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.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Complexities of the Home Guard

   One of the most popular posts I have written over the years is “Was the Home Guard Really That Bad?” It was published in September 2014 and has had several thousand hits. You can read it here. Since the home guard is little understood, I would like to expand on its involvement during the war, based upon some current research I am doing into the War in the Toe River Valley area of North Carolina (present-day Yancey, Mitchell, and Avery Counties).

Brig. Gen. John W. McElroy,
Home Guard commander.

   1870 was an exciting year in North Carolina history, for lack of a better word. U.S. Grant was in the midst of his first term. W. W. Holden was serving as governor of North Carolina. The state was in the midst of the Kirk-Holden War. Holden would be impeached by the end of the year, and the Democrats would gain control of the General Assembly. In the middle of the year, a local Mitchell County resident, Gutridge Garland, wrote a letter that appeared in The Daily Standard, outlining the murders committed by the Home Guard during the war. After praising the qualities of George W. Kirk and stating that he himself had been driven from his home during the war, Garland laid out the atrocities committed by the home guard:

   “I will commence with old Sam Baker, Esq., of this county, over fifty years old. When the war began he volunteered in the service of the Home Rogues [sic] of Mitchell County as Lieutenant, and wished to be promoted. He gathered a crowd and went to Joseph Byrd’s, a peaceable citizen of this county, and shot him down and went off and left him. The next morning he went back and enquired how he was, and his wife told him he was dying. He said it was his business to kill him. So he died. The next brave act he did was to order a young man by the name of Right Hutchins to shoot a prisoner by the name of William Pritchard. The order was promptly obeyed. He was shot dead in the road near Baker’s house. Some boys hauling wood rolled him off as they would have done a beast, and he lay there some days. The people were afraid to go there and bury him. The next brave act of the Baker command was his son Washington meeting a young man by the name of William Matthes in the road near Baver’s [Baker’s?], and shooting him dead. The next act done by the party, which would promote an officer in the rebel service, was to go to the farm of David Huse, a peaceable man, while he was hoeing a little corn in the field to try to make a little bread for his children, as starvation stared us all in the face in this country. He saw the brave fellow coming, and tried to make his escape, but was shot dead in the presence of his wife and nine little children. The same brave command went to William Hughes and shot him dead. They also came across Daniel Wright in the woods and killed him and cut off his head. One of the honest saints said they had left him for the buzzards. They also went to the house of Thomas Miller, as inoffensive a man as ever lived, and two brothers quarreled as to which should have the honor of killing him. A crowd of the same gang went to Jackson Tipton, a man over fifty years old, and marched him before them and shot him dead in the road. Another crowd of the same game [sic] took a boy thirteen years old, by the name of James Butler, and persuaded him to break and run, and as he did so shot and killed him.”[1]

   That is all pretty atrocious, I think we would all agree, and enough to turn local people, even to this day, against the home guard (although I can’t actually prove any of these events really took place). But what if the “Home Rogues” were actually serving as a haven for Unionists? Does that change the narrative?

   As mentioned in the earlier post, the Guard for Home Defense was created in July 1863. Instead of going into the long history of it, we will just look at the Toe River Valley. Yancey County’s home guard, the 72nd Battalion, North Carolina Home Guard, was assigned to the 1st Brigade North Carolina Home Guard on September 26, 1863. Samuel D. Byrd, a former lieutenant in the 16th North Carolina State Troops, was assigned command at the rank of lieutenant colonel.[2] From the surviving records, the home guard company/battalion in Mitchell County was never organized. Records for the 72nd Battalion are scarce and were probably burnt by Union raiders in the last days of the war.

   William Renfro, a middle-class 38-year-old farmer, was living in the Red Hill area of Mitchell County when the war began. How he avoided Conscription is unknown. He did, however, serve in the home guard. At some point, Union soldiers visited Renfro’s farm, taking livestock. After the war, Renfro attempted to claim compensation for what was taken, and had another local man testify via sworn affidavit as to his loyalties. S. B. Slagle testified that Renfro “was in the Home Guards a portion of the time, but a great many Union men were in this organization and it was not then considered a mark of disloyalty to the Union cause as we were forced to join this organization or be sent off to the Confederate army or leave our homes and try to get to the Union army…”  There is a lot to unpack in Slagle’s testimony. “a great many Union men were in this organization.” While Garland was praising Kirk and former Union soldiers who were fighting once again for Kirk, and decrying the “Home Rogues,” the “Home Rogues” were actually composed of these same “Union” men. However, instead of crossing over the mountain like so many others did and joining the Union army, Renfro and some of the others served in the Home Guard, whose purpose was to round up deserters and Unionists. And according to Renfro, they were accepting of their assignment, as long as they were not shipped off to join the Confederate army, or forced to take that dangerous trip over the mountains to join the actual Federal army. William Renfro never made that trip. And his claim for compensation was rejected.[3]

   Jonathan Tipton was a landless and almost penniless 35-year-old farmer living in the Ramsey Town area of Yancey County. Like Renfro, it is unclear how he avoided Conscription. Unlike Renfro, Tipton did cross over the mountain and, in June 1864, joined the Union army. Prior to that time, Tipton apparently joined Renfro in the 72nd Battalion North Carolina Home Guard.  Tipton’s widow received a pension after the war, for Tipton died in a hospital in Knoxville in January 1865. There were several who testified against him as being a “Bush Whacker” and a “Notorious rebel.” One area resident, in his affidavit, testified that Tipton, “in the beginning of the late war he was a bitter rebel. That he belonged to the rebel home guards of Yancey County. That affidavit thinks he belonged to Capt. Peak’s Company of Yancey County Home Guards. That affidavit was arrested by the company that said Tipton was with and saw him at the time. That just before affidavit was captured he saw said Tipton shooting at Union men who had been hiding in the mountains and were at the house of Timothy Miller getting provisions at the time the Home Guard came upon them. That it has always been understood that he voted for the ordinance of secession and his only reputation up to the time of his going into the 3rd NC was that of a rebel.” Based upon this testimony, Jonathan Tipton’s widow lost her pension of $8 a month. Was Tipton truly a Unionist at heart? According to George Ragdale, who provided the above testimony, Tipton was not. Maybe Tipton had a change of heart, or, maybe he had fooled his neighbors all along regarding his Unionists sympathies.[4]  

   We can not say that all home guard members in the Toe River Valley were Unionists at heart. There is not even a roster of home guard members from Yancey and Mitchell Counties to analyze, only a scattering of names from pension applications, affidavits, and family histories. What we cannot do is believe that the home guard members were all pro-Confederate zealots, hell-bent on advancing Confederate ideology. Some might have been. However, history is not that simple (it never is). William Renfro, according to the testimony of his neighbor, was trying to avoid service in both armies. His neighbor believed that many in the home guard were “Union men” like Renfro. Jonathan Tipton might have been one of those zealots, but he decided to cross over the lines and actually join the Union army. It cost him his life, and his Home Guard involvement cost his widow her pension. There are probably more cases like this out there to examine. One might be the nearby Cranberry iron mines. There were several self-proclaimed Unionists (or later family-proclaimed Unionists) who spent the war mining iron ore for the Confederacy to use to produce weapons for killing Union soldiers. They seemed to be agreeable with that, as long as they did not have to leave home and serve in either army. Probably the only untapped resource in learning more about the men who were home guard members and Unionists are Federal pension applications. Maybe in time, more of this will come to light.  

[1] The Daily Standard, July 20, 1870.

[2] Brown and Coffey, NC Troops, Vol. 21, 657/

[3] William Renfro, Southern Claims Commission, Disallowed and Barred Claims, M1407, RG233, National Archives.

[4] Jonathan Tipton, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca.1861-1910, RollWC76865-WC76882, National Archives.