previous next

The artillery defenders of Fort Gregg.

New Orleans, August 20, 1891.
Mr. R. A. Brock, Secretary Southern Historical Society, Richmond, Va.:
dear Sir: I observe in the last volume of the Southern Historical Society Papers (XVIII) sent me several communications from General James H. Lane in reference to the actions of his brigade on different fields and and occasions, that the old question as to the defenders of Fort Gregg is again revived. The old question as to who the real defenders were ‘will not down’ Mississippians, North Carolinians or Georgians; and again the credit of the artillery is given to ‘Chew's Maryland battery.’

General Lane in a letter to you dated September 17, 1890, writes (Southern Historical Magazine, Volume XVIII, page 80):

The true defenders at Fort Gregg were a part of Lane's North Carolina brigade, Walker's supernumerary artillerists of A. P. Hill's corps, armed as infantry, and a part of “ Chew's Maryland battery.”

Harris' brigade and a few pieces of artillery occupied Fort Alexander (Whitworth), which was to the rear of Fort Gregg and higher up the Appomattox; and that fort was evacuated, the infantry and artillery retiring to the inner line of works before Fort Gregg was attacked in force. I have letters from Lieutenants Snow, Craige, Howard and Rigler, who were in Gregg when it fell, and these officers estimate the number of Harris' brigade in that fort at not more than twenty, including a Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan and his adjutant, while they estimate the numbers from my brigade to have been at least three-fourths the entire force.


It is not my desire to enter into any lengthy discussion regarding the gallant infantry defenders of Fort Gregg—one of the crowning acts of the war—but I will speak for the artillery, for, of its actors, it so happens that I am tolerably familiar, and will be as brief as possible.

On the 31st of July, 1864, while serving in the trenches before Petersburg, Va., with the Washington Artillery, of New Orleans, I received an order from General Pendleton, the chief of artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia, detaching me from that command and placing me in command of Gibbes' battalion of three batteries, then in position just to the right of the crater caused by the explosion of the mine on the previous day—Major Gibbes having been severely wounded and rendered unfit for duty.

Here we remained until November 6th, when we were relieved by Lieutenant-Colonel Moseley's battalion, and were ordered to a position on the Boydton plankroad, between the city and Hatcher's Run. We were assigned to do the light artillery work of A. P. Hill's corps; and several times during the winter we were moved out in snow and sleet to counteract Grant's flanking movements around our right.

After Early's misfortunes in the Valley, and the return to the main army at Petersburg of the remnant of his troops under Gordon, two of my batteries were broken up, and the guns taken to equip those of Gordon, who had left theirs at Fisher's Hill. I was then promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of artillery, and assigned, March 25, 1865, to a battalion commanded by Colonel McIntosh, as second field-officer, and placed in command of the lines in the vicinity of Fort Gregg, making my headquarters in what was known as the Gregg House, within a hundred yards or so of the fort.

Between Fort Gregg and the lines immediately around the city was a deep ravine with a small creek flowing through it. To utilize this ravine and water a large dam was built, which caused, by an accumulation of water in front of the line of works, an additional obstruction to the advance of an enemy.

But this dam broke, and the waters went with a roar and a rush, carrying houses and bridges before it to the Appomattox river. This necessitated the strengthening of the line of works in front of Gregg, and I received an order from General Lee, in person, after dark on [67] the night of the 25th March, to ‘construct pits for two pieces of artillery, and to be in position before daylight.’

Obtaining negroes from the engineer corps, we worked all night, and at sunrise, when General Lee rode up from his headquarters, the pits were finished and occupied by two guns of the Washington Artillery under Lieutenant Harry Battles. We were much gratified at the kind commendations of General Lee, that our work had been promply accomplished. Not so fortunate, however, were our neighbors—the infantry on our left—for the works they had thrown up under the direction of the engineers were too far ‘down the slope,’ and General Lee, with some evidence of dissatisfaction at the error, and in the absence of engineer officers, proceeded to lay out a new line, planting the stakes and driving some of them with his own hands. The enemy had made a feeble advance the evening before, learning, it was presumed, the fact of the breaking of the dam.

Fort Gregg was a detached work in rear of the main line, and at right angles with it. To its right, and within musket-shot, was another work, called Fort Whitworth (not Alexander, as erroneously called by General Lane). These two forts—or, as they really were, simple earthworks—were to have been connected by rifle-pits, but this was never done, and the neglect was keenly felt later on, which I will mention in regular sequence.

