of shots were fired at him, while many of the men cheered him on, anxious to see him get safely away. Looking around occasionally to see that no one was after him, he finally disappeared without further mishap. It was about noon when the first charge was made, and while the fighting was in progress rain began to fall and continued to pour down all night, making the situation of the men in the trenches miserable enough, and that of the poor wounded men detestable. Our men, however, could afford to laugh at their discomforts. Hoke’s division had visited us and found us at home.1
- Brevet Brigadier-General Cecil Clay. “Capture of Fort Harrison–How the Rebels Failed to Retake It.” National Tribune 26 November 1881. 3:1-3. ↩