Friday, May 20, 2022

Fort Hamby’s Vigilantes?

   A friend sent me an Instagram post this morning (May 20, 2022) from a North Carolina museum, concerning the episode at Fort Hamby. Fort Hamby, a farm in Wilkes County, became a haven for Union deserters and murderers in the closing days of the war. The Instagram post reads “This Day in History (1865): Confederate vigilantes led by Captain R. M. Sharpe began the siege of Fort Hamby in Wilkes County.” Are the folks trying to rewrite history, or are they just unaware of the baggage being dragged by their choice of words? We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and go with unaware of the problems with their word choice.


   What exactly do you think of when you hear the word “vigilantes”? Does it have positive or negative connotations? In our day and time, vigilantes are often seen in the negative. According to the Cambridge dictionary, a vigilante is “a person who forces obedience to the law without legal authority to do so, or a member of a group that decides to force obedience to the law without official authority.” Possibly the biggest example of vigilantes comes during the first two decades of the twentieth century and American labor history. But does the term vigilante apply to those former Confederates trying to protect their homes in the foothills of western North Carolina during the waning days of the war?

Wilkes and the surrounding counties were deeply embroiled in an inner-Civil War that often pitted multiple groups against each other: pro-Confederate, pro-Union, and a whole bunch of people trying to avoid both armies, many waging their own personal war against whomever they came across. Into this mixture came Stoneman’s Raid in March and April 1865. Whatever scanty shreds of law and order that existed were swept away as Stoneman left. The Confederate army was gone, the North Carolina home guard was in disarray, and the militia had not been re-formed. Thieves, outliers, marauders, bandits, and deserters were everywhere, taking what they wanted.

The Hamby family farm (now located under the waters of the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir) became a haven for deserters and outliers, better known as “Fort Hamby.” Leading the band of outlaws was a Michael Wade, a deserter from the 10th Michigan Cavalry. The house the outlaws were using was made of logs, and the upper story had gun ports. Due to its location and surrounding topography, those on the inside had a wide range of open ground, an ideal defensive position. There were at least eighteen bandits in the band. One local resident wrote that Wade’s group “showed a spirit of revenge and a desire for plunder. . . they seemed to think they must treat with the utmost cruelty all those who were not in sympathy with them. All the people of Wilkes, therefore, lived in constant dread of them, and consequently were frightened at the mere barking of a dog or the rattle of the leaves. Life was worse than death.” There were also raids into Alexander and Caldwell counties as well.[1]  Another account stated that that the robbers “threatened to shoot Jos. Ferguson, aged 80. . . if he did not give up his money; robbed a lady, traveling from Patterson to Salem, of all her jewelry and baggage; fired at a man and his wife driving along the road, and killed the woman.”[2]

Several attempts were made by recently returned Confederate soldiers to subdue Wade and his band of brigands. Harvey Bingham, former commander of the 11th Battalion North Carolina Home Guard, led one group to Fort Hamby on March 7, 1865. It seems that Bingham was successful in capturing the group. However, when Wade and his followers asked time to be able to get dressed, they made for hidden guns and killed two of Bingham’s men. A second attempt was made soon thereafter, this time led by Washington Sharpe, a former Confederate and later home guard officer. Sharpe sent to Iredell County for Col. Robert V. Cowan and more men, while another man was dispatched to Lexington, North Carolina, asking the Federal commander there for assistance. Sharpe and about forty men laid siege to Fort Hamby. The day after the siege started, the kitchen was set on fire, and soon the sparks from the fire caught the roof of Fort Hamby on fire. Wade and his cohorts called out for quarter. All were captured save Wade. He escaped. The others were tied to stakes and executed. Not long thereafter, more local men came to help, and eventually, a Federal officer and thirty-one men from Lexington arrived as well. When he was told of what had transpired, the Federal officer approved of Sharpe’s actions.[3]

Besides Wade, who escaped, those possibly a part of the group include William Beck, a Confederate deserter; _____ Church, executed; Theof. Lockwood, deserter, 10th Michigan Cavalry, executed; _____ Simmons.[4]

Confederate “vigilantes” really is a poor choice of words. This was not a Confederate military action coming with orders from on high. It was only a group of local citizens trying to fill a void (law and order) left by the passage of Federal soldiers through the area. It seems that had Federal authorities had a plan for restoring law and order to each community as they passed through, then the actions of Bingham and Sharpe would have not been needed. But, as often the case, the United States lacked a plan to help ordinary people suffering from extraordinary problems. 