During the winter there had been a garrison in Fort Gregg of dismounted and supernumerary artillerists from the different batteries on the lines around Petersburg—the Washington Artillery, the Donaldsonville (Louisiana) Artillery, and others I do not now recall.1

These men were armed with muskets and commanded by Lieutenant Frank McElroy, third company, Washington Artillery.

The day after the completion of the gun-pits in front of Gregg, General Lee ordered a larger work to be constructed upon the site of the pits, and when completed by the engineers with a large force of men, was occupied by Lieutenant Battles and his two guns.

Extract from my diary:

March 25th.—Fighting all day all along the lines. Am in command at Fort Gregg. Enemy take our picket line. Attack expected [68] at the ravine between Battery Gregg and Battery 45. Lines retaken.

March 26-28th.—Working on new fort in front of Gregg.

March 29th.—Enemy moving on our right. Heavy firing in front of Petersburg—10 P. M.

Pardon the egotism if I refer to the fact that the artillerymen did me the honor to call the new fort—the last one built on the lines of Petersburg—‘Fort Owen.’ I try not to give way to the vanity of using the personal pronoun in recalling events of the war, but for my present purpose I cannot well avoid it sometimes.

This was the situation at daybreak on the 2d April, 1865, when Lieutenant Battles and I emerged from the Gregg house, where we had tried to get a night's rest, but had been kept awake by the terrible noise of the cannonading in front of the city, to say nothing of our anxiety in regard to the right of the army, that we had heard. had been overwhelmed at Five Forks the evening before.

McElroy was in Gregg with his dismounted artillerists; Battles was in ‘Owen’ with his two guns and their cannoneers, and to the right and left, along the entrenchments, were infantry of Lane's and Thomas's commands, I believe, stationed several yards apart.

As we walked towards the front line we heard what appeared to be a scattering skirmish firing off to our right; presently infantrymen began crossing the field to the rear hurriedly, our cannoneers laughing and saying, ‘They are chasing rabbits.’ Presently a cannon-shot was fired from the direction in which we had heard the musketry, and a solid shot plowed up the ground in front of our guns. We then knew our lines had been broken and the sun would rise upon an eventful day. Cautioning Battles to keep a sharp lookout, I went over to ‘Gregg’ to see that McElroy was all right, and thence to the Gregg House for my horse. It was not long before a thin skirmish line of the enemy passed over our now depleted front, capturing the whole of Battles' detachment, and possessing themselves of his two guns. But McElroy opened upon them with his little force, and they retired, leaving the guns behind, but taking with them their prisoners. I saw one gallant fellow of McElroy's run, all alone, from ‘Gregg’ to ‘Owen,’ and load and fire one round at the retiring enemy. I wish I knew his name. McElroy immediately took possession of Battles' guns, and prepared to act [69] as artillery. It was found that some of the linch-pins of the limbers had been carried off, but these were replaced from the caissons.

While this was being done a staff officer rode up, and in a mandatory tone wished to know ‘Why the devil these guns had not gone down the road with Harris' Mississippi brigade,’ which had been pushed forward to delay the now advancing enemy, who could be seen making toward the Appomattox river in immense force.

McElroy replied sharply that ‘The enemy had had possession of the guns, and he was repairing damages, and would go to the front as soon as possible.’

The horses having been brought up, McElroy, by my orders, moved down the road towards the enemy and took position in rear of the left of Harris' brigade; but observing that his firing was doing the enemy no harm, I ordered him back to Fort Gregg to put his guns in position in the fort. This he did; and there meeting General Wilcox I heard him (Wilcox) order his aid, Captain Frank Ward (now of Baltimore) to go to General Harris and order him to withdraw his command and place it in the two forts—Gregg and Whitworth. I directed McElroy to pile up all the canister that was in the limber-chests upon the platform, so as to have it handy, and to leave his limbers and horses outside the fort. What finally became of them I never heard.

Seeing McElroy and his men all ready, and Harris on his way to occupy the forts, I rode to report the state of affairs to General Lindsey Walker, chief of artillery, at Battery 45, across the ravine before alluded to, and where I had heard he was at that time, to ask for a battery to operate in the open field around the fort with any infantry that might have remained in the works near the old darn.

I should here mention that there was a battery of four pieces of artillery in Whitworth—whose, I do not know.

