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Defence of Battery Gregg.

by General N. H. Harris.
Besides my natural dislike to controversy, I have an additional dislike when such controversy is with any of my former comrades in arms. For I cherish with peculiar pleasure the memories connected with the days when I marched and fought with the glorious army of Northern Virginia. And now, after the lapse of years, since we put aside the harness of war and have become quiet and plodding citizens, our ways those of peace, I much prefer to avoid a collision, although it be one on paper. And only for the sake of truth and justice am I willing to disturb the kindly relations that should exist between old comrades; and for that reason, and that alone, am I willing to place myself in antagonism with those with whom I served.

In the December number, 1876, of the Southern Historical Society Papers, page 301, Capt. W. Gordon McCabe says, in a foot note to his address made before the “A. N. V. Assoc'n,” that the defence of Battery Gregg, April 2d, 1865, had wrongfully been attributed to Harris's [476] Mississippi brigade, and that the defence was made by Lane's North Carolina brigade. The source or manner of his information he does not state, but advises “by all means” the publication of General Lane's official report. In the January number, 1877, page 19, appears the official report of Brig.-Gen'l J. H. Lane, accompanied by statements of several officers of his brigade. In the February number, 1877, page 82, is an extract from “A soldier's story of the War,” by Napier Bartlett, giving an account of the defence of Fort Gregg. The July number, 1877, page 18, contains an account from the pen of Maj.-Gen'l C. M. Wilcox of The defence of Battery Gregg and evacuation of Petersburg.

As the defence of Battery Gregg, April 2d, 1865, has thus been made a matter of controversy, I shall now state facts from memoranda made in writing in the latter part of the year 1865.

On the night of April 1st, 1865, I received orders from Maj.-Gen'l Mahone, whose division occupied the lines between Swift Run Creek and the James river, to hold my command in readiness to move at a moment's warning.

About two o'clock A. M. of the 2d, received orders to move at once with my command to Petersburg, cross at the Upper Pontoon bridge, and report to General Lee. I arrived at Petersburg a little after sunrise, crossed at the bridge as directed, and found General Lee a short distance therefrom, mounted, with some of his staff around him; and reported as ordered. General Lee asked a staff officer who just then rode up, if Gordon wanted any help; the officer replied that Gordon directed him to say that he thought he could hold his lines without further aid. General Lee then ordered me to report to Major-General Wilcox, near the Newman house on the Boydton plank road. I moved my command at quick time and found Gen'l Wilcox on the plank road, not far from the Newman house. As I approached I saw that the enemy had broken through his lines in heavy force, and was extending in line of battle across the open fields in the direction of the South-side railroad.

General Wilcox says (July No., 1877, page 16):

Colonel Venable, aid-de-camp to General Lee, soon joined me, with a message that Harris's brigade would report in a few minutes; it numbers over five hundred muskets. Heavy masses of the enemy were soon seen moving forward from their entrenched lines in a direction to cross ours near the Carnes House. It was useless to attempt to engage them with the force I had; Harris was therefore ordered [477] forward a little beyond the Banks house — advanced skirmishers, but with orders not to become engaged with his line of battle. It was the purpose to delay the forward movement of the enemy as much as possible, in order that troops from the north side of James river might arrive and fill the gap between the right of our main Petersburg lines and the Appomattox. The enemy, moving by the flank, crossed the Boydton plank-road near the Pickerell house, north of it; then continuing the march across an open field of six or eight hundred yards wide halted, faced to the right, and, preparatory to their advance, fired a few rounds from a battery. Several pieces of artillery were placed in rear of Harris, and opened fire on the enemy, over a mile distant; they moved forward unchecked, and but little annoyed by this fire. The fragments of Thomas and Lane's brigades were withdrawn. * * * * * * The lines of battle of the enemy, imposing from their numbers and strength, advanced; slowly, but steadily, our artillery — that in rear of Harris's brigade — was withdrawn, and the brigade, after a slight skirmish, retired.