[1] Statesville Record and Landmark, June 19, 1903.

[2] The Lenoir Topic, April 28, 1881.

[3] Statesville Record and Landmark, June 19, 1903; Linney, “A Battle After the War,” Clark, North Carolina Troops, 5:285-297.

[4] Smith, “Biographical Notes, Company Front, (2010): 41-47.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Federal Judge Asa Biggs on Secession

   Who? Asa Biggs? Even the most ardent student of the times might be hard pressed to recall an Asa Biggs. A little background might be in order before we jump into his thoughts on disunion.

   Born on February 4, 1811, Biggs hailed from Martin County. He was educated locally in Williamston, and at the age of fifteen began clerking and later, managing a mercantile firm. Biggs read law, and it appears he did just that: read law. He later wrote that he “had no legal instruction.” In July, he traveled to Raleigh where he was interviewed by two of the state supreme court justices and was licensed to practice law in the county courts. “In 1832,” Biggs wrote, “I attend a District Convention as a delegate from martin County to nominate an elector on the Jackson-Van Buren ticket.” This was probably Biggs’s first role in politics. Although it was different from his family, he chose to align with the Democrat party, “believing that the principles of the party promised more good to the country.” Biggs served as a delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835. In 1840, Biggs was nominated for a seat in the state house, a contest which he won. In 1844, he ran and won a seat in the state senate. He was then nominated to run for the US Senate, a seat he won, serving in the 29th Congress (1845-1847). Governor Reid appointed Biggs to a panel of three to revise the Statutes of North Carolina. Again in 1854, Biggs served in the state senate, and in 1855, was nominated and elected a United States Senator, a position he held until May 1858, when James Buchanan appointed Biggs Judge of the United States District Court for the District of North Carolina.[1] 

Asa Biggs 

   “In was evident to my mind,” Biggs wrote about his time in Washington, D.C., after his election to the Senate, that “a lamentable decay of virtue was progressing in our public councils.” Instead of growing better since his term in the US House in 1845, “things were growing worse.” Biggs probably witnessed Sen. Charles Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech, followed by Rep. Preston Brook’s caning of Sumner. He would have seen first-hand the fallout from the Dred Scott case, the ongoing debate between Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan, and the turmoil in Kansas. These events, along with the corruption within the government, led Biggs to surmise “that the government of the United States was becoming thoroughly corrupt, and that in a few years it would fall to pieces by its own corruption.” With the death of Judge Henry Potter, Biggs was nominated by President James Buchanan to fill the position. Biggs accepted and resigned his seat in the US Senate. District courts were held twice a year in Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington. Biggs was also required to attend circuit court in Raleigh once a year. At the latter, Biggs was required to sit with another Federal Judge, Associate Justice James M. Wayne. In those two years, Wayne only showed up once. In their correspondence, Biggs was able to ascertain than Wayne “positively denied the right of a state to secede from the Union.” With the election of Lincoln eminent, “the excitement in the South was great.” Biggs prepared a charge to the grand jury should Wayne include the troubles plaguing the nation in his charge to the grand jury. While Wayne did not mention secession, Biggs kept his charge and recorded it in his autobiography.[2]

   “I am well aware that the right of State Secession from this Union, has been for a long time a controverted question, upon which Statesmen and the brightest intellects of the Country have entertained opposite opinions; and therefore I might well hesitate as a judicial officer, in volunteering an opinion, until a case is made which rendered it necessary to pronounce my judgement. But no alternative is now left me . . .

   “I hold therefore that the states, in forming the Federal government acted separately as equals and sovereigns, with no common Superior, and that the first duty and obligation of the citizens was due to his State; and upon the adoption of the Constitution of the United States by his State, this duty and obligation is no less due to the United States, but because it is at the command and clothed with the sovereign authority of his State. That the citizen while his State remains a member of the Federal Union must conform to the Constitution of the United States and the constitutional laws of the Federal government, although they conflict with the Constitution and laws of his State; and where there is a conflict of opinion as to what laws are constitutional, the proper tribunal to decide that question is the Supreme Judiciary of the United States. . .”

   “But whenever any State in her Sovereign capacity (and I mean by that, the people of a State duly and legally assembled in a convention by the proper authority, with the same formalities and regularity as conventions were held to ratify and adopt the Constitution of the United States originally) shall solemnly so decide she has the right for sufficient cause (of which she must be the judge, as upon her alone rest the heavy responsibility for such a fearful act) to voluntarily and peaceably secede from the Union, which she voluntarily entered; and thereupon, a citizen of such State is absolved from his allegiance to the United States, and will not be guilty of treason to the United States for obeying the commands and maintaining the laws of his own State.”

