Attack on Fort Gilmer, September 29th, 1864.
By CHARLES JOHNSTON.1
[The following letter to the President of the Southern Historical Society was endorsed by him as follows:
“The young gentleman who furnishes this narrative – a private soldier in Huff’s, afterwards Griffin’s battery, I believe – is a gentleman by birth and education, being connected with highly respectable families, and there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of his statements.
J. A. EARLY.”]
SALEM, ROANOKE COUNTY, VIRGINIA.
General J. A. EARLY:
As the “Southern Historical Society” has lately called upon all soldiers and officers of the Confederate army for any incidents of the late war that would be of general interest, I have presumed upon the fact of having been for four years a private soldier in that army, and upon the interest that I know you take in everything connected with the fight known by the troops engaged in its as the Battle of “Fort Gilmer,” which was fought on the 29th day of September, 1864.
My attention was called to this subject by a letter lately published in the Norfolk Landmark, in which the writer refers to a speech made by B. F. Butler on the Civil Rights Bill. The writer in the Landmark says that what Butler says about riding over a battle-field below Richmond, and looking into the brown faces of the dead negroes, and making a vow to revenge them, is a piece of imagination on his part. He then goes into an account of the fight, but from his account it would appear that the affair was a very slight one indeed,
whereas the truth was that upon that same 29th September, Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war, and but for the devotion and bravery of two decimated brigades, Bushrod Johnson’s old Tennessee brigade and the Texas brigade, consisting of about three hundred (300) men each, the Yankees must have carried everything before them and captured Richmond.
I shall try now to give you as correct an account as I can of this fight, in which I was myself engaged, though in a very humble position – that of a private soldier. However, I saw the whole of it, and more than once during the engagement was a witness to acts of
daring and heroism on the part of those Texans and Tennesseans that surpassed anything I had ever heard of. And I write for no purpose of attracting your notice to myself or to my company, but to do what I can to perpetuate the memory of the bravest men I ever saw under fire.
With this much of an introduction, I leave my account with you to use as you think proper. I write from memory, and do not profess to be positively accurate; but my statements can be verified by Major W. J. Dance, Powhatan Courthouse, Virginia; Lieutenant Wm. M. Read, Augusta Georgia, and Lieutenant H. E. Blair, of Roanoke.
On the 29th September, 1864, there were on the north side of James river, in the neighborhood of “Chaffin’s Bluff,” about two thousand (2,000) men, consisting of what remained of Bushrod Johnson’s Tennessee brigade (300 strong), commanded by a colonel whose name I think was Johnston; the Texas brigade, also commanded by a colonel whose name I do not remember; the “City Battalion,” some battalions of “Department troops” (made up of clerks and attaches of the different departments of the Government); Gary’s brigade of cavalry, the “Louisiana Guard Artillery,” “Hardaway’s battalion” of artillery, consisting of four batteries, four guns each; the “Rockbridge Artillery,” Captain Graham; “Third Company Richmond Howitzers,” Lieutenant Carter; the “Powhatan Artillery,” Captain Dance, and the “Salem Artillery,” Captain Griffin. These commands included all the troops engaged during the whole day, I think. The whole force was commanded by Lieutenant-General Ewell, either as commander of the Richmond defences, or of that part of General Lee’s army on the north side of James river, I do not now remember which, but at any rate he was in command in person, and by his cool courage and presence wherever the fight was hottest, contributed as much to the victory gained as any one man could have done.
The Yankees landed near “Deep Bottom,” some ten or twelve miles below Richmond, and consisted of two entire army corps, (supposed at that time to have ten thousand men each). At “Deep Bottom” they came upon a picket composed of one battery of Hardaway’s battalion and some infantry, and by the suddenness of their attack (which was between daybreak and sunrise) drove back our pickets, and continued to drive them until they reached “Fort Harrison,” a fort containing several heavy cannon, but with
not more than forty or fifty men to man them. This fort the Yankees captured and kept possession of. “Fort Harrison” was one of a series of forts running from “Chaffin’s Bluff” almost entirely around Richmond, and connected by earthworks for infantry, with a redoubt for field artillery wherever the nature of the ground admitted. This line of earthworks was laid out by regular engineers, and (as far as I was a judge) showed that the men who built them understood their business.
After the capture of “Fort Harrison,” our troops were formed upon the same line of works, but of course a new line had to be formed in front of “Fort Harrison.” “Fort Gilmer” was the next fort in the lines, which had come five or six heavy cannon, and was manned by about forty men (of what command I never knew). Between Forts “Harrison” and “Gilmer,” a distance of nearly half a mile, were stationed Hardaway’s batteries, Dance’s being the nearest to “Fort Harrison,” Griffin’s next, and Carter and Graham to their left, supported by the Texans and Tennesseans, with the “City Battalion” deployed as skirmishers. General Ewell was with the skirmish line, constantly encouraging them by his presence and coolness. I remember very distinctly how he looked, mounted on an old gray horse, as mad as he could be, shouting to the men, and seeming to be everywhere at once. I do not remember at what time in the day the attack was made, but it commenced by the Yankees making a furious charge upon Dance’s battery, and they came in such numbers and so rapidly that they got within forty yards of Dance’s guns before our fire told upon them. Here it was that the Tennesseans did such glorious work. They had trotted (or rather run) from another part of the line when the attack first began, and by the time they reached Dance’s guns the Yankees were almost there, but the colonel in command of the brigade leaped across the works, followed by his men, and after an almost hand to hand fight drove the Yankees back. Too much praise cannot be given to this colonel (I wish I could remember his name), for I was told by one of Dance’s men that he had never seen a man so entirely free from fear, and that in front of his men he discharged every barrel of his pistol right into the Yankees’ faces. I do not now remember the loss in this charge, but Captain Dance and a good many of his men were wounded, and several of the men killed.
