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Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Fall of Fort Harrison




Captain, Co. K, 58th Penn. Infantry.
Highest rank attained: Bvt-Brig-General U.S.V.
Born in Philadelphia, Pa., Feb. 13, 1842.

Captain Cecil Clay, of Company K, Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry, was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading the attack on Fort Harrison, Va., bearing the flag of another regiment which he had picked up by the way. The attack was made, and the fort carried, by the first division of the Eighteenth Corps on September 29, 1864. Captain Clay writes:

“We were drawn up about three-quarters of a mile from Fort Harrison, and before us was a stretch of open ground. Our skirmish line advanced alternately firing and halting to reload, while before them the rebel skirmishers retired with equal deliberation. As soon as our advance commenced the rebel guns opened upon us all along the line. We lost a large number of men crossing the open space, but I could see no signs of wavering. When we reached a point about 100 yards from the fort, where we were protected from the fire of the enemy’s guns by the steepness of the ground, we halted to get our breath and close up the gaps in our line. We lay down for a moment, and as I looked to the right I saw a few hundred yards away what appeared to be a brigade moving into the works by fours. We thought at first that it must be the Tenth Corps trying to get in ahead of us, but it occurred to me that they were rebels.

“At that moment Colonel Roberts rode up to us, his old fashioned black stock twisted around until the big bow was at the back of his neck. Grasping a revolver by the muzzle, and, waving it as one would a war club, he shouted: ‘Now men, just two minutes to take that fort! Just two minutes, men!’

“We sprang to our feet and dressed our line in an instant. ‘Forward!’ rang out from the officers, and away we went.

“We struck the works on the north face, where the ditch was fully ten feet deep. The rebels fired at us and threw at us anything they could lay their hands on while we were jumping into the ditch. The first Sergeant of my company was hit on the head by a fuse mallet and knocked down. He jumped to his feet, mad as a hornet, and exclaimed: ‘Damn a man who will use a thing like that for a weapon.’ A rebel officer mounted on an old gray horse rode out of a sally port near by, and pulling up on the bridge which spanned the ditch blazed away at us with his revolver. One of my men, named Johnson, who had been shot through the right arm, took his revolver in his left hand and emptied it at the rebel, but every shot went wide, and Johnson was left with an empty revolver.



“Billy Bourke, a sandy-haired Irishman, had picked up the blue State flag of the One hundred and eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, the bearer of which had been shot at the edge of the ditch. Side by side we two climbed the parapet, until we could look over into the fort. No sooner had we raised our heads than a ball struck Bourke, cutting a gash across his forehead. He knocked against me, and we rolled back into the ditch together. Bourke was unable to see, as the blood was running into his eyes, so he gave me the colors and with the aid of a sword which I had plunged into the embankment as a footstep he hoisted me up on the parapet once more. Meantime Johnston had also climbed up, and was shot through the left arm below the elbow as soon as he appeared on the parapet. Disregarding his wounds he jumped on the banquette, leveled his empty revolver at two wounded officers who were crouching there and made them surrender to him. Just then a little fellow fired at Johnson with a revolver and knocked him over. In the meantime the division was stubbornly fighting its way into the fort and the rebels were beginning to retreat when one of them turned and fired two shots at me, drilling a couple of holes in my right arm. Shifting the colors to my left hand, I continued to lead the advance until that hand was shot through also, and I had to stop and lay the colors up against the parapet. Some of the One hundred and eighty-eighth came up at this moment and I handed them their flag, which I had carried throughout the entire charge.”

Captain Clay’s wound proved to be so serious that it shortly afterward entailed the loss of the entire arm.


From September 28 to 30, 1864, the Army of the James was engaged in the neighborhood of New Market Road, Va. The capture of Forts Harrison and Gilmore [sic, Gilmer], and the engagements at Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Farm and Laurel Hill were included in what is generally known as the battle of New Market Heights. The Union Army lost 2,429 in killed and wounded and the Confederates about 2,000, but the result of the battle was in favor of the Federals.


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. xxx-xxx
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