   “This is my decided judgement now formed after much reflection upon the theory of our government, and the history of the day in which the Federal Government, was created; and in my humble judgment, in the language of one of North Carolina’s most cherished sons, (the late Mr. [Nathaniel] Macon) ‘this right is the best guard to public liberty and to public justice that could be desired’; and if, generally or universally admitted, is the best Security for the permanency and perpetuity of the Union.”

   Biggs never gave this charge to the grand jury, but it is important for understanding his thinking regarding the important issue of the date. All of this was recorded by Biggs in his autography, which he started in 1863 and finished in 1865. Under a section entitled “SECESSION,” Biggs wrote of the division in the Democratic party in 1860, and in political theory altogether. There “was a conflict of opinion as to the course to be adopted in creating territorial government; some in favor, and others opposed to what was called ‘Squatter Sovereignty.’ The opposition, then organized in a party, called themselves ‘Republicans,’ (a desecration of that old party name) claimed the right of Congress, to prohibit slavery in the Territories, and to legislate for them; and avowed their determination to do so if they obtained power.” Biggs was no fire eater, or radical.  “I felt an earnest desire to save the Union,” he wrote, “if the rights of the South and the States, could be preserved.”[3]

   Judge Biggs held on to his post as a Federal Judge until April 1861, when a cumulation of events forced him to resign. In his short letter to Lincoln, he stated that he was “unwilling longer to hold a commission in a Government which had degenerated into a military despotism. I subscribe myself yet a friend of constitutional liberty.” Biggs went on to serve in the North Carolina session convention, and once North Carolina joined the Southern Confederacy, Jefferson Davis would appoint him a Confederate judge for the same area of North Carolina. His family were forced out of their home in Williamston by Federal advances and Biggs lost  one son during the war. Biggs later moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he died in 1878.[4]

   Paul Chestnut wrote in 1979 in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography that Biggs was an “ardent supporter of slavery and states’ rights.” Based upon Biggs’s own writings, it might be better said that Asa Biggs was an ardent supporter of the United States Constitution and the restrictions the constitution placed on the Federal government.[5]  



[1] Biggs, Autobiography, 4,6, 16-7.

[2] Biggs, Autobiography, 19, 23, 24.

[3] Biggs, Autobiography, 26.

[4] Biggs, Autobiography, 27.

[5] Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:191.

Monday, May 09, 2022

The Jackson-Pender meeting at Chancellorsville

   The story of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding on the night of May 2, 1863, is well known. During a lull in the fighting after Jackson had rolled up the flank of the Army of the Potomac, Jackson and his staff rode forward into the darkness to scout the Federal lines. How far he rode is not certain. The front Confederate line was held by the 33rd North Carolina Troops, deployed as skirmishers. To their rear were the other four regiments of Lane’s brigade. It was dark and there was a lot of confusion. There was also a lot of skirmishing as the Federals constructed works. Things were so jumbled up that four or five members of the 7th North Carolina State Troops were able to capture almost 200 members of the 128th Pennsylvania Infantry. In the ensuing confusion, Jackson was wounded by his own troops and taken to the rear.


   Capt. James P. Smith wrote an account of the night of May 2 for Century Magazine entitled “Stonewall Jackson’s Last Battle.” Picking up Smith’s account, Jackson, after his wounding was taken behind the lines. The “litter was soon brought, and again rallying a few men, we essayed to carry him farther, when a second bearer fell at my side. This time, with none to assist, the litter careened, and the general fell to the ground, with a groan of deep pain. Greatly alarmed, I sprang to his head, and, lifting his head as a stray beam of moonlight came through clouds and leaves, he opened his eyes and wearily said: "Never mind me, Captain, never mind me." Raising him again to his feet, he was accosted by Brigadier-General Pender: "Oh, General, I hope you are not seriously wounded. I will have to retire my troops to re-form them, they are so much broken by this fire."[1]

   The difficulty with this story is that Pender’s brigade had yet to deploy when Jackson was wounded. Why would they need to retire and re-form if they were only harassed by a little stray artillery fire?

   Who was James P. Smith? Born in Ohio, Smith attended both Jefferson College and Hampton Sidney. When the war came along, he enlisted in the Rockbridge Artillery. On October 8, 1862, he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the staff of Jackson as an aide de camp. There is nothing in his record to indicate that he was not with Jackson that night.[2]

   Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender was commanding a brigade in A.P. Hill’s Light Division on May 2, 1863. The Light Division was the last of three divisions that accompanied Jackson on his celebrated flank march on May 2. Most historians do not discuss the order of march for the Light Division, save that two brigades, under Archer and Thomas, were left behind to deal with the threat at Catharine’s Furnace. That left Hill with four brigades: those of Lane, Pender, Heth, and McGowan.[3]

   Jackson commenced his attack at 5:30 that afternoon. In his deployment of brigades for the attack, Sears lost Pender’s brigade. In the most popular book on the battle, Sears writes that Jackson’s front line consisted of troops from Rodes’s division: brigades belonging to Iverson, O’Neal, Doles, and Colquitt. In the second line were Ramseur’s brigade from Rodes’s Division, and Warren’s and Jones’s brigades from Colston’s division. A third line, north of the Orange Plank Road, was composed of Nicholls’s brigade of Colston’s Division, and Heth’s brigade of Hill’s Division. “[A]nother of Hill’s brigades, James Lane’s was deployed in column on the Turnpike.” What happened to Pender? And McGowan? Schenck likewise is no help, only adding that as Jackson was deploying, “Hill’s Division was partly deployed and partly in column on the road. The two rear most brigades were still coming up.” Furgurson goes a little further, writing that Heth’s and Pender’s brigades were forming north of the Orange Plank Road, while Lane and McGowan’s brigades (in that order) were still on the road when the attack commenced. However, Furguson provides no source for the disposition of the Light Division.[4]

   What of the reports in the Official Records? A. P. Hill gives the slimmest of details, and nothing about the disposition of his division on the march or the battle on May 2. Heth, after his skirmish on the morning of May 2, writes that he was ordered to disengage, “crossing the plank road and [follow] the rest of division.” On reaching the stepping-off place for the late afternoon attack, Heth was ordered to “form line of battle on General Colston’s left.” However, Colston “advanced his line before” Heth could deploy. Heth then was ordered to deploy off Pender’s left. “This was done.” At some point, Heth and Pender advanced “1 ½ miles on the left of and parallel to the Plank road.” Heth makes no more mention of Pender’s brigade until after Jackson is wounded. Lane, in his official report, makes no mention of the order of march. Pender, in his report, does not write about the order of march, but does write that they were formed in support of Colston’s division on the left of the road. “In this order we advanced some distance, when orders were received to enter the road again and push on by the flank, in which order I moved until reaching the advanced position of our troops.” Since Lane’s brigade was in the lead at this point, Pender’s brigade must have been somewhere behind Lane’s men.[5]

   Both Lane and Pender write about the artillery bombardment. After Lane had been ordered to deploy, but before he could execute his orders, the Federals “opened a terrific artillery fire, which was responded to by our batteries.” It was Lane who suggested that Hill order his batteries to stop fire, and when they did, the Federals also stopped their fire. "All old soldiers know how difficult it is to maneuver the bravest troops in the dark under a murderous fire, through scrubby oaks & pine thickets, & over the abatis of the enemy's abandoned works," Lane wrote after the war. Pender, someplace further down the road behind Lane, writes that he was ordered to move to the left and deploy his troops. “Here, after my men were subjected to a most galling and destructive shelling from the batteries near Chancellorsville, I moved my regiments in to the left and formed line of battle…” Lane writes that the artillery duel lasted fifteen minutes. Once it ended, Lane deployed his troops, looked for Hill for further orders, found Jackson instead and received orders from him. Then Jackson and his staff rode maybe half a mile forward and partway back before being wounded by Lane’s men, who were still in front of Pender.[6]

   There was some Federal artillery fire later. Shrapnel hit Jackson’s litter bears at least once, forcing them to stop another time. Is this the “galling and destructive shelling” that Pender mentions?  Furthermore, most accounts have Capt. Benjamin Leigh being sent to the rear to find a surgeon and ambulance for Jackson. Leigh rode back 100 yards (through Lane’s brigade) where he found “Pender marching up the road with his brigade.” It is important to note that Leigh is writing on May 12, 1863. The events are still fresh in his mind. Pender, in both his official report, and in his letters home, made no mention of Leigh.[7]

   Back to Smith--He recalled Pender telling Jackson: “I will have to retire my troops to re-form them, they are so much broken by this fire." Much of this boils down to timing. How much time passed between the severe artillery fire that both Lane and Pender made mention of, and Pender encountering Jackson on the stretcher being carried to the rear in the darkness? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? How far back was Pender’s brigade? If Leigh is correct in finding Pender still stacked in the road, then why the need to fall back and reform? Lane’s brigade survived the artillery bombardment and was successfully deployed. Pender was someplace behind him, and had Lane’s brigade to provide cover while they reformed from an artillery barrage fifteen or thirty minutes before. Of course, we know that Pender did not retire. He went in on Lane’s left just a short time later. Smith’s account is often repeated or alluded to. Stephen Sears, Mathew Lively, and Ernest Furgurson all mention this account. The timing just seems odd. Maybe Pender compressed the timing and the artillery barrage into one event, without all of the gaps.

   Pender seems more interested in writing to wife about his prospects for promotion than about the battle. I understand wanting to protect his loved one from the atrocities of war, but history could have used a little more detail, detail we could use, nearly a hundred and sixty years later, to help us understand the movements of long-dead men on a dark, confusing battlefield.



[1] Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, 3:212.

[2] Krick, Staff Officers in Gray, 269.

[3] Sears, Chancellorsville, 256; Schenck, Up Came Hill, 248.

[4] Sears, Chancellorsville, 260-61; Schenck, Up Came Hill, 248; Furgurson, Chancellorsville, 1863, 167, 168.

[5] Official Records, Vol. 25, 1:885, 890, 915-16, 935.

[6] Official Records, Vol. 25, 1:916, 935; James Lane to Marcellus Moorman, "Narrative of Events and Observations Connected with the Wounding of General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson," SHSP, 30:111-13.

[7] Leigh, “Wounding of Stonewall Jackson,” SHSP, 6:233; Lively, Calamity at Chancellorsville, 72.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Not Tom Dula

   There is an image floating around on the internet labeled “Tom Dula.” We are not sure who this image is of, but we are sure that it certainly is not Tom Dula. A little background:

   Thomas C. Dula was born June 22, 1845, in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Tom was just a kid when the war came along. At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in Company K, 42nd North Carolina Troops, on April 24, 1862. He was mustered in as a private. In January or February 1864, Dula was promoted to a musician and started beating a drum for his regiment. Dula was captured during the battle of Wise Forks, March 10, 1865, and was confined at Point Lookout, Maryland, until June 11, 1865, when he was released after taking his Oath of Allegiance. Tom then returned home to Wilkes County.[1]

Not Tom Dula/Dooley. 
   Prior to the war, Tom Dula was in a relationship with Ann Melton, who was married to James Melton at the time. As soon as Dula returned from the war, he resumed his relationship with Ann. According to various court testimonies, Tom was having relationships with various other women at the same time, including Caroline Barnes, Pauline Foster, and Laura Foster.[2]  

   Laura Foster was from just a few miles away. She and Pauline were cousins. Pauline later testified that she left neighboring Watauga County and came to her grandfather’s residence, seeking the help of a local doctor. Pauline had syphilis. She soon passed it on to Tom, who passed the venereal disease to Ann and Laura. It later came out at the trial that Tom may have killed Laura because he believed she had infected him. Regardless of the motive, on May 24 or 25, 1866, Tom presumably killed Laura, buried the body, and fled to Tennessee. He was captured in July, was eventually tried twice, with Zebulon Baird Vance as one of his lawyers, and was hanged May 1, 1868, in Statesville, North Carolina. Tom Dula is buried near his home in Wilkes County.[3]

   The story of Tom Dula is interesting, but in and of itself, not all that important. Events like this happened all over the place, especially during those unpleasant Reconstruction years. What does make the story important is the folklore that grew up over the following decades. The events became a ballad that was sung in a style going back centuries, similar to other songs of love and death like “The House Carpenter” and “Barbery Ellen.” In the 1930s, the ballad was collected on the back side of Beech Mountain, Watauga County, by a couple from New York – Frank and Ann Warner. They passed it on to Allen Lomax who passed it on to the Kingston Trio who recorded “The Ballad of Tom Dooley.” This song is credited with starting the folk music revolution of the 1960s. It was their first hit.[4]

   So what about the photograph that appears all across the internet? It is not Tom… In 2004, Joel Reese, Local History Librarian at the Iredell County Public Library, was looking for a picture to accompany a program on Tom Dula/Dooley that the library was hosting. He went to the Library of Congress, downloaded an unidentified image of the Civil War soldier, and used that image, but never claimed that it was Tom; it was just an illustration. Overnight, the unknown soldier became the infamous Tom Dooley. You can read this story here. Despite the image appearing on markers, in museums, on findagrave, or on the internet in general, this image is not Tom.