Almost immediately after the enemy retired from Dance’s front, an attack was made upon another part of the line to the left, and
I love to think of those men, how bravely and cheerfully they rushed from one point to another, and at every point doing such good work. They passed me several times during the day, and I did not see one man of them straggling or getting away, but all were firm, and seemed to be on fire with fight, calling to us as they passed: “Stick to them, artillery, we’ll come back and help you when we get through up here.” I have never seen one of them since, but I shall always remember those two little hands-full of men – the one Texans, the other Tennesseans – as the bravest, truest men I ever saw; and I only wish that our whole army had been made of the same stuff that was in them.
After this last repulse, the Yankees did not renew the attack for some time (if I remember rightly not for several hours), and when they did come, it was away off to the left and in front of “Fort Gilmer.” They advanced in three lines, one behind the other, the first line composed of negroes. Some said that the second line was also negroes, but I cannot speak positively of that, but the rear line was of white troops.
“Fort Gilmer” was on a hill, with quite an extensive flat in front, from which the trees had all been cut, and most of the trees were lying on the ground with their branches still attached. The “Louisiana Guard Artillery” on the left, and “Salem Artillery” on the right of the fort, occupied redoubts so constructed that each had an enfilade fire upon the Yankees as they advanced. The enemy came rather cautiously at first, but finally they came with a rush, our artillery firing shrapnel at first, but they soon begin to load with canister, and the way those negroes fell before it was very gratifying to the people on our side of the works. But the Yankees came on until they got to the ditch in front of “Fort Gilmer” – a dry ditch about ten (10) feet deep and twelve (12) feet wide. Into this ditch a great many of the negroes jumped, and endeavored to climb up on each other’s shoulders, but were beaten back by our infantry, and almost all of them killed. One negro, who was either drunk or crazy, crawled through a culvert which ran from the inside of the fort into the ditch, and was shot on the inside. No great number of negroes got into the ditch, and the rest of the attacking column having no shelter from the fire of both artillery and infantry, were forced to give way and retire.
Thus ended the battle of “Fort Gilmer,” and there was no more fighting done on this part of the line where we were that day, though I think the part of the line occupied by Gary’s cavalry was attacked, but I never knew anything about that fight.
General Lee arrived from Petersburg during the night of September 29th, with Field’s Virginia and Hoke’s North Carolina divisions, and upon the 30th both those divisions charged “Fort Harrison,” but after a desperate fight they were forced to retire, and the “Stars and Stripes” waved over “Fort Harrison” until Richmond fell. Another line of works was built around the old line, and several batteries of mortars were placed there, which kept up a pretty constant fire upon the Yankees during the rest of the war.
Fort Gilmer is about four miles below Richmond, very near the farm then owned by Mrs. Gunn, and from the nearest point of this fight to the capitol could not have been more than three miles.
Had our troops given way upon that day (and I think if the Yankees had known how near they were to Richmond we must have been beaten), there was nothing between us and the city, and instead of being burned by our men, as it afterwards was, Richmond must have fallen into the hands of “Beast Butler” and drunken negroes, though to give the devil his due, we were told by prisoners that Butler was not in the fight at all, but was on the top of his big observatory at City Point, looking at the fight through a long telescope.
Pardon me, General, for having intruded so long upon your time; you may probably have material from which to write an account of this affair much better than this letter, and if you have I shall not be offended that no notice is taken of my effort in that direction.
You know better than I can tell you how few opportunities a private has of knowing what is going on around him, but I have written what I remember seeing at the time and hearing the officers talk about it.
With very great respect for yourself, not only on account of your career in the army, but for the stand you have since taken, allow me to write myself, your comrade,
Editor’s Note: I do not have a hard copy or a PDF of the actual pages of many volumes of the Southern Historical Society Papers. As a result, I cannot tell whether the information presented is entirely accurate. I have proofread this article, but some misspellings may be present in the original while others may be the result of incorrect transcription from the source I am using. I have mostly left the misspellings in for the moment. If you know where I can get a PDF of the Southern Historical Society Papers Volume 1 which contains “images” of the original pages, please use the Contact form and let us know. Likewise, if you have access to hard copies of the Papers and would like to proofread for Beyond the Crater, Contact us.
- Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 1, Pages 438-442 ↩