When I saw General Walker, and made my report and suggestions, he said that ‘all of his batteries were engaged and that none could be spared, and that the guns in Gregg and Whitworth would be lost if they remained there, and that they must be withdrawn.’

He then ordered me to go and withdraw McElroy from Gregg, and Lieutenant Richard Walke, of his staff (now of Norfolk), to withdraw the guns from Whitworth. Walke and I started across the ravine to carry out our orders, and there separated. [70]

Upon reaching the Gregg house I met General Wilcox, and told him what my orders were from General Walker. He said, with much emphasis: ‘The guns must remain; the forts must be held to the last extremity. Even if we wished to withdraw the guns, the enemy has a battery exploding shells at the entrance to the fort, and it is impossible to get in or out.’

Meanwhile, Harris had placed his men in the forts, himself going into Whitworth, and Colonel Duncan with the Twelfth and Sixteenth Mississippi regiments entering Gregg.

Lieutenant Walke was more fortunate (or unfortunate) at Whitworth than I was at Gregg, and withdrew the guns, as ordered by General Walker.

The enemy were now advancing to the attack, and Gregg, being surrounded, was finally taken, and Harris, deprived of his artillery, saved the remnant of hisc ommand by withdrawing from Whitworth, in compliance with orders from General Wilcox.

The defence of Gregg has been often described. I witnessed the three assaults from Battery 45, where I posted myself with my battalion commander, Colonel McIntosh. We saw distinctly the rushes of the enemy, the discharge of McElroy's guns when the enemy was almost up to their muzzles. An incident is related by an artilleryman (John S. Mioton) who was in the fort, that just as a young man (a member of the third company, Washington Artillery—one Berry) was about to pull the lanyard of one of the guns, the Federals appeared above him on the parapet and shouted loudly to him: ‘Don't fire that gun; drop the lanyard, or we'll shoot!’ ‘Shoot and be damned!’ retorted Berry, and discharged the gun, loaded with double canister, into the masses of the enemy. As he did so, he fell, pierced with numerous balls, a corpse. We tried to help by firing solid shot from the English Whitworth gun in Forty-five, but with little effect.

The fatal error in not finishing the rifle pits between Gregg and Whitworth contributed largely to aid the assailants. The unfinished trench gave them a foothold to climb the parapet, and we saw six regimental flags in quick succession gain that position. The firing being continued, we thought then that the garrison was being put to the sword. It has been estimated that there wore two hundred men in Fort Gregg—maybe more; sixty-seven were reported killed, [71] and General Gibbon stated to General Wilcox at Appomattox that he lost eight hundred men in the assault. How many of the two hundred men were Mississippians, and how many North Carolinians, I cannot tell. I think I am safe in saying, however, that the men of Harris's brigade were the only organized body of infantry in the fort; the others had been rallied there by officers of different commands when falling back from the lines.

I remember that Colonel Chew, and probably a few of his men, were bivouacking somewhere near the Gregg House, his command having been, so he gave me to understand, disbanded. Being from Maryland, and their time having expired, they were awaiting an opportunity to go home.

Colonel Chew was in Gregg when the assaults were made, but took no part in the defence. What he did do a statement would come better from himself than from any one else. For many years—a quarter of a century—it has been claimed by Pollard and General Lane that Chew's battery participated in the defence of Gregg. It is full time that this should be set right.

The guns in the fort were guns of the first company Washington Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Frank McElroy of the third company of the Washington Artillery, and manned by cannoneers of that command.

I have never seen any statement from Colonel Chew claiming the credit of the action of the artillery at Gregg, or that it was his battery that was entitled to the credit of the gallantry shown; but as by his silence he has accepted the verdict due a brother officer, will he not give us his account of the defence of Fort Gregg?

In Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XVIII, page 283, under heading of Chew's battery, we read as follows:

The 16th of January (1865) Shoemaker's and our (Thompson-Chew's) batteries disbanded, to be called in by general orders at any time. Called in through the papers April 1, 1865; ordered to report to Captain Carter at Lynchburg. I saw the order on the 2d.

This extract would go to show that Chew's (Thompson's) battery was disbanded in January, 1865, and that on the day the lines were broken and Gregg fell Colonel Chew had no command at Petersburg.

William Miller Owen, Late Lieutenant-Colonel Artillery, A. N. V

1 October 12—‘One-half of our artillery drivers, armed with muskets, put on duty at Fort Gregg.’—My Diary.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: