Thursday, March 24, 2011

Carnage at Fort Gilmer

While most of what I write about on this blog (and in my forthcoming book) deals with the fighting that took place at New Market Heights during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, there is another encounter involving USCTs that took place on the same day that merits examination – the Battle of Fort Gilmer. Fought late in the day on September 29, 1864, this battle came about as a result of the success achieved by Maj. Gen. David Bell Birney’s Tenth Corps at New Market Heights. As Birney’s troops pushed westward up the New Market Road towards Richmond after the battle, the lead division came under heavy artillery fire from Fort Gilmer. After some hemming and hawing, the division commanders deemed it unwise to continue toward Richmond with such a powerful fort in their rear. The decision was made – Fort Gilmer would have to be taken.

The first assault column was ready to go by 12:50 p.m., but did not receive the order to attack until 1:25. Ten minutes later, 1,400 men of Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster’s Second Division moved forward. The line of advance would take them into the sights of Confederate gunners before they moved across three separate ravines that threw off their alignment and caused great confusion among the ranks. After the third ravine was crossed, they emerged into an open field that was directly in front of the fort. If they could make it across that field, they would encounter one line of fraise (sharpened stakes sticking chest high out of the ground) and one line of abatis (sharpened branches of tree tops interlocked together to form a sort of early barbed wire) and then a ditch, or moat, that was ten feet deep. If by some miracle they could surmount these obstacles, they would then have to climb up the wall of the fort and fight their way in. Needless to say, Foster’s men – who would wind up attacking the fort twice – failed to take the fort.

Fraise


Abatis







As the day wore on the Colored Brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. William Birney (the corps commander’s older brother) arrived. Since Foster’s division had failed twice, it was decided that Birney’s brigade would attack next. Birney, unfortunately, threw his men in piecemeal. With two regiments pinned down or withdrawing from the field, a garbled order came down from brigade that the 7th USCT was to attack the fort with only four companies. Captain George R. Sherman of Company C, 7th USCT, chronicled what happened next:


Capt. George R. Sherman, 7th USCT

I was with [the 7th USCT] on Sept. 29, 1864 when Companies C, D, G, and K, were placed under Captain Julius A. Weiss, and ordered to charge and capture a fort in our front. When the order was received the Captain exclaimed, “What, capture a fort with a skirmish line? Who ever heard of such a thing? We’ll try, but it can’t be done.” It proved to be Fort Gilmer, on the main line of Confederate defenses, about six and a half miles from Richmond. A white regiment, the Ninth Maine, had just been repulsed in a charge on the same fort…Advancing as skirmishers we soon encountered a heavy fire of shell and shrapnel, not from the fort in or front alone, but also from one on our right flank, which was quickly followed by canister, and soon supplemented by musketry, the instant it could be utilized. Almost at the same moment the order to charge was given, and we dashed forward, soon to find ourselves plunging into a ditch fully seven feet deep, and twice that width. Pausing only for a breathing spell, the men helped one another up the interior, and nearly perpendicular wall of the ditch, until sixty or more had climbed to the foot of the parapet, and, upon signal, all attempted to scale and storm it. A volley from muskets whose muzzles almost touched us, and whose bullets penetrated the brains and breasts of many of those who showed themselves above the exterior crest, drove them instantly back, tumbling many into the ditch. Hand grenades were also thrown among us, some of which were caught by the men and hurled back at the enemy. The assaulting party was soon rendered perfectly helpless and we were compelled to surrender. All of the four companies except two lieutenants who skulked and one man who escaped from the ditch were either killed, wounded, or captured. One man escaped from the ditch and ran back to the regiment unobserved by our captors, during the excitement attending the surrender, and the transfer of our personal effects to the possession of the victors. One of the prisoners was claimed as a slave, and was delivered over to his would-be master. Of the 150 enlisted men who started, 51, or over 32 percent, were killed or mortally wounded.

 Fort Gilmer would not fall on September 29th. The 7th USCT lost 20 killed, 82 wounded, and 133 missing.

An interesting counterpoint to Sherman’s narrative is the account left to us by Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, who gives a no-holds-barred description of what happened from the Confederate perspective:

Brig. Gen. E. P. Alexander
Gen. Birney’s command advanced upon the New Market Road, driving in our pickets & taking our Exterior Line where it crossed that road and was practically without any garrison. Thence, some of his troops were pushed over to attack Fort Gilmer & the lines in its vicinity – but the attack failed every where. The best of it was made by Birney’s colored brigade, which was directed upon Fort Gilmer. There was only a picket line of infantry in the fort at that time, and along the neighboring Spur Line intrenchments, & the guns in the fort, some six or eight, were better adapted for distant than for a close defence. So, without much loss, the colored troops made a rush & jumped into the large ditch, some eight to ten feet deep, around the fort. Once in the ditch they were comparatively safe from fire, most of the ditch being dead space. At first they made some effort to scale the parapet. A large Negro helped by his comrades got upon the berm & mounted the exterior slope. He was shot & fell back in the ditch, & his comrades were heard to exclaim, “Dar now! Dey done kill Corporal Dick! Corporal Dick was best man in de regiment!” News spread along the line, on both flanks, that Negro troops were corralled in [the] Fort Gilmer ditch,& many of the Texans & Georgians, who had never met them before, came running into the fort & asking for “a chance to shoot a nigger.” Meanwhile the artillerists lighted shells & rolled them over the parapets to explode in the ditch, & the infantry mounted the parapets to fire into the crowd, & nearly every man in the ditch was finally killed or captured, the majority being killed. After that all colored troops were known in our corps as the “Corporal Dicks.”
Fort Gilmer was yet another instance in which USCTs proved their mettle, getting farther with four companies than an entire division had been able to just hours earlier. Perhaps the best compliment came from a Confederate who was guarding the few men of Birney’s brigade who had been captured. When asked if blacks could fight, the Rebel replied: "By God! If you had been there you would have thought so. They marched up just as if they were on drill, not firing a shot.” After the war, another Confederate was willing to admit that on September 29th, “Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”

The Interior of Fort Gilmer Today

4 comments:

  1. I just lectured on this incident on Thursday. So many students think Glory is the whole story. (That rhymes-a good paper title.) I asked them how many black regiments formed, the highest guess was ah.... 12. So, your blog is very important. Keep up the good work!

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  2. Thank you, Barbara! If you need me to come and straighten your students out as to how many USCT units were raised during the war, just lemme know ;-) Looking forward to reading The Won Cause!

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  3. Our Great Great Grandfather, Captain John Viers, led Company C of the 5th Regiment USCT. He was wounded at the battle of Ft. Gilmer and ended up in Libby Prison, only because he was spared by a fellow Mason on the other side. I am looking for information on what happened to the rest of Company C.

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    1. Dear Kathleen,

      I am well acquainted with John Viers and even have a wartime image of him.

      Please email me at jprice1@live.com and I will be happy to share the image and some information I have collected on him - he had a very interesting time after Fort Gilmer!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

      Best,

      Jimmy

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