   So just who is it? Based upon the unknown soldier’s hat, breast place, and buckle, many of us believe that the soldier served in the Volunteer Maine Militia. One site states that there were fifty-eight companies of Maine Volunteer Militia in 1854. Some of these become regular Maine infantry regiments during the war, while others were disbanded before the war.[5]

   Will we ever have an actual image of Tom Dula/Dooley? Probably not. But we should stop using this image. It is not Tom. It is not even an image of a Confederate soldier. It is, however, a clear reminder of the dangers of poor research and the pitfalls of the internet. By making an incorrect assumption about an illustration that was never labeled as Tom Dula, those who have passed around that false label have caused confusion and the perpetuation of false information.



[1] Jordan, NC Troops, 10:282.

[2] West, The Ballad of Tom Dula, 56-57.

[3] West, Lift up your Head, Tom Dooley, 14-19.

[4] Eacker, “Frank Proffitt, Sr.,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 1199-1200.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

James Atkinson, the 33rd North Carolina, and Fort Gregg.

   At least one soldier escaped from Fort Gregg. His name was James Atkinson, a member of the 33rd North Carolina Troops. Not only do post-war accounts record his escaping; he also left bearing the flag of his regiment.

   James W. Atkinson was born in 1844, probably in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He volunteered on March 1, 1862, and was mustered in as a private in Company G, 33rd North Carolina Troops. Atkinson was wounded several times during the war, including Gaines Mill, Sharpsburg (in both hands), Chancellorsville (hip), Reams Station, and Jones Farm (leg). Atkinson was promoted to corporal on August 1, 1863. He was also captured during the battle of Hanover Court House in May 1862 but was able to escape. As early as August 25, 1864, he was serving as color sergeant, or, in the color guard.[1]

Atkinson holding the flag of the 51st NC. 
   After the breakthrough of the Confederate lines on the morning of April 2, 1865, Atkinson made his way to the rear with his flag. Presumedly, the flag was one of those issued to James H. Lane’s brigade in December 1862. These flags bore distinctive designations; battle honors painted with white scalloped letters. At some point, Atkinson either went to Fort Gregg or was assigned to Fort Gregg. Toward the end of the battle, Corporal Atkinson made his escape. Whether he was ordered out of the Fort, or simply took it upon himself to save his banner, is unknown.

   Several stories surfaced after the war about the actions of Atkinson. One in 1883, from a fellow veteran in Lane’s brigade, described the action from Battery 45: “Out from the sally-port [of Fort Gregg] quickly passed a single soldier, boyish of figure and lithe, but strong; and before Warren’s astonished troops could recover their wits, he had unfurled the flag which he bore, and, taking a position not a great way off, he waved the tattered colors in their very teeth. Volley after volley from the outer line of the enemy on the parapet answered his defiance, but without effect, so charmed did his young life seem; when, fixing the flag staff in his belt, he coolly marched away, the volleys still continuing-he with head aloft and color flying, down the ravine, up upon the dam connecting the two forts, and finally safely into the arms of his comrades.”[2]

   Recounting the notes of a speaker during a Confederate Memorial Day event in Fayetteville, a writer mentions the words of the orator, who was speaking on Fort Gregg and the sacrifices of the Confederates within the fort. “Among his audience there stood, unknown to the speaker, two of those brave and gallant men” who had been in Fort Gregg. One of those was James W. Atkinson. As the battle waned, Atkinson, “flag in hand retreated through the sallyport, and after he had gotten some three hundred yards from the fort, turned[,] unfurled his flag and waved it in defiance, at the enemy, then marched on as volley after volley was fired at him; turning time and again to give a parting salute, he safe and unscarred arrived amid the shouts of his comrades at battery 45.”[3]

   While his is a less elaborate story, William H. McLaurin, 18th North Carolina, recalled in 1900 that as Fort Gregg fell, Lt. William O. Robinson, 18th North Carolina, with “color sergeant James W. Atkinson… escaped after the fighting with clubbed muskets ceased. . .”[4]

   Another account appeared in 1901. After the defenders of Fort Gregg had run low on ammunition and began to hurl rocks and bricks, “a youth named Atkinson, from North Carolina, seized the tattered flag he and his comrades had so bravely defended and dashed over the parapet, followed by bullets from perhaps 500 rifles, but safely escaping with the trophy of his valor. . . After getting a short distance away, Atkinson turned, and, unfurling his flag, waived it defiantly at the enemy.”[5]

William W. Chamberlaine also mentioned seeing Atkinson. Chamberlaine was back in the inner Confederate line and could see Fort Gregg “very plainly. A color bearer ran out of the Fort with his flag; two men pursuing him, but he passed the little stream. Men near Battery 45 fired at his pursuers and they went back to Fort Gregg. So the color bearer escaped with his flag.”[6]

Flag of the 33rd NC, Museum of the Confederacy. 

   James W. Atkinson passed away in September 1909 and is buried in Cross Creek Cemetery, #2, in Fayetteville. His obituary writer also makes mention of the event, stating that Atkinson won an “enviable reputation for bravery, distinguishing himself principally at Fort Gregg. . . a deed that will live in history.”[7]

   And what became of Atkinson’s banner that he bore out of Fort Gregg? Great question. The flag bears the stencil mark of #433, indicating that at some point, it was captured and later turned in to the War Department. Two other flags belonging to Lane’s brigades bear much lower numbers. The flag of the 37th North Carolina, captured on the morning of April 2, is numbered 384. The flag of the 28th North Carolina, surrendered at Appomattox Court House, is numbered 364. While all three of these flags are identified as North Carolina flags, they are currently held by the American Civil War Center, i.e., the old Museum of the Confederacy.[8]



[1] Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 9:197.

[2] The Charlotte Democrat, July 6, 1883.

[3] The Observer, May 15, 1878.

[4] The Wilmington Messenger, November 18, 1900.

[5] Fayetteville Observer, July 4, 1901.

[6] Chamberlaine, Memories of the Civil War, 127.

[7] The Charlotte Observer, September 26, 1909.

[8] Rollins, The Returned Battle Flags, 37; Dedmondt, The Flags of Civil War North Carolina, 143, 125.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Killing Confederate Prisoners at Fort Gregg

   Any time someone mentions the killing of prisoners during the war, names like Fort Pillow, Saltville, Plymouth, and Champ Ferguson come to mind. In these events, it is always the Confederates killing their prisoners. It is rare to hear about similar atrocities being committed by Federal forces. Yet it apparently happened at the battle of Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865.

"Shoot and be Damned!"

   Following the debacle at Five Forks, southwest of Peterburg, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, U.S. Grant ordered the Federal forces to launch an assault on Confederate lines. Grant believed that given the amount of Confederates his forces faced at Five Forks, Confederate lines had to be weak some place. That assault, early on the morning of April 2, resulted in the breakthrough, most notably along Arthur’s Swamp, held by four regiments of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s North Carolina brigade. (There were, of course, other breakthroughs of the line.) Many of Lane’s men not gobbled up in the ensuing early morning breakthrough, or the ensuing counterattack, drifted back towards Battery 45 and the inner Confederate lines. A portion of Lane’s men, along with some men from Harris’s Mississippi brigade and Thomas’s Georgia brigade, were assigned to the defense of Fort Gregg.

   Fort Gregg, and its sister fort, Fort Whitworth, were the idea of Wade Hampton. Hampton proposed the idea of a series of fortifications between the main Confederate line and the inner Confederate line in a letter to Lee in September 1864.[1] Fort Gregg was a crescent-shaped earthen fort. The fort had four cannon emplacements and a palisade fence across the back. Fort Whitworth was an enclosed earthen fortification. Fort Whitworth is sometimes referred to as Fort Baldwin. Both forts were named for local families and both situated in between the two Confederate lines, designed to slow down a Federal advance if the first line of fortifications were breached. As a permanent garrison Fort Gregg had a detachment of 100 artillerymen, mostly drivers, from several different batteries, along with two guns belonging to Chew’s 4th Maryland Artillery. Fort Whitworth had a contingent of the Washington Artillery from Louisiana, along with the 18th and 48th Mississippi from Harris’s brigade. 

   Crowding into Fort Gregg were members of the 12th and 16th Mississippi, 18th, 28th, 33rd, and 37th North Carolina, and the 14th, 35th, 45th, and 49th Georgia Infantry regiments, plus the artillerymen, and an estimated 334 Confederate soldiers.[2] The Federal attack commenced about noon, and there were at least three different waves of Federal attackers. The final wave was able to break through the back entrance to Fort Gregg, while at the same time, use the embankment created by an unfinished line of breastworks connecting the two forts. Confederates inside Fort Gregg were running low on ammunition, some resorting to hurling rocks and bricks at the attackers. On the third attempt, the Federals were able to break through. Some Confederates continued to fight on. Lawrence Barry, 3rd Company, Washington Artillery, had the lanyard of his cannon in his hand as Federals came over the works. An officer told him to drop the lanyard or they would fire. “Shoot and be damned!” he told the Federal, pulling the lanyard and obliterating several Federal soldiers. Those remaining opened fire, killing Barry.[3]

   Many Confederates surrendered. Yet there were several stories that emerged that the surrender of some were not accepted. In 1867, Lt. Dallas Rigler, 37th North Carolina, wrote to James H. Lane about the attack. He mentioned running low on ammunition, using “bats and rocks,” and then the Federals scaling the wall. They entered Fort Gregg’s “walls and after a short struggle they took the fort and some few did fire on after they got possession but their officers tried to stop them.”[4] Captain A. K. Jones, 12th Mississippi, believed that the Federals “were under the influence of whiskey,” and because of the stiff resistance offered by the Confederate defenders, which had produced “a bloody massacre” on Federal attackers, were planning to kill everyone within the Fort. It was the Federal officers “who with cocked pistols made the men desist. . . We lost about forty men killed in the fort after its capture. . . It was ten minutes before the shooting could be suppressed.”[5] George W. Richards, a surgeon attached to Fort Gregg, wrote that as the Federals swarmed into the fort, they “showed us no quarter.” Richards disagreed with Rigler and Jones as to why the Federals stopped killing the Confederates who had surrendered. “It was not so much their officers who caused them to desist from shooting us,” he wrote. Instead, it was when General Lee ordered Poague’s artillery to open fire on the Fort. “one shot after another in rapid succession drove all the enemy on the opposite side of the fort for shelter. Had it not been for Colonel Poague’s guns I believe they would have killed every one of us.”[6]

   Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, commanding the attacking force – the XXIV Corps, agreed that the defenders of the fort held on to the very last, writing that the assault was “one of the most desperate of the war” and that fort was only taken “by the last of several determined dashes with the bayonet.”[7] Brig Gen. Robert S. Foster agreed with Gibbon: “The fighting on both sides at this point was the most desperate I ever witnessed, being a hand to hand struggle for twenty-five minutes” after the Federals gained the parapet.[8]

   Some of the rank-and-file Federals echoed the Confederates. In an 1889 history of the 39th Illinois can be found a letter about the assault, a Federal officer wrote that he was one of the first over the walls, witnessing the carnage inside. It “was with the greatest difficulty that we could prevent our infuriated soldiers from shooting down and braining all who survived of the stubborn foe.”[9] A member of the 12th West Virginia recalled that on the order to charge, “in they went, with an irresistible rush, maddened at the slaughter of their late comrades, and determined to avenge their deaths. That onslaught could not be checked…”[10]

   In the end, the assault cost the Federals, according to John Gibbon’s report, 122 men killed, and 592 wounded. Confederate losses are placed at 57 killed, 243 wounded and captured, with 33 more unwounded captured. All of this to capture two forts that would have abandoned overnight regardless of any other Federal advances. The killing of Confederate soldiers after they had surrendered was quietly chalked up to “maddened” or “infuriated soldiers,” and quietly forgotten. The war in Virginia would all be over in about a week’s time.[11]



[1] Fox, The Confederate Alamo, 15.

[2] Fox, The Confederate Alamo, 234.

[3] Fox, The Confederate Alamo, 182.

[4] Dallas Rigler to James H. Lane, June 17, 1867, Lane Papers, AU.

[5] Jones, “The Battle of Fort Gregg,” SHSP, Vol. 31, 56-60.

[6] “Fort Gregg Again,” SHSP, Vol. 31, 370-372. More accounts can be found in Fox, The Confederate Alamo, 183-188.

[7] ORs., Vol. 46, 1:1174.

[8] ORs., Vol. 46, 1:1177.

[9] Clark, The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry, 255.

[10] Egan, The Flying, Gray-haired Yank, 391.

[11] ORs, Vol. 46, 1:1174; Fox, The Confederate Alamo, 229.