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.
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
Atkinson holding the flag of the 51st NC.
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.”
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.”
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. . .”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
 Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 9:197.
 The Charlotte Democrat, July 6, 1883.
 The Observer, May 15, 1878.
 The Wilmington Messenger, November 18, 1900.
 Fayetteville Observer, July 4, 1901.
 Chamberlaine, Memories of the Civil War, 127.
 The Charlotte Observer, September 26, 1909.
 Rollins, The Returned Battle Flags, 37; Dedmondt, The Flags of Civil War North Carolina, 143, 125.