The above is substantially correct; instead of five hundred muskets, I had about four hundred, as I had left about one hundred men on picket on the lines between Swift Run creek and the James river. Instead of “Barnes'” house, it should be “Newman's” house.

After receiving instructions from General Wilcox to retire my command from its advanced position on the Plank road I fell back, and, by his orders, placed two regiments, the Twelfth and Sixteenth, numbering about one hundred and fifty muskets, in Battery Gregg, the first commanded by Captain A. K. Jones, the second by Captain James H. Duncan. I placed Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Duncan, of the Nineteenth regiment, in command of the two regiments in Battery Gregg. I placed the Nineteenth regiment, under command of Colonel R. H. Phipps, and the Forty-eighth regiment, commanded by Colonel James N. Jayne, in Battery Whitworth. These two regiments numbered about two hundred and fifty men. These works were situated in an open field, about three hundred paces apart, the surface of the earth sinking gradually to a point about equi-distant between the two works. The enemy, making dispositions carefully, advanced slowly. I rode to the front of Battery Gregg, and instructed Colonel Duncan to have plenty of ammunition brought into that work, telling him where the ordnance wagons were located (having derived this information from General Wilcox or one of his staff), and that he was to hold the work to the last extremity. After having the cabins (quarters of my brigade the preceding winter,) located in front of Whitworth set on fire, so that they would not be a cover for the enemy, I assumed immediate command of Whitworth, as the larger part of my command occupied [478] that work, having Gregg under personal observation as I have stated. The enemy advanced in heavy force against Battery Gregg, and its heroic and determined resistance is now a matter of history. A few moments after the fall of Gregg, I received an order from General Lee, at least I understood it as coming from him (General Wilcox says he sent the order), to abandon Whitworth, and retreat to the inner line. The enemy had nearly surrounded Whitworth, and under a heavy cross-fire I withdrew the two regiments, and retired to the inner lines running from battery forty five to the Appomattox river. This statement of facts is made as brief as possible, and I will now review the statements made by General Lane and others.

General Lane says, January No., 1877, page 22, “Harris' brigade formed on my right,” &c. This is an error, for when I moved forward and took position on the Plank road, as above described, there were no troops of any kind either to my right or left.

Again, same page, “that brigade retired to the fort above Fort Gregg; I think it was called Fort Anderson,” &c. There was no such fort as “Fort Anderson;” I suppose the general means Battery Whitworth, which was not above Fort Gregg, but on a parallel line therewith.

Further he says: “The honor of the gallant defence of Fort Gregg is due to my brigade, Chew's battery, and Walker's supernumerary artillerists, armed as infantry, and not to Harris' brigade, which abandoned Fort Anderson, and retired to the old or inner line of works before Fort Gregg was attacked in force.” This is altogether erroneous, as the regiments in Whitworth were not withdrawn until after the fall of Gregg, and then by orders. During the assault on Gregg, the two regiments in Whitworth were not idle, but assisted their comrades in Gregg by a heavy enfilade fire on their assailants, besides holding the enemy in check in front of Whitworth. As Gregg repulsed assault after assault, the hearty cheers of their comrades in Whitworth encouraged them to renewed effort.

Lieutenant George H. Snow (same No., page 23) says he only--

Saw two or three officers of Harris's brigade in the fort fighting bravely, but the number of their command I cannot exactly give, but think that ten will cover the whole. * * * The enemy charged us three times, and after having expended all our ammunition rocks were used successfully for over half an hour in resisting their repeated attempts to rush over us [the italics are mine.] I do not think Harris's brigade should be mentioned in connection with its defence.


This rock story will show what weight this testimony is entitled to without further comment.

Lieutenant F. B. Craige (in same No., page 24) writes as follows:

Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan and his adjutant, of Harris's brigade, both of whom were wounded in the head and acted with conspicuous gallantry, had with them not more than twenty men.

I can only account for Lieut. Craige's defective vision by the supposition that the immense and imposing numbers of the enemy had, by comparison with the small number of the garrison, so dwarfed his visual organs that he could only see the small number of my command he mentions.

Lieutenant A. B. Howard (same No., page 25) states as follows:

I fully concur with Lieut. Snow in his statements concerning the number of men from Harris's brigade. I am pretty certain that there was only one officer, instead of two, from that brigade; his name was Duncan. He said he was lieutenant-colonel, but there were no stars or bars about him to designate his rank.

This officer seems to have been suffering from “snow” blindness also. Same No., page 26, Lieut. D. M. Rigler says:

After the enemy drove us from the works a portion of the brigade fell back in rear of General Mahone's quarters, and was there until you ordered us to the fort. 'Twas near Mahone's quarters that General A. P. Hill was killed. When we came to the fort you were there with some of the brigade. You then ordered all of us to charge the enemy. We held the Jones road about fifteen minutes. Harris's Mississippi brigade came up; the enemy fired on them and they retreated. * * Harris's men came in with a lieutenant-colonel and about fifteen men. * * * I think there were twenty-five of Harris's Mississippi brigade with a lieutenant-colonel; do not think there were any more. The lieutenant-colonel was wounded.

I suppose Lieutenant Rigler meant the quarters occupied by General Mahone the previous winter. General Hill was not killed near there. If there was any charge made by General Lane or any other command that morning, it was made before I arrived on the ground, for certainly none was made after I arrived. I advanced, as before stated, four or five hundred yards forward on the plank road, and did not “retreat as soon as fired on by the enemy,” as Lieutenant Rigler states, but held the position until ordered to retreat by General Wilcox, through his adjutant, Captain Glover. However, I must give Lieutenant Rigler [480] credit for eye-sight a little better than Lieutenants Snow and Howard, for he thinks he saw “twenty five men of Harris' brigade.”

In the same number, page 22, in a letter to General Wilcox, late his division commander, General Lane says. “You may not be aware that Harris's brigade has been given in print all the credit of that gallant defence.” If such is the case, there certainly must be some good reason therefor, and I shall leave it to those who read this, and the papers annexed, to determine that reason. Sufficient for me to say, that what has appeared heretofore, has not been printed by any one connected with the brigade, or at their instance; and singularly there has been a great unanimity on the part of foe, friend, and stranger in giving the credit of that defence to Harris' brigade.

With this, and the annexed certificates and statements, we cheerfully submit the facts to our old comrades of the Army of Northern Virginia, and by their decision we are willing to stand. Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Duncan, who commanded the regiments in Battery Gregg, survived the war only a few short years, and his memory is loved and cherished by his surviving comrades. Captain James H. Duncan, who commanded the 16th regiment on that eventful day, a true son of Virginia, has “crossed over the river,” and fills an honored grave in the bosom of his adopted State. The lips of these two noble officers are sealed in death.

Whilst it is far from my intent, in the preparation of this statement, to deprive the gallant soldiers of the old North State of any of the laurels won by them on so many well contested fields, it is my intent to demand and preserve for the gallant officers and men of my brigade the glories they won and achieved. It is somewhat remarkable that during the long term of fifteen years, when public prints, both foreign and American, as well as many eye-witnesses of the day, have accorded the defence of Battery Gregg to the Mississippians and the gallant Louisiana artillerists, that others who at this late day now come forward and claim all the honors of that occasion, should have remained utterly silent. I have obtruded myself most reluctantly upon the public, but I have written only in the spirit of self-defence, and have purposely avoided the enumeration of many facts that might be construed as severe or harsh reflections upon others. Nevertheless it is, and will hereafter remain with me a matter of duty, to defend the reputation and honor of the brave fellows who fought and died at Gregg, as earnestly if not as manfully, as they defended the trust committed to them on that memorable